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“Muslims Can’t be Vegan” – Where Veganism and Religion Collide

Posted Jan 27 2012 6:56pm

This post is part of a series called “Why Vegan?”, in which I try to shed some light on the how’s and why’s of my Veganism. If you’ve missed them, you may want to check out the earlier posts here:

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I’ve been wanting to do this post for a long time – but I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure if I should. Religion is always a touchy subject and I’m sure I risk offending or losing readers by even bringing it up. Furthermore, I view religion as a very private thing and am not usually inclined to discuss it or bring it into a public sphere. That said,  I feel very strongly about addressing this particular topic, so I’m going to bite the bullet and dive right in.

It all started over a family meal while I was at home this past December. Plates were being passed around the table and my aunt was doling out sizeable portions of everything on the table in true Egyptian fashion. When I pointed out that I’d pass on the fillet of grilled fish, she jokingly said “!دي نعمة ربنا” (this is God’s blessing!). I smiled and said that the salad, vine leaves and fasolia  on my plate were equally so.

On a more serious note, my aunt’s comment went on to inspire a heated discussion on whether or not veganism was in keeping with Islam as a religion. Not only is eating meat condoned, pointed out my mom, but animal sacrifice is actually required  during Eid Al Adha, a celebration that falls during the Hajj period (pilgrimage to Mecca). Over 100 million animals are slaughtered annually during a period of 48 hours across the Islamic world – a statistic like that is enough to put any vegan off Islam – so how do I go about reconciling that, my family wanted to know.

“If we weren’t meant to eat meat – surely it wouldn’t have been mentioned in the Holy Qur’an”, said my cousin. Someone else agreed, reminding me that abstaining from certain foods like pork and alcohol is explicitly mentioned, so why not all meats “if they were really bad for us?”.

“It just doesn’t make sense. Muslims can’t be vegan”.

And this, is where I had to step in.

There’s no hemming and hawing around the fact that the consumption of animal products is mentioned in the Qur’an, I’m not going to argue that. But to say that Muslims can’t be vegan/vegetarian is just preposterous.

Anyone even remotely familiar with Islam and Halal practices will know that there is a huge importance placed on the kindness with which to treat animals and concern for their welfare within the religion.

Several verses within the Holy Qur’an illustrate this:

There is not an animal (that lives) on the earth, nor a being that flies on its wings, but (forms part of) communities like you. Nothing have We omitted from the Book, and they (all) shall be gathered to their Lord in the end. (Sura 6:38)

The Qur’an is adamant that animals not be looked at as mere resources, and that they form communities and groups just like human beings. Islamic teachings paint animals as our equals, and constantly highlight s their rights to have a peaceful life.

The Prophet Mohammed was notoriously known to perpetuate this message, and is quoted in several Hadith scriptures on the importance of compassion towards animals:

“A good deed done to an animal is as meritorious as a good deed done to a human being, while an act of cruelty to an animal is as bad as an act of cruelty to a human being.”

“He who takes pity {even} on a sparrow and spares its life, Allah will be merciful on him on the Day of Judgment.”

“Allah (God) will not give mercy to anyone, except those who give mercy to other creatures.

Not a lot of people know this but the The Prophet even forbade the use of animal skins. He also denounced the beating of animals and forbade striking, branding or marking them on the face. He was known to scold those who mistreated animals and praise those who showed them kindness. He even instituted radical changes against the barbaric practices of the Arabs of the Jahilliyah (age of ignorance) by condemning cutting tails and humps off living camels for food, notching and slitting their ears and placing painful rings around their necks.

At the risk of sounding like Islam-ipedia, I’ll get to my point. Contrary to what many people believe as a result of disgustingly inaccurate stereotypes, Islam is a religion of compassion, kindness and peace – and that no doubt extends to all living creatures including animals. That much is clear.

So how DO  I reconcile the fact that although animal welfare is highly regarded in Islam, the holy book contains several allusions to eating meat and animal sacrifice?

Firstly, it’s important to consider the manner in which animals are slaughtered in Islam. Similarly to Judaism, animals consumed for food must be slaughtered as per religious instruction. I won’t give the gory details, but the process necessitates that an animal be soothed and given food and water beforehand. It’s intended to provide a “quick humane and relatively painless death”. Now bear with me (and ignore the irony of the fact that I just used humane, painless and death in the same sentence). I’m not saying that Halal practices in any way justify or make animal slaughter acceptable – I’m simply highlighting that there is a stark difference between what Islam dictates and the shocking conditions mass-farmed animals endure every day. These animals spend their lives confined to tiny cages and cramped windowless buildings. Chickens are de-beaked and cattle mutilated – castration, de-horning and ear slitting are just the tip of the iceberg.

 

My point is, I have a very hard time believing that the Prophet who so vehemently preached that animals be treated with utmost compassion and kindness, would approve of what goes on behind the walls of modern-day slaughterhouses. Frankly nothing is more un-Islamic to me than the complete disregard for animals’ lives and the fact that they’re essentially treated like machines.

(Most Muslims, when presented with this argument, will point out that all butchers in Arab/Muslim countries strictly adhere to Halal practices. Now personally I take issue with that, but for the sake of argument, let’s say that was true. What about the millions of Muslims living abroad? What about imported meat? How can you be 100% sure that the animals you’re eating haven’t been mistreated, abused and brutally slaughtered? Just as I will never know if my zucchini are 100% organic and pesticide free, you can’t.)

Secondly, one must keep in mind that there’s such a thing as context. The Qur’an is over 1000 years old, living circumstances in the Arab world (and elsewhere) have dramatically changed since pre-Islamic times. Back then, everyday life was heavily reliant on animals. Camels and horses were used for transport across harsh deserts, and many recordings indicate that food was generally scarce. So eating animal products may actually have been, at one point, necessary for survival.

Would The Prophet or the Qur’an approve the mass consumption of animal products in today’s world the conditions of factory farming, the environmental consequences of agribusiness and more importantly the abundance of non-meat food sources?

I’m in no position to make such a claim – but I don’t think so.

Furthermore, Islam is a religion that encourages its followers to maintain their health and general well-being. Given what we now know  about the link between the consumption of animal products and chronic disease – shouldn’t we be chowing down on a little less steak and a little more spinach? The statistics speak for themselves. Everyone is always going on about how obesity rates in the US and Europe are on the rise, and coronary heart disease is claiming more and more lives – but the Arab/Muslim world isn’t much better in that regard. Little known fact – Bahrain, with a population of just 1 million, has one of the highest rates of diabetes prevalence in the world.

So if were talking technicalities, following a vegan diet actually means I’m complying with the order to protect my health.

The bottom line is, The Qur’an tells us what can’t and can be eaten (meats included) if we so wish. Nowhere does it say that Muslims are required to eat meat (although the way some people do you’d think it was a sixth pillar or something). Meat consumption is mentioned yes, but it is not in any way encouraged or recommended. There are also numerous verses within the Qur’an that emphasize the benefits of fruits and vegetables to sustain animals and humans alike, and to promote better health and living environments, but apparently those don’t get a mention when a debate like mine breaks out at the dinner table.
Candidly speaking, I’d consider myself to be fairly religious. I wouldn’t go so far as to describe myself as a devout or perfect Muslim, but I do the best I can. Sure, I may not always behave in a way that society deems acceptable and I sometimes wear things I shouldn’t. But I also fast, pray regularly and most importantly strive to be an all around good person. As I said earlier, religion to me is a very private and personal thing, and I don’t think anyone has the authority to tell me what I can or can’t do in that sense. It’s not about picking and choosing the aspects of religion that appeal to me, but how I choose to practice my religion should be of no concern to anyone else. In my eyes, being vegan only strengthens my faith and most certainly doesn’t contradict it. Adopting a food philosophy that is not only good for me, but good for the animals, and the environment marries perfectly with all of my spiritual beliefs. Being vegan has made me that much more compassionate and thoughtful. It’s really helped me become more in tune with my identity on the whole and the kind of person I want to be.
I’m not saying that being vegan makes me superior in comparison with all the non-vegan Muslims out there – I’m just saying it doesn’t make me any less of one.
(I should point out that my family is not particularly religious. The reason I think this subject came up is down to the fact that by being vegan I’m challenging the deep-set traditions of my culture. It just so happens that religion is very intertwined with culture in most Arab and Middle Eastern societies, and people often have a hard time discerning between the two.)
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one.
Any similar experiences reconciling aspects of religion/spiritual beliefs that don’t necessarily complement your personal beliefs?
Do you think religion should impact lifestyle and diet choices like veganism, or are the two mutually exclusive?
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