The Qur’an and Sunnah make it clear that as Muslims we are allowed to eat meat. Some verses, such as: “Of the cattle are some for burden and some for meat: eat what Allah hath provided for you” (Al-An’am:142) – are even clearly encouraging us to do so. Around the world Muslims are generally obeying these instructions: meat and meat dishes are important parts of traditional cuisines in many Muslim communities. As long as what we get is marked halal, we presume there are no other restrictions on meat consumption. Yet there are some Muslims, who claim that halal, or halal as it is understood today, is not enough to meet the standards and there are still others who prefer to go vegetarian. Why would they do so? And is vegetarianism actually compatible with Islam?
People choose vegetarianism for a variety of reasons: some are motivated by their religious beliefs, like adherents of Jainism or Buddhism, others feel that it would be unethical to kill animals for any reasons whatsoever, or unethical to eat animals reared on modern farms; there are still those repulsed by the idea of eating flesh and those who believe that a vegetarian diet is healthier or that it would help them control their weight better. Which of these reasons are applicable to Muslims?
Apparently many Muslim vegetarians refuse to eat meat because they consider modern factory-farming unethical and prefer to not eat meat altogether rather than risk consuming something that may be labelled as halal, but is certainly not tayyib (good, clean, lawful). Arwa Aburawa, the eco-journalist working for Al-Jazeera, said: “When I was 16, I discovered the horror of factory farming and decided to become a vegetarian.” Rianne ten Veen, the author of 199 Ways to Please God also mentioned the unethical farming as one of her reasons to go vegetarian: “I never buy meat as I know the vast majority of meat on sale is from animals raised in ‘non-fitra’ situations; as Muslims we shouldn’t just care about how animals were killed, but also have a responsibility to ensure that animals have a chance to live their life as God intended them to live, and definitely not locked up in tiny cages being fed a non-natural diet.”
The apparent cruelty of factory farming and the grim consequences of unnatural breeding for our health could certainly put one off from eating meat. But some Muslims feel that going vegetarian is not a solution. Ruby and Lutfi Radwan, who run the organic Willowbroook Farm in Oxfordshire, gave up eating meat after they discovered that what is available in ‘halal’ butcher shops is not as halal as they thought and certainly not tayyib. But they didn’t really enjoy the vegetarian diet and they believed it is just right to eat meat – as long as it’s good meat. So they decided to leave their city life and become farmers, rearing their own organic chickens, sheep and cows. This was a dramatic change, but they are happy now living according to their green Islamic principles and providing eco-conscious Muslim customers with halal and tayyib/organic meat. Lutfi said that: “One can make only a small impact on the more intractable global problems”, but Willowbrook Farm is actually making a bigger impact, inspiring and educating the community about sustainability issues.
Krystina Friedlander also used to be a vegetarian, before she ”moved on” to ethical meat consumption. Now, together with her husband she runs the Beyond Halal website dedicated to “Exploring questions related to Islamic ethics and food, and to supporting halal meat businesses that are guided by ethical and sustainable principles.”
While for many, vegetarianism may be a statement of disapproval of modern farming techniques, there are Muslims who chose to give up meat for quite different reasons. Khadija Batista Medeiros, a Muslim from Canada, chose to become a vegetarian long before she realised that she was Muslim, and what prompted her decision was a series of personal experiences of watching and working in meat preparation and of finding store-bought meat products infested on several occasions. She says, “Considering my empathy towards animals and health interests, there came a moment when all these experiences just tipped the balance for me and I decided to go vegetarian. I think my spiritual leanings also played a role in this decision. I was drawn to this clean and green lifestyle because it meshed with the deep spiritual connection I always felt to someone we call God/Allah.”
Many vegetarians, Muslim or not, mention health concerns as their motivation to abstain from meat and while mainstream dieticians tell us that eating meat in moderation is healthy, it seems that moderation is a key element missing in the largely meat-based diet of rich societies. If we look at the diet of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and his companions and their pattern of eating meat, we realise that they were all near-vegetarians, eating meat only on special occasions. As Hamza Yusuf, a popular American scholar points out, “Meat is not a necessity in shari’ah, and in the old days most Muslims used to eat meat, if they were wealthy, like middle class, once a week on Friday. If they were poor, on the Eids. So traditionally Muslims were semi-vegetarians.” In his lecture he also points out the ruling of Caliph Umar (RA), who prohibited people from eating meat two days in a row.
Reduction in meat consumption, preferably to the amount indicated by Sunnah, is also a recommendation of the UN. Because the experts in global sustainable resource management agree that “Western tastes for diets rich in meat and dairy products are unsustainable”. The 2010 report from United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) recommendation was, “Impacts from agriculture are expected to increase substantially due to population growth increasing consumption of animal products…. A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.” So which impacts is the report talking about?
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), chemical and animal waste runoff from factory farming is responsible for more than 173,000 miles of polluted rivers and streams and is one of the greatest threats to water quality today. What is more, around 70 percent of all grain produced in the US is fed to animals raised for slaughter. Which means that the 7 billion livestock animals in the United States consume five times as much grain as is consumed directly by the American population. Just imagine how much of the population could be fed by the grain currently produced for farm animals. Professor Edgar Hertwich, the lead author of the above mentioned UNEP report, said: “Animal products cause more damage than [producing] construction minerals such as sand or cement, plastics or metals. Biomass and crops for animals are as damaging as [burning] fossil fuels.”
Being a vegetarian is a halal option, just as eating meat is a halal option. It’s up to us to choose. Keeping in mind that we will be held responsible for the management of Earth’s resources, we should make sure that we really know how what we eat impacts the environment. Living in the so-called developed world, it is so easy to forget that the meat that fills the fridges in our local butcher’s shop was once living creatures. In Islam there is sacredness to killing an animal that we are forgetting, through being detached from the whole process. Imagine if you lived on a farm and every time you fancied a roast for dinner you would have to kill an animal. How often would that be?
Klaudia Khan is an eco-conscious Muslimah trying to consistently reduce her meat consumption. She has recently discovered that free-range chicken actually do taste better than the caged birds.