A couple of years ago, a brother sparked controversy online when he wrote an article entitled “The Halal Bubble and The Sunnah Imperative to Go Vegan”. The article attracted criticism, such that the author eventually had to write a response to deal with possible misconceptions the article may have caused. But such an idea has become more popular in the Muslim community since then.
Prior to Eid al Adha this year, some Muslims took to social media to advocate for others not to take part in the religious qurbani slaughtering of a cow or goat, the meat of which is usually given to the poor, in order to condemn animal cruelty.
Be it “veganism”, “vegetarianism”, or “clean eating”, the imperative to forego meat is often articulated among Muslims, particularly the youth at colleges and universities.
One way in which this tendency can be explained is as another attempt to reconcile social justice trends with their religion. Personally, I am grateful that Muslim youth are trying to hold on to their religion in a climate where everything pushes them to abandon it. However, we can sometimes fall into the trap of viewing current social justice principles as universal and attempt to find an interpretation of Islam that fits into these principles.
That is not to say that varying dietary concerns do not exist amongst Muslims. From ethical and environmental concerns, to our own personal health reasons, these are often valid concerns and are combined with a Muslim imperative. However, it is important to recognise that some of these arguments are problematic in the way they misappropriate certain Islamic principles in order to leverage social causes.
In this article, I will try to unpack the assumptions behind some of the concerns often expressed in arguing for a vegan way of life.
A pig has the same degree of intelligence as a 3-year-old child. Is killing animals not then an equivalent crime?
This question posed by a Muslim sheds light on the lack of knowledge surrounding i) who is human, ii) what the purpose of creation is, and iii) how human beings should interact with their environment, including animals and natural resources. While each of these points can and indeed needs to be discussed extensively, for the sake of brevity we can revisit some basic facts: everything created worships Allah ﷻ, and thus is valuable. Allah ﷻ created human beings as ashraf-ul-makhluqat (the most honoured of the created ones), and created other living creatures in our service.
It is Allah who made for you the grazing animals upon which you ride, and some of them you eat. And for you therein are [other] benefits and that you may realize upon them a need which is in your breasts; and upon them and upon ships you are carried. And He shows you His signs. So which of the signs of Allah do you deny? (40 :79-81)
It is true that the hierarchy of species that exists in our tradition can be viewed as specie-centrism, or preferential treatment of us as human beings. But as Muslims we do not see anything wrong with this. Nevertheless, our tradition discourages us from exploiting natural resources and abusing animals since mankind is also the custodian (khalifa) of God’s creation on earth. The rights of animals in Islam requires another extensive discussion.
Climate change is a reality and research shows that breeding animals for human consumption is a major cause of climate change. Isn’t it our responsibility as Muslims to save our environment and leave a healthy planet to future generations? As Muslims, should we care about climate change?
Yes, as Muslims we need to respond to the environmental problems around and we need to be mindful of other creation’s rights upon us. However, to frame climate change as the greatest threat facing humanity is a very materialist attitude. And such attitudes, while attempting to fix one problem, often create more damage in other areas.
For example, upscale vegan restaurants threaten the livelihoods of low-income local residents because they do not have a holistic attitude. A vegan restaurant in London or New York comes at the expense of closing down a local business. Most of the time, they are complicit in the gentrifying processes that capitalise on millennial consumer preferences.
Furthermore, even if the entire U.S. went vegetarian with the average American’s calorie intake unchanged, the amount of vegetation required to provide that amount of calories would quadruple, of which the environmental costs are not yet calculated.
How should we approach the issue of climate change then?
As Muslims, we need to remember how we got here. While the industrial revolution brought prosperity and unparalleled advancement to some societies, this was done through the exploitation of human beings and nature.
One needs to be aware of the moral decay in order to address the challenges facing our planet. It is impossible to address environmental problems without addressing the problems of greed, gluttony and self-interest that can only be addressed through invoking God consciousness.
While today’s food movements entirely focus on consuming animal products, they do not see anything wrong with fetishizing food; #foodporn is one of the most used hashtags in the world, having been used 122.3 million times this year.
Thus far, switching to a vegan or vegetarian diet does not address these big picture problems. What we need is a comprehensive Islamic development paradigm that utilizes resources to satisfy human needs instead of using those resources to derive utility.
Adopting a vegetarian diet as a sacred endeavour to protect the planet is problematic in that it only defines the problem in materialistic terms and does not recognise that some changes in the climate are in God’s control. It does not address the root causes of the problem: the culture of gluttony and greed endorsed by capitalism.
Furthermore, the solution it suggests – eliminating consumption of meat entirely – is not inclusive of people of different faiths, and it has the potential to harm economically disadvantaged people who do not consume enough meat already.
The solutions are not realistic, as they are not meant to change human beings’ incentive structures; they do not answer the question of why a human being should not consume more if they can.
The final recourse often brought up is making such a choice as an individual – if going vegetarian is a healthier option, should I not pursue it? Didn’t the Prophet ﷺ also consume less meat?
In answering this, we must consider that in our tradition food is very important not only because it affects our bodies but, most importantly, our souls. From a Muslim’s point of view, there are different statuses of food: halal and tayyib. While halal refers to permissibility of the food being consumed (the prohibition of pork, alcohol and slaughtering rules), tayyib refers to the well-being of the food.
While I believe consuming tayyib food is of paramount importance, I have a hard time understanding why some Muslims are more bothered by meat not being tayyib than by living in an interest-driven economic system that contaminates our incomes and prevents us from acquiring halal wealth. If somebody is invoking the Prophet’s ﷺ sunnah, I’d like to remind myself and everyone how he hated interest so much that in his final sermon he said:
“All dues of interest shall stand cancelled and you will have only your capital back. Allah has forbidden interest, and I cancel the dues of interest payable to my uncle Abbas ibn Abdul Muttalib.”
What is often overlooked in discussions related to food is that halal food also requires a halal income. In discussions around food justice, that is not even on the agenda. As with everything, piety with regards to the food also increases with one’s taqwa. Beyond the categories of halal, haraam, and tayyib also exists taqwa, the dimension which extends to the intentions and spiritual conditions of the farmer, the cook, and the distributor. Our righteous predecessors would not eat the food of someone who speaks so much kalam-ud- dunya (worldly affairs).
So what practical steps do we take as Muslims?
- Turn back to our fundamental principles: moderation and taqwa.
- Create our own agenda with our own terms: the food ecosystem is not independent of the riba-ridden economic system.
- Da’wah: it is only God-fearing individuals who will sacrifice their wants for a higher purpose and who are responsible agents.
- Lessening of meat consumption is also advisable in our tradition. Moreover, we need to focus on lessening food consumption in general.