Islam and Meat Consumption

We are not animals, but we are not capitalizing on our humanity either.

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Photo by Ömer F. Arslan

Eid al-Adha holidays are upon us here in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and one of the prescribed observances for Muslims to commemorate this occasion, is the sacrifice of halal domestic animals to share among family, relatives, friends and the poor, for those who can afford it. For those working to address everyday environmental concerns, it is also an occasion to revisit matters like meat consumption and veganism.

I have stopped knowingly consuming meat for a while now (I say knowingly because one can never be sure if while eating out, something had been laced with meat or its derivatives). I cannot pinpoint as to when exactly I had stopped because I made a decision and worked over the past couple of years to abide by it. For a while, I had been eating fish, but I also gradually worked my way out of it. Do I crave any of it? No, nor do I feel inclined to buy any vegan product which will fool my tastebuds, eyes and nose into thinking that I am not “missing out” on something. Am I vegan? No, because occasionally I will relent to having a piece of cheese, despite having my doubts about whether or not the cows that bore the milk were treated humanely.

The UAE imports 80–90% of its food supplies, so a lot of the cheese I would be having, would have made its way here from its country of origin in Europe or elsewhere. Does that make me feel more or less confident that no cruelty is attached to what I am eating? Well, a simple online search will provide you with enough doubt to upset your stomach, an example is footage from an organic farm in the UK which shows chain shackled cows, and calves separated from their mothers. Having been exposed to this information, I have phased out my milk intake, and I am limiting my cheese intake because I am not OK with how cattle is being treated and with my complicity in this, despite how detached I am from the source.

Back in high school, we had to dissect sheep brains and frogs in AP Biology. I could not get myself to do it, told the teacher, he asked me to write a letter detailing why, and allowed me not to. My rationalization at the time was that others have done this before me and that I could learn what I needed to learn from the book. In the Anatomy and Physiology class in University I relied on my partner to do the dissection of the formaldehyde drenched cat, but because most of those who were taking the class were Pre-med students I understood that hands-on work was their introduction to the potentially life saving work they would be doing in the future.

Did you know that by his own count, Leonardo da Vinci dissected 30 corpses during his lifetime? According to a Livescience article by Stephanie Pappas, his sketches reveal a deep understanding of how the body worked, and modern anatomists have only recently begun to look at the muscles and tendons of the finger in the detail that da Vinci did. “He was the first to draw the human spine with the correct curves and came tantalizingly close to understanding how blood moved through the body, a mystery that wouldn’t be fully solved until 1628, more than a century after his death.” He often dissected unclaimed bodies, such as those of drunks and vagrants.

Leonardo da Vinci was a painter, draftsman, sculptor, architect, and engineer. Was he vegan? While he is reported to have written that he will not let his body be a “tomb for other animals, an inn of the dead … a container of corruption,” in order to create art, his brushes were made from sable or hog hairs attached to quills, he drew on specially tanned skin of calves, kids, and lambs; and sepia, the deep reddish-brown pigment he used, came from the ink sac of cuttlefish. Today, synthetic alternatives to painting materials are readily and cheaply available to any aspiring artist, school kids or those in need of art therapy, but they will not readily biodegrade in landfill (and therefore present an environmental hazard), and neither will synthetic vegan clothes for that matter.

Nowadays, technological advances are allowing for virtual reality learning in medical schools and elsewhere. More environmentally friendly materials are also being formulated and we can now “treat” our taste buds to plant based food and drinks engineered to taste like their non-vegan counterparts. But, do these technological advances address our tendency to overindulge? And why is it taking technological advances so long to treat our critical waste problem? According to The World Counts, we are already pushing “75 percent above what the Earth can sustain in the long run with regard to resource extraction and absorption of waste.” Are we simply displacing the problem from one set of resources to another?

In the Quran, a verse in Surah Al-A’raf (Q7: 31) translates to: “O children of Adam, take your adornment at every mosque, and eat and drink, but be not excessive. Indeed, He likes not those who commit excess.” In Surah Al-Ma’eda (Q5: 87–89) the verses translate to: “O you who have believed, do not prohibit the good things which Allah has made lawful to you and do not transgress. Indeed, Allah does not like transgressors. And eat of what Allah has provided for you [which is] lawful (halal) and good.” I cannot claim to be a devout Muslim, but the faith communicated through these verses has been imparted to me at some point and it has left its mark on me. Religion, as I understood it, existed to sensitize us to our responsibilities and obligations as members of society, and as exemplified by these verses, urges us to neither plunder away nor restrict ourselves.

Plundering is made easy today with our “advanced” abattoirs and mass scale agricultural capacities, so much so that it is estimated that every year one third of food produced for human consumption is wasted, while globally an estimated 820 million people remain hungry (2018) and food security in developing countries remains a concern, aggravated by climate change. This plundering is evident in our every day lives, and while many like to address food waste during Ramadan (a one month occasion where we are invited to experience being hungry in order to empathize with the needy and strengthen our faith), year long open buffet brunches and dinners are not guilt-free. Covid-19 restrictions have now made the associated debauchery less accessible.

While Islam has not restricted meat consumption from halal sources, it made it clear that those who overindulge or waste are not in favor with God. If it had not, Muslims could easily argue that they are in favor with God in spite of wasteful behavior. The religion also mandated that the slaughtering be done manually, that the lawful intention be set, and that the equipment be surgically sharp in order to ensure rapid death. Contrary to existing malpractices, customary practices when slaughtering include hiding the knife from the animal and performing the slaughter out of sight of other animals. This is in recognition of the fact that cruelty to animals, which are recognized as feeling species, is not only frowned upon in Islam but can also result in the ultimate punishment.

So how does Islam reconcile the message against cruelty to animals and the sanctioning of slaughtering animals for food? Simply put, the latter is condoned and not seen as cruel so long as the “regulations” are observed. While animals self-regulate their existence in an instinctual manner (with even the most innocent looking of them hunting and killing for food, or even eating their own progeny), because of our species’ capacity to overindulge, and go beyond fulfilling its needs, religions like Islam found it necessary to lay down the ground rules for what is considered favorable and responsible. While other schools of life work on validating or excusing “natural” behavior on the part of our species, based on its “hunter gatherer” ancestry or “evolutionary origin,” religions like Islam expect better from believers with canine teeth.

Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said: “He who cuts a Lote tree (without justification), Allah will send him to Hellfire,” so what would Islam make of grand scale (excessive) destruction of forests for livestock agriculture? What would Islam make of studies which have identified that livestock agriculture is responsible for 51 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions? Can Muslims be OK with the transgression invoked by overfishing on the ocean ecosystems? Can Muslims be OK with baby chicks being ground up alive in the name of egg production? What about products which contain egg derivatives, like mayonnaise?

Yesterday, I fasted because my mother asked me to. It is not an obligation but a recommendation, based on the example of Prophet Muhammad, for Muslims who are not performing Hajj, to fast on the Day of Arafah in order to empathize with the arduous journey made by the pilgrims. I do not know of any other species which will willingly discipline itself in order to empathize with others.

If there are self evident truths that I have come to recognize over the limited number of the years of my humble existence, one of them is that we are not on this earth to plunder through its bounties simply because we are “intelligent” enough to do so. Another self evident truth that I have come to recognize is that we are intelligent enough to identify and to recognize why we should not, but that many of us could care less to exercise their brain capacity for good, or have come to the realization that doing so is not socially nor financially rewarding, and therefore not conducive to their own survival and well being while alive.

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