Monday, August 23, 2010

Ramadan, Meat, Vegetarianism, and Islam

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah
Let’s continue a bit with themes related to Ramadan (at least partially). The month is almost half over, and we are now well settled into a different lifestyle, especially with regard to eating habits. Our intakes (types and rhythms) have changed; our metabolisms have changed. In particular, consumption of meats and sweets has increased, at least in the places I am familiar with.
I don’t have any statistics on the consumption of meat in the Arab-Muslim world, and I am sure it varies between very low levels in famine-stricken and poor lands like Somalia, Niger, and Bangladesh, and extremely high levels in opulent and traditionally carnivorous places like the Arab Gulf. But I can offer two personal observations: first, the general populations of the Arab-Muslim world have largely increased their consumption of meat (this is due to the rise in standards of living and the greater and cheaper availability of meats), and secondly that some segments of the population, the more highly educated and perhaps western influenced groups, have lately started to shun meat or at least reduce their consumption of it; now vegetarianism has started to be discussed and even advocated. (According to Wikipedia, in January 1996 the International Vegetarian Union announced the formation of the Muslim Vegetarian/Vegan Society.)
Recently, in Jordan and in Egypt, advocates of vegetarianism participated in consciousness-raising events organized by the global animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). In the Amman, Jordan event, one lady covered herself with lettuce leafs and marched with others (see the accompanying picture, where the sign reads “'Let vegetarianism grow on you” – literally). Most interestingly to me is the fact that the lettuce-clad lady wears the hijab (the Islamic hair-covering dressing style). Although the activists tried to emphasize environmental and economic concerns and animal treatment issues, not to mention the presumably healthier aspects of vegetarianism, the general reactions to the PETA events were quite negative in both Amman and Cairo. The Arab world, it seems, is not quite mentally ready to embrace vegetarianism, and again we find religion to some extent related to this.
So, what about the religious perspective? Going vegan or vegetarian (the difference is not important here) is obviously a personal issue, one which each one of us should decide on one’s own, but as always in the Muslim culture, the “position of Islam” is often asked. And indeed, one finds in the “Ask the Scholar” section of IslamOnline, a Q & A on this topic in which one reads:
First of all, it should be clear that one should not think that it is better to abstain from eating meat, that doing so will be rewarded, or that being a vegetarian is closer to Allah than not, and so on. It is not permitted to draw closer to Allah in this way.
Dr. Muzammil H. Siddiqi, former President of the Islamic Society of North America, states:
“Allah has created some animals for our food as Allah says in the Qur'an in surat an-Nahl, 'And cattle He has created for you. From them you drive wont and numerous benefits and of their meat, you eat.' (An-Nahl: 5-8)
Muslims do recognize animal rights. Animal rights means that we should not abuse them, torture them and when we have to use them for meat, we should slaughter them with a sharp knife, mentioning the name of Allah. […]
So, Muslims are not vegetarians. However, if someone prefers to eat vegetables, then he is allowed to do so. Allah has given us permission to eat meat of slaughtered animals, but He has not made it obligatory upon us.”
Muslim advocates of a more vegetarian lifestyle insist that the issue is not a religious one and that it is a serious mistake to discuss it in terms of halal (permissible) and haram (prohibited). They further claim that Prophet Muhammad himself preferred vegetables and only rarely ate meat and that some of the great figures of Islamic history, particularly Sufis/mystics like Rabi`ah al-`Adawiyyah, were vegetarians.
Perhaps a compromise of moderation could satisfy everyone, or at least most people, from all perspectives: health, economics, environment, animal treatment, etc. And in the Ramadan spirit of remembering the poor and feeling their hunger and their needs, perhaps some of us should make a conscious effort to reduce our daily consumption of meat to a minimum and donate the difference.

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Ms Rianne C. ten Veen said...

Re: "Muslim advocates of a more vegetarian lifestyle insist that the issue is not a religious one and that it is a serious mistake to discuss it in terms of halal (permissible) and haram (prohibited)." - how come? In the Quran halal is ALWAYS followed by 'tayyeb (wholesome) and we know the religious guidance on animal care/ rights... eating factory farmed meat with animals not allowed to behave in their 'fitra' natural way (move, eat their natural food etc), for me brings it most close to 'haram'! My 2p. In peace, Rianne

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Dear Rianne,
Thanks for your comment.
While you are certainly correct that Islam emphasizes the importance and necessity of an ethical treatment of animals, scholars also stress that the concept of "haram" is a hot one that should be handled with care. Only things that are explicitly and expressly prohibited in the Qur'an (or sometimes clarified as such by the Prophet) should be declared "haram".
One may choose to "boycott" certain products and base that choice on various arguments (health, ethics, etc.), but it shouldn't be declared "haram" or "halal".
Moreover, my point was that the choice of being vegetarian should not be assessed on religious grounds but rather on personal moral, ethical standards that one sets for him/herself. Not all lifestyle choice should be subject to 'religious' principles.
Have a peaceful, uplifting Ramadan.