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Would It Be in the Spirit of the Sunnah to Be Vegan Today?

As a Bosnian married to a South African, our cultures are not unfamiliar with meat dishes. Akni or biryani is served for Eid or on weddings, and ćevapi is a traditional, Bosnian meat dish. Meat is an integral part of many cultures and religions. But are we overindulging in our meat consumption? After reading Mohamed Ghilan’s blog post on the Sunnah and veganism1, a door to reflection opened. If Islam advocates protecting the environment and if today’s meat consumption contributes to an environmental crisis, are we actually practicing the Sunnah by eating meat?

What is the Meaning of Sunnah?

The core meaning of Sunnah is following the Prophet’s (saws) sayings, actions, and tacit approvals. The Prophet’s (saws) diet was simple and consisted of healthy ingredients such as barley, olive oil, dates, honey, and occasionally meat.

It was ‘Aishah (ra) who narrated: “We, the family of Muhammad, would go for a month without kindling a fire, having only water and dates.” (Sahih, Book 11, Hadith 2471) ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (ra), during his khilafah, did not allow people to eat meat every day. He once disciplined his son ‘Abdullah when he saw him eating meat in clarified butter. He struck him with his stick saying: “Wretch! Eat bread and meat one day, on the next day bread and curd, on the next bread and clarified butter, on the next bread and oil, on the next bread and salt and on the next bread alone!2 He advised his son to diversify his diet and to not constantly eat meat, in order to reach a position of equilibrium, of balance.

The Rights of Animals in Islam

According to a 2019 UN report on climate change3, there is an overconsumption of red meat that has led to factory farming, deforestation, and an increase in greenhouse gases.4

Islam does not prohibit eating meat. Allah (swt) says that “It is Allah who made for you the grazing animals upon which you ride, and some of them you eat.”5Animals are subservient to humans, however, this does not mean that we can treat them with cruelty.

Even though we are allowed to slaughter animals for food, this should take place in accordance with Islamic principles of slaughtering. This ethical type of slaughtering is a rare sight at factory farms and the slaughterhouses they collaborate with. Documentaries such as Cowspiracy, or even a quick Google search, show how poorly animals are treated within factory farming contexts. Calves are separated from their mothers at a very young age, chickens are being placed in tiny cages in a dark barn without any space to spread their wings. They start fighting with the other chickens out of anxiety. To prevent this from happening their beak is cut off.

A loss of empathy, and the non-recognition of the feelings of animals lead to such cruelty.6 Allah (swt) says: “And there is no creature on [or within] the earth or bird that flies with its wings except [that they are] communities like you. We have not neglected in the Register a thing. Then unto their Lord they will be gathered.”7

Animals can feel and suffer. Our Prophet (saws) has recognized this fact and ordered us to be kind to animals. ‘Abdullah reported that the Prophet (saws) stopped in a place and then someone took a bird’s eggs and the bird began to beat its wings around the head of the Messenger of Allah (saws). He (saws) asked: “Which of you has taken its eggs?” A man said: “Messenger of Allah, I have taken its eggs.” The Messenger of Allah (saws) said: “Return them out of mercy to the bird.” (Sahih Al-Albani, Book 20, Hadith 382) Another example took place when the Prophet (saws) entered the garden of a man from the Ansar. “All of a sudden when a camel saw the Prophet it wept tenderly producing a yearning sound and its eyes flowed. The Prophet came to it and wiped the temple of its head. So it kept silent. He then said “Who is the master of this camel? Whose camel is this? A young man from the Ansar came and said “This is mine, Apostle of Allah.” He said “Don’t you fear Allah about this beast which Allah has given in your possession. It has complained to me that you keep it hungry and load it heavily which fatigues it.”” (Sunan Abi Dawud 2549, Book 15, Hadith 73)

Animals are respected and are given great rights in Islam, in contradistinction to the meat industry which sees animals as nothing more than soulless machines which sole function is to serve human needs.

With this ideology the workers in factory farms become immune to the animals’ suffering. Muslims are categorically prohibited from abusing animals. The Prophet (saws) said: “A woman entered the (Hell) Fire because of a cat which she had tied, neither giving it food nor setting it free to eat from the vermin of the earth.” (Sahih Bukhari, Book 54, Hadith 535)

The Environmental Impact of our Meat Consumption

Besides the animal abuse in factory farming caused by our overconsumption and high demand of meat, the environment is negatively impacted by our unethical consumer choices as well.

According to the FAO, agricultural activities produce one fifth of greenhouse gases in 2017 globally.8Agricultural land use dominates about 40% of the earth’s land surface and is the main driver to deforestation, biodiversity loss, and increase in carbon emissions.9

If deforestation does not stop, it could turn the Amazon forest into a desert and release more than 50 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere in 30 to 50 years.10 Moreover, if we continue with our current rate of meat consumption, our planet would not be able to sustain us. According to EAT, a science-based global platform for food systems and transformation, the biggest meat consumers are industrial countries, consuming more meat than is recommended by their own nutritional guidelines.11 If we do not change our current food consumption patterns we will exceed the planetary boundaries for food-related greenhouse emissions with a smashing 263% by 2050.12 In other words, we are exploiting our earth by our unethical and unhealthy consumer choices.

These facts cannot possibly indicate that we are practicing the Sunnah by our current way of living and eating. We are excessive in our meat consumption. Allah says: “O children of Adam, take your adornment at every masjid, and eat and drink, but be not excessive. Indeed, He likes not those who commit excess.13 Islam permits us to eat meat, but it is not a food item that is advised to be eaten daily from a physical and spiritual point of view.

Conclusion

We need to rethink our purpose of eating. Are we solely eating to fulfill our desires or are we eating for another reason? Ideally, we should eat to preserve our health and to gain strength to worship God. This intention will motivate us to make better and more ethical consumer choices.

As righteous stewards on this earth, we need to implement moderation into our eating habits. Most studies conclude that a diet rich in healthy plant-based foods and with fewer animal source foods leads to improved health and environmental benefits.

I have recently implemented a “Five Day Vegetarian” concept, which works perfectly for my husband and I. This concept entails that we would have vegetarian food most days in the week, chicken and fish once a week and meat once every three or four months. Besides changing our diet, we need to become aware of where we are buying our food. We need to start buying our food from local farms and ethical companies or start growing our own food.

As Dr. ‘Umar Faruq ‘Abd-Allah said in an interview on permaculture: “We need to be producers and not consumers.14

To conclude, I do not consider banning all animal products to be according to our Sunnah, whereas finding a middle course in our affairs is. Having said this, I guess I will still be enjoying my occasional akni, biryani or ćevapi after all.

Literature for Further Reading

  • Richard Foltz, Animals in Islamic tradition and Muslim cultures (London: Oneworld Publications, 2006).
  • Mohamed Ghilan, “The Halal Bubble and the Sunnah Imperative to Go Vegan”, May 16, 2016, https://almadinainstitute.org/blog/vegan-sunnah.
  • Nabil Yasien Mohamed, “Rethinking Sustainable Development in Light of Maqasid Al-Sharia,” in Law, Religion and the Environment in Africa, Book 7 (Stellenbosch: African Sun Media, 2020).

*Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Tayyib Society team.

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Sources

  1. Mohamed Ghilan, “The Halal Bubble and the Sunnah Imperative to Go Vegan”, https://almadinainstitute.org/blog/vegan-sunnah, accessed September 8, 2020.
  2. Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali, transl. Abdal Hakim Murad, On Disciplining the Soul & on Breaking the Two Desires, Books XXII and XXIII of the Revival of the Religious Sciences (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1995), p. 160.
  3. IPCC, Special Report: Climate Change and Land, https://www.ipcc.ch/srccl, accessed September 8, 2020.
  4. Quirin Schiermeier, “Eat Less Meat: UN Climate-Change Report Calls for Change to Human Diet”, August 8, 2019, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-02409-7, accessed September 8, 2020.
  5. Qur’an 40:79. Transl. Sahih International.
  6. Donald Vandeveer and Christine Pierce, The Environmental Ethics & Policy Book (Boston: Cengage Learning, 2003).
  7. Qur’an 6:38. Transl. Sahih International.
  8. FAO, “The Contribution of Agriculture to Greenhouse Gas Emissions”, February 18, 2020, http://www.fao.org/economic/ess/environment/data/emission-shares/en, accessed September 8, 2020.
  9. Deutsche Welle, “World Needs 7 Planets to Eat like a G20 Nation, Food Report Finds”, July 16, 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/world-food-report-g20/a-54193682, accessed August 13, 2020.
  10. Quirin Schiermeier, “Eat Less Meat: UN Climate-Change Report Calls for Change to Human Diet, August 8, 2019, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-02409-7, accessed September 8, 2020.
  11. Brent Loken and Fabrice DeClerck, “Diets for a Better Future: Rebooting and Reimagining Healthy and Sustainable Food Systems in the G20”, August 13, 2020, https://eatforum.org/content/uploads/2020/07/Diets-for-a-Better-Future_G20_National-Dietary-Guidelines.pdf, accessed September 8, 2020.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Qur’an 7:31. Transl. Sahih International.
  14. Zaytuna College, “On Permaculture: Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah”, YouTube video, May 14, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vkaAA6Qxvrs, accessed September 8, 2020.
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Adela is a founding member of Tayyib Society.

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