Editor's Note: For further clarification of several questions posed by readers of this article, please review this follow-up response (available in both audio and written form) by Dr. Ghilan: Would the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ Be Vegan Today?
The popular conception of religion seems to be that of a set of rules and regulations that one adheres to. It is a handbook of what to do and what not to do without much attention given to what it all means and what it is about. For many Muslims, Islam is simply an explicit code of not only what to believe, but also how to articulate it in a way that does not get you in hot water with whoever appointed themselves as the gatekeepers of Paradise. Beyond this, Islam is viewed as nothing more than a set of obligations and prohibitions that one must abide by. In effect, when one chooses to fly with Islamic Airways they have to leave their intellect and conscience behind at the airport because these are items displayed on the diagram posted at security checkpoints outlining the prohibited articles to carry onboard.
A result of such a vision is a crisis of faith for many modern Muslims who cannot but find themselves wondering about the rationality of Islam and whether this religion is relevant today. This is not surprising given how an organic religion described by the Beloved ﷺ as one congruent with the Fitra, i.e., the natural inclination towards God and Truth, has been turned into a didactic checklist. The late Dr. Taha Jabir Al-Alwani wrote in the introduction to the English translation of Ahmad Al-Raysuni’s Imam Al-Shatibi’s Theory of the Higher Objectives and Intents of Islamic Law that, “one of the most salient manifestations of the crisis of the Muslim mind is an imbalance in the standards and priorities on the basis of which it has come to operate.” He further elaborated on this by stating:
“Indeed, both our academic and practical lives have been afflicted by many such imbalances and reversals in values and priorities. The numbers of those who recite and memorize the Qur’an are on the rise while those who derive true knowledge and wisdom from it have grown steadily fewer. There is an exaggerated emphasis on mastering forms and utterances, while the meanings which they were meant to convey and the rulings for which they form the basis are lost. Attention is given to appearances and formalities, while objectives and essences are overlooked. Particulars rule the day while universals are for all practical purposes, forgotten. Traditions based on the example of the Prophet ﷺ are put to death while innovations are brought to the fore.”
In reaction to this crisis there have been isolated calls to reform Islam. However, most current calls for overhauling Islam as a religion so that it can “modernize” come from individuals who have not made what Dr. Al-Alwani calls the “mental transition from a preoccupation with particulars to a concern with universals”. Unfortunately, this type of discussion usually elicits a nervous reaction from those occupied with pursuit of studying matters concerning Islamic jurisprudence to preserve the tradition. This is not necessarily unjustified. Indeed, invoking a maqasidi, i.e., an objectives-based, approach to Islam can serve as a veil to undermine the Sharia itself. However, this does not negate the real concern that focusing on the particulars can at times serve as a vehicle to undermine the universals. Sometimes a legal action can be unethical. After all, the Sharia includes rulings on slavery, and while many Muslims may pay apologetic lip service to non-Muslims in order to square a circle, it is rare to find voices with enough courage to state the obvious: that slavery is wrong and it is an embarrassment for us to have a Sharia that set a trajectory towards abolition yet because of how its followers approached it, the last country to officially ban slavery was a Muslim one.
The elevation of particulars over universals plays a pernicious role in the continuation of using Islam as a pawn to serve identity politics’ purposes. Neo-traditionalism (or neo-orthodoxy if you prefer) creates a mirage to give the appearance of Islam as the last stronghold against the consumerist monoculture of modernity. In this façade, a Muslim can effectively go through life with some minor religious inconveniences but for all intents and purposes never have to consciously assume the uncomfortable position that God has decreed for Muslims in the Quran: “We have made you [believers] into a middle nation, so that you may bear witness [to the Truth] before others and so that the Messenger may bear witness [to it] before you.” [2:143] The task of bearing witness to the Truth requires one to be socially conscious enough so as to take a stand when they see a tide going the wrong way. But the hyper-legalization of Islam for the sake of identity politics and the desire to be unique for the sake of uniqueness comes at the detriment of one’s awareness of the ethical implications of their choices of action. One salient example of this is in how we choose to eat.
If you were to ask most average practicing Muslims what the Sunnah of moderation in eating is, you will likely get cited the partial Hadith stating, “A third for food, a third for drink, and a third for breathing.” This demonstrates two issues regarding how Muslims’ conception is of the Sunnah today. For one, it is a set of prescribed discrete actions and statements attributed to the Beloved ﷺ, usually devoid of context and removed from a greater way of being. Secondly, it is approached selectively, picking that which does not upset the status quo of how one conducts their life, allowing them to maintain it by only doing minor adjustments without raising consciousness about the validity of fundamental assumptions taken for granted.
From a linguistic perspective, the word Sunnah in Arabic refers to a path that is constantly trodden. According to the legal definition, it refers to the sayings, actions, and affirmations of the Prophet ﷺ. In his text on the foundational principles of Islamic Jurisprudence, Muhammad ibn Ali Ash-Shauokani (1759-1839) combines the linguistic and legal definitions in commenting on the Prophet ﷺ’s command to follow his Sunnah by saying that it refers to the Prophetic Way. In other words, Sunnah is not just a list of isolated actionable items one gets to mindlessly check off. It is a path one sets on and a way of being in the world. To act in a Prophetic Way entails a synthesis of the Prophet ﷺ’s life so it becomes possible to answer the question, “What would the Habeeb do?”
In order to understand what moderation means we must turn to the Beloved ﷺ’s life and statements. Many Muslims are familiar with the story related in the collection of Bukhari of the three companions: one announced he would fast everyday, the other affirmed he would pray every night till sunrise, and the third said he would become celibate. In hearing about this the Beloved ﷺ called them and after confirming their intentions he rebuked them. He told them that he is more conscious and fearful of God than they were, yet he fasts on some days and does not on others; he prays some of the night and sleeps the rest; and he marries women. He followed this by declaring that this was his way, and whoever rejects his way is not of him.
A key lesson derived from this Hadith is that the Beloved ﷺ did not go to extremes in his life. His actions were deliberate and after his migration to Medina he was in a position to live the most extravagant life similar to that of any ruler, or to live the most impoverished life similar to that of a monk. This point needs to be emphasized because when it comes to eating and food choices there is a common modern retort that the early community of the Beloved ﷺ was poor and did not have access to some of the luxuries of modern life. Although they did not have access to the technologies we have today, they most certainly were not poor. In fact, given that their wealth was based on physical entities (gold, silver, land, horses, camels, etc.), it can be argued that they were wealthier than today’s Fortune 500 whose much of their wealth is typically nothing more than numbers on screens that could disappear if a financial crisis such as the one in 2008 strikes again.
Collections of biographies compiled by Muhammad ibn Sa’ad Az-Zuhri and Shams Ad-Deen Ath-Thahabi relate accounts of some of the companions’ estates that would surprise most people today. For example, Az-Zubayr ibn Al-Awwam left behind two plots of land, 11 houses in Madina, two houses in Basra, and a house in Egypt. It is worthy to note here that these properties were not mortgaged. His son sold one of the lands for 1,600,000 silver coins. Another example is Talha ibn Ubaydillah who left an estate of 2,200,000 silver coins and 200,000 gold coins. When he was alive his income was over 1000 silver coins per day. In his collection of biographies Ibn Sa’ad relates that some have claimed Talha’s estate was assessed to what today would equal to 300,000,000 silver coins.
Lest one think these were exceptions, there are available accounts of the estates of Uthman ibn Affan, Abdur-Rahman ibn Awf, and Sa’ad ibn Abi Waqqas among others, all of which speak of companions who had levels of material wealth that would land them on the list of the richest people in the world. However, this is not apparent from reading about how they lived because to them any wealth they gained remained in their hands and never entered their hearts. They looked at it as a means to serve a higher goal, which is readily apparent from narrations relating how quickly they were to give some or all of it up when the time called for it.
It is important to correct this misconception that the early community in Medina was poor because it leads to a skewed perception of the Beloved ﷺ’s life, which takes agency away from him and attributes some of his behavior to external economic pressures as opposed to the deliberate choices based on Revelation that they were. Understanding this point as well as how the Beloved ﷺ rebuked the three companions for going to extremes in religious observance will also present a challenge to what the word “extreme” means. For instance, it is related in the collections of Bukhari and Muslim that Lady Aisha (may God be pleased with her) said, “The house of Muhammad ﷺ never got satiated from eating wheat bread for three days in a row since coming to Medina until he was taken (i.e., passed away).” In the collection Shu’ab Al-Iman by Al-Bayhaqi it is related that the Prophet ﷺ used to go hungry without being forced to and Lady Aisha (may God be pleased with her) said, “Had we wanted to be satiated we could have been.”
As for the practice of dividing one’s intake into three thirds that many Muslims consider being a Sunnah, the full Hadith is related in the collections of Tirmidhi and others, in which the Beloved ﷺ is reported to have said, “No human being has filled a vessel more evil than the stomach. It is sufficient for the Son of Adam to have few morsels of food to keep his back straight. But if he absolutely must, a third for his food, a third for his drink, and a third for his breath.” In other words, the Beloved ﷺ here is saying that if one cannot control him or herself and finds themselves indulging, the maximum limit they should go to is a third for food and a third for drink so they can leave a third to be able to breathe. It should be made clear here that this is not a praiseworthy state to be in.
In light of Hadiths such as these it behooves us to reconsider our relationship as Muslims with food and our eating habits. A superficial isolated reading of these Hadiths based on today’s notions of what extremism and moderation in behavior are would conclude that the Beloved ﷺ eating so little and going hungry so often without having to is extreme or at the very least a call towards a type of monkhood. That, of course, not to mention how this conflicts with what is considered today as “healthy” eating or supportive of dietary goals. Such a conclusion fails to recognize what eating is supposed to serve and its metaphysical reality. Imam Abu Hamid Al-Ghazālī brings an insight about this to light in his magnum opus Revival of the Religious Sciences. In the volume on the “Destroyers” Imam Al-Ghazālī titles a chapter “Breaking the Two Desires” where he begins:
“The greatest of destroyers to the Son of Adam is the desire of the stomach, for because of it Adam and Eve were expelled from the Eternal Abode to the abode of degradation and poverty. They were prohibited from the tree but their desires overcame them and they ate from it, thus exposing their nakedness. Indeed, after investigation the stomach turns out to be the source of all desires and the origin of all blights and diseases.”
Far from being simply a fulfillment of a physiological need, eating is so intimately linked to spiritual development that on a yearly basis we have a full month in which we are commanded to restrict this activity. Of all the possible ways to test their ability to exercise Free Will, God gave a dietary restriction to Adam and Eve. To bring about their downfall, Iblees whispered and convinced them to eat that which they were prohibited from. Recognizing this, it becomes interesting to notice how much focus is placed in religious discourse and preaching on sexual morality and how little in comparison is given to the moral dimension of eating. In fact, as Imam Al-Ghazālī points out based on the relevant Hadiths, sexual desire is a byproduct of unchecked fulfillment of the desire of the stomach. The significance of eating being the desire that led to expulsion from Paradise cannot be overstated, and its impact on Earth when it transgresses the bounds goes far beyond us experiencing the temporary satisfaction of satiation.
While the ultimate purpose of creation as taught in the Qur’an is to recognize God and worship Him [51:56], the immediate purpose of creating human beings is to be God’s vicegerents on Earth. “[Prophet] when your Lord told the angels, ‘I am putting a deputy on Earth,’ they said, ‘How can You put someone there who will cause damage and bloodshed, when we celebrate Your praise and proclaim Your holiness?’” [2:30] It is fascinating that the angels’ already knew enough about the potential of the dark side of human beings that they could not see them as a creation in any other way. However, after God demonstrates to the angels what is special about Adam we are reminded later in the Quran of an essential aspect that governs the Earth in which we live: “He has raised up the sky and has set the balance so that you may not transgress in the balance: weigh with justice and do not fall short in the balance.” [55:7-9]
The balance of life on Earth is typically displayed in cyclical diagrams demonstrating the relationships between different animals and plants and how eating habits play a role in their continued survival. This balance that many of us are heedless of was beautifully described by the zoologist and environmental activist David Suzuki in his 1999 book The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place In Nature where he states:
Every worldview describes a universe in which everything is connected with everything else. Stars, clouds, forests, oceans and human beings are interconnected components of a single system in which nothing can exist in isolation.
In such an interdependent universe human beings hold enormous responsibility; each individual is accountable, and every action has repercussions that reverberate far beyond the moment. Past, present and future form a continuum in which each generation inherits a world shaped by the actions of its forebears and endow human beings with an even more awesome task: they are the caretakers of the entire system, responsible for keeping the stars on their courses and the living world intact. In this way, many early people who created worldviews constructed a way of life that was truly ecologically sustainable, fulfilling and just.
Unfortunately, an externality of modern science and advancements in technology is a value system alien to any traditional worldview. This value system imposes itself in subtle ways and in turn creates a new perspective in which nature is no longer seen as a coherent interconnected system. Suzuki further elaborates:
Whereas traditional worldviews see the universe as a whole, science produces information that can never, almost by definition, be complete. Scientists focus on parts of nature, attempting to isolate each fragment and control the factors impinging on it. The observations and measurements they make provide a profound understanding of that bit of nature. But what is ultimately acquired is a fractured mosaic of disconnected bits and pieces, whose parts will never add up to a coherent narrative.
In addition to its imposed value system, modern technology has also facilitated severance between humans and nature through the erection of modern cities. Artificial concrete jungles in which an increasing number of people live effectively make invisible the natural sources of what keeps us alive. Food no longer comes from nature but from the store, prepackaged and processed in a way that disguises its real birthplace. Suzuki observes:
The most destructive aspect of cities is the profound schism created between human beings and nature. In a human-made environment, surrounded by animals and plants of our choice, we feel ourselves to have escaped the limits of nature. Weather and climate impinge on our lives with far less immediacy. Food is often highly processed and comes in packages, revealing little of its origins in the soil or the telltale signs of blemishes, blood, feathers or scales… Cut off from the sources of our food and water and the consequences of our way of life, we imagine a world under control and will risk or sacrifice almost anything to make sure our way of life continues. As cities continue to increase around the world, policy decisions will more and more reflect the illusory bubble we have come to believe is reality.
Within the bubble described by Suzuki is another bubble created by Muslims – the halal food bubble. As a byproduct of hyper-legalized Islam and identity politics, the dietary habits of Muslims reflect a belief that a “Certified Halal” stamp removes us from the great chain of food production. It allows us to speak with an undeserved inflated sense of moral high ground simply because this stamp tells us a Muslim someone, in a farm somewhere, took the animal from which the ingredients contained in the packaged product we are buying come from, and slaughtered it according to Islamic rulings. Beyond this many of us are unable to say much more about the “Certified Halal” food we are eating. This is not to mention our inability to speak on how our eating habits, however halal they may be, impact the balance we are commanded in the Qur’an not to transgress.
To put this problem in perspective we need to first acknowledge the simple fact that what makes a product “halal” only refers to it being derived from a permissible animal to slaughter for food consumption and that it was slaughtered according to Islamic rulings. It does not technically take into account how the animal was raised and treated during its lifetime. Some may romanticize how halal meat entails humane treatment of the animals such that they would only be slaughtered when they were ready, and that reciting the name of God calms them down before they are sacrificed. For such individuals a dose of reality is in desperate order, because this romantic Disneyesque notion of happy farm animals that calm down by hearing God’s name is only great for staged YouTube videos to share around with non-Muslim friends and coworkers in the office. But when the sheer number of animals being raised for the sake of our gluttony is considered, it becomes quite evident that there is no such thing as humane treatment, happy animals, or a calming recitation of God’s name prior to slaughter. Rather, there is an industrial monstrosity taking place to support mass consumption, in which animals are abused and the Divine balance set in nature is not only transgressed but also trampled upon.
In his 2012 book Comfortably Unaware Dr. Richard Oppenlander presents available data released by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) on the current levels of production to sustain our demand for animal products. The numbers are ungodly. While the current world population is approaching 7.5 billion people, we are globally raising more than 70 billion animals per year and extracting 1-2 trillion fish from the oceans. These numbers alone should make one take a pause to contemplate on the insane heedlessness driving this level of animal consumption. In order to gain a consciousness of what it takes to produce such obscene amounts of meat and how it impacts the Earth we need to examine the pre-halalification process.
The current efforts to “go green” focus most of their attention on industries involving fossil fuels. Most of us are encouraged to reuse and recycle as much as possible and limit our waste production. For those able to afford it, buy an electric car instead of a gas-powered one, and walk or bike if the travelling distance is short. Turn off the lights when you leave the room and unplug appliances not being used. This increased public interest in how humans are contributing to global warming and climate change through our misuse of natural resources and technologies was triggered by the 2006 release of the book and film An Inconvenient Truth by former U.S. Vice President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore. Although these are necessary changes we need to make to stop our transgression against the Divine balance set on Earth, An Inconvenient Truth conveniently left out the most significant contributor to global warming – our insatiable appetite for meat and other animal products. According to a United Nations report published in the same year as An Inconvenient Truth, rearing cattle is directly responsible for more greenhouse gases than transportation. It further notes that livestock cattle use 30 percent of the Earth’s entire land surface, including “33 per cent of the global arable land used to producing feed for livestock… [and] it is a major driver of deforestation, especially in Latin America where, for example, some 70 per cent of former forests in the Amazon have been turned over to grazing.” Dr. Oppenlander puts these figures in relation to others released in the same report stating that:
“Livestock emit 10 percent of all CO2 and 40 percent of all methane (twenty-three times the global warming potential of CO2), 65 percent of nitrous oxide (310 times the global warming potential of CO2) and two-thirds of all ammonia emissions, which cause acid rain and acidification of our ecosystems. This makes your choice to eat meat one of the largest sectors for CO2 emissions and the single largest contributor of methane and nitrous oxide and ammonia. Producing one calorie of animal protein requires more than ten times as much fossil fuel input and produces more than ten times as much as CO2 as does one calorie of plant protein. And producing any meat from animals creates the production of methane, nitrous oxide, and ammonia, while producing food from plants creates none… As much as 80 percent of all global rainforest loss is turned into grazing for cattle or crops for livestock, and the process is extremely land-intensive. It requires fifty-five square feet of rainforest to produce just one quarter-pound burger.”
The impact of our meat consumption on the planet is so severe it is dumbfounding because as we continue in our severed existence from nature we remain unaware of the impact our food choices have on it. Rainforests act as the Earth’s lungs as they are responsible for more than 20 percent of the world’s oxygen supply and the recycling of CO2 out of the atmosphere in their regulatory role of temperature and weather patterns. A mere fifty years ago 15 percent of the land on Earth was composed of rainforests where 50 percent of the world’s plants and animals reside. We have managed in a very short amount of time to reduce it to less than 2 percent. As the most severely deforested rainforest to make room for livestock raising purposes, the Amazon has not only suffered massive ecological losses, but the native people who considered it their home have also been given a blow to their population, which went from six million at the time of their first contact with Europeans down to an estimated 300,000 to 700,000 living there today. Given that several ethnic tribes no longer exist, the cultural loss and associated knowledge of medicinal properties of the plants in the forest is devastating. Speaking of medicine, it is worthy to note here that according to the National Cancer Institute 70 percent of anti-cancer plants identified thus far are rain forest plants. And to think that all this is for the sake of a steak and a burger, which ironically happen to raise the risk of cancer!
The need for land to raise livestock and the ensuing deforestation is based on requirements by commercial producers, which allow for an average of 2.5 acres per animal. As consumers become aware of how grossly limited this space is and the need to have cows switch from corn-based diets to grazing on grass in a larger plot of land, grass-fed beef is having an increased demand. Unfortunately, despite the noble intentions it turns out that switching to grass-fed beef with an eye towards maintaining current levels of meat consumption will be more detrimental to the environment. This was exemplified in the case of The Markegard Family Grass-Fed farm, which was profiled in the 2014 documentary Cowspiracy. From a total of 4,500 acres of land, the Markegards produce 80,000 lbs. of meat per year. An average American consumes 209 lbs. of meat per year, which means this farm with all its resources can provide meat from grass-fed animals for only 382 people every year. To expand the Markegard farm’s model of 11.7 acres per animal, the U.S. having a population of 314 million would need 3.7 billion acres of land dedicated to raising grass-fed beef. The only problem here is that the U.S.’ lower 48 states only have a total of 1.9 billion acres, much of which is not even suitable for grazing.
While deforestation and land erosion may be indirectly felt and therefore somewhat removed from the everyday experience of average individuals, the raising of animals for our desire to consume meat has a far more immediate effect on our lives in terms of our need for water. A report released by FAO detailing the role of livestock in water depletion and pollution revealed that our desire for meat “has an enormous impact on water use, water quality, hydrology and aquatic ecosystems.” Specifically, the animal agriculture industry was directly accountable for 55 percent of water erosion and was shown to make a strong contribution to water pollution by pesticides, antibiotics, and heavy metals. The report further goes on to say that “the pollution process is often diffuse and gradual and the resulting impacts on ecosystems are often not noticeable until they become severe.”
These findings are alarming given the limited quantity of freshwater on Earth that accounts for 2.5 percent of all water on the planet, 70 percent of which is trapped in glaciers, snow and the atmosphere, leaving us with less than 1 percent that we have access to. As is the case with grass-fed beef, the current noble calls to stop injecting cows with growth hormones and allow them to grow naturally so their meat can be sold in the organic section do not take into account that current water use and pollution by commercial livestock is based on animals that grow in half the time. Organic meat entails having to wait roughly twice as long for the animals to grow, which means twice the water use, twice the pollution, and twice the resources. Given the available data on how much water the livestock industry uses to produce meat and its significant contribution to water pollution, one should question the emphasis placed on individuals to ration their water use in places that experience long droughts like California where most of the available water is diverted to producing meat. The real choice consumers have here is whether they are OK to die of thirst so long as they do so while their stomachs are filled with some kebabs.
Given the damage caused by the livestock industry to the rainforests and our freshwater supply due to our demand for meat and animal products some may go to the ocean as a substitute. After all, we continue to be bombarded by articles citing how great fish is for our health, especially salmon and cod as sources for essential oils. Notwithstanding how marketing is often not based in scientific evidence but in manipulation of human desires to direct our consumption habits, the ocean is in much worse shape due to the fishing industry. The latest available statistics estimate that overfishing has resulted in 76 percent of the world’s fish being fully exploited, overexploited or depleted. What the report does not mention is the effect fishing has on other marine life. In a 1995 Scientific American article the ecologist Carl Safina exposes the unmentioned collateral damage our lust for seafood has caused. In the process of catching fish there are millions of tons of other creatures that get caught up as “bykill”, which is most prominent with shrimp fishing. For every one-pound of shrimp sold at your local grocery store, there were more than twenty pounds of other creatures caught up and discarded either dead or dying, including turtles, seabirds, and dolphins.
In response to such revelations companies have exploited the emotional reactions of consumers and farmed fishing was offered as an alternative. This led to the emergence of an uncanny and unexpected result reinforcing current overfishing practices: fish farms have actually increased the demand on global fishing to meet the demand for fishmeal and fish oil to sustain the fish farms. Furthermore, Dr. Oppenlander cites two ways in which fish farms were shown to contribute to water pollution:
“The first is by further concentrating toxin levels and creating a higher potential for our exposure to them. When fishmeal and fish oil are used in aquaculture, the process concentrates carcinogens such as dioxins. This occurs because various contaminants and chemicals are found in many types of fish, which are then passed on, in more condensed forms, as they work up the food chain. Farmed salmon, for instance, consistently have much higher levels of dioxin than their wild counterparts. This is because they are fed a constant diet of fishmeal, which now has concentrated amounts of the many pollutants to which all fish comprising the meal were exposed during their lifetime.
The second level of pollution for which fish farms are responsible is the massive amount of waste they produce, which further depletes our oceans. Farmers confine thousands of fish into tiny enclosures in the ocean, with enormous amounts of feces and other waste being created and deposited into our waterways.”
Whether it is on land or in the ocean, our demand for meat and various animal products, which is rooted in desire as opposed to physiological need despite what advertisers want to make you think, is not only destroying the environment but also as a recent Associated Press investigation exposed contributing to real slavery where men who catch the fish and shrimp we buy at stores and eat at major restaurants were found in cages. As we continue to transgress the Divine balance for the sake of satisfying our insatiable stomachs we not only bring harm to the natural order on Earth, we also fail in fulfilling our duty as stewards. This is not only a matter of having to answer to God. Beyond the environmental damage we are causing, the people and animals we abused just so we could have a barbeque or a walima will also seek us out for retribution on the Day in which neither wealth nor children will benefit.
To satisfy the demand for 10 billion chickens annually in the United States, industrial farming practices make use of genetic manipulation, antibiotics, and growth hormones to produce faster-growing and larger birds. This is a simple calculus of economy. The quicker you can grow the birds the quicker you can make a profit and the larger the bird the larger the profit. As for the chickens, this process leads to weak skeletons as well as heart, liver, and kidney failures because these vital structures cannot keep up with the fast growth rates these birds are forced to sustain. Many end up collapsing under their own weight. In addition, they are kept in semi-dark sheds in crowded cages unable to move or spread their wings. Given how stressful this environment is for the birds, they end up plucking their own feathers and fight using their beaks. To prevent this, their beaks are cut using a hot blade and without anesthetics in a process euphemistically called “beak trimming” so as to not offend sensibilities. After two years of this miserable existence the chickens are eventually slaughtered in quite a gruesome fashion that involves catching upwards of six thousand chickens per hour resulting in many having their bones broken, stuffing them into crates to be transported to the slaughterhouse where they are hung upside down in shackles before their throats are slit, then are dipped into boiling water for feather removal while many are still conscious.
Muslims who think that at least halalification of the slaughter process removes us from this part of chicken abuse need to consider that by eating eggs they are still partaking in industrial non-halal slaughter practices indirectly. Dr. Melanie Joy relates in her 2011 book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism the inhumane process of egg production in which a separate group of hens are used. These layer hens are born in industrial incubators used by commercial hatcheries, where the male chicks being unable to produce eggs due to their bad biological luck have no economic value and may die in one of three ways: gassed, thrown in garbage bins where they will eventually die from suffocation or dehydration, or put into a massive grinder where they are ground up alive. As for the lucky female chicks, they are crowded into wire cages housing six birds each where they spend their entire lives. This is where they eat, sleep, defecate and like their counterpart chickens meant for slaughter also cannot spread their wings and have their beaks cut using a hot blade to prevent physical damage from fighting due to stress and crowding. Where layer hens have it worse than chickens intended for meat production is in having another genetic manipulation. Dr. Joy writes:
“Because the hens have been genetically manipulated to lay ten times as many eggs as their ancestors, their brittle bones frequently break, as the calcium in their skeletons is disproportionally diverted to eggshell formation. Another consequence of this artificial selection to lay unnaturally large numbers of eggs is uterine prolapse. When an egg gets stuck against the uterine wall, it can pull the uterus out with it. Unless the uterus is pushed back into the hen’s body, other hens will peck at it until she bleeds to death or dies of infection; in each case, it usually takes two days for the hen to die.”
After one year of this the hens are unsurprisingly exhausted, which is when they are finally sent to the slaughterhouse for one final miserable send off to become the chicken breast and wings packages we find at the supermarket or sold as meals at your favourite restaurant. If they are lucky to be halalified, they may even end up in your shawarma wrap. But before this there is one final round of egg laying left in these hens where the abuse takes another form called forced molting used in the U.S. but at least listed in the U.K. by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as not allowed and is rare in Canada.
Commercial egg producers use forced molting to boost a final round of egg production before the hens are sent to the slaughterhouse. Natural molting refers to the replacement of all feathers, usually during the winter, for to maintain the health of their plumage. During this time birds stop laying eggs so that all energies are directed towards growing new feathers and staying warm while this takes place. In addition, since egg production is halted the hen’s reproductive system tracts rejuvenate to a point where a new round of egg production comes close to peak rate with better egg quality. To artificially induce this process before hens are sent to the slaughterhouse they are literally starved for a period of seven to fourteen days. After the new round of eggs are produced and the hens have had enough, they are finally sent off to end the wretched life they were forced to lead so we can have our scrambled eggs for breakfast and grilled chicken for lunch. Next time you pick a dozen eggs from your local supermarket as you listen to that music playing over their speakers remember that this is what it took to allow you to do this. Bon appétit!
The crowding of chickens in cages and mutilation of their beaks cannot be overlooked even in the case of a halal slaughter. In a Hadith related in the collections of Bukhari and Muslim we find Abdullah ibn Umar (may God be pleased with him) coming across a bird that a young boy tied up to use for target practice. Ibn Umar untied it and took it along with the boy to his family and told them to stop their son from tying up animals for the sake of target practice or before they are sacrificed because he heard the Messenger ﷺ curse the one who does that. It is also well established as reported in a Hadith related by Bukhari that the Messenger ﷺ cursed the one who mutilates an animal, which is where cutting the chickens’ beaks becomes even more troubling. It is our levels of demand that allow farmers to raise so many chickens that they have to be crowded in a limited space, which in turn necessitates mutilating them to limit the damage of stress-induced fights. As for the starvation of chickens in forced molting, most Muslims are familiar with the Hadith related by Bukhari and Muslim in which the Beloved ﷺ is reported to have said, “A woman entered the Fire because of a cat she had tied, neither giving it food nor water, and would not even allow it to eat from the insects roaming the ground.” This begs the question: how many eggs have each of us who eat eggs consumed that happened to come from starved hens?
Cows have just as terrible an existence, especially if they happen to be dairy cows. In order for cows to produce milk, they are artificially impregnated almost on a continual basis, which significantly shortens their natural lifespan from 15-20 years to around 5-6 years due to the toll that continued pregnancy and milking have on their bodies. When the calf is born it is removed within hours, sometimes before it has sufficient strength to walk, so that the milk meant for it can be diverted towards human consumption. In response the cow goes into frenzy and can cry out for days because it cannot find its offspring. In addition to this emotional trauma the cow has to endure the milking process, which Dr. Joy describes in cringing detail:
“In most dairies in the United States, the cows are milked by machines for ten months of the year, which includes the seven-month period during which they are pregnant. This process of continual impregnation and lactation stresses their bodies so much that many cows develop lameness and mastitis, an infection and sometimes massive inflammation of the udder. The cow’s system is so overworked that her normal metabolic process may be insufficient to keep up with her physical output, and so her natural, herbivorous diet of grazing pasture is supplemented with grain and high-protein carnivorous feedstuffs made of meat and bonemeal.”
This is how that jug of milk sitting at the supermarket and the cheese and butter derived from it is produced. It does not only come about by milking some cows. It is the byproduct of emotional and physical abuse of animals that according to the Qur’an praise God in their own language even if we do not comprehend it. When the cows finally collapse because they can no longer physically take this abuse, they are hauled to the slaughterhouse to become the biggest part of the ground beef supply in the U.S., which if halalified can be used to make some kebabs.
The burdening of dairy cows with the emotional and physical demands placed on them to the extent that their lives are cut by two thirds should be criminalized. But for Muslims it is sufficient to be reminded of a Hadith related by Imam Ahmad and Abu Dawud where the Beloved ﷺ is reported to be consoling a camel that started to shed tears when it saw him. When the camel stopped crying the Beloved ﷺ asked who was its owner. A young man came forward to claim it and the Beloved ﷺ said to him, “Do you not fear God over this animal that He entrusted you with? It complained to me that you starve it and overbear it with tasks.”
As for the newborn calves, they are taken into the veal industry, which only exists to the extent that it does because of the dairy industry and has its own special type of abuse. A 2008 report by the American Veterinary Medical Association reveals that veal calves are placed in stalls too small for them to turn around or to lie down in a normal fashion. But that is only an inconvenience compared to how they are artificially made borderline anemic because of a diet lacking in iron. This is done to produce veal meat with the characteristic pale appearance. During their short life the calves are therefore often facing multiple health problems and display a number of stress behaviors before they are eventually crowded into a truck for transport to the slaughterhouse.
The slaughter process is the same for all cattle. The animals are crowded and transported in trucks on trips that depending on how far the slaughterhouse is from the farm can take days without food or water and standing on their own urine and defecation. When they finally arrive the ones who have not collapsed from weakness and exhaustion do not want to leave the truck. At this point they are struck with electric prods to force them to move and as a former U.S. Department of Agriculture put it, “Uncooperative animals are beaten and prods poked in their faces and up their rectums.” Once they are forced into the slaughterhouse they are shot with a bolt gun in the head to stun them as they go down a chute. Since the line must continue at a fast pace and the employees doing the stunning are poorly trained, many cows are completely conscious when their throats are slit and limbs are cut off. A 2001 report by Jo Warrick for the Washington Post gives an eerie account:
“It takes 25 minutes to turn a live steer into steak at the modern slaughterhouse where Ramon Moreno works... The cattle were supposed to be dead before they got to Moreno. But too often they weren’t. ‘They blink. They make noises,’ he said softly. ‘The head moves, the eyes are wide and looking around.’ ‘In plants all over the United States, this happens on a daily basis,’ said Lester Friedlander, a veterinarian and formerly chief government inspector at a Pennsylvania hamburger plant.”
In a Hadith related by Al-Hakim the Beloved ﷺ came across a man who had laid a sheep on its side and was sharpening his knife. He ﷺ said to him, “Do you want to subject it to multiple deaths? You should have sharpened your knife before you laid it on its side.” A 2005 editorial article in the New York Times aptly described the whole meat industry, stating, “Most Americans do not want to know how the meat they eat is produced, if one so they can continue to eat it. Nearly every aspect of meat production in America is disturbing.” While this may be the case for America, it is in fact only more exposed in the U.S. because there have been more headline making investigations bringing this to the forefront. However, even if we decide to ignore the environmental impact of raising the number of animals we currently are raising globally that reaches upwards of 70 billion, and despite the additional regulations some may cite in other countries, the industrial level of production put in place to meet the demand for meat, dairy, and eggs in the world make it logistically impossible to treat these animals without abusing them.
Muslims who consume dairy and eggs are contributing to this grotesque system of mass production for mass consumption. As for the meat, it is worthy to be reminded of the command in the Qur’an, “Children of Adam, dress well whenever you are at worship, and eat and drink [as We have permitted] but do not be extravagant: God does not like extravagant people.” [7:31] The extravagant amount of meat Muslims eat today makes it inevitable that the animals will be mistreated. The high demand for meat and animal products combined with the need to make profits make for a toxic mix that no ritual can be the antidote of. “O you who believe, do not forbid the good things God has made lawful to you – do not exceed the limits: God does not love those who exceed the limits – but eat the lawful and pure things that God provides for you. Be mindful of God, in whom you believe.” [5:87-88] It is undeniable that based on the available evidence we have all exceeded the limits in every aspect and transgressed the balance set by God in nature in unprecedented ways.
The command in the Qur’an on eating is not restricted to the legal dimension of making it halal. “People, eat what is pure and lawful from the Earth, and do not follow Satan’s footsteps, for he is your sworn enemy.” [2:168] There is an ethical dimension that goes beyond the myopic legal aspect. The command to eat what is pure and lawful in this verse is followed by a command not to follow the footsteps of Satan. In a later chapter of the Qur’an is a promise from Satan for the believers: “I will mislead them and incite vain desires in them; I will command them to slit the ears of cattle.” [4:119] Commentators on this verse have referred to pagan practices of slitting the ears of cattle that reached particular milestones as part of superstitions. Al-Qurtubi relates that Abdullah ibn Abbas (may God be please wit him) and others said that the slitting of ears mentioned in the verse refers to all pagan practices that change an animal’s body features, all of which fall under the category of torture. Beyond pagan practices, it is arguable that the verses make a link between eating, animal torture, and the following of Satan’s footsteps.
One cannot become aware of the numerous ways exploiting animals and fish for human consumption and not feel their Fitra become unsettled. In his 2005 poetic self-disclosure A Divine Ecology, Ian Mills searches for what it means to live ethically, which he finds it to be rooted in the conscious recognition of souls in all beings as they are engaged in their interactions. Mills quotes the Inuit hunter Ivaluardjuk’s profound saying,
“The greatest peril of life is in the fact that human food consists entirely of souls. All the creatures that we have to kill and eat, all those that we have to strike down and destroy to make clothes for ourselves, have souls like we have, souls that do not perish with the body, and which must therefore be propitiated lest they should revenge themselves on us for taking away their bodies.”
The impact of eating animal products on the Earth both on land and in the ocean makes the only ethical eating lifestyle to observe today a vegan one where all animal products, including eggs and dairy, are eliminated from our diet. In light of what we have done to the planet and the animals because of our lust after meat, we can no longer claim as Muslims to be witnesses to the Truth while continuing to contribute to the perpetuation of such abuse and transgressions. Ethicists define three levels of the moral response to a presented question or situation: expressive, pre-reflective, and reflective. The expressive level is the most primitive one at which the individual expresses unanalyzed emotions and feelings, which in and of themselves do not establish a justification for the directed course of action. At the pre-reflective level the justification is made by reference to what may be termed a normative or a conventional rule. In the context of eating meat and some Muslims’ negative response to veganism, the justification for continuing to eat meat is by simply referring to the fact the Prophet ﷺ ate meat. The defining feature of a pre-reflective response is the lack of critical analysis of normative or conventional rules being used to justify actions and resistance to examine the overall coherence of such actions. Finally, the reflective response is one in which the conventional rules are examined and synthesized in light of the presented question or situation. At this level it is not sufficient to quote a single Hadith or verse of the Qur’an devoid of historical context and how it applies to a current one in light of other verses and Hadiths. This a level at which the particulars need to be analyzed in light of universals.
Given the current status of the planet and practices in the animal agriculture industry, and the numerous relevant verses in the Quran and available Hadiths, the Sunnah would be to give up all animal products and go vegan. Otherwise, one would have to explain how the Beloved ﷺ would stand for the destruction of total ecological systems, deforestation, overfishing, animal abuse that is both physical and emotional, as well as atmospheric and water pollution. Animal agriculture today is an industry designed for mass consumption, and in being so it is not modeled for a Prophetic diet in which meat is only consumed on rare occasions. Although the main focus in this exposition has been on cows, chicken and fish, lambs are not excluded from this discussion. This is as much an issue of sustainability as it is of animal treatment. Moreover, as we consume eggs and dairy products, we are directly supporting the ongoing of a globally depleting unsustainable system that cannot be ethically justified regardless whether the animals’ slaughter process is halalified or not.
The sad reality here is that Muslims who defend the consumption of eating meat and animal products by appealing to decontextualized verses of the Qur’an and Hadiths are addicts who pretend the “Certified Halal” bubble excludes them from accountability. Imam Ibn Abdul Barr relates in his Al-Istithkar that Umar ibn Al-Khattab (may God be pleased with him) said, “Be warned against meat, for it has an intoxicating quality like that of wine.” Ibn Abdul Barr comments on this by saying that most of those who get hooked on alcohol are unable to leave it or repent from it. He continues to say that meat is the epitome of indulgence and extravagance. However, these statements are typically overlooked for what he relates after them, including the Hadiths of the Beloved ﷺ stating that meat is the master of food in this world and the next, and that the best meat is that of poultry. The authentic reports of no smoke from cooking meat was observed coming from the Beloved ﷺ’s home for sometimes up to three months straight also do not seem to be as readily remembered as the report that he ﷺ liked the shoulder meat from lambs. In fact, in light of the environmental resources required to raise animals for slaughter, it is not far fetched to conclude that the Beloved ﷺ’s meat eating habits were in line with keeping the Divine balance of nature intact.
Not only do we not physiologically need to consume animal products, the available research on the health benefits of a plant-based diet in comparison to one that includes animal products is increasingly showing its superiority. Unfortunately, animal agriculture marketing and lobbying efforts have convinced the masses of the opposite. Furthermore, a vegan diet does not entail only eating salads and giving up your favorite foods. There are thousands of recipes online and alternative plant-based ingredients one can use to make their favorite meals. It just requires doing a little research and putting more thought into what you eat. In doing so you would not only be doing your body a favor, but you would also reduce your pollution and water footprint in ways that make a greater difference than only rationing your water use.
It is important to point out that the change does not have to be “all or none”. This type of thinking is what keeps people persisting in their habits. Indeed, very few people are able to make a 180-degree turn and maintain it. Even in the case of the new converts to Islam and newly observant Muslims, the Beloved ﷺ advised to engage with religious practice gently. The same can be said of diet. Once an individual becomes aware of how the ethical dimension of their food choices, a gradual change is the most recommended way to go about it. One’s current eating habits have been established over a long time period, for some it is all they can remember. It is unrealistic to expect a complete and sustainable change overnight.
Religion is not a ticket to become somnambulant as one mindlessly applies a rulebook. It is a call to waking up and being conscious of how one engages with the world. Being religious and following the Sunnah in modern activist parlance is another way of saying one is “woke”. There is a price being paid for the dietary decision one makes, and it is not limited to the one displayed at the cash register. In a Hadith related in the collection of Muslim the Beloved ﷺ is reported to have said, “God is pure and does not accept anything but that which is pure.” The food we eat is energy that is in turn directed towards acts of worship dedicated to God. Consciousness about diet entails recognizing that we have a relationship with the food we eat. When we ask why we are having trouble getting for Subh on time or why we find trouble concentrating in our prayers or sweetness in reciting the Quran, the first thing we should look to is our food. If that energy is not pure and is derived by means of abuse and transgression against the balance, we should not be surprised about having trouble in forming a connection with the Merciful.
Editor's Note: For further clarification of several questions posed by readers of this article, please review this follow-up response (available in both audio and written form) by Dr. Ghilan: Would the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ Be Vegan Today?