My reasons for switching to a plant-based diet were not immediate, like some of my acquaintances. As I learned more about the different aspects of steak on my plate, my preferences slowly changed. First I cut out red meat, then dairy, chicken, fish, and finally eggs.
I first encountered industrial slaughter when I read Fast Food Nation and learned how animals are kept on industrial farms. To put it mildly, I was horrified. Before that, I had no idea about it.
Part of my ignorance was that I romantically thought that my government would take care of the animals for food. I could understand animal cruelty and environmental issues in the US, but we Canadians are different, right?
In reality, there are practically no laws in Canada that would protect animals on farms from cruel treatment. Animals are beaten, maimed and kept cramped in conditions that are terrible for their short existence. The standards that the Canadian Food Control Agency mandates are often violated in the pursuit of increased production. The protections that still remain in law are slowly disappearing as our government relaxes the requirements for slaughterhouses. The reality is that livestock farms in Canada, as in other parts of the world, are associated with a lot of environmental, health, animal rights and rural community sustainability issues.
As information about factory farming and its impact on the environment, human and animal welfare has become public, more and more people, including Muslims, are choosing a plant-based diet.
Is veganism or vegetarianism contrary to Islam?
Interestingly enough, the idea of vegetarian Muslims has caused some controversy. Islamic scholars such as Gamal al-Banna agree that Muslims who choose to go vegan/vegetarian are free to do so for a number of reasons, including their personal expression of faith.
Al-Banna stated: “When someone becomes a vegetarian, they do it for a number of reasons: compassion, ecology, health. As a Muslim, I believe that the Prophet (Muhammad) would like his followers to be healthy, kind and not destroy nature. If someone believes that this can be achieved by not eating meat, they will not go to hell for it. It’s a good thing.” Hamza Yusuf Hasson, a popular American Muslim scholar, warns of the ethical and environmental issues of factory farming and the health problems associated with excessive meat consumption.
Yusuf is sure that the negative consequences of industrial meat production – cruelty to animals, harmful effects on the environment and human health, the connection of this system with increased world hunger – run counter to his understanding of Muslim ethics. In his opinion, the protection of the environment and animal rights are not concepts alien to Islam, but a divine prescription. His research shows that the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, and most of the early Muslims were semi-vegetarians who only ate meat on special occasions.
Vegetarianism is not a new concept for some Sufists, such as Chishti Inayat Khan, who introduced the West to the principles of Sufism, the Sufi Sheikh Bawa Muhayeddin, who did not allow the consumption of animal products in his order, Rabiya of Basra, one of the most revered female Sufi saints .
Environment, animals and Islam
On the other hand, there are scientists, for example in the Egyptian Ministry of Religious Affairs, who believe that “animals are the slaves of man. They were created for us to eat, so vegetarianism is not Muslim.”
This view of animals as things that people consume exists in many cultures. I think that such a concept may exist among Muslims as a direct result of a misinterpretation of the concept of caliph (viceroy) in the Qur’an. Your Lord said to the angels: “I will install a governor on the earth.” (Quran, 2:30) It is He who made you successors on earth and exalted some of you above others in degrees to test you with what He has given you. Verily, your Lord is swift in punishment. Verily, He is Forgiving, Merciful. (Quran, 6:165)
A quick reading of these verses may lead to the conclusion that humans are superior to other creatures and therefore have the right to use resources and animals as they please.
Fortunately, there are scholars who dispute such a rigid interpretation. Two of them are also leaders in the field of Islamic environmental ethics: Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Professor of Islamic Studies at John Washington University, and leading Islamic philosopher Dr. Fazlun Khalid, director and founder of the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences. They offer an interpretation based on compassion and mercy.
The Arabic word Caliph as interpreted by Dr. Nasr and Dr. Khalid also means protector, guardian, steward who maintains balance and integrity on Earth. They believe that the concept of “caliph” is the first agreement that our souls voluntarily entered into with the Divine Creator and that governs all our actions in the world. “We offered the heavens, the earth and the mountains to take responsibility, but they refused to bear it and were afraid of it, and man undertook to bear it.” (Quran, 33:72)
However, the concept of “caliph” must be harmonized with verse 40:57, which says: “Indeed, the creation of the heavens and the earth is something greater than the creation of people.”
This means that the earth is a greater form of creation than man. In this context, we the people must carry out our duties in terms of humility, not superiority, with the main focus on protecting the earth.
Interestingly enough, the Qur’an says that the earth and its resources are for the use of both man and animals. “He established the earth for the creatures.” (Quran, 55:10)
Thus, a person receives additional responsibility for observing the rights of animals to land and resources.
For me, a plant-based diet was the only way to meet the spiritual mandate to protect animals and the environment. Maybe there are other Muslims with similar views. Of course, such views are not always found, because not all self-determined Muslims are driven by faith alone. We may agree or disagree on vegetarianism or veganism, but we can agree that whatever path we choose must include a willingness to protect our most valuable resource, our planet.