Muslims, Eid and the sanctimonious vegan

A picture of a sheep or goat being dragged along the floor with its lamb or kid running after it. Above is the slogan "She's not meat -- she's my mother".
A still from the video attached to PETA’s Eid tweet

This past Eid, the American-based Vegan advocacy group that calls itself People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) posted a series of tweets suggesting that Muslims should have a “vegan holiday” because “animals don’t need to die for you to celebrate Eid al-Fitr”, accompanied by a video of a sheep being dragged along by a group of men while its lamb runs along behind it, with the slogan “she’s not meat — she’s my mother”. The tweet attracted widespread scorn for having confused Eid al-Fitr, which follows the end of Ramadan, with Eid al-Adha, which is the feast of the sacrifice and this is when the sacrifice of a sheep or cow by every head of household is mandatory. (In practice, we usually pay for one to be carried out in a place where it is needed because of poverty.) There were some Muslims who seemed to have taken on board the idea that we shouldn’t eat meat and the fact that it is permitted in Islam was not a good enough reason to do it.

Over the years, I have found animal rights activists and vegans to be among the most extreme, irrational and sanctimonious types of activists out there. Often they seem unconnected to the real world, in which human beings depend on animals for survival. It is not just a protest against the widespread suffering and unhealthy practices in commercial farming; it is based on a belief that animals are not on this earth to be our food, shelter and medicine. A brief look through the PETA Twitter feed will reveal that this is their world-view. Someone on my Twitter feed suggested that PETA might really be seeking to make the cause of veganism look bad, but in fact such behaviour is par for the course for what is an inherently extremist and non-reality-based movement. They are merely the ‘cuddly’, publicity-seeking, ‘acceptable’ face of it; the more extreme in the sect harass and abuse families whose farms supply animals for testing, vandalise their property, dig up their relatives’ graves and more. As we all know, some of them will resort to racism when they hear that a particular nation enjoys a lot of meat and especially that of dogs, for some reason; they are also notorious for misogyny, comparing the hunting of animals to violence against women, having women parade naked but for the banner “I’d rather go naked than wear fur”, comparing them to dumb animals and depicting them in cages.

Every so often, a post will come up on our social media feeds with a title like “10 Excuses for not becoming vegan”. I’ve never read them because in truth we do not need an excuse. I eat meat because I enjoy it. I’ve tried to cut down recently, but that’s more for my own health reasons than because I am opposed to it. When I go out, I always eat meat; at home, I do not eat meat every day although I do drink milk every day. Humans have always eaten meat and the only exceptions are members of one or two religious groups and, more often, monastics who embrace vegetarianism or veganism for ascetic reasons. The same with drinking milk, eating cheese and eggs, wearing leather and wool, and using animal skins and fleeces for warmth. We have always got most of the protein in our diet from meat, milk and eggs. True, in other countries, soya and pulses are plentiful, but they are much less so here. In many parts of the UK, the soil is not much use for anything except pasture for sheep.

A picture of three young women walking along a road in London, past the doors of Somerset House, with a slogan "We'd rather go naked than wear fur" covering their breasts and private parts though their upper chests and most of their legs are exposed. They are wearing white gloves and high-heeled shoes.
A PETA anti-fur demonstration. (Source: PETA)

A plant-based diet has the potential to be just as harmful, cruel and otherwise unethical as one that uses animal products. Do you check on how far your vegetables have had to travel, burning up fossil fuel on the way from Spain, India or South Africa? Do you check on how well the farmers paid those who picked the fruit, or what conditions they were expected to live in, or whether they were well-treated? Do you not run an electric fridge, requiring more energy likely derived from fossil fuel? Do you check on where the cotton in your clothes comes from, how much water was used in growing it, whether it came from a country where people are subjected to forced labour to grow it, whether its irrigation caused an entire inland sea to dry up, or whether the dyeing of the garment (cotton or otherwise) was done in a factory where labour conditions are good and which does not pollute the local air or waterways? Or is human health and welfare no concern of yours?

For us Muslims, there is no escaping the fact that it is the Sunnah to eat at least some meat on at least some occasions. It is a fact that the Sahaba did not eat meat every day, though they did eat it from time to time. They did not eat as much of it as we do today, but eat it they did. They ate the meat of sheep, goats, cattle and camels, and drank the milk of all four. The slaughtering of an animal as a sacrifice is part of one of our Eids; much of the meat is given to the poor. Many families have been too poor to eat meat a lot; Eid is the occasion, once or twice a year, when they may get to eat some. There are certain criteria for what makes meat (other than fish) halal, or permitted to eat by Muslims; the major one is that it has to be slaughtered in the name of Allah, and Allah Alone. Many scholars, though not all, prohibit stunning on the grounds that the animal must be healthy before slaughter; all stipulate that the slaughter be done by hand, and not by machine, and that the blessing be read by a human voice, not played from a tape.

Some Muslims point to the Qur’anic verse that tells us to “eat of what is halal (lawful) and tayyib (wholesome) on the Earth” and draw from it the idea that we should not eat meat from farms which feed the animals unnatural food or keep them in unhealthy conditions, among other things. But if we are to be this scrupulous about meat, why are we much less so about the source of our grain, fruit and vegetables, many of which require the extensive use of pesticides, irrigation from precious water sources and so on, followed by fuel-intensive transportation?

And we must be aware that for some of us, meat in our diet is important. Growing children require high levels of protein; lack of it results in a malnourished child with a swollen belly (kwashiorkor), as seen in many a war zone in recent years. Many women require it because they lose much blood at every period; if they do not eat meat, they will become anaemic and vegan fake meats, leafy vegetables and iron supplements are no substitute. Some scholars say that young people, men in particular, should refrain from meat and milk to lessen sexual desire or build up one’s restraint to it, but this has to be balanced against one’s physical health needs.

Islam is not an ascetic religion; it does not demand that we renounce all pleasures in this life, but that we be scrupulous about making sure our food is lawful to us, both in nature and in how we acquired it. Vegetarianism or veganism as a way of life is a form of asceticism which is found in other religions but not ours; it tends to be associated with Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, while celibacy (as a way of life) is associated with Christianity. In mediaeval Christian Europe, the only intellectuals were celibate priests and monks; in the Muslim world, our scholars married. Islam is meant for the whole world, including parts of the world where meat is plentiful and chickpeas and lentils are not. If you are concerned about unhealthy, unnatural or cruel farming practices, feel free not to eat meat yourself, or to seek out organic meat and (especially) milk, which is likely to be expensive enough that you will consume less of it. Eat less meat; the early Muslims ate much less than we do. But there is no room to make veganism the way of life for Muslims. To them be their way of life; to us, ours.

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