Vegetarianism in Islam by Vasu Murti das
“…but to hunt…is forbidden you, so long as ye are on the pilgrimage. Be mindful of your duty to Allah, unto Whom you will all be gathered.”
—Koran, surah 5, verse 96
Islam teaches that in Mecca, the birthplace of Mohammed, no creature can be slaughtered and that perfect harmony should exist between all living beings. Muslim pilgrims approach Mecca wearing a shroud (“ihram”). From the moment they wear this religious cloth, absolutely no killing is allowed. Mosquitos, lice, grasshoppers, and other living creatures must also be protected. If a pilgrim sees an insect on the ground, he will motion to stop his comrades from accidentally stepping on it. Islam teaches respect for animals and nature; the Islamic tradition has much to say about humanity’s relationship with the animal world.
“Whoever is kind to the creatures of God is kind to himself.”
—the Prophet Mohammed
“There is not an animal on the earth, nor a flying creature flying on two wings, but they are all peoples like unto you.”
—Koran, surah 6, verse 38
The Koran (Majeed 55:10-12) teaches that God assigned the earth “to all living creatures,” and humanity is ordered not to “spread corruption on earth, after it has been put in order.” (Majeed 7:56) “Seest thou not that it is God whose praises are celebrated by all beings in heaven and on earth, and by the birds with extended wings?” asks the Koran. “Each one knows its prayer and psalm. And God is aware of what they do.” (Majeed 24:41) The Koran calls the pagan practice of slitting the ears of animals “devilish acts.”
Mohammed is recorded as having told his followers, “it behooves you to treat the animals gently.” (Majeed 4:118-19, 5:103)
About Mohammed, the English Arabic scholar, David Margoliouth (1858-1940), has written: “His humanity extended itself to the lower creation. He forbade the employment of towing birds as targets for marksmen and remonstrated those who ill-treated their camels. When some of his followers had set fire to an anthill, he compelled them to extinguish it. Acts of cruelty were swept away by him.”
In one popular tradition (“Hadith”), Mohammed is said to have rebuked his followers for failing to show compassion. “But we do show compassion,” they responded, “to our wives, children and relatives.” The Prophet insisted, “It is not this to which I refer. I am speaking of universal mercy.”
According to tradition (Hadith Mishkat 3:1392), Mohammed taught that “all creatures are like a family of God; and He loves the most those who are the most beneficent to His family.”
Providing food and drink for animals, Mohammed explained, “are among those virtuous gestures which draw us one step nearer to God,” and “everyone who shows clemency, even towards a mere bird under the knife, will find God’s clemency towards him on Doomsday.”
Awakening from rest one afternoon, Mohammed found a small, sick cat sound asleep on the fringe of his cloak. The Prophet cut off his garment, allowing the cat to sleep undisturbed. “Is this a man who would advocate the unnecessary slaughter of harmless beasts?” asks writer Steven Rosen. “Show sympathy to others,” taught Mohammed, “especially to those who are weaker than you.”
Islamic scholar Dr. M. Hafiz Syed records the following traditions from the life and teachings of Mohammed:
The Prophet passed by certain people who were shooting arrows at a ram and hated that, saying, “Maim not the brute beasts.”
The Prophet, seen wiping the face of his horse with his wrapper, said, “At night I received a reprimand from God in regard to my horse.”
A man once robbed some eggs from the nest of a bird, whereuponthe Prophet had them restored to the nest. “Fear God in these dumb animals,” said the Prophet, “and ride them when they are fit to be ridden—and get off them when they are tired.”
“Verily, are there rewards for our doing good to quadrupeds and giving them water to drink?” asked the disciples. And the Prophet answered, “There are rewards for benefitting every animal having a moist liver.” [i.e., everyone alive!]
The Prophet spoke of the rewards and punishments one would receive depending on one’s treatment of animals. He once told his companions he had a vision of a woman being punished in hell because she had starved a cat to death. “A good deed done to an animal is as meritorious as a good deed done to a human being,” taught Mohammed, “while an act of cruelty to an animal is as bad as an act of cruelty to a human being.”
On another occasion, the Prophet is recorded as having said, “He who takes pity even on a sparrow and spares its life, God will be merciful to him on the Day of Judgement…There is no man who kills even a sparrow, or anything smaller, without a justifiable cause, but God will question him about it.”
Again, Mohammed is said to have taught that, “one who kills even a sparrow or anything smaller without a justifiable reason will be answerable to Allah.” Muslim literature even records the Prophet forbidding the use of animal skins.
Mohammed took pity on beasts of burden. He forbade the beating of animals, as well as branding, striking, or painting them on the face. When the Prophet encountered a donkey that had been branded on the face, he exclaimed, “May Allah condemn the one who branded it.” According to Mohammed, some animals were better than their riders. “Verily, there exist among the ridden ones some who are indeed better than their riders, and who praise their Lord more worthily.”
According to Islamic scholar B.A. Masri, “All kinds of animal fights are strictly forbidden in Islam.” Mohammed forbade using living creatures as targets, and went so far as to condemn putting animals in cages, calling it “a great sin for man to imprison those animals which are in his power.”
Mohammed even classified the unnecessary slaughter of animals as one of the seven deadly sins. “Avoid the seven abominations,” he said, then referring to a verse from the Koran, “And kill not a living creature, which Allah has made sancrosanct, except for a justifiable reason.”
Dr. Masri writes that: “According to the spirit and overall teachings of Islam, causing avoidable pain and suffering to the defenseless and innocent creatures of God is not justifiable under any circumstances.”
On the issue of animal experimentation, Dr. Masri points out that: “Many of the experiments that are being done on animals in the name of scientific research and education are not really necessary and are sheer cruelty. Such experiments are a contradiction in terms of the Islamic teachings…According to Islam, all life is sancrosant and has a right to protection and preservation.”
Like the Bible, the Koran also describes God’s blessings to mankind as essentially vegetarian, in verses similar to Genesis 1:29:
“Therewith He causes crops to grow for you, and the olive and the date-palm and grapes and all kinds of fruit. Lo! Herein is indeed a portent for people who reflect.”
—Koran, surah 16, verse 11
“A token unto them is the dead earth. We revive it, and We bring forth from it grain—so that they will eat thereof. And We have placed therein gardens of the date-palm and grapes, and We have caused springs of water to gush forth therein. That they may not eat of the fruit thereof and their hands created it not. Will they not, then, give thanks?”
—Koran, surah 36, verses 33-35
“Let man reflect on the food he eats: how We poured out the rain abundantly, and split the earth into fissures, and how We then made the grains to grow, and vines and reeds, olives and palms and gardens and fruits and pastures—an enjoyment for you and your cattle to delight in.
“It is God who sends down water out of the sky, and with it quickens the earth after it is dead. Surely, in that is a sign for people who have ears to hear. In cattle, too, there is a lesson for you: We give you to drink of what is in their bellies, between filth and blood—pure milk, sweet to those who drink.
“And We give you the fruits of the palms and the vines from which you derive sweet-tasting liquid and fair provision. Indeed, this is a sign for men of understanding.
“And your Lord inspires the bees, saying, ‘Build your homes in the mountains, in the trees and in the thatch of roots, then feed on every kind of fruit and follow the ways of your Lord, so easy to go upon.’ Then there comes forth out of their bellies a liquid of various colors wherein is healing for men. Truly, this is a sign for people who reflect.”
Dr. M. Hafiz Syed writes that the Prophet taught worshippers who eat animal flesh to wash out their mouths before going to pray. It is a Muslim custom to clean one’s mouth before prayer, but many biographers record Mohammed giving this instruction only in regards to meat, and not to any other kind of food.
Mohammed’s earliest biographers wrote that he preferred vegetarian foods. The Prophet enjoyed milk diluted with water, yogurt with butter or nuts, and cucumbers with dates. His favorite fruits, which he would often subsist on for weeks at a time, were pomegranates, grapes and figs. He liked soaked, crushed dates as a morning drink.
The Prophet was especially fond of honey. He would eat it mixed with vinegar. Mohammed is quoted as having said that in a home where there is honey and vinegar, there will be the blessings of the Lord. He enjoyed a preparation known as “hees,” made from butter, dates and yogurt. “Where there is an abundance of vegetables,” said the Prophet, “hosts of angels will descend on that place.”
Mohammed did not directly forbid the killing of animals for food, but he taught that such killing should be done as humanely as possible. “If you must kill,” he conceded, “kill without torture.” The laws governing the “humane slaughter” of animals for food in Islam are similar to those found in Judaism.
- The knife must be “razor sharp,” to cause as little pain to the animal as possible;
- The knife should not be sharpened in the presence of the animal about to be killed;
- An animal must not be slaughtered in the presence of other animals;
- In order to prevent harm to an animal that may still be alive, it is forbidden to skin or slice an animal carcass until it is cold, i.e., when rigor mortis has set in;
The Koran clearly evokes compassion and mercy towards animals. Islamic mystics, such as the Sufis, regard vegetarianism as a high spiritual ideal. One contemporary Sufi master explains, “If you understand the ‘qurban’ (ritual slaughter and Islamic dietary laws) from within with wisdom, its purpose is to reduce this killing. But if you look at it from outside, it is meant to supply desire with food, to supply the craving of the base desires…”
As in the Jewish tradition, animal life partakes of the sacred, and the ritual and humane slaughter of animals is regarded as a divine concession to human lust and brutality. The Koran (22:37) also teaches the futility of animal sacrifice as a means of worship. “Their flesh will never reach Allah, nor yet their blood—but your devotion and piety will reach Him.”
The death of the Prophet Mohammed put flesh-eating in its proper perspective. It is said a non-Muslim woman invited Mohammed and his companions to a meal and served them poisoned meat. By the gift of prophecy, Mohammed knew the flesh was poisoned. He alone ate it, and ordered his companions not to do so.
Although Mohammed was not in the habit of eating foods prepared by non-Muslims, on this occasion he did. Struck down by the poisoned meat, he was ill for nearly two years before dying in 632 AD. Some scholars believe Mohammed deliberately ate the poisoned meat to teach his followers the moral wrong of flesh-eating, recalling passages from the biblical Book of Numbers (11:4-34).
The traditional understanding of the Islamic dietary laws is that Muslims are meant to eat wholesome foods. The Koran (surah 7, verse 157) teaches that “He [Mohammed] makes lawful to them the good things of life and he forbids them the bad things.” Al-Ghazzali (1058-1111), one of Islam’s most distinguished philosophers, wrote in his book Ihya Ulum ul-Din: “Eating the meat of a cow causes disease (‘marz’), its milk is health (‘safa’) and its clarified butter (‘ghee’) is medicine (‘dava’). Compassionate eating leads to compassionate living.” Islamic compassion should extend to animals.
Rabi’a al Adawiyya was born in 717 AD in Basra, in what is now known as Iraq. During childhood, her parents died, and she was sold into slavery. Rabi’a was a Sufi, a member of a mystical sect that preaches total love of God and total union with Him. After her release from slavery, she went to the desert for prayer and meditation. She returned to Basra, leading a life of voluntary poverty and simplicity. She refused gifts of money and riches as well as many offers of marriage. Her life was marked by acts of kindness towards humans and animals alike. When she was in the mountains, the animals gathered around her: deer, gazelles, mountain goats, and wild donkeys. In her presence, they were trusting and fearless.
Once, when another Sufi teacher, Hasan-al-Basri approached her, the animals ran away. He asked her why the animals gathered around her, but ran from him. Rabi’a responded by asking him what he had eaten. “Onions fried in fat,” he replied. “You eat their fat!” exclaimed Rabi’a. “Why should they not flee from you?”
“Share thy water with the early birds
For this is a worthwhile deed
The birds do no harm nor sin
But beware and fear thy kind.
“Freeing an insect is kinder
Than giving money to the needy
There is no difference between releasing
The deformed black creature,
And the black prince of Kinda,
Ready to be crowned.
“Both deserve living, for their lives are precious
And seeking to live is a continual struggle.”
These are the teachings of Abu l’Ala, a blind poet, born in Syria in 973 AD. He originally planned to live as a vegetarian ascetic, but his fame spread, and disciples and students all came to him. He was surrounded by people who wanted to learn from him. He used his eloquence with words to speak on behalf of the oppressed.
Abu l’Ala called for religious equality, urging Jews, Christians and Muslims to respect one another’s faiths and to act with good will towards one another. He opposed tyranny, and taught that rulers and princes are servants of the people.
“My heart bleeds for the cruelty toward The poor burro, who stubbornly endures But also gets whipped for resting because of the excessive burden on his back.”
Abu l’Ala was a vegetarian out of compassion for animals. “Neither eat the sea creatures,” he taught, “for this is cruel. Nor seek nor desire thy food from the painful slaughtering of animals.” Abu l’Ala also objected to the use of fur, leather, milk, honey and eggs, because they involve abusing or taking things from animals.
The Koran teaches compassion and mercy. Each of its 114 chapters, except one, begin, “Allah is merciful and compassionate.” The name of God used most often in the Koran is “al-Rahim,” which means “the All-Compassionate.” Mohammed taught love and respect for nature, compassion for animals and condemned the needless suffering and death of other living creatures. Vegetarianism and animal rights are consistent with Islam.