In a July 2014 article entitled “Halal or Horrendous? Meat in the Muslim Community”, Imam Khalid Latif of the Islamic Center of New York shared his personal and professional experience with the halal meat industry. Before collaborating to start his own all-natural, free-range, halal meat store in Manhattan, he visited farmers and butchers who rear and slaughter animals that are bought and sold as halal meat. What he witnessed firsthand consistently undermined and ignored the Islamic ethics of humane animal rearing and slaughter. He acknowledged the varied interpretations of what defines ‘halal’ meat but saw practices and circumstances that were unequivocally unacceptable.
One butcher that we interviewed told us that he used to work at a place that would marinate pork and sell it as veal. We walked through fridges and freezers that had buckets of blood and heads of slaughtered animal scattered throughout the floor…
We walked through slaughter facilities where chickens were pecking away at carcasses of dead chickens, sometimes eating even their own excrement… They were literally given no room to move around and some were just piled on top of each other in cages or locked away in cold, dark buildings in cramped pens. There was no concern for them because they were seen only as a product, and not something that actually had life. I am not sure if you realize it, but there’s a good chance that the cow you eat doesn’t eat grass or walk around on grass. That should bother you.
Observations such as Imam Khalid’s substantiate why the halal meat industry is under such great scrutiny. Throughout North America, the Caribbean and Europe, independent organizations are calling halal certification practices into question. In the Arab Gulf, Brazilian halal meat has flooded the local market and local consumers are left wondering how and when halal slaughter was left to hands that may not even be Muslim. Some communities and scholars single out specific brands to boycott or certification bodies to be wary of. This kind of scrupulousness is warranted in an era where most consumers are completely divorced from their food sources and circumstances.
In Muslim-minority countries, halal meat must follow national legislature which can be at odds with Islamic law. In many European countries, animals must be stunned by electric shock or gas inhalation before slaughter. In Brazil, there have been reports of cows receiving sharp blows to the head, rendering them unconscious before slaughter or chickens immediately submerged in boiling water before their death is pronounced. Even in Muslim-majority countries, public slaughters have been broadcasted as a sport on YouTube, with crowds cheering at the sight of severed animal heads or blood-drenched garments. As an industry, the sanctity of halal slaughter has been compromised. Therefore, it is no surprise that a community of Muslims surveyed by Imam Khalid admitted that the lack of reliable, quality halal meat has pushed them to abandon halal-certified meat totally, opt for kosher instead, or turn to vegetarianism.
The vegetarian Muslim has much to their advantage. Their diet is plant-based, so there are no concerns of unlawful slaughtering practices. They can freely eat most non-animal foods with religious inquiries limited to the consumption of alcohol. It certainly goads the vegetarian’s cause to know that their diet is directly correlated to a lower environmental impact. Reduced carbon emissions, water consumption, and land use amount to clearer air, more land devoted to agriculture, and cleaner waterways. These principles of environmental stewardship and water conservation are implicit to Islamic principles. Aside from environmental health, vegetarianism is linked to lower incidences of heart disease, obesity, cancer, hypertension, and diabetes. In the past, vegetarianism was an indicator of poverty or Eastern asceticism but now its popularity has reached all corners and philosophies of the global world.
An internet search for vegetarian Muslims shows articles that address the permissibility of vegetarianism in Islam, interviews with a handful of vegetarian Muslims, and various online forums and groups dedicated to vegan and vegetarian Muslims. Ranging between hundreds and thousands of members, there is a growing population of Muslims who identify as vegan or vegetarian. To understand what motivates them to become vegan or vegetarian and how they reconcile their diet and faith, I circulated a survey in various English-medium groups. I received about 100 responses from all over the world, most of which hailed from North America, the United Kingdom, Morocco, India, and Singapore. Their responses show in what ways they are like any other vegan or vegetarian but also how their practice of Islam sets them apart.
Most of the vegetarian Muslims surveyed were women between the ages of 18 and 29, who were raised Muslim but not raised vegetarian. Their main motivations for adopting a plant-based diet were compassion for animals, environmental concerns, health reasons, and personal preference. Out of 88 responses, only seven cited a lack of affordable and reliable halal meat as a motive. The majority of them described meat consumption as conditionally unethical depending on the circumstances of animal rearing and slaughter. Their critique of the halal meat industry is evident in their own words.
“First, that it is not ‘haram’ to choose a meatless diet. Second there’s more to halal meat than the slaughter process.”
“You don’t have to ‘go veg’ to recognize the implications of mass producing meat.”
“Halal meat isn’t really halal unless it is raised ethically. End of story.”
“The general Muslim community should be educated of the cruelty of the meat industry and its effect on the environment and realize that it’s our responsibility to protect all of Allah’s creations”
“Does the producer fully conform to the halal requirements? We cannot be ignorant as this is our responsibility to ourselves and our community at large.”
Regardless of the certainty that vegetarian Muslims feel about their diet’s religious, environmental, and social security, their dietary preference is not always welcomed in the mosque or at home. Of the 88 survey participants, 44% experienced negative reactions to their diets from their family members. Most experienced varied responses from their local mosque or Muslim community but 13% reported being insulted or demeaned. Unfortunately, 20% reported that their community’s response negatively affected their participation in the mosque. 52% reported not having vegetarian-friendly dining options at their mosque during Ramadan and 31% said this lack of accommodation negatively impacted their attendance.
With all of the complexities surrounding the food we eat, our mosques need not be veggie-phobic. The very black and white definitions of halal and haraam are turning ten shades of gray right before our eyes. Just as the vegetarian Muslim has no place to absolutely condemn what Allah makes permissible, the non-vegetarian Muslim should similarly be slow to judge what’s on another’s plate. Between conscious halal consumption and vegetarianism, there is a nexus where our community can champion the cause of animal rights and become vocal advocates for consumer transparency. With more than enough schisms to fragment our community, there should be one place where we can sit in peace—the dining table.
This article was originally published in SISTERS magazine, Issue 76, November 2017.