This is episode 14 of Mohamed Ghilan’s podcast with yours truly as your host. I really do appreciate you listening and if you haven’t subscribed yet I invite you to do so. It really does go along way in helping improve the ranking of this podcast. Also, I started turning my attention to my YouTube channel and will now regularly upload content there, so please check it out and subscribe. If you’re viewing this podcast on YouTube please like this video, comment below and share it on your social media if you find what you hear beneficial and informative. And please don’t forget to subscribe to the channel if you haven’t already. My attempts to grow this channel on YouTube will be worthless without your support through liking, sharing, commenting, and subscribing. For the podcast audience, I would be grateful if you could go to iTunes to rate and review the podcast. These platforms and how far and wide uploads go are really dependent on you doing these small things to show your support.
For this week’s episode what I would like to do is provide some commentary on an article I published this past May in Al-Madina Institute’s ImanWire blog titled “The Halal Bubble and the Sunnah Imperative to Go Vegan”. If you haven’t read the article I suggest you pause this episode and read the article first or if you prefer an audio version you can listen to episode 13. I will not go through the detailed arguments as I laid them out in the article in this episode. Rather, I’m going to present the reasoning process and the general themes around which the article took shape, beginning with the title.
The title of the article is “The Halal Bubble and the Sunnah Imperative to Go Vegan”. The use of the word “Vegan” was a topic of discussion during the editing process. It’s a provocative and sometimes even polarizing term. Think about it from a general social setting perspective. Dr. Melanie Joy, who I cited in the article, noted this in her 2010 book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, where she says,
“Most of us realize that vegetarianism is an expression of one’s ethical orientation, so when we think of a vegetarian, we don’t simply think of a person who’s just like everyone else except that he or she doesn’t eat meat. We think of a person who has a certain philosophical outlook, whose choice not to eat meat is a reflection of a deeper belief system.”
The belief system Dr. Joy refers to here is one in which killing animals for human ends is considered unethical. This is the point at which many Muslims who saw the title probably reacted negatively. There’s always a fine line between choosing a title to intrigue a reader enough to go through the article, and having a title so provocative that the reader ends up projecting their own negative emotions and biases to an extent that may either dissuade them from reading the article, or if they do read it they end up reading their own preconceived notions into it as opposed to what the writer actually said. For this reason one of the suggestions for the title of the article was to exchange the phrase “eating ethically” for the word “vegan”. I rejected this because I see this as a redundancy. If one were truly following the Sunnah they would necessarily be eating ethically. Moreover, the conclusion that stubbornly imposed itself towards the end of the article after going through all the arguments was that for veganism. However, it was not based on the culturally acknowledged belief system of veganism as articulated by Dr. Joy in which the reason a Muslim would go vegan is because killing animals for human ends is unethical. Such a belief system, of course, goes in opposition to a number of verses in the Quran in which it states that God had provided certain types of animals for humans to gain benefit from, including their meat, fur, and milk. This is not to mention that the Beloved ﷺ ate meat, which would mean that if we accept the claim that killing animals for human ends is unethical in principal, it necessarily entails us accusing the Quran of being unethical for allowing the sacrifice of animals, and accusing the Beloved ﷺ of behaving unethically by consuming animal products. I don’t think I need to spell out how problematic this view is if one wants to remain a Muslim.
If we consider the ethical basis used by non-Muslim vegans who are actively working to raise awareness to “convert” people to veganism, it would seem fair to say that it’s ultimately rooted in sentimentality. In other words, it’s a subjective morality based on an appeal to emotions. This is evident in the videos and documentaries shared by vegans to expose how the animal products industry operates, which are inevitably bound to generate a negative visceral reaction. Indeed, many vegans who share their “conversion stories” more often than not attribute their awakenings to these documentaries. For any non-Muslim vegans listening to this, I don’t mean to be dismissive here. The culturally popularized veganism does make use of rational arguments regarding the consequences of consuming animal products. They do. But the whole platform is not founded upon a transcendent ethical system. Whether it’s about the health benefits of going vegan, the environmental sustainability of such a dietary lifestyle, or the lives of animals, when one seeks a transcendent justification that goes beyond benefitting ourselves in the long run, they are left wanting. The most we can say about the philosophical basis of popular veganism is that it’s a utilitarian one.
Given such a position based on sentimentality, it becomes a matter of which emotions are more persuasive to convince an individual to change their eating habits. An example of this playing out can be seen in the popular fitness YouTube channel run by the Hodge Twins. The twins released a video on November 29th, 2015 titled “We Are Officially Vegetarians”. By March 11th, 2016 they released another video titled “We Are No Longer Vegetarians”. What’s incredible is they explicitly stated that their motivation was rooted in emotions despite superficially calling it “moral”. As they put it, their choice to go become vegetarian “was an emotional response to an emotional video.” Their reason for giving it up 3 months later was due to them having another negative emotional response from the changes they saw taking place to their muscle and fat composition, which they didn’t approve of especially since as they put it, their bodies are their brand. The fact that they didn’t adjust their diet accordingly and that vegan bodybuilders are able to maintain muscle and lose body fat is irrelevant here. What the Hodge Twins provide us is an example of how feeble a moral system rooted in emotions can be. They freaked out after a couple of months when they perceived a threat to their brand. Hence, that was the end to their short stint with vegetarianism. Interestingly, they not only went back to eating meat – they now release videos of eating challenges where they take eating meat to a new level they weren’t at before.
If the popular notion of veganism is rooted in the ethics of sentimentality and lacks a transcendent source to ground itself in, and if the Quran and the Beloved PBUH clearly show that eating meat is not unethical in principal, how can one make a claim that there’s a “Sunnah Imperative to Go Vegan”? Before getting into this I would like to clarify first what the article was NOT. It was NOT a fatwa against consuming animal products. It was NOT an attempt to make impermissible what God has made permissible. It also was NOT a call towards a type of innovated monkhood. I cannot stress enough these points because in the minds of some who associate themselves with circles of Islamic learning they have grossly misunderstood this, which I believe is not due to ill will but rather an intellectual conditioning one gains from studying Islam solely through a legal lens. I addressed this point at the beginning of the article and I invite you to review the first section of it for further elaboration.
The article was an attempt at taking Islam not simply as a religion, but also as an ethical system derived from the Quran and Sunnah, to examine our place and behaviour in the world, as we exist in it today. One of the things that make some Muslims nervous is the call to acknowledge that we live in a different world than the one of 1400 years ago, with different realities that impose themselves upon the life of the believer in a way if left unacknowledged may lead to a crisis of faith stemming from the question: if Islam is indeed valid for all time and place as we are constantly told by our teachers and preachers, then why does it feel incapable of dealing with our modern world? Some may respond by blaming modernity as being in its essence incompatible with Islam, and therefore it is really upon us Muslims to put our head down and persevere with applying our religious teachings to the extent that we can. A consequence of this approach is a feeling of guilt for being born into the wrong era that could even develop into despair as the believer tries to reconcile Islam with the modern world. But this does not need to be the case. Indeed, the Quran and Sunnah are not and should not be limited to being legal manuals declaring a code of what to do and what not to do during a believer’s life. They are a living Revelation that was witnessed in action in the person of the Beloved ﷺ and their transformative impact can be seen in the lives of the Companions and all those who followed them. Behaving in accordance with the teachings and commands of the Quran and Sunnah should translate into not only a change in how one engages the world, but also how one initiates their engagement with the world. It is not a matter of passively applying a set of instructions as if the Quran is a manual. In fact, this is why I dislike the analogy used by some Muslim apologists that compares the Quran to life as a manual to a car. While the commandments and prohibitions form the indispensible base of the Sharia, the believer’s life and perception of creation should be guided be a Quranic and Prophetic lens.
The term Sunnah can often be abused. It can serve as a way for us to give a veneer of piousness to what are at their core just our personal preferences. For example, an individual can naturally be averse to eating garlic, but then claim he or she does not eat garlic because the Beloved ﷺ didn’t eat garlic. The question to ask here is, “If you knew the Prophet ﷺ ate garlic, and you hate garlic, would you eat it then?” I ask this because this was a point brought up in response to the article. The most common response I saw to linking veganism with the term Sunnah as I did is that Al Habeeb ﷺ loved the shoulder meat from sheep. Aside from the fact that such a response only exposes the one making it for not having read the article, the question that should be asked is whether we are using the Beloved ﷺ to justify our eating habits. It’s one thing to state that Al Habeeb PBUH loved shoulder meat from sheep. But it’s a whole other thing to address how frequently he consumed it. I included in the article relevant Hadiths on Al Habeeb ﷺ’s eating habits, and for the brothers and sisters who were so quick to point out that he ﷺ loved shoulder meat from sheep I have to ask a question: given that part of Al Habeeb ﷺ’s diet was to sometimes not have meat for weeks at a time, and this was done deliberately on his part as Lady Aisha RA stated, when was the last time you could say you haven’t had meat for a few weeks? In fact, most of us have meat not once, but at least twice per day on a regular basis. If we were really trying to champion the Sunnah in our diets, we wouldn’t selectively quote Hadiths about what type of meat the Beloved ﷺ loved most. Rather than abusing the Sunnah to justify our gluttony, we would use the Sunnah and fast Mondays and Thursdays; we would deliberately go hungry sometimes without needing to; we would eat only few morsels of food to keep our backs straight; and we would at the very least be following a semi-vegetarian diet where we abstain from consuming meat for a few weeks at a time. This right here is the bare minimum application of the Sunnah, where we concern ourselves with only ourselves, and not take into account the interconnectedness of the world in which we find ourselves living in.
But here’s the rub. Before the industrial revolution and the rise of modern cities, people lived organically as part of nature. There was an innate understanding and maintenance of balance. There was no production and distribution of food at industrial levels and a systematic hiding of how it impacts the Earth. To quote from David Suzuki’s 1999 book The Sacred Balance, which I cite in the article, “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.”
The thing about being a Muslim is that our very acts of worship through which we connect with our Lord we must first gain a connection with nature. To pray, we either have to perform the ritual washing or if no water is available we pat the natural Earth. Movement of the Sun and changes in the shadow lengths determine our times of prayer. Ramadan, Hajj, and the two Eids are determined by births of the new crescent in our lunar calendar. In fact, the very way we learn about God’s majesty, power, knowledge, and many of His attributes is through their manifestations in nature. And all those things are mentioned in the Quran as signs for those who have insight and understanding. Even in the Beloved ﷺ’s life we have reports of him being greeted by rocks as he passed by them in Mecca before he received the Message. Nature was recognizing Al Habeeb ﷺ before he even knew who he was. So it is the ultimate sign of total heedlessness to not be concerned with how our way of life may be disrupting the balance that the Merciful has set on Earth, and to not seek to restore it once we learn we have upset it.
I referred to Imam Ash-Shauokani in the article with regards to how I defined Sunnah. By limiting our understanding to concrete isolated actionable items attributed to the Beloved ﷺ we have unfortunately impoverished it. Just as in the realm of Maqasid Ash-Sharia where our scholars have taken general themes and objectives of the Sharia to derive rulings that address new circumstances, we must also in our conduct do the same with the Sunnah of the Beloved ﷺ. That’s what I meant when I said, “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?’” This does not mean we claim that Al Habeeb ﷺ was a vegan. What it means is that given what is now readily available information about how the animal products industry functions, combined with verses in the Quran regarding our place in nature and the level of eating and drinking we’re commanded to remain within, as well as the Beloved ﷺ’s eating habits and his deep concern for animals, can we sincerely and with a straight face say that Al Habeeb ﷺ would consume such food? Can we with a straight face say that Al Habeeb ﷺ would be OK eating eggs produced by hens that were abused and mutilated and at the end of their lives starved to force one final round of egg production? Can we honestly claim that Al Habeeb ﷺ would drink milk, and eat cheese and butter that came from cows that had their lives cut from 20 years to 5 years from the strain they had to endure to be milked 10 months out of the 12 months of the year? Can we seriously say that Al Habeeb ﷺ would eat fish knowing that close to 80% of it in the ocean is depleted, and that for every pound caught there were 20 pounds of other sea creatures that died as “bykill”? Not to mention that men who were kidnapped and enslaved to work 20-hour shifts potentially caught this fish off the coasts of Indonesia.
What I did in the article goes beyond simply citing numbers and referring to official reports. I wasn’t interested in getting an emotional reaction and then encouraging Muslims to go vegan. The article was an active engagement with the world, looking at how it is as it stands today through the lens of the Quran and Sunnah. It was an attempt at taking the mantle as the stewards we were created to be, and a playing out of the role of witnesses as we were commanded to be. When I as a Muslim point at a behaviour and say, “This is wrong!” I don’t do so out of my own whims. I don’t recite the Quran on a daily basis only for the sake of reciting it. It is adh-Dhikr al-Hakeem, a wise remembrance. As Muslims, we should be guiding our behaviour and our judgments based on the Quran and Sunnah. That means we don’t stop at the first level of this mansion, simply looking at isolated items and applying them. We must also take the stairs to the top levels, synthesizing everything together to see how the whole palace is built.
A final thing I wanted to address is with regards to a comment I saw come up about the rise of veganism being a reason why such an issue would take an Islamic face. This comment was made to dismiss the article as a mere Islamicization of veganism. Such a comment can only come from someone who will miss a lot of benefit in his or her life. Al Habeeb ﷺ said, “Wisdom is the lost property of the believer – where he or she finds it, they have more right to it.” I think it’s sad that we as Muslims have not led the way in the rise of veganism as a movement in response to the immense negative impact current livestock, chicken, and fishing industry practices have on the planet and on us. Nevertheless, as the Beloved ﷺ said, wisdom is the lost property of the believer. While we may differ on the philosophical and metaphysical foundations that popular veganism rests upon, the conclusion is similar. Furthermore, Al Habeeb ﷺ gave a parable in which he said his example is like that of a people passing by a beautiful palace and commenting on great it was except for that it needed a brick to complete it – he ﷺ was that final brick at the end of a line of Prophets and Messengers. Islam, as I understand it and believe in it, has an ethical framework that can guide us in any context. It is not a static system that operates in a vacuum. The fact is, those of us who live in cities where food derived from animal products is provided through industrial practices as I expounded upon them in the article, are in a context unlike the organic and nature-connected one that Al Habeeb PBUH was living in. That doesn’t mean we restrict his Sunnah as actions that can only be followed by contributing to these evil practices. The Hadiths I cited, all of which come from authentic sources, give us confidence to answer the question, “What would the Habeeb ﷺ do if he was physically living in my city with regards to food? What diet would he follow” I don’t think I have to spell it out at this point.
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