The Dilemma of Being a Muslim Vegetarian on Eid al-Ad’ha

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This past May I wrote an article that garnered quite the storm from a good number of Muslims. The Halal Bubble and the Sunnah Imperative to Go Vegan was a treatise in which I went through relevant references from the Quran and Sunnah regarding what features a diet built on a foundation of Islamic ethics would look like based on our current context. A number of references and various figures were cited from official sources that provide a grim picture. Aside from the odd observation that whenever the subject of halal eating comes up it seems to always revolve around meat and nothing else, the main points of the article were:

  1. Eating has a metaphysical dimension and a spiritual impact that is often neglected;
  2. The Muslim diet as it stands today is far removed from Prophetic practice; and
  3. Our addiction to animal products is damaging the planet and its natural balance and directly causing the abuse of animals in ways the Quran prohibited and the Prophet ﷺ explicitly cursed those who engage in them.

Without fail, some claimed the article was a fatwa and I received numerous inquiries about supposed points I never made in it. So I found myself writing a follow up article and even recording it as a podcast episode for those who prefer to listen. I still see facile replies from time to time, the worst of which are ones attempting to “expose the other side” and show how being vegetarian/vegan also has negative ethical implications. Notwithstanding the fact that these responses lack any hard data and expose a level of ignorance about what constitutes a plant-based diet (the claim that most of the protein in it comes from nuts like almond comes to mind), they also operate on the presumption that unless you can propose a solution that is 100% without its shortcomings, we must continue in our wayward eating habits. As if that is how the world should work. Not to mention the defeatist attitude some Muslims have in which they project their lack of resolve to effect change (i.e., to be sure you’re not causing harm go live in a mountain) onto the religion as a whole to justify their continuous gluttony.

What is most striking to me is the zeal with which some Muslims defend the consumption of animal products. An outside observer reading them may rightly assume that it is borderline obligatory for a Muslim to consume meat, eggs, and dairy. Which brings me to what this article is about: what does a Muslim vegetarian/vegan do on Eid al-Ad’ha?

Before addressing this issue I would like to reiterate a point made in my second article on this topic:

the culturally acknowledged belief system of veganism…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.”

From an Islamic perspective, being vegan is not because we have an ethical problem with killing animals and consuming their products. It is a context-based driven decision. This is why the title of the first article called it a “Sunnah Imperative”. Aside from pointing out that regardless of context Muslims must reduce meat consumption quite significantly, potentially to at most once a week but closer to once every month or couple of months if we want to eat meat in a Sunnah-based frequency, our seeking of animal products should be a conscious one. Once again, you can go back to the first and second articles to see what this means and why for most of us we may find ourselves following a vegan diet if we would like our eating habits to adhere to an Islamic ethics-based worldview.

So when it comes to Eid al-Ad’ha, the question should not come from a place of not wanting to participate in this very significant event where we commemorate the greatest act of sacrifice by our father Abraham peace be upon him. Rather, it should be about seeking consistency with Islamic teachings as a synthesized whole. This is not about eating meat or not. It is about staying true to what God has commanded and our Beloved ﷺ had practiced.

Having said this, it should be emphasized that despite being an important religious rite, sacrificing an animal on Eid al-Ad’ha is not an obligation according to most Muslim jurists. It is a highly encouraged Sunnah, and scholars who were of the opinion it was obligatory said so due to some very strongly worded Hadiths regarding it, such as the one in which the Beloved ﷺ is reported to have said, “Whoever has the financial means and does not sacrifice, they should not come close to our mosque (i.e. to pray the Eid prayer).” Another Hadith states that the Beloved ﷺ is reported to have said, “The Son of Adam does not do any action on the day of slaughter more beloved to God than to spill the blood (of his sacrificial animal).

This begs the question, with Hadiths like these, why did most of the scholars not consider sacrificing an animal an obligation? The answer to this can be found in the works of the Andalusian Maliki scholar Abu Is’haq al-Shatibi (720-790 A.H./1320-1388 A.D.), who is primarily known in the circles of Islamic learning for two major books that stand on their own in their respective fields. The first is al-Muwafaqaat fi Usool al-Sharia where he dealt with the topic of the higher objectives of Islamic law. The second book, where he constantly refers the reader to his al-Muafaqaat, is al-I’itisam, which is a text dealing in very extensive detail with the subject of religious innovations.

In the second volume of al-I’itisam is a chapter on what constitutes a real innovation, which is condemned in Islam, and what has been called by other scholars, including al-Qarafi and ibn Abdul-Salam, as an additional or praiseworthy innovation, which al-Shatibi contests calling it as such because it refers to practices derived based on an acceptable interpretation of the Quran and Sunnah using the proper linguistic and legal tools for doing so. Towards the end of the chapter is a subheading titled “The Wisdom Behind Abu Bakr [As-Sideeq], Umar [ibn al-Khataab], and [Abdullah] ibn Masoud Leaving the Sacrifice on the Day of al-Ad’ha”. Al-Shatibi relates in this section:

And Hudhayfa ibn Usayd said: I lived during the time of Abu Bakr and Umar (may God be pleased with them), and they did not sacrifice out of fear that people would believe it was obligatory.

The same has been related about Abu Masoud (may God be pleased with him), who said: Verily, I leave sacrificing, even though I am one of the most financially fortunate amongst you, out of fear that my neighbors may assume it was obligatory. 

And there is much like this related about the righteous predecessors.

It is worthy to note that al-Shatibi also related this earlier in his al-Muafaqaat but also included Bilal ibn Rabah RA, Abdullah ibn Abbas RA, and Abu Ayub al-Ansari RA. That is a lot of major companions, including rightly guided caliphs, opting not to sacrifice an animal on Eid al-Ad’ha out of fear that Muslims would mistakenly believe it was an obligation. Sadly, if we ponder on how this issue is discussed and preached about on the pulpit today, their fears have been realized. One would be hard pressed to leave a Friday sermon or a lesson at the mosque about Eid al-Ad’ha without being absolutely convinced they must sacrifice an animal on this day after they finish the Eid prayer or they would be sinning for not doing so if they were able.

The religious justifications to satisfy our addiction to meat are tiresome. A primary purpose of the sacrifice is to feed the poor and the needy. For those of us who follow a vegetarian/vegan diet, but want to fulfill God’s command and participate in this major Sunnah of sacrificing on Eid al-Ad’ha, we can look for Muslim-led agencies where we can direct our funds to have an animal sacrificed and its meat distributed among those who rarely get access to this luxury food item. In doing so we would be active ethical agents of positive change in the world and following in the footsteps of our Beloved ﷺ and his Companions may God be pleased with them.