Aroosa Mahmood, Shahzad Ahmad & Amtul Razzaq Carmichael
Veganism and vegetarianism have become increasingly popular in modern society with their world population increasing to 8% in 2018. In the UK, 42% of people made the change to a plant-based diet in 2018 and it is predicted that 25% of the UK population will be vegan or vegetarian by 2025.  This change can be attributed to a heightened awareness and a steady increase in the availability of alternatives to meat in the developed countries of the west. In some countries such as Nigeria, veganism is on the rise, but not through choice. The scarcity of food and lack of affordability have made it nearly impossible for some people to eat meat and dairy products . The adoption of the vegan and vegetarian diet by elite athletes and professional trainers has led to a powerful media presence. Documentaries such as ‘The Game Changers’ (2018) have showcased the health benefits of following a plant-based diet. Currently, the wisdom of meat consumption is being questioned based on moral and ethical considerations. Controversies of meat consumption include ethics of killing animals for human consumption, added nutritional value of animal sourced-food, health risks associated with eating meat and the practical implications of a total meat free diet. In this article, we will investigate the role of meat in a healthy and balanced diet from an Islamic perspective.
Islamic Philosophy of Food Consumption
Muslims believe that everything in this universe is created by God Almighty. Human beings are placed in this world with a purpose to strive and become the best versions of themselves. To become the best versions of ourselves, we need to hone our physical, spiritual, intellectual, moral and social faculties and skills. To help us maximise these faculties, God has provided us with various resources. One of these resources is our physical body, which is required to undertake the acts of righteousness and good deeds for our spiritual and moral progress. To look after and enhance this precious resource (the human body), Islam provides a comprehensive guidance system. Food is one of the most important provisions for the survival and health of the human body. The Islamic system of guidance encourages human beings to consume food that is beneficial for their development and prohibits them from eating food that can be detrimental to their physical, moral and spiritual health.
The major Islamic philosophy encompassing all human activities is “to adopt the middle path”. The Holy Qur’an says, ‘And thus have We made you a moderate nation…’ . This means that Muslims are advised to avoid extremes of any kind and to adopt the middle path. For the consumption of food, the Islamic teachings are based on the same principle, i.e. when making choices about food, avoid all extremes, take the middle path, and practise moderation in consuming all plant and non-plant-based foods. The Holy Qur’an says, ‘eat and drink, but do not be immoderate’ . Excess of any one type of food is prohibited. Muslims are commanded to balance their food intake of animal and plant sources depending upon their physical needs, environmental obligations, and personal choice; God does not prohibit us from making use of any valuable resource .
Allah the Exalted says, ‘O ye Messengers, eat of the things that are pure, and do good works…’ . There is a deep and profound connection between pure and wholesome food and moral standing of a person. An old English adage says, ‘you are what you eat.’ The Islamic standpoint is that the use of pure and wholesome food leads to enhanced physical and mental health, which is required to perform good and righteous deeds and in turn leads to spiritual progress. The basic Islamic principle is that the moral-being takes precedence over the physical-being, meaning that the objective of physical development is to progress in morality. So for a believer, an everyday act of life – as simple as eating food – serves as a reminder to reflect on the purpose of life, the existence of God and to make spiritual progress. The core of the Islamic concept of food consumption is that food exerts a powerful influence on man’s morals and hence food should be sourced from permissible sources, and should be wholesome in its origin, preparation and consumption.
Why are Muslims Permitted to Eat Meat?
The Islamic philosophy of eating meat should be viewed in conjunction with the concept of the divine attribute of Razzaq [the Ultimate Provider]: ‘Surely, it is Allah Himself, Who is the Great Provider, the Powerful, the Strong’ . Allah the Almighty is the Ultimate Provider and He has created everything, such as countless celestial bodies, vegetation, natural forces, and indeed animals for the service of mankind. So, the flesh of the animal is viewed as a favour and blessing that God has provided for the nourishment of mankind: ‘Allah is He Who has made cattle for you, that you may ride on some of them, and eat of some of them’ . Islam promotes consumption of meat with other non-animal food products as a part of a balanced and healthy diet. To develop different faculties, various forms of foods such as vegetables, minerals and meat are needed: ‘Eat of the good things We have provided for you‘ . This verse eloquently illustrates the fact that Allah has created both plant-based and non-plant-based foods for the benefit of mankind.
It is important to appreciate certain fundamental Islamic principles when trying to understand why Muslims are permitted to eat meat . Man is regarded as the best of Allah’s creations, as the Holy Qur’an says,‘Surely, We have created man in the best make’ . For a valid reason, an inferior life form can be sacrificed for the collective and the greater good of the superior life. This concept is in keeping with the teachings elucidated in the Holy Qur’an. For example, an incidence of the imminent sacrifice by the arch-prophet Abraham (as) of his son Ishmael (as) is explained in detail in Chapter 37, verses 103-105 of the Holy Qur’an, which establish the principle that the life of humans should be spared and supported by the life of an animal.
Is Eating Meat Animal Cruelty?
It is argued that killing an animal for the sake of food consumption is akin to animal cruelty. However, Islam does not support this view. The flesh of an animal is viewed as a blessing of God for the sustenance of mankind, leading to their collective survival and moral development. Using meat to sustain human life and health is no different from applying antiseptic to kill microorganisms and preventing wound infections. It would be a folly not to use antiseptic to kill bugs, as the alternative will be to get killed by overwhelming sepsis. In the same way, using a wide variety of foods, including meat, to survive and sustain human life is a justifiable way of utilising God’s blessings and cannot be regarded as cruelty.
All Abrahamic faiths view the slaughter of an animal as an act of sacrifice to ensure the survival and health of human beings collectively, and not as murder. God is omnibenevolent, therefore He would never instruct His people to murder and this is conveyed throughout the Qur’anic teachings too: ‘And do not kill one another, for God is indeed merciful unto you‘ . Islam strongly discourages any form of bloodshed that cannot be ethically and legally justified. Muslims are not allowed to kill animals for recreational or sport purposes. Muslims are only allowed to kill animals for a justifiable purpose, such as for food consumption, self-protection or to protect land and crops. The Holy Prophet (sa) stated, “The first cases to be decided among the people on the day of judgement will be those of bloodshed” . The Holy Prophet (sa) said, “Whoever kills a sparrow or anything bigger than that without a just cause, God will hold him accountable on the Day of Judgment” .
Whilst killing animals without justification is not permitted, it is deemed necessary to sacrifice animals for the survival and the greater good of humanity. Let us consider the fact that drinking water has millions of microorganisms in it. All of us drink water many times a day, without ever giving a second thought about killing these living beings. Hazrat Mirza Bashir Ahmad (ra), a great scholar of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, explained that the act of drinking water causes an inferior life form to be sacrificed for rehydration and the collective survival of humanity . By drinking water, we sacrifice the lives of millions of microorganisms for our survival. Eating meat obtained from cattle, water-world, or birds to sustain and maintain human health follows the same principle. Compromising human life and health to save the life of an animal is not mercy, it is imprudence.
Does Islam Provide Ethical Guidance About Eating Meat?
There are two main ethical principles guiding the consumption of meat. These are to eat in moderation and only consume meat from permissible and wholesome sources (Tayyab).
The principle of moderation is predominant over all aspects of Muslim lifestyle. Muslims are commanded that it is immoral to abuse the right to eat meat by being greedy and excessively overindulgent. The Holy Qur’an rules: ‘eat and drink but do not be immoderate‘ . Muslims are permitted to incorporate meat into their diet, but the overarching principle remains that of moderation. Any meat consumption should be moderate and based on humility and gratitude. To express gratitude, Muslims are encouraged to share one third of the animal as a donation when a lamb, sheep or cow are sacrificed for a celebration. By this process, Islam promotes moderation and strongly discourages overconsumption. Overconsumption of meat is the main source of unethical over-farming practices driven by the demand of cheap processed meat in plentiful quantities. In the same way, completely refraining from animal products is not only against the spirit of moderation, it is also against the spirit of Qur’anic teachings. Completely refraining from meat makes it essential to take nutritional supplements, which is like forsaking a superior form of the blessing of God, for an inferior choice .
The other important moral principle of meat consumption in Islam is that of Tayyab, which translates as pure and wholesome. Sacrificing animals for the purpose of food serves as a reminder to Muslims to remain grateful to Allah the Exalted for all blessings. Islam only permits the meat of certain land animals, all sea animals, and many birds. Muslims are enjoined to exercise their right of individual judgment and be judicious when deciding to or not to consume even permissible food. For this, the guiding Islamic principle is that the greater good of the community takes precedence over individual privileges. This principle dictates that meat production for consumption of individuals should not lead to harm of the wider community, national interests, or the environment. For example, technically horses and donkeys are halal forms of meat, but the Holy Prophet (sa) forbade eating them. This is because these animals served as essential modes of transport, travel and warfare. Therefore, consuming these animals would have left the nation short of an important resource to fulfil these needs. This is a great example of exercising one’s judgement, liberty, and freedom of choice to make sensible and economically apt decisions about food and meat consumption. Certain birds like sparrows and parrots are more likely to be admired for their beauty and though permissible are not wholesome for meat consumption.
The concept of Tayyab also entails that the meat is produced by rearing animals in an environmentally-friendly way, while treating animals with compassion from birth to the point of sacrifice. Intensive farming practices, battery animal husbandry and procedures against animal welfare, are all contrary to the principle of Tayyab.
Another aspect of the principle of Tayyab meat includes eating meat that will not lead to any social unrest or controversy. The Holy Prophet (sa) said, “Those foods which are against the traditions of Arab society are deemed unsuitable.” The Promised Messiah (as), Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian, explained this concept in greater detail: “If, for the sake of achieving a higher goal, one forgoes a right, it will not be against the spirit of the Divine law. And, certainly, in our religion, this action is counted as one of those that draw one near to Allah, to Whom be praise” . To promote interfaith-relations, the Promised Messiah (as) offered that Muslims would give up eating beef, if Hindus would reciprocate this goodwill. He said, “Remember, if we are permitted to eat something, it does not follow that we have to eat it.” This offer was made out of respect for the feelings and sentiments of Hindus, who consider cows sacred.
Another aspect of Tayyab is to eat meat in quantities that promote health and not have an adverse impact. The Holy Prophet (sa) advised that though permissible, one should eat beef in small quantities: “Consume the milk of cows and clarified butter of cows and avoid its meat. The milk and clarified butter of cows is a source of medical treatment and a cure, while its meat is a source of sickness” . The evidence from scientific studies demonstrates that overconsumption and unscrupulous over-production of beef has many harmful effects on human health and the environment.
How Does Islam Safeguard Animal Welfare?
Islam gives commandments for general animal welfare and very humane, specific guidelines for sacrificing animals for food consumption. Muslims are commanded to treat animals with kindness and compassion if they wish to become the recipients of compassion and kindness from God. Islam does not promote needless suffering and in fact encourages people to show love to the animals of the earth: ‘There is a reward for helping any living creature’ . The way people treat animals can be seen as a reflection of oneself and this is illustrated through the Hadith: “All creatures are [like] a family of God: and He loves most those who are kindest to His family” .
It is stated in a Hadith that a woman was condemned to hell because she incarcerated a cat, did not give it any food and did not let the cat out, so that the cat could hunt for food. The cat died of hunger and thirst. This was regarded as a major sin. We all will be held to account for how we treat animals. The Holy Prophet (sa) said, “Fear God in your treatment of animals.” This clearly prohibits intensive, battery farming practices and poor treatment of animals for the purpose of meat production.
This teaching of compassion extends to the animal sacrifice. The Islamic teachings to slaughter animals are based on kindness and animal welfare. Muslims are only allowed to eat meat that is attained by killing an animal in a humane way, inflicting minimal pain. For example, the Islamic law states that the animal should be killed through a cut to the jugular vein, by this technique, the connection with the central nervous system is severed in one, single sharp cut to the neck, blocking all pain sensations instantaneously. In circumstances where multiple animals are to be slaughtered, Islam teaches that this should be carried out in a way that the other animals do not witness the slaughter. It is the duty for the farmers to ensure the animal is not in any sort of distress before its slaughter and this includes avoiding keeping the animals in harsh, crowded and claustrophobic conditions: ‘it is a great sin for man to incarcerate his pet animals’ . Therefore, Islamic teachings clearly address the ethical concern about meat production.
Does Islam Promote Human Welfare by Meat Consumption?
Another moral principle for meat consumption is to attain and use the meat in a way, which is best for both animal welfare and human health. The Holy Qur’an prohibits eating meat obtained by animal cruelty. Allah the Almighty says, ‘Forbidden to you is the flesh of an animal which dies of itself, and blood and the flesh of swine; and that on which is invoked the name of one other than Allah; and that which has been strangled; and that beaten to death; and that killed by a fall; and that which has been gored to death; and that of which a wild animal has eaten, except that which you have properly slaughtered; and that which has been slaughtered at an altar’ . Muslims are also not allowed to eat meat of animals that possess canine teeth and those birds who catch their prey into their claws. Modern science is beginning to appreciate the health hazards of eating meat obtained from common canine animals, such as dogs and cats. A detailed discussion about this is beyond the scope of this article.
Does Islam Support a Meat-Free Diet?
Human beings have consumed meat for millions of years. The design of the human body is suited for a balanced diet from a combination of energy-dense essential nutrients from meat and essential vitamins and minerals from plant-based foods. Meat is widely available all year round from land and sea sources from pasturing animals and birds. This is a blessing of God and it is best to avail blessings of God in this world. This concept is developed in the Qur’anic verse, ‘O ye who believe! Make not unlawful the good things which Allah has made lawful for you, and do not transgress’ .
Modern science has shown that a diet, which is totally meat free can be detrimental to human health. Pellagra is a deficiency disease which is often associated with the over-dependence on maize as staple food. Its symptoms include emotional, cognitive and physical stunting alongside brain atrophy, low IQ, dementia, and poor social behaviour . In the west, the nutritional deficiencies resulting from a purely plant-based diet can be mitigated by supplements and the availability of wider food choices. This is not an option in poorer countries. The Holy Qur’an teaches to use all the permissible provisions granted by God: ‘Say, ‘Have you considered that Allah sent down provision to you, then you made some of it unlawful and some lawful?’ Say, ‘Has Allah permitted you that or do you invent lies against Allah?”  There is no such compulsion to eat meat in Islam; however, it is advocated as a part of a balanced healthy diet. Allah the Exalted has provided a natural source of protein and nourishment for human health which should be taken advantage of, whilst remaining humble and considerate of animal life and the environment.
Why Do Muslims Sacrifice Animals for Eid?
Eid-ul-Adha commemorates the sacrifice offered by the Prophet Abraham (as). It is a time for Muslims to purify their soul, cleanse their heart, partake in spirituality, and endeavour to absorb the radiance and light that is present in this duha [time of brightness] . The Promised Messiah (as) spoke about the animal sacrifice offered at the time of Eid: “And, certainly, in our religion, this action is counted as one of those that draws one near to Allah, to Whom be praise…And it is for this reason that the animals to be sacrificed are called Qurbani [from Qurb, meaning nearness]; as it has been said that all those who perform it sincerely and devotedly and faithfully see more of Allah and become nearer to Him” . Allah the Exalted says, Their flesh reaches not Allah, nor does their blood, but it is your righteousness that reaches Him‘ . Therefore, the Holy Qur’an illustrates that the main objective of animal sacrifice is to progress in piety and righteousness. Eating meat of Eid sacrifice serves as a reminder for the believers that the only Being superior to humans is Almighty Allah. Therefore, human beings should reserve all their endeavours of sacrifice, submission and devotion for God Almighty only.
The lesson that Muslims learn commemorating the sacrifice made by the Prophet Abraham (as) is that faith in God leads to beneficial results, and submitting to Him can only lead to a close relationship. Prophet Abraham (as) was put in an exceedingly difficult and serious predicament, but he fulfilled his duty to serve God, demonstrating the attributes of resilience, devotion and piety. The Promised Messiah (as) explained the philosophy by saying, “Abraham, peace be upon him, was even ready to slaughter his son to fulfil the commandment of God Almighty…This was a hidden indication of the fact that man ought to become wholly devoted to God; and one’s own life, and the blood of one’s children, and one’s kith and kin, ought to appear insignificant in the face of God’s command” .
About the Authors:
Aroosa Mahmood is a Psychology Undergraduate student in Sheffield and has a keen interest in research relating to food and animal welfare.
Shahzad Ahmad is Associate Editor of The Review of Religions. He also serves as an Imam of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. He studied BA English from University of Greenwich. He appears regularly as a panellist on various programmes on Muslim Television Ahmadiyya International (MTA) including on ‘Islamic Jurisprudence’.
Professor Amtul Razzaq Carmichael MD, FRCS (Gen Surg), MBBS, is a consultant. She qualified in 1987 with gold medals for academic Excellence and undertook her surgical training at major teaching hospitals in London, Edinburgh and Philadelphia. She has authored many articles for major peer reviewed scientific journals. She is a senior member of The Review of Religions Editorial Board as well as Assistant Manager.
3. The Holy Qur’an, Chapter 2: Verse 144
4. The Holy Qur’an, Chapter 7: Verse 32
6. The Holy Qur’an, Chapter 23: Verse 52
7. The Holy Qur’an, Chapter 51: Verse 59
8. The Holy Qur’an, Chapter 40: Verse 80
9. The Holy Qur’an, Chapter 2: Verse 173
11. The Holy Qur’an, Chapter 95: Verse 5
12. The Holy Qur’an, Chapter 4: Verse 29
14. Sunan An-Nasa’i
16. The Holy Qur’an, Chapter 7: verse 32
19. Mustadrak al-Hākim
20. Hadith: Bukhari and Muslim
21. Narrated by Anas. Mishkat al-Masabih, 3:1392; Bukhari
23. The Holy Qur’an, Chapter 5: Verse 4
24. The Holy Qur’an, Chapter 5: Verse 88
26. The Holy Qur’an, Chapter 10: Verse 60
29. The Holy Qur’an, Chapter 22: Verse 38