04/23/2013 12:13 EDT | Updated 06/23/2013 05:12 EDT

Vegetarian Muslim: Turning Away From a Meat-Based Diet

My first glimpse into the slaughterhouse industry came when I read Fast Food Nation and discovered how animals where treated in factory farms. I was horrified to say the least. Interestingly enough, the idea of Muslims being vegetarian or vegans has prompted some debate.

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Young girl Aisha (R) watches as volunteers slaughter cattle amid prayer incantations during a religious ritual in observance of Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha outside At-Taqwa mosque in Jakarta on October 26, 2012. The meat from slaughtered cattle and goats are distributed equally to residents. Millions of Muslims around the world celebrate Eid al-Adha or 'Feast of the Sacrifice', which marks the end of the annual hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca and celebrates Abraham's readiness to sacrifice his son to God. AFP PHOTO / ROMEO GACAD (Photo credit should read ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images)

My reasons for moving towards a plant-based diet didn't happen overnight as some people I know. As I gained awareness of the different issues involved in getting that piece of steak on my plate my dietary choices slowly changed. First went the red meat then dairy, chicken, fish and finally eggs. 

My first glimpse into the slaughterhouse industry came when I read Fast Food Nation and discovered how animals where treated in factory farms. I was horrified to say the least. Prior to that point in time I was shamefully clueless.

Part of my ignorance may have been due to a romanticized notion I had about how my government would protect farm animals who are used for food. I could understand the abuse of animals and the environment in the U.S., but surely we Canadians were different. Right?

The reality is there is virtually no legislation in Canada to protect farm animals in factory farms from abusive practices. Animals can be beaten, mutilated and cramped together in nightmarish conditions for their short existence. What standards the Canadian Food Inspection Agency expects slaughterhouses to adhere to are often lost in the rush to produce more meat. The little legislative protection that remains is even now being eroded as our government reduces slaughterhouse regulations. The reality is factory farms in Canada, as in other areas around the world, are linked to a host of serious environmental, health, animal welfare issues and rural community sustainability.

As information about the practices of factory farming, its impact on our environment and related issues to human health and animal welfare has made its way to the public, there has been a steady movement of individuals, including Muslims, who have been opting for a plant-based diet.

Is Being a Vegan or Vegetarian at Odds with Being Muslim?

Interestingly enough, the idea of Muslims being vegetarian or vegans has prompted some debate. Islamic scholars such as the late Egyptian scholar Gamal al-Banna agree that Muslims who choose vegetarianism/veganism can do so for a number of reasons including a personal expression of faith or spirituality. 

Al-Banna has stated "When someone becomes vegetarian they do so for a number of reasons: compassion, environment and health reasons. As a Muslim, I believe that the Prophet (Muhammad) would want followers to be healthy, compassionate and not destroy our environment. If someone believes not eating meat is that way, it is not like they are going to go to hell for it. It may be the right thing to do."

Hamza Yusuf Hason, a popular American Muslim scholar has been warning against the ethical and environmental dangers of the factory farming industry and the health related issues of over consumption of meat (at 35 min mark).

Yusuf believes the fallout of industrialized meat production -- the abuse of animals, the detrimental impact to the environment and human health, the link of such a system to the exasperation of global hunger -- is at odds with his understanding of Islamic ethics. In his view animal rights and protection of the environment are not foreign concepts to Islam but a divine mandate. And his research indicates that the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, and most early Muslims were semi-vegetarians, consuming meat on occasion. 

Vegetarianism is not a new concept for some adherents of Sufism. Such as Chishti Inayat Khan, who introduced Sufi principals to the west. The late Sufi Shaykh Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, who did not permit any animal products at his fellowship. Rabia of Basra, one of the most revered female Sufi saints.

The Environment, Animals and Islam

On the other spectrum there are scholars, such as one at the Egyptian Ministry of Religious Endowments who believe "Animals are slaves for human purposes. They were put here for us to eat, so talk of vegetarianism is un-Islamic."

This unfortunate view of animals, as things to be used and consumed by humans, exists within many cultures. I believe this idea may exist among some Muslims as a direct result of the misinterpretation of the concept of Khalifa in the Quran. 

"And lo! Your Sustainer said to the angels: Behold, I am about to establish upon earth a khalifa." (Quran verse 2:30)

"And it is He (God) who has made you successors (khalifa) upon the earth and has raised some of you above others in degrees [of rank] that He may try you through what He has given you. Indeed, your Lord is swift in penalty; but indeed, He is Forgiving and Merciful." (Quran verse 6:165)

A quick reading of these verse may lead to the conclusion that humans are somehow superior to other forms of creations. Hence, have the right to use the earth's resources and it's non-human animals at their discretion.

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Photo gallery Why Everyone Should Be Angry About Factory Farming See Gallery

Fortunately, there are scholars who would take issue with such a ridged and harsh interpretation. Two such scholars, who are also leaders in the field of Islamic environmentalist ethics, include Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a Professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University and a leading Islamic philosopher. Dr. Fazlun Khalid, founding director of the Islamic Foundation for Ecological and Environmental Sciences. They offer a widely accepted interpretation that rests within the framework of compassion and mercy.

The arabic word "khalifa" as interpreted by Dr. Nasr and Dr. Khalid simultaneously means a guardian, trustee and stewart that maintains the balance and integrity of the earth. These scholars believe the concept of Khalifa is the primary covenant (agreement) which our souls willingly entered into with The Divine Creator and governs our every action with the world. "Indeed, We (God) offered the Trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, and they declined to bear it and feared it; but man [undertook to] bear it." (Quran 33:72)

Yet it is important to contextualize the concept of Khalifa within verse 40:57 which states: "Greater indeed than the creation of man is the creation of the heavens and the earth." 

Meaning the earth is the greater form of creation while humans are a lesser form of creation. In this respect we humans must conduct our responsibilities within a framework of humility -- not superiority -- with a primarily focus on protecting our earth. 

Interestingly enough the Quranic view holds the earth and its resources are intended for use by both humans and for animals. "And the earth: God has assigned to all living creatures." (Quran 55:10).

Thus adding an additional layer of responsibility upon humans to maintain the right of animals to enjoy the earth and it's resources.

Choose the Earth

For me a plant-based diet was one way I could bridge the spiritual mandate to protect animals and the environment. There may be other Muslims who feel the same way. Of course that's not always the case since not all self-identified Muslims are influenced by faith. And while we may not all agree on adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet, maybe we can agree -- whatever path we choose it should include a commitment to protect our most value resource -- our planet.