We all aspire to be more ‘healthy,’ more ‘wealthy,’ more ‘wise.’ How do we attain to the ‘more’? When does ‘less’ turn out to be more? Our dietary practices are a strong key to reaching our full potential—as individuals and as a Community. How can we make the best choices regarding the foods available to us? How can we as the Muslim Community contribute to the betterment of a healthful food source available for all?
MODERN MUSLIMS IN the West have the convenience of shopping for their meat supply—ready to cook—at every local supermarket; consumers are encouraged to eat three ‘square’ meals per day, emphasizing the strong protein component found in the meat component of the current ‘Food Pyramid.’
Focus On Animal Protein
The desert Arabs, too, were known to relish the flesh of their livestock, along with their staple diet of grains and dates, and along with seasonal agricultural produce. Raising livestock (sheep, goats, cattle, and camels) was part of their lifestyle. The Revelation sent down to Prophet ﷺ Muḥammad □ did not suggest that Allah was displeased with their use of animals as a source of food. On the contrary, a ritual of careful and humane slaughter of animals was proactively mandated for Muslims:
“Verily, Allah has enjoined excellence (iḥsân) with regard to everything. So, when you kill, kill in a good way; when you slaughter, slaughter in a good way. Everyone of you should sharpen his knife, and let the slaughtered animal die comfortably” (Muslim).
In another ḥadîth the Prophet rebuked a person who put the animal [to be slaughtered] on the ground such that it was looking at him sharpening the blade. [The Prophet] said to him, “Do you want to kill it twice? You should have sharpened the blade already.” (Al-Mundhri, Al-Tarhîb w’l-Targhîb)
The Prophet entered a field, and a camel came to him and started gurgling and tearing. The prophet wiped the camel’s face until it calmed down. Then, he asked, “Who is the owner of this camel?” A young man from the Anṣâr said, “It is mine, O Messenger of Allah.” So he said, “Revere Allah regarding this animal that Allah gave you ownership of. It complained to me that you leave him hungry and you overwork him.” (Ṣaḥiḥ Abû Dâwûd , Al-Albâni 2549).
The sharing of meat is promoted in the Quran as a charitable deed. In fact, our Islamic festival day ͑ Eid Al-Aḍ-ḥa features the slaughter of an animal and the distribution of its meat—as part of the Pilgrimage (Ḥajj) rituals.
Hence, [O Muhammad,] proclaim you unto all people the [duty of] pilgrimage…so that they might experience much that shall be of benefit to them, and that they might extol the name of God on the days appointed [for sacrifice], over whatever head of cattle He may have provided for them [to this end]: eat, then, thereof, and feed the unfortunate poor. Sûrat Al-Ḥajj, 22:27-28
And as for the sacrifice of cattle, We have ordained it for you as one of the symbols set up by God, in which there is [much] good for you. Hence, extol the name of God over them when they are lined up [for sacrifice]; and after they have fallen lifeless to the ground, eat of their flesh, and feed the poor … [But bear in mind:] never does their flesh reach God, and neither their blood: it is only your God-consciousness that reaches Him… Sûrat Al-Ḥajj, 22:36-37
Those who are celebrating ͑ Eid Al-Aḍ-ḥa at home may slaughter a goat or sheep—in concert with those performing Ḥajj in Makkah.
Among domesticated animals, only pork, the flesh of pigs, is expressly forbidden for our consumption—and even then, allowance is made for hardship conditions when other food sources are unavailable:
He has forbidden to you only carrion, and blood, and the flesh of swine, and that over which any name other than God’s has been invoked; but if one is driven by necessity – neither coveting it nor exceeding his immediate need – no sin shall be upon him: for, behold, God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace. Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:173
We cannot then, Islamically, make a case for Vegetarianism as a moral imperative against the practice of raising and killing our fellow creatures for the purpose of eating their flesh. Nor is there a prohibition against pursuing and capturing ‘game’ for one’s cooking pot. Hunting is forbidden only during the time when one is in iḥrâm, performing the rites of Pilgrimage (Ḥajj or ʿUmrah).
…Lawful to you is the [flesh of every] beast that feeds on plants, save what is mentioned to you [hereafter]: but you are not allowed to hunt while you are in the state of pilgrimage … and [only] after your pilgrimage is over are you free to hunt. Sûrat Al-Mâ’îdah, 5:1
And why should you not eat of that over which God’s name has been pronounced, seeing that He has so clearly spelled out to you what He has forbidden you [to eat] unless you are compelled [to do so]? … Hence, eat not of that over which God’s name has not been pronounced … Sûrat Al-Anʿâm, 6:119, 121
Prehistory to Today
The physical records—archaeological evidence, cultural artifacts and records—of the human species indicate the widespread dependence of mankind upon meat-eating. Millennia after the first appearance of humans, say our scientists, some populations that had previously hunted and opportunistically gathered berries and nuts, then discovered the “shelf-life” of grains and pulses (beans, lentils, etc.); cultivation was thus born and spread across the earth.
Today, nutritionists stress the concept of incorporating, in certain proportions, all the various food groups to ensure a healthful diet, able to sustain all the biochemical processes of our bodies.
Modern Trends Regarding Our Co-Creatures
In our current global-village world, various alternative belief systems are aired and sympathies for the rights of animals are fore-fronted. In fact, Prophet ﷺ Muhammad ﷺ could legitimately be cited as an ideological pioneer in the present animal rights movement:
The Prophet ﷺ told his companions of a woman who would be sent to Hell for having locked up a cat; not feeding it, nor even releasing it so that it could feed herself. (Bukhâri)
The Prophet ﷺ was asked if acts of charity even to the animals were rewarded by God. He replied: ‘yes, there is a reward for acts of charity to every beast alive. (Bukhâri)
The Prophet ﷺ told his companions of a serf who was blessed by Allah for saving the life of a dog by giving it water to drink and quenching its thirst. (Muslim)
We humans are responsible to ensure the well-being of our co-creatures, as much as we are able. We must accept this as one of our issues and take it on in our Islamic context.
Western peoples, whenever circumstances are favorable, commonly opt to keep one or more house ‘pet’—treated as an integral member of the household and fed well. Leaving aside the issue of under what conditions a Muslim can consider keeping a dog, we note that across the centuries for many human societies, “A house without a dog is not a home,” represents a common sentiment. Others keep house cats, and many families have both cats and dogs at one time or another. Traditionally, such domestic ‘partners’ have been working animals, catching grain-eating rodents or protecting livestock from prey, for example. We, too, can profit from the use of animals attached to our households, but within our own Islamic framework. Various types of birds have been our hunting partners or simply favored ‘pets.’
It is perhaps a sign of a prosperous Western middle-class that veterinary doctors are doing a brisk business in preventative medicine and in the care of senior dogs, cats, horses and other domesticated creatures. The discomfort with taking the life of, and eating the flesh of, a living creature (one that can look you in the eye) is compelling—even though many animal species themselves (the ‘carnivorous’ ones) catch and eat other animals as a matter of fact in the existing natural order on our planet.
Modern proponents of Vegetarianism argue that humans have neither the digestive system of carnivores nor their dentition (types of teeth) to be meat-eating. But according to modern mainstream representation, we humans are classified as ‘omnivores’, meaning that we are maximally adapted as a species to living in a variety of climes, geographical and seasonal agricultural situations—equipped to eat both plant foods (fruits – nuts – grains – vegetables) and animal foods.
Just what, then, are we designed, biologically, to ingest, digest and thrive upon as our food source(s)? Clearly, fruits/nuts, grains, vegetables have been mankind’s food sources from the earliest days, as confirmed by the archaeological record. And, even if we take the Biblical record as no more than an early recollection of mankind’s development, therein we find plant foods recognized as having been created for man’s diet.
Bible, Genesis 1:29, So God created human beings … and said, … I have provided all kinds of grain and all kinds of fruit for you to eat…
Regarding meat-eating: Years ago I came across the rabbinical comment that another early Genesis passage is to be interpreted as giving the permission of Elohim (i.e., Allah) for humankind to eat meat. Such a statement of, or implication of, divine permission could be taken to suggest the existence of a controversy at some point in man’s development over the acceptability of eating slain animals. Regardless of how early this question arose, it is a live issue for many thoughtful people in our age of violence, an age in which many others, less reflective, lack respect for any of Allah’s creatures. If some of our fellows over-reach in reacting to modern violence by forbidding what Allah has permitted to us for food, then we should celebrate their compassionate attitude, even if our conclusions differ.
The earliest offspring of the first man (Adam) and woman (Ḥawwâ’ / Eve) are portrayed—in both Judeo-Christian and Islamic sources— as vying for preference before God: one as a husbandman of livestock (Abel, the slain brother) and the other as an agriculturalist (Cain, the slayer of his younger brother). First the biblical text:
Bible, Genesis 4:1-15, Abel became a shepherd, but Cain was a farmer. After some time Cain brought some of his harvest and gave it as an offering to the LORD. Then Abel brought the first lamb born to one of his sheep, killed it, and gave the best parts of it as an offering. The LORD was pleased with Abel and his offering, but he rejected Cain and his offering. Cain became furious and he scowled in anger.
Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why that scowl on your face? If you had done the right thing, you would be smiling; but because you have done evil, sin is crouching at your door. It wants to rule you, but you must overcome it.”
Then Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out in the field. When they were out in the fields, Cain turned on his brother and killed him.
The Lord asked Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”
He answered, “I don’t know. Am I supposed to take care of my brother?
Then the LORD said, “Why have you done this terrible thing? Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground, like a voice calling for revenge. You are placed under a curse and can no longer farm the soil. It has soaked up your brother’s blood as if it had opened its mouth to receive it when you killed him. If you try to grow crops, the soil will not produce anything; you will be a homeless wanderer on the earth.”
In the West we Muslims live among a Christian majority; in North America the Jewish minority is roughly equal in number to our Muslim population. So let us make use of Judeo-Christian scriptures as they now exist as a springboard to our own unquestioned sources of Revelation; we cannot afford to be ignorant of their assumptions and way of thinking if we want to dialogue with them on any issue of substance.
Note that in the Biblical account above—as in the Quranic narrative below—it is the agriculturist (Cain) who turns violent against the raiser of animals (Abel), not the other way around. But in today’s thinking, it would be the war-like meat-eater who would turn violent against the peaceful vegetarian. Perhaps such a prehistoric narrative leaves unanswered more questions than it explains to us in our modern cultural mindset. Be that as it may, the Quran picks up this story—known among the Arabs during the time of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ we can assume—and builds upon it in addressing issues of man as susceptible to death at the hand of a rival, as well as how to deal with the body of the slain, among other aspects of manslaughter.
And lo! Thy Sustainer said unto the angels: “Behold, I am about to establish upon earth one who shall inherit it.” They said: “Wilt Thou place on it such as will spread corruption thereon and shed blood – whereas it is we (i.e., angels) who extol Thy limitless glory, and praise Thee, and hallow Thy name?” [God] answered: “Verily, I know that which you do not know.” Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2: 30
And convey unto them, setting forth the truth, the story of the two sons of Adam – how each offered a sacrifice, and it was accepted from one of them whereas it was not accepted from the other. [And Cain] said: “I will surely slay thee!” [Abel] replied: “Behold, God accepts only from those who are conscious of Him. Even if thou lay thy hand on me to slay me, I shall not lay my hand on thee to slay thee: behold, I fear God, the Sustainer of all the worlds. I am willing, indeed, for thee to bear [the burden of] all the sins ever done by me as well as of the sin done by thee: [but] then thou wouldst be destined for the fire, since that is the requital of evildoers! But the other’s passion drove him to slaying his brother; and he slew him: and thus he became one of the lost. Thereupon God sent forth a raven which scratched the earth, to show him how he might conceal the nakedness of his brother’s body. [And Cain] cried out: “Oh, woe is me! Am I too weak to do what this raven did, and to conceal the nakedness of my brother’s body?” – And was thereupon smitten with remorse. Because of this did We ordain unto the children of Israel that if anyone slays a human being – unless it be [in punishment] for murder or for spreading corruption on earth – it shall be as though he had slain all mankind; whereas, if anyone saves a life, it shall be as though he had saved the lives of all mankind. Sûrat Al-Mâ’idah, 5: 27-32
The killing of human beings in revenge, or by mistake—which is forbidden and punishable—is clearly in a category different from that of killing an animal for food; the latter is provided for but protected with restrictions in our law.
Ancient peoples—as well as those belonging to numerous ethnic groups still alive today—ate their wealth-on-the-hoof on special occasions, not every day. Success in hunting, when agricultural products might be scarce—even with the from-a-distance killing technology of the bow-and-arrow, and later of the firearm—is not a sure-fire venture. In Medieval Europe, regular meat-eating was a luxury attainable only by royalty and their feudal acolytes.
Today’s so-called ‘farm-raised’ does not measure up to the so-called ‘wild-caught,’ especially with the injection of immunizations, of growth hormones, and of other substances designed to increase the supposed equivalence of ‘health’ (freedom from live infection) in the live animal—so as for it to be legally fit for slaughter when market demand determines that its time has come. The same goes for eggs and milk products derived from medicated animals. However, even ‘wild-caught,’ while free of injectables, may have fed from environmentally polluted areas. We Muslims must not be ignorant of our food sources; we must make informed choices, to the best of our ability.
The profit motive is infamous for corrupting the humane raising of animals (over-crowding, sawed-off beaks, et. al.) and for compromising the final product—the meat that comes so cheap to our tables for daily consumption. It was in this context that a modern-day Arab medical doctor once put it to me, “There is no longer any goodness in the products of our modern meat industry.”
Al-hamdulillâh, there are enterprises offering ḥalal meat—marketed to our own meat-focused community—and even ḥalal ‘organic’ meats of various kinds. We should pay attention to such industries and support them with our business and demand for the highest standards. Such meat products need not be for the Muslim community alone.
Let this be a call for the meat producers among us, Muslim and non-Muslim—and the consumer, Muslim and otherwise, to settle for no less than the highest level of truly healthy animals in our food supply. After all, we are what we eat; we depend upon healthful food for optimal health, maximally enabling our bodies to attain health that develops from the inside out. Let us be leaders in this industry, whom the general public can trust as a reliable source and model for food excellence and safety.
Let us settle for no less than a humane treatment of animals at every stage, including the Islamic practice of calling upon Allah for His blessing and acceptance in our humane slaughter—respecting Allah’s provision of sentient beings as one of our food sources, in our preparation of and in our eating of the wholesome foods—meats included, if we so choose—that He has created for our health and enjoyment. If ‘organic’ is the market guarantee of wholesomeness in food today, than let us go for ‘organic.’ The price of organics will decrease where more of us support the organic farmer—the organic producer of meat as well as the organic grower of fruits/ vegetables /grains, etc.
Let us back away from the over-consumption of animal foods. High consumption of animal products can set up an over-acidification of the body, producing a ‘terrain’ for opportunistic disease. Indeed, let us back away from the over-consumption of all foods—avoiding completely the foodless foods (‘junk foods’) that fill our stomachs and pollute our God-given, delicately-balanced digestive systems.
Instead, let us choose for our families only the best quality and let us eat in moderation. The ‘Last Bite’ should come when the body has said ‘Enough!’  Yes, hearing this “Enough!” may take some serious training. Let us begin this training. It is harmful to prolong the pleasure of tasty food by eating more. Prolonging the pleasure by spacing it out and by savoring each smaller, highly nutritious bite is a healthful practice. An expanded and bloated, over-loaded digestive system is an inefficient one, struggling to do its job, usually with make-shift, ersatz, over-processed, not-so-raw ‘raw materials.’ We must stop expecting an acceptable quality of any food to come discount-cheap, and especially so in the case of meat.
Let us eat better quality in lesser quantity. In the long run, this is a win-win proposition for all. Less work for the digestive system means better health. Herein is a prime example of the situation where “LESS IS MORE.”
The Prophet As Our Model
The Prophet ﷺ, in 7th century Arabia, fortunately did not have to face the modern concern for quality in dealing with an animal health industry. But one thing we can count on—as a general, over-arching principle to guide us in our quantity of food intake—is the saying of our Beloved Prophet ﷺ:
The worst vessel that the human being can fill is his stomach. Rather, he should take in [no more than] a third [of the stomach’s volume] in food, [no more than] a third in drink, leaving [the remaining] third for [ease of] breathing. (Tirmidhi. Rated ṣaḥiḥ by Al-Albâni)
Those of us who are so careful to follow—in all else—the example of our God-given Guide, can we not follow him in regard to our palates—out of respect for our stomachs?
 For this concept of the “Last Bite” I am indebted to Hakim Archuletta.