Vegetarianism in Islam

The Teaching of Rabbi Dr. Gabriel Cousens

The following is adapted from Dr. Gabriel Cousens, Conscious Eating (2000), Chapter 19.

Although vegetarianism is not specifically considered by Islam, there is evidence of some support for it in the Islamic religion. Mohammed is quoted saying:

Whosoever is kind to the creatures of God is kind to himself.

The prophet’s earliest biographies showed his universal compassion for all of creation. He spoke out against the mistreatment of camels and the use of birds for the targeting of marksmen. The Koran (s.6, vs.38) says:

There is not an animal on the earth, for a flying creature on two wings, but they are peoples like unto you.

Mohammed was said to prefer vegetarian foods, such as milk diluted with water. He was said to eat only pomegranates, grapes, and figs for weeks at a time. He is quoted as saying to some hunters, ‘Maim not the brute beasts.’ At another time Mohammed said:

There are rewards for benefiting every animal having a moist liver (all living creatures).

Mohammed was not the sole voice sympathetic to vegetarianism in Islam. Al-Ghassali (A.D. 1058–1111), a brilliant Muslim philosopher, wrote:

Compassionate eating leads to compassionate living.

Although vegetarianism is not mandated in the Sufi path (of Islam), many of the Sufis (Islamic mystics) practice vegetarianism for spiritual reasons. The Sufi mystic Hazrat Rabia Basra would often be surrounded by animals when she meditated in the woods. One day, a disciple approached her in the woods and the animals ran away. He felt sad that the animals ran away from him and sought her advice on the issue. She asked him what he had eaten that day. When he revealed that he had eaten some animal fat, Rabia explained that the animals run away from those who eat their flesh. The Sufis as a group, however, do not specifically advocate a vegetarian way of life. It is left for each individual to decide whether to make it part of their spiritual life or not.

The Islamic Holiness M.R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, considered by many an Islamic saint, was a vegetarian. He shares some specific teaching about vegetarianism that is universal for all. In his book, The Tasty Economical Cookbook — Volume II, he says:

A true human being must have compassion toward all lives. There are so many ways to eat good clean food, without killing or tormenting other lives, and without eating the flesh or bones of other lives … If a man eats meat, he will take on the qualities of the animals he eats. The qualities of all these animals can be imbibed by eating their flesh … And once those qualities enter, the man’s anger, his hastiness, and his animal qualities will increase. The animal’s blood will intermingle with his blood … These animal qualities are what causes one man to murder another, to harm and torment another.

In an unpublished discourse, Bawa Muhaiyaddeen gives both specific and universal answers to the question of the Islam and Sufi practice of vegetarianism. From a spiritual perspective, a deeper level of vegetarianism arises from the inside out, rather than from the outside in. He clarifies vegetarianism as the result and natural consequence of the development of spiritual consciousness.

When a man’s mind attains a state of completeness in wisdom and when he reaches a state where he will not hurt any life within himself (in one’s mind), then he will not harm anything on the outside either. Inside he will not intend any harm or pain to any other life. Nor will he do anything harmful or eat any life on the outside. This is a state of wisdom, clarity, and the light of God. This is Sufism. Man is such a dangerous animal, and it is only when he changes his behavior that he becomes a good man, a true human being. When he changes into a good man, he will no longer have within himself the thoughts of killing or gaining victory over another life. He will not have within himself the qualities of distressing other lives, of wanting to harass or ruin other lives. If he does not kill anything on the inside, then he will not kill anything on the outside.

Once a person has the wisdom, the potentialities and the qualities of the true human being, once he attains that liberation, he will have reached the exalted state of God. The darkness in him will have been dispelled and he will love his neighbor as he loves himself. Once he attains the quality of loving every other life as he loves his own, he will never kill another life. Nor will he ever cause pain to another life. Because he feels that the other life is also his own flesh, he will never eat flesh. He will not eat another human being (within his heart) nor will he eat an animal. Some people will not eat animals (on the outside), but they will devour other human beings (within their hearts and minds).

The same difficulty seems to exist in Islam as in Judaism and Christianity. Initially a vegetarian way of life is too big a change for people and becomes a stumbling block for them. According to Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, in the past,

The Prophet came and told them: ‘Do not kill. It is a sin. You are taking another life.’

Because the people were not able to follow this teaching, Mohammed then had to limit, but ultimately allow, the eating of flesh because the people were not of the consciousness that allowed them to go beyond their blood lust. As in Judaism, the killing of animals was limited by laws that were very difficult to follow. These laws are called qurban, involving the slaughter of animals after certain prayers are recited and while one looks the animal in the eyes.

As with the Kosher laws, the Koran lists forbidden foods rather than the foods one must eat. These forbidden foods center on meat. There are elaborate regulations for preparation that limit the amount of animals one is able to kill and therefore make eating meat considerably more of a burden than eating a vegetarian diet. Muslim vegetarians, like Jewish vegetarians, have no real scriptural dietary restrictions. Because Allah is praised as merciful and compassionate, vegetarianism and other types of compassion toward animals constitute a way of following the Islamic teachings. Although Islam, like other modern religions, does not advocate vegetarianism to the masses, vegetarianism is quite compatible with its essential teachings.

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