Is the future of halal clean and green?
A growing number of Muslims are embracing plant-based lifestyles, but not everyone agrees that doing so is compatible with Islam
Aiysha Younas decided to become vegan within five seconds of watching a video of a dairy farm. She was horrified by what she saw: dozens of cows crammed together and clearly in pain. She says that her decision was inspired by the emphasis of Islam on treating all living creatures with compassion.
“If you’re going to put animals in these horrible environments, give them awful diseases, brutally murder them and crush them, that doesn’t sound halal to me,” she says. “It doesn’t sound like the teachings of Islam. That sounds like we’re trying to justify a wrong action because we want to eat readily available meat.”
However, the eight years since Younas, a 28-year-old recruitment professional from Wrexham, gave up meat and dairy haven’t always been easy. Like the extended families of many Muslims who adopt plant-based diets, hers were not initially supportive. Some members even accused her of going against her religion despite her concerns about the welfare of the animals they were eating.
“They said that God had put animals here on earth for us,” she says. “They made fun of me. but then I realised what they said didn’t make sense, because if we’re told there’s a specific way to slaughter the animal, why would it be OK to stun and mass-slaughter them? Why are we making excuses?”
For Younas, even the festival of Eid al-Adha, when an animal is traditionally sacrificed, can be seamlessly adapted to a vegan lifestyle. “I give to charity instead because I believe God knows what’s in my heart and why I’m making these choices,” she says. “Charity is a big part of my faith.”
The social and cultural pressures experienced by Younas and other Muslim vegans have not prevented their numbers growing. Many are also finding supportive communities on Facebook and other social media platforms.
According to research by the Vegan Society, there were around 600,000 vegans in Britain in 2019 — up from just 150,000 in 2006. There are no figures, however, for how many of that number are Muslim. What is known is that the four million or so Muslims in England and Wales, totalling 6.5% of the population, eat a disproportionate amount of meat. According to a 2019 report by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, Muslims consume 20% of all the lamb and mutton produced in the UK.
For Tasnia Yasmin, a 28-year-old student from London who has been vegan for five years, the environmental effect of that demand is the most worrying thing.
“The meat and dairy industry is one of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters,” she says. “It’s unsustainable. Around 70% of the Amazon has already been cleared to make grazing land for cows that will be used for beef and dairy. These forests are really important. They’re known as the lungs of the earth.”
Yasmin’s concerns are widely held. In 2021, the online journal Nature Food reported that meat and dairy production is responsible for 57% of all carbon dioxide emissions from food production. The publication noted, however, that 29% comes from the cultivation of plant-based foods. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization also states that more than 70 billion animals are killed for food every year, along with 50 billion chickens and billions of tonnes of fish.
Some believe that high-intensity meat, dairy and fish production and its environmental consequences are so contrary to the teachings of Islam that they are advocating for veganism to become the default Muslim position.
Zinnira Shaikh, a Qatar-based academic, is one of them. She is calling for Islamic jurists to reassess meat consumption in accordance with modern practices — something that has in the past been done on a number of issues, including slavery and smoking. Her work is based upon years of close reading of the Qur’an.
“Our religion tells us there is a cosmic balance in the universe, which our physical bodies, our psyches and society are part of,” she says. “Allah says this balance is already in force. He says do not exceed this balance. If we do exceed it, we are asked to redress the imbalance. Animal agriculture is almost always the leading cause of loss of biodiversity, ocean degradation, global warming and climate change. It is violating the balance in ways that nothing else is.
“Multiple studies have found that the largest contribution we can make on a personal level is by going vegan.”
Shaikh points out that globally acclaimed scholars such as the US-based Hamza Yusuf have referred to the hadiths to warn against eating too much meat.
At a 2015 seminar in the US on food habits, animals and Islam, Yusuf said: “Traditionally, Muslims are semi-vegetarians. The prophet (PBUH) was in that category. Most of his meals did not have meat in them. The proof of this is in the Muwatta, when Sayyidina Umar says, ‘Beware of meat. It has the addiction like the addiction of wine.’” He added that “the same hadith says Umar also prohibited people from eating meat two days in a row.”
Shaikh is concerned that while most scholars in the west agree that there is no obligation for Muslims to eat meat, some, in other parts of the world, hold the view that it is an integral part of the religion.
In the Routledge Handbook of Islamic Ritual and Practice, published in 2022, she explained that this position stems from the belief that “Muslims are not only prohibited from eating certain foods, but also may not choose to prohibit themselves food that is allowed by Islam.”
Shaikh contends that such a stance fails to address the implications of modern-day factory farming, or the question of whether much of the meat now certified as halal actually is. Islamic rulings on the slaughter of animals for food are clear. Among their stipulations are that the animal must be treated with compassion during its lifetime and should not see the blade that kills it or be around any other animals being slaughtered. However, there is growing concern that some halal certifications are being issued when none of these criteria are met.
Some years ago, an investigation by the UK online publication Asian Express found that gas-killed chickens, many of which were found to be unfit for human consumption, were being passed off as halal. The publication also estimated that around 75% of supposedly halal chicken in the UK was not halal at all.
That’s one of the reasons why Yasmin became vegan. “A halal certification these days doesn’t necessarily mean the animal has been treated well,” she says. “It’s just not in accordance with what we are supposed to be doing. When the scriptures were revealed to our prophet there was no concept of factory farming. Animals were roaming around free. Now we’ve got two billion Muslims in the world and we’re all eating meat.”
For Yasmin, the mass production of poor-quality halal meat is also closely linked to social deprivation.
“Muslim-majority areas in the UK are often poor and you see more chicken shops or fast-food shops in these places,” she says. “If you’re going to get a meal in the cost of living crisis, this kind of food fills you up. It’s really sad to me how Muslims are funding and pushing this fast-food culture, which is definitely spurred on by capitalism.”
Younas, however, believes that with so many cheap vegan options available nowadays, it is easy to avoid meat-based convenience foods. To prove her point, she shares vegan recipes on her Instagram page.
“In the west you have meat alternatives, milk alternatives, cheese alternatives, so seeking out halal is not even necessary,” she says. “I like to pick and choose and experiment and see which texture or flavour is best for which dish. There’s so much to choose from.”
However committed Younas and Yasmin are to their choices, neither believes that veganism should be forced on others.
“I think everybody has their own understanding and everybody learns at different times,” Younas says. “I grew up eating meat and I had no idea. But then I allowed myself the space to think about it. Others should be allowed to do the same.
“I do think there is a lot of ignorance out there. I was heavily judged by my community when I became vegan and, if I’m honest, I feel like I still am. But I don’t care. I believe it is my ethical duty as a Muslim to be vegan. That’s what I’m sticking to.”
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