veganism and islam
Hi, reader! Thanks so much for clicking through to read this. This is a topic I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, as being Muslim and applying Islamic values is deeply important to me, and I think whole-food plant-based nutrition is not just compatible, but in perfect alignment with Islam.
First, a disclaimer. I advocate for whole-food plant-based nutrition (a diet consisting of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and spices primarily), which isn’t necessarily vegan - just because someone is a vegan, doesn’t mean their diet is plant-based, and vice versa. The reason I used “veganism” in my title is because:
It’s a common misconception that I want to clear up, and I’m looking to direct people with this question here. Two birds with one stone!
Although whole-food plant-based nutrition isn’t vegan by definition (one’s diet would still be considered plant-based if they ate plants the vast majority of the time, and meat once a month, for example), I personally believe it does more harm than good to eat any amount of animal products, which I’ll go into here.
Cardiovascular disease is the most common cause of death in the world, and heart disease is the US’s leading killer. We know that a whole-food plant-based diet can prevent and reverse heart disease, and that it may be effective in the treatment and prevention of ten of America’s leading killers (How Not to Die, Dr. Michael Greger). Both animal products and processed foods play a role in keeping our bodies chronically inflamed, and have been linked to major killers like cancer and diabetes. We have strong evidence that lifestyle modifications like adopting a plant-based diet are central to the prevention and reversal of disease, yet we balk at the idea of moving towards eliminating animal products. Islamically, our bodies are an Amanah (trust) that we’ve been provided for worship. The Prophet (pbuh) repeatedly stressed the importance of good health and encouraged Muslims to express gratitude and pray for it. In my opinion, the importance of good health goes beyond the immediacy of becoming (or remaining) free of chronic disease. If we feel sick, lethargic, weighed down, exhausted, frustrated, depressed, or anxious, we fail to be our best selves. We can’t supply the effort necessary to contribute to our communities and be present for our families. As Muslims, our goal shouldn’t just be to practice the five pillars in a cocoon and float along, existing purposelessly. Worship means imbibing all aspects of our lives with the remembrance of God by serving Him through pursuing justice, improving our society, spreading truth and seeking knowledge. We should nourish our bodies and excel, as was the Prophet’s (pbuh) sunnah. Too often have I seen (and personally experienced) communities ripped apart and drained by health issues that could meaningfully be prevented and treated if we just took our diets a little more seriously - starting with moving towards a whole-food plant-based lifestyle. Please check my Resources page if you’re interested in learning more about the science behind my conviction.
I also want to stress here that young people don’t get a pass. Disease doesn’t just pop up on your 50th birthday - it’s a slow development, and the foundations are laid years in advance, even as early as before puberty if one grows up eating poorly. Even if you’re disease free but eat a poor diet, you’ll definitely experience improvements in your health and energy levels when you make the switch!
We know that 2017 was the third warmest year on record, and that we can shrink our carbon footprint significantly by eating a plant-based diet. We also know that water is a finite resource, and that the world’s freshwater resources are used mainly for agriculture. Our food choices are inextricably linked with the availability of water. Says Sandra Postel, the director of the Global Water Policy Project and water expert on the National Geographic Society’s Freshwater Initiative, “On average, a vegan, a person who eats no meat or dairy, indirectly consumes nearly 600 gallons of water per day less than a person who eats the average American diet.” Embedded in our religion is respect and love for the environment and its resources. The Quran says, “But waste not by excess: for Allah (God) loves not the wasters.” (Quran 6:141) The Prophet (peace be upon him) regarded planting trees an act of continuous charity, and said:
Abu Bakr (may God be pleased with him), the Prophet’s (pbuh) closest companion and one of the earliest Muslims, instructed an army he was sending into battle not to harm or burn any trees, especially those that bore fruit. Clearly, there’s an Islamic basis for protecting the environment and being careful not to waste its bounties. I strongly believe in taking our religion’s lessons further than just their literal interpretations, and in this case I believe we have a responsibility to recognize that our dietary choices have the potential to waste the earth’s water unnecessarily and cause harm to the environment. It’s our Islamic duty to take stock of our diets and implement changes with the intent to preserve and protect our resources, and treat the blessing of having dietary options not with hubris, but with humility.
the prophet’s example
Historically, Muslims ate almost no meat. The wealthy had meat once a week, and the poor only consumed any on Eids. The Prophet (pbuh) himself ate meat only on very rare occasion, both as a poor man and a powerful leader. Furthermore, his diet primarily consisted of dates, water and barley. His close companion, Umar ibn Al-Khattab, also explicitly warned against eating meat regularly, calling it addictive.
production of meat - is it halal/zabiha?
The production of meat for slaughter and sale today is abhorrent. Many take solace in that they can purchase “halal/zabiha” meat, dismissing the brutal, overcrowded, inhumane conditions that the animals are raised and slaughtered in. Do we really know where our meat and animal products are coming from? Can we honestly trust that the animals were raised humanely (by our religion’s metrics, not our own) and slaughtered painlessly? The reality is, we can’t. The vast majority of us aren’t personally raising and slaughtering an animal for consumption, able to attest to the entirety of its life and its treatment. This is in major opposition to the Prophet’s (pbuh) tradition and the respect we’ve been commanded to show all living beings.
a note on seafood
But what about seafood? Because humanity has treated our bodies of water like sewers, fish are heavily contaminated with heavy metals and radioactive substances. By ingesting fish, we also ingest carcinogens and toxins that can remain in our bodies for years. My belief is that it’s unIslamic to knowingly bring harm to ourselves, and although fish is halal, poison isn’t! Furthermore, our fishing practices are so destructive that overfishing has contributed to a loss of biodiversity and major disruption of marine ecosystems. Again, I want to stress that we must not succumb to the comfort of adopting a limited, strictly literal understanding of our religion. Yes, we’ve been permitted to eat fish, but must recognize that in doing so currently, we not only harm our health but also contribute to the endangerment of species and environmental destruction. According to a 2011 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, about 32 percent of world fish stocks are estimated to be overexploited, depleted or recovering and need to be urgently rebuilt. We must ask ourselves if it’s Islamic to participate in this.
slaughtering of animals on Eid
Many point to the ritual animal slaughter on Eid ul-Adha as Islam’s endorsement and a justification for eating meat. According to the Quran, Prophet Ibrahim was commanded to sacrifice his son, Ismail, as a test of his faith, and his willingness to do so was accepted by God. Prophet Ismail was not killed, and Eid ul-Adha is a commemoration of Ibrahim and Ismail’s readiness to obey, painful and difficult though it may have been. First, the sacrifice on Eid occurs once a year, indicating that its association with a holiday means it is not something to be treated as a regularity. We must view it in the context of the Prophet’s life and choices, detailed above. Furthermore, in his time, animals were a primary source of livelihood, and sacrificing cattle and donating a third of it was a loss of income, not comparable to its effect on one’s subsistence today - we need to determine what an equivalent would be for us, and how to implement it. This is not to say to abolish the practice. It is, again, to stress the necessity of developing a nuanced perspective of Islam and how we should practice it. The core message of this story is one of sacrifice despite personal desires. Exercising discipline over our food choices with the intent to both preserve our health so we can be of service to others, and show respect for the environment, is one such sacrifice. I would argue that it is perhaps the most important one, considering its wide-reaching effects on us, our families, our communities, and the planet.
so why veganism?
First, I think a nutritionally poor vegan diet can be just as harmful to health as a diet plentiful in animal products. I specifically advocate for whole-food plant-based (WFPB) nutrition, which means that our diets should be centered on whole grains, fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds. I do think there’s an added advantage to becoming a WFPB vegan as opposed to eating mostly plant-based with a limited amount of animal products. For example, in the Adventist-2 study, a stepwise drop in diabetes rates was observed as one ate progressively more plant-based, with maximal protection found in WFPB vegans. In the EPIC study, all meat consumption was associated with weight gain over time. Furthermore, going vegan means neglecting to be a contributor to industries that damage the environment and our health, detailed above.
There’s no question that eating meat and animal products, under specific conditions, is halal. However, we must ask ourselves if those conditions still exist, and how much harm we’re causing by consuming them. We were blessed with the ability to think and make choices, and our religiosity should be rooted in humility, and the understanding of how our behavior affects ourselves and others. Furthermore, it’s completely Islamically acceptable to adopt a WFPB vegan diet.
It’s also a step in the right direction to move towards a WFPB vegan diet, as was the tradition of the Prophet (pbuh). We can afford to be a little less stringent on special occasions (holidays, celebrations) if we’re conscious and compassionate in our day-to-day. I understand that many may feel that becoming a vegan is extreme, but why should we treat our current standard diet as the norm? And how many of us even just approach eating a healthy diet? Why is it not extreme to develop completely preventable diseases like diabetes and heart disease - or to undergo open heart surgery, or to lose limbs, or to deplete the earth’s water resources and disrupt entire ecosystems? My grandfather died of gangrene, a complication of diabetes. My own father lost his life to a heart attack. I wish I had known then what I know now.
I hope you’ve learned something new from reading this. I’m not trying to be a fear-mongerer or a finger-wagger. I share what I know in the hopes that we can collectively become better. Personally, every year I challenge myself to do more. And the thing is, doing more is just that: doing more… incrementally so, or by a lot. We each have our own journeys, and the choices we make define the path we take in life. Let’s make sure it’s well-lit.