Use a Sharp Knife: Islam and Animal Rights

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Use a Sharp Knife: Islam and Animal Rights

By Norm Phelps

Before he founded Islam, Mohammad ibn Abdullah (570-632 CE) was a successful merchant from Mecca, in the heart of the Arabian peninsula, who had traveled about the eastern end of the Mediterranean since he was a teen-ager working for his uncle. By the time he received his first vision, at about the age of forty, Mohammad was thoroughly familiar with the teachings of Judaism and Christianity, the religions that predominated in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine.

In that introductory vision, the angel Gabriel told him that he had been chosen to be the last of God’s prophets on Earth—a line that included Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, among others—who would reveal to humankind the final and fullest expression of God’s will. Periodically, for the remainder of his life, Mohammad experienced visions of Gabriel, who dictated to him revelations that he memorized and recited to members of his inner circle. Written down by his followers, these revelations became the scripture of the new faith, the Quran. Since the Quran is the record of revelation to a single individual, it is a unitary, internally coherent document that is less open to diverse interpretations than the Bible, which reflects a dialogue among multiple authors with widely divergent points of view. It is difficult to quote the Quran against itself.

Representing the actual words of God’s heavenly messenger, the Quran is the most fundamental of the three tiers on which Muslim practice and ethics are built. When its application to a particular situation is clear, a Muslim need look no farther. The Quran must be obeyed.(1)

Even so, it often happens that the precise application of the basic principles enunciated in the Quran is not immediately obvious. In those cases, Muslims turn to the second level of teaching, the ahadith. The ahadith (plural; the singular is hadith) are collections of narratives handed down from members of Mohammad’s inner circle which report things that the Prophet said and did. Since they describe how Mohammad himself applied the principles of the Quran to daily life, the ahadith are also considered authoritative.(2)

If the ahadith leave room for interpretation, Muslims have recourse to the third level: decisions issued by prominent legal authorities and accepted by a consensus of Muslim scholars. Arrived at by applying the logical principles of “inference and analogy” to the Quran and the ahadith, these judicial findings are known collectively as sharia, or “customary law,” and they constitute precedents for subsequent generations of jurists. In the West, Sharia is often referred to as “Islamic law,” or “religious law,” but it is actually only that portion of Islamic law that is analogous to and plays a role similar to case law in American jurisprudence. Although it lacks the absolute authority of the Quran and the ahadith, Sharia is sustained by the weight of tradition. If a large enough portion of Muslim judicial authorities—known collectively as the ulama—can be persuaded that a particular judgment is mistaken or no longer applicable, it can be changed.(3) But in traditional societies that often equate change with evil, that is not an easy process.

Taken together, the Quran, the ahadith, and customary law teach a fully-developed, doctrine of animal welfare. On the one hand, we may enslave and murder animals for our own benefit; and on the other, we must minimize their incidental suffering and show them kindness whenever that does not unduly interfere with our exploitation of them.

Masters of the Beasts

The Quran teaches that animals are sentient beings who form societies much like ours, who live under God’s care, just as we do, and who—in a manner that is never directly explained—worship God.(4)

All the beasts that roam the earth and all the birds that soar on high are but communities like your own.(5)

There is not a creature on earth but God provides its sustenance.(6)

Do you not see how God is praised by those in the heavens and those on earth? The very birds praise Him as they wing their way. He notes the prayers and praises of all His creatures; God has knowledge of all their actions.(7)

This conviction that animals are in some significant sense persons, and that God is concerned for their wellbeing, is the theological underpinning of Islamic teachings on animal welfare. And yet, despite this, the Quran is profoundly anthropocentric; it teaches that human beings are the apex of creation, God’s designated rulers of the Earth. In Surah 35:39, the angel instructs Mohammad to remind the human race that, “[God] it is who made you viceregents on earth.” (8)

This is the Muslim equivalent of the Judeo-Christian doctrine of dominion. The implications for animals of this grant of power to humanity are spelled out in unmistakable terms. God created animals for the explicit purpose of providing us with food, clothing, labor, shelter, and transportation, and we may enslave and kill them for these purposes without incurring guilt. In fact, we are instructed to enjoy these gifts in a spirit of thanksgiving to God for his generosity.

Do they [humanity] not see how . . . We [God] have created for them the beasts of which they are masters? We have subjected these to them, that they may ride on some and eat the flesh of others; they drink their milk and put them to other uses. Will they not give thanks?(9)

It is God who has provided you with beasts, that you may ride on some and eat the flesh of others. You put them to many uses; they take you where you wish to go, carrying you by land as ships carry you by sea.(10)

God has given you houses to dwell in, and animals’ skins for tents, so that you may find them light when you travel and easy to pitch when you halt for shelter; while from their wool, fur, and hair, He has for a space of time provided you with comforts and domestic goods.(11)

The inescapable internal contradiction between the two propositions of animal welfare is nowhere clearer than in Islam. God loves and nurtures animals and turns them over to us so that we can enslave and murder them.

The deceptive image of animal welfare – a mask of kindness concealing the face of cruelty – is captured in an hadith that quotes the Prophet:

Allah has enjoined us to be merciful to all; wherefore when ye slay, let it be done in the most merciful manner. And when you perform zibh [slit the throat of an animal], let one of you sharpen your knife and do it in the easiest manner for the animal. (12)

The She-Camel of the Samood

The Quran does not explicitly command kindness to animals. The Quranic reference most often cited as a basis for requiring kindness to animals is the story of an ancient people known as the Samood to whom God sent a prophet named Salih. When the Samoodwere reluctant to accept Salih’s call for them to renounce their pagan gods, Salih left a female camel with them as a test of their faithfulness. “My people,” he told them, “Here is God’s she-camel, a sign for you. Leave her to graze at will in God’s own land, and do not molest her lest an instant scourge should fall upon you.”(13) But no sooner had Salih left, then the Samood slaughtered the camel and were promptly wiped out by the plague that Salih had threatened.

Since the Quran permits the slaughter of camels for food and sacrifice, it could appear to an outsider that the sin of the Samood was not killing the camel, but disobeying God’s prophet. The traditional Islamic reading, however, is, in the words of the late Islamic scholar and animal advocate, Imam Al-Hafiz B. A. Masri, that “This historic incident sets forth the essence of the Quran’s teaching on ‘animal rights.’ Cruelty to animals is so offensive to God that it is declared as a serious sin . . .” (14)

For straightforward condemnations of cruelty to animals, we must turn to the ahadith, where they are, in fact, plentiful.

We were on a journey with the Apostle of God, and he left us for a while. During his absence, we saw a bird called hummara [desert lark, amomanes deserti] with its two young and took the young ones. The mother bird was circling above us in the air, beating its wings in grief, when the Prophet came back and said: "Who has hurt the FEELINGS of this bird by taking its young? Return them to her." (Narrated by Abdul Rahman bin Abdullah bin Mas'ud. Muslim. Also Awn [Ref. No. 32] Hadith No. 2658. Also "Guillaume" [Ref. No. 57]; p. 106)(15)

A man once robbed some eggs from the nest of a bird. The Prophet had them restored to the nest. (Narrated by Abdul Rahman bin Abdullah bin Mas'ud. Muslim. Also Awn [Ref. No. 32] Hadith No. 2658. Also "Guillaume" [Ref. No. 57]; p. 106)(16)

The Prophet 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. (Narrated by Abdullah bin 'Omar. Bukhari, 4:337; recorded in Riyad [Ref. No. 28], Hadith No. 1605; p. 271. Also Muslim, Vol. 4, Hadith No. 2242. English translation by Abdul Hamid Siddiqi; Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, Lahore, Pakistan; 1976; Vol. 4, Hadith No. 5570; p. 1215.)(17)

The Prophet 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. (Narrated by Abu Huraira. Muslim, Vol. 4, Hadith No. 2244. Also Bukhari, 3:322. Also Awn [Ref. No. 32]; Hadith No. 2533, and others)(18)

The Prophet 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." (Narrated by Abu Huraira, Bukhari, 3:322. Also Muslim, Vol. 4; Hadith No. 2244. Also Awn [Ref. No. 32], 7:222, Hadith No. 2533. Also Mishkat al-masabih, Book 6; Chapter 6)(19)

Saying daily prayers (salat) is one of the five most important obligations of the Muslim religion. In the following Hadith, one of his companions tells us that the holy Prophet and his fellow travelers used to delay even saying their prayers until they had first given their riding and pack animals fodder and had attended to their needs: "When we stopped at a halt, we did not say our prayers until we had taken the burdens off our camels' backs and attended to their needs." (Narrated by Anas. Awn (Ref. No. 32); 7:223; Hadith No. 5234. Also "Guillaume" (Ref. No. 57); pp.106, 107).(20)

Vegetarian Islam

Neither the Quran, the ahadith, nor customary law forbids vegetarianism, although there is the suggestion that since God has given us animals to eat, we should enjoy the gift with gratitude. The attitude of mainstream Muslim authorities toward vegetarianism is captured in these two fatawa (judicial rulings that taken together make up customary law; the singular is fatwa) by contemporary Islamic authorities.

Muslims are not vegetarianists. However, if someone prefers to eat vegetables, then they are allowed to do so. Allah has given us permission to eat meat of slaughtered animals, but He has not made it obligatory upon us.(21)

One should not think that it is better to abstain from eating these foods, that doing so will be rewarded, or that being a vegetarian is closer to Allah than not, and so on. It is not permitted to draw closer to Allah in this way. The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, who is the best of mankind and the closest to Allah, used to eat meat and honey and drink milk. . . Once this matter is clear in your mind, there is nothing wrong with not eating food that you do not like.(22)

In other words, it is acceptable to be vegetarian as a matter of personal preference, but to assert that vegetarianism is a more spiritual way of life or that it is more consistent with Muslim teachings on compassion and kindness than meat eating denies the authority of the Quran and the ahadith and implies that Mohammad was not in all regards the perfect spiritual role model.

In most Muslim communities, vegetarian or vegan Muslims can expect to meet with strong disapproval—especially if they describe themselves as “ethical” vegetarians—much as they would in most conservative Christian communities. There are no reliable statistics, but it would be safe to say that of the Abrahamic religions, Judaism has the highest percentage of vegetarians and Islam the lowest. The exception to this rule are the Sufis, the mystical tradition that exists within both the Sunni and Shiite schools of Islam. There have been a number of famous Sufi saints who were vegetarian, and some Sufi communities, especially in the West, practice vegetarianism, although authorities within mainstream Islam sometimes question whether Western Sufi communities are authentically Islamic.

* * *

Islam prescribes a procedure of ritual slaughter for animals who are being killed for food or sacrifice that is very similar to ritual slaughter in Judaism. Essentially, it requires that the doomed animal not be bound at the time of slaughter, that he be killed by a single stroke of a sharp knife across his throat, causing him to bleed to death, and that he be conscious when his throat is slit. The first provision is intended to reduce the victim’s fear; the second has two purposes: to insure a quick loss of consciousness and to allow the blood to drain from the body, since Muslims, like Jews, are forbidden to eat meat with blood still in it; and the third is to assure that the victim is alive when he is slaughtered, as Muslims—again like Jews—are forbidden to eat carrion.

The requirement that the animal be conscious when the knife slits his throat is widely interpreted as a prohibition against stunning, which means that if it were not for “religious exceptions,” both Jewish and Muslim ritual slaughter would violate animal cruelty laws in Europe and North America.(23) And for good reason. A conscious animal whose throat is slit experiences terrible fear and suffering before she dies. Jewish and Muslim ritual slaughter conducted without stunning is animal cruelty of a most grotesque sort.

Murder in the Name of God

Animal sacrifice is called for in the Quran, the ahadith, and customary law, and is still practiced today. The Quran tells us that:

God has made the Ka’bah, the Sacred House, the sacred month, and the sacrificial offerings with their ornaments eternal values for mankind.(24)

Pray to your Lord and sacrifice to him.(25)

An hadith confirms this commandment by reporting that:

The Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) dwelt at Medina for ten years and performed sacrifice every year. (Tirmidhi)(26)

The sacrifice is an annual affair, conducted during one of the most sacred festivals in the Muslim calendar, Eid-al-Adha,(27) the Feast of the Sacrifice, a four day celebration that marks the end of the Hajj, the traditional pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim whose health and finances permit must make at least once in his or her life. The sacrifice is not limited to Mecca or to Muslims making the Hajj, however. Every Muslim anywhere in the world who can afford it is expected to participate in the sacrifices of Eid-al-Adha.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of live sheep are shipped to Saudi Arabia, primarily from the Middle East, Australia, and Romania, to be slaughtered at Eid-al-Adha. The conditions in which they are transported and warehoused while awaiting death are horrific. In 2006, two million pilgrims made the Hajj,(28) and while the Saudi government never announces the number of animals killed, no more than seven people may share the sacrifice of one animal. This puts the minimum number at around three-hundred-thousand, and the likely number closer to a million. Eid-al-Adha turns the city of Mecca into a giant slaughterhouse, a city of suffering, terror, and death. Millions more are slaughtered around the world in a global festival of killing. And to make matters worse, sheep and goats, the animals typically slaughtered for Eid-al-Adha, must be less than a year old.(29) Eid-al-Adha is a slaughter of children.(30)

* * *

Eid-al-Adha commemorates the story told in the Quran of Abraham dreaming that he offered his son Ismail as a sacrifice to God. Interpreting the dream as a divine command, Abraham – with Ismail’s consent – prepared to sacrifice his son. But just as Abraham was preparing to plunge the knife into him, God miraculously provided a ram to be killed in place of the young man.(31)

The primary significance of the story for Muslims is that Abraham placed his will in complete submission to God, even to the point of being willing to kill his son. “Islam” means “submission,” and submission to God’s will is the ultimate Muslim virtue. A secondary meaning is the replacement of human sacrifice with animal sacrifice, which Muslims (wrongly, but in common with most people) regard as a great moral advance.

The Quran is quite clear that God has no need of and takes no pleasure in the physical aspect of the sacrifice.

Their [sacrificed animals] flesh and blood does not reach God. It is your piety that reaches Him. Thus has He subjected them to your service, so that you may give glory to God for guiding you.(32)

In Islam, sacrifice is not intended—as it is in other religions—to mollify the deity; it is merely the visible token of the worshipper’s submission to God. Reflecting this, the meat of the sacrificed animal is divided into thirds. One third is kept by the sponsor of the sacrifice and his immediate family; one third is given to more distant relatives and friends; and one third is donated to the poor. As a contemporary Islamic scholar puts it:

Sacrifice in Islam . . . is essentially symbolic – an external symbol of an internal dedication and voluntary submission to the Will of the Almighty.(33)

This raises the question, Why not dispense with the killing and replace it with an act that does not do violence to Islamic teachings on kindness and compassion, such as contributing money to charity? If it is God’s will that we treat animals with love and gentleness, how could robbing an innocent animal of his precious life be a symbol of submission to God’s will? Killing is profane, and killing in the name of holiness profanes the sacred. Animal sacrifice in any religion, including Islam, is evil and blasphemous. Apart from certain sects of Hinduism, concentrated primarily in Nepal, and some religions of African origin, such as Santeria, Islam is the world’s only major religion that still practices animal sacrifice.(34)

REFERENCES

Armstrong, Karen, Islam: A Short History, New York, The Modern Library, 2002.

Awad, Rana, “Sheep breeders fare average ahead of Eid Al Adha, but face foreign competition,” in The Jordan Times, January 17, 2006. On the worldwide web at http://www3.estart.com/arab/news/sheep.html. Viewed on January 17, 2006.

The Koran, translated with notes by N. J. Dawood, London, Penguin Books, 1999.

Masri, Al-Hafiz B. A., “Animal Experimentation: The Muslim Viewpoint,” in Animal Sacrifices: Religious Perspectives on the Use of Animals in Science, edited by Tom Regan, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1986.

---------------------------, Animals in Islam, on the website of CHAI (Concern for Helping Animals in Israel) at http://www.chai.org.il/_chai_sites/en/compassion/islam/heritage_islam_i.htm. Viewed on January 16, 2006.

Siddiqi, Muhammad Iqbal, The Ritual of Animal Sacrifice in Islam, Lahore (Pakistan), Kazi Publications, undated.

FOOTNOTES

  1. Masri, Experimentation, pg. 171.
  2. Masri, Experimentation, pg. 171.
  3. Masri, Experimentation, pp. 171-172, 186-187.
  4. Masri, Experimentation, pp. 172-175.
  5. The Koran, pg. 96. (Surah 6:38)
  6. The Koran, pg. 156 (Surah 11:6)
  7. The Koran, pg. 250. (Surah 21:41)
  8. Quoted in Masri, Experimentation, pg. 177. The 114 major divisions of the Quran, each representing a separate revelation by the angel, are called “suwar,” (plural; the singular is “surah”), an Arabic word that simply means “chapters.” The word “Surah” (capitalized) is typically used in English when referring to a chapter of the Quran.
  9. The Koran, pg. 312 (Surah 36:70)
  10. The Koran, pp. 333-334 (Surah 40:79, 80)
  11. The Koran, pg. 193, (Surah 16:80)
  12. Quoted in Siddiqi, pg. 40.
  13. The Koran, pg. 161. (Surah 11:64)
  14. Masri, Experimentation, pg. 184. The late Al-Hafiz Basher Ahmad Masri was the Saudi born Sunni imam (pastor) of a mosque in York, England. The title “Al-Hafiz” indicates that he had committed the entire Quran (in Arabic) to memory.
  15. Masri, Animals, Section Four. There are several collections of ahadith, but the two most important are by Muhammad al-Bukhari (c. 810-870), cited as “Bukhari”; and by Abul Hussein Muslim al-Nisaburi (c. 810-870), cited as “Muslim”. “Awn” refers to a modern book of commentaries on the ahadith, entitled Awn al-Mabood by Shams-ul-Haq Azeemabadi (1857-1911). “Guillaume” refers to The Traditions of Islam: An Introduction to the Study of Hadith by Alfred Guillaume (1888-1965).
  16. Masri, Animals, Section Four.
  17. Masri, Animals, Section Four.
  18. Masri, Animals, Section Four.
  19. Masri, Animals, Section Four.
  20. Masri, Animals, Section Four.
  21. Dr. Muzzamil Siddiqi, past president of the Islamic Society of North America, on the worldwide web at http://www.islamicconcern.com/fatwas.asp.
  22. Sheik M. S. Al-Munajjid, a leading Saudi scholar and authority on Islamic law and custom, on the worldwide web at http://www.islamicconcern.com/fatwas.asp.
  23. Sweden and Switzerland have no religious slaughter exemption, and require all animals to be stunned before they are killed. In England, Muslim religious authorities have determined that electric stunning does not violate the requirement that the animal be conscious because a stunned animal who was not subsequently slaughtered would regain consciousness. Estimates are that 90% of animals killed by Muslim ritual slaughter in England are stunned. A number of Muslim authorities elsewhere have made the same determination, but tradition dies hard.
  24. The Koran, pg. 90. (Surah 5:97) The Ka’bah, also known as the Sacred House, is a small, square, very ancient building in Mecca that is the holiest place in Islam. To see it, which is forbidden to non-Muslims on pain of death, is the object of the Hajj. The Sacred Month is Ramadan, which commemorates the giving of the Quran. Traditionally, in Islam, an animal about to be murdered for a sacrifice has a garland hung about his neck (Siddiqi, pg. 25).
  25. The Koran, pg. 433. (Surah 108:2)
  26. Quoted in Siddiqi, pg. 16.
  27. Pronounced roughly EED ahl ah-dah. Not to be confused with Eid-al-Fitr, the feast commemorating the end of the holy month of Ramadan. There is no religious sacrifice in connection with Eid-al-Fitr.
  28. Awad.
  29. Siddiqi, pg. 28.
  30. In the interests of fairness, and to put things in perspective, in the United States alone, more than 27,000,000 animals are killed every single day, seven days a week, for food, leather, and fur. These animals are also children.
  31. Surah 37:102-108. Ismail (Ishmael) is honored as the patriarch of the Arabian people. In the Bible, a similar story is told in Genesis 22, but here Abraham’s other son, Isaac, the patriarch of the Jewish people, is nearly sacrificed by his father.
  32. The Koran, pg. 237. (Surah 22:37)
  33. Siddiqi, pg. 3
  34. Although it could be argued that the paschal lambs are a form of sacrifice that still survives in Judaism. It could also be argued that saying grace over a meal that includes meat transforms the slaughter of the animal into a sacrifice.

A Tibetan Buddhist, Norm Phelps is an American animal rights activist and the author of The Great Compassion: Buddhism and Animal Rights; The Dominion of Love: Animal Rights According to the Bible; and The Longest Struggle: Animal Advocacy from Pythagoras to PETA, all published in New York by Lantern Books.