The option to be vegetarian has always existed in Islam, whether or not it was actualized at any time or place. The great Sufi Râbi‘ah al-‘Adawîyah of Basrah was an early Muslim vegetarian; so were the famous poet Abû al-‘Alâ’ al-Ma‘arrî and the Ottoman sultan Bayezid II. In recent times, the renowned Sufi shaykh Bawa Muhaiyaddeen was a notable vegetarian Muslim. Nowadays there are more and more Muslims in different countries choosing to be vegetarian, although they have mostly kept quiet about it.
Sometimes we get negative, hostile, indignant, or incredulous reactions from other Muslims who have never considered the possibility. One common line of attack goes, “You can’t make harâm what Allah has made halâl! That is a sin!” Excuse me, but who ever said anything about making anything harâm? Why even bring that issue into it? Why do they have to think of everything in life in terms of force and compulsion and forbidding? In Islamic law there are more categories than just obligatory and harâm. There are various shadings of desirable and undesirable, and in the middle there is the neutral (al-mubâh). The choice of what halâl food to eat is a neutral one—-it doesn’t have any direct bearing on what is forbidden or obligatory. I’m not making meat “harâm.” I just don’t wish for any, thank you.
Some Muslims will tell you that in Islamic law you are not allowed to refuse to eat meat. This is mere opinion unsupported by any evidence from the sources of the Sharî‘ah. Suppose they establish the “Islamic State,” then how will they enforce this ruling? Hold me down, force my mouth open, and shove kebabs down my throat? Come on, I don’t think so.
Others try to persuade you by saying that the Prophet, peace be upon him, ate meat, so you should too. Well, let’s look closer at that argument. We all know that we should try to emulate the Prophet’s sunnah. And what is more important in the Sunnah: to observe specific details of the Prophet’s personal taste which others may or may not share? Or to abide by the great universal principles of behavior and character that he exemplified?
The Prophet recognized that each person is a unique autonomous individual with his or her own personality. When giving advice to individual Companions, he would specifically tailor the advice according to that person’s own characteristics. He did not enforce any overbearing uniformity on the people. Especially when it came to eating, he recognized that different people have different tastes. And for that matter, not even the Prophet and his Companions ate meat all the time; it was only once in a while that they did, not every day. Some Muslims seem to be under the impression that eating meat is the sixth pillar of Islam or something, but clearly there is no reason for thinking so.
The one overall guideline on food that the Prophet gave was: Eat of what is halâl and what is agreeable to you. That says it all. Within the wide range of halâl food, each individual can choose to eat whatever suits him or her.
If people want to follow the Prophet’s sunnah of eating, consider this: The Prophet ate what he liked and he left aside what he didn’t like. That’s all we vegetarians are doing! Furthermore, he never coerced anyone else into eating what they didn’t like. How about imitating this sunnah?
There was a Bedouin tribe whose custom it was to eat lizards, and the Prophet never forbade them from doing so. But he himself would never eat a lizard. This shows that just because something is “halâl,” that doesn’t require you to eat it if you don’t want to.
The bottom line is: no one has the authority to dictate to you what halâl food you can choose to put into your body. Islamic law is completely neutral on this issue; it is only a private matter for each individual to decide for his or her self.
Moreover, note that the Qur’ân does not simply say to eat halâl meat: it says to eat what is good and wholesome (tayyib), and what is halâl. Therefore, if any food is not tayyib, the Qur’ân does not encourage us to eat it. Most of the microbes that reside in the gut of a cow and find their way into our food get killed off by the acids in our stomachs, since they originally adapted to live in a neutral-pH environment. But the digestive tract of the modern feedlot cow is closer in acidity to our own, and in this new, manmade environment acid-resistant strains of E. coli have developed that can survive our stomach acids — and go on to kill us. By acidifying a cow’s gut with corn, we have broken down one of our food chain’s barriers to infection. Considering the diseases linked with meat eating (hardening of the arteries, which causes circulatory failure and stroke, in addition to other ills; gout; E. coli infection; and Mad Cow Disease), the hormones artificially put into animals, the filthy conditions of feedlots and slaughterhouses, and the danger of meat going bad, I can only conclude that meat does not pass the test of being tayyib, so Muslims are better off without it.