When Amna Kazi, a lawyer in Karachi, Pakistan, first decided to stop eating meat for health reasons.
At age 17, Kazi recalled that she struggled with health issues. Her doctor told her at the time to stop eating chicken that was commercially raised.
“That idea just sat with me and I thought I don’t really know how healthy any meat is and what I’m eating so eventually I just left meat all together,” she said.
Six years later, Kazi now said she’s a pescetarian since she doesn’t mind eating fish a few of times a year. While that’s not much, it means she deviates from just being a vegetarian. Despite over half a decade of following this lifestyle, Kazi said she regularly finds herself in situations where family members will insist she have a bite of meat.
“The questions are so invasive. If I tell someone I’m doing it for health reasons they’ll ask me what health issues I have, which is so personal,” she said. “Once someone even asked me if I was Hindu just because I’m vegetarian.”
While assuming someone’s religion is an extremely personal question and often quite jarring in public settings, it’s also a common practice in Pakistan, a Muslim majority nation where religious questions are raised around vegetarian lifestyles. In recent years, the flip side to this debate has also arisen, with an increasing number of Muslims questioning the need to sacrifice animals on holidays such as Eid Ul Azha and arguing that they could sacrifice other things. At a time where it’s a lot easier to point out other people’s flaws and stick to divisiveness, some Muslims said it would be interesting to see how interfaith collaboration could work in favor of pushing for ethical treatment of animals across the farming industry.
Ustadha Zaynab Ansari, an instructor of Islamic sciences and scholar who works at Tayseer Seminary, said that while she doesn’t find the practice of sacrifice inherently cruel, there are important conversations to be had around how animals are raised and transported.
“What I really want to reiterate is that the thing that makes sacrifice and consumption of animals permissible is that there are so many conventions and rules that have to be followed. So when the person follows all these things they’re understanding the value of sacrifice and the gravity of it and that only God can sanction what life can be taken,” she said, adding how inherent backlash against Muslims becoming vegetarian can often be more cultural than religious.
The recent debates have caused many people to question whether Islam and vegetarian lifestyles are compatible.
Fiqh and Tafseer teacher Ustadha Rumaysa said Islamic practices of sacrifice actually promote mindful consumption when done right.
“We generally forget that an animal has lived, died, and been through long processes of cleaning and cooking before it is served on our plates,” she said. “I think that being present with the animal and slaughtering it ourselves, through a halal and Tayyab method would have the effect of reducing meat consumption due to the toll of the process and the recognition of the life that has been lost in order to have a meal of meat.”
Both Rumaysa and Ansari come back to the philosophy behind vegetarianism and understand its compatibility with Islam as compared to just the consumption of the food itself. Ansari, who grew up in a very health conscious household, links vegetarianism to yoga as well, pointing out that Muslims should be mindful of not linking to other religious philosophies or beliefs when adopting certain lifestyle choices.
But far from negating vegetarianism, she pointed out that Muslims should be on the forefront for improving animal welfare.
“As Muslims, we should be the one leading the charge saying if we want to eat meat we need to be more mindful of factory farming, how animals are raised, the way they’re treated and transported,” she said. “The whole system is extremely cruel, and does not reflect the ihsan and Sunnah of the Prophet.”
She added that verse 34 in the Koran in Surah Hajj (Chapter 22) strongly links the idea of sacrifice and meat to God, urging Muslims to go beyond the mindless consumption of meat.
The ethical and environmental concerns around meat consumption are also why Anaab Ibrahim chose to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle. She said it initially worried her parents, prompting them to have a conversation with her about it.
“My dad told me not to make it haram on myself, and that part is very important to me,” she said. “I still do my qurbaani [sacrifice], but I just don’t eat it and give it away instead.”
Contrary to what social media discourse these days shows us, Islam and vegetarianism have many similar values and goals when it comes to fighting for ethical consumption and animal rights. In fact, Rumaysa said some who practice Islam she knows will only consume meat from Muslim-owned farms with transparent ethical processes.
“However, this meat is much more expensive, sometimes ten times greater price margin,” she added, “so it is not financially sustainable for them to eat meat often.”