Religious vegetarianism in the Abrahamic traditions, part 2
Author: Evan Keraminas
The holy texts of Abrahamic religions could be argued either for or against eating meat, largely a function of how one interprets the scriptures. Still, a significant number of adherents in these traditions take "thou shalt not kill" seriously. The state of modern factory farms also falls under sharp criticism; while the issue of "dominion" is somewhat debated, several verses in the various texts clearly promote compassionate treatment of nonhuman animals.
In addition to the Bab and Baha'u'llah, Baha'is also recognize many familiar prophets as Manifestations of God: Abraham, Moses, Krishna, Zoroaster, the Buddha, Jesus of Nazareth, and Muhammad. (This would ostensibly exclude other traditions, but Baha'is emphasize the "oneness of religion" and leave open the possibility that other historic religious figures have served as "minor prophets" as part of God's progressive revelation.) Many of these prophets' teachings, including those on compassion toward animals, find their way into Baha'i thought. Among Baha'u'llah's ideals was the abolition of all forms of prejudice; since many vegans and vegetarians frown upon "speciesism," perhaps it is not a far reach to extend this ideal to nonhumans as well. The Baha'i faith encourages though does not mandate vegetarianism, believing a meatless diet to be part of God's plan in the natural progression of humanity. Abdu'l Ba'ha, the son and successor of Baha'u'llah, predicted that "the time will come when meat will no longer be eaten; our natural food is that which comes out of the ground."
The original diet laid out in Genesis 1:29 was effectively vegan; a small minority of theologians argue that later concessions for the eating of meat were only done out of consideration of mankind's weakness, and at significant spiritual expense. The Book of Isaiah seems to predict that the Earth will return to the Edenic vegetarian state (even the lion will eat straw), and some Christians believe that humanity should start down that path in preparation for the Second Coming. Romans 14:20 warns, "Take care not to destroy God's work for the sake of something to eat," and many Christian vegetarians who recognize the environmental impact of factory farms take this and similar verses to heart. Seventh Day Adventists and the Society of Friends (Quakers) in particular encourage vegetarianism for health reasons and ethical reasons, respectively, although it is not required of members. The "official" position of most Christian churches is that animals do not have souls, but this does not stop individual practitioners from believing otherwise and perhaps taking this belief to extend "thou shalt not kill" to the killing of nonhuman animals.
Alternately, Christian vegetarians may take a "what would Jesus eat?" stance, believing that Jesus himself eschewed many if not all flesh foods. Critics of this standpoint may point to references in the King James Version of the Bible where Jesus asks for "meat," but the English "meat" was, at that time, a generic term for any food, and was used as the translation of the Greek broma, "food"; the original Aramaic also translates as "food." In reality, fish is the only flesh food which Jesus is seriously alleged to have consumed. Some Christians become what is colloquially known as "pescetarian" (eschewing terrestrial flesh but consuming sea life) to mimic Christ's purported diet; others go all-out vegetarian or vegan, arguing that even if Jesus did eat flesh, he would never approve of the state of modern factory farms or fishing practices, or the fact that demand for meat often means that grain is given to cows rather than to feed starving peoploe.
There is also a small but significant Christian vegetarianism movement based on the belief that Jesus and his original followers were strictly vegetarian; the accusation is that that politicians and priests at the Council of Nicea suppressed and altered many of the true teachings of Jesus. In apocryphal texts such as the Essene Gospel of Peace, for example, Jesus allegedly condemns meat-eating outright. Unorthodox Christian vegetarians may believe, for example, that the fish-and-loaves story was originally just bread (the fish allegedly added in later, "tainted" versions), or that when Jesus asked Peter and Andrew to put aside their nets to become "fishers of men," this was as much his way of asking them to follow him as his discouraging the actual practice of fishing.
Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, is not an historically vegetarian religion. Eid ul-Adha, the feast of sacrifice, has been likened to an annual animal holocaust, although arguably it is no more horrific than, say, American Thanksgiving. Islamic tradition does, however, teach that nonhuman animals possess souls, albeit of a different variety than those possessed by humans; this at least from an animal rights perspective makes Islam more progressive than Christianity. Early biographers of the Prophet Muhammad say that he preferred vegetarian foods, and various hadith (collections of traditions containing sayings of the Prophet) demonstrate that he had an unmistakable compassion for nonhuman animals. Some orders in Tasawwuf or Sufism, a mystical tradition within Islam, promote a vegetarian diet as a spiritual ideal, more conducive to muraqaba or meditation; Sufi tariqats often prohibit flesh-eating during retreats. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen was a notable Sufi saint or wali ("friend of God"; pl. awliya) who advocated nonviolence and vegetarianism. However, while Sufis may be more likely than so-called "mainstream" Muslims to follow a vegetarian diet, it is important to note that vegetarianism is not universal among Sufis.
Muslims around the world follow dietary laws put forth in the Qur'an, their holy text: haram (forbidden) foods include pork, camel, shellfish, blood, and carnivorous animals. In modern agribusiness, livestock are frequently given rendered animal flesh or blood as part of their feed, thus making the meat from such creatures technically "unclean." Furthermore, since it is nearly impossible to removal all traces of blood from animal flesh, a small minority Muslims believe that the only way to be truly halal (the Islamic equivalent to Jewish kosher) is to abstain from meat altogether. Other Muslims believe that Allah put restrictions on meat eating in order to discourage animal slaughter, and to make both butcher and consumer more conscious of the life being taken in order to sustain them. It is certainly worth noting that all vegetarian foods are invariably halal, although the inverse is not necessarily true. The Qur'an promotes not only halal foods, but also that which is tayyib or wholesome; this is where the health benefits of a vegetarian diet could be argued.
Various Islamic leaders have spoken out against Western-style industrial farming. Al-Hafiz Basheer Ahmad Masri, an Indian imam and lifelong vegetarian, is one notable outspoken critic, and believes that if Muslims were to judge the Qur'an and hadith in their "true spirit, no one will deny that Allah requires of us to apply the same moral code to all creatures, including animals, as we apply to our fellow human beings." See also ritual slaughter below.
As noted above, the original diet laid out in the Book of Genesis was vegan; some theologians argue that later concessions for the eating of meat were only done out of consideration of mankind's weakness, and at significant spiritual expense. The prophet Isaiah seems to predict that the Earth will return to the Edenic vegetarian state, and some Jews believe that humanity should start down that path in preparation for the coming of the Messiah.
Dietary laws set forth in the Tanakh prohibit, among other things, pork, shellfish, blood, and fat; since it is impossible to remove all traces of blood and fat from animal flesh, a minority Jews believe that the only way to be truly kosher is to abstain from meat altogether. Some vegetarian Jews also point out that the dietary laws prohibit eating of carnivorous animals, and that in modern factory farms, livestock are frequently given rendered animal flesh or blood as part of their feed, thus making the flesh of such creatures technically "unclean." While there are several references in the texts describing animal sacrifice (which has not been practiced since the destruction of the Temple), and Jewish ritual shechita slaughter is encoded in ritual, nowhere in any of the scriptures does it say that humanity must eat meat. Vegetarian foods, incidentally, are almost invariably kosher for everyday consumption (the exception being certain cheeses made with rennet), and vegan fare is automatically kosher pareve. Again, however, not all kosher foods are vegetarian, and because Passover has its own dietary restrictions, some vegetarian foods must be avoided during that time.
Jewish legal tradition prohibits tsa'ar ba'alei chayim, or inflicting unnecessary pain upon animals; clearly, modern factory farms do not meet this moral standard, and traditional methods of slaughter (see below) may also be called into question. Jews also observe bal tashchit, the principle of not wasting, and remember the verse in Psalm 24 that "the Earth is the Lord's" and that we should take care not to destroy "God's creation" (again, consider the environmental impacts of the modern meat industry).
Rav Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz, founding Dean of Mestivta Torah VoDaath, became a vegetarian after the Shoah (Holocaust), stating that, "There has been enough killing in the world." Similarly, Isaac Bashevis Singer, a Jewish author and Nobel laureate, likens the confinement of nonhuman animals to his own experience in a Nazi concentration camp, and calls his own vegetarianism a protest against acts of violence. His vegetarian views are often reflected in his literary works, e.g., "As often as Herman had witnessed the slaughter of animals and fish, he always had the same thought: In their behavior toward creatures, all men were Nazis."
Rastafari is as much a cultural as a religious movement, and while many Rastas believe that standard translations of the modern Bible were heavily corrupted by racist white power structure, Rastafari ideas draws heavily from the Judeo-Christian Bible. Rastafari advocates "getting back to nature," and among other things, members of the movement cast a cynical eye on modern food producing practices. The Rastafari "Ital" diet prohibits adulterated or artificially preserved foods, pork, shellfish, and milk. A great many Rastas extend the dietary taboos to include meat of all kinds, particularly that which comes from factory farms, since antibiotic and pesticide laden flesh quite arguably falls into the category of "adulterated."
A note on ritual slaughter
Methods of Islamic and Jewish ritual slaughter (dhabh and shechita, respectively) were originally intended to make it a more humane act; a specially trained butcher will follow strict rituals and cut the animal's throat in a very precise manner, so that it feels a minimal amount of pain and dies very quickly. Unfortunately, "humane slaughter" is often virtually impossible when religious mandates are coupled with modern sanitary laws in industrialized countries.
In traditional methods, animals are fully conscious when slaughtered. In the U.S. and several other countries, food animals are not allowed to be butchered in the blood of a previously killed animal, and it is not efficient to clean the floor after every animal. Thus to provide halal and kosher meat in many Western countries, cows and sheep are commonly shackled by one leg and hung upside down -- completely aware of what is going on, almost certainly terrified -- while their throats are cut. (Whether mild stunning should be used for subduing larger animals is a subject of debate among modern Islamic jurists.) Many Jews and Muslims, upon learning these gruesome facts, opt to abstain from meat altogether rather than support such horrific practices. It is notable that Sikhs are discouraged from consuming meat obtained by Jewish or Muslim ritual slaughter out of concern for the pain inflicted on the animals during shechita and dhabh.
It should also be noted that Jews and Muslims are not the only consumers of kosher and halal meat. The portions of animal carcass which can be deemed kosher or halal are sold as such, while the rest of the animal parts find their way into the market as regular meat. The consumer can never tell if the meat they are eating came from ritual slaughter or "normal" factory farm methods, so even if one is not consciously purchasing ritually slaughtered meat, it is possible, and even likely, that one's food dollars are indirectly contributing to these arguably inhumane practices.
Bibliography and suggested further reading:
Akers, Keith -- The Lost Religion of Jesus: Simple Living and Nonviolence in Early Christianity
Berman, Louis -- Vegetarianism and the Jewish Tradition
Berry, Rynn -- Food of the Gods: Vegetarianism and the World's Religions
Foltz, Richard C. -- Animals in Islamic Tradition and Muslim Cultures
Hyland, J.R. -- God's Covenant With Animals: A Biblical Basis for the Humane Treatment of All Creatures
Linzey, Rev. Andrew -- Animal Rights: A Christian Assessment of Man's Treatment of Animals
Linzey, Rev. Andrew and Tom Regan -- Christianity and the Rights of Animals
Kowalski, Gary -- The Bible According to Noah: Theology as if Animals Mattered
Masri, Al-Hafiz Basheer Ahmad -- Animals in Islam
Rosen, Steven -- Diet For Transcendence: Vegetarianism and the World Religions
Schwartz, Richard H. -- Judaism and Vegetarianism
Sears, Rabbi David -- The Vision of Eden: Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism.
Spencer, Colin -- The Heretic's Feast: A History of Vegetarianism
Stepaniak, Joanne -- The Vegan Sourcebook
Walters, Kerry S. and Lisa Portness -- Religious Vegetarianism: From Hesiod to the Dalai Lama
Webb, Stephen H. -- Good Eating: The Bible, Diet, and the Proper Love of Animals
Young, Richard Allen -- Is God a Vegetarian? Christianity, Vegetarianism, and Animal Rights