By Shabaana Kidy
With the developments of the 21st century, we have come to expect variety, ease and speed in the way we buy and sell. However, most of us might not realize how the intense demands of the consumer culture we find ourselves in have put immense strain on all areas of production. We hear frequent horror stories of laborers in Cambodia and China who work long shifts under terrible working conditions to satisfy demands for clothing and electrical items. We see chemicals and pesticides used to grow bigger, juicier fruits and vegetables that are just the right shape and size. And we see a serious and worrying decline in the levels of animal welfare to respond to heavy demands for meat and poultry.
Laying hens, for example, are often reared in cages in which each hen has an area barely the size of an A4 sheet of paper. These hens never experience the outdoors or feel the warmth of the summer sunshine. Their entire lives are spent in a small cage, around the same size of an average microwave, which is traditionally shared by 6 to 8 hens (see this infographic). The regular movement and behavior that a chicken would normally engage in, such as flapping its wings, perching, foraging and dust-bathing, is prevented due to the lack of space. When farmers are asked about these conditions, they respond that allowing birds a larger space would massively affect the egg yield and they would not be able to respond to the demand. Over 300 million chickens in the US live in these cramped cages and in the UK, 50% of all eggs come from caged hens.
Similarly, chickens that are reared for consumption are forced to grow in extremely cramped conditions, with little or no access to sunlight. These chickens are bred to grow much faster than normal and as such are more likely to get heart and leg problems which cause great suffering to the animal. Larger animals such as cows and sheep also face cramped indoor conditions and a lack of attention when animals fall ill due to the need for farmers to have larger herds to keep up with demand.
Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) has commanded justice towards all of creation and the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) was known for his unending kindness and compassion towards people and animals. In several stories narrated from his lifetime, we see the level of concern the Prophet ﷺ had for everyone and everything around him. The story of the woman who gave water to a thirsty dog and was rewarded with paradise1 , despite spending much of her life in sin, and similarly the woman who treated her cat unjustly and was punished for doing so,2 are examples of the clear evidence in the Islamic tradition for looking after Allah’s creation.
Allah (swt) states in the Qur’an that He has created animals for us:
“He created man from a sperm-drop; then at once, he is a clear adversary. And the grazing livestock He has created for you; in them is warmth and [numerous] benefits, and from them you eat. And for you in them is [the enjoyment of] beauty when you bring them in [for the evening] and when you send them out [to pasture]. And they carry your loads to a land you could not have reached except with difficulty to yourselves. Indeed, your Lord is Kind and Merciful.” (Qur’an 16:4-7)
Humans have been given a degree of authority over animals; the relationship between humans and the animal kingdom is a delicate balance. Whilst Allah (swt) has granted us the permission to take the life of an animal for the sake of eating and clothing, it’s important that we realize that this is a permission granted by Allah (swt) and in turn we carry two principle obligations:
1. That we treat the animal with dignity, respect and kindness during its lifetime.
2. That the life of the animal is taken in Allah’s name and fulfilling all the necessary conditions of the sacrifice.
As a community, we tend to focus heavily on the latter and ignore the former, without realizing that we are involved in a system which abuses and mistreats the creation of Allah (swt).
Imagine this: Your best friend gives you a precious gift – something that she or he has shaped, moulded and made just for you; maybe a jewellery box or a painting that she or he spent hours on. Imagine that you then left it to one side. In fact, you damaged it, knowingly. The example of Allah (swt) is far greater. The permission granted by Allah (swt) for us to eat meat is a gift from the Most Beneficent. To neglect—in fact to mistreat and abuse—that gift makes us undeserving of that privilege.
To abuse the gift is to be ungrateful to the One who bestowed it upon you.
There is a deep disconnect that has emerged between us and the animal kingdom. I remember growing up constantly surrounded by animals, from the pet cat, to weekend trips to the safari park, and visits from the animal man in primary school (although the ethics of that might be debatable). Most children today however, have little or no interaction with animals and many children fear them. We see animals as unclean and inferior. It is no surprise then that we can go to the supermarket or butcher, pick up a chicken or cut of lamb or beef, and take it home without for a moment considering the animal that has given its life for our sake. By eating such meat without looking at the conditions that the animal was reared in, we indirectly support the continual exploitation and abuse of animals, and show deep ingratitude towards Allah (swt).
How do we respond?
There are a number of things we can do:
1) Currently there are a small number of farms and outlets which offer halal, ethical meat and poultry. Do some research in your local area and see what is available. If you can access them, go for it!
2) Buy free-range eggs. Most grocery stores have free-range eggs available and have to mark those eggs that come from caged hens. You know the conditions that caged hens live in—so choose free-range.
3) Reduce your meat intake. As a community, we consume huge amounts of meat and chicken, and this places enormous strain on farmers to meet the demand.
But it’s too expensive!
A major concern for Muslim families is the difference in price between the mechanised, mass-produced meat/chicken/eggs compared with free-range. This is a real problem for families, especially due to the current financial situation that faces us all. Each family knows their situation best and how much free-range produce they can afford. You do not need to switch your entire weekly shop to a free-range one if that is not financially possible—but try to buy free-range once in a while, with the aim of switching over when you can afford to do so. The most important thing is that we all make some sacrifice and move towards free-range.
“Never will you attain the good [reward] until you spend [in the way of Allah ] from that which you love. And whatever you spend – indeed, Allah is Knowing of it.” (Qur’an 3:92)
On an individual level, we each need to do what we can and identify where we are able to make sacrifices. However on a community level, a shift in thinking is massively needed. During Prophetic times, meat was a luxury. In fact this was the case throughout history in different communities and cultures (think of Sunday Roast, or weekend family meals like meatloaf). It is only recently that we have become so accustomed to such huge amounts of meat, often making it a daily feature of the menu! Maybe we need a little more self-evaluation and introspection—are our demands for meat and poultry sustainable? Is the cost to animal welfare worthwhile? Is the cost to our relationship with Allah (swt) worth it?
Ultimately, can we make do with less?
To do so would seem to be taking a step back—why eat meat once a month when you can have it every day, right? However, growing in a way that is sustainable means not detracting from the ability of future generation to cater for their own needs, or exploiting others (whether that is people—think cheap labour in developing countries—or animals and the environment).
It takes a strong heart to make the conscious decision to reduce consumption, but it’s something inherent in our tradition. Every year in Ramadan, we make the conscious decision to do just that—to display self-restraint perfectly, to place Allah (swt) above our bodily desires, to make do with less. You can reduce your meat intake—we all can, but the question is one of will.
If we as a community reduced our meat intake, the demand on the meat industry would start to drop, thereby allowing farmers to invest more into ensuring better welfare for their animals. Reducing meat and poultry intake would mean we have the finances to pay for one wholesome, well-treated chicken once a week, rather than three ill-treated chickens in the same time period. It’s a decrease in the physical sense but an increase in the spiritual one.
Centrally, the discussion on animal welfare is symptomatic of a wider problem we are faced with—one of confidence in our faith. Do we scuttle down the corridors of history fearing the challenges of widespread mass-production and globalization? Or do we hold firm to our principles of justice and fairness, having the confidence that our faith is a holistic one and can adequately respond to challenges given the chance? The only disservice currently, is the lack of confidence amongst Muslims about who they are. We’ve reached a point where we are hanging onto our faith by the skin of our teeth—sticking rigidly to the letter, whilst forgetting the spirit of our beautiful deen (way of life).3 We’re obsessed with ensuring that our meat is halal in the sense of dying a ‘correct Islamic death’, but have little concern over how the animal was treated during its lifetime. If we are to lose the spirit of Islam, which promotes justice as one of its central tenets, we risk losing the beauty of our faith.