I was delighted to discover that there is a Halal section of food in the John Jay Dining Hall at Columbia University. Though it is true that I do not always eat strictly Halal food, most of the time I do look around to see if there is a Halal sign nearby before stumbling towards a pile of regular meat. For an animal’s meat to be Halal, according to Islam, the animal has to be sacrificed following some specific rules, including slaughtering the animal in the least painful manner and only in the name of Almighty Allah. If the animal is not slaughtered following this specific “Halal code,” then its meat is Haram, or forbidden. Though my pursuit to eat Halal is mainly a result of my strong religious viewpoint, it is also true that my belief in the need for compassion for animals plays a large part in it as well. But in saying this, the biggest question that I often have to face is: if “compassion” for animals, then why “animal sacrifice” in the first place?
DONIGER AND SCULLY: AT THE CROSSROADS OF BELIEFS
In The Lives of Animals, J.M. Coetzee introduces readers to a fictional character, Elizabeth Costello, who passionately cares about animal rights, partly because of her own self-interest—the desire to protect her own soul from pollution (Doniger 93). In the same book, Wendy Doniger, in a reflection on Coetzee’s text, focuses on the relationship between self-interest and vegetarianism from the perspective of some non-Western religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, and argues that the idea of treating animals humanely for our own self-interest is indeed very wise. “After about the sixth century B.C.E., most Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains did indeed feel that people should not eat animals, in part, as is generally argued, because they themselves might be reborn as animals, but more because they feared that animals might retaliate in the afterworld” (Doniger 93). Familiarizing readers with some Hindu and Buddhist texts, myths, and notions, Doniger states that “compassion” for animals is rarely an important factor in the South Asian arguments for vegetarianism (97). Though Doniger does not define the term “compassion” explicitly, she indirectly specifies its meaning as care and kindness throughout the essay. “Buddhists and Jains cared, like Elizabeth Costello, for individual human salvation, more, really, than they cared for animals; they refrained from killing and eating animals to protect their own souls from pollution” (Doniger 98).
While presenting the long-held beliefs of non-Western religions concerning animals, Doniger argues that we should consider some of their wise ideas as well, such as treating animals humanely for human benefits. As she goes on to say, “So, too, whether or not we can argue that killing animals for food or experimentation is bad for the universe, for the food supply…we might take from the South Asian context the very wise argument that we know that they are going to die, and that that makes it bad for us to kill them” (98). This actually seems like a persuasive argument—one that resembles the viewpoint of Matthew Scully, another animal rights advocate and author of the book Dominion. A devoted Christian, Matthew Scully believes that we should treat animals humanely, not because they have rights but because they stand powerless in front of us. Similarly to Doniger, Scully does not emphasize “compassion” for animals—providing animals with rights in this case. However, Scully strongly believes that it is our moral obligation to treat animals humanely. According to him, “We have no duties to the creatures, but only duties in respect of animals” (341). One of his most prominent arguments is that “[a] sin always hurts the sinner more than the victim, estranging the offender from God and risking an eternal fate far worse than any hurt he or she has caused” (348-349). Therefore, Scully argues that we should not subject animals to human cruelty, as “a matter of simple decency and an obligation of justice” (349).
AND…ISLAM: NEED FOR “COMPASSION”
Though Doniger looks at “compassion” for animals and vegetarianism from the perspective of some important non-Western religions, she somehow does not mention anything about Islam—a prominent non-Western religion and currently the second-largest world religion. Meat-eating is neither recommended nor forbidden in Islam but for those of us who wish to eat meat, there are some specific rules that we must follow. Making sure that the knife used for slaughter is sharpened so that little pain is inflicted on the animal, not slaughtering animals while they are tied up, and making sure that animals have not been subjected to cruelties during breeding, transporting, or slaughtering are a few of the many requirements for any meat to be Halal. Most of these Islamic laws seem to be based on a sense of “compassion”—kindness, and care for animals. Numerous verses of the Qur’an suggest this idea, including the following one, which gives animals a distinct place along with the humans in the eyes of the Lord: “There is not an animal [that lives] on the earth, nor a being that flies on its wings, but [forms part of] communities like you. Nothing have we omitted from the Book, and they [all] shall be gathered to their Lord in the end” (Yusuf Ali, Qur’an 6:38). Growing up in a conservative Muslim family, my beliefs about “compassion”—kindness, care, respect—and proper treatment of animals, have been derived largely from those views endorsed by my religion, Islam.
The basic lesson of both Scully and Doniger’s commendable works is that a deed in this life will pay off soon in the next one; therefore one should think twice before doing a misdeed. Though my views concerning the need to treat animals humanely are quite similar to both of these authors, I would actually take a step forward from Doniger and Scully’s arguments for self-interest in the afterlife and argue for the “need for compassion” for animals in present life. If I care only about my own fate and do not hold any real “compassion” towards animals, then am I really following the words of God—or, rather, fulfilling the responsibility that the Creator has given me in present life for being a moral living being? Scully touches upon this, saying that we fulfill our duties as fathers, husbands, mothers, neighbors, etc.; so why should we not also do it as stewards of the earth, the caretakers of the creation (311-312)? I agree with Scully here. In addition to worrying that ‘what goes around, comes around,’ it is part of our moral obligation or responsibility as humans to develop “compassion” for those other living beings who are sharing the earth with us.
THEN WHY MEAT-EATING AND ANIMAL SACRIFICE?
Now some difficult questions arise. If I hold such strong compassion for animals, then why I am not a vegetarian? If I say that it is our moral obligation to treat animals humanely, then why do I support the sacrifice of animals in the name of God? In Dominion, Scully relates how after writing an article about animal rights and vegetarianism for The National Review, he was amazed by “the volume and indignation of the letters” that came back to him, most of which were from men who talked about how “they liked their meat” and who suggested Scully drop the matter and mind his own business (319). Not surprisingly, Scully was offended by such comments and therefore defends his position in Dominion saying, “What are all these hardy menfolk really defending here? A pleasure. A flavor. A feeling in their bellies” (319). We have to eat meat—Scully castigates this social notion immensely throughout his essay.
Well, it is true that some people take meat-eating as a pleasure, sometimes not even caring or realizing what the animal has go through to become his dinner. But Scully overlooks the fact that all the fingers in a hand are not the same—not all human beings are the same and not all think the same way. As a meat-eater, I always feel obligated to consider whether the animal has been slaughtered humanely before devouring its meat. It seems like vegetarianism is the only solution Scully supports as a way to treat animals humanely. While reading his arguments, I found myself wondering, can we not combine meat-eating and “compassion” for animals? Is vegetarianism the only way to free animals from the barbaric deeds of humans?
Let me tell you a story. Eid-Ul-Azha is one of those two Muslim holidays that every year brings happiness and excitement to every Muslim’s life. As a child, I always looked forward to it for many different reasons. One of the most prominent of them was experiencing Qurbani—the process of sacrificing/dedicating animals in the name of Almighty Allah; this is how all meat is derived from animals in Islam.
One year, when I was around 7 years old, a soon-to-be sacrificed cow stepped into our big farm house one morning. We were all as excited as usual, especially me. Sitting next to the newly bought cow and talking to him was my daily job during the days before Qurbani. We took special care of him at that time—feeding him more, behaving with extra compassion towards him. I used to put my little hands on his enormous body, talk to him with my other cousins, sometimes feed him. He had beautiful eyes, so black, so deep! Somehow, teardrops always dropped down from his eyes. When I asked my mom about this, she replied, “He knows that the day of sacrifice is coming soon, that’s why!”
Then the day of Qurbani arrived. The first thing I did that morning was run to see him and talk to him for what would be the last time in my life. Our huzur—the priest—soon came. Around eight people approached, getting ready to help the huzur do his job properly. I was watching everything from far away. The cow seemed to be mourning, making a slight noise; suddenly that slender cry transformed into an overwhelming scream. The sound of it crossed beyond our visual limits, mingling with the unlimited horizon of the unknown. It was probably the loudest scream I ever heard. I couldn’t help but step back. Four men held his legs with great force; another two men held his horns, and the last man caressed his back lovingly. The noises he was making eased now—he seemed to find comfort in those hands. The huzur started to read Dua—prayer—before placing the sharpened knife carefully next to his throat… a stream of blood flowed down, more drops of tears and a moment of silence…
Scully or Doniger or similar animal rights supporters would probably focus on the cruelty of such an event. It does actually seem very cruel if you are an outsider, just reading the description, not realizing the significance and profoundness of the beliefs of the people in the scene. Scully wrote Dominion based on his Christian beliefs and argued for his ideas in the case of animal rights as a devoted Christian; Doniger focused on “compassion” for animals from religious perspectives as well, advising us to take the “wise argument” of South Asian religions—all of which portray the way religious beliefs affected their viewpoints on “the proper way of treating animals.” I would say that the same applies to my case.
I believe, as the Qur’an says, “It is not their meat nor their blood that reaches Allah: it is your piety that reaches Him…” (Yusuf Ali, Qur’an 22:37). In Islam, it is advised that a large portion of the meat from the animal you sacrifice is distributed among your neighbors, relatives and mostly the poor. It is not only for your own pleasure in eating it. It is a form of charity, a form of showing dedication—not only to Allah but to your fellow human beings. The Qur’an says, “That they may witness the benefits (provided) for them, and celebrate the name of Allah, through the Days appointed, over the cattle which He has provided for them [for sacrifice]: then eat ye thereof and feed the distressed ones in want” (Yusuf Ali, Qur’an 22:28).
What does the animal have to go through to accomplish all this? I would answer this by saying: he has been dedicated for a justifiable reason and has not been treated cruelly in his lifetime, has been slaughtered in the least painful manner—otherwise the meat is Haram—and now has reached the end of his life. After all, death is inevitable for every living being, isn’t it? And moreover, we have more obligation to human beings than to animals, don’t we? I grew up believing this. I am not against vegetarianism but I do believe “compassion” for animals and meat-eating can be combined. Though our first moral obligation as a human being is to care for our own society and for the fellow human beings living in it, this definitely does not mean that we should only utilize other living beings cruelly for our own good. Even as meat-eaters, treating animals humanely, with compassion, kindness, and respect while they are alive or even being slaughtered is our foremost moral obligation.
Now, this essay would be incomplete if I didn’t dedicate this last paragraph to that great friend of mine—someone who made me realize “the need for compassion,” someone who made me understand that taking life away from a living being is not child’s play—that therefore it must be done with respect; animals too need respect. So—there he lay, dead. I stepped forward towards the blood that made our cream-colored backyard red—the color of both sunrise and sunset. But it was only the color of sunrise for me because I loved him and he had been dedicated for a good reason. I believed it then and I still do now.
Ali, Yusuf. “Translations of the Qur’an.” USC-MSA Compendium of Muslim Texts. University of South California. 22 October 2006.
Doniger, Wendy. “Reflection.” The Lives of Animals. Ed. Amy Gutmann. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999. 93-106.
Scully, Matthew. Dominion. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002.