Animal cruelty, vegetarianism and foie gras – Q & A
“[Prophet], do you not see that all those who are in the heavens and earth praise God, as do the birds with wings outstretched? Each know its [own way] of prayer and glorification: God has full knowledge of what they do.”
“It is God who provides livestock for you, some for riding and some for your food; you have other benefits in them too. You can reach any destination you wish on them: they carry you, as ships carry you [on the sea].”
Given the impact of meat production on the environment and the treatment of animals in industrial farming, shouldn’t Muslims be encouraged to adopt a non-meat or vegetarian diet?
It is evident that we consume far too much meat and that industrial production raises ethical, health, environmental and even spiritual hazards. But, although AVS respects vegetarianism, we consider it inappropriate to promote this practice. God has granted us the right to eat meat and Muslims who wish to, should be able to do so without feeling remorse or doubt. We believe that God has granted us a blessing and our responsibility is to assume it within the divine vision of balance between His creatures. He is the guarantor of balance within His creation while the human is the steward. God is the Just in allocating roles and we must try to respect this justice. Thus it is crucial to stress that the authorisation to sacrifice animals encompasses responsibilities not only towards animals, but the environment and also the people often condemned to work in deplorable conditions in slaughterhouses and meat processing plants.
Rather than calling for vegetarianism, AVS prefers to support local projects with human-sized farms that are respectful of the welfare of the animals and the workforce. These alternative projects can only flourish with moderate levels of consumption as the price of meat is significantly higher with this type of farming compared with industrial production. So by pursuing alternative solutions, we hope to maintain and reinforce a responsible relationship with creation without evading the problem.
Why doesn’t animal cruelty, the norm within industrial farming, invalidate the halal nature of the meat in the same way stunning does?
The majority of Muslim jurists are adamant in their condemnation of animal cruelty as a serious sin. However, in fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), the abuse of an animal does not invalidate the halal character of the meat as long as the animal has been slaughtered according to Islamic ritual. This may appear surprising but the principle of the Islamic fiqh establishes that each act must be judged separately and therefore one must differentiate between the treatment of the animal during its life on the one hand and at the point of its death in the abattoir on the other. Abusing an animal is prohibited, but it is the act of sticking that determines in fine the halal nature of the meat.
One must also keep in mind the world around us. In Islam, the word of scholars holds great authority. Before enacting a ban, scholars must take into account several criteria; one of them is the challenge of realising the prohibition. Remember that Caliph Omar forbade the amputation of thieves’ hands during a period of famine because the desperate times rendered the enforcement of the law unfair.
Muslims who view meat from industrial production as non-halal are faced with clear options: either they become vegetarian (or non-meat eaters), or they turn to alternative solutions (local and/or organic farming). But even though these choices are honourable, they are, for the foreseeable future, a partial solution that can only affect a very small percentage of the entire Muslim population. The majority of Muslims living both in the West and in Muslim countries will continue to be denied a choice, condemned to eat meat from industrial production either because there is nothing else on the market, or because organic meat or the meat produced in alternative local farms is far too expensive. To prohibit within this context the consumption of meat from industrial farming would be tantamount to a complete prohibition of meat consumption for the vast majority of Muslims, which is not a realistic scenario. Animal cruelty in the industrial environment poses an extremely serious problem and that’s why we believe that intervention in the abattoirs is part of our responsibility to help improve managing the relationship between human beings and animals. Sweeping aside a serious concern, which we are able to help allay is not a responsible act before God.
What is AVS’s position on halal foie gras?
It may seem contradictory, but we refuse to certify so-called halal foie gras. Why industrial chicken and not foie gras you might ask? To answer this question, we must go back to the origins of our organization. AVS was established in 1991 to ensure that ritual slaughter was performed according to Islamic ritual. The goal was to certify meat deemed halal according to the legal definition, in a marketplace where genuine halal was scarce. The slaughterhouses were therefore our first point of intervention. We soon realised that ensuring ritual slaughter was not enough, that one had to set up a rigorous monitoring process most notably because of the risks of meat mixing and food fraud. This initially consumed all our energies and it was only later that we were able to look at the ethical issues further up the supply chain.
The reason we certify industrially-processed chickens is because we are locked into an economic reality not of our making: over 99% of the so-called halal meat sold in the market is produced by industrial farming and the majority of this meat is not even, from a legal perspective, halal. The purpose of our organisation was to remedy this immediate problem and so with our limited resources we managed to secure a small part of the halal market.
But because we are aware of the problems with industrial breeding we have also decided to exclude from our domain any new meat product which raises ethical issues in relation to the treatment of animals and which is not intended for mass consumption. Foie gras clearly falls into this category, while chicken from industrial production, which was already on the market when we started, is patently a product of mass consumption. We have, however, been trying to raise awareness of animal cruelty for some time: in the past we did it through organising conferences but nowadays we do it by supporting alternative agricultural projects such as L’îlot des combes. But the actions of AVS is limited, our field of intervention will mainly be restricted to the slaughterhouses. We therefore hope that other organisations will emerge to do the work further up the supply chain, i.e. long before the animals arrive at the slaughterhouse.
Can we dare to hope that Muslim scholars will eventually end up declaring meat, which comes from industrial farms as completely antithetical to the spirit of halal?
For socio-economic reasons “halal” meat volumes consumed by Muslims are increasing exponentially in Western countries, but also in Muslim countries where we sadly observe the development of an industry not based on a local or craft model but an industry that blindly imitates the Western one.
When one raises the question of the treatment of animals in industrial farming with Muslims scholars, they regard these practices as seriously breaching the message of Islam and the prophetic teachings, yet they generally prefer to hold their tongues instead of speaking out: firstly, because they are already under tremendous pressure on the issue of stunning from industrialists and other influential players in the halal meat market; secondly, because Muslim scholars do not want to expose believers to rulings they would be unable to follow if they publicly declared that industrial meat consumption is strongly discouraged, if not unlawful.
Showing how practices established within industrial farming are incompatible with Islamic ethics is an important first step that is needed in the challenge to raise awareness among Muslim communities of animal cruelty in industrial farming. Just as important are the alternatives one must present and which must be accessible to the greatest number of the people, allowing them to break free of the cycle of mass production and return to a healthier mode of consumption with local human-sized farms. If we could reach this stage, then perhaps Muslim scholars could transform their personal conviction into fatwas banning farming practices that trample on the welfare of animals and of the people who work inside the meat industry. But in the meantime, the reality of global needs calls for credible and realistic alternatives.