Eating beef not an Islamic ritual

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Eating beef not an Islamic ritual

Tuesday, 22 December 2015 | KG Suresh

Organised in response to the ‘intolerance’ controversy, beef festivals stand on the assumption that cow meat is an integral part of a Muslim’s diet. This is a specious argument that has been repeatedly debunked by several leading Islamic scholars and clergymen 

An imminent clash between two groups of students over the organisation of a beef festival and a counter pork festival at Osmania University, Hyderabad, was averted thanks to timely action by the police. Such events across the country are being projected as a reaction to some Hindu groups insisting on a blanket ban on cow slaughter with the Dadri killing as a turning point. Some intellectuals also blame vigilante groups for taking the law into their own hands while dealing with truckers allegedly smuggling cows for slaughter. Such protests subsequently became a continuum of the award-wapsi campaign and the intolerance debate, thereby, acquiring political overtones apparently meant to vilify the ruling dispensation.

What is debatable is the specious argument that beef eating is an integral part of Islamic lifestyle and, therefore, protests against cow slaughter is prejudicial to their freedom of religion and the right to choice of food. A close perusal of Islamic texts, and views of noted Islamic scholars and clergy worldwide, reveal that, forget any prescription for eating beef, Islam does not even prohibit vegetarianism. In fact, there are well known devout Muslims who practice vegetarianism.  Hazrat Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad, the fourth Khalifa as per Sunni belief, has been quoted in Sharh Nahjul Balagha, as saying: “Do not make your stomach a graveyard of animals”.

According to internationally acclaimed Islamic scholar Hamza Yusuf, “Meat is not a necessity in shari’ah, and in the old days most Muslims used to eat meat, if they were wealthy, like middle class — once a week on Friday. If they were poor — on the Eids.” The late Shia scholar Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah had, in an online question and answer session in 2001, categorically stated that, “Vegetarianism is halal. Meat is not compulsory. Any food is permissible, provided it is not harmful. Muslims are free to eat whatever they want provided it is halal.”

In the words of Mohammad Al-Shirazi, noted Islamic author and scholar, “Being vegetarian is okay and halal, and in fact we have the Hadith in Islam that encourages us to eat less meat.” Islamic scholars from time to time have discouraged Muslims from eating too much of meat. Responding to a query from a vegetarian convert to Islam about whether it is is halal to be vegetarian, Ayatullah Sayyid Khamanei says in his fatwa that, “According to Islamic law (shari’ah) there is no objection to it. However, eating meat is permissible in Islamic law although eating too much is reprehensible (makruh).”

In the context of the current debate, not led by Islamic scholars but mostly left-liberals who seem to have little comprehension of Islam or theology, it is pertinent to understand that Islam has not mandated eating of meat per se though due to climatic and topographical reasons and the easy availability of meat in the Muslim-dominated regions of West Asia, it became an integral part of the food habits of the inhabitants. In contrast, in India, with its abundant agricultural output, meat did not acquire the status of a staple diet among Muslims.

Coming back to the question of beef, which is sought to be projected as part of Islamic identity by sections of Indian intelligentsia, it is significant to mention that in his entire lifetime, the Prophet himself is not known to have partaken cow meat. According to well known Islamic scholars, there is no Hadith available which confirms that the Prophet in fact ate beef. However, we do have a number of authenticated statements of the Prophet, which does confirm that beef, ie cow’s meat (also called bovine meat), contains illness, while the cow’s milk and fat contain cure and healing.

For example, Imam Suyuti in his al-Jami as-Saghir narrates that the Messenger of Allah said, “The milk of the bovine (cow) contains healing, its fat is a medicine, and its meat a cause for sickness.” Abu al-Qasim Sulaiman ibn Ahmad ibn Al-Tabarani, one of the most important Hadith scholars, referred to the aforementioned Hadith as authentic, and so did Bayhaqi in his Sunan and Hakim in his Mustadrak.

In response to a fatwa sought by the Amroha-based Islamic scholar, Maulana Kaukab Mujtaba on Hindus considering the cow as sacred and many Indian States prohibiting cow slaughter, Maulana Alvi Gurgani, one of the four Shia Muftis authorised to issue the religious edict, stated that if cow slaughter could lead to conflict in society, then Muslims should avoid it.

From Fatwa-e-Humayuni to Darul Mukhtiar to Maulana Hassan Nizami and Hakim Ajmal Khan, the message has been reiterated time and again that cow slaughter is not mandated in Islam, that sacrifice of sheep and goat are considered superior to cow slaughter, that poor Muslims are not obliged to offer sacrifice and that neither the Holy Quran or Arab traditions support cow sacrifice. There have been many instances related to cow protection during the life and times of Khwaja Gareeb Nawaz Moinuddin Chishti of Ajmer. Hazrat Hamiduddin Nagori of Rajasthan is said to have been a vegetarian all his life and entry to the Dargah after eating meat is explicitly prohibited even today.

The last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, who led the first war of independence in 1857, had issued a decree declaring as his enemy any person who sacrificed any cow, bull or calf openly or otherwise and making such an act punishable by death, an order which bore strong resemblance to a firman issued by Emperor Akbar, whose love for cow finds elaborate mention in the Ain-i-Akbari written by Abul Fazal. French Traveller Francois Bernier, who closely studied the Mughal courts, also mentions in his works that cow slaughter was akin to man slaughter under the law.

Sufi saint Baba Bangalori Mastan of Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh, who passed away earlier this year, was not only a vegetarian but also ran a cow shelter. Such examples abound.

Any narrative on Islam and cow in India will be incomplete without reference to Sayyed Ibrahim Khan or Ras Khan, a devout Muslim poet and follower of lord Krishna, who famously stated that the best place to live in the world for animals was Gokul which was sanctified by the presence of cows.

A great lover of cow, Dr Rashid Ali Khan of Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, was brutally murdered by the meat mafia in 2003 for his vehement opposition to cow slaughter. Shahzad Ahmed was another Muslim youth who was beaten to death by cow smugglers in 1979 when he stopped a truck and fought with its occupants who were smuggling cows for slaughter. The Muslim Rashtriya Manch, an all India organisation of Muslims, demanded not only a country-wide ban on cow slaughter but also enactment of a Central law in this regard, at its Raipur conference in 2014.

The current debate on cow slaughter appears petty and highly politicised in the light of our history, culture as also Islamic traditions. While any legislative measures in this regard should be adopted only through consensus at the popular level, it is important that the religious sentiments of all communities are respected in the larger interests of national unity and communal harmony. Beef and pork festivals will only serve to divide our nation further.

(The author is director, Global Foundation for Civilisational Harmony India. The views expressed here are personal)

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