Is it too late to build this narrative?
Given the vast diversity of opinion in the Muslim world concerning how we ought to live our lives, one may be tempted to assume that this diversity is well-tolerated. That assumption, sadly, would be incorrect.
Take H, for example. H is a 32-year old British man who converted to Islam nearly 10 years ago. Born and raised in a half-protestant, half-agnostic family, H’s dedication to Islam is strong enough to survive just any test put forth by any practicing Muslim. There is one test, however, that he may not pass; and that trial presents itself to him every year on Eid-ul-Adha.
H was raised in a vegetarian household, and it is one of the few clauses from his formal moral code that he imported into his new life as a Muslim. H does not, and never has, an animal sacrificed for Eid. His Muslim friends, all of whom are well-aware of his aversion to meat, respect his lifestyle by gifting him sweets on Eid instead of the traditional bounty of fresh meat.
H’s stark refusal to comply with the qurbani ritual may be perceived as anything from odd to outright un-Islamic, depending on who you might ask. It may be difficult for us to empathise with H, but his background ought to be taken into account. A person attuned neither to the smell of raw animal flesh nor the taste of cooked meat, may be excused for not celebrating Eid ul Adha the way most of us do.
Even as a meat-eater, it’s often hard for one to get accustomed to a new kind of meat that he or she is not in the habit of consuming. If you were in Kazakhstan and offered to try the local delicacy made of horse meat (which is largely considered halal by the local Muslim population), you may be reluctant to dive right in, and look around the menu for something ‘safer’. For a person who has never had cooked animal flesh, his consternation would be somewhat easier to imagine in such situation.
It’s not uncommon for Pakistani media to associate vegetarianism with weakness, or worse, ‘Hinduism’. I personally identify as a ‘flexitarian’ – someone with a strong preference for vegetarian foods, but ‘flexible’ enough to eat meats in order to avoid potential embarrassment in certain occasions. And even my religious beliefs have been called into question at times by acquaintances, when I’ve asked a waiter for vegetarian options at restaurants.
This may well be the greatest problem Pakistani vegetarians faith – attempting to strike a balance between their devotion to religious tradition, and their eagerness to avoid making animals suffer, wherever this suffering may be avoided.
The intersection of religion and animal rights deserves must be carefully examined by not religious scholars, but ordinary Muslims who feel a chill running down their spines at the sight of helpless animal having its neck sliced; to pay heed to a tiny voice at the back of one’s mind that rejects the sight and sound of blood spurting from a cow, twitching and shaking in agony.
Acknowledging this discomfort does not mark the betrayal of one’s religious values. It is about matching a religious tradition to its correct sociocultural context – the 7th century or the 21st. Each answer may be perfectly correct, in its own context of time and space.
As for ‘weakness’, it’s unfathomable how denying oneself the pleasure of chicken jalfrezi makes you any weaker than a person on a diet avoiding ice cream. Indulgence isn’t ‘strength’; and indulgence at the expense of an animal capable of suffering, is even less so.
It’s the myth of ‘weak vegetarians’, that results in fathers dragging frightened children to their front yards, to watch a bound goat bleed to death on the chips flooring. An image that repeatedly pops up in one’s mind, is the viral picture of a beaming Shahid Afridi dangling the severed head of a goat, while a little girl next to her weeps inconsolably. One would be remiss not to chalk this up to toxic masculinity; the insensitivity to violence and forced stunting of emotional development that it invariably mandates.
The objective is not to take a page from the guidebook of right-wing Hindu groups in India. The aim is merely to create space for vegetarian Muslims – and there are many such Muslims out there – to practice their values, without being guilt-tripped for following their own conscience. That, in fact, is part of a larger struggle towards a more inclusive global Muslim community, where believers acknowledge each other’s right to live by their own deen.