Kecia Ali, one of the contributors to this Feminism and Religion blog, recently wrote an excellent article titled, “Muslims and Meat-Eating Vegetarianism, Gender, and Identity,” (Journal of Religious Ethics, Volume 3, Issue 2, June 2015).
In her article, Kecia Ali “…argue[s] that Muslims in the industrialized West–especially those concerned with gender justice–ought to be vegetarians and that feminist ethics provides underutilized resources for Muslim thinking about ethics generally and food ethics in particular.” She assures the reader that “productive dialogue” is possible when Muslims engage with non-Islamic (not “un-Islamic”) ethics. The “engaged” parties may “disagree about basic presumptions but agree on desirable outcomes.”
Her article focuses on Muslims’ relationship to food, showing how food is not dissociated from other aspects of life such as sex, power, virtue, and feminism, noting that “Muslim ethical discourse already uses, but seldom acknowledges, non-religious thinking, particularly from scientific and social-scientific sources.” (Since identity is an integral part of religious expression, Muslims often will “reject labels such as ‘feminist’ and ‘vegetarian’” because those words “challenge the primacy of religious identity.”) It is that juncture–incorporation of “non-religious thinking” into “religious thought”–that intrigues me and is something I’d like to explore in this essay.
I think traditional understandings of religion are especially prone to using religious language as “an arbiter of acceptability” (Kecia Ali’s phrase) in order to lay claim to “truth.” In other words, wrapping one’s thinking and actions in the language of accepted religious rhetoric gives one a sense of authenticity in a community that understands that religious “code.” However, that same religious rhetoric can insulate both the individual and the community from examining the ways “things have always been done.” Familiar and “holy” language often prevent us from asking questions that dig deeper into our belief system(s).
Questions such as: Just what is my relationship (and what should my relationship be) to animals as well as to all creation? Is the ritual killing of animals and the eating of meat really essential to living out my religious beliefs effectively? One can find texts in various “holy books” that speak to the propriety and efficacy of slaughtering animals and eating their flesh. Those texts are often “read” to mean that meat eating is essential to the proper practice of one’s religion. However, some people have questioned the acceptability of emulating behaviors and calling them “right” just because they appear in Scripture. Does description of behavior (eating meat, for example) imply prescription of behavior (you MUST eat meat)? There are other examples. Must we go to war because our Scripture commands it? Must we be slaveholders because our Scripture gives instruction regarding the proper treatment of slaves? How can we follow/obey the Scripture, in this case, if we have no slaves?
I think this is the juncture where people easily “get lost.” Traditionalists (usually) of all religious stripes are often loath to incorporate thinking that springs from “secular” sources (sources outside of their religious tradition) into their worldview even when the desired outcome of that thinking (virtuous behavior that leads to a more just world) is the goal for both those inside and outside a particular tradition. But if people within a religious tradition, committed to justice, use religious language “as an arbiter of acceptability,” well, I think that can be an effective way to challenge ways of “being and doing” that no longer serve humans or the planet well. Abolitionists used this tactic.
Slave owners in the American South, most likely because they benefited from the practice, used their Scripture to uphold the institution of slavery, understanding Scripture in a way that preserved the status quo. Slave owners accepted (for the most part) slavery as “just.” It took “secular” thinking (thinking outside of conventional religious tradition), brought into the church, using “religious language…as an arbiter of acceptability” to begin the change that would abolish the practice of slavery. The same Scripture, once used to undergird slavery, when seen through a different/secular lens, was soon being used to dismantle slavery.
I foresee a day when Scripture, used by religious people to promote (even insist on) the eating of meat (as well as other practices), will be used to dismantle those practices. Some Christians quote Genesis, “…Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth“ (1: 28). What does it mean to have “dominion over the earth?” Many understand that phrase to mean that it is our right (even responsibility) to use animals exclusively for our use–human beings being the pinnacle of creation. In other words, creation is “there” to serve us.
It has been “secular” thinking (thinking that does not conform to tradition or inherited understandings of sacred texts) bumping up against conventional thinking that often gives us light to see differently. Is it possible to understand the phrase, “dominion over the earth,” in a way that contextualizes us within creation (not over/against creation), spurring us to see the earth and everything upon the earth as part of ourselves? If so, wouldn’t we live more compassionately?
I don’t think cows, pigs, elephants, whales, dolphins, chickens and other animal species are on the earth for human disposal. They do not “belong” to us. Sadly, many animals (including humans) are exploited by those who have the power to do so. Dominating the “other” (using the “other” to benefit oneself) is what lies at the heart of patriarchy. Refusing to take part in that domination (as much as is possible in our interconnected world) will go miles towards dismantling that social structure we call patriarchy. I think Kecia Ali rightly states that “…Muslims in the industrialized West…ought to be vegetarians….” I would include all of us in the industrialized West, not just Muslims.
Makes me wonder, though. What practices do we engage in today as a matter of course, believing them to be right and just–practices we will discard in the future as unjust? Let’s continue asking the hard questions that allow us to see more clearly the path that leads us towards justice.
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.