Islam is a modern and flexible religion which always teaches its followers the philosophy of peaceful co-existence, tolerance and harmony. The basic tenets of Islam and fundamental principles have been divided as “Huquq Allah” and “Huquq Al ibad” (God rights and human rights). These two rights form the basic teachings of Islam. God rights relate to namaz, roza, haj and zakat (five times prayer, fasting in the month of ramzan, pilgrimage to Mecca and alms giving to the poor). Human rights include family rights, neighbour rights and nation rights.
If one practises God rights in right earnest but neglects human rights, he or she cannot enter heaven until forgiven by the people he has wronged.
Similarly, Islam clearly sets out what is permitted and what is prohibited. All permitted things may be used and the prohibited avoided. The cow is among the permitted animals but there is no compulsion to eat it. Just as divorce is permitted but that does not mean that a man can divorce his wife without appropriate reason. Although horse is halal, eating it is not permitted because these animals are useful to mankind and consuming them will render them extinct. Same goes with the cow. Though cow is a permitted animal, it is not compulsory to eat its meat but, more important, to drink the milk it provides and consume ghee made from it.
Iranian scholar Al-Ghazzali (1058-1111 AD), one of the most brilliant philosophers of Islam, stated that besides bread, whatever we eat is simply to satisfy our urge. At 28, he headed the Institute of Islam at Baghdad. In his book, Ihya Ulum ul-Din – The Revival of Religious Sciences (part 2, page 23, lines 17-19), he describes the detrimental effects of beef and the virtues of ghee and milk from the cow, thus: “The meat of cow is marz (disease), it’s milk is safa (health) and it’s ghee is dava (medicine).”
It has been proven scientifically that regular drinking of cow milk is beneficial to the development of fine brain tissues. It helps sharpen memory, favouring remembrance of Allah. Therefore, the cow and its milk are important to development of human society. Those eager to eat meat may consume lesser animals such as sheep and goat.
There is only one story in the Holy Quran which describes the sacrifice of a cow: “When Moses said to his people: ‘Allah commands you that you sacrifice a cow.’ They said: ‘Are you making game of us?’
He answered: ‘Allah forbids that I should be among the foolish!’ They said: ‘Pray for us unto your Lord that He make clear to us what (cow) she is.’
Moses answered: ‘He says, that the cow should be neither too old nor too young, but middle age; now do what you are commanded!’ They said: ‘Pray for us unto your Lord that He make clear to us of what colour she is.’ Moses answered: ‘He says, that she is a yellow cow. Bright is her colour; gladdening beholders.’ They said: ‘Pray for us unto your Lord that He make clear to us what (cow) she is. To us all cows are alike.’
Moses answered: ‘He says, that she is a cow not trained to till the soil or water the fields; whole and without a mark.’ They said: ‘Now you have brought the truth.’ Then they sacrificed her; though they scarcely did it.’ (2.67-71). The story was accepted in Jewish traditions, which are based on certain sacrificial directions in the Old Testament. The cow story of Jewish tradition is based on Num 19.1-10 in which Moses and Aaron ordered the Israelites to sacrifice a red cow without a spot.
Thus Moses announced the sacrifice to the Israelites, and they treated it as jest.
When Moses continued solemnly to ask for the sacrifice, they put him off on one pretext or other, asking questions which they could have answered themselves if they had listened to Moses’ directions. Their questions were carping criticisms rather than the result of a desire for information. It was mere pretence that they were genuinely seeking guidance.
When at last they were cornered, they made the sacrifice, but if they had done it willingly, then the sacrifice would have been more efficacious for their purification from sin. The cow’s body was to be burnt and the ashes were to be kept for the purification of the congregation from sin.
Thus, by reading the Holy Quran, we can conclude that cow killing is not sanctioned and the only cow sacrifice which has been described was not meant for meat eating but for purification from sins.
It is said in the Aine-Akbari that on several occasions such as from Friday to Sunday and eclipse days, Akbar abstained from taking meat.
Islamic saints avoided meat. Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, Hazrat Nizammuddin Aulia, Bu Ali Shah Qalandar etc were Muslim saints whose path was pious living, centered on self-restraint, love and affection for all and vegetarian eating.
Prophet Muhammad’s death emphasises the harmfulness of meat-eating. The story goes that a non-Muslim woman invited the Prophet and some of his companions to a meal and served them poisoned meat. The Prophet knew by spiritual insight that the meat was poisoned and he spat out a piece of meat which he had chewed. One of his companions died instantly.
The great Muslim saint Sarmad condemned meat-eating, while Kabir, makes it clear that even fasting is in vain if its practitioner dictates the killing of living beings for the sake of its taste.
(The writer is a scholar from the Centre of Persian and Central Asian studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)