Meatless Muslims: Exploring Islam’s Tradition of Meatless Meals

As a multi-ethnic Muslim American woman, I constantly observe cultural practices and ponder their origins. I notice one practice pervading Islamic events in America – meals consist of endless rows of meat dishes, with little to no meatless option. Further, Muslims that limit eating meat (lamb, chicken, and beef) are often criticized as strange or malnourished, although I’ve been told that is the common practice in native Muslim countries. As a Registered Nutritionist, this sounded an alarm in my head. I wondered, why are our meals here so meat heavy?

Unfortunately, we’ve adopted the Western diet, which has itself been tainted by war conditions and political interests. Interestingly, early Americans traditionally ate meat occasionally. Then, during World Wars I and II, meat was rationed and scarce. When peace returned meat was available again, and people mistook this luxury item for a staple. Unfortunately, as meat became part of the regular diet, heart disease and cancer rates immediately increased. According to the New York Times Number One Best Seller In Defense of Food, Americans’ health declined so much that in the 1970’s Congress made Dietary Goals stating we should cut down on meat intake. However, meat lobbyists fought to keep meat included in US’s Dietary Guidelines. These lobbyists continue to relentlessly advertise and market meat rich ideology in our schools and nutrition programs. They have incorrectly taught us that meat is the only sufficient protein. Therefore, we think we need to keep eating meat every day, and that it is okay to do so. This indulgent ideology spread around the world, unfortunately reinforcing its popularity. In Defense of Food author Michael Pollan writes: “doctors…stationed overseas observed that wherever in the world people gave up their traditional way of eating and adopted the Western diet, there soon followed a…series of Western diseases, including obesity…cardiovascular diseases, and cancer.” I believe Muslim Americans are infatuated with eating meat because it’s so rare to find zabihah meat in the US. All the years of being deprived of zabihah meat lead to the opposite- eating it every chance we get. Fliers for Masjid programs boast, “Halal KFC and beef burgers will be served!” We’re focused on the item since it’s such a rarity here. It’s true that when we eat meat it needs to be zabihah, but it doesn’t follow that every time we eat there needs to be meat. Lastly, it seems that Muslims cling to meat heavy diets to differentiate from religious groups that follow vegetarian diets. Muslims that limit meat are admonished as though they are sacrilegious. Meat is a beneficial and permissible food, and we are blessed to have it available to us. But is it Islamic to eat meat regularly?

Muslims strive to follow the Sunnah, our beloved Prophet Muhammad’s (Peace Be upon Him) actions. We get closer to Allah (God) by following his actions, such as smiling and donating to charity. What about following the Prophet’s (PBUH) eating habits? We also strive to eat like our Prophet (PBUH), such as cooking with olive oil and enjoying pomegranates from our trees. We know that if he ate something it must be beneficial. According to hadith the Prophet (PBUH) ate meat “but occasionally”, like on Eid or as a guest. (Similar to traditional American practices.) Aisha (May God be pleased with her) reported that his habitual diet actually consisted of foods like dates, water, vinegar, honey, and barley bread. Meat was available only occasionally, and when it was he favored sheep. As Aisha reported, the Prophet’s (PBUH) never ate his fill of bread and meat. As a guest he was once served gourd (pumpkin) and meat stew, and picked out the gourd to eat. The Prophet (PBUH) and companions looked forward to Fridays, because a local woman served them a meatless meal with a meat substitute. Early Muslims continued Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) habit of rarely indulging in meat. As the third Caliph, Umar ibn al Khattab notably stated: “beware of meat, for it is addictive like alcohol.” He once chastised someone for giving in to his craving and buying meat ( Umar is a strong example for us as well, since the Prophet (PBUH) said, “If there were a prophet after me, it would be Umar, and “Stick to the two after me: Abu Bakr and Umar.” So in fact, eating little meat is an Islamic tradition.

There is a reason for this tradition- regular meat intake is harmful. Daily intake is directly linked to the top causes of death in the US, and has drastically increased their rates: heart disease- 11%, cancer- 8.5%, and obesity- 33%, according to US Centers for Disease Control in 2012. Because of the Western diet, the average American lifespan is only 79 years.

In contrast, US News and World Report states that people that limit meat in their diet are much healthier and thinner. Flexitarians- myself included- eat meat a few times a week or month and have lower rates of heart disease and cancer, weigh 15% less, and live about 3.6 years longer. Vegetarians do not eat meat, and have about 30% less cancer risk, weigh about 17 pounds less, and live about 5 years longer. Amazingly, there are communities all over the world- like Loma Linda, California, Okinawa, Japan, and Ikaria, Greece- that live into their 90’s and 100’s! Deemed “the healthiest people in the world,” they share one thing in common, they all eat very little meat. Many of us eat beef burgers, chicken curry, and meat pizza daily, suffer from a heart attack or cancer, and then strictly change our diet. Take a proactive approach and start eating healthy now. It’s time we realize that we are over consuming meat, and reduce our consumption.

So what do we eat instead of meat? Thankfully, my questions were answered while pursuing my Masters in Nutrition at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. There are plenty of meatless proteins that completely fulfill our nutrition needs. These delicious proteins are: nuts and nut butters, beans and lentils, fish, tofu, eggs, dairy, kale, brown rice, and quinoa. Studies show meatless proteins improve strength in soldiers and Olympic athletes, and are easier to digest. These foods lower disease and mortality risks. They also boost metabolism, aiding in weight loss. These proteins are more beneficial and nutrient- rich than meat: in addition to protein, iron, and vitamin B12, they also contain monounsaturated fats, omega- 3 fatty acids, and fiber. Also, eating meatless proteins saves us time and stress. Since they are always halal, we can choose from a much wider selection of restaurants and grocery stores. We don’t have to search for halal restaurants or stores, which especially comes in handy when traveling or after moving to a new area.  

It is easy to adopt a mainly meatless diet. Follow these easy steps: First, stock the pantry and fridge with the proteins listed above so there are always options. Next, incorporate favorite meatless dishes in your meals, and start eating them more often (like falafel, chole, daal, vegetable pizza, peanut butter sandwich, and bean and rice burrito.) Then, join the popular Meatless Monday movement and go meatless on Mondays. Next, make one meal a day meatless, then two meals a day. Keep going until a whole day is meatless. Choose restaurants that serve meatless meals like CPK, sushi, and Mediterranean restaurants. Taste buds regenerate every couple weeks, so before long you will favor the taste of meatless proteins. Eat meatless proteins most days of the week, and meat (chicken or lamb) on one or two days of the week. Each day eat 4-6 servings of these proteins (about 5-7 ounces). Serving examples include: 1 cup of organic milk, 1 cup Greek yogurt, 1 cup black beans, 1 tablespoon natural almond butter, 1 ounce wild-caught salmon, ½ cup non-GMO tofu, 1 cup brown rice, 1 cup quinoa, 1 cup kale, and 1 cup broccoli.

Eating meatless proteins improves our health and adherence to Sunnah. It does not make us vegetarians, and we can still enjoy eating meat. Muslims strive to eat healthy in order to follow Islamic practices, stay fit, and set an example for fellow Muslims. Eating less meat is a perfect way to achieve these goals.