When I embraced Islam I had been a vegetarian for nearly 7 years. I’d also had dreadlocks for that long and because I smoked a lot of marijuana most people, including my family, thought I was either Rastafarian but denying it, or wasn’t but pretending to be one anyway.
Sentient beings, the environment, that thing Gandhi said about measuring a civilisation’s merits by the way it treats its animals, and a particular embodiment of Africanness that black 20-something year olds had in the early 2000s – all these things were then my cares. Way before I came to the Qur’an’s position on non-human animal welfare and its conditions for their consumption I had already read and taken to heart the relevant parts of the Dhammapada and Martha Nussbaum on the basic entitlements of non-human animals and through those explorations had reached a resolution that perhaps it was best for me to keep but not to eat an animal.
So after the Saturday night dhikrs or the Friday afternoon prayers I would sit on the floor of the zawiyya and discretely push away the meat from my side of our shared plate in preference for the spiced rice, the firmly cooked potatoes, the yoghurt dressing and green salad and try not to feel too bad about the residue of meat that would linger on my tongue and throat. I felt like a political failure and guilty that I could not firmly stand up for my vegetarianism in the company of my new community except in a long unpublished essay on the compatibility of being a Muslim and a vegetarian. But also, and strangely, I felt ashamed that I was not an omnivore like them and so much so that I even hid it from everyone but two. As the Qur’an made it clear, what God had allowed (in this case meat-eating), no one could make illicit. I thought therefore if I could share in a meal without anyone noticing that I wasn’t actually eating the meat no one would figure it out. No drama, no endless explanations, no spiritual consequences; I had this idea that I loved a simple life. But all this made me feel deceptive, and it was complicating everything.
This pretence went on for many weeks before I realised it could not go on for much longer. I would be invited over to someone’s house for a meal and everything from the pre-meal snacks to the starter to the main meal would have meat as a main ingredient. I remember particularly this green (was it leek?) soup that Aisha made, the sight of which made me so relieved because I was sure it was vegetarian. I tasted it and of course it was so delicious (no one could cook better than she); floating in it was what I thought were croutons which turned out to be chicken breast cubes. I ate everything. There was only so much ‘sifting’ one could do before it all came across as rude or something worse. And surely there was a limit to the number of meat-flavoured meals one could ingest before the continued labelling of oneself a vegetarian became pretentious or hypocritical. And among the worse things you can be in Islam is a hypocrite, and it is not a label you can easily transcend. So one day, without even feeling terrible about it, I started eating meat again, proper.
It was because of another soup. It happened during the fasting season of the holy month of Ramadhan. My first Ramadhan. We would often break the fast at the mosque with this soup made by Yasser’s mum and dad apparently using a secret recipe from Morocco and the way it was so delicious I could actually believe that.
Beyond two or three ingredients, I could not figure out what was in that soup. And no vegetarian was ever gonna prosper against that soup. It had, I think, a lentil base, which gave the soup its thickness, but its flavour was from the lamb bits so overcooked that the muscle structure of the meat would have disintegrated into tiny strips. There was no way of separating the meat out of that soup. There were also some greens in there, and other things I could not exactly discern (maybe paprika?), but everything in that soup was so soft and integrated it had lost all of the distinctiveness it had had before going into that huge pot. I heard that the hajjis would start preparing it early in the day and it would go on cooking until just before sunset when it would be served to us at iftar. It was a day’s work, every day for the 29 or so days of Ramadhan, and every day it was delicious, and every day it was the most perfect thing to have for iftar after the dates and the milk.
There are times that define you, and meals that define times. A meal can be soup, and a whole era in one’s life can be evoked by thought of that soup. I could never have fathomed that a humble bowl of soup would be a marker of my transition from one set of beliefs about food (and life) into another, yet there it is. I changed my life partly because of soup.
For example, Surah Al-Ma’idah (5:3) of the Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall’s English translation of the Qur’an, The Meaning of the Glorious Koran: An Explanatory Translation (1930), says “Forbidden unto you (for food) are carrion and blood and swineflesh, and that which hath been dedicated unto any other than Allah, and the strangled, and the dead through beating, and the dead through falling from a height, and that which hath been killed by (the goring of) horns, and the devoured of wild beasts, saving that which ye make lawful (by the death-stroke), and that which hath been immolated unto idols. And (forbidden is it) that ye swear by the divining arrows. This is an abomination. This day are those who disbelieve in despair of (ever harming) your religion; so fear them not, fear Me! This day have I perfected your religion for you and completed My favour unto you, and have chosen for you as religion al-Islam. Whoso is forced by hunger, not by will, to sin: (for him) lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.”
The Dhammapada passages 129 and 130 say “All beings fear before danger, life is dear to all. When a man considers this, he does not kill or cause to kill”.
In Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (2006), Martha C. Nussbaum states, “The fact that humans act in ways that deny animals a dignified existence appears to be an issue of justice, and an urgent one, although we shall have to say more to those who would deny this.”
Abdul-Malik Sibabalwe Oscar Masinyana is a managing editor at the Routledge Africa Office and the Deputy Editor of Prufrock magazine. He’s also an occasional researcher, writer, translator and promoter of social causes.