Most of us perceive of Muslims as meat-eating people. When we think of iftar dinners, we image a table full of succulent mutton biryani, chicken curry and kababs of all sorts. We rarely stop to consider Muslims who’ve turned vegetarian, or even vegan.
Sufi masters Bulleh Shah and Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya were vegetarians. So was poet Kabir. Yet many Muslims genuinely believe that vegetarianism goes against the tenets of the religion. A popular saying goes that a true Muslim eats meat at least once every 40 days.
But there are others who passionately disagree. They say the Prophet was against overindulging in food — whether meat-based or not — on any occasion. He always recommended moderation. Though he was not a vegetarian, his favourite foods were said to be yoghurt, butter, nuts, cucumbers, dates, pomegranates and figs. According to scholars, he’s said to have proclaimed, “Where there is an abundance of vegetables, a host of angels will descend.” The Quran tells Muslims to only eat halal food, and by definition, a vegetarian meal is halal. Perhaps Muslims are identified as a meat-eating community because Islam took root in an arid desert, a place where pulses, fruits and vegetables were not available in abundance.
Blogger Hussain Fakhruddin of India Weblog became a vegetarian at the age of 16 after watching his family slaughter a goat. He feels that many Muslims have misunderstood the concept of qurbani. “How does killing a frightened animal constitute a sacrifice on your part? Sacrifice is all about giving up something that’s dear to you,” he says.
According to unconfirmed reports, the practice of qurbani makes actor Shahrukh Khan queasy and so he chooses to pay someone to do it on his behalf. But vegetarian Muslims argue that whether qurbani is done at home, or elsewhere, the result is the same. It’s better to donate money to the needy, they say.
Actor Irrfan Khan says he would rather spend time in introspection than kill an animal to appease God. Noted theatre personality Ahlam Karachiwala, daughter of the late super villain Amjad Khan, couldn’t agree more. “To me, sacrifice is about parting with something I love. I’m a wine-drinker. So there’s no wine for me during Ramzan. Or chocolate. I teach my son Nihal that Ramzan is about accepting, giving, caring, and sharing. I do charity; I donate clothes and groceries to the poor.”
An egg-etarian from a fiercely meat-loving family, Ahlam stopped eating non-veg at the age of 15 because of her love for animals. She says that many Muslims in her environmentally and ethically conscious circle of friends are leaning towards a flexitarian diet with more emphasis on fruits, vegetables, pulses and grains, though they haven’t completely given up meat.
If she were organising a vegetarian iftar meal, she’d steer clear of deep-fried snacks, with the exception of the delectable veg Bohri samosa. “Apart from fruit, sherbet and meetha, I’d have non-oily starters like bruschetta, open sandwiches and mini-idlis. My go-to cuisine has always been South Indian. Dinner would consist of a paneer dish, gobi-alu and matar pulao,” she says, bent on keeping everything light and healthy.
Though looking for a vegetarian Muslim may be akin to looking for a needle in a haystack, the concept of a vegetarian Ramzan seems to be catching on, slowly. Activist Abdul Jaffar says that vegetarian iftars have been hosted in Bhopal for decades. And Bollywood is following suit. Salman Khan sent a home-made vegetable dum biryani during Ramzan to his neighbour Mahesh Bhatt, whose daughter Alia Bhatt has turned vegan. And Aamir Khan has gone so far as to say that “Vegans are way ahead of non-vegetarians, and even vegetarians.” Former actress Ayesha Takia, who is married into the very conservative Muslim family of Samajwadi Party leader Abu Azmi, is avowedly vegan, as are her mother and her sister.
Perhaps the final word on the subject should be that of former President, the late APJ Abdul Kalam, who became vegetarian when he was a scholarship student at St Joseph’s in Tiruchirapalli, and he couldn’t afford the luxury of meat. As he started enjoying his ‘ghaas-phoos’, he admitted, “Today I’m 100 per cent vegetarian. Wherever I go, so long as I get a hot vegetable dish, I’m OK.”