Commercial Treatment: The Use of Animals in Food and Clothing in Islam

Commercial Treatment: The Use of Animals in Food and Clothing in Islam

Julie Ahmed

It has been said that one of the tests of a society is its attitude toward animals. This paper will explore the rights that animals are given in Muslim societies based on Islamic Law[i] (Sharia). Specifically, the way animals can be used for food and clothing from an Islamic perspective will be addressed.

Along with humans, plants and the elements, animals are considered an integral part of the delicate balance in God’s creation: "It is He who sends down rain from the sky. From it ye drink, and out of it grows the vegetation on which ye feed your cattle." (Qur’an 16:10) Like humans, the animal world forms its own Ummah, or communities, where their unique attributes are recognized and appreciated: "There is not an animal that lives on the earth, nor a being that flies on its wings, but forms part of communities like you." (Qur’an 6:38) The right of even the most humble of animals to exist as well as their ability to communicate with each other is described in the following verse, "At length, when they came to a lowly valley of ants, one of the ants said: ‘O ye ants, get into your habitations, lest Solomon and his hosts crush you under foot without knowing it. " (Qur’an 27:18)

The human community has an obligation toward the animal kingdom to treat them with dignity. The Qur’an, in which several chapters are named after various animals such as The Cow, The Bee, The Ant, The Spider, and The Elephant, mentions many examples of our responsibilities as stewards of God’s creation. One story tells of a thirsty camel that was denied her drinking rights and the consequences that followed: "For We will send the she-camel by way of trial for them. So watch them and possess thyself in patience! And tell them that the water is to be divided between them: Each one’s right to drink being brought forward by suitable turns. But they called their companion, and he took a sword in hand and hamstrung her. Ah! How terrible was My penalty and My warning!" (Qur’an 54:26)

There are several hadith, or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), that exemplify the expectations that God has for humans regarding our treatment of animals: "A prostitute was forgiven by God because, passing by a panting dog near a well and seeing that the dog was about to die of thirst, she took off her shoe, and tying it with her head cover, she drew out some water for it. So God forgave her because of that good deed." Another hadith tells the story of a woman who tied up a cat that she neither fed nor set free and was condemned by God for her cruelty. (Both hadith narrated by al-Bukhari)

The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), considered to be the great emancipator of animals in his day, stated, "All creatures of God form the family of God and he is the best loved of God who loves best His creatures". (Narrated by al-Baihaqi) The stories of the Prophet’s (pbuh) protection toward wild and domestic animals convey an empathy that reveals his sensitive nature: "During the march on one of these days the Prophet (pbuh) saw a female dog lying by the side of the road with a litter of recently born pups which she was feeding and the Prophet (pbuh) was afraid that she might be molested by one of the men, so he told a disciple to stand guard beside her until every contingent had passed." (narrated by al-Bukhari) In another hadith, the Prophet said, "A sparrow that was killed just for fun would, on the Day of Judgment, complain to God against the person who did so." (Narrated by at-Tirmidhi)

Maintaining the balance between humans, the animal kingdom and vegetation lies in their interdependence. Animals rely on plants for sustenance and shelter, humans depend on animals for food, clothing and transportation, and everything depends on God for its existence. Everything in God’s creation has a specific purpose and animals are no exception. The following verse from the Qur’an describes the useful qualities that animals possess as well as the emotional attachment we feel toward animals: "And cattle He has created for you (humans). From them ye derive warmth and numerous benefits, and of their meat ye eat. And ye have a sense of pride and beauty in them as ye drive them home in the evening, and as ye lead them forth to pasture in the morning. And they carry your heavy loads to land that you could not otherwise reach except with souls distressed." (Qur’an 16:5)

The verse, "and of their meat ye eat" will be the focus of the remainder of this paper. It is within those few words that the Islamic concept of animal rights is put to the test. How is it possible to be kind to animals that are heading to the slaughterhouse? We can look to Prophet Abraham and his son, Ishmael for the answer. Abraham’s willingness to surrender his will to God and sacrifice his own son symbolizes the spirit behind the sacrifice of animals within an Islamic context. Slaughtering an animal that has been made sacrosanct by God represents the enormous responsibility that God has bestowed on humans. The act of slaughtering an animal symbolizes one’s willingness to sacrifice that which we hold most dear in order to be closer to God. One of the conditions of Islamic slaughtering is the mentioning of God’s name: “Then eat of that over which the name of God has been mentioned, if you believe in his signs." (Qur’an 6:118) In this light, slaughtering an animal, with the right intentions in mind and heart, is an act of humility rather than cruelty. 

The Quran is explicit in its description of what is permitted and what is prohibited in Islamic dietary law: "Forbidden to you are the flesh of dead animals and blood and the flesh of swine, that which has been dedicated to any other than God and that which has been killed by strangling or by beating or by being gored and that which has been partly eaten by a wild beast except that which you make lawful by slaughtering before its death and that which has been sacrificed to idols." (Qur’an 5:4)

The reasons behind these prohibitions are, in most cases, for the protection of animals as well as humans. For instance, forbidding humans to eat the flesh of dead animals motivates its owner to protect it from dying from disease and malnutrition. The prohibition of flowing blood harkens back to the pre-Islamic era when hungry people would pierce animals with sharp objects to drink its blood, thereby benefiting from the animal without having to kill it. The cutting of camel humps and sheep tails was also common until Prophet Muhammad put an end to this savage practice: "Any part cut off of a living animal is dead flesh" thereby prohibited. (narrated by al-Hakim) Disallowing the slaughter of animals dedicated to anyone other than God ensures that God’s permission has been asked before taking the life of one of His creatures. Forbidding humans to eat strangled, beaten, fallen, and gored animals encourages owners to take care of their animals or forfeit their slaughtering rights. Finally, the prohibition of animal sacrifices on idols left for deities protects the life of an animal that would be otherwise wasted: "It is neither their meat nor their blood that reaches God; it is piety that reaches Him." (Qur’an 22:37)

While eating the flesh of a dead animal is forbidden, making use of its skin, hair, horns and bones is highly encouraged so as not to waste any part of an animal. Just as the Islamic manner of slaughtering an animal purifies it and makes it halal (lawful), tanning the skin of a dead animal purifies it, thereby making it lawful to use. Waste of God’s creation is prohibited, as the following hadith illustrates: "The freed maid-servant of the Prophet’s (pbuh) wife Maymunah, was given a sheep, and it died. The Prophet (pbhh) passed by its carcass and said, ‘Why did you not take its skin to be tanned and use it?’ They replied, ‘But it is dead.’ The Prophet (pbuh) said, ‘What is prohibited is eating it.’" (narrated by Ibn Abbas) The Prophet’s (pbuh) wife, Sawdah, exemplified a spirit of resourcefulness in her use of tanned skin when she described, "One of our sheep died, so we tanned its skin and used it as a waterskin, putting dates in it to sweeten the water. We used it until it wore out." (narrated by al-Bukhari)

Although the use of skin and other parts of a dead animal is recommended, Islam prohibits the killing of wild or domesticated animals solely for the use of their fur, skin or other parts while their carcasses are wasted. The Prophet (pbuh) "forbade the skins of wild animals being used as floor coverings" (Narrated by Imam Malik) and said, "Do not ride on saddles made of silk or leopard skins." (Narrated by Abu Dawad) With modern day alternatives to fur, ivory, oils and other extravagant and non-essential products derived from wild animals, the following juristic rule applies: "That which was made permissible for a reason, becomes impermissible by the absence of that reason."

Animals are divided into two groups, marine and terrestrial, with respect to Islamic slaughtering practices.  All marine animals are permissible to catch and eat without the requirement of the slaughtering practices mentioned earlier: "And it is He who has subjected the sea to you in order that you may eat fresh meat from it." (Qur’an 16:14) Terrestrial animals are divided into domesticated and wild animals. The conditions of Islamic slaughtering of both domesticated and wild animals include, first and foremost, inflicting the least amount of pain and discomfort on the animal as possible. Prophet Muhammad mentioned, "Allah has ordained kindness in everything. If killing is to done, do it in the best manner, and when you slaughter, do it in the best manner by first sharpening the knife and putting the animal at ease." (narrated by Muslim) The name of God is mentioned as the animal’s throat is cut, causing its death. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) demonstrated his compassion toward animals about to be slaughtered in several hadith. When the Prophet (pbuh) saw a man sharpening his knife in front of a sheep in preparation for its slaughter, he said, "Do you intend to make it die two deaths? Why did you not sharpen your knife before laying it down?" (narrated by al-Hakim) In another hadith, Omar, the Companion and third Khalifa (Caliph) of Islam, saw a man dragging a sheep by its leg to be slaughtered and said to him, "Woe to you! Lead it to its death in a decent manner." (Narrated by Abd ur-Razzaq) The Prophet (pbuh) said, "When you will show mercy on an animal, God will show mercy on you." (Narrated by al-Hakim)

The conditions of Islamic slaughtering of wild animals are similar to those of domesticated animals with the added restriction that the hunting must done out of necessity rather than sport. In a hadith about what constitutes just cause for killing a wild animal, the Prophet (pbuh) replied, "That he killed it to eat it, not to simply chop off its head and then throw it away." (narrated by al-Hakim) If the hunter’s intentions are pure, he must mention the name of God and use a sharp object to pierce the animal’s body. When the hunter finds the animal, he must cut its throat in the same manner as domesticated animals, mentioning the name of God while using a sharp knife to end its suffering as quickly as possible.

The commercial use of animals in food and clothing can be best summarized by the word "Islam" which means peace through submission. Only by surrendering to the Supreme laws of stewardship with respect to animal use, and by refusing to exploit animals, can peace be made with His creation. "They (servants of God) will not there (Paradise) hear any vain discourse, but only salutations of Peace: And they will have therein their sustenance, morning and evening." (Qur’an 19:62)

[i][i][i] Sharia (Arabic: شريعة transliteration: "Shari'ah) is the body of Islamic law. The term means "way" or "path"; it is the legal framework within which the public and some private aspects of life are regulated for those living in a legal system based on Muslim principles of jurisprudence. The book details the four roots of law (Qur'an, Sunnah, ijma, and qiyas) while specifying that the primary Islamic texts (the Qur'an and the Hadith) be understood according to objective rules of interpretation derived from scientific study of the Arabic language. While Ijma and Qiyas are secondary sources of law, this source is called Ijtihad (ii).

  1. The acts of worship, or al-Ibadat, these include:
    1. Ritual Purification (Wudu)
    2. Prayers (Salah)
    3. Fasts (Sawm and Ramadan)
    4. Charities (Zakat)
    5. Pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj)
  2. Human interaction, or al-Mu'amalat, which includes:
    1. Financial transactions
    2. Endowments
    3. Laws of inheritance
    4. Marriage, divorce, and child care
    5. Foods and drinks (including ritual slaughtering and hunting)
    6. Penal punishments
    7. Warfare and peace
    8. Judicial matters (including witnesses and forms of evidence)

Ijtihad (ii)

Ijtihad (Arabic اجتهاد) is a technical term of Islamic law that describes the process of making a legal decision by independent interpretation of the legal sources, the Qur'an and the Sunnah. The opposite of Ijtihad is taqlid, Arabic for "imitation". A person who applies Ijtihad is called a mujtahid, and traditionally had to be a scholar of Islamic law, an Islamic lawyer or alim.

To become a mujtahid in theological terms is similar to having a doctorate in divinity in Islamic Kalam, or similar to reaching the status of a high or supreme court judge in legal terms.


The word derives from the Arabic verbal root jahada “to struggle", the same root as that of jihad (to strive). The common etymology is worth noting, as both words touch on the concepts of struggle or effort, to "struggle with oneself", as through deep thought. Ijtihad is a method of legal reasoning that does not rely on the traditional schools of jurisprudence, or madhabs.

Ijtihad in Islam

In early Islam Ijtihad was a commonly used legal practice, and was well integrated with the philosophy of kalam, its secular counterpart. It slowly fell out of practice for several reasons, most notably the efforts of the Asharite theologians, who saw it as leading to errors of over-confidence in judgment. Al-Ghazali was the most notable of these, and his "The Incoherence of the Philosophers" was the most celebrated statement of this view.

It is debated whether Al-Ghazali was observing or creating the so-called "closure of the door of Ijtihad". Some say this had occurred by the beginning of the 10th century CE, a couple of centuries after the finalizing of the major collections of Hadith.

Qualifications of a Mujtahid

A Mujtahid is an Islamic scholar, competent independently to interpret divine law in practical situations using Ijtihad, or independent thought. In some, but not all, Islamic traditions, a Mujtahid can specialize in a branch of Sharia - economic or family law for example.

The qualifications for a mujtahid were set out by Abu’l Husayn al-Basri (died 467 AH / 1083 CE ) in "al Mu’tamad fi Usul al-Fiqh" and accepted by later Sunni scholars, including al-Ghazali. These qualifications can be summed up as (i) an understanding of the objectives of the Sharia and (ii) a knowledge of its sources and methods of deduction. They include

  • A competence in the Arabic language which allows her/him to have a correct understanding of the Quran. That is, s/he must appreciate the subtleties of the language so as to be able to draw accurate deductions from the "clear and un-crooked Arabic" of this infallible source, and that of the Sunnah .
  • An adequate knowledge of the Meccan and Medinese contents of the Quran, the events surrounding their revelation and the incidences of abrogation (suspending or repealing a ruling) revealed therein. He must be fully acquainted with its legal contents (the "ayat al-ahkam") - some 500 verses, according to al-Ghazali. He need not have a detailed knowledge the narratives and parables, nor of the sections relating to the hereafter, but he must be able to use these to infer a legal rule. He needs to be acquainted with all the classical commentaries on the "ayat al-ahkam", especially the views of the Companions of the Prophet .
  • An adequate knowledge of the Sunnah, especially those related to his specialization. He needs to know the relative reliability of the narrators of the Hadith, and be able to distinguish between the reliable from the weak. He needs to have a thorough knowledge of incidences of abrogation, distinguish between the general and specific, the absolute and the qualified. One estimate (by Ahmad ibn Hanbal ) suggests that 1,200 Hadith need to be known.
  • S/he should be able to verify the consensus ijma (consensus) of the Companions of the Prophet, the Successors and the leading Imams and Mujtahidin of the past, especially with regard to his specialization. Complementary to this, s/he should be familiar with the issues on which there is no consensus.
  • S/he should have a thorough knowledge of the the rules and procedures for reasoning by analogy (qiyas) so he can apply revealed law to an unprecedented case.
  • S/he should understand the revealed purposes of Sharia, which relate to considerations of public interest, including the Five Pillars protection of life, religion, intellect, lineage and property. He should also understand the general maxims for the interpretation of Sharia, which include the removal of hardship, that certainty must prevail over doubt, and the achievement of a balance between unnecessary rigidity and a too free an interpretation.
  • S/he must practice what he preaches, that is he must be an upright person whose judgment people can trust

Some Islamic traditions consider that these high conditions cannot be met by anyone nowadays, while for others - especially the Shi’ite tradition - they are met in every generation.

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