Part 2: One of History’s Earliest Ethical Vegan Voices
Guest post by Timothy Conway, PhD
Compared to the modern world, it was much harder to be vegan in Ma‘arrī’s time and place due to the religious and social pressures. Moreover, the diversity of plant foods was not nearly so abundant as we have today. Nasir Khusraw in 1047 reported that the walled country town of Ma‘arra (50 miles southwest of Aleppo on the road to Damascus) was surrounded by areas of cultivated land featuring fig-trees, olives, pistachios, almonds and grapes, so some healthy raw plant foods were locally available, but we don’t know how expensive these foods were. Ma‘arrī, ten years before his passing, in correspondence with the Ismā‘īli chief missionary of Cairo, admitted he had little money (Nicholson thinks that despite an income from student fees, Ma‘arrī probably gave most of it away in charity). And so the poet stated: “I restrict myself to beans and lentils and such food as I would rather not mention,” likely meaning some of the local produce that Khusraw noticed, and probably cheap grains and olive oil. Hopefully, the poet was eating an assortment of vegetables and fruits for his health, but this isn’t clear.
In any case, he wasn’t eating his animal friends or their secretions. And in solidarity with animal persons, he spoke out to his society about the injustice of eating them, stealing their milk and eggs and honey, and using their skin for clothing and footwear.
The Ismā‘īli cleric of Cairo, Hibatu‘llah Ibn Abi ‘Imrān, regarded Ma‘arrī not merely as a freethinker “but as the great scholar of the age,” and sought out the basis for Ma‘arrī’s vegan diet. In a back-and-forth exchange between the two men (translated by D. S. Margoliouth, “Abu‘l-‘Ala’s Correspondence on Vegetarianism,” J. of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1902, pp. 289-332) ‘Imrān posed a long-winded question, wanting to know, as he finally stated it succinctly: “What is your ground for abstaining from meat, milk, and all other animal products, as though they were unlawful?” The Cairo cleric, as part of his long first and second letters to Ma‘arrī, among various foolish things posed a blatantly speciesist argument: just as animals consume plants, so also humans can and should consume animal products. This is a “might is right” argument. The cleric also opined, “If God empowers one animal to eat another, though He knows best what is wise and is most merciful to His creatures, you need not be more just and merciful to them than their Lord and Creator.”
In Ma‘arrī’s two responses, sandwiched between ‘Imrān’s first, second, and third letters, he replied in defense of what he had written in that first poem cited in this essay: “No one can deny that sea creatures come out of the water against their will” and it is therefore not unreasonable, he said, to abstain from eating them. As for milk, the poet stated, “It is well known, that when the calf is killed, the cow pines for it and keeps awake whole nights on its account. [The calf’s] flesh is eaten and the milk that it should have sucked is lavished on its mother’s [human] owners. What harm, then, can there be in abstaining from killing the calf and declining to use the milk? Such a man need not suppose it [abstinence from meat and dairy] to be unlawful [as traditional Muslim religion deemed it]. He only abstains out of religious fervor and mercy toward the victim, and in the hope that he may be compensated for his [Islamically “unlawful”] abstinence by the Creator’s forgiveness. And if it be said that the Almighty distributes His gifts equally between His servants, then what sins have the [animal] victims committed that they should be excluded from His mercy?”
Further on, the poet says, “Since the bees fight their hardest to keep the gatherer off their honey, there is no harm in a man abstaining from it, and desiring to place the bee in the same category as other creatures that dislike being killed to be eaten and having their means of living taken to feed and fatten… human beings.” “Animals are, as you know, sensitive, and feel pain [….] Professedly religious persons have at all times been anxious to abstain from meat, because it cannot be obtained without causing pain to animals, who at all times shun pain. Think of the ewe, domesticated, and with young; when she has born the lamb, and it has lived a month or thereabout, they [humans] kill it and eat it, and want the [ewe’s] milk. And the ewe spends the night bleating, and would run in quest of it [the lamb] if she could. A commonplace [saying] among the Arabs is the suffering of the wild beasts, and the pining of the wild cow for her calf…. she whines oft and oft [over and over again]. […] The prophets tell us that Almighty God is merciful and loving. If, then, He be loving towards mankind, assuredly He will be tender to other classes of living beings which are sensitive to the least pain…. I therefore, having heard of these different opinions [from religious persons of yore], and having reached my 30th year, begged God of His mercy to grant me a perpetual fast [from animal products], which I never break during month or year save at the two Feasts. For the rest, I let the days and nights roll by and break it not.”
This admission by Ma‘arrī that he wasn’t able to practice his veganism for the few meals on the two Feasts of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha can be explained by the fact that during those festivals people cook lavish dishes for each other and Muslim law strictly forbids fasting during this time. People were undoubtedly shoving bowls of food into the hands of the sightless, lame poet and making him eat, and he no doubt involuntarily consumed some animal products as a result. He was certainly no weak-minded “reducetarian,” and it’s not fair to label him a “flexible vegan” (that is, a non-vegan) since if he had been on his own and not so physically challenged (he stated he couldn’t even crawl about with a staff, and needed help getting up from a prone position to sit) he wouldn’t have had to eat the motley grub from these ignorant people. A people blindly following the dictates of their religion, which told them that God insists they eat meat and dairy.
Nicholson notes: “He took his stand with the Buddhists and Jainas on a principle which inspires all his ethics and constitutes his practical religion: the principle of non-injury [ahiṃsā]. That was the ‘truth’ which he promised to his readers, and they could not fairly reproach him if he declined to state how it was to be reconciled with divine providence, whatever his views on that subject may have been. On the same ground he prohibits the use of animal skins for clothing, recommends wooden shoes, and blames fine ladies who wear furs.” [My emphasis.]
In his correspondence with ‘Imrān, Ma‘arrī gave another reason for his veganism: “I believed, too, that restricting myself to a vegetable diet would secure my health; and doubtless you have looked into the ancient works and the sayings ascribed to Galen and others, which show that the authors believed in the soundness of this regime.” At one point, deflecting the Cairo cleric’s offer of a stipend so that Ma‘arrī could eat meat and other “delicacies,” the poet wrote: “For forty-five years I have tasted no meat, and an old man does not quit his habits until he is covered by the grave-dust…. I shall be glad if, when I appear before God Almighty, I am charged with nothing more than abstinence from meat.”
On a final, crazily ironic note: Ma‘arrī, who died about ten years later in 1057, would have been mortified to learn that in December 1098, during the First Crusade, the notoriously cruel, pseudo-“Christian” knights and soldiers overran his hometown, massacred 8,000 of its inhabitants, and, with their meat supplies having run out that winter, these crusaders performed cannibalism on the dead Muslim bodies, slicing off buttocks to sate their desire for flesh. Surely there must have been a good amount of local vegan produce stored in the town—all those nuts and dried fruits. But once you regard sentient beings as food, and define “food” primarily as flesh and other animal products, there’s no end to the horror, the injustice, the evil….
Acknowledgement: I would like to thank my friend Linda McKenzie, not only for her numerous comments and suggestions on the near-final draft, but also for her many illuminating insights in our extensive correspondence over the past few years on the Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights.