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Part 1: One of History’s Earliest Ethical Vegan Voices

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Guest post by Timothy Conway, PhD

I recently was surprised to read a striking poem from a millennium ago heroically expressing ethical veganism, reproduced at Gary Francione’s Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights page on Facebook. And if the Syrian author of that poem could go vegan, anyone in our era can buck far milder social pressures and go vegan: 

You are diseased in understanding and religion.
Come to me, that you may hear something of sound truth.
Do not unjustly eat fish the water has given up,
And do not desire as food the flesh of slaughtered animals,
Or the white milk of [animal] mothers who intended its pure draught
for their young, not [for] noble ladies [of human society].
And do not grieve the unsuspecting birds by taking their eggs;
for injustice is the worst of crimes.
And spare the honey which the bees get industriously
from the flowers of fragrant plants;
For they did not store it that it might belong to others,
Nor did they gather it for bounty and gifts.
I washed my hands of all this; and wish that I
Perceived my way before my hair went gray!

This poem is remarkable because it was written almost one thousand years ago in a heavily orthodox Muslim region of Syria, by an Arab poet-philosopher, Abū’l ‘Alā al-Ma‘arrī (973-1057), who was unable to see, walk or even crawl. Though Ma‘arrī’s eyesight had been destroyed by smallpox when he was only four, this progressive poet-sage obviously saw much more clearly than anyone west of China and India that speciesism is wrong, and he courageously dared to speak up about the matter.

Over in East Asia, countless millions of devout Mahāyāna Buddhists in China and Korea since at least the 8th century CE observed a vegan diet (and many abandoned animal products in their clothing and footwear, too) to better embody ahiṃsā—non-injury and non-harm toward fellow sentient beings. And in India, under ancient Jaina influence since at least the 6th century BCE, many Jainas, Hindus and Buddhists had adopted lacto-vegetarian fare. Some, especially among the Jainas, went vegan in their food-choices and clothing. (India’s heavy cultural attachment to dairy has always seriously diminished the numbers of vegans in that land.)

But veganism was still a rarity in the West and Middle East, especially within Islam. Some 1500 to 700 years prior to Ma‘arrī’s era, probably the philosopher Pythagoras (fl. 520 BCE), certainly the illustrious Empedocles (495-430 BCE), as well as Xenocrates (396-314 BCE), Theophrastus (c 372-287 BCE), Plutarch (45-120 CE), Plotinus (204-270 CE) and his loquacious disciple Porphyry (234-305) had given up eating animal flesh, though it’s not clear who among them had taken the full step into veganism by renouncing all animal products. Numerous Jews and Christians were vegetarian and maybe vegan in their dietary choices, including James (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.23.5) and probably his brother Jesus (no canonical gospel tells of Jesus eating meat, dairy or eggs, and the one reference to his eating fish occurs in a late, suspect passage in the Luke Gospel to bolster the dubious idea of physical resurrection), and Peter (“I live on bread alone with olives and [occasionally] pot-herbs,” Letter to Clement of Rome). Multitudes of Jesus followers were vegetarian, from the Jewish Ebionites to Manichaeans to gentile Christians “without number” (according to Augustine, who often ate vegetarian, despite his speciesism), as were church fathers St. Anthony the Great (251-356 CE), Clement of Alexandria, Arnobius, Tertullian and Jerome, according to statements made by them or about them in diverse sources.

But to my knowledge a clearly-stated ethical vegan challenge based on animal rights had never been so forcefully and succinctly expressed in the West or Middle East until this poem from the animal-loving poet Ma‘arrī in the 11th century. He had heard of the Jainas and evidently knew their ahiṃsā doctrine, though likely he only learned of this doctrine during an 18-month sojourn to Baghdad in 1008-1010, several years after deciding to go vegan himself. Without any support from his fellow citizens for living the ahiṃsā principle, he did so, and the major expression of this was his personal veganism and his public advocacy via poetry and likely his talks (unrecorded) with students and friends.

Note the opening verse, wherein he challenges pious Muslims that their understanding and religion is “diseased,” and that they should “Come to me, that you may hear something of sound truth”! This daring poem was loaded with significance, because it provoked the Muslim world with the implicit suggestion that the Qur’ān holy scripture and Prophet Muḥammad (571-632) in his adīth (the traditional sayings and doings of the Prophet) had not gone nearly far enough in their understanding of what was “allowed” and “disallowed” food under sharī‘ah law, and what is just and unjust in the eyes of God. Moreover, Ma‘arrī’s own veganism, which he adopted at age 30 and maintained until his passing in his 84th year, ran the risk of being judged as a willfully proud “improvement” and “innovation” on the life that the Prophet had role-modeled for the early Muslim community. These are punishable sins in the eyes of many orthodox Muslim jurists!

However, Abū’l ‘Alā al-Ma‘arrī followed Reason and Justice, and notoriously criticized the dogmas, stupidities, hypocrisies, prejudices, superstitions, and sanctioned forms of violence rampant among his fellow humans. He lambasted institutional religion, not only Islam and the shallow forms of Sūfī mysticism (he actually had high praise for authentically devout Sūfīs), but also Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism. It was the cruelty of inhumane humanity that made him an anti-natalist, someone who thinks it best that beings not be born at all and that procreation is a sin against the child. Ma‘arrī is today regarded as a pessimist version of a humanist freethinker. The label “humanist” doesn’t fit well, because many of his poems reveal an obvious belief in an awesome, mysterious, supra-personal (not impersonal) Divine Reality as almighty Source and Sustainer of this universe and everyone in it, before Whom one is accountable for one’s virtues and evil vices. The poet often praises this True God beyond anthropomorphic projection, especially for the Divine qualities of mercy and compassion. And this along with his feeling for animals’ rights as sentient beings is what motivated his own ethical veganism as an expression of justice.

I did some digging around and discovered that in Ma‘arrī’s Luzūmiyat, the major collection of poems from his mature period, there occur other verses that explicitly speak to the topic of speciesist prejudice toward animals. Here are three more anti-speciesist, egalitarian poems from Ma‘arrī:

(321) Equal are a kind mother who gave food to a [human] child in his cradle and a dove that fed her chick. Never, then, hasten [with] knife in hand to destroy a young bird that hopped about in its dwelling-places. 

(322) Give a drink of water as alms to the birds which go forth at morning, and realize they have a better right than men (to your charity), For their species does not bring harm upon you in any way, Whereas you fear it from your own species.

(323) To let go from my hand a flea that I have caught is a kinder act than to bestow a dollar on a man in need. There is no difference between the black earless creature which I release and a Prince who puts on his crown. Both of them take precaution (against death); and life is dear to it (the flea), and it passionately desires to live.

No difference between a flea and a human prince? This is radical stuff, an affirmation that merely sentience and yearning to live are the fundamental basis for egalitarian treatment of fellow creatures. Ma‘arrī is indicating here what Gary Francione has been saying for nearly three decades in his critique of various theorists: that sentience alone (not language, not conceptual capacity, not reflexive self-consciousness) is the only relevant criterion for moral status, and on that basis we must refrain from all animal exploitation.

All these four poems thus far cited, and many more from the Luzūmiyat, were translated from Arabic nearly a century ago by eminent British scholar R.A. Nicholson (1868-1945) for his 1921 book, Studies in Islamic Poetry. The initial poem cited (#197 in Nicholson’s collection) was rendered by Rex Pay into contemporary English by replacing a few words (see Pay’s collection here). I have likewise slightly contemporized the translations of the other three Ma‘arrī poems, numbers 321-323 in Nicholson’s collection.

Other verses of Ma‘arrī speak of justice and injustice to animals, such as this one, excerpted from a longer poem:

(198) […] Virtue is neither a fast consuming those who keep it, Nor any [regimented] office of prayer, […] ‘Tis nothing but to renounce and throw all evil away [….] My heart has been broken to hear some morning a savage boor Belabouring his ass [donkey] with blows—he takes on his head a sin.  For Ma‘arrī, injustice to animals is the most blatant evil to be “thrown away” if one is to begin the path of true virtue. And notice in the following poem how Ma‘arrī tells his 11th-century listeners that if you keep a horse (or a donkey), then feed him/her “an equal share” of your fine wheat. (We modern-era persons who’ve benefited from abolitionist thinking would urge, “Free all animals from being forced to work for us,” and Ma‘arrī would surely agree if he heard the argument.)

(196) Is fine wheat dear [to you], then it’s noble of you To give your generous horse an equal share; And set before thyself a relish of Bright oil and raisins, scanty but sweet fare. Nicholson tells how the poet praised olive oil, presumably in contrast to butter, for ethical reasons: “The merits of olive oil are set forth (Luzūm, 264, 13-14): no blood is shed and no soul is hurt when it flows; it costs little to provide; [and] darkness is removed by the light which it gives [as a lamp-oil].”

Nicholson obviously sympathized with Ma‘arrī’s ethics. In his introduction, he calls the poet-sage “an old friend” and a “genius,” and the index to his book disproportionately mentions Ma‘arrī’s references to non-speciesist views regarding animals. Nicholson observes a strong theme running throughout the poet’s works: “Ma‘arrī especially enjoins forbearance, compassion, and kindness. A man should be lenient to others, but severe to himself. […] Injustice to the weak and helpless excites his indignation… he is most deeply touched (this is an Indian [specifically Jaina] trait) by wrong done to animals, birds, and insects.” And here Nicholson footnotes a reference to p. 136 of his text, and says: “The poet wonders that men should weep for the death of a child, while every day they slaughter animals or set traps for them.”

Continue to Part 2 of this post here.

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  • Matthew S

    Amazing! I had no idea!

  • Laura Tripp

    I have often wondered about earlier people who live and speak of a true life of love for all beings – thank you so much for your research and sharing – it warms my heart and sparks my mind to read about this poet!

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