Use a Sharp Knife
Animals and Islam

Norm Phelps

Before he founded Islam, Mohammad ibn Abdullah (570-632 CE) was a successful merchant
from Mecca, in the heart of the Arabian peninsula, who had traveled about the eastern end of
the Mediterranean since he was a teen-ager working for his uncle. By the time he received his
first vision, at about the age of forty, Mohammad was thoroughly familiar with the teachings of
Judaism and Christianity, the religions that predominated in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. In that
vision, the angel Gabriel told him that he had been chosen to be the last of God’s prophets on
Earth – a line that included Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, among others – who would
reveal to humankind the final and fullest expression of God’s will. Periodically, for the remainder
of his life, Mohammad experienced visions of Gabriel, who dictated to him revelations that he
memorized and recited to members of his inner circle. Written down by his followers, these
revelations became the scripture of the new faith, the Quran. Since the Quran is the record of
revelation to a single individual, it is a unitary, internally coherent document that is far less open
to diverse interpretations than the Bible, which – as we saw earlier – reflects a dialogue among
widely divergent points of view.

Representing the actual words of God’s heavenly messenger, the Quran is the most fundamental
of the three tiers on which Muslim practice and ethics are built. When its application to a
particular situation is clear, a Muslim need look no farther. The Quran must be obeyed. (Masri,
Experimentation, 171)

Even so, it often happens that the precise application of the basic principles enunciated in the
Quran is not immediately obvious. In those cases, Muslims turn to the second level of teaching,
the ahadith. The Ahadith (plural; the singular is hadith) are a collection of narratives handed
down from members of Mohammad’s inner circle which report things that the Prophet said and
did. Since they describe how Mohammad himself applied the principles of the Quran to daily
life, the ahadith are also considered authoritative. (Masri,
Experimentation, 171)

If the ahadith leave room for interpretation, Muslims have recourse to the third level: decisions
issued by prominent legal authorities and accepted by a consensus of Muslim scholars. Arrived
at by applying the logical principles of “inference and analogy” to the Quran and the ahadith,
these judicial findings are known as “customary law,” and they constitute precedents for
subsequent generations of jurists. Although they lack the absolute authority of the Quran and the
ahadith, they are sustained by the weight of tradition. If a large enough portion of Muslim
judicial authorities – known collectively as the ulama – can be persuaded that a particular
judgment is mistaken or no longer applicable, it can be changed. (Masri,
Experimentation, 171-
172, 186-187) But in traditional societies that often equate change with evil, that is not an easy

Taken together, the Quran, the ahadith, and customary law teach a fully-developed, doctrine of
animal welfare. On the one hand, we may enslave and murder animals for our own benefit; and
on the other, we must minimize their incidental suffering and show them kindness whenever that
does not unduly interfere with our exploitation of them.

Masters of the Beasts
The Quran teaches that animals are sentient beings who form societies much like ours, who live
under God’s care, just as we do, and who – in a manner that is never directly explained –
worship God.

"All the beasts that roam the earth and all the birds that soar on high are but communities like
your own." (Quran 6:38)

"There is not a creature on earth but God provides its sustenance." (Quran 11:6)

"Do you not see how God is praised by those in the heavens and those on earth? The very birds
praise Him as they wing their way. He notes the prayers and praises of all His creatures; God
has knowledge of all their actions." (Quran 21:41)

This conviction that animals are in some sense persons, and that God is concerned for their
wellbeing, is the theological underpinning of Islamic teachings on animal welfare. And yet,
despite this, the Quran is profoundly anthropocentric; it teaches that human beings are the apex
of creation, God’s designated rulers of the Earth. In Surah 35:39, the angel instructs Mohammad
to remind the human race that, “[God] it is who made you viceregents on earth.”

The implications for animals of this grant of power to humanity are spelled out in unmistakable
terms. God created animals for the explicit purpose of providing us with food, clothing, labor,
shelter, and transportation, and we may enslave and kill them for these purposes without
incurring guilt. In fact, we are instructed to enjoy these gifts in a spirit of thanksgiving to God for
his generosity.

"Do they [humanity] not see how . . . We [God] have created for them the beasts of which they
are masters? We have subjected these to them, that they may ride on some and eat the flesh of
others; they drink their milk and put them to other uses. Will they not give thanks?" (Quran 36:

"It is God who has provided you with beasts, that you may ride on some and eat the flesh of
others. You put them to many uses; they take you where you wish to go, carrying you by land
as ships carry you by sea." (Quran 40:79-80)

"God has given you houses to dwell in, and animals’ skins for tents, so that you may find them
light when you travel and easy to pitch when you halt for shelter; while from their wool, fur, and
hair, He has for a space of time provided you with comforts and domestic goods." (Quran 16:80)

The inescapable internal contradiction between the two propositions of animal welfare is
nowhere clearer than in Islam. God loves and nurtures animals and turns them over to us so that
we can enslave and murder them.

The deceptive image of animal welfare – a mask of kindness concealing the face of cruelty – is
captured in an hadith that quotes the Prophet:

"Allah has enjoined us to be merciful to all; wherefore when ye slay, let it be done in the most
merciful manner. And when you perform zibh [slit the throat of an animal], let one of you
sharpen your knife and do it in the easiest manner for the animal." (Quoted in Siddiqi 40)

The She-Camel of the Samood
The Quran does not explicitly command kindness to animals. The Quranic reference most often
cited as a basis for requiring kindness to animals is the story of an ancient people known as the
Samood to whom God sent a prophet named Salih. When the Samood were reluctant to accept
Salih’s call for them to renounce their pagan gods, Salih left a female camel with them as a test
of their faithfulness. “My people,” he told them, “Here is God’s she-camel, a sign for you.
Leave her to graze at will in God’s own land, and do not molest her lest an instant scourge
should fall upon you.”  (Quran 11:64) But no sooner had Salih left, then the Samood slaughtered
the camel and were promptly wiped out by the plague that Salih had threatened.

Since the Quran permits the slaughter of camels for food and sacrifice, it could appear to an
outsider that the sin of the Samood was not killing the camel, but disobeying God’s prophet. The
traditional Islamic reading, however, is, in the words of Islamic scholar and animal advocate,
Imam Al-Hafiz B. A. Masri, that “This historic incident sets forth the essence of the Quran’s
teaching on ‘animal rights.’ Cruelty to animals is so offensive to God that it is declared as a
serious sin . . .” (Masri
Experimentation 184)

For straightforward condemnations of cruelty to animals, however, we must turn to the ahadith,
where they are, in fact, plentiful. (There are several collections of ahadith, but the two most
important are by Muhammad al-Bukhari, cited as "Bukhari", and by Abdul Hussein Muslim al-
Nisaburi, cited as "Muslim". "Awn" refers to a modern book of  commentaries on the ahadith
Awn al-Mabood by Shams ul-Haq Azeemabadi (1857-1911). "Guillaume" refers to The
Traditions of  Islam
: an Introduction to the Study of Hadith by Alfred Guillaume (11888-1965).
The six ahadith quoted below, together with their citations, are taken from Masri
Section Four.)

"We were on a journey with the Apostle of God, and he left us for a while. During his absence,
we saw a bird called hummara with its two young and took the young ones. The mother bird
was circling above us in the air, beating its wings in grief, when the Prophet came back and said:
'Who has hurt the FEELINGS of this bird by taking its young? Return them to her.' (Narrated
by Abdul Rahman bin Abdullah bin Mas'ud. Muslim. Also Awn [Ref. No. 32] Hadith No. 2658.
Also "Guillaume" [Ref. No. 57]; p. 106)"  

"A man once robbed some eggs from the nest of a bird. The Prophet had them restored to the
nest. (Narrated by Abdul Rahman bin Abdullah bin Mas'ud. Muslim. Also Awn [Ref. No. 32]
Hadith No. 2658. Also "Guillaume" [Ref. No. 57]; p. 106)"

"The Prophet told his companions of a woman who would be sent to Hell for having locked up a
cat; not feeding it, nor even releasing it so that it could feed herself. (Narrated by Abdullah bin
'Omar. Bukhari, 4:337; recorded in Riyad [Ref. No. 28], Hadith No. 1605; p. 271. Also Muslim,
Vol. 4, Hadith No. 2242. English translation by Abdul Hamid Siddiqi; Sh. Muhammad Ashraf,
Lahore, Pakistan; 1976; Vol. 4, Hadith No. 5570; p. 1215.)"

"The Prophet told his companions of a serf who was blessed by Allah for saving the life of a dog
by giving it water to drink and quenching its thirst. (Narrated by Abu Huraira. Muslim, Vol. 4,
Hadith No. 2244. Also Bukhari, 3:322. Also Awn [Ref. No. 32]; Hadith No. 2533, and others)"

"The Prophet was asked if acts of charity even to the animals were rewarded by God. He
replied: 'Yes, there is a reward for acts of charity to every beast alive.' (Narrated by Abu
Huraira, Bukhari, 3:322. Also Muslim, Vol. 4; Hadith No. 2244. Also Awn [Ref. No. 32], 7:222,
Hadith No. 2533.  Also Mishkat al-masabih, Book 6; Chapter 6)"

"Saying daily prayers (salat) is one of the five most important obligations of the Muslim religion.
In the following Hadith, one of his companions tells us that the holy Prophet and his fellow
travelers used to delay even saying their prayers until they had first given their riding and pack
animals fodder and had attended to their needs: 'When we stopped at a halt, we did not say our
prayers until we had taken the burdens off our camels' backs and attended to their needs.'
(Narrated by Anas. Awn (Ref. No. 32); 7:223; Hadith No. 5234. Also "Guillaume" (Ref. No.
57); pp.106, 107)."

Vegetarian Islam
Neither the Quran, the ahadith, nor customary law forbids vegetarianism, although there is the
suggestion that since God has given us animals to eat, we should enjoy the gift with gratitude.
The attitude of mainstream Muslim authorities toward vegetarianism is captured in these two
fatawa  (judicial rulings that taken together make up customary law; the singular is fatwa) by
contemporary Islamic authorities.

"Muslims are not vegetarianists. However, if someone prefers to eat vegetables, then they are
allowed to do so. Allah has given us permission to eat meat of slaughtered animals, but He has
not made it obligatory upon us." (Dr. Muzzamil Siddiqi, past president of the Islamic Society of
North America on the worldwide web at

"One should not think that it is better to abstain from eating these foods, that doing so will be
rewarded, or that being a vegetarian is closer to Allah than not, and so on. It is not permitted to
draw closer to Allah in this way. The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, who is the best
of mankind and the closest to Allah, used to eat meat and honey and drink milk. . .
Once this matter is clear in your mind, there is nothing wrong with not eating food that you do
not like." (Sheik M. S. Al-Munajjid, a leading Saudi scholar and authority on Islamic law, on the
worldwide web at

In other words, it is acceptable to be vegetarian as a matter of personal preference, but to assert
that vegetarianism is a more spiritual way of life or that it is more consistent with Muslim
teachings on compassion and kindness than meat eating is not acceptable. To do so denies the
authority of the Quran and the ahadith and implies that Mohammad was not in all regards the
perfect spiritual role model.

In most Muslim communities, vegetarian or vegan Muslims can expect to meet with strong
disapproval – especially if they describe themselves as “ethical” vegetarians – much as they
would in most conservative Christian or Orthodox Jewish communities. There are no reliable
statistics, but it would be safe to say that of the Abrahamic religions, Judaism has the highest
percentage of vegetarians and Islam the lowest. The exception to this rule are the Sufis, the
mystical tradition that exists within both the Sunni and Shiite schools of Islam. There have been
a number of famous Sufi saints who were vegetarian, and some Sufi communities, especially in
the West, practice vegetarianism, although authorities within mainstream Islam sometimes
question whether Western Sufi communities are authentically Islamic.

            *                        *                        *

Islam prescribes a procedure of ritual slaughter for animals who are being killed for food or
sacrifice that is very similar to ritual slaughter in Judaism. Essentially, it requires that the doomed
animal not be bound at the time of slaughter, that he be killed by a single stroke of a sharp knife
across his throat, causing him to bleed to death, and that he be conscious when his throat is slit.
The first provision is intended to reduce the victim’s fear; the second has two purposes: to insure
a quick loss of consciousness and to allow the blood to drain from the body, since Muslims, like
Jews, are forbidden to eat meat with blood still in it; and the third is to assure that the victim is
alive when he is slaughtered, as Muslims – again like Jews – are forbidden to eat carrion.

The requirement that the animal be conscious when the knife slits his throat is widely interpreted
as a prohibition against stunning, which means that if it were not for “religious exceptions,” both
Jewish and Muslim ritual slaughter would violate animal cruelty laws in Europe and North
America.  And for good reason. A conscious animal whose throat is slit experiences terrible fear
and suffering before she dies. Jewish and Muslim ritual slaughter conducted without stunning is
animal cruelty of the most grotesque sort.

Sweden and Switzerland have no religious slaughter exemption and require all animals to be
stunned before they are killed. In England, Muslim religious authorities have determined that
electric stunning does not violate the requirement that the animal be conscious because a stunned
animal who was subsequently slaughtered would regain consciousness. A number of Muslim
authorities elsewhere have made the same determination, but tradition dies hard.

Murder in the Name of God
Animal sacrifice is called for in the Quran, the ahadith, and customary law, and is still practiced
today. The Quran tells us that:

"God has made the Ka’bah, the Sacred House, the Sacred Month, and the sacrificial offerings
with their ornaments eternal values for mankind." (Quran 5:97. The Ka'bah is a small, square,
very ancient building in Mecca that is the holiest place in Islam. To see it, which is forbidden to
non-Muslims on pain of death, is the object of the Hajj, the pilgimage to Mecca. The sacred
house is the mosque; the sacred month is Ramadan, which commemorates the giving of the
Quran. Traditionally in Islam, an animal about to be slaughtered for a sacrifice has a garland
hung about his neck. (Siddiqi 25))

"Pray to your Lord and sacrifice to him." (Quran 108:2)

An hadith confirms this commandment by reporting that:

"The Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) dwelt at Medina for ten years
and performed sacrifice every year. (Tirmidhi)" (Quioted in Siddiqi 16)

The sacrifice is an annual affair, conducted during the most sacred festival in the Muslim
calendar, Eid-al-Adha , the Feast of the Sacrifice, a four day celebration that marks the end of
the Hajj, the traditional pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim whose health and finances permit
must make at least once in his or her life.  The sacrifice is not limited to Mecca or to Muslims
making the Hajj, however. Every Muslim anywhere in the world who can afford it is required to

Every year, hundreds of thousands of live sheep are shipped to Saudi Arabia – primarily from
the Middle East, Australia, and Romania – to be slaughtered at Eid-al-Adha. The conditions in
which they are transported and warehoused while awaiting death are horrific. In 2006, two
million pilgrims made the Hajj (Awad),  and while the Saudi government never announces the
number of animals killed in Mecca for Eid-al-Adha, no more than seven people may share the
sacrifice of one animal. This puts the minimum number at around three-hundred-thousand, and
the likely number closer to a million. Eid-al-Adha turns the city of Mecca into a giant
slaughterhouse, a city of suffering, terror, and death. Millions more animals are slaughtered
around the world in a global festival of killing. And to make matters worse, sheep and goats, the
animals typically slaughtered for Eid-al-Adha, must be less than a year old. (Siddiqi 28)  Eid-al-
Adha is a slaughter of children. (In the interests of fairness, and to put things in perspective, in
the United States alone more than 27,000,000 animals are killed every day for food, leather, and
fur. These animals are also children.)

            *                        *                        *

Eid-al-Adha commemorates the story told in the Quran of Abraham dreaming that he offered his
son Ismail as a sacrifice to God. Interpreting the dream as a divine command, Abraham – with
Ismail’s consent – prepared to sacrifice his son. But just as Abraham was preparing to plunge the
knife into him, God miraculously provided a ram to be killed in place of the young man. (Quran
37:102-108. Ismail (Ishmael in the Bible) is honored as the patriarch of the Arabian people. A
similar story is told  in the Bible (Genesis 22), but here Abraham's other son, Isaac, the patriarch
of the Jewish people, is nearly sacrificed by his father.)

The primary significance of the story for Muslims is that Abraham placed his will in complete
submission to God, even to the point of being willing to kill his son. “Islam” means
“submission,” and submission to God’s will is the ultimate Muslim virtue. A secondary meaning
is the replacement of human sacrifice with animal sacrifice, which Muslims (wrongly, but in
common with most human beings) regard as a great moral advance.         

The Quran is quite clear that God has no need of and takes no pleasure in the physical aspect of
the sacrifice.

"Their [sacrificed animals] flesh and blood does not reach God. It is your piety that reaches
Him. Thus has He subjected them to your service, so that you may give glory to God for guiding
you." (Quran 22:37)

In Islam, sacrifice is not intended – as it is in other religions – to mollify the deity; it is merely the
visible token of the worshipper’s submission to God. Reflecting this, the meat of the sacrificed
animal is divided into thirds. One third is kept by the sponsor of the sacrifice; one third is given
to relatives and friends; and one third is donated to the poor. As a contemporary Islamic scholar
puts it:

'Sacrifice in Islam . . . is essentially symbolic – an external symbol of an internal dedication and
voluntary submission to the Will of the Almighty." (Siddiqi 3)

This raises the question, Why not dispense with the killing and replace it with an act that does
not do violence to Islamic teachings on kindness and compassion, such as contributing money to
charity? If it is God’s will that we treat animals with love and gentleness, how could robbing an
innocent animal of his precious life be a symbol of submission to God’s will? Killing is profane,
and killing in the name of holiness profanes the sacred. Animal sacrifice in any religion, including
Islam, is evil and blasphemous. Apart from certain sects of Hinduism and some religions of
African origin, such as Santeria, Islam is the world’s only major religion that still practices animal

copyright 2007 Norm Phelps


Armstrong, Karen, Islam: A Short History, New York, The Modern Library, 2002.

Awad, Rana, “Sheep breeders fare average ahead of Eid Al Adha, but face foreign competition,”
in The Jordan Times, January 17, 2006. On the worldwide web at http://www3.estart.
com/arab/news/sheep.html. Viewed on January 17, 2006.

The Koran, translated with notes by N. J. Dawood, London, Penguin Books, 1999.

Masri, Al-Hafiz B. A., “Animal Experimentation: The Muslim Viewpoint,” in
Animal Sacrifices:
Religious Perspectives on the Use of Animals in Science
, edited by Tom Regan, Philadelphia,
Temple University Press, 1986.

---------------------------, Animals in Islam, on the website of CHAI (Concern for Helping Animals
in Israel) at Viewed
on January 16, 2006.

Siddiqi, Muhammad Iqbal,
The Ritual of Animal Sacrifice in Islam, Lahore (Pakistan), Kazi
Publications, undated.