I am a failed vegetarian. But during my vegetarian days, I conducted extensive research and spoke to many Muslims on what is nowadays euphemistically called, after the vegetarian movement rebranded itself, a ‘plant-based diet’. What delighted me in my interviews and research were the numerous examples from the life of our Beloved Prophet Muhammad suggesting that he was almost vegetarian, too. I was inspired by people who pointed me to written sources showing that the Prophet ate a mostly plant-based diet and consumed meat rarely and sparingly. The Prophet is even recorded to have admonished his followers not to let their stomachs become ‘a graveyard for animals’ – in some traditions, this saying is attributed to his cousin, son-in-law, and close companion Ali. If he were alive today, the Prophet would probably love hanging out with pacifist vegan environmentalists.
Or would he?
According to Barnaby Rogerson, Muhammad was, ‘like every desert dweller one has ever met – passionate about meat and would eat any of the five desert meats: camel, rabbit, gazelle, chicken or mutton’. Not that the Prophet was a total carnivore. Rogerson adds that Muhammad also delighted in dates, pumpkins, melons, grapes and cucumbers – basically the ‘foods of the poor’. But this was accompanied by a fondness for ‘chewing meat off the bone, especially the shoulder, which he would eat in his fingers’. True, the sources abundantly record that the Prophet was no glutton – he usually ate only once a day and advised others to eat moderately. But it would seem that the jury’s still out on whether he was a proto-vegetarian.
It’s not my purpose to adjudicate whether Muhammad was a meat-lover or a plant-eating pioneer. Rather, it’s about noticing the way in which his life can be made to tell different stories about Islam and Muslims. For example, in addition to being a potential proto-vegetarian, he also could have been a proto-feminist. Just look at how he was said to be respectful, faithful and lovingly devoted to his first wife, Khadija, right until her death. Or how his youngest wife Aisha reported that he often mended his own clothes at home.