April 5, 2013
Fifth Annual Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Conference at Harvard
“Communities Like You: Animals and Islam”
It is a great honor for me to have the opportunity to address such an august audience. I would have liked to say “pleasure”, but with all due respect to your good selves, that would not be totally true for I have spent most of my adult life cravenly avoiding any form of live public speaking. However, I am fully aware of the need for all of us to communicate − all the more so in this age of “communication”… and of miscommunication. I should also underline the fact that I speak neither as an “expert” nor an authority, but simply as someone who has learned a little about life, practices my beliefs to the best of my ability, and has great faith in Islam’s essential message of Unity and Compassion.
Islam is after all a synthesis of the three great monotheistic religions: the middle way including that of both the law and the love as emphasized in Judaism and Christianity, respectively. Islam contains the two ways and offers specific guidelines as to how we should treat each other and the world around us. I will not attempt to expound too much on the technicalities, as there are so many more erudite presentations to follow, but I would like to draw attention to the tragic fact that, sadly, while certain of Islam’s directives (often the more obvious and outward ones) are focused on − in today’s world the essential spirit behind them is all too often either taken for granted without real application, or is given lip service but no real life, and on other occasions is totally overlooked!
We are familiar with the Ninety-nine Beautiful Names of God, Asmaa Allah Al Husnaa. They are divided into two groups, those of Beauty and those of Majesty. And yet, the names we address God by in prayer daily are Al Rahman Al Rahim, The Merciful The Beneficent… Is it not terrible then that to the uninitiated − and, worse, to many less discriminating or contemplative Muslims − Islam is associated with bigotry, narrowness, violence and exclusion and destruction?
I was blessed by having parents who were both practicing and devout as well as open-minded and courageous Muslims. I was also fortunate in having been a child at a time when the world was less frenetic. I was thus able to learn more from observation and just being around people who lived their beliefs wholeheartedly, more than I realized at the time. Looking back, many of their actions seem almost Saintly − certainly heroic − whereas at the time they were to me purely normal and “as it should be.” Neither parent ever “preached” at me, but they were essentially humane human beings who epitomized the idea of human beings being “brethren in creation”. They also both had a deep appreciation of nature and the other creatures who share this planet with us and support us on this earthly journey.
My own personal involvement with “good causes” goes back a ways, but while I always was happy and honored to do what I could on a private level, working in a hands-on way with “societies” and such − with all their associated formalities and deadlines and agendas and “minutes” and so on − always seemed rather incomprehensible to me and way too complicated. (Rather on a par with public speaking − hence the added irony to my presence here with you today representing a Foundation!)
I won’t bore you with the rather gory details of how this foundation came to be, but suffice it to say that it began with an Uruguayan bull, some Jordanian sheep, Arab (but not solely Jordanian) slaughter men, an amazing Australian animal welfare activist and an English cameraman who filmed and forwarded to the relevant Jordanian authorities footage of some truly “unhalal” slaughter. Blows on the head of the confused bull with a massive metal pipe while goading it back and forth for no apparent reason, then prolonged roping and multiple stabbing that went on and on. I myself had not initially watched the film, but upon reading the responses to the footage from abroad from those who had, I went home with a strong sense of responsibility. I don’t know why particularly − one hears of terrible things often, Ya Latif − but something inside me told me that if I let this pass with just relying on the word of others to address matters, I would be responsible and guilty for not really trying at least, before God, to ensure that similar atrocities were not repeated.
One of the maxims we hear frequently is that “People who have no empathy towards God’s four-legged creatures are likely to have none for each other.” This has been proven to me often within the field of slaughter. The number of times I would remonstrate over some “unhalal” practice with someone in the field, and say, “But would you feed your family this?” the outrageous and immediate reply was, “Oh no my family doesn’t eat this meat.” Is that not among the worst and most indicative aspects of the whole tragedy? We don’t even care about each other!
We face a lot of problems in today’s world not just of misapplication and carelessness towards our own teachings (whatever system of belief we follow, most if not all are severely tested, not to say compromised in these times) but also from misperception. Some of the misapplication, and I will refer here to the more glaring examples related to halal slaughter as they underline the points clearly, are largely due to logistics. Populations have grown immensely: it is no longer a matter of a skilled practitioner who knows exactly what to do, and has his own correct equipment such as a blade of sufficient size and sharpness to work with, as well as the confidence to perform fast and precisely without fear of the creature itself. Nor is it a question of performing the slaughter mainly on local, docile animals which are accustomed to being handled and are thus much easier to deal with. With the demand for meat and the wonders (often resulting in disasters) of technology, animals are transported great distances in relatively short periods, often causing great stress − not to say suffering − and often arriving at their end destinations to be “processed” in alien surroundings and atmospheres. They are faced with people speaking totally foreign languages and with even more foreign manners and certainly no idea how to handle obstreperous, confused, and totally stressed-out animals from halfway across the globe. Most of the creatures are then dispersed to facilities, which however often the “trade” tells us are “halal”-equipped, are probably not. Small facilities − if facilities we can call them − often just have a hole for the blood. Bovines are cast and often trussed up like turkeys to effectively drown in their own blood by laying on their backs while hacked at with inadequate blades; sheep are thrown on top of each other to be cut on top of their dying predecessors. They usually die quicker than the cattle due to their specific morphology, but they are no more gently handled. And in their case there is no excuse of fear of being hurt by them − just the modern “who cares and let’s get it done fast” attitude.
There is no possibility of “leading beautifully”, as the Prophet instructed, in the world of huge numbers with untrained staff and/or inadequate equipment. That renders it impossible for anyone to perform efficiently and well. All these evils around the actual slaughter time itself can be avoided by proper equipment. (Temple Grandin is the leading world authority on animal behavior − herself autistic − has designed amazing slaughterhouses avoiding stress for the animals, providing halal standards, safety for the workers, and eventually (the modern world likes this part) far more cost effectiveness and less wastage!
I would like to underline that the perception of Islamic slaughter as a bloodthirsty practice is largely due to the insistence on severing arteries and bleeding; but in fact before precise stunning was perfected, and able to be guaranteed by precise mechanisms, loss of blood was the fastest way to ascertain loss of consciousness. Hence lack of pain for the creature, and the specific directives of what must be severed and what not in each case are scientifically the fastest ways to ensure the speed of bleeding and prevention of clotting, thus ensuring not only the fastest possible loss of consciousness, onset of death, and minimum blood in the meat.
I apologize for dwelling so long on this one topic but it is the one which is most commonly recognized as an aspect of Islam’s approach to animals and which sadly attracts the most misunderstanding of real Islam. I myself was obliged to research much more deeply specific directives, whether actual Qur’an or Ahadith, in order to try to address the various issues we were asked to deal with, and I confess with some shame at my ignorance but great pride in what I discovered that I was truly astounded by the reality. The depth and detail of the specified directives are truly more strict and humane than most animal welfare societies would have the nerve to request.
A related major irony is the fact that non-Muslim exporters of chilled or frozen meat to Muslim countries have to apply halal standards correctly in Australia to export to Muslim countries, and in the interests of their trade they do it properly (not like us paying lip-service, shrugging, and doing it any old how just focusing on blood).
So non-Muslims apply humane halal standards at home to export meat to us; their trade is more important to them than our applying all the letters and the spirit of God’s laws is to us? We can do the job just as well with proper facilities, monitoring, and training. But to keep harping on solely bloodletting and forgetting that Islam wants the whole passage to slaughter as well as the slaughter itself to be as stress-free as possible just conjures up rather pagan images of blood lust. It does not explain God’s concern towards His creatures − and it certainly omits that doing it wrong, causing suffering, has a price − as do all contraventions of God’s Laws − and aside from the desensitization of humane feelings in cruelty, there is another aspect perhaps more frightening for some: it is that consuming such stressed animals is not healthy − human health is that price.
It is worthy of note that while the European Union for example only officially recognized animals’ sentiency in early 2009, Islam and indeed most other ancient belief systems and cultures were fully aware of the fact that the natural world is sentient and plays an active part in physically sheltering and sustaining human beings. It also supports us spiritually, and for those who are blessed enough to sense this, it points the way for man to fulfill his destiny and hopefully to truly find God. How ironic that Islam, which is widely perceived as consisting of people unsympathetic to animals for example, and careless of trees and plants and good clean earth and air, quite clearly alludes in the Qur’an itself to the natural world’s awareness of God and to its role in the graces or signs by which God’s Messengers could be recognized. Abraham was exposed to fire which did not harm him. His son was saved from being sacrificed by a “great” ram which God accepted in his stead.
Moses’ whole life as we know of it is filled with the significant results of his interaction with the natural world − from the river carrying him as a baby, to his finding a home in Midian thanks to his drawing water from a well. From his speaking to God through a burning bush, to his staff which transformed into a snake at significant moments and which he also valued for other reasons, and to the sea itself parting…these are just a few of the examples. But perhaps the most subtle allusion to the interplay between worlds, to my mind, is in the story of the fish which came to life at the junction of the “two seas” and by which Moses was able to link up with the enigmatic and remarkable gnostic who taught him about Patience. I see that there is to be a learned talk on the story of Sayyidna Suleiman and the ants during this conference. Solomon’s ability to command the winds (symbols of spiritual messages) and his knowledge of the “Language of the Birds”, as cited in the Qur’an, demonstrate his unique abilities as well as God’s favor towards him. But let us not forget that the Quran also demonstrates how relative “power” as such is, for when Sayyidna Suleiman died, all his subjects with their own considerable and varied powers remained enthralled by his presence until a minute and “lowly” termite caused his seat to collapse. Until then, none other had been able to tell for sure that the Mighty Suleiman had passed, and had ceased to hold power over them.
I would like to add the reference to Christ’s powers and his abilities to reverse “natural” laws by healing the sick and raising the dead “By God’s Will”, but there is also the charming reference to how he created a live flying pigeon from clay. The Qur’an also cites how Allah used birds, a dog, and even a donkey to demonstrate His power over time to doubters. The life of the prophet Muhammad is filled with examples of his respect for nature and the significance of animals in his life, from the sheep which he tended and which were always fat even during times of scarcity, to the spider and dove which protected him during his Hijra to Medina, and his clear demonstration of his respect for animals in letting his first abode there be chosen by his camel, Qaswa.
And in case we missed their significance, we have God Himself pointing out in Surat al Baqara how He illustrates points by references to even so tiny a creature as a mosquito and how humans who do not “get it” question His use of so “insignificant” a creature. Humans question God’s Judgment? The Qur’an is full of allusions to creatures, and nature: some obscure, others obvious, but always nature and the natural world are prominent and intrinsically linked with our fate. We are told that God created man as His vicegerent. Our purpose then is to protect God’s Creation and certainly to respect it. So how do we justify, even if purely by neglecting to interfere in a positive way, the exploitation of nature − wastage of resources, desecration of places which at some point in time have been holy (if not to our own belief system then to others). The whole of creation is holy, if we would but acknowledge it.
Perhaps it is these clear and numerous references to animals as thinking beings that explains an extremely positive aspect − and probably an unexpected one − of the Middle East’s attitude towards animals. We find it easier than the more “modern-thinking” West to accept the idea of conversing with them in some form other than the obvious ones. I have had the good fortune to witness some truly remarkable exchanges, silent but no less effective in their results, between animals and people who profess to communicate with them as in some form of actual exchange of ideas. The “whisperers”, as they are more commonly known, are not able to verify their input other than through the results. In other words, as one frankly explained, “For all I know it could all be simply my imagination.” Yet, I have seen proof in the form of very specific changes in the behavior or attitude of some creature after such an event. My reason for raising the topic (which many may scoff at) here is that I was quite taken aback at times by the response of very unmodern people at home. When I would tentatively and apologetically explain that someone was coming to try to assist with a situation by, as she says, “talking to” the creature in question, most would either nod and say, “Oh yes we know such things exist, our grandparents knew such a person,” or else, “Oh good well can she also ‘talk’ to this or that horse-cat-dog-as well to see why it does x-y-z?”
What was most heartwarming though, and again (sadly) surprising, is that, while we are in the world’s perception not the kindest of people towards animals, there appears a consistent thread to another more subtle angle. Under the apparently casual − even at times cavalier − attitude and usual lack of cosseting that many people in our region show towards even house pets, my friend was surprised time and again by the fact that concern for and interest in the creature’s actual happiness, contentment, were what was enquired after. In the West, she is accustomed to being called upon to get a certain creature to conform, be easier to live with − more convenient. Yes, it may have expensive food and toys (I know the figures spent on such things are mind-boggling) but it is also required to “fit in” often with a lifestyle which is not suited either to that species or simply its individual character. We know that household dogs are nowadays trained to sit in crates for long hours to avoid mess or disturbance. Other “show animals” are kept in confined conditions, groomed ad infinitum and not allowed to roll or mess up their coats or manes, nor play freely with colleagues for fear of being a bit less than the required artificial perfection on a great show day. Many hugely expensive show horses are horribly abused in order to ensure total focus on their handler and no distraction during a show. Most modern performance horses are brought along too fast at the expense of their limbs and joints and certainly their mental maturity, to be sold on at higher prices fast before they break down − or even because the inconvenience of missing a season by needing rest − and are often then put down, insurance claimed, and another disposable soul bought, because the animal costs a lot and therefore owes its owner, who has a right to expect success and returns − never mind giving the creature peace of mind, contentment, or even a chance of a long life.
Only last month, I was visiting the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, one of the few remaining schools of classical equitation. The group I was with included members of an organization established to protect Arabian show horses from abuse. It was therefore particularly impressive to hear that the classical schools focus on bringing on their horses extremely slowly, establishing good rapport with their riders but also building up strength in joints and muscles which ensure the longevity of the creatures, with soundness and pleasure in their work. One senior stallion is still, Mash’Allah, one of their leading performers at the age of twenty four. Contrast that with the fact that the average life of sport horses (including show jumpers and dressage horses) in Europe a couple of years ago was only eight years. Many owners would rather put down a horse that would be perfectly functional after a season’s rest, dispose of it, and replace it (through insurance money) with another victim.
Forgive the digression, but the “commodity” attitude to creatures is shocking to me, all the more so that to my great sadness it is catching on in our part of the world and competition is surpassing traditional attitudes towards horses and other creatures. What we need to preserve above that nonsense is what my friend the animal whisperer found so heartwarming: the fact that people in our region wanted to know what their animals felt, how they could be made more content, even in fairly basic conditions (not in the sense of expensive toys or treating them as virtual humans in terms of housing and apparent pampering), but to ensure that they were content in themselves − not just “make it fit in with my lifestyle”. I think that is a truly precious thing, and I hope that we never lose it.
For what, after all, is Kufr? True, we translate it as sin, but it comes in Arabic from the root kfr − to hide, to cover − and basically it signifies not that we are to blame for genuine ignorance, but for feigning ignorance, closing our eyes, ears, hearts, intellects to the Truth. Either because we feel that we benefit by doing so (as if any earthly benefit could count when we face our Creator and are asked why we ignored His directives and harmed His creation in order to impress mere humans). Or because it just seems too much like an effort. Well, let us remember that jihad is Holy effort, and that the Prophet referred to physical battles as the lesser Jihad, but to daily life − living decently − as Al Jihad Ul Akbar – the greater jihad.
What we all know but too few of us care to dwell upon is that while abuse of any living thing is not a good sign indicating, at the very least, ignorance of or carelessness towards others and certainly wasteful tendencies − it is damaging at the end of the day to the actual soul of the one who perpetrates it. It is I believe proven by studies that serial killers for example had tendencies towards cruelty to insects and animals from a young age. Such tendencies, if unchecked, progress in a downward spiral to appetites for ever more degenerate behavior and the very humanity of humans is compromised. What distinguishes us from other creatures is our mission as “God’s vicegerents” and the ability which the Good Lord gave us to assist us in this mission of surpassing any negative tendencies which we may have. In all creatures, however gentle and exceptionally clever and empathic they are (and there are truly amazing, unselfish, and perceptive creatures out there in almost every form under the sun, SubhanAllah), the distinguishing element of the non-human world is that it is bound to some extent by its nature. To paraphrase a wise man, an apple seed does not produce a fig tree; likewise, animals are in some degree always subject to their instincts to a greater or lesser level. It is humans with our huge, God-given responsibility to govern the world well, who have the ability to surpass ourselves to manifest The Asmaa al Husna in a good balance neither being too Raheem to the extent of weakness in acting correctly and allowing wrongdoing out of excessive or misplaced sympathy, nor too Jabaar or Muntaqim and thus too harsh and unforgiving.
God gave us this potential and this responsibility, and while it is very few who are able to maintain even a semblance of having a consistent balance in manifesting a step or two on the way towards the potential perfection of Al Insan Al Kamil, it is a mission from God to try – and yes, it is terribly hard, but how many really worthwhile things are easy to achieve?
To return to my own personal involvement, I was persuaded by a good friend and remarkable lady, she who had filmed the Uruguyan bull, to continue working but through a foundation with my name. I felt that was pretentious and I also had as I said earlier a horror of working through organizations. However, her eminent practicality convinced me: “You can use the title for good, it attracts attention, and that is often a key element” So, be concerned about how it would “appear” or gain leverage for good causes? No question was more important. Thus, the Princess Alia Foundation (PAF) came into being, based upon a few solid and clear-headed family members and friends. We set to work, still with the main objective of true halal slaughter and raising awareness on the realities around us regionally. Our partners of necessity had to be the responsible government bodies, so we presented our ideas to the most relevant ministers: Islamic Affairs, Agriculture, Environment, Planning, Rural Affairs, Health, and the Food and Drug Administration, as well as the Municipality of Greater Amman. They agreed to work with us, but were far from being content to let us focus solely on abattoirs. We were immediately asked to find a solution for the problem of feral dogs (a constant hot potato and source of inhumane behavior in attempting to control them, and ensuing bad publicity and wide public discontent in return). We were also asked to find a solution to the zoo situation. Jordan had at that time four zoos, none actually with valid licenses and all based upon illegal wildlife trade, smuggling, breeding, and all potential disaster scenarios in terms of health (quite aside from the fact that they offered neither education nor conservation, the two premises for establishing a zoo in the first place). Moreover, visitors often left depressed and/or traumatized by what they had seen, and cases of children being mauled by the inadequate safety standards were not unheard of.
We had no clue how to address any of those issues. Yes, we all like animals, but had no experience in the field of humane and effective stray animal control nor zoos − but the opportunity to help was far too good to pass up so we nodded calmly and said of course, we’d love to.
Our horizons expanded rapidly and everywhere we met with outstanding human beings − far too many to be mentioned here or to attempt to give each of them anything approaching their due. But all were patently linked by mutual respect for each other and for God’s Creation, and that, regardless of our individual religious frameworks. This for me has been one of the greatest gifts of PAF: reaffirming my erstwhile weakened faith in humanity.
And so one mission led to another and we arrived at a program for youth at risk. This youth program actually started as an offshoot of “Growing Together”, equine therapy for children on the autistic spectrum. This is offered free, in very natural surroundings, close by rescued animals in a sanctuary called “New Hope” awaiting a permanent solution in a proper wildlife sanctuary project in the North of Jordan. I may be confusing you here because I did elaborate on how PAF began as a solution-finder for the slaughterhouse situation in Jordan, and I mentioned stray control and zoos − and yes, PAF has been officially established for under four years now − but we are MaSha’Allah running a variety of complex and very necessary initiatives, relying mostly on my cousin Sharifa Sarra, the dynamo and lynchpin of PAF. We are a tiny group of workers, but we care, we have faith in God’s message and we have faith in humanity − true humanity. So when we see a need for action we assume that it has shown itself for a reason, and we try to act. It is not about “We have a budget so what shall we use it for?”; it is about, “This needs to be done, we see a way of doing it, and with God’s Grace it will work out Insh’Allah.” So our programs mushroomed to include assistance to schools, awareness towards environmental issues, alternative energy for schools and villages, and God Willing, our next project is a comprehensive solution for the care and education and preparation for the outside world for all the orphans who are at present in our governmental institutions.
I mention all that not to blow trumpets; if any were to be blown it is certainly not mine, but that of the team who put their heart, soul and time into the projects to the extent that the families in question also became involved, and instead of grumbling about attention, put their own young minds and hearts into spreading good words and raising awareness. The point is that from a gruesome subject like abattoirs, we moved quickly and in steps each progressing from the one before it to where PAF is truly working towards: “Compassion and respect for all Creation” − not just animals, not just trees and clean air, not even just children − but towards the whole, with no part of it seen as less important. That is Islam: Unity in diversity, diversity in unity, tawheed, of efforts, of seeing the world as whole, of working together for better days and of living Islam’s message of respect, which frankly is much more Islam’s attitude than the much-used word tolerance, which can sound condescending rather than inviting and inclusive, and real peace at the end of all, Insh’Allah.
This conference is focused on Islam’s attitude towards non-human creatures, but I think it is crucial to underline very briefly the outstandingly benevolent essence of Islam’s view of all interactions between earthly beings. Perhaps today the most misrepresented and misunderstood aspect of Islam’s attitude to human interaction is its view of women. I believe it is all summed up in God’s Qur’anic mention of the relationship between husband and wife: “…and We Created between the two Affection and Mercy.” With affection and mercy, any form of exploitation or cruelty − even to the degree of nagging or worrying one’s partner − is negated.
See a previously agoraphobic youth jump out of the car and race off to splash in the stream − I could bore you all with many more stories and examples, but I would like to end with a few images of the Growing Together program. It now caters to over three hundred children from those with autism-related issues, to physical problems, to orphans and children under family protection…this has been life-changing for so many, as the families suddenly hear speech from non-speaking children, hear words like “love” used by those who never expressed emotions, enroll previously inactive and non-interactive children in mainstream school − and all we have done towards this is to provide them with the chance to interact with creatures, mainly horses, and to be out in nature. A clear demonstration of the unity of Creation, and of how creation is linked and when allowed to do so, can heal with God’s Barakah and the Power which none of us can fully explain, nor deny. And so, Bismillah Al Rahman Al Rahim − In the Name of God The Merciful The Beneficent…