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A Muslim woman eating a vegan burgerSumaya

Vegan and Muslim: Why I kept my plant-based diet secret from my family

Can you be vegan and Muslim? Sumaya and Mara think so, but often have to defend their beliefs.

Rahil Sheikh, BBC Asian Network
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"What?! You are vegan?….VEGAN?!… What's next… taking off your hijab?!"

That's how Sumaya's mum reacted when she told her she was vegan.

"I wish I recorded her! Her whole body language changed. It was like I'd murdered someone," says Sumaya, who's 18 and from west London.

"I was like 'Mum, I haven't murdered anyone. If you think about it… I've done the complete opposite."

Like many in Britain today, Sumaya proudly carries many identities. British. Hijab-wearing Muslim woman. Somalian. And most recently, vegan.

There are an estimated 600,000 vegans in Britain, according to research from The Vegan Society in 2019. That's up from around 150,000 in 2006.

There aren't recorded numbers for vegan Muslims but, when Muslims discuss their veganism, they're often on the receiving end of baffled reactions. This is partly because these two lifestyles aren't commonly associated, and partly because there can sometimes be a perceived conflict between these two sets of ideals.

In Islam, eating meat is regarded as halal, which means Muslims are allowed to do it under the rules of their religion. Some Muslims believe that rejecting what has been allowed by the word of God is haram (the opposite of halal – against the wishes of God).

How Sumaya's family found out

Sumaya eating a vegan burgerSumaya

Sumaya soon had personal experience of this conflict. She kept her veganism secret from her family for six months until one night when her dad bought her a well-meaning treat – a bucket of fried chicken.

She was 16 at the time, and she'd injured her ankle, so her dad wanted to do something nice. "When he came home, he called me over and there it was…" she remembers. "'It's your favourite' he kindly uttered to me."

What had been hunger just minutes before had now been replaced by an intense feeling of anxiety in the pit of Sumaya's stomach. It was time for her to come clean.

Sumaya grew up in a Somali-Muslim family, and meat had been a huge part of her family's diet.

"Breakfast, lunch and dinner all we ate was meat, meat and more meat!" she says.

In Britain, Muslims make up around 4.6% of the population but, according to a report by AHDB Beef & Lamb, British Muslims consume more than 20% of all the lamb and mutton produced in the UK.

At 15, Sumaya started to become concerned about the amount of meat she was eating and its impact on her health, and felt like she needed to make a change.

"I went on YouTube to look up diets and all I kept seeing was these skinny white girls," she recalls. "And, in their videos, they were like 'OK, to look like us you have to eat plants and reduce your meat consumption'."

A bowl of vegan foodSumaya
Sumaya says going vegan has improved her health

"At this point, I was pretty desperate. I couldn't even walk up the stairs without being breathless, so I was now sold on veganism," she continues. "After trying it out for a couple of months, I felt great."

For many of us, the biggest challenge of going vegan would be resisting burgers or a post-night-out kebab. But for Sumaya, her problem was keeping it secret. Instead of calling her new diet vegan, Sumaya told her parents she was just eating more vegetables now. But after her dad offered her the fried chicken, the secret was out.

"Dad said: 'Why are you being disrespectful and not eating the food I bought for you?'"

Sumaya writes a vegan food blog and has received messages of support from other Muslims who are thinking about adopting a plant-based diet.

"Some Muslims messaged me saying thank you for showing me that being vegan isn't just about eating greens, and that you can have vegan kebabs and cakes," she tells me.

But she's also been contacted by Muslims who tell her she'll go to hell because she's vegan.

"Someone even told me that my body will be eaten by snakes!" she says.

Sumaya thinks she wouldn't have had the same kind of trolling if she wasn't a woman. "If I was a guy who had become vegan because I wanted to be ripped and get in better shape, I don't think I'd be getting criticism for it. All I wanted was to live a healthier lifestyle," she says. "I can be both Muslim and vegan equally, without compromising either side."

Eating meat is a daily staple for millions of Muslims across the globe. And the relationship between Islam and meat becomes much more pronounced around the Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha. This is the holiday on which Muslims commemorate the prophet Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his own son for God.

In some Muslim countries, the holiday includes a ritual sacrifice of a goat or a sheep, which represents the sacrifice Abraham was willing to make. In the UK, this would take place in a licensed slaughterhouse. The meat produced is also traditionally offered out to family, friends and the less fortunate.

Being vegan is 'a white thing to do'

Mara posing with some vegan foodMara
Mara's been told that veganism is "a white thing to do" – but she says that's "complete rubbish"

This is where it starts to get more complicated for Muslim vegans. Can veganism be compatible with Islam, when animal sacrifice is central to one of the most important festivals in the Islamic calendar?

For Mara, 23, a Muslim and vegan from Birmingham, the answer is yes.

"Being Muslim, we must treat animals well before we eat them," Mara tells me. "I just don't think that in today's society that's happening, so we shouldn't be eating meat if we can't guarantee the animals will be treated well."

Mara grew up in a Pakistani-Muslim family and ate meat regularly. She never gave it much thought until a few years ago when she watched a documentary on Netflix called What the Health. The pro-vegan documentary was released in 2017 exploring the impact meat and dairy consumption has on our health.

After watching it, Mara immediately went vegan. After she cut out animal products, she began taking an interest in animal rights.

"Animal cruelty is not in line with Islam." she says. "The sacrificial tradition during Eid al-Adha can make things difficult for Muslim vegans, but I know some who, instead of sacrificing an animal, will instead use their time to help others or give to charity instead. And that's what I'll do too."

Mara's family were supportive of her decision, but as happened to Sumaya, some Muslims accused her of going against her religious beliefs.

"Some I know would say to me, 'The prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, ate meat, so why are you rejecting it? Are you saying he's wrong?'

"But what I say back to them is that if they did their research, the prophet Muhammad's diet was 90% plant-based and he lived largely on dates and barley. He very rarely ate meat."

"I'm a Pakistani Muslim and I've been told also that being vegan is a 'white thing to do', which is complete rubbish," she continues. "Muslims care about the environment and care about animals as much as anyone else."

Last year, researchers from Imperial College London released a report suggesting people need to eat less meat and dairy in order to help fight climate change. With meat consumption being disproportionately high in Muslim communities, is this message getting across to British Muslims?

Mara definitely thinks so: "When I go to events or talks I am seeing lots of young Muslims attending who are concerned about the environment. We want to be involved in the discussion more than we are – but I think the appetite is there, especially among young Muslims."

Mara at an animal rights protestWestMidsConnections
Mara at an animal rights protest. Her sign says that animal testing is against God

I wanted to know the Islamic position on veganism. Is being vegan compatible with Islam? Can you be Muslim and Vegan?

I spoke to Sayful Ahmed, an imam who leads the prayers at the Islamic Centre in Scunthorpe. At just 33 years old, he’s among the youngest imams in the UK.

Sayful says choosing to be vegan does not compromise Islamic belief.

"If the question is, is a Muslim doing something wrong and against their religion if they choose to only eat a plant-based diet? The answer is simply, not at all," he tells me. "The requirement in Islam is that what you eat must be halal and tayyub (Arabic for wholesome and pure). A vegan diet is both of those things."

As for sacrificing an animal at Eid al-Adha, Sayful says you don't have to actively perform a sacrificial slaughter yourself, but instead you can give money to a charity or to someone who can do it on your behalf, as most Muslims in the UK do.

It's unclear if that would be an attractive option for Muslim vegans, and it doesn't really provide an option to those who don't wish be involved in the sacrifice of animals, even indirectly.

Back to Sumaya, she says her parents eventually came round to her veganism and have reduced their meat consumption, following her lead.

The fight was worth it for her, but Mara tells me there is a lot more that needs to be done to make veganism a more appealing option for the wider Muslim community.

"The older generation... didn't really learn about veganism growing up, whereas we have more access to information. In a culture where we respect the word of our elders, it can be difficult to tell them why we are right in choosing this path for ourselves, despite what they think."