What a free-thinking medieval Muslim can teach us about animal welfare

Exactly 1,000 years after the appearance of al-Maʿarri’s “The Epistle of the Horse and the Mule,” the work of the vegan poet still resonates

April 14, 2021
Arab warriors fighting on horseback in a 12th-century manuscript. Credit: Alamy
Arab warriors fighting on horseback in a 12th-century manuscript. Credit: Alamy

Two things happened in March that revealed the challenge of squaring rival views on how we treat animals. On Friday 12th March, the Animal Welfare Bill, under which animal abusers could face up to five years in prison, was passed by the House of Commons. A week later in India, despite Covid-19 restrictions, Hindu Shakti worshippers entered the holy Kodungallur Bhagavathy Temple and slaughtered roosters in defiance of a 1968 ban on religious animal sacrifice. One law protecting animals was put forward out of compassion; another such law was broken for the sake of religious freedom. Between the two, how to balance human versus non-human welfare?

The question is captivating and urgent—but not new. Figures like Saint Francis of Assisi and the Buddha preached mercy for all living creatures. Leonardo Da Vinci refused to eat meat on moral grounds. But one of history’s loudest voices on this score remains unheard in the west: Abu l-Ala’ al-Maarri (d 1057), the blind Arabic free-thinker and ascetic best known for The Epistle of Forgiveness, a voyage through the afterlife that some see as a precursor to Dante’s Commedia. That book, along with his fame as an alleged heretic, is key to his legacy but overshadows his deep concern for animals.

Al-Maarri was, by modern standards, not just vegetarian but in fact fully vegan—vanishingly rare in a medieval Islamic world where the majority belief held that God grants animals for human use. By contrast, al-Maarri thought that allowing any harm to non-humans was complacent or even malicious. In one dryly humorous poem he urges people to avoid not just meat but all animal products: “Don’t feed on fish plucked from the sea / or find your food in murdered beasts / don’t take mothers’ milk—it’s for young calves / not for noble women of leisure; / or thick white honey struck from blooms— / the bees didn’t make it just to give it away!”

Often the call to veganism echoes a broader contrast between animals and humans, in which we fare poorly. “You see? They’re better than us,” he jeers in another poem. “Their kind does no harm even as you fear it from your own.” Taken to extremes, this attitude becomes a handy excuse for shunning human society, which al-Maarri was also known for.

Not content with merely giving advice, al-Maarri goes a step further in The Epistle of the Horse and the Mule, a meandering prose work that appeared exactly 1,000 years ago, and which is populated by animal characters who talk about religion, poetry and Syrian society on the eve of the crusades. The titular horse defends animals by pointing out how cruelly they are treated by humans. “We are the tribes of equus,” it complains to the mule. “Our lot is to have hardships thrown round our necks and heaped onto our backs!”

To prove the point, the work presents a gallery of horrors committed by people against animals—including forming bonds with livestock only to kill them and hunting wild gazelle, leaving their orphaned young. But the most ghoulish methods are those ostensibly practised by Bedouin Arabs. For instance, they might waterlog their camels before a long journey and then pierce their stomachs to drink the excess liquid, or slaughter them so that encroaching predators would be drawn to the dead beasts instead of humans. “No animal has endured torture from the Sons of Eve like the camel has,” bemoans the horse.

Al-Maarri explains his purpose in a letter to the preacher and poet al-Mu’ayyad fi l-Din al-Shirazi, who had accused al-Maarri of trying to outdo God’s mercy by surpassing Islamic prescriptions on animal use. Unfazed, al-Maarri reasons that “those who profess religion have always been anxious to avoid meat,” since obtaining meat involves causing pain. At the very least, people of conscience can’t be sure how much damage they’ve done, just as they can’t know whether their actions are for good or ill. Such moral humility is the core of al-Maarri’s vegan ethics, which demands deeper awareness of our own ignorance and even of our own mortality. Let people reject harming animals, al-Maarri seems to say, with the same energy they would reject harming themselves.

Of course, putting all this into action can take many forms. Al-Maarri himself was a strict ascetic whose regimen would be considered extreme in any age. Clashing ideas about religion and culture still make it hard to find the right balance. This is clear from the Hindu Shakti protests or, in the wake of Covid-19, from calls to end risky practices such as fur farming and live animal markets in China. These calls often echo wider prejudices about East Asian culture. Likewise in Europe, Belgium has banned halal and kosher meat when the animal has not been electrically stunned—a decision upheld by the European Court of Justice in the face of religious opposition. No principle—not even championing animal welfare—is so noble that it can’t be turned to evil ends. Hence the ongoing need to watch ourselves, as al-Maarri himself insisted. “The wicked aren’t to blame if they catch you fast asleep,” he writes as a warning against moral complacency. “Praise to the wasteland-dwelling wolf that is ever vigilant about its next meal.”