It’s axiomatic that the right to life would include the right to livelihood which, in turn, would include the right to food and dietary preferences, circumscribed by reasonable restrictions of law, customs, care for the public order, morality, health, etc. Beyond this, the state has no business peeping into one’s kitchen. Food is a matter of cultural conditioning and individual choice. Therefore, one group’s taboos should not translate into another’s prohibition, as there would always be some to whom one or the other food would be an anathema.
On the question of beef, Gandhi said, “I have pledged to serve the cow, but how can my religion also be the religion of the rest of the Indians? It will mean coercion against those Indians who are not Hindus. How can I force anyone not to slaughter cows unless he is himself so disposed?” Thus, as it behoves a secular state, Article 48 of the Constitution seeks to prohibit the slaughter of cow, calves, milch and draught animals for preserving and improving the breeds in order to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines.
Prohibition of cow slaughter
As far as Muslims are concerned, the sane and sagacious have always been for the prohibition of cow slaughter. Babur was said to have left a testament instructing Humayun to forbid this practice in order to conciliate his Hindu subjects. Even if this will were to be spurious, as many suspect, it sets out the normative ideal and political correctness of the age. Besides, Tazkiratul Waqiat , the memoirs of Jauhar Aftabchi, Humayun’s page, bears witness that Humayun had a principled aversion to beef, and he proscribed it by a royal proclamation. Akbar not only reinforced this prohibition but also encouraged a more vegetarian fare. Howsoever lax the enforcement, the prohibition of cow slaughter remained a state policy through the longevity of the Mughal empire. So much so that during the Revolt of 1857, the shadow emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar’s proclamation carried death sentence for this offence.
In 1887, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the father of Islamic modernity, praised the people of riot-prone Meerut for abjuring cow sacrifice during Eid. In a recent biography of him, Shafey Kidwai writes, “The sacrifice of cow is a divisive practice destined to foster enmity, and Sir Syed exhorts the Muslims to abandon it for the sake of friendly relations with the majority community”. And during the Khilafat Non-Cooperation Movement, prominent Muslim leaders made fervent appeals to their co-religionists to renounce cow slaughter in order to conciliate their compatriots.
However, despite the symbiosis between politicians and ulema, the sentiment against cow slaughter had no corresponding reflection in theological reformulation. Insofar as it had a religious sanction, for an argument to carry such conviction as to delegitimise it, the counter reasoning too had to be religious. Beef is just another permissible (halal) meat, sans any religious merit, for a Muslim. However, an egregious interpretation was devised which reasoned that since it was not forbidden in Islam, if the Muslims abjured it in deference to the religious sentiments of Hindus, it would be tantamount to unwittingly subscribing to a false faith. Such a convoluted argument contravenes the fundamental principles of Sharia which, though commonly considered divine, consists of legal derivations made by fuqaha (Islamic jurists) in the light of the Quran and the prophetic precedent known as Sunnah. The principles of Islamic jurisprudence have two methodological premises: Maqasid (objectives) and Maslaha (public welfare). Imam Abu Is’haq al Shatibi (d. 1388) defined the Maqasid as, “the attainment of good and welfare, and warding off evil, injury and loss of creatures.” Maslaha denotes the prohibition or permission of a thing according to the necessity and circumstances, on the basis of whether it serves the public interest.
Violating doctrine of Sharia
Evidently, the Indian fuqaha , conditioned as they were by imperial hubris, erred about the cow, for their position fomented enmity between the communities, and thus violated Maqasid and Maslaha . Maulana Maududi, the chief ideologue of Islamism in India, said that if cow slaughter were to stop for appeasing Hindu sensibilities, there would be demands to stop the azaan (call to prayer) as well. Such truculence bred the animus which the Indian Muslims could ill afford.
Though Muslims are not the only ones to consume beef, if a mere suspicion of a Muslim doing so evokes a strong emotion, it is because of the historical memories of it being used as an instrument of power. No wonder it remains germane to the contemporary reshaping of the power matrix. The issue has been central to the dynamic of Hindu-Muslim relations, predicated, as it has been, on the relative political standing of the two communities. It’s pre-modern in origin, and predates the rise of communal politics during the colonial period. Therefore, an unhistorical treatment of it would either be myopic or disingenuous or both.
A theological denunciation of cow slaughter is an imperative for peace, and self-preservation of Muslims. In 1891, when the British monopoly over tobacco in Iran threatened the country’s independence, the Grand Ayatollah declared tobacco antithetical to Islam. One wonders why the ulema and organisations such as the All India Muslim Personal Law Board haven’t campaigned to make cow slaughter repugnant to Muslims for their own sake, and for the sake of public welfare — Maslaha .
Najmul Hoda is an IPS officer. Views are personal