O you who have believed, avoid much [negative] assumption. Indeed, some assumption is sin. And do not spy or backbite each other. Would one of you like to eat the flesh of his brother when dead? You would detest it. And fear Allah; indeed, Allah is Accepting of repentance and Merciful. [Qur’an 49:12]
The verse above is sufficient to understand that eating the flesh of a human being is disgusting and unlawful in Islam.
After some of the companions spoke about their brother behind his back, the messenger, sal-Allaahu `alayhi wasallam said:
“By Him in whose hand is in my soul, I can see his flesh between your teeth” [Al-Ahaadeeth Al-Mukhtarah]
Regarding the Qur’anic verse 2:173, Imam Shafi believed as follows:
He has only forbidden you: carrion, that is, the consumption of it, since this is the subject of the general address here, and similarly [the consumption of] what follows, [all of] which is what has not been slaughtered in accordance with [prescriptions of] the Law; to this the Sunnah adds [as also constituting carrion] what has been severed from a living creature. A special status is, however, accorded fish and locusts; blood, poured forth, as in [sūrat] al-An‘ām [see Q. 6:145], the flesh of swine, the meat is singled out for mention because that [part] is what people mostly seek, every other [part] being implied thereby; what has been hallowed to other than Allah, that is to say, what has been slaughtered in other than His Name (al-ihlāl is the raising of one’s voice, which they used to do when sacrificing for their gods). Yet whoever is constrained, forced by dire need to eat of the above-mentioned, not desiring, to rebel against Muslims, nor transgressing, committing aggression against them by waylaying them, no sin shall be on him, for eating it. God is Forgiving, to His friends, Merciful, to those who are obedient to Him, for He has granted them wide berth in this matter. The aggressor and the transgressor are excluded from this [dispensation], and to these two [categories] one should also add every person that sets out on a journey in disobedience, such as the fugitive or the excise collector, for whom it would be unlawful to eat any of the mentioned, unless they repent [of their disobedience]; this is the opinion of al-Shāfi‘ī.
The above commentary is the authentic one by Imam Shafi. Some people, perhaps out of confusion, have interpreted this to mean that a Muslim may not kill a fellow Muslim to eat him but since non-Muslim is not mentioned, he may be killed and eaten. This approach puts words into the mouth of Imam Shafi which he did not speak. Perhaps the following part of the above passage gave the people this confused interpretation:
…not desiring, to rebel against Muslims, nor transgressing, committing aggression against them by waylaying them, no sin shall be on him, for eating it…
Perhaps these interpreters thought that rebelling refers to killing and eating a fellow Muslim. Imam Shafi here describes rebellion as rebellion against believers through aggression and waylaying. Aggression and waylaying here do not refer to physical attack. Waylaying is defined by dictionary as:
Stop or interrupt (someone) and detain them in conversation or trouble them in some other way.
Allah forbids the believers some food but allows them in extreme condition when nothing is available to be eaten provided that the intent is not rebellion. There is nothing complicated about that. A person with a disease in his mind wishing to denounce Islam while claiming it with his tongue can and will adopt such methods to waylay the believers. No eating of a non-Muslim enemy encouraged by either this verse or by Imam Shafi.
Moreover verse 115 of the 16th chapter of the Qur’an again explicitly rejects aggression
He has forbidden you only carrion, blood, the flesh of swine, and that which has been hallowed to other than Allah. Yet whoever is compelled, neither craving nor transgressing, then truly Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.
At the same time Qur’an 5:32 tells us that killing a single human is like killing entire humanity. So the question then arises how does Islam allow killing non-Muslims especially to eat them?
Being compelled is the key word here; not luxury. Here is what compelled people might look like.
Would they care if they were provided with a dead human to eat? Moreover, are these compelled people in a physical condition to kill anyone?
There are some misunderstandings on this issue as well. As per Imam Qurtubi, Imam Shafi allowed killing a non-Muslim enemy combatant to eat him while the Muslim is ‘compelled’. This is what Imam Qurtubi thought. However, this is not what Imam Shafi prescribed. We do not find such a statement from Imam Shafi in any of his works or of any of his students. Imam Qurtubi belonged to the Maliki school of thought (around 400 years after Imam Shafi) and inter school misunderstandings are common. For example, a similar misunderstanding among other schools was that anal intercourse with wife was allowed by Imam Maalik which is denied by Maliki scholars. Moreover, we have provided the original Imam Shafi’s commentary above.
Another passage from Imam Qurtubi’s commentary of the Qur’an is often misunderstood:
Da’ood slandered Al Muzni (historian) by addressing Al-Muzni saying, “You allowed eating the flesh of the prophets”. Ibn Sharie responded also to Al-Muzni by saying, “You allowed killing the prophets and did not allow eating the flesh of the disbelievers”.
Here Imam Da’ood sarcastically rebukes the historian Al Muzni’s criticisms of Prophets (alayhimus Salaam) who at the same time refrained from discussing the sins and evil deeds of disbelievers. From Imam Da’ood’s harsh reaction it appears that Al Muzni used to discuss the mistakes of Prophets (alayhimus Salaam) while ignoring the evil deeds of the disbelievers. Eating the flesh in this case refers to the metaphorical flesh eating as also indicated by the Qur’an in 49:12.
Imam Qurtubi was a great scholar and we do not claim knowing more than him; slight misunderstandings with other schools of thought are also not much big issues to worry about. However, as per Shafi scholars, he misunderstood this part. Qur’an is perfect and people can make mistakes.
P.S. A non-Muslim is not an enemy
Bezzâziyya, (by Ibn-ul-Bezzâz Muhammad bin Muhammad Kerderî, d.827 [1424 A.D.],) and Khulâsa-t-ul-fatâwâ, (by Tâhir Bukhârî):
“Supposing a person is hungry and cannot even find some lesh to eat, and someone says to him, ‘Cut a part of flesh off my arm and eat it;’ it will not be permissible for the former to do so. For, human flesh is not halâl even in case of a darûrat.”
Tafheem Quran-(Towards Understanding the Quran)-Commentary on 49:12:
“IN THIS SENTENCE ALLAH BY LIKENING BACKBITING TO EATING THE DEAD BROTHER’S FLESH HAS GIVEN THE IDEA OF ITS BEING AN ABOMINATION. EATING THE DEAD FLESH IS BY ITSELF ABHORRENT; AND WHEN THE FLESH IS NOT OF AN ANIMAL, BUT OF A MAN, AND THAT TOO OF ONE’S OWN DEAD BROTHER, ABOMINATION WOULD BE ADDED TO ABOMINATION. Then, by presenting the simile in the interrogative tone it has been made all the more impressive, so that every person may ask his own conscience and decide whether he would like to eat the flesh of his dead brother. If he would not, and he abhors it by nature, how would he like that he should attack the honor of his brother-in-faith in his absence,…..:”
Tafsir-ibn-Kathir -Commentary on verse 49:12 :
“…..BACKBITING WAS STERNLY WARNED AGAINST, AND THIS IS WHY ALLAH THE EXALTED AND MOST BLESSED COMPARED IT TO EATING THE FLESH OF A DEAD HUMAN BEING,(Would one of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother You would hate it.) Just as you hate eating the flesh of a dead person, on account of your nature; so hate backbiting, on account of your religion. The latter carries a punishment that is worse than the former. This Ayah seeks to discourage people from backbiting and warns against it. “
The reason why such a misunderstanding has risen
The fuqaha did discuss a person on the absolute brink of starvation, and what he might do in a last ditch effort to save himself. In that discourse, the topic of eating another person did come up, and thus the fuqaha addressed it. The amount of differences of opinion surrounding the matter(s) indicates to the fuqaha exerting their discretion and legal reasoning. The nature of the matter is such that we hope and pray that no other human ever has to experience it.
Therefore, taking out discussions of fuqaha to arrive at legal rulings on matters out of context is a plain error committed by those upon the misunderstanding that Qur’an allows cannibalism. Islam is a complete way of life with solutions to everything and therefore if the fuqaha discuss such an issue to arrive at legal rulings while not allowing cannibalism itself should not be an issue of concern to anyone.
Indeed, Allah knows best.