Every year, with the onset of Hajj and its accompanying ‘Id celebration, as well as that of the ‘Id al-Fitr, the issue of animal sacrifice, and subsequently that of meat consumption in the Islamic world, rises to the foreground among Muslims and nonMuslims alike. For many in the Islamic world, this issue is a sensitive one. Still reeling from years of colonialism, every aspect of tradition (whether legitimate or perceived) becomes a rallying point against further Western conquest. For not only are wars for self determination and basic human rights still being fought by Muslims around the world, in addition to these physical struggles (both in the East, and even more so for those Muslims living in the West), the struggle for the heart, mind, and soul of each believer within the religion of Islam is a continual battle. Everywhere we turn, our faith is both subtly and overtly belittled, and we are continually pressured to adopt Western ways, to assimilate into the so-called “more civilized culture.” Meanwhile, many well-meaning individuals in the Western world fall victim in their own way to this legacy of colonialism and even more so to the legacy of the Crusades.
Stereotypes of the Muslim world are so entrenched in Western culture, that many tolerant, opened-minded people who would ordinarily never seek to demean an entire segment of humanity (be it a religious, cultural, or racial group) do so nonetheless as if it’s almost second nature (apparently not even recognizing they’re doing it) when it comes to Islam. Rather than viewing Islam as the legitimate heir and continuation of the Judeo-Christian culture with which it is connected (seeing itself not only as the primordial root of the Abrahamic tradition, but also as the culmination of it), it is continually relegated to the realm of some backwoods phenomenon — a primitive culture and spirituality beyond the pale of the enlightenment which the West claims as its own — unaware that it is in fact Islam and its ensuing culture that led to many of the advancements in human knowledge that are now synonymous with civilization itself.
In relation to the discussion of animal welfare, this tendency among Westerners usually places the Islamic world as the “Barbaric Other,” an isolated domain whose population is steeped in superstition and somehow outside the realm of reason and intellectual discussion, thus making it an inpenetrable wilderness, viewed as forever lost territory. When contact is made, it is usually done so begrudgingly and in a condescending manner — a sort of last ditch effort to “save the savages from themselves.” Rather than seeing Islam and its ensuing culture as being of the same level of complexity and diversity as their own religious beliefs and traditions, they view us as a remote and distant minority population, whose opinions are assumed to be one and the same, that is, backward and irrelevant (even though in reality we represent one of the largest blocks of humanity, with a diverse range of opinions).
With this in mind, it is ultimately up to us as Muslims to take the first step, to speak out about pressing issues of ethics and morality, both for the sake of our own community and its continual advancement with the rest of humanity, as well as to clear up misconceptions in the Western world that ultimately hurt us all. For it is ONE world. And if we are to better the planet on which we live, it is going to take mutual respect and cooperation among all of humankind.
So let us begin by addressing the issue that is perhaps one of the major objections that people of conscious have toward Islam — the ritual slaughter of animals.
Sacrifice is not a pillar of Islam. Nor is it obligatory during Hajj, its accompanying ‘Id or the ‘Id al-Fitr. This is not to say that it did not or does not happen. However, we must look at the occurrences in a contextual manner, understanding not only the pre-Islamic institution of sacrifice, the Qur’anic reforms concerning this practice, and the continuance of sacrifice in the Muslim world, but also the context in which the Qur’anic revelations occurred. For it seems that with many people, both nonMuslims and Muslims alike, context is the key that they are missing.
The Qur’an did not get “sent down” as a blueprint for human society, with a list of do’s and don’ts that were to be magically implemented overnight to form a utopian world. Rather, it came over a period of 22 years, sometimes in answer to the prayers of the Prophet (sal), other times in relation to a circumstance within the community, to questions that the faithful had regarding a particular practice, etc., and always with the goal of helping the faithful strive to further know Allah and to live in harmony with both the heavens and the Earth. So in this context, one can say that the Qur’an represents the compilation of teachings that came in response to the time and place with which they were dealing. However, getting deeper into the essence of these teachings, we must also take into account that the Qur’an itself refers to those verses as having allegorical meanings behind the apparent literal ones. So in this context, we must acknowledge that the underlying meanings of the verses are applicable to situations outside of those to which the explicit meanings pertain.
With this in mind, let us start with the situation as it was in pre-Islamic Arabia with regard to animal sacrifice. Not only did the pagan Arabs sacrifice to a variety of Gods in hopes of attaining protection or some favor or material gain, but so, too, did the Jews of that day seek to appease the One True God by blood sacrifice and burnt offerings. Even the Christian community felt Jesus to be the last sacrifice, the final lamb, so to speak, in an otherwise valid tradition of animal sacrifice (where one’s sins are absolved by the blood of another).
Islam, however, broke away from this longstanding tradition of appeasing an “angry God” and instead demanded personal sacrifice and submission as the only way to die before death and reach “Fana” or “extinction in Allah.” The notion of “vicarious atonement of sin” (absolving one’s sins through the blood of another) is nowhere to be found in the Qur’an. Neither is the idea of gaining favor by offering the life of another to God. In Islam, all that is demanded as a sacrifice is one’s personal willingness to submit one’s ego and individual will to Allah.
One only has to look at how the Qur’an treats one of the most famous stories in the Judeo-Christian world: the sacrifice of Isaac (here, in the Islamic world seen as the sacrifice of Isma’il) to see a marked difference regarding sacrifice and whether or not Allah is appeased by blood. The Qur’anic account of the sacrifice of Isma’il ultimately speaks against blood atonement.
Then when (the son) Reached (the age of) (Serious) work with him He said: “Oh my son! I see in vision That I offer thee in sacrifice: Now see what is Thy view!” (The son) said: “Oh my father! Do As thou art commanded: Thou wilt find me, If Allah so wills one Practicing patience and constancy!”
So when they had both Submitted their wills (to Allah), And he had laid him Prostrate on his forehead (For sacrifice),
We called out to him, “Oh Abraham!”
“Thou hast already fulfilled The vision!” thus indeed Do We reward Those who do right.
For this was obviously A trial
And We ransomed him With a momentous sacrifice
Notice that the Qur’an never says that God told Abraham to kill (sacrifice) his son. Though subtle, this is very important. For the moral lesson is very different from that which appears in the Bible. Here, it teaches us that Abraham had a dream in which he saw himself slaughtering his son. Abraham believed the dream and thought that the dream was from God, but the Qur’an never says that the dream was from God. However, in Abraham and Isma’il’s willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice — Abraham of his son, Isma’il of his own life — they are able to transcend notions of self and false attachment to the material realm, thus removing a veil between themselves and Allah, enabling Allah’s mercy to descend upon them as the Spirit of Truth and illuminate them with divine wisdom (thus preventing a miscarriage of justice and once and for all correcting the false notion of vicarious atonement of sin).
For, certainly, the Ever Merciful, Most Compassionate — would never ask a father to go against His command of “thou shall not kill” and kill his own son in order to be accepted by Him. For the Qur’an teaches us that God never advocates evil (see 7:28 and 16:90) and that only Satan advocates evil and vice (24:21). The notion that Allah would want us to do an immoral act runs counter to Allah’s justice.
As far as the yearly tradition that has followed this event (that is, the sacrificing of a ram to commemorate Abraham and Isma’il’s great self sacrifice), we must understand it and the Qur’anic versus that pertain to animal sacrifice, in relation to the time and place circumstances under which these revelations were received and how people were trying to make a personal sacrifice by sharing their limited means of survival with the poorer members of their community.
That is to say, the underlying implication of Islam’s attitude toward ritual slaughter is not that of blood atonement, or seeking favor with God through another’s death, but rather, the act of thanking God for one’s sustenance and the personal sacrifice of sharing one’s possessions and valuable food with one’s fellow humans. The ritual itself is NOT the sacrifice. It is merely a method of killing where the individuals kill as quickly as possible and acknowledge that only Allah has the right to take a life and that they do so as a humble member of Allah’s creation in need of sustenance just like every other species in Allah’s creation.
So let us examine some of the appropriate verses in the Qur’an to see what it has to say about sacrifice and how it related to life in 500 C.E. Arabia. (Also included is commentary by Yusuf Ali to show that even someone who was pro-sacrifice with an understanding of animals as subject to humans, did not champion wanton cruelty or notions of blood atonement.):
In them* ye have benefits For a term appointed: In the end their place Of sacrifice is near The Ancient House
*”In them: in cattle or animals offered for sacrifice. It is quite true that they were useful in many ways to humans ,e.g., camels in desert countries are useful as mounts or for carrying burdens or for giving milk, and so, for horses and oxen; and camels and oxen are also good for meat, and camel’s hair can be woven into cloth; goats and sheep also yield milk and meat, and hair or wool. But if they are used for sacrifice, they become symbols by which people show that they are willing to give up some of their own benefits for the sake of satisfying the needs of their poorer brethren.” (Yusuf Ali commentary)
To every people did We Appoint rites (of sacrifice) That they might celebrate The name of Allah over The sustenance He gave them From animals (fit for food)*. But your God is One God: Submit then your wills to Him (In Islam): and give thou The good news** to those who humble themselves
*”This is the true end of sacrifice, not propitiation of higher powers, for Allah is One, and He does not delight in flesh and blood, but a symbol of thanksgiving to Allah by sharing meat with fellow humans. The solemn pronouncement of Allah’s name over the sacrifice is an essential part of the rite” (Yusuf Ali commentary)
** “The good news: i.e., the Message of Allah, that He will accept in us the sacrifice of self for the benefit of our fellow humans. (Yusuf Ali commentary)
It is not their meat Nor their blood, that reaches Allah: it is your piety That reaches Him: He Has thus made them subject To you, that ye may glorify Allah for His guidance to you:* And proclaim the Good News To all who do right
*”No one should suppose that meat or blood is acceptable to the One True God. It was a pagan fancy that Allah could be appeased by blood sacrifice. But Allah does accept the offering of our hearts, and as a symbol of such offer, some visible institution is necessary. He has given us power over the brute creation, and permitted us to eat meat, but only if we pronounce His name at the solemn act of taking life, for without this solemn invocation, we are apt to forget the sacredness of life. By this invocation we are reminded that wanton cruelty is not in our thoughts, but only the need for food ï¿½” (Yusuf Ali commentary)
It is quite clear from the Qur’anic passages above that the issue of animal sacrifice is in relation to the role animals played in Arabian society at that place and time (as well as other societies with similar climates and culture), in that humans are commanded to give thanks to Allah and praise Allah for the sustenance He has given them and that they should sacrifice something of value to themselves to demonstrate their appreciation for what they have been given (which in their case was the very animals on which their survival was based).
The rites of sacrifice are specific, to that which Allah has given to humankind for its sustenance. The assumption that such sustenance is always meant to be of the four-legged variety is incorrect. Much evidence suggests that early human were primarily vegetarian, as Genesis states, “I have given you every herb bearing seed for food.” In fact, according to the Bible, it was only after The Flood that humans were permitted to eat flesh (presumably for survival reasons), as their normal food would have been scarce. And in different times and places and from culture to culture, what has been present for survival has varied. Native American tribes in Alaska and Northern Canada had access only to fish, seals, whales, etc. Certain island peoples’ only had fish. While still other populations remained vegetarian, eating primarily fruit and nuts.
Nowhere in the Qur’an does it suggest that people who do not need to eat meat to survive or who eat meat but do not have access to the same animals present in Arabia are somehow unable to be Muslims.
And nowhere in the Qur’an does it suggest that sacrifice is meant for any purpose other than to thank Allah for that which we have sometimes been obliged to kill, or as a personal sacrifice of something that is considered a possession in order to share it with our more needy neighbors, etc.
Animals are mentioned in the Qur’an in relation to sacrifice only because in that time, place, and circumstance, animals were the means of survival. In those desert lands, humans were intricately tied up in the natural cycle, and as a part of that, they killed and were killed like every other species of that area. Islam offered conditions to regulate life in that time and place, ensuring the best possible treatment for all under those circumstances, while at the same time broadening people’s understanding of life to include a spiritual dimension and a respect for all life as a part of a unified whole. But let us not assume for a minute that we are forever stuck in those circumstances, or that the act of eating meat, or killing an animal is what makes one a Muslim.
To utter “Ashhadu an la ilaha illa-Llah, wa ashhadhu anna Muhammadan rasulu-Llah” is what makes one a Muslim. Plain and simple. The understanding that there is “No God, but Allah.” Or to put it even more appropriately, that there is “No God. Only Allah.” This is the heart of Islam. In addition, there are four more pillars that make one a practicing Muslim (these pillars being there to aid in the realization that there is “no God, only Allah”) but again, animal sacrifice or meat eating is not one of these pillars.
Animal sacrifice only has meaning in the context of thanking Allah for our means of survival. In the times and places where animals were (or still are) a necessary resource that humans had (or have) no choice but to use for their sustenance, there is an important lesson to be learned in making a sacrifice and sharing with the community that which would be looked upon as a valuable commodity or possession (by many). In such environments, there is an absolute necessity for Halal methods of slaughter, which at least try to ensure that when a person must kill animals for food (in order to survive), the animals are raised in their natural environment and killed as humanely as possible, as well as reaffirms the truth (in the reciting of the formula below) that only Allah has the right to take life and that they humbly do so only for survival, in the name of Allah.
“Subhan Allahi (Glory be to Allah), Walhamdu lillahi (all praise to Allah), Wa la ilaha ill Allahu (and none is God except Allah), Wallahu akbar (and Allah is greatest), Wa la hawla wa la quwwata illa billahi (and none has majesty and none has power to sustain except for Allah), Wa huwal aliyul’alheem. amin. (And He is the highest, the supreme in glory. Amen)”
For in a situation where meat must be eaten, there need to be rules to both protect animals and to impart a higher spiritual significance to an act that could easily degenerate to wanton cruelty. One only has to look at some supposedly “Buddhist” countries that fall short in terms of their adherence to vegetarianism to see what happens when there are no rules in place to deal with human shortcomings. I do not want to single out or condemn Buddhism by any means (as it is a valid tradition and religious path) but rather, to make an example of it, since in it such a high ideal is championed without dealing with the inevitable reality of less-than-ideal circumstances. That is to say that there are no regulations concerning the killing of animals. Buddhism speaks against it but did not have the power to turn all of humanity away from that age-old practice. Thus, what usually happens is that nonBuddhist butchers are brought in so that no Buddhist has to take a life but can, nonetheless, eat meat even though it is produced in some of the most inhumane conditions that exist. The same goes for Western “Christian” countries that malign the Muslim world for sacrificing animals, yet have institutionalized factory farming and worldwide environmental destruction.
So no, this is not a black-and-white issue where animal sacrifice is always wrong or where people who profess vegetarianism are somehow more spiritual or closer to God. But at the same time, it is not a blanket acceptance of a tradition for the sake of ritual.
If someone lives in a desert climate, in a small village where meat-eating is an unchangeable reality and a matter of survival, then the issue of animal sacrifice has context and relevance. But for those of us living in the modern world, we have to seriously question practices that not only have lost meaning (in our present circumstances), but also are contributing to needless bloodshed and environmental destruction (not to mention the health problems incurred by meat-eaters).
Furthermore, the majority of animals used for sacrifice during the Hajj are not even raised or killed in a Halal manner. These days, the numbers of animals needed are so high that the majority are imported from New Zealand and other countries. The raising of these animals (along with those for meat and wool export) is contributing to the environmental destruction of New Zealand’s eco-system. Furthermore, these animals are shipped in brutally overcrowded conditions where large percentages regularly die from disease, being trampled, or heat exhaustion. This is not humane. This is not halal. And we can’t ignore this reality. It’s not enough to acknowledge that the situation is unfortunate. We as Muslims must not only change our own actions that help create this situation, but also speak out for the protection of Allah’s innocent creatures. We’re not living 1400 years ago, and whether some of us like it or not, the world is changing.
We can talk all we want about Sunnah (tradition and the way of the Prophet [sal]), but if we do so, then let us take the whole picture into account. The Prophet (sal) ate primarily dates and barley, only occasionally eating meat (which would have been necessary at that time and place for proper health, as it was a vary harsh climate that demanded a rigorous lifestyle which was very taxing on the human body). Such circumstances do not exist today for most of the developed world, and the fact is, meat-eating with our current sedentary lifestyle is responsible for the increase in cancer and heart attacks throughout the world.
Meat-eating (and in relation to it, animal sacrifice) is not intrinsic to who the Prophet (sal) was or to what he preached. And most of the current research shows that humans are healthier on a vegetarian/vegan diet (ultimately proving we do not need to eat meat, and therefore, no longer have any justification for animal sacrifice in a modern setting). Certainly the Prophet (sal), who instructed us to go even to China in search of “Ilm, or ‘Divine Knowledge’” understood the importance of advancing our understanding of the world in which we live and living in harmony with our surroundings.
The time has come for all true Muslims, be they Sunni or Shi’a, Sufi or otherwise, to stand up for the universal standards of justice and compassion that the Prophet (sal) not only spoke of (both through Hadith and, more importantly, as the receiver of the Qur’anic revelation), but actually put into practice. For those who need to take a life in order to survive, then let them do so humbly and with respect for the life they are forced to take, showing as much mercy and compassion as humanely possible in an otherwise regrettable situation. However, for those of us who no longer need to kill in order to survive, then let us cease to do so merely for the satisfaction of ravenous cravings which are produced by nothing more than our Nafs (or lower self). That would truly be the Sunnah of the Prophet (sal).