Why Animal Sacrifice on Eid-ul-Zuha is an Indispensable Part of Islam

Guest Author | July 21, 2021   

By Mohammad Nizamuddin Pasha

WITH “BakraLivesMatter” trending on Twitter and the letter dated July 15, 2021 written by the Director Planning, J&K Animal / Sheep Husbandry and Fisheries Department to the Divisional Commissioner, Jammu/Kashmir and IGP, Jammu/Kashmir causing outrage in the valley resulting in some quick back-peddling by the authorities, it’s that time of the year again when misinformation and misconceptions, both innocent and malicious, about Eid-ul-Zuha and animal sacrifice gain traction. Suddenly, people who like their chickens fried and their kababs galawati took to social media to speak against cruelty to animals as if the only time in a year when an animal is slaughtered is on Eid. And the letter of July 15, which was later innocently claimed to be a communication issued in the regular course every year, called for “stoppage of illegal killing/sacrifice of cows, calves, camels and other animals” and directed the officials to ensure strict implementation of animal welfare laws such as the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 during the forthcoming festival of Baqra Eid scheduled from July 21-23, 2021. This despite the fact that Section 28 of the said Act itself carves out an exception and says nothing contained in the Act shall render it an offence to kill any animal in a manner required by the religion of any community. Further, the Supreme Court in Javed v. State of Haryana has already acknowledged that sacrifice of animals on Eid-ul-Zuha is an essential part of the religion of Muslims and is protected by Article 25 of the Constitution of India. But as we fight this avalanche of misconceptions, it is important that we ourselves know what the practice is and what we are fighting for.

Of late, a new fad has caught the imagination of apologists around the world, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, who are trying to re-interpret the animal sacrifice that marks the festival of Eid-ul-Zuha as an expression of charity that is more appropriately expressed in money terms in today’s day and age. In their own understanding, this is an attempt to make Islam more compatible with what they perceive to be the demands of the ‘modern’ world. Unfortunately, this fad proceeds on a mistaken understanding of both Islam as well as the ‘modern’ world.

To begin with, let me straightaway disclaim that this is not an attempt to argue with animal rights activists. If you believe that animals are not meant to be eaten and advocate vegetarianism, then all I can do is to quote the Quran where it says “to you be your way and to me be mine” (109:6). Though I will say this in fairness – at least your philosophy is internally consistent and does not contradict itself. But if you enjoy steaks and kababs and naharis all year round and save your animal rights and environmental activism for this one day of the year, then this article is for you. To begin with, I would like to inform you that the processed meat you buy from the frozen foods section of your local supermarket was once a frisky lamb or a fluffy chick that had its throat cut open by a gutka chewing man in a banyaan. I just wanted you to know that.

study conducted by the Institute of Management Sciences, Peshawar in 2009 found that the sacrifice of animals on Eid-ul-Zuha constituted a direct transfer of money to rural households with fewer intermediaries and generated employment for thousands of opportunistic animal rearers, livestock traders, butchers and leather industry workers among others, who look to Eid for a small annual windfall. Further, as per the numbers of livestock sales in Pakistan annually and during Eid for the year 2016 quoted in a Dawn article, the total sales of goats and cattle around Eid work out to around 5% of the total annual sales, and given that there is a sharp drop in meat sales in the days following Eid since most families are well-stocked for days to come, the total deviation from normal, month on month, for the livestock industry is probably a lot less than we imagine. But these are matters that can be debated endlessly and which require a lot more facts and figures than are available. In any event, the arguments being made for dispensing with the ritual are more …what’s the word for someone who’s talking through their hat?…philosophical.

It is well known that animal sacrifice is performed on this day following the Abrahamic tradition that is common to both the Quran (37:102-113) and the Old Testament (Genesis 22:1-18) where Ibrahim a.s. (Abraham) has a vision the he is to sacrifice his own son. Abraham unquestioningly follows the command of God and takes his son to the place of slaughter. Just as Abraham is about to slit his son’s throat, God speaks to him and tells him that he has fulfilled his vision. God replaces the son with a ram which Abraham proceeds to sacrifice. God is pleased with Abraham’s unquestioning adherence to His command and so bestows His blessings on Abraham and promises to grant his descendants glory and multiply them throughout the earth.

The first thing to understand is that the entire import of the story is about unquestioningly following the command of God. Abraham could well have argued that his son’s sacrifice served no purpose and there were many things he could sacrifice instead that would be far more environment friendly and beneficial to the people around him. Therefore, coming up with alternatives of what else can be sacrificed instead of an animal is to miss the entire point of the Biblical and Quranic tradition.

There is no doubt that Islam provides room for contextual interpretations through ijma (consensus of scholars) and qiyas (self-reflection and study) when confronted with a situation not contemplated in the Quran or authentic traditions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) known as hadees. But none of these applies where the text of the Quran or the hadees on the subject are abundantly clear and unequivocal. The verses of the Quran that deal with Eid-ul-Zuha leave no manner of doubt that God’s command is to sacrifice an animal, to eat its meat and to distribute it amongst those who are in need (Surah Al-Hajj 22: 34-37). The verse which is misquoted in this context is verse 22:37, which says “It is not their meat nor their blood (of the animal) that reaches God; it is your piety”. This is only to dispel the pre-Islamic custom according to which the blood and meat of the sacrificed animal was brought to the Kaaba and placed before the idols housed in it, or the Jewish tradition according to which the sacrificial meat was completely burnt at the altar in the temple and was not consumed. It is to completely distort the evident meaning of the text to suggest that the idea here is to substitute animal sacrifice with other forms of piety, as the verses immediately prior to it describe in detail how the animal is to be sacrificed and divided. Hadees on the subject too are abundantly clear and the Prophet (pbuh) is reported in Sahih Bukhari, the most authentic source of hadees for Sunni Muslims, to have said,

The first thing to do on this day (Eid-ul-Zuha) is to offer the Eid prayers and on returning from the prayer, we slaughter our sacrificial animals, and whoever did this, he acted according to sunnat (Prophetic tradition)”.

In Sunan Ibn Majah, another collection of hadees, the Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have said

As for the Day of Fitr, it is the day when you break your fast, and on the Day of Azha you eat the meat of your sacrifices.”

So, this is definitely not one of those instances where there is any room for doubt or need for creative re-interpretation.

Which brings us to the alternatives being suggested. It is being said that livestock was merely representative of wealth in seventh century Arabia, and that is why animals were sacrificed on this day, and money as the new form of wealth may be given in charity as a modern-day replacement of the offering. As an article in The Wire put it, “Real sacrifice requires us to give up some of what is dear to us. Today, the most cherished possession is money”. Again, this proceeds on a completely mistaken understanding of Arabian society at the time of the Prophet. Makkah (Mecca), where Islam was born, thrived in the pre-Islamic period as an important pilgrimage centre that trade caravans from far and wide altered their routes to visit to pay homage and obtain blessings. The Kaaba, said to have been built by Abraham at a spot ordained by God and having embedded in it a stone that had descended from heaven, was a pantheon of gods containing idols of the followers of many faiths and was consequently holy to all of them. The economy of the city was centred around trade with these caravans and the tribute that the faithful brought to the site. While rearing of animals, particularly camels, was important to the lives of people, it was far from a universal occupation. So, while it is true that livestock was a far more important asset in those days than it is today, it was by no means what the wealth of a person was calculated in. This was not the age of the barter system and money, represented by the dinar and dirham, was very much in vogue. Monetary transactions are, in fact, discussed in several Prophetic traditions. Trade with foreign caravans was in terms of silver and gold, the universal currency. And I am no anthropologist, but I think we can safely say that money was even then a cherished possession. The love for lucre is far from recent.

In fact, the tradition of sacrifice on Eid itself clearly does not presuppose that every person would own livestock, as is evident from the fact that one of the conditions of sacrifice is that one person may sacrifice a goat or sheep whereas seven people may get together and sacrifice a larger animal like a camel, buffalo or cow. If every person was merely sacrificing a part of their own livestock, there would be no question of seven people obtaining shares in one animal to perform a joint sacrifice.

Secondly, and more importantly, Islam has an entire system of charity in money terms known as zakaat, which is one of the five fundamental tenets of Islam. Each year, every person who has money or assets that are unused for an entire year has to give 2.5% of their value in charity. This form of compulsory charity is both denominated in money terms and distributed as such. And zakaat is just one form of charity in Islam. There are many more such as sadaqa which are not bound by any percentage and depend on the inclination of the giver. Just the first 2.5% is zakaat, and for that too, the Sufi saint revered by Indian Muslims and Sikhs alike, Baba Fariduddin Ganjshakar has said – there are several kinds of zakaatZakaat-e-shariyat is those who spend 2.5% and keep 97.5%. Nobody is generous for giving zakaat-e-shariyat. That is your religious duty and is bound by religious precepts. Spending more than 2.5% is generosity, till zakaat-e-tariqat is when you spend 97.5% and keep 2.5% for yourself. And finally, zakaat-e-haqiqat is those who spend all they have for others and have faith that Allah will look after their own needs tomorrow. There is also a hadees reported by Sahih Bukhari where the Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have said “do not withhold your money by counting and hoarding; spend towards charity as much as you can afford”.

Whether you call it zakaat-e-tariqat or sadaqa, all of these are Islamic principles that advocate giving up more of your wealth than is mandated towards charity in the hope of pleasing your maker. In fact, even on Eid-ul-Fitr, the other major annual feast for Muslims worldwide, every Muslim who has wealth in excess of his or her day’s need is required to give zakaat-al-fitr, which is 2 or 3 kg of the staple food-grain of the area or its money equivalent given for every man, woman and child in the household. This charity has to be given before the Eid prayer so that the poor too can enjoy Eid.

So those who feel they have come up with a brilliant new idea not contemplated in Islam of giving money in charity need to first study and understand Islam before they speak. It is abundantly clear that the precept of sacrificing an animal in the Abrahamic tradition exists independently of all other forms of charity that are dealt with at length separately, and cannot be substituted by them.

In fact, the entire set of practices around the Hajj, which Eid-ul-Zuha celebrates, are a re-enactment of Abrahamic traditions. Whether it is circumambulation of the Kaaba that Ibrahim a.s. constructed, offering namaaz at the spot where he prayed after completing the construction, throwing pebbles at the spot where he chased away Satan by throwing stones at him, or sa’ee, which involves running between two hills, Safa and Marwa seven times in honour of the seven times Ibrahim’s wife, Hajra, ran up and down the hills looking for water for her crying son Ismail after Ibrahim left them in the valley upon God’s command. Today, Safa and Marwa are housed within a large building that has been constructed over them with marble floors, air conditioning and water dispensers every few yards. Slaughtering an animal is just the last in this series of Abrahamic traditions around Hajj. If you wish to question traditions for contemporary relevance, may as well question them all. And if you start questioning each of the traditions of Hajj as mindless emulations of a bygone era, then to you be your way and to me be mine.

And this issue is all the more important because it is much larger than just slaughtering an animal. The outcome of vilification of the Islamic faith in popular discourse has reduced educated Muslims to apologists trying to distance themselves from their religious practices or attempting to portray them in a “modern” light in the hope that critics of the faith will be more forgiving of them. The need of the hour is for Muslims to take pride in the precepts of their faith, to first study and understand Islam and then see for themselves what religious practices are about, how much room there is for interpretation, whether there is actually any need to ‘modernize’ and how much controversy is created by ignorance and deliberate misinformation.

No resurrection of a beleaguered community is possible until they begin to take pride in the identity that is under fire and embrace it. Until you take pride in who you are, you cannot command the respect of others. The Jews remained a scattered persecuted lot while they were trying to be invisible. The Sikhs could emerge from the vilification they faced in public discourse during the heyday of the Khalistan movement only because of the pride they take in their Sikh identity. Today, the Muslim identity is under attack more than ever before. A lot of Muslims who have been through the western education system react by expending their efforts in trying to become invisible and effacing whatever makes them stick out. Unfortunately, it seems to take very little for us to start believing that we have risen above our shariyat and are living in times that God did not contemplate when revealing the last verse of the Quran “This day I have perfected your religion for you” (5:3).

Everyone begins by trying to improve upon religion without first understanding it. There is no doubt there are certain practices and interpretations that have crept into Islam that need to be reformed out. But one can never reform that which one does not understand. And if you try, you will merely succeed in distancing yourself from adherents of the faith and will not have their ear even when you are saying something that is actually relevant.

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