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The spirit of sacrifice

  • Published at 04:01 pm August 16th, 2018
The spirit of sacrifice
Ricardo Gomez Angel

How can the merciful God be happy with blood being let from innocent animals?

We are approaching Eid-ul-Azha, the second big festival of the Muslims. The major rite Muslims observe this day is sacrificing domestic animals, mostly cows and goats, while some well off dudes fancying camels as well. But in recent days some have questioned the purpose of such rite. How can the merciful God be happy with blood being let from innocent animals? Some suggested whether we can channel the cost rather to some other religious rite that is more humane, like charity. I believe it is the visual cue of actual scenes of slaughtering, brutal manhandling of the animals, and the unhygienic practices involved in the whole process that put us off and paves the way for such opinion. 

Interestingly, the idea of giving charity instead of sacrificing an animal is not unfounded in Islamic history. Even some of companions of the Prophet (pbuh), including his wife ‘Aisha and Bilal – the first caller to the prayer, have been reported to have that opinion, as mentioned by Ibn Hazm in his famous book al-Muhalla. But evidently most companions and majority of the scholars have opined that sacrificing animals is the essential and more preferred rite of the day. A contemporary scholar of great repute, Shaykh Salman al-‘Odah, has included a caveat. While he has agreed that sacrifice is preferable to charity in a general setting, in special cases, like places with extreme poverty and want, charity may turn the better option. This opinion showcases the fluidity of Islamic legal thinking according to the demand of times and circumstances. 

But perhaps we are missing a fundamental spiritual point of the act of sacrifice and that itself is creating a huge uneasiness in the conscientious mind. The whole ritual has been spectacularly stripped out of its original purpose and thus lost its relevance in our time. By the look of it, it has solely become a meat making and eating festival, containing wholly the acts of buying and selling of choicest animals and preparation of delectable meat dishes. It doesn’t seem there’s anything more to it. While buying a proper animal and eating it are parts of the whole, they do not constitute the purpose of the act at all. 

The purpose of the act has been succinctly summarized by the man who knew the best. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said: “Neither the meat nor the blood of the animal reach Allah, what does reach Him is your Taqwa.” [Bukhari]. Taqwa is the quintessential idea behind any act of worship in Islam. It is a tough word to translate but for a working definition the meaning is close to “God-consciousness”. In explaining Taqwa, ‘Ali (ra) added four vital elements to its recipe. He said: “Taqwa is having fear for Allah, acting according to His revealed book, being content with little, and preparing for the day of leaving this world”. 

We all know the story of Prophet Ibrahim (pbuh) and his son Isma’il (pbuh) which led to this rite. The essence of the story is Ibrahim successfully sacrificing, or rather willing to sacrifice, the most beloved possession: his son Isma’il. His immense sacrifice was accepted by Allah and he was spared the loss of his son as well. Instead a sheep was provided to be sacrificed. The incident is about a heartfelt sacrifice. The actual slaughtering and what was done to the sacrificial animal were necessary acts to be performed but not an essential goal to be realized. 

The story leads us to the crux of any act of worship. Allah said in the Quran: "O you who believe! Shouldn’t I guide you to a trade that will rescue you from a painful punishment? That you believe in Allah and His Messenger and exert yourself in the path of Allah by your wealth and your selves – that is the best for you if you knew” [as-Saff 10-11]. These verses point out that the act of worship is a combination of physical and financial exertion. For Ibraheem it was more of a physical exertion than a financial one – as he was about to sacrifice his own son – sacrificing his own life would have been easier for him. For the rest of us, in order to symbolize this act, it is solely a financial endeavor and hardly a physical one.

But though it is merely a financial exertion and we are spared the trauma of having to sacrifice our most beloved possession, the symbolization of Ibrahim’s (pbuh) act is not meant to be a mindless animal killing spree. A wanton display of slaughtering by otherwise non-spiritual people, careless inhumane handling of the animals, and the day being reduced to solely a meat eating festival – these all are signs that Ibrahim’s (pbuh) great sacrifice being thrown far into the pits of oblivion. It is not what we are doing rather how we are doing things that gives us away. One of the essential elements of being a truly spiritual human is being able to imagine in the spiritual domain without having to embody it. We might not have to go through the same test, but we can show gratefulness by comprehending and enacting the feel of it.

Asif Shibgat Bhuiyan is a writer based in Dhaka. His book ‘Sahaj Quran’ is an exegesis of selected chapters from the Quran.