Muslims Debate

Ismail Bey   |   17 Jun 2012
Qurban: Sacrificing Ones Desire and Ego While the Lamb Chops Are Grilled
Yes, I know what many of you reading this are saying. I can hear you loud and clear. Ismail is an arrogant bastard who is intent on taking Islam apart, piece by piece. Who does he think he is? How dare he write so disrespectfully of such an important practice as the annual sacrifice, the Eid ul Adha? He bears the name of Ismail, after the son of Abraham, the Friend of God to whom was sent a sheep to offer for sacrifice instead of his own, beloved son. How can anyone speak so comically about grilled lamb chops while referring to such an important practice within the Islamic faith? Calm thyself. If you patiently read on, I'll explain.

Each year tens even hundreds of thousands of pilgrims visit Mecca in Arabia for the annual hajj. There, the faithful go through a series of movements and activities designed to make one aware of the evils attached to their own selves and literally separate them from one's soul and being. Pilgrims visit Mina, they cast stones at the three pillars representing the devils who tempted prophet Abraham and the vices of human society. They run back and forth and assemble on a hill called Arafat. They visit the cave where Muhammad received his revelation, then rededicate their lives to Allah subhana wa t'ala. Collecting the water of Zamzam, then they sacrifice a lamb, as Abraham did, and hold a feast of thanksgiving.

This sacrifice, known as Qurban or Adha in Arabic is a practice performed both in Mecca at the time of the pilgrimage and indeed all around the world. Muslim families special order an animal for the ritual slaughter. Like the American holiday of Thanksgiving, many animals are slaughtered, to be eaten on the feast of Eid. Unless one is a serious vegetarian or an animal defense activist, there is nothing really so incredible about this. However, those animal rights activists may be on to something that we should perhaps at least listen to.

The slaughter of animals for food in the Abrahamic monotheistic tradition calls for the slitting of the vein on the throat and pronouncing the name of God over the animal. The knife should be very sharp, like a razor, to minimize the pain inflicted to the animal. The blood drains and the animal loses consciousness. For people living in a desert society with little access to food sources other than meat, this was humane, as the animal is not supposed to suffer and is treated with kindness and respect before going through the ordeal. Having said that, many would say that they would approve of vegetarianism over meat eating any day. That is another conversation with pros and cons, but I think we all get the point, no pun intended. Indeed, vegetarianism has it's benefits both to the person's health and to the safety and security of kindness to all animals.

However, this practice needs somewhat to be curtailed a bit. Tens of thousands of animals are slaughtered in a ritual massacre in Mecca alone. Around the Islamic world, we can't even begin to estimate how many millions of sheep, goats and cows are put to slaughter for this one holiday. Personally, while I remain a good meat eater, I don't believe that it was supposed to be such a bloody mess like this. Yes, even I considered and still consider the joys of string beans and eggplants over the eating of flesh that was killed for my consumption based on an ancient and archaic practice of necessity.

We have to remember that in the 7th century the lords of Mecca and their families used to give lavish parties and dinners to honor their guests. During the time of the 'Great Fair' when pilgrims from all over Arabia would come to give thanks and worship the gods of the Kaaba, business deals also were discussed over food and drink. It was common for the households of the city to have dozens of animals slaughtered for the lavish and costly feasts they provided. Honor and family name were reinforced by reputation. Abu Sufyan and his wife Hind were praised by poets and singers for their generosity. For one visiting clan it was recommended that seventy sheep be slaughtered for roasting. Abu Sufyan thought that it was better to make it hundred, with ten young lambs each for the chiefs of the visiting tribes. Such displays spoke of the host's glory and generosity, and was considered a sign of respect and rank. So during the Great Fair of Mecca, before Muhammad's mission, thousands of animals were killed for the pleasure of the lords of the city, keepers of the Kaaba, descended from Abraham through the line of Ismail, though the number of idols displayed rivaled the number of animals killed and consumed during this annual event.

Muhammad didn't like the indiscriminate slaughter any more than he relished the thought of female children being buried or slaves being bought and sold. Like other aspects of Arabian life Muhammad, after he attained to power, brought about some drastic changes to his society. Along with the other revolutionary changes brought about was the humane treatment and handling of animals. One could not overload pack animals nor over work them, beat them or kill them for no good reason. There are stories attributed to the Prophet of people who would attain hell because they treated their animals poorly. Animals got a positive boost with Muhammad's reforms. Likewise, he transformed the Great Fair from a Dionysian banquet and display of sheer gluttony into a spiritually minded event of united brotherhood and community building.

Arabia was a feuding society, and tribes had been killing each other for generations. The blood feud was a serious problem for unity. The annual hajj became a time when tribes and clans were to put their differences aside and come together as one people, united in a message of compassion and a love for God rather than in a spirit of competition and envy. It is forbidden to even pluck a blade of grass from Mecca's ground. Weapons were left outside the city as everyone entered dressed in the same simple clothes. The difference between the lords and the servants, farmers and Bedouins, the rich and the poor became null. Equality in the eyes of God was the order of the day.

It was in this hajj that Muhammad's genius as a political leader is evident. Here, he would solidify the truces and agreements between the warring factions and use the adha, the ritual sacrifice as the tool to bind those agreements. Lavish displays of food and the slaughter of thousands of animals was now forbidden. Instead, Muhammad ordered his people, organized as they were into clans and tribes, to share their wealth. In those days, to a semi nomadic people wealth was measured in livestock. So for the Hajj each family was ordered to sacrifice one sheep and divide the meat into three parts. One third of the meat was collected by the then 'state' for distribution to the communal poor. Another third of the meat was to be given to a neighbor, who was often a former enemy or feuding foe. This helped to solidify bonds and keep the treaties. The third portion of meat was for the use of the family, who were encouraged to invite guests to their houses for dinner in a spirit of sharing and good will. In this one bold move, Muhammad was able to revolutionize the mindset of these chaotic desert peoples from one of lavish pride and boastfulness to simplicity and frugality, with a thought for the communal social structure as well as for the sense of compassion for animals themselves.

This was the 7th century. The number of people attending the hajj then could not have numbered more than in the hundreds, maybe a few thousand at best. The wealth of the nomadic peoples, livestock, was sacrificed for the good of all and the bonding of community. Such a custom had a reason back then, and it worked. However, after Muhammad died and the Arab Umayyads began to spread out and conquer an empire bringing them untold wealth and power, the spirit of community building and clan unity coupled with spirituality began to change. Lavishness began to make a comeback as the Umayyads, the descendants of Abu Sufyan, Hind and the Meccan pagans who opposed Muhammad during his career were now the rulers of an empire that was governed with Muhammad's revolutionary theories in place but commanded by those who sought only glory and wealth. As one Arab chronicler explained "alas, I thinketh not that ye go and conquer territory for God, your soul or for righteousness, but rather it is your yearning for bread and dates." The dinner plate was becoming more than bread and dates as the new conquerors, richer and more powerful than their wildest dreams could ever imagine, began to splurge in imitation of the Romans before them. The world's largest dish, roast camel, came about at this time. A whole camel is stuffed with a whole sheep, stuffed with chickens which are stuffed with pigeons, all stuffed with rice (a new food) mixed with raisins, dates and exotic nuts and spices, topped with honey and butter. This became the symbol of imperial power, and a sign of gluttony imaginable only to a Nero or Caligula, as Muawia and his son Yazid in their imitation set the tone for the caliphate thereafter, complete with the bodily afflictions of civilization such as obesity, diabetes and the gout. Ironically, this is still the festive dish in the Saudi kingdom today as guests are considered very honored indeed if they are served this monstrosity of a specialite de la maison. Rather, what's the French for tent? While enhanced by imported rice and spices and Persian cooking techniques that came in via the trade routes that were under the control of the new conquerors, the dish nonetheless remained classically Bedouin in essence. It was the symbol of a victorious nobility that would rule an empire stretching from Spain to China, the largest the world would know up to that time.

So with the legacy of conquest and gluttony, it seems that the economic factor has come into play once again as none seem to study this phenomenon of ritual slaughter and dare to improve upon it the way Muhammad did in his time. Just in Mecca alone during the annual hajj hundreds of thousands of poor animals are slaughtered in a fashion that would make the pagan lords of Mecca proud. Add to this the slaughter around the world during the Eid ul Adha and the numbers are in the tens of millions. Does God need the blood of these animals? Do we need to spill so much of it for our own blessings? Frankly, let's be honest. The custom doesn't make any sense. It is as if we were to still use war horses to fight battles when horse warfare is not an option any more with the advent of rapid fire weapons and long range missiles. Millions of horses have died in the wars of the past. Are we not grateful, on some level, that these animals no longer have to go through this ordeal of fire for our stupid, human wars? Or are we the unwilling heirs of those Umayyad conquerors, feasting our way to gluttony rather than to a spiritual and balanced relationship with our universe?

In this time when there are so many poor Muslims in the world, so many uneducated people and famine and pestilence rampant, would it not be better to give charity of money and funds to help relieve the burdens of so many of our fellow humans? The cost of a sheep can be applied to funding water works in the dry lands of Africa. The Sahara could be made literally into a garden, but this takes money and dedication. The poor farmers of Egypt and Sudan still suffer from opthalmia, a disabling sickness of the eye borne by a fly who lives in unclean water. This disease, like malaria, can be eradicated though the collection of funds from hajjis who attend the pilgrimage. Schools can be built in places where both children and old people have to work so hard to scratch a living from an unforgiving soil.

The time has come to reassess our religious practices and use our God given minds and talents to unfold God's plan for this Earth of ours. Muhammad did this in the 7th century. If he is, as so many say he is, our example, then why aren't we following that example in spirit, adapting his brilliant logic to the lives we live in the 21st century?

Give the sheep a break for once, and give yourselves a break from a cholesterol laden diet. The Muslim world community needs services and the ability to grow and raise food by enhancing the dry soils and improving poor agricultural techniques, including improving the raising of animal livestock. Fishermen around the world are struggling to haul in an ever reducing catch. Why are we not concerned about the dwindling number of fish? The waters of the world are polluted as well, as oil spills from ships contaminate the very source of life itself. If hajjis donated money to the poor or to progressive services and mediums rather than slaughter sheep just because it is customary and sunnah then perhaps the Muslim world can once again begin to breathe. Muslims scholars and the leadership should investigate this possibility. As ijtihad demands that we study and understand critically why we perform acts of devotion (ibadet) we are commanded by our God to do what we must to make our lives on Earth better for man and beast, bird and fish. All creatures are entitled to this compassion and mercy. It is our duty as Muslims and human beings to bring about revolutionary changes in the way we think, work and interact with our world and all it's creatures. Imagine the blessings we could bring to the world just by implementing such change by the donations of the many thousands of believers who would give in charity rather than sacrifice an animal for an old tradition's sake. Muhammad had a reason for the annual Hajj and subsequent Qurban. Time to imitate him and come up with new manners of ibadet and spiritual practice that would be blessed by God and would allow us to truly be content, knowing that we are fulfilling God's very commands by using our minds and feeling with our hearts.

Don't worry, friends. The lamb chops aren't going anywhere.

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