“It is not their meat nor their blood, that reaches God: it is your piety that reaches Him: He has thus made them subject to you, that ye may glorify God for His Guidance to you and proclaim the good news to all who do right”. [22:37]
This Eid, like every year, thousand of animals will be slaughtered. The rationale behind the ritual is apparently the spirit of sacrifice which unfortunately has gone completely haywire over the centuries, so much so that it has become a mockery which laughs at its own grandeur. The festival traces back its origin to Abrahamic tradition where the idea was to sacrifice what is most dear to you, for Abraham: his son Ishmael. Traditionally, monotheists especially Muslims (largely belonging to nomadic and agrarian societies) pet their animals for years and at Eid, sacrifice the one which was dearest to them. This act can be categorized as one of the most humbling human expressions. In this day and age, it is neither possible nor relevant to practice the tradition in a similar manner. Therefore in our times, the concept behind sacrifice becomes greater than the sacrifice itself and is needed to be understood in its complexity.
Sadly, this ritual which should be conducted with spiritual zeal has been reduced to a display of shameless pomp and it seems that the essence of sacrifice has either been forgotten or perhaps had never been understood in the first place. What people don’t realize is that the prayer (Namaz-e-Eid) is obligatory and not the sacrifice itself or more precisely the physical one. Offering an animal in sacrifice is only proposed for those who have the means, yet many people feel forced by societal pressures to do so.
The biggest animal sacrifices in terms of quantity are carried out by two groups the locally rich individuals or pilgrims (Hajis at the Hajj). It is known observation for former – many of them if not all – it has become a symbol of status. The more the merrier, obviously fatter the better. Sacrifice can only be complete with inherent feelings of thankfulness and submission. When you forgo something dear, especially if it’s a big animal, you aren’t supposed to set up a show where whole neighborhood is enjoying the slaughter with claps or hoots and children are exposed to bloodshed. People prefer to keep the best of the meat for themselves and some even buy additional freezers to preserve; no wonder greed has no limits. Deprived people who actually wait for this day throughout the year as they can’t afford the luxury of meat on a daily basis are conferred with bad parts and wished with Meat Mubarak! Besides, there are mass scale wastage in sacrifices at Hajj and also internationally across the Ummah. Governments or civil society also doesn’t have any system in place where more effective use and distribution of meat can be done. Not to say that every sacrifice is carried in such manner but mainly we need to remind ourselves that God likes humility so He also dislikes wastefulness. The issues of sacrifice then have implications on national level and ummah. Not to forget that Islam always talks about the collective to balance and supplement the personal responsibility.
In all this drama, Eid-ul-Adha becomes a mere exoteric ritual with little sense of sacrifice itself. All this is not unknown but it becomes a greater sham by the occurrence of incidents like recently when an ‘educated’ host on some television channel’s Eid special comments on how the goat which one only buys a day before the Eid has no emotional value so those who really want to sacrifice, should do so by giving away their handbags and diamond rings which one loves dearly. In such a state, I personally think that we don’t have ANY right to whine about situations we face in most developing country when the individuals who can contribute towards change do not stand up, rather relax over their recliners and blab the pseudo-intellectual statements. How would a country progress where the income disparity in the country is so large, where we haven’t invested in sectors like education and health, where we haven’t nurtured our glorious tradition of scholarship in religion? Where we blame everything upon extremists and foreign involvements while assuming no accountability over our own lacking? How many of us are committed to share than accumulate whether its money, skills or knowledge? Is sacrifice really running in our blood?
To understand the essence of sacrifice we not only need to refer back to the history but also reflect upon the context. Prophet Abraham was the one who brought a paradigm shift from paganism to monotheism. Human sacrifice was a major facet of pagan practices where the first child was slaughtered to obtain blessings from the pagan god. Modern scholarship and likes of Karen Armstrong believe that the story of the sacrifice of Abraham highlights that God does not need the flesh of humans and therefore it was replaced with a sheep. Sheep was an alternative – a sign; it was an imperative. It emphasizes on the sanctity of humanity and human life which was ignored by the primitive religions where human sacrifice was a established ritual. Briefly, all you can offer to God is your love and devotion. Later on in the history, the problem with the Arabs was not limited to Idol worshipping or oneness of God but worshipping their own selves as the most powerful and therefore exploiting the deprived; absence of humility disrespects the principle of Tawheed – the primary principle which Prophet Mohammad wanted to preach. Islam’s purpose is not only to enlighten us about divine but also install ethics of acceptance and sometimes even forgiveness, love and compassion. It also reminds me of a speech that I read where His Highness Aga Khan said, “The shared destiny of the ethos of the Abrahamic tradition that unites Christians, Jews and Muslims is governed by the duty of loving care to help nurture each life that is born to its God-given potential.”
Any ritual has two powers, one is to inspire if the learning reflects back in your daily ethics or else the power of making you immune to blind imitation, whatever the devotee chooses. In current trying times, we need to revisit our religion and rethink our practice of the whole ritual and notion of sacrifice. Is it only limited to slaughtering animals? The answers would vary but whatever they maybe, they should be based on proper knowledge and informed action. We also need a different kind of sacrifice working hand in hand with the traditional. In my opinion, putting millions on food, shelter and education is much more needed. It would need time and effort but the question remains that are we really ready to sacrifice?
[The piece was written last year. The only change is that now we have sacrificial cows named after Star Plus characters. Pratigya, what should one suppose? a hindu cow for a muslim sacrifice? This can begin a whole new debate on cultural sensitvity.]