Reflections on the Islamic Ethic of Animal Sacrifice and Meat-eating

Indonesian Muslims Celebrate Eid Al-Adha
 (Photo by Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images)


P.S. : This is a Rambling-on-Facebook-status-turned-blog-post.

A few gentle reminders to myself first and foremost, and friends and family at home celebrating ‘Id al-Adha 🙂

The whole idea of pronouncing God’s name over the animal while killing it for the purposes of food is not just a ritual to officially legitimize the slaughter; the wisdom underlying this is for us to develop not only an ecological sensitivity but also understand the gravity and implications of the idea that you are taking the life of a fully-fledged sentient being, a breathing creature of God, and it is by no means a trivial matter.

Let us be mindful this ‘Id that a large number of Prophet’s sayings deal with admonitions and rules regarding a sensitive concern for animals, their treatment, rights, natural dignity and interestingly even their unique individual identities (!).

Traditionally, Muslims would deem it ideal to slaughter their animals by themselves, rather than hiring a butcher or conveniently receiving their meat on the kitchen-counter heedless if any unethical practice went into the production of their meat and completely oblivious to the process we all like to call a ‘sacrifice’ without really asking the question as to what really did ‘we’ sacrifice, and without really fully understanding the essence and import of what a sacrifice must entail.

The corpus of Hadith also presents very detailed ethics of slaughtering prescribed by the Prophet, because for someone who wiped the mouth of his animals with his personal cloth and urged tying them with a long rope to avoid causing them discomfort, it is only natural to expect the exhortations for minimum suffering. When slaughtering your animal for food, “use a good method” he said, and that give it “as little pain as possible”. According to this Prophetic tradition, it is reprehensible to slaughter one animal in front of the other, or to even sharpen your knife in front of an animal. “Do you wish to slaughter the animal twice: once by sharpening your blade in front of it and another time by cutting its throat?” “How many deaths do you intend that this animal should die? Why did you not sharpen your knife before you put the animal down?” We could tell from these exhortations that the Prophet was sensitive not only to the bodily pain of the cattle but also to their psychological suffering; thus, according to fiqh-legislation it is makruh to unnecessarily augment the pain of the animal, physical or psychological.

Another wisdom inherent in the suggested necessity of personally handling your own Dhabh (sacrifice) is to closely observe and feel on your skin the immense magnitude of the idea of killing a sentient being of God, that this process has deep symbolic meaning, and that it cannot be carried on mindlessly, immoderately, and unnecessarily to satisfy the meat addictions and immoderate appetites of the affluent.

This is perhaps a good opportunity to bring up an important related idea: Despite the common assumption that meat eating, particularly cow meat, is an integral part of Muslim life; and in the context of South Asia, even synonymous to being Muslim, Prophet Muhammad has been described by traditional Islamic scholars as a semi-vegetarian as evident from the study of his sira, someone who never ate beef (and as Muslims we believe there has to be a hikmah in whatever the Prophet did), and ate other types of meat only very rarely on special occasions. This is not to push vegetarianism or reconcile it with Islam for we all know Prophet’s most preferred piece of meat was a lamb’s shoulder 🙂, but to reflect on whether or not excessive meat consumption is in line with Islamic ethics. Various madhhabib (schools of law) of Islam even stipulate the ideal amounts of meat intake which can sometimes look like ‘once a week’ (!). The idea is moderation and mindfulness, and not swearing off.

This is also to reflect on the health problems caused by excessive meat consumption and the unethical practices associated with meat production in the context of the modern world, and to be always reminded of the Quranic injunction “do not transgress the balance” (55:9).

Let us be generous this year with the portions of our ‘id meat prescribed for the poor and under-fed, and when running into the risk of ‘id celebration, or our lives in general, descending into an orgy of meaty gluttony, it might be helpful to remember these telling words by Imam ‘Ali in which he urges us to “not make your stomach a graveyard of animals.”

Also, let us be reminded that the essence of sacrifice on ‘Id is to commemorate an event which urges believers to be willing to sacrifice their most cherished possessions if that is what God wills from them. A logical prerequisite to genuinely living this spirit on ‘Id is to be able to cherish your qurbani animals first, viewing them as much a handiwork of God as we consider ourselves to be, and thus as much worthy of ethical treatment as prescribed by sunnah.

On a comical (and a slightly politically incorrect) note: in our traditional belief-system, cattle is happy to be made useful as food for human inasmuch as it can become, in the form of energy, part of a pious, God-conscious, individuals. So, if you are a horrible human being, you are probably doing gross injustice to a mute creature anyway by going against its most important desires, and should probably consider swearing off meat altogether. *laughs*

Have an infinitely happy, blessed, and deeply God-conscious ‘Id.

‘Id Mubarak 🙂



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