Every year, as ‘Id al-Adhha comes, I am reminded once again of how old the practice of animal sacrifice has been. It is perhaps as old as human history. Among the Arabs too, animal sacrifice was a common practice in the seventh century. The deities they worshipped, they thought, demanded the sacrifice and they were only too willing to oblige. The Koran similarly requires slaughter of an animal as a hajj rite. Fundamentally, this replicates the pre-Islamic practice. The idea of propitiating a superior being is common to both cases. In the Koran the purpose of the sacrifice is to celebrate the name of God (as in verse 22:34) or glorify Him (as in verse 22:37), ideas that also come up elsewhere in the book.
Though slaughtering an animal at an altar of gods and goddesses of various descriptions and statures is still practised around the world, nothing in the past or present can compare with the scale of slaughter of animals in Islam. The animals are sacrificed annually at two distinct levels: As an integral part of the ritual of the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, at a festival known as the ‘Id al- Adhha (Festival of Sacrifice); and as part of the celebration of ‘Id al Adhha throughout the rest of the Islamic world, where the slaughter is not, and cannot be, accompanied by the rites of the hajj. The number of animals sacrificed in the second category, that is, at the festival of ‘Id al- Adha but not as a rite of the hajj, far exceeds the number slaughtered at the hajj itself. Tens of millions of cattle are sacrificed in the Islamic world on the occasion. And with each year, the number of animals slaughtered increases.
It is a slaughter of colossal proportions. If one could look, eagle-eyed, from high up in space, he would see, on a single day, millions of carcasses of animals strewn on the face of the earth: some animals just slaughtered, others being cut to pieces, while others are being led to the place of slaughter.
Here at home, the slaughter, kurbani, is on a million minds well before the day of ‘Id al- Adhha. Most Muslims in the country believe that those who can afford it ‘must’ make the sacrifice. Those who seem to be in doubt are told in no uncertain terms about their duty: Islam has made it obligatory for those who can afford it; there is no alternative to it. Spending in charity, for example, is no substitute. Tradition has it that if the sacrificial animal is too expensive for an individual, it can be shared by several people making the sacrificial offering. Despite the provision of sharing, there are many families who find a sacrifice too expensive. An inability to make even the tiniest acceptable sacrifice often saddens many devout hearts. On the other hand, the rich often go for the most expensive beast for sacrifice: a huge bull, for example, for an amount of money that can feed a poor family for a number of years. They sometimes vie with each other over the purchase of the most expensive beast.
The animals are slaughtered early on the ‘Id day, soon after the ‘Id congregation held in the morning. Leaders of the congregation often remind it of the need to perform the kurbani as soon as possible, preferably within a few hours of the congressional prayer. The spectacle presents a panorama of slaughter, enacted in great simultaneity: millions of cows, bulls, heifer and goats being dragged or coaxed to the place of slaughter by throngs of devotees, often accompanied by excited groups of children. The sacrificial animal has, mostly, been bought at the cattle market and, unsurprisingly, there is little affection binding it to people making the sacrifice. This is in sharp contrast to the symbolism of the kurbani as sacrifice of something that is precious to the devotee. (See later.) The beast, if it is a cow or a bull, is brought down to the ground with a thump, though not without a struggle on its part, often after its forefeet have been tied with a rope which is then passed between its hind legs and pulled to facilitate the fall. It desperately tries to rise to its feet, and a number of people are seen holding it down, some sitting on its side, while the man who would make the kurbani readies himself, a large, sharp knife in hand. He also utters the names of the people on whose behalf the sacrifice is being made. Presently, someone pulls the beast’s dewlap as hard as he can to make the pelt taut at the throat. Thereupon the throat is sliced from ear to ear with a couple of quick movements of the knife, the slaughterer uttering Allahu Akbar at the same time. Blood gushes; the beast gurgles and desperately tries to rise. A few jabs of the knife to the severed throat follow to facilitate flow of blood. The crowd watches. In a few minutes, all is quiet. Some members of the crowd smear their hands with the still warm blood. Now the beast is still, a drop or two of tears trickling from its huge, black, eyes. It will now be skinned and cut up.
The scene is familiar to the vast majority of Muslims of the country. Perhaps only a few finds the scene disturbing. For most, eating the meat in festivity is all that matters. Piety, the prescribed obligation to please Allah, recedes to the background for a large majority of minds. In recent times, for example, professional butchers are engaged for the slaughter by people who can afford them. Often persons in whose name the sacrifice is made do not even witness the kurbani. In the Koran, the sacrifice, in its fundaments, takes on the nature of personal relationship of a devotee to God, whom he ‘glorifies’ and whose name he ‘celebrates,’ as in the verses cited earlier. To see this in the slaughter by a hired butcher requires an extraordinary stretch of the imagination. Pilgrims to Mecca nowadays pay for the cost of a sacrifice at a bank, and most of them never see the sacrificial beast that the bank receipt entitles them to. And that too is seen as ‘celebration’ of the name of God.
Nevertheless, the imagery of the slaughter is hard to escape. Of the millions of animals killed on the day of ‘Id al-Adhha in the country this year, perhaps several hundred thousands were put to the knife in Dhaka alone. The scene from my early youth I described earlier is repeated that many times in the city alone in a single day. Many kurbanis were done in the Municipality- designated places of slaughter. Still, there were numerous slaughters on city roads or nearby. This year it rained heavily in Dhaka on ‘Id morning. This caused great inconvenience to people attending the congregations. (Although I heard some devotees describing the downpour as Allah’s blessing. ) Some of the city roads were under ankle- or knee-deep water. Blood from the slaughter quickly mixed with rain water to present an unprecedented scene: city streets seeming to go under a river of blood. Consider the tens of thousands of animals slaughtered, their throats slit, the long knives dripping with blood, the events watched by a multitude of children and the very young, some of them lending a hand in the ritual, and you have the image of a colossal killing field, now lapped by a seeming river of blood. It is often said that familiarity breeds contempt; growing familiarity with long knife and gushing blood might make life itself seem cheap. Even human ones.
Now setting aside my huge qualms about ceremonial slaughter and my doubts about the use of it as a means of pleasing the Almighty and all -Merciful God, my reading of the Koran led me to this inevitable question: does the Koran enjoin Muslims to perform a kurbani, except as part of the rites prescribed for the hajj? In other words, for a country like Bangladesh, for example, does the Koran call for kurbani on the day of ‘Id al-Adhha? Many Muslims will be surprised if told that the Koran does not call for it at all. In fact, the only animal sacrifice the Koran speaks of is the sacrifice as part of the ritual of the hajj performed in Mecca and its surrounds.
Verses on annual animal sacrifice in the Koran are all related to the performance of the hajj. Most of them are in sura 22 (Hajj). Sura 2 (Baqara), which also goes into the theme of the hajj. Again, it is in the context of the hajj that the narrative of the sacrifice proceeds.
There are no verses in the Koran on animal sacrifice that are not related to the hajj. In other words, the Koran does not have any directive that calls for animal sacrifice outside the precincts of the pilgrimage in Mecca and its surrounds. This by definition excludes kurbani elsewhere. The Koran in fact requires that if one is unable to make the journey to the pilgrimage in Mecca, he has to send the sacrificial animal to the place of pilgrimage for sacrifice. (See verse 2:196.) Note that he cannot make the sacrifice at home. In other words, someone who is not present on the hajj precinct cannot make a surrogate sacrifice at home. That obviously applies to Muslims in far off places like Bangladesh too.
Why then is there so much insistence on the obligation to make the Kurbani in Bangladesh while the pilgrimage is taking place thousands of miles away in Mecca? In many minds there are the vaguest of surmises. I had recently asked an internet interlocutor, apparently a pious man with limited knowledge of the Koran, to tell me which verses of the Book actually calls for Kurbani. He promptly responded by referring me to sura 37 (Saffat), verses 37: 102-111. This is no surprise to me; I have heard the same response many times. But these verses only tell the well-known tale of Abraham about to sacrifice his son. Abraham passes the test God set him. The tale is told annually and routinely by prayer leaders at ‘Id congregations. Obedience to God, even to the point of willingness to sacrifice a son, if ordained, is glorified. A parallel is swiftly drawn to suggest the need, on the part of the devotee, to be prepared to sacrifice his most precious possessions in the service of God. An inquiring mind might quickly ask how many of the preachers seriously believe in and practise what they preach; or how much piety in reality mixes with the sacrificial offering in the image of the slaughters drawn above; or why for that matter the tale of Abraham needed to be commemorated at all? But most important of all, where is the directive I have been looking for? The narratives in Koran do not call for the kurbani.
The Koran is supposed to be a clear book, easy to understand. It says so about itself. Why should an important question such as the Kurbani – which now involves slaughtering millions of animals all over the world in the course of a day – should have been left to surmise? There are clear directions on rituals of piety in the Koran. On fasting, for example, there is : “O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you….”, ( verse 2:183) a clear and unambiguous directive. There is none on kurbani.
Could kurbani be a sunna, derived from sayings of the Prophet of Islam or his deeds to set examples? Many knowledgeable Muslims actually think it is. There are a number of hadiths which suggest that he made kurbani on the day of ‘Id al -Adhha. Apparently, the sacrifices were all made in Medina or its surrounds. This might suggest that the sacrifices were made during the period before the conquest of Mecca when it was not possible for Muslims to perform the hajj and make the sacrifice. Furthermore, it is difficult to draw the conclusion from the hadith literature that he urged his followers to make the kurbani, except as part of hajj rites.
Most important of all, he could not have foreseen the enormous changes that would take place around the world in the next millennium and half: the phenomenal spread of Islam to places that are very different from his desert country; the enormous increase in population the world over, particularly in countries outside Arabia, requiring a huge increase in the scale of slaughter that we see today, in comparison with which the slaughters at the time of the Prophet must seem miniscule; and the rise of physical, environmental, psychological, and even inter-religious issues of mass slaughter. He was, after all, a human being, as he himself emphasised.
Meanwhile, the slaughter continues, the practice sustained by inertia, vested interest, aggressive insistence on conformism, and a broad retreat of reason.