Back in 2013, while I was teaching at a primary school in Egypt, in the midst of all the political and social turmoil, Eid al-Adha (also called the 'Sacrifice Feast') was a celebration of unity and generosity that everyone was looking forward to. Men, women and children were all dressed in their finest clothing to perform the Eid prayer in a large congregation. Following the prayer and the celebrations, everyone at the school was excited for what seemed to be the highlight of that day, the sacrificing of a sheep as a symbol of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his only son, an act of submission to God's command.
Although initially hesitant, out of curiosity I decided to join the swelling crowd of school staff and students, not realising the bitterness and angst that the slaughter would stir up in me. To this day I still remember the wide-eyed faces of my young students while they witnessed the ritual killing; some covered with delight, some with bemusement and others with trepidation. As the butcher started hanging up the carcass of the sacrificed animal, some of the teachers kept taking pictures of themselves while stepping over trails of blood. I couldn't help but think about how the exposure to such disturbing imagery could unfold in the eyes of those kids and eventually increase the probability for them to be desensitised and contemplate others forms of violence.
As an Albanian, I come from a country where the majority of believers embrace the basic tenets of Islam, but where large numbers aren't too often involved in regular religious attendances. Therefore, my reservations toward animal sacrifice had not been openly challenged until that point.
As I have been going on with my meat-free eating habits since that day, every year I am reminded of that episode. Some days ago, Muslims around the world gathered to celebrate Eid al-Adha. Once again the internet was filled with images of sacrificed livestock in ceremonial killings in slaughterhouses, in parks and even in the streets, sometimes marked by streamlets of blood-stained water.
Putting judgemental emphasis on this religious ritual in particular - which above all focuses on helping the poor and the hungry - would be hypocritical when thinking about the indifference that many of us show when it comes to the massive numbers of animals that, merely for the satisfaction of our superfluous cravings, are being killed each day in aseptic basements of large factory farms. Although both deserve a great amount of attention, there is something about turning the killing of an animal in a collective celebration that particularly strikes a chord in me, especially after considering that this Islamic practice fundamentally is meant to celebrate an act of mercy.
I believe that with many people, both non-Muslims and Muslims alike, context is what is lacking. The Qur'an doesn't seem to encourage or recommend meat consumption, rather, guide the lawful (halal) way to do so at a time and place where circumstances demanded a meat-eating diet. The kindness with which believers are taught to treat animals and the importance that the Qur'an gives to their wellbeing are very often not reflected to the modern methods of dealing with animals.
More than blood atonement, or seeking favour with God through the animal's death, the fundamental goal of this practise is, to my understanding, that of thanking God for one's food and the individual sacrifice of sharing one's sustenance with the others. The assumption that such sustenance is always meant to be of the four-legged variety is limiting and inaccurate.
Over time and in different places and cultures, what has been present for survival has changed. For someone living in an arid climate, in a tiny village in the middle of a desert, where meat-eating is an unavoidable reality and a matter of survival, then animal sacrifice finds context and purpose. But for those of us living in a fully furnished modern society, we need to stop and question those practices that, not only have lost meaning at present, but with the current levels of consumption and the way these animals are being raised are also causing excessive and unnecessary suffering and environmental destruction.
The slow process of eradicating the ethically dubious customs and traditions will require decades of engagement in honest and insightful discussions and will demand the expansion of our circle of compassion. Acknowledging the apparent tension between some religious practices and the world we presently live in will eventually open the way for Muslims to speak out and reflect about issues concerning ethics and morality, contributing this way to the continual advancement of the society as a whole.
Only when we understand the mere symbolic function that ritual sacrifice has nowadays, will we be able to eradicate the need for it and perhaps further succeed in the attempts of a universal understanding and denouncement of animal cruelty that is not necessarily culturally relative.