A very Abrahamic feast
These days, the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims are celebrating the four day long Eid al-Adha, or the “Feast of Sacrifice.” While many aspects of the feast, such as gatherings with family and friends, will probably sound very familiar to other religions, a particular practice that gives the feast its name can look a bit scary: The sacrifice of animals, often sheep, for God. This is a ritual slaughter that many non-Muslims, especially those in the West, find a bit bizarre, if not scary.
However, unless you are not vegetarian or vegan, it is arguably better to see how the meat you normally buy from the supermarket is produced. Moreover, the Abrahamic story that lies at the heart of the Feast of Sacrifice is actually not that alien to the West: It lies at the core of its Judeo-Christian tradition as well.
What I am talking about is the story about Abraham’s sacrificial child, which is presented both in the Quran and the Bible. Both scriptures teach that one day Abraham saw a revelatory dream in which he was to sacrifice his beloved little son to God. Abraham, the loyal servant of his Lord, decided to obey this harsh commandment, despite his immense agony. But this was only a test for his faith. At the last moment, when he rested the unfortunate boy with knife in hand, one of God’s angels called on him to stop and brought a miraculous lamb that he could sacrifice to God.
As I said, both Islam and the Judeo-Christian sources present this story, albeit with a difference: In Islamic sources, the sacrificial child is Ishmael, not Isaac as in the Bible. Why the difference? The most plausible answer is that while Isaac is regarded as the father of the Jews, Ishmael is taken as the father of the Arabs. Thus, the latter fits more nicely into the Islamic narrative of things.
However, the replacing of Isaac with Ishmael was not a Quranic move. Muslim scripture never mentions the name of the sacrificial child. Moreover, as American Muslim scholar Shaykh Hamza Yusuf notes, “Many of the early scholars said it was Isaac.” Nevertheless, Yusuf adds, “A majority of the later scholars say it was Ishmael.”
These nuances put aside, today it is Muslims who keep up with Abraham’s tradition in the most literal sense — by slaughtering lambs every year to commemorate this event. In fact, sacrificial ceremonies were an integral part of Judaism until the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the pagan Romans in A.D. 70, but from then on, they ceased to exist. Paulian Christianity had already abandoned much of Jewish law, including sacrifices. But Islam stuck to the tradition, along with other established Jewish practices such as circumcision.
Actually, Abraham is remarkably central to the Muslim faith in all aspects. He is regarded very highly in the Quran, and the five-times-a-day Muslim payer includes a part in which “Abraham and his descendants” are praised. The Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are required to do at least once in their lives if they can afford to, is also focused on Abraham. The Ka’aba, the cube-shaped building at the center of Mecca to which the Hajj and all Muslim prayers are directed, is described in the Quran as “the first temple built on Earth to worship God” by Abraham and his son Ishmael.
In short, when Muslims slaughter animals today in the name of God, they are not doing anything that is unknown to the West. They are perhaps only a bit more literal about a tradition which the West knows well.