By Ishtiaq Ahmed
Would it be heretical to suggest that instead of sacrificing animals and overeating meat for several days, pious Muslims should donate money to help poor people undergo some simple eye operations that will save or restore their sight, or do some other good deed that will bring joy to the lives of those who are deprived of decent living conditions?
Long years ago, I went to see a feature film in my native Lahore but it turned out to be a documentary mainly about the hajj (annual Islamic pilgrimage). In those days, I had a very idealistic faith and used to attend all public meetings by leading ulema who visited Lahore. So, a chance to see the whole hajj onscreen thrilled me quite a lot.
Among the rituals shown was the sacrifice of animals at the time of the Eid-ul-Adha to commemorate the tradition of Prophet Abraham. To my great horror, men with long knives cut open the throats of goats, sheep and other animals, and, while they were writhing in excruciating pain, threw them into long ditches. As soon as one ditch was filled, the bulldozer would cover it up with dust and sand and then more animals where cut up and thrown the same way into another ditch. One could see rows and rows of ditches and lots of blood splattered all over.
I must confess, I could not find any sense in God wanting animals to be killed in such a grotesque manner and thrown into ditches. The explanation we had been given at home was that the meat of the sacrificed animal was to be shared with the poor, relatives, neighbours, and indeed by the family that offered the animal for sacrifice. In Saudi Arabia, it was nothing of the sort.
Even when we would offer a goat on Eid-ul-Adha, the actual act of slaughter always saddened me. We bought that animal and took care of it for weeks if not months, taking it to the park to graze grass. Naturally, as children we began to love it. Then the butcher would come with his knives and slit its throat before our eyes. I remember always feeling bad when eating its meat.
A friend tells me that animals now sacrificed during hajj in Mecca are no longer thrown into ditches, but are put in cold storage and later the meat is sent to poor people all over the world. This might be so, but it is worth discussing if the sacrificing of animals is the only way to celebrate an old Abrahamic tradition. In Pakistan, after the slaughters have taken place, the streets are full of blood and animal parts that rot for days. Moreover, we all know that the ritual of sacrificing animals has become an exhibition of wealth more than a submission to the will of Allah.
The second thing that has always disturbed me is the self-flagellation the Shias practise at the time of Ashura during Muharram. Although commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussain is a matter of great feeling and emotions, it is noteworthy that the form the mourning takes differs in terms of class and social status.
I have never seen educated, well-to-do Shias inflict bleeding wounds on their bodies by beating them with a chain studded with small knives and blades and other sharp objects. They confine maatam (expression of grief) at most to beating their chests with their hands. It is almost invariably the poor and uneducated members of the Shia community who mutilate their bodies with sharp objects.
We used to hear that those who shed their blood in the Ashura procession never develop any infection, but I know personally that a Shia who worked himself into a frenzy while flagellating himself died from excessive bleeding complicated by infection. In another case, the infection resulted in the amputation of one arm.
But my point in writing this essay is a bit more philosophical. I wish to suggest that when rituals become religion, they negate the spirituality religion is supposed to represent. Would it be heretical to suggest that instead of sacrificing animals and overeating meat for several days, pious Muslims should donate money to help poor people undergo some simple eye operations that will save or restore their sight, or do some other good deed that will bring joy to the lives of those who are deprived of decent living conditions?
I know the standard answer: God encourages us to spend generously on charity, but that cannot substitute for animal sacrifice as ordained by Him. It is the duty of all Muslims who have the means to sacrifice an animal to please Allah. Of course, such logic cannot be countered by rational argument.
To pious Shias, I would say: is the best way to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain not by donating blood at the time of Ashura or, even better, every month to a hospital and thus help save a life? A dignified, symbolic beating of the chest can be quite all right but mutilating it with sharp objects is something that needs to be reconsidered. Perhaps the poor Shias who work themselves into a passionate state and cut themselves up deserve to be helped to come out of poverty and illiteracy.
Some years ago when I visited Pakistan, a friend of mine, a businessman, met me after many years. The first question he asked was if I had some influence at the Saudi embassy in Islamabad. For a moment I could not make any sense of his question, since I did not live in Pakistan and having influence at the Saudi embassy was therefore quite out of the question. Yet, he had no other question but this strange one.
He had been for umrah (pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina) the previous year and wanted to go again. Therefore, he wanted my help to jump the queue and get permission quickly. I knew his business dealings and success were the result of many unethical trading practices including participation in land-grabbing schemes. So, obviously he had a bad conscience and going for umrah was some psychological therapy to overcome his moral predicament.
In the event, I could not keep my cool and asked him if he had never read in the hadith literature or the Quran that helping a poor family wed their daughter or helping one of his servants send their children to school were also acts that God valued highly? Must he go for umrah once again only after a year? He could not counter my criticism but retorted that I was impious. We never met again.
The writer is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He can be reached at email@example.com
Source: Daily Times, Pakistan