By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam
21 August 2018
An acquaintance recently wrote on social media that instead of sacrificing an animal on Baqr Eid, she intends to donate the amount for the victims of devastating floods in Kerala. Many (including Muslims) lauded her effort and novel way of thinking. But then, other Muslim commentators cautioned her that while she was most welcome to donate to the Kerala flood relief, it should not be equated with Qurbani, which is an obligation which Muslims must follow. Coming from these Muslims, the idea was that Qurbani was a religious duty; it was part of the faith and cannot be equated with any form of charity.
Now, one can definitely have issues with such an assertion. It is possible to reason that Qurbani is an act specifically associated with the Hajj, and it is well known that Hajj is conditional for Muslims: only those who are healthy and have the financial capacity to do so are called upon to perform the pilgrimage. So, it is not fair to say that it is one of the essential pillars of the faith. Moreover, there is a sense in which animal sacrifice is to be performed only by those who are doing the Hajj and not by all Muslims.
The verses which tell us how to perform the Qurbani are coeval with verses of the Hajj and therefore it can be assumed that all Muslims are not required to do animal sacrifice annually. But then, such is the power of interpretation that most Muslims today think that Qurbani is obligatory to all Muslims irrespective of whether they are performing the Hajj or not. It is this kind of a sentiment which stops someone from thinking afresh in terms of the whole idea of Qurbani and how Muslims can creatively interpret the ritual and fit it into contemporary times. The orthodox insistence that animal sacrifice is essential flies in the face of the Quranic verse which clearly states that it is not the flesh or the blood which reaches God but only the intent of the believers. That intention of sacrifice can be made manifest in different ways and not just through a fetishized ritual slaughter of animals.
But then perhaps, the orthodox Muslims do have a point. To understand their point of view, we need to ask a fundamental question: what is it that we commemorate on this day? Islam lays claim to the grand narrative first developed by Judaism which involved the story of Abraham willing to sacrifice his son as per the command and wishes of Yehovah. For Muslims, Abraham becomes Ibrahim and Yehovah becomes Allah. Islam says that Ibrahim was a Muslim. And perhaps rightly so. Since Islam means submission, Ibrahim submitted to God in its entirety even to the extent that he had no qualms about sacrificing his own son. In tales recounted throughout the Muslim world, Ibrahim is hailed as the model Muslim who did not hesitate even once when God commanded him to sacrifice his only son. Of course we know the whole story: God replaces Ishmael with a ram and the son gets saved.
The story is essentially about absolute devotion to the wishes and commands of God. For an agnostic like me, it is very hard to digest what kind of a God would want to test his believer in such a fashion? It is also unfathomable what kind of a father would willingly agree to ritually murder his own son? So what is that we commemorate on the day of sacrifice? Just blind obedience to a God who is bent on proving that he alone is worthy of being worshipped?
True, God replaced Ishmael (or Isaac depending on whether you believe the Muslim or the Jewish tradition) by a ram, but then God himself says that he ‘ransomed’ Ishmael for the ram. In cultures where child sacrifice was rampant, the word ransom becomes problematic. It is true that in many places the same God admonishes people against sacrificing their sons and daughters. However, in this case the use of the word ransom indicates that God did not obliterate the concepts of child sacrifice altogether. Rather, the idea of child sacrifice remained the highest and noblest of all sacrifices. The ram does not negate this idea of human sacrifice; it just temporarily annuls that requirement.
More importantly perhaps, the Muslim story about Baqr Eid is a continuation of the earlier Jewish and Christian covenant with God where blood plays a very significant role. Within the Semitic tradition, it is only through blood that redemption becomes possible. The Torah is filled with passages where blood becomes important to save oneself from God’s wrath and where animal sacrifice was an important aspect of pleasing the God. And certainly, the same God would sacrifice his own son called Jesus to ‘save the humanity’. It is through the blood of Christ that humanity had to be redeemed. His blood had to be spilt in order to absolve men of their sins. And of course, it is through animal sacrifice that Muslims express their covenant with God during the Hajj. Through the chants of Labaik and the ritual slaughtering of animals, they are only expressing the continuity and importance of blood as a signifier. They have all the right to proclaim Abraham as their own, since it was Abraham who first understood and experienced that the covenant with God must be underwritten with blood; if need be, of his own son.
To come back to the post which I mentioned in the opening lines, I think both possibilities exist within the Islamic worldview. One can take Qurbani metaphorically and therefore the animal sacrifice can be replaced by any other sacrifice. But one can also take Qurbani literally and believe that there is no replacement for a covenant which was initially etched in blood. The whole point of the present article is to throw some questions and start a discussion rather than give any answers. Debates and disputations take a long time to settle. But in the interim, can we at least say that going to the market and buying an animal to be killed the next day cannot be called a sacrifice? Can we at least ensure that our children are not made to witness such brutality every year?
Arshad Alam is a columnist with NewAgeIslam.com
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