By David E Miller
But with sheep prices rising, many Muslims are eschewing meat this year.
Eid Al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice, now being celebrated across the Muslim world, is a joyous time of year for believers worldwide. However, for Muslim vegetarians the holiday spirit bears somber overtones.
Arab slaughterhouses overflowed with sheep-toting Muslims on Tuesday, the first day of Eid, when people not only celebrate by eating meat but must purchase an approved animal for sacrifice, such as a cow, camel, sheep or goat.
"I don’t like seeing people eat tons of meat during the holiday," Arwa Aburawa, a vegetarian Muslim blogger from Jordan now living in Manchester told The Media Line. "Eating meat is a personal choice, which I respect, but you don't have to overdo it."
The holiday commemorates the willingness of the Biblical Abraham to slaughter his son (in the Jewish and Christian tradition, Isaac; in the Muslim tradition, Ishmael) for the sake of God. Eid Al-Adha, also known as "the greater Eid," is celebrated on the 10th day of the last Islamic month of the year. In the Islamic narrative, God appeared to Abraham in a dream, commanding him to sacrifice his only son. With Ishmael under the knife, God called out to Abraham and told him he had passed the test, substituting his son with a ram which Abraham then sacrificed.
In the tiny emirate of Abu-Dhabi, some 150 butchers augmented the regular staff of the slaughterhouses to deal with nearly 4,000 animals. Muhammad Al-Marzouqi, head of the slaughterhouse department in Abu-Dhabi's Health Ministry told the Emirati daily Al-Itihad that about 15,000 animals were due to be slaughtered during the 4 day long holiday.
In Israel, where about 20% of the population is Muslim, an appliance store offered a free sheep with every purchase of a refrigerator and had the animals gathered in a parking lot for the customer to choose from until health authorities put a stop to it. The mass killing of sheep has aroused the ire of animal right activists in Australia, which this year supplied 800,000 sheep worth $92 million to the Gulf.
Visiting Kuwait and Bahrain, activists captured pictures of Australian sheep jammed into car trunks and having their throats cut. Campaigners hoped this will create public pressure back home and bring an end the exports, the Australian Associated Press reported Wednesday.
Aburawa said that at first many of her Muslim friends questioned whether she could be both Muslim and vegetarian, but they became more accepting when she explained herself.
Aburawa emphasized that she tries not to preach vegetarianism, but rather encourage Muslims to consume meat in moderation, preferably from organic sources. She added that Muslims living in the Middle East generally show less understanding to vegetarians than those living in the West.
"When I became a vegetarian eight years ago, my family in Jordan didn’t understand what it was all about," she said. "But, over the years they got over it."
The meat sacrificed on Eid Al-Adha is traditionally divided three ways between family members, friends and the poor.
Islamic fatwas (legal opinions) tolerate vegetarianism, but do not usually encourage it. "A Muslim may be a vegetarian," South African Mufti Ebrahim Desai is quoted as ruling on IslamicConcern.com, a website advocating Islamic vegetarianism. "However, he should not regard eating meat as prohibited."
Liberal clerics, such as American scholar Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, point to Islamic oral traditions to justify vegetarianism.
"Traditionally Muslims were semi-vegetarians," Yusuf claimed in religious audio tape. "Umar [the second Muslim Caliph] said: 'Beware of meat, because it has an addiction like the addiction of wine'."
But overt expressions of vegetarianism are rare in the Arab world. In an incident which sparked international media interest, a young Jordanian woman took to the streets of Amman last July wearing a suit made of lettuce leaves while holding an Arabic sign that read "let vegetarianism grow on you."
Muhannad Anati, a Jerusalem resident, said he didn't personally know any Muslim vegetarians.
"We Muslims don't practice vegetarianism as people know it in the West," he told The Media Line.
But where principles don’t weigh in, prices often do. The soaring price of meat this year has pushed many Muslims to forced vegetarianism this year. "I’m spending the holiday at my parents' home," he said, "and they ordered in vegetarian pizza."