Muslims celebrated Eid al-Adha on September 12, in a gruesome four day festival that was marked by the ritual slaughter of animals, mostly cattle, camels, sheep and goats. Millions of animals were killed world wide in the Festival of Sacrifice in obedience to Allah.
On the 10th day of Dhu al-Hijjah of the Islamic calendar, Muslims begin the slaughter of animals in homage to Ibrahim (Abraham) who was commanded by god to kill his son Ishmael. It is written in the Quran that Allah (God) sent a ram instead, thus sparing Ishmael’s life. The meat of sacrificed animal is then shared among family, relatives, neighbors, and the poor. Eid al-Adha is a symbol of Ibrahim’s willingness to please God.
During the time of Abraham, human sacrifice was common practice in the many Middle East belief systems. When monotheism became the chief religion of the Hebrew people, human sacrifice was forbidden and replaced by the ritual slaughter of animals. Animal sacrifice was widely practiced in the region, and while the Jews had stopped sacrificing animals in 70 CE, Muslims have continued.
Unlike Hinduism, Islam does not actively promote vegetarianism, yet it is not cavalier about the killing of animals, and there are strict guidelines for taking the life of an animal. Although the Prophet Mohammad’s views on vegetarianism are contradictory, he does praise people who are compassionate to animals and nature. The Koran is implicit that the sacrifice must be halal, which includes cutting the animal’s throat quickly with a sharp knife, allowing the animal to bleed out quickly. Also, the intended victim must not be slaughtered in the presence of other animals.
This is not the situation in practice, and by the time animals reach the slaughter area, they are terrified. Sacrifice animals are often treated horribly, bellowing and bleating loudly, and thrashing about wildly as they are dragged to be butchered. Daggers are poked in the throat or the throat is slit, and the animal bleeds out. People can be callous and the animal can die a prolonged, agonizing death. Often sacrifice animals are slaughtered in the open, creating a gruesome public spectacle and causing distress to the small yet increasing number o of vegetarians and vegans in Muslim communities.
Eid al-Adha marks the end of Hajj and is celebrated on different days each year because Muslims use the lunar calendar. Bakr-Eid is calculated to place on September 1 next year. About 2 million pilgrims visit Mecca at the height of the Hajj. Eid al Adha is viewed by Muslims as the most important festival in the Islamic Calendar. Eid al-Fitr is of lesser status and does not involve the killing of animals. Vegetarian Muslims feel intense pressure to take part in animal sacrifices.
The Koran has several verses concerning the welfare of animals, and vegetarian and vegan Muslims use these to call for the slaughter of animals during Eid al-Adha to be suspended or stopped permanently. But Islam is a very conservative religion in some respects, and it is highly unlikely that animal sacrifice will be abandoned.
Many Muslims view any discussion of vegetarianism and animal rights as heresy and a challenge to Islam. Yet there is a long history of vegetarianism in Islam, particularly among the mystic Sufi orders. The 8th century Sufi mystic Rabia al-Basri avoided eating meat. The 9th century Qarmatians of eastern Arabia and Bahrain were committed vegetarians.
There is a growing awareness in the Muslim community that a meat-free lifestyle does not have to conflict with their Islamic beliefs. The Prophet Mohammad would go for months without eating meat and didn’t actively seek it out. He ate meat but only when available or offered.
Photo of a sheep in the long grass by Michael Palmer and used under Creative Commons license.