Revisiting the Religious Practice of Eid al-Adha. Public Good Prioritized
Mohammed Hashas, LUISS University of Rome 18 October 2013

How much does the Eid add to one’s belief, worship, religiosity, understanding of God, and contribution to the world? Who gets more from my celebration of the Eid and who gets less? What exertion does the Eid have on one’s belief and liberty? Does its exertion have the same impact on Muslims and non-Muslims around the world? What does the Eid contribute to the world? How far does one’s liberty affect one’s perception of God and the world? Etc. On the day of the Eid, and on any religious celebration, the believer is supposed to raise alike questions to see how religious and how free one is in practicing this religion. Such questioning does not stop at the gates of Islamicity alone; it becomes more challenging when it is considered in a more globalized and pluralist world like the one we are living in this age.

Religion survives and outlives when its values keep abreast of world changes. Human rights, human dignity, and cosmic rights have to be seen in the light of the religious messages one holds. Judging certain religious rituals should go side by side with the judgments we have to bring on table while discussing world issues, at the top of which stands global justice. The liberty of human beings should incorporate religion in such challenging questions. There seems still a lot to be learnt from religion and religious festivities; believers are expected to understand their times and religiosity in a more reasonable, pluralist, and open manner, by being guided by the ethics of religion, and without losing the values it contains.

Various socio-economic and political circumstances that are ravaging the Arab-Islamic world require rethinking of the worldview that characterizes this world civilization. The questioning of the significance of the annual Islamic Eid al-Adha, in the light of public good, is part of this rethinking. Public good in the Islamic tradition has priority over individual interests. Based on this rule I present ten major arguments that defend the idea of doing without the religious practice of the sacrifice (slaughtering a sheep for example), without this leading to touching the core of the Eid and its religious meanings.

First, the sacrifice of Eid al-Adha is a confirmed sunna (sunna mu’akkada) and not an obligation. The sacrifice is not a pillar in Islam; it is a prophetic practice of purification and sign of trust in God. The sacrifice of the Eid is not the whole Eid. Prayers and remembrance of the significance of the day are more important.

Second, the Eid, besides the sacrifice, is also composed of communal prayers observed before midday, and only afterwards the sacrifice can be slaughtered and considered religiously acceptable. That is, the believer has a part of the ritual already observed by observing the collective prayer of the Eid, and thus his intention of remembering Abraham and Muhammad’s rituals cannot be denied. Communal prayers are more symbolic as a religious observance than a sacrifice. There are some who do sacrifice a sheep only because there is social pressure against not doing it; they may practice the ritual of sacrifice but avoid prayers, or not pray at all throughout the year, and maybe not practice other more obligatory pillars of Islam, like daily prayers and Ramadan, yet observe a non-obligatory practice like the sacrifice. The sacrifice here becomes a cultural aspect more than a religious one.

Third, intentions are always important in Islam. When a Muslim, for example, goes on the day of the Eid to pray, it is a clear sign that he does not aim at disrespecting religion or the Prophet, nor can it weaken the presence and visibility of religion among its believers; are they not gathered in the mosque by thousands to pray and remember the sacrifice and its teachings? They may not need to do the sacrifice to remember its significance, the way that Muslims do not need to show to God their belief by sacrificing one of their sons as Abraham was ready to do.

Fourth, some may say that not practicing the ritual endangers the presence of religion and weakens religiosity. While part of a ritual may disappear, its teachings cannot, because they are frequently invoked in Islamic books, Friday sermons, and the Eids sermons. Believers who think about the significance of their belief system, instead of just practicing it because it is an inherited custom, will always know how to protect it from disappearing, and will always adjust it to historical changes.

Fifth, the prophet used to sacrifice two rams annually, one for his own family and one for his umma, all Muslims, for all times. His act can be valid, for all times, the way his prayers for Muslims are considered valid for all times.

Sixth, in most Islamic countries, and also in few non-Muslim ones where the Muslims are a visible minority, the head of state or mufti of the state sacrifices a ram after the prayers of the Eid; this can then be taken to be enough as a symbol that the Muslim community has collectively remembered the ritual and sacrificed for it, and no need that every single family sacrifices a ram.

Seventh, it is true the sacrifice practice is already a public good; it is an occasion for the circulation of a lot of money among farmers and companies that invest in bringing up sheep for this occasion. It is also a public good since it provides jobs for people. That is why the idea here is not to abolish the ritual per se but to direct it to the most urgent needs of its practitioners. Religious scholars should help civil society organization and state institutions for a more utilitarian interpretation of religious practices chiefly in exceptional circumstances. While the public good is prioritized, the individual’s benefit from it remains immensely high, even when it appears that the individual’s right to the ritual is tramped on.

Eighth, in most of the Arab world in particular, hygienic conditions of practicing the sacrifice are absent. The public streets, gardens, and private houses become an abattoir during the Eid. While this has also become part of the ritual from cultural perspectives, hygienic milieus should be provided, by the state, for that reason. Seeing that most Arab states are dysfunctional when it comes to public services, it is then more religious –from Islamic ethics perspective- to provide more humane conditions of slaughtering the animal. If the state is weak to do that, one possibility of replacing such a lack of services is to collect parts of the expenses of this ritual practice and establish well organized and hygienic abattoirs that save time of work and reduce infections. For instance, civil society organizations concerned with the matter, along with state institutions, decide that this or that year, the money dedicated to the sacrifice will be collected to better the conditions for the future; or families may share in the purchase of a ram and donate the rest to the organization to build such abattoirs. (Notice that I am not dismissing the sacrifice rituals because it is against animal rights as some argue; if Islamic ethics are observed meticulously, enough answers would be found on that regard, too. Moreover, if ethical conditions are answered, there is no need to prevent believers from their religious practice that gives them serenity in life and peace with themselves and the world; can we ask people to stop celebrating the New Year’s Eve since it causes the damage of many trees? No, because environmental ethics is observed, and because the event gives joy to its observers, be they Christian observers or mere practitioners of the festivity.)

Ninth, most of the Arab-Islamic world has been going through very difficult socio-economic and political conditions, especially during the late civil wars that erupted with the so-called Arab Spring. Thousands have been killed, some millions have been displaced, and thousands have left their home countries in search for refugees. It is another human catastrophe that is added to the Palestinian case. As to the countries that did not experience civil war or violence, they do experience high increases in daily products and oil prices, which renders their lives difficult, sometimes terribly difficult. Even in such dire situations, believers among the masses do refuse to change their beliefs and religious practices, because it is the only thing they have left, after their states and the international community have left them to face violence, war, and poverty alone. Religion becomes their only solace. So, it becomes even more difficult to argue with them that they should leave aside parts of their religious practices. That is why, it is not these affected people that should be asked to modify or re-think their rituals, though it is also part of helping them spiritually and psychologically to inform them through acceptable religious channels in charge of that that not practicing such a ritual in such circumstances is not a sin or lack of respect of religion and God.

Tenth, as to Muslim minorities in the rest of the world, two short notes can be made here. One is that Muslim minorities in Africa and Asia have historically adjusted themselves to the local culture and no one considers them now a diaspora or “not in their land.” They have been there for centuries and they are home; so, their practice of Islam is considered normal, and not something new to these societies. For example, a Hindu or Buddhist will show no surprise in seeing a Muslim slaughtering a sheep on the Eid; on the contrary, you often see them celebrating together that day. But, and this makes point two, a Protestant in Germany, a Catholic in Spain, or an atheist citizen in Norway is broadly still finding it difficult to see such practices of a sacrifice practiced by a fellow neighbor. Muslims in liberal societies are a new phenomenon and the debate on that matter is still going on, which cannot be raised here. The point I want to make here is that Muslims in liberal societies are finding it very difficult to practice the sacrifice ritual because state laws, for hygienic reasons mainly, do not allow citizens to slaughter their sacrifices in public spaces or houses, though some Muslims, in small cities in Europe still do that, especially if they have their own garden not open to the public. What they most often do is that they resort to the public abattoirs and villages outside the city. It costs them extra time and extra money to have their own sacrifice ready. They accuse the liberal state of not taking care of their religious needs, since they are equal citizens and payers of taxes, and they should not pay extra money from their own pockets to find abattoirs outside the city. For them, this is not fair, and anti-Islamic. That is why they fear that if they leave such a practice, they risk that the liberal-secular state never cares about their religious identity and religious rights. For such a community that lives under such pressure, it is not easy to convince its believers that paying money as charity can replace the ritual of the sacrifice; their context, and the anti-religious or Islamophobic discourse that affects them on various levels, may go against their openness to any interpretation of the ritual. Still, if the nine points raised earlier are put on the table, the Muslim believer in the West will find it acceptable to rethink his religious practice and direct it to a more public good activity instead of imprisoning it in a defensive identity issue. Example of investing their sacrifice expenses for a common good is, one, to further invest in building abattoirs for such an occasion, or collect the money as donations for the refugees and asylum seekers that Europe is increasingly receiving.

* The first version of this piece, entitled “Lessons from Eid al-Adha – On Belief and Liberty,” was written on 06 November 2011.