As another Eid-ul-Adha arrives, the issue of mass animal sacrifice has once again become a point of debate among both Muslim vegans and non.
Some Muslims insist killing animals must be done to commemorate Prophet Abraham’s experience.
The story goes like this:
Prophet Abraham was told by God in a dream to sacrifice his son Ismael (Isaac according Christendom). So as he was about to do it, God at the last moment saved his son and replaced him with a sheep instead. So Abraham killed the ram and from that day forward, it is a tradition to do the same thing to commemorate his willingness to make such a difficult sacrifice.
Most Muslims believe this.
I’d like to explore the verses relating to this incident and offer perhaps another viewpoint that I feel is reasonable and in line with the rest of the Qu’ran.
Some Surprising Facts
First off, nowhere in the Qu’ran does God tell Abraham to sacrifice his son. Nor does the Qu’ran say Abraham’s vision is from God nor does it say God sent down a sheep or ram at the last minute (these were theories from several Muslim jurists; not explicit text). This is actually in another religious text known as the Bible:
Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you…” – Genesis 22:1-2
Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”
“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.
“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together. –Genesis 22:6-8
When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.” Genesis 22:9-14
Now here is the Qu’ran’s actual account:
And when he reached with him [the age of] exertion, he said, “O my son, indeed I have seen in a dream that I [must] sacrifice you, so see what you think” He said, “O my father, do as you are commanded. You will find me, if Allah wills, of the steadfast.” -Qu’ran 37:102
Okay here is a very critical difference:
The Bible states God commanded Abraham directly to sacrifice his son. The Qu’ran on the other hand states it was actually Abraham’s son (who was a boy at the time; estimated to be between 7-13 years old) that believed his father’s dream was a command from God.
There is absolutely no ambiguity here.
And when they had both submitted and he put him down upon his forehead, We called to him, “O Abraham, You have fulfilled the vision.” Indeed, We thus reward the doers of good. Indeed, this was the clear trial. And We ransomed him with a great sacrifice, And We left for him [favorable mention] among later generations. “Peace upon Abraham.” -Qu’ran 37:103-109
Furthermore, it is against God’s patterns in the Qu’ran to leave such a monumental matter to a dream; which of course is open to a wide range of interpretations.
Other important questions to consider: Does God violate His Own Law to test His servants? Would He actually command someone to execute their own son? Think about this for a second. Is this part of his infinite compassion and mercy? Does this even make sense and gel with a rational mind? Or is it more likely a human thought or inferred their dream was of divine origin?
But Aren’t The Dreams of Prophets True?
There is a widespread belief among many Muslims that the dreams/visions of Prophets are true and that they are as good as revelation from God. It never actually says this directly in the Qu’ran but it’s a popularized idea many Muslims uphold (myself included).
However, one must be consistent when applying this standard to the Qu’ran. We read:
Prophet Joseph also had this vivid dream and his miracle was he interpreted dreams accurately.
However, nobody will argue 11 stars, the sun and moon physically prostrated to him. We know from the story however, this was a symbolic premonition to what would follow about 40 years later when his 11 brothers, did indeed prostrate to him and he elevated his parents (sun and moon) to the throne. It doesn’t mean his dream wasn’t true; it means it manifest itself differently.
So if this dream was purely symbolic to Prophet Joseph who’s actual miracle was to interpret dreams; why shouldn’t we be open to the idea Prophet Abraham’s dream was as well?
So using this incident as “evidence” God commanding something is inconclusive and insufficient.
A Different Perspective
Now here is where I’d like to offer a slightly different perspective on the incident. I’d like to focus on the fact Abraham tells his son “I have seen in a dream” (manaam) and a few verses later, God states:
“O Abraham, You have fulfilled the vision. (ru’ya).”
Why does Allah (swt) refer to it as a vision and not dream; as Abraham did?
It is possible from the context, the meaning is “you have surely believed the vision” or “you really believed what you saw.”
So the entire verses can read like this (parenthesis my comments):
“And when he reached with him the age of exertion, he said, “O my son, indeed I have seen in a dream that I must sacrifice you, so see what you think” He said, “O my father, do as you are commanded. You will find me, if Allah wills, of the steadfast.” And when they had both submitted and he put him down upon his forehead, We called to him, “O Abraham, You have surely believed the vision.” (As in, he truly believed what he saw in his dream)
Indeed, We thus reward the doers of good. (The reward was for Prophet Abraham’s sincerity in what he truly believed was from God and his willingness to follow through despite the severe difficulty). Indeed, this was the clear trial. And We ransomed him with a great sacrifice, And We left for him [favorable mention] among later generations. “Peace upon Abraham.” -Qu’ran 37:102-109
What Exactly Was The “Great Sacrifice”?
Irrespective of the interpretation one follows (you certainly do not have to agree with mine), it’s important to delve even further to get an idea of where this animal sacrifice even comes into play.
So what is this referring to?
It was reported that Ibn `Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him, said, “A ram which had grazed in Paradise for forty years.
Then We ransomed him the one whom he had been commanded to sacrifice namely Ishmael or Isaac —two different opinions — with a mighty sacrifice; a mighty ram from Paradise the same one that Abel had offered as as sacrifice (which) Gabriel peace be upon him brought it and the lord Abraham sacrificed it as he cried Allāhu Akbar ‘God is Great’.
Now this is interesting.
If we go by these well known interpreters; then whatever was sacrificed wasn’t even an animal from this world! It was from the unseen realm. These tafaseer are widely accessible so I am unsure why this fact has been widely concealed from people.
So we know God rewarded Abraham with some type of animal from Paradise in exchange for his unyielding devotion to God. Why exactly are we mass slaughtering animals today?
Sacrificing In Context
So let’s bring this back to our time – where does any of this apply? Context is key and king here.
If we examine the whole notion of sacrificing an animal – this dates back well before Islam and well before the time of prophet Abraham.
Pre Islamic Pagan Arabs practiced this regularly by sacrificing to a wide array of gods to appease them, as did the Jews and Christians at the time by way of burnt offerings and such. The “lamb” of God being “sacrificed” is the obvious image that comes to mind.
Islam however never requires blood sacrifice.
Muslims themselves will debate with Christians and tell them God doesn’t need to kill his “son” to forgive sin, He can just forgive. Muslims will also quite rightly point out the concept of blood atonement is not from God’s tradition so there is no need for Jesus to be killed for Adam’s sin.
What Islam did come with instead is the idea of self struggle and personal sacrifice not blood sacrifice.
Their meat will not reach Allah , nor will their blood, but what reaches Him is piety from you… – Qu’ran 22:37
So the most important action here is not the killing itself but one’s intent to please God.
Justifying slaughtering billions of animals today on Eid because of what occurred with Abraham and his son or even because the Prophet Muhammad performed it during certain years is to ignore the historical context and how people at the time lived. People owned animals as a means of wealth as well as sustenance. So the Qu’ran dealt with sacrifice at that particular time for 7th century Arabian society and the relationship they had with their animals.
The meat was distributed to the poor and seen as a way of communal sharing and charity; not to atone for anything with a blood sacrifice like the Pagans and Christians.
Today, do we really need to mass kill billions of animals?
Does the survival of the poor depend on this? Absolutely not. I suggest we need to give from what is actually valuable to us in our day and age as we do not put any value in “livestock” animals.
Maybe that’s why we are so adamant on killing them because we are so detached from them affecting us personally. Which one of us can genuinely state they felt profound loss after killing a sheep?
Let’s be real – we don’t give a damn as we have been consuming them even though this is standard industry practice. Not so strict on the “Qu’ran and Sunnah” now, are we?
Today’s societies place value on many things: money, land, information, technology, etc. – not goats and sheep. So why aren’t we giving from what we really value like they did in the days of the Prophet?
If we want to be as firm on following the example of the Prophet as we are on other things; then give from what you love – not from something you have zero emotional attachment to.
I’ve argued previously the importance of a new fiqh for food. Now more than ever, we need it because part of this fiqh should clearly define what a poor person actually is since “poor” in 7th century Arabia is materially different than poor in the inner cities in the United States which is again very different form poor in Bangalore or Kinshasa.
Islam has grown by gigantic proportions since these verses were revealed and as such, there is a natural difference in socio-economic status based on where people are form.
As a result, what would adequately satisfy the poor needs to be thoroughly re-examined based on geographic areas. That is to say, meat in most parts of the developed world is not seen as a delicacy or something of value. So why should the “sacrifice” all be the same?
Also, add to the fact killing so many animals is literally destroying our planet which I went into great detail here.
These are all factors in concluding that animal sacrifice in or day and age is grossly misplaced and negligent. It does nothing to satisfy the original objective of udhiya – which is to feed the poor. If killing animals today is having the opposite effect of what udhiya intended (causing more human starvation) – then why do it?
Have a cruelty-free Eid this year and spare an animals life.
You will be rewarded for every act of kindness and compassion.