THE BLOG
11/10/2011 11:44 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Eïd al-Adha: The Significance of Ritual Sacrifice

Every time Eïd al-Adha rolls around I find myself having to explain the holiday to people who are not Muslims. I bring this up because an acquaintance of mine posted an extremely inflammatory picture of animal slaughter during this holiday and has inferred from it that Muslims are barbaric because of it. This is completely untrue.

Non-Muslims have little trouble accepting a holiday that commemorates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac as part of his covenant with God. This is part of the Abrahamic tradition. I am not a Muslim but I have participated as a guest in the rituals of Eid el-Kebir, as it is known in Morocco, and can attest that it is the single most important holiday in the Islamic world. It is a conglomeration of Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter all rolled into one. It is a celebration of joy and also an important occasion to reach out to one's neighbors to make sure that they too are fed.

In the week leading up to the holiday people purchase live sheep and keep them in unlikely places such as on rooftops, on terraces and in courtyards and wherever they have space. Sheep can be seen peeking out of the back of taxis, straddling bicycles and even on top of buses making their way toward their final destination. The build up to the big day is enormous. Families gather together from far and wide to celebrate the most sacred of days. At the appointed hour, the leader of the family takes a whetted blade in hand, turns the animal to face Mecca, speaks the ritual words: Bismillah, in the name of God. The blade is then swiftly drawn across the animal's throat. This death, while assuredly not painless, is often quicker than blasting a metal bolt into an animal's skull as is done here in western slaughterhouses. For westerners, especially Americans, the problem always comes around to the ritual slaughter of an animal. It is a practice that is wrongly vilified as barbaric by people who fail to realize its significance. Whether one is religious, agnostic or atheist, there is something of great importance in this ritual that we can all learn from.

The secular significance of the sacrifice

Aside from the religious basis of the holiday, it is also implicit in the celebration that eating meat means taking a life. In our everyday lives here in the west we are insulated from the fact that every mouthful of meat, fish or fowl requires that an animal die for our nourishment. This unsavory aspect of life is kept hidden and generally unthought of in our daily meals. Meat is purchased in sanitary little plastic wrapped packages that have absorbent pads under the meat to soak up any errant blood that might upset us. We are thus able to absolve ourselves from any personal responsibility for that animal's life and I think this is part of what allows us to ignore the deplorable conditions on our feedlots and in vast batteries of hens across America.

If you had to kill your own cow or chicken you would take much better care of it than a factory of mass production. An animal wallowing in its own filth is not appetizing in the least. It is this failure to take on responsibility that leads us to the factory system of food production that ends with mass poisonings from food borne illnesses such as E. coli and salmonella. Grinding one diseased cow with one hundred others allows thousands of people to get sick and die every year. But this failure to participate in an animal's slaughter does not, in fact, absolve us of responsibility. Any time you consume meat, fish or fowl, you are benefiting from that animal's death whether or not you accept it. To deny that responsibility is a failure of ethics and morals, whether you believe in God or not.

Our Covenant with the Animals

As a lifelong professional cook, I am mindful that countless animals give their lives for me to earn a living. When I was 21-years-old and fresh out of culinary school, I worked briefly for a Greek chef who raised sheep in Northeast Ohio. When he told me that he had to cull his herd I volunteered to help as I had never slaughtered an animal. That day I became personally responsible by wielding the blade myself. We slaughtered three sheep, skinned them and then butchered them into serving portions. Afterward, we took the pieces and distributed the meat to various friends and relations. Slaughtering an animal is not inherently beautiful or glorious but neither is it horrible if done with respect. All kosher meat is slaughtered in the same way and yet it draws no outrage from anyone. This is part of our covenant with animals: we are responsible for their proper husbandry and humane treatment. When we take their lives to put meat on our tables we should all share that responsibility. If you eat the meat that I cook, you are part of that animal's death, like it or not.

In biblical times this was understood as God's gift to Adam, that he made mankind the steward of the animal kingdom. In the modern, secular age this is still true but our actions are even more detrimental to the planet. We devastate the oceans with overfishing and kill dolphins in nets, raise cattle that must wade in their own feces while eating food that is not part of their natural diet, raise hens in vast batteries that rain their waste down on the heads of birds in the cages below them. The slaughter of these animals takes place behind closed doors and it is not bloodless and it is not painless. Whether or not you participate directly by wielding a blade, you are responsible for meat unless you are a vegan.

Judge not, that ye be not judged.
For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.

Matthew 7: 1-2

When you consider the matter of ritual sacrifice in the practice of Islam, do not judge it by the fact that blood is spilled. In the Western world, more blood is spilled every day to put more meat on every table than is, or ever has been, consumed anywhere else in the history of the world. In the celebration of Eïd al-Adha, the life of that animal is considered very precious and is treated with greater reverence than any hamburger ever eaten. When I sat down to eat the lamb during the Eïd al-Adha, I was mindful of what a great privilege the gift of meat is. I thank my Muslim friends for letting me share this holiday with them. It was truly a sacred meal. Eïd mubarak.