Do not sacrifice understanding

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Over the past few days, there have been a number of articles, including one in the Independent entitled: "British sheep sent to horrific killing ground", about animal sacrifice in France connected with the Muslim festival of "Eid Al-Adh-ha", which took place at the weekend. The pictures and descriptions were shocking and invite numerous misinterpretations of this important Islamic rite. I was shocked too and feel obliged to contribute a few words of clarification.

This rite, indeed the whole pilgrimage journey to Makkah, is designed to remember the devotion and faith of Abraham, the prophet and holy man, who was severely tested by the injunction to slaughter his only son. He succeeded in the test by submitting to the order, but divine mercy intervened at the last minute and he sacrificed a sheep instead of his only son.

This act symbolised the supremacy of humans above all beasts, in fact, above the rest of creation. It also amounted to a decree condemning and requiring an end to all practices of "human sacrifice" required and practiced in some pagan religions. All of this is tied up in the maxim: "Only submission to the divine order brings true freedom, success, and salvation."

A number of safeguards and rules have to be followed for this rite to fulfil its spiritual meaning. "The meat is not Halal if an animal is killed in the presence of another or if the knives are sharpened before them," said the Independent. I should like to add that it is positively forbidden for a Muslim to kill an animal under these circumstances. The animal may not be killed in front of others. The knife must be extra sharp. The animal must be relaxed at all times and watered and fed before the slaughter. It must not be allowed to even see the knife. Only a skilled person may sacrifice it. If any of these rules are not adhered to, then the sacrifice itself is sinful and illegitimate and bound to become a stupid, senseless act void of any spiritual meaning. It is also highly desirable in Islam to stun the animal first, if this is really more merciful and less painful.

The French government should have made sure that the slaughter which took place at the weekend was within this code of behaviour. In Britain, there seems to be no such problem with this rite, where just as many sheep were probably slaughtered at the weekend as in France. It is true that Muslims living in France ought to know and adhere to the strict caveats of their faith. But it takes time to educate people properly. It would be a great mistake to judge all Muslims by the errors that a few in France made at the weekend.

The writer is spokesman of the Committee for the Defence of Legitimate Rights.