Falling on the 10th day of the holy month of Dhu al-Hijjah, Eid is the “Festival of Sacrifice” and coincides with the Hajj pilgrimage from Medina to Mecca.
It honours Abraham’s willingness to slay his son Ishmael at Allah’s request, a supreme act of faith.
The prophet, distressed by the order, asked Ishmael what he should do and the boy advised him to follow through with the commandment. Satan tried to dissuade Abraham from slitting the boy’s throat but was driven away by the prophet pelting stones, an act recreated by pilgrims on the Hajj.
When Abraham held the blade to his son’s neck on Mount Arafat, the angel Gabriel appeared to prevent him from going through with it, saying he had already demonstrated his love for god. A goat was slaughtered in the boy’s stead.
Today, the same animal – or a sheep, cow or camel, depending on the region – is sacrificed in memory of the story.
The Qu’ran quotes the Prophet Muhammad as saying: “On the 10th of al-Hijjah, there is no better act in the view of Allah than shedding the blood. Hence you should offer it in good spirit.”
The point of the sacrifice is to kill something dear to man as an offering to the divine, as Abraham was prepared to do, serving as a reminder to followers of Islam not to become preoccupied by their possessions or lose sight of their spiritual compass.
As Allah says in the Qu’ran. “It is not their meat, nor their blood, that reaches god. It is their piety that reaches god.”
The sacrificed animal is cut into thirds: one portion is given to the impoverished, another to friends and relatives and the last retained and eaten by the family.
Carrying out this sunnah (Islamic custom or sacred duty), can be controversial in practice, however, particularly in relation to where it is undertaken.
In Egypt, the Cairo governor’s office is currently working to stop people from enacting the slaughter on the city’s streets on hygiene grounds, fearing the spread of disease through the discarded entrails and blood and the meat itself becoming tainted by exhaust fumes or close proximity to garbage.
City spokesman Khaled Mostafa described the sacrifice as “barbaric and unacceptable” as he introduced a strict prohibition, fining private citizens or vendors who kill animals in public at pop-up livestock markets 5,000 Egyptian pounds (£218), well above the average monthly wage, according to The New Straits Times.
In the UAE, slaughter must be carried out at accredited public abattoirs. Doing otherwise incurs a fine of 5,000 Emirati dirhams (£1,060).
Elsewhere, cities like Chittagong in Bangladesh have set aside temporary areas where the sacrifice can be carried out under tarpaulin canopies, employing 5,000 cleaners to ensure the zones remain sanitary.
In India, a further complicating factor in the slaughter of cattle for Eid is causing grave offence to Hindus, to whom the cow is a sacred beast. States like Jharkhand have issued orders telling all deputy police commissioners their officers must intervene to prevent the killing of cows in their districts.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation offers strict guidelines on the slaughter of animals, stressing it must be carried out in abattoirs, which in turn must be “situated away from residential areas” and calling for “a well-planned, well-executed and controlled cleaning and sanitation programme”.
Not all Muslims agree with the necessity of making the sacrifice. The Vegan Muslim Initiative, for one, campaigns against the practice, with co-founder Sammer Hakim branding it “highly irresponsible”.
To the majority though, the act is an important annual reassertion of the individual’s faith in Allah and a tradition dating back to the prophets that must be honoured.
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