By Norm Phelps (Originally published in SouthAsia Magazine, September 2010)
Islam is a religion of compassion. The Qur’an and the Ahadith are suffused with calls to donate one’s wealth “to kinfolk, to orphans, to the destitute, to the traveler in need, and to beggars, and for the redemption of captives.” (Qur’an 2:176: All quotations from the Qur’an are from The Koran, translated by N. J. Dawood) Nor is Islamic compassion limited to other human beings. The Ahadith record numerous instances in which the Prophet (PBUH) insisted that the compassion of Muslims must protect all of God’s sentient creatures. The following are just two well-known examples:
The Prophet was asked if acts of charity even to animals were rewarded by God. He replied: "Yes, there is a reward for acts of charity to every beast alive."
When we stopped at a halt, we did not say our prayers [salat] until we had taken the burdens off our camels' backs and attended to their needs.
This last tells us that Muhammad regarded compassion to animals as a duty so important that even the obligatory prayers should be postponed for the purpose of preventing animals from suffering.
The Origins of Animal Sacrifice in Islam
In primitive religion, animal sacrifice was intended to win the favor of the gods by presenting them gifts they would enjoy. The Prophet rejected this polytheistic notion and taught that sacrifice could serve only two purposes. The first was to be an outward symbol of the worshipper’s inner submission to the will of God. The Qur’an is explicit about this:
Their flesh and blood does not reach God. It is your piety that reaches Him. (22:37)
The second purpose of sacrifice is to provide a means of performing charity. Thus, the meat from a sacrificed animal is traditionally divided into thirds, with one third kept by the sponsor of the sacrifice and his close family, one third given to more distant relatives and friends, and one third donated to the poor.
The Cruel Reality of Sacrifice
Although there are other occasions on which sacrifice is sometimes offered, in present-day Islam, sacrifice is most closely associated with Eid al-Adha, when multitudes of sheep and goats are slaughtered to mark the end of the Hajj.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of live sheep are shipped to Saudi Arabia, mostly from Australia, New Zealand, and Eastern Europe, to be slaughtered. The conditions in which they are raised on Western factory farms and transported in cramped, hot, filthy cargo ships are horrific. The concentration of more than two million pilgrims participating in the Hajj combined with the lack of refrigeration capacity adequate to preserve the enormous amount of meat coming available in a tightly compressed time-frame means that much of the meat spoils and is not all available for donation.
Al-Hafiz Basheer Ahmad Masri (1914-1992), a graduate of the prestigious University of the Punjab in Lahore, who also studied at the world-famous Al-Azhar University in Cairo and served as imam at the Shah Jahan Mosque in the United Kingdom, is one of several Muslim scholars who have raised concerns about the sacrifices of Eid al-Adha. They question whether the horrific conditions in which animals bound for Mecca are raised on Western factory farms and in which they are transported, as well as the inevitable wastage of meat, might mean that the sacrifices are not pure, even though the actual killing, taken by itself, may be performed entirely in accordance with dhabh. They point out that Islamic law requires that animals destined for slaughter be raised and transported humanely and killed with a minimum of fear and pain. And they suggest that under present conditions, this may not be possible. The inevitable wastage is also a concern. In his book Animal Welfare in Islam, Imam Masri goes so far as to say that, “After reading the Qur’anic version of sacrifice, there remains no doubt in one’s mind that any sacrifice that is allowed to go to waste is a sinful as well as a criminal violation of Islamic law.”
(Here, in the interests of fairness, I must point out that in my country, the United States, more than 27,000,000 animals are killed every day for secular reasons, such as food, leather, and fur—many times the number who are killed in Mecca for Eid al-Adha. The conditions in which these animals are raised, transported, and slaughtered are also horrific. It is my hope that religion can show us a better way.)
The Form and the Meaning
In the June, 2010 issue of SouthAsia (“Magnificent Jewels”), I suggested that true religion consists of a sacred core of spiritual truth supported by specific dogmas and rituals intended to make this truth accessible to worshippers. This core of spiritual truth, I suggested, has universal and unchanging value, while the dogmas and rituals have value only to the extent that they serve this supreme truth.
Applying this principle to animal sacrifice, the Ahadith make clear—especially the Hadith in which the Prophet refused to perform salat until the camels had been relieved of their burdens, fed, and watered—that compassion for animals is part of the core spiritual truth of Islam. Likewise, The Qur’an leaves no doubt that the actual, physical sacrifice of animals is not part of the core spiritual truth of Islam. Their flesh and blood does not reach God. It is your piety that reaches Him. Imam Masri points out that in every instance in the Qur’an in which sacrifice is discussed, it is treated as a means to provide charity. Muslims fulfill the meaning of the sacrifice by demonstrating piety in the form of charity, not by taking the life of an innocent animal.
In this spirit, Muslim scholars have pointed out that slaughtering an animal and donating the meat may have been the simplest and most useful way to perform charity in a desert community where protein was scarce and money little used. In the modern world, however, it would be simpler and more helpful to donate money, or perhaps community service, to help the poor. The poor today have many needs. Meat can at best serve only one; money can satisfy them all. By donating money to celebrate the Hajj, and on other appropriate occasions, Muslims can demonstrate submission to the will of God by performing charity in the way that will be of the greatest benefit to the recipients—and with no necessity to take the lives of blameless animals. Fulfilling the call of the Qur’an and the Ahadith, they will be showing compassion to all of God’s creatures, human and animal alike.
A Tibetan Buddhist, Norm Phelps is an American animal rights activist and the author of The Great Compassion: Buddhism and Animal Rights; The Dominion of Love: Animal Rights According to the Bible; and The Longest Struggle: Animal Advocacy from Pythagoras to PETA, all published in New York by Lantern Books.