The Ritual of Animal Sacrifice
Javed Ahmad Ghamidi
In all the ancient religions of the world, the ritual of animal sacrifice has remained a great means of attaining the nearness of the Almighty. Its essence is the same as that of the Zakah, but it is not to be regarded as analogous to wealth; it is essentially a vow of pledging one’s life and is fulfilled by the animal we sacrifice on behalf of our life. Seemingly, this is like presenting ourselves to death, but a little deliberation shows that this death is the door to real life. The Qur’an at one place says : ‘وَلاَ تَقُولُواْ لِمَنْ يُقْتَلُ فِي سَبيلِ اللّهِ أَمْوَاتٌ بَلْ أَحْيَاء وَلَكِن لاَّ تَشْعُرُونَ’ (And do not say that those slain in this cause of God are dead; [they are not dead; in fact] they are alive, but you are not aware of [the manner they live]. (2:154))
At one instance, the Qur’an by placing the prayer in comparison to life and the sacrifice in comparison to death has referred to this very aspect: just as the prayer is like life in the way of God, the sacrifice is like death in His way:
When Abraham (sws) was directed to sacrifice a ram in place of his son and to commemorate this great sacrifice make it a living tradition for the coming generations, the Almighty said: ‘وَ فَدَيْنَهُ بِذِبْحٍ عَظِيْم’ (And We ransomed Ishmael for a great sacrifice; (37:107)). The implication of these words was that the vow made by Abraham (sws) had been accepted by the Almighty and now generation after generation, people would commemorate this great incident by sacrificing animals.
Viewed thus, the sacrifice is the pinnacle of worship. When we make an animal stand or bow down1 in the direction of the Baytullah and also direct our own face towards the House of God and present the sacrificed animal as an offering to God by saying2: ‘بِسْمِ اللهِ وَ اللهُ اَكْبَرْ’, we are actually offering our ownselves to God.
This offering is the essence of Islam because the meaning of Islam is that one should surrender to God and submit his most prized possession – so much so, his own life – to Him.
A little deliberation shows that the sacrifice is a portrayal of this essence. When Abraham (sws) and his great son Ishmael presented themselves to God, the Qur’an called this submission as ‘Islam’: ‘فَلَمَّا أَسْلَمَا وَتَلَّهُ لِلْجَبِينِ (103:37)’ (Then when both of them submitted and the father made his son lie on his temples; (37:103)). It is worth noting that in the above quoted verses of Surah Hajj the words ‘فَلَهُ أَسْلِمُوا وَبَشِّرِ الْمُخْبِتِينَ’ very aptly point to this essence. The implication is that if our hearts are bowed down before our God then we should submit ourselves to Him because our God is one God. This is the very essence of sacrifice and the Almighty has made it part of the Shari‘ah so that people can especially express their gratitude to Him; therefore, no one should associate partners with Him.
History of the Sacrifice
The history of sacrifice begins with Adam (sws). According to the Qur’an, when two of his sons, Abel and Cain, presented their offerings to the Almighty, one of them was accepted and the other was not (27:5) :‘إذْ قَرَّبَا قُرْبَاً فَتُقُبِّلَ مِنْ اَحَدِهِمَا وَ لَمْ يُتَقَبَّلْ مِنَ الَآخَر’. It is explicitly mentioned in the Bible that Able on this occasion had offered the sacrifice of the first born of his goats:
This practice quite evidently must have continued later also. Consequently, there exist signs and remnants in all ancient religions which corroborate this fact. However, the way this worship ritual has increased in its importance, grandeur and scope after the sacrifice of Abraham (sws), it has become unprecedented. The details of the sacrifice offered by him are as follows:
When he migrated from his people thinking that there was no hope for them to accept faith, he prayed to God to bless him with virtuous children. This prayer was accepted and the Almighty gave him glad tidings of the birth of a son. Ishmael (sws) was this son. According to the Qur’an, when he grew up and started to run and walk about his father, Abraham (sws) saw a dream in which he was being directed to sacrifice his son to the Almighty. Although this directive was given in a dream and dreams need to be interpreted – and the interpretation of such a dream was that he should devote his son to the Almighty for the service of the House of God and it did not certainly mean that he was required to slaughter his son – this mighty and virtuous servant of God decided to follow the dream without interpreting what it implied. The first step he took in the implementation of this directive was that he informed his son of this dream in order to test his mettle and resolve. The son deeming it to be the directive of the Almighty immediately told his father to comply with it without any hesitation and attested that he was fully ready and prepared for the step. Being satisfied with the answer of the son, Abraham (sws) took him to the hill of Marwah and made him lie down on his temples so that he could be sacrificed. He was about to slit his throat with a knife when a voice spoke to him: ‘O Abraham! You have made your dream come true; this was a great trial and you have succeeded in it; no need to proceed now’. Consequently, the Almighty ransomed Ishmael for the sacrifice of a ram and to commemorate this incident the ritual of sacrifice was instituted as a great tradition to be carried out on the same day each year. It is this sacrifice that we offer with fervour and enthusiasm on the occasions of the Hajj and ‘Umrah and on the ‘Id of Al-Adha. The Qur’an says:
The Objective of Sacrifice
The objective of sacrifice is to express gratitude to the Almighty. When we offer our life symbolically to the Almighty by offering the sacrifice of an animal, we are in fact expressing our gratitude on the guidance of submission which was expressed by Abraham (sws) by sacrificing his only son. On this occasion, the words uttered to declare the exaltedness and oneness of the Almighty are done so for this very objective. The Qur’an has explained this directive in the following words:
The Shari‘ah regarding Animal Sacrifice
The Shari‘ah regarding animal sacrifice that has reached us through the consensus and perpetual practice of the Ummah can be stated thus:
1. All four legged animals which are cattle can be sacrificed.
2. Sacrificed animals should not be flawed and should be of appropriate age.
3. The time of animal sacrifice begins after offering the ‘Id prayer on the 10th of Dhu Al-Hajj (Yawm Al-Nahr)
4. The days fixed for animal sacrifice are the same as have been appointed for the stay at Mina once the pilgrims return from Muzdalifah. In Surah Hajj, the words ‘أَيَّامٍ مَّعْلُومَاتٍ’ (some appointed days (22:28)) allude to these very days. In religious parlance, they are called ‘The Days of Tashriq’. Besides animal sacrifice in these days, one is also required to declare the ‘Takbir’ at the end of each congregational prayer. Being an absolute directive, the words of the ‘Takbir’ have not been fixed.
5. The meat of sacrificed animals can also be eaten without any hesitation by those have had them slaughtered and can also be used to feed others. The words: ‘فَكُلُوا مِنْهَا وَأَطْعِمُوا الْقَانِعَ الْمُعْتَرَّ’ (So eat from it your selves and also feed those who are content and those who ask (22:37)) explicitly point to this conclusion.
This is the Shari‘ah of animal sacrifice. The Prophet (sws) has also explained some of its aspects:
i. Animals should be sacrificed in all circumstances after the ‘Id prayer. It will not be regarded as the sacrifice of ‘Id if it is offered before the ‘Id prayer; it will be a mere animal sacrifice that one may offer to eat meet.3
ii. The appropriate age for a sacrificed sheep or goat is at least one year, for that of a cow, it is at least two years and for camels, male or female, it is at least five years. If these animals are not available, a ram can be sacrificed. It will suffice even if it is six months old.4
iii. More than one people can share the sacrifice of camels and cows. These share holders can even go up to seven. There are some narratives which mention that at one instance in the presence of the Prophet (sws), ten people shared one camel for sacrifice and he did not stop them.5
iv. Animal sacrifice can also be offered as an optional act of worship other than on ‘Id. Consequently, when people asked about the ‘Aqiqah, the Prophet (sws) replied: ‘Anyone who wants to offer an animal for sacrifice on the birth of a child can do so’.6
(Translated by Shehzad Saleem from Ghamidi’s ‘Qanun i ‘Ibadat’)
1. In case of Nahar, the animal is made to stand and in case of Dhibh we lay it in the direction of the Baytullah.
2. Bukhari, No: 5565 / Muslim, No: 1966
3. Bukhari, Nos: 951, 954, 985 / Muslim, Nos: 960, 1961, 1962
4. Muslim, No: 1963 / Abu Da’ud, No: 2799
5. Abu Da’ud, No: 2808 / Tirmadhi, No: 1501
6. Mu’atta’, No: 1066