Muslims, Animal Sacrifices and Racial Tension in Sri Lanka

Image from the BBC: Hajj 2011

It’s Hajj season again. From all over Sri Lanka, a few thousand fortunate Muslims have already left to perform the actual pilgrimage, a once in a lifetime obligation for those who can afford it, to join hundreds of thousands more in Mecca. The Hajj is the pilgrimage of Abraham and has been followed by the ‘people of the book’ ever since the time of that illustrious prophet, may peace and blessings be upon him.

But the time of Hajj is also especially significant to those who remain at their homes. According to Muslim belief; good deeds carried out in the first ten days of the month of Hajj bear great merit in the eyes of Allah.  Aside from fasting, charity and reflecting on the Quran; a special good deed carried out by Muslims is the Uduhiyyah or the Hajj sacrifice.

Racial tensions

In Sri Lanka where Muslims are a minority, the sudden influx of animal slaughter during Hajj has sometimes drawn the ire of Buddhists and attracted a lot of bad publicity over the years. This is especially significant now in a climate where certain political opportunists are spurring ethnic rivalrybetween Muslims and Sinhalese.

Here in Sri Lanka animals are killed on a daily basis for meat, and this goes largely uncontested. The majority of Buddhists also eat meat, though many abhor beef. The beef industry is largely monopolized by Muslims and has always been a target for elements seeking political gain.

Lately Sri Lanka has seen a range of anti Muslim activity. The Dambulla mosque attack is the most illustrative. And this has been followed up by pockets of unrest in various parts of the country evidently carried out under the leadership of certain members of the Buddhist clergy. Leading to speculation of a rise in ‘Buddhist extremism’ in Sri Lanka.

But to paraphrase Indi, the ‘beef with beef’ has long been an endearing locus of political opportunism. Notorious thug/politician Mervyn Silva for instance, famously demanded the closure of all beef stalls in his district last year, claiming they offended his Buddhist sensibilities (the same minister has no objection to liquor shops being open. In this case his religious sensibilities are overshadowed by the need to sustain a lucrative source of income). In the same year Silva was warned about creating trouble during the Hajj sacrifice.

Furor also rose in recent times in Sri Lanka over ritual sacrifice of animals in the Hindu Kovil of Munneswar, again led by the same minister, but backed by a faction of Buddhist clergy. The sacrifice was allowed to go ahead despite protests as the penal code in no way prevents the slaughter of animals in the country.

The issue to my mind is not the slaughter of animals per se, since by and large this seems to be OK. But the high sensitivity of the majority of Buddhists to graphic display of slaughter that can sometimes take place during Hajj, or other religious festivals that can be used by opportunistic forces to stir up trouble in the name of religion. And when Muslims themselves neglect to follow proper Islamic protocol in carrying out the sacrifice, the issue is only exacerbated.

Openly displaying the animal to be slaughtered, letting its dying cries be heard by neighbors and unhygienic disposal of waste matter is guaranteed to rub people up the wrong way. These practices are frowned upon in Islam in accordance with the Prophet Muhammad (May peace and blessings be upon him)’s example of respect for the faith and sentiments of non-Muslims. And of course hygiene is a central tenet of Islam (the Prophet said ‘cleanliness is one half of faith’). The above was highlighted in Friday sermons throughout the country on the Friday preceding Hajj, the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU), the country’s collective of Islamic scholars has a nose for this sort of thing.

To conclusively sort out the issue once and for all and immunize ourselves to forces trying to sabotage peace both Muslims and Sinhalese must try and understand where the other is coming from. Muslims must understand that religious obligations can still be fulfilled without hurting the feelings of non-Muslims, actually they are probably better fulfilled that way, and non-Muslims must understand the significance of the act and the importance Islam gives to animal rights. And not be led astray by misconceptions and political opportunists.

Animals in Islam

The Quran explicitly states that animals can be used for human benefit (Qur’an 40:79-80)* and it stresses equally that animals have their own lives and existences that must be respected and honored by man (Qur’an 6:38, 24:41). This may appear contradictory, but Islam teaches that all objects, from plants to stars, exist in submission to the will of Allah. And on Earth, man is the ‘vice-regent’ of Allah and can use the planet’s resources in accordance with Islamic law. This law is strict on preventing abuse however, and when it comes to animals prohibits overworking, overburdening and the infliction of cruelty on them and allows hunting only for the sake of food.

An animal that is to be killed for meat must be treated in kindness and given food and water; it is prohibited for instance, to sharpen a knife or to slaughter another animal in front of it. The knife must be as sharp as possible so as to make the death as quick and painless as possible. The meat sacrficed by Muslims does not go to waste, all of it is either given away or consumed.

Some accuse that the Islamic method of slaughtering animals is cruel. Actually, you’d be hard pressed to find a method of killing anything, even a tree, that someone somewhere will not call cruel. But that aside, the Islamic way is proven to be a humane and hygienic method of killing a beast. The cutting of the throat, windpipe and the blood vessels in the neck (the spinal cord is kept intact) prevents the flow of blood to the nerves that cause the sensation of pain in the brain (the animal struggles and writhes due to muscular contraction). All the blood is drained before the head is removed, blood being a medium for germs and bacteria. This ensures that the meat is clean and stays fresh far longer.

The significance of the Hajj sacrifice

The significance of the Hajj sacrifice is the commemoration and remembrance of the devotion of Abraham (may peace be upon him). In a divinely inspired dream, Abraham saw himself sacrificing his oldest son Ismail to Allah. When he told this to Ismail, Ismail asked him to obey the command and said that he would be patient with the will of God. But when the blade descended upon Ismail’s neck, it failed to cut; Allah did not take the life of Ismail, providing a ram to be sacrificed in his stead.

This act of complete submission on the part of Abraham is remembered by Muslims worldwide by sacrificing a lamb, cow or another suitable animal. They keep one third of the meat for themselves, give one third to neighbors and friends and the final third to the poor, ensuring that no one goes hungry during the feast of Eid-Ul-Adha, the Hajj festival.

The day starts with a congregational prayer in the mosque. Muslims celebrate by visiting family and friends, exchanging gifts and remembering and thanking Allah for His blessings. The sacrifice of an animal is purely a measure of faith, as the Qur’an says “it is not their meat nor their blood, that reaches Allah: it is your piety that reaches Him..”(22:37).

*Refer for the translation of verses

A version of this post was originally published in The Platform blog

  1. Johan said:

    Just out of curiosity, would a muslim vegetarian be frowned upon or thought to be committing a sin by not carrying out the sacrifice?

    • A Gaffoor said:

      Nope. A muslim can be vegetarian if he/she wishes to. Its that Allah has given the green light to consume certain animals meat and has forbade most.

  2. jen said:

    If a Muslim’s piety is what reaches Allah, then I’m sure there should be other ways of professing one’s piety other than carrying out animal sacrifices.

  3. Halik, The things I’m hearing from some Sinhala organizations against Muslims and Islam in Sri Lanka is scary. Why are these people doing these things?

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