The Muslim Festival of Sacrifice: Origin, Evolution and Purpose

By: Syed Sharfuddin

Every year, 2.1 billion Muslims in the world, including 3 million Muslims who travel to Saudi Arabia for performing the pilgrimage (Hajj) celebrate the festival of sacrifice ( Eid ul Adha) on the 10th day of the Islamic month of DulHajj with great enthusiasm and fanfare involving family and friends. Gifts are exchanged, homes are visited and good food is eaten and shared. Women decorate their hands and feet with Henna patterns and wear jewellery and colourful dresses. An important part of the celebration includes a hearty breakfast following the morning Eid prayer which includes fried liver and full fat kidneys from the freshly slaughtered sheep or cow in the re-enactment of the centuries old act of sacrifice by Prophet Abraham and his son Ismail to Allah, which was also observed by Prophet Muhammad, may Allah bless him and preserve him, consecutively for ten years since his migration to Madinah from Makkah.

An Imam at a large sports-ground or exhibition centre or a mosque leads the morning Eid prayer followed by a short talk (Eid Khutba) on the significance of Qurbani. The earning members of every Muslim household perform the animal sacrifice (Qurbani) without requiring the services local Imam or religious authority.

“Qurbani is not associated solely with Hajj; it is Wajib (recommended) for all Muslims of means, men and women, in the three days (10-12) of DulHajj.”

Qurbani in History
The ritual of Qurbani (animal sacrifice) in Islam is a carryover from the past faiths and cultural practices going as far back as the Stone Age.

The early man had many things to fear, the foremost of which was illness and death. Animal sacrifice was therefore invented as a means to please the gods who enjoyed a powerful position in the heavens and were above humans in the order of universe. The act of sacrifice consisted of slaughtering a healthy and mature animal and dousing its blood at the altar of the temple, burning its fat on the altar and eating its meat as a symbol of the acceptance of sacrifice. [Surah Al- Maida, Chapter 5: Verse 27]. However, from the earliest times known to man, blood sacrifice became one of the most pervasive acts of human history.

In the Stone Age, animal sacrifice served many purposes: it enabled hunter-gatherers to coexist with one another by keeping their killer instinct focused on animal sacrifice instead of slaughtering humans on the altars; to establish peace and organisation in their groups; and to please the gods who provided an answer to the inexplicable forces of nature such as illness, scarcity of hun and death. Animal sacrifice also served the purpose of bringing humans and gods together. However, this is not to say that the dark forces of nature were not at work in that age which included cannibalism, human sacrifice and infanticide to please the deities, evidence of which is found in later centuries in some civilisations.

The sacrificial animals were domestic (not wild) and they usually had horns and complete hoofs. The horn was a symbol of crescent, which bore a relationship between the earthly animal and the deity living up in the heavens. Blood and meat was an important part of the sacrifice and was considered a harbinger of blessings, health and prosperity.

Qurbani in Greek and Roman Civilisations
Animal sacrifice was also an important part of the ancient Greek and Roman religions. In Greek and Roman civilisations, sacrifice increased family bonds and reinforced relationships within family and clan. Many households in the wealthy cities of Athens and Ionia offered sacrifice on social occasions such as coming of age for boys and girls and on citizenship ceremonies. Marriages and funerals also had their parallel public sacrifices.

Animal sacrifice and festivals also had a political angle. Sacrifice resulted in establishing a power hierarchy in society. Wealthy citizens often sponsored sacrifices for groups within the city or even for the city as a whole. These events brought great power and prestige to the sponsors. These power relationships within the city were often played out in the arena of sacrifice. The most powerful and prestigious families could give more. Shirking this responsibility, or giving a small offering meant shame for the giver and his family.

In 3rd century BC, there were temples in ancient Greece and Rome, which were dedicated to various gods. People offered sacrifice to fulfil their needs. For instance, at the temple of Asclepius, worshippers offered animal sacrifice seeking health and long life. The god Asclepius would appear in a dream and prescribe a cure to those who slept in the temple. People also came from all over the Mediterranean to the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi to pose questions to the priestess of Pythia and to offer sacrifice. The entire Delphic economy was based on income from these pilgrims who bought sacrificial animals and meat for the Oracle.

Qurbani in Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egypt was extremely polytheistic. A complex variety of gods and goddesses were worshipped in the land. These gods personified the diverse forces of nature such as storms, floods, fire and famine, and were represented in animal and human forms. The Egyptian Pharaohs were considered both as human rulers and divine beings. High Priests controlled temples where they led the worship and exercised considerable influence on the King as they alone could speak to the gods and intercede between the gods and the king. High Priests also decided how to dispose of the food and animal sacrifices and offerings made at different altars.

Qurbani in Babylon
Babylon had a lot of influence on the surrounding nations of the biblical times. It had a well-developed culture with all attendant aspects, of which religion was of supreme importance. There was a striking resemblance between the culture of Babylon and the later Judeo-Christian faith. There was elaborate worship of different divinities in Babylon. Sacrifices of animals and fowls at the temples were common, presided over by priests of the respective cults. It was their duty to offer sacrifices as part of worship on behalf of the worshipper, sometimes retaining portions of the sacrifices for their own use and upkeep.

Qurbani in Canaan
So far we have talked about animal sacrifice. But we also find in history sacrifice of infants, children and humans to seek the pleasure of the gods. In the polytheistic Canaanite culture the sacrifice of young children was offered to Chemosh, the god of the Moabites and Molech, the god of the Ammorites. The sacrifice of the first-born was considered to be the most efficacious since it was considered the best and dearest to the gods. Being an agricultural land, the religion of ancient Canaan was dominated by a plethora of sacrifices and offerings related to the months and seasons of the year.

Qurbani in Africa
Medieval African culture was a complex web of relationships both on the vertical (man to god) and horizontal (man to man) levels. The life of humans was viewed as intertwined and based on the hierarchy of supernatural world. The visible natural world was conceived as a duplicate of the invisible supernatural world. The interrelationship between these spheres of existence was much more a matter of experience, and required no division between the material and spiritual worlds. Even without being influenced by cultural or religious ideas, African faiths rested on the firm belief in the meeting of the two worlds of existence that cannot be objectively identified and analysed, nor defined in terms of life and being.

Blood sacrifice in African communities formed a very important aspect of religious worship and practice. But unlike sacrifice in other faiths, which offered the best of the living to the immortal gods, African sacrifice was used to recall the spirits of the good to overcome the spirits of the evil. The African priest was a combination of a wise man and a witch doctor.

Qurbani in Eastern Religions
In Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism, offering human or animal sacrifice is not mentioned in the religious literature, nor observed in the religious practice of their followers. Hinduism still retains offerings to the deities as a strong component of worship. However, certain cults within these faiths have practiced animal sacrifice to seek favour with the deities. In Hindu Nepal, until 2015 AD, large-scale slaughter of animals including buffaloes, pigs, goats, chickens, and pigeons took place every 5 years for the festival of Gadhimai, the goddess of power at the Temple of Bariyarpur near Kathmandu.

Qurbani in Judaism
Animal sacrifice was offered by the Jews throughout the period of the First and Second Temple. According to Hebrew Bible (Genesis.22, Exodus 29 and Psalms 69), Yahweh told Abraham to sacrifice his only and one child, Isaac. When Abraham complied and proceeded to slaughter his beloved son, Yahweh accepted it and substituted it with a ram. In commemoration of this act, every year on the eve of Passover, Jewish households took their baby goats to the Temple Mount for sacrifice by the Temple priests. The blood of the sacrificed goats was carefully collected and doused at the altar. The innards were removed from the carcass and burnt at the altar. The meat was returned to the families for eating in the festivities that followed.

After the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 AD, the then religious leader of the Jews, Rabban Gamaliel II decreed that Jewish families should continue the sacrifice in their family homes on the eve of Passover. But over a period of time there was opposition to his advice. His opponents decreed that sacrifice could only be performed by the priests at the Temple Mount and since the Temple had been destroyed, the sacrifice should be postponed until the return of the Messiah when the Temple will be rebuilt.

Modern Jews have stopped the practice of sacrificing baby goats and sheep in their homes on Passover. Reform Judaism modified laws pertaining to sacrifice as mentioned in Exodus 13:12 and 24:20 and Numbers (3:11-13, 40-45) whereby human sacrifices became unacceptable to Yahweh. The Conservative Prayer Book retained references to the system of sacrifice but substituted the words: ‘we will offer’ with the words: ‘our forefathers offered’. However, some evangelical Jews in Israel who believe that the Messiah’s coming is very near, still observe the ritual of baby goat sacrifice on the eve of Passover in several places defying the Government ban.

Qurbani in Christianity
Christianity as we know it today did not begin in first century Judea. The Bible is a collection of 66 separate Books and Letters, written over a period of 1500 years after Christ. It is divided into the Old Testament (the first 39 Books) and the New Testament (the last 27 Books). While there is mention of Abraham’s sacrifice in the Books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Psalms, there is no mention of animal sacrifice in the Books of the New Testament. In fact, in the Christian dogma, the act of sacrifice has entered a new phase where instead of humanity offering sacrifice to seek the pleasure of God or obtain His forgiveness, God Himself sacrifices His ‘son’ (naoozobillah) to save humanity.

There are still a few Catholics, Greek Orthodox and other Christians in Israel who observe animal sacrifice each year in the towns of Lodd, Jaffa, al-Khadar and parts of Jerusalem in the Holy Land.

“The blood or meat of the sacrificed animal does not reach God. What reaches Him is the fear of Allah behind such act.”

Qurbani in Islam
Islam retained animal sacrifice but changed its focus. Animal sacrifice in Islam confirms the Biblical teaching that God alone has the power to give life and take it away. If man uses meat as part of his daily food, he must take the name of Lord at the time of slaughter (the Halal method). It also follows therefore that man must sacrifice a healthy and good looking cattle with grown up horns and perfect hoof once a year in the name of the Lord.

While the Hajj is made obligatory only for those who can afford to perform it, animal sacrifice is not left to the rich alone. By making animal sacrifice Wajib (almost obligatory) for its followers, Islam negates building a social hierarchy on the basis of wealth in favour of egalitarianism and democracy.

The ram that replaced Abraham’s son in the supreme act of sacrifice (in Islam it was Abraham’s first born son Ismael, not Issac) symbolises the sanctity of human life. Human blood cannot be shed irrespective of the cause, except in self-defence. [Surah As-Saffat, Chapter 37: Verses 99-111]

Sacrifice is an act of worship in which Allah requires no intermediaries, such as a Temple or Priest. It is a direct action of man toward God who promises a reward for this worship equal to the millions of fibre or hair on the hide of the cattle. Zayd lbne Arqam , may Allah be pleased with him, relates that the Companions asked the Prophet, may Allah bless him and preserve him, ” What is Qurbani?” He replied, “It is the sunnah of your father lbraheem.” They asked again, “What benefit do we get from it?” He answered, “A reward for every hair (of the sacrificed animal).” “And (what reward is there for animals with) wool”, they asked. “A reward”, he said, “for every fibre of the wool.”,(Ibne Majah)

In Islam it is not the blood or meat which reaches Allah; it is their piety which reaches the Lord. [Surah Al-Hajj, Chapter 22: Verse 37]. This underlines a fundamental departure in Islam from the earlier concepts of sacrifice on the altars of gods, which is: Allah asks you not for provisions; He provides provisions for you, and the [best] outcome is for [those of] righteousness. [Surah Al-Taha, Chapter 20: Verse 132].

According to a Hadith of Tirmidhi, the Prophet, may Allah bless him and preserve him, used to give two Qurbanis, one for himself and one on behalf of the Ummah. He also advised Ali, may Allah be pleased with him, to continue Qurbani and also give one on behalf of the Prophet.

The cattle permissible for Qurbani are ram, goat, sheep, cow, camel and buffalo. These should be of a certain age when their front 2 teeth have fully grown up (each cattle has its own maturity age). Sheep can grow up fully between 6 to 12 months; goats take 2 years, cows 3 years and camels 5 years. The animal selected for Qurbani should not be injured, blind, sick, handicapped, or have torn or capped ears or horn. A cattle which has a small tear in the ear or a minor injury to the horn or has no horns at all, is allowed for Qurbani.

The blood of the Qurbani animal is impure and must be discarded. Meat can be used for feeding the poor and can also be used for eating by the family. Normally the meat distribution is: one-third for the poor, one-third for neighbours and friends and the one-third for family and relations. The Quran has already provided guidance about spending the best things Allah has given for the poor in Surah Al-Baqarah “O you who have believed, spend from the good things which you have earned and from that which We (Allah) have produced for you from the earth. And do not aim toward the defective therefrom, spending (from that) while you would not take it (yourself) except with closed eyes. And know that Allah is free of need and is Praiseworthy.” [Chapter 2: Verse 267]. On such occasions, ladies of the house are tempted to keep the best meat for the family and give away to the poor less attractive portions such as feet, head, under belly meat, ribs and other meat which is considered B grade for eating purposes. This should be avoided. If a person wants to give the entire cattle to the poor after sacrifice, it is allowed.

It is important not to make the animal an object of reverence or worship by touching its back and assuming that it will bring blessings. Celebrating Eid with decorating the house with embellishments, wearing new dress, wearing perfume and hosting dinners or barbecues is allowed but none of this brings as much reward and pleasure as feeding or clothing a poor family on Eid day.

The budget for Qurbani should include a reasonable amount for the cost of the cattle, transportation, grass or hey charges, cleaning and security expenses, if any, and slaughter costs. It is not recommended to settle with the butcher a portion of the meat or hide of the animal in lieu of slaughter costs. Often people donate the hide to a Madrasa or local charity but it is also permissible to use it for own use after treating it professionally. People forget that the butcher too is a poor man who deserves a share in the Qurbani meat. If your butcher has not done a Qurbani of his own, please remember to include him in your distribution list.

Challenges to Qurbani
Qurbani is facing many challenges from modernisation and from animal welfare groups, as well as liberal intellectuals in Islam.

Our detachment with nature is making the act of Qurbani more of a virtual worship than real in our times. You don’t need to do anything except press a few buttons on your mobile phone and your Qurbani is done somewhere by someone on your behalf. This pastoral detachment is dangerous in so far as it carries the potential of boredom and redundancy by the passage of time, having no meaning or substance in the lives of believers. Industrialisation of abattoirs further contribute to this alienation. Vegetarian and animal protection movements are also squeezing space for Qurbani givers making it difficult to participate in Qurbani in a sanitary and health conscious society.

“Our detachment with nature is making the act of Qurbani virtual instead of real.”

The argument: “teach someone how to catch fish instead of feeding him fish” is beginning to be used by a small minority of non-practicing Muslims for ‘reforming’ Qurbani. They don’t mind buying latest generation iPhones for their own use, but their objections to Qurbani which costs half the price they have paid for their cell phone or a forthcoming holiday to Majorca remain noisy. Questions are asked by liberal Muslims as to why can’t Qurbani money be donated for livelihood projects or to a charity for feeding the poor in a more sustained manner instead of feeding the Qurbani meat only for a couple of days. There is also some disinformation that Qurbani is obligatory for those who have gone to Makkah for Hajj but is not Wajib for those who are not on pilgrimage.

We live in a time when most of our private life is laid out on Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook. Care should be exercised in making sure that our Qurbani photos and videos remain within the close family and do not become a social competition on the internet to impress colleagues and friends. Qurbani is a special worship solely to seek the pleasure of Allah. [Surah Al-Baqarah, Chapter 2: Verse 271].

May Allah protect the believers from the insinuations of the devil and from introducing and following innovations in Deen. May He be our Guide and inspiration on the right path to Jannah.

31 July 2019






3 responses to “The Muslim Festival of Sacrifice: Origin, Evolution and Purpose”

  1. syed arifuddin syed avatar

    Very good collection of details from each and every religion.

    1. Scroll Down avatar

      Thank you. I am encouraged.

  2. […] The Muslim Festival of Sacrifice: Origin, Evolution and Purpose […]

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