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Ebrahim Moosa
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The ritual and symbolic practice of sacrifice also has socioeconomic and political connotations in modern Islam. Ritually, sacrifice is important in Muslim religiosity. Islamic sacrificial rituals may resemble superficially those found in other religious traditions. The most common form is the compulsory slaughter of an animal as part of the obligatory pilgrimage (ḥajj) and the optional slaughter by nonpilgrims on the occasion of ʿĪd al-Aḍḥā (the Festival of Sacrifice), viewed as a commemoration of the sacrifice of the prophet Abraham. Muslim lore has it that Abraham 's son Ismāʿīl was the original token of sacrifice demanded by God but was miraculously replaced by a lamb.

In pre-Islamic times these practices were forms of blood sacrifice, but in Islam they acquired more symbolic meanings. The Qurʿān states, “And as for the sacrifice of cattle, We have ordained it for you as one of the symbols set up by God, in which there is much good for you” (22:36); and further, “[But bear in mind], never does their flesh reach God, and neither their blood: it is only your God-consciousness (taqwā) that reaches Him” (22:37).

In more recent times sacrifice has been interpreted as fulfilling the needs of social welfare and charity. The meat of the sacrificial animals slaughtered during the annual ḥajj is transported over long distances to feed the poor and hungry. Formerly the meat was buried because it could not immediately be consumed or preserved, but modern technology has made such preservation possible. A portion of the food derived from the sacrifice by nonpilgrims is also given in charity to the disadvantaged groups in their local communities.

Welfare was always part of the wisdom of sacrifice, although sacrifice was primarily a ritual and only secondarily a charity. Nowadays, however, the early ritual and symbolic rationales are being rapidly replaced by the socioeconomic one. Contemporary Muslims tend to justify the practice of sacrifice by stressing that charity is its primary end. This is of special significance in light of the increasing criticism of this Muslim practice by animal-rights groups. The social function of sacrifice is coming to be emphasized above its significance as a ritual.

There are also other occasions of sacrifice. Among the more popular is the tradition of ʿaqīqah, the sacrifice of two animals for a baby boy and one animal for a girl. This sacrifice, which is supported by the prophetic traditions, is believed to protect the child from harm. The ʿaqīqah may be seen as a rite of passage into family life, but it is an optional practice, more prevalent in regions where local custom reinforces it. With the rise of evangelical and revivalist tendencies in modern Islam, many adherents see it as fulfilling scriptural requirements. Animal sacrifice may also be performed during the pilgrimage in fulfillment of a vow or as expiation of a sin. (See BIRTH RITES.)

The notion of sacrifice sometimes carries strong political undertones, as evident in the literature of political Islam during the anticolonial struggles in the Muslim world and during the Islamic resurgence in contemporary times. Modern Islamic movements frequently urge adherents to strive for martyrdom (shahādah) when pursuing a political cause legitimized by religious ideology. Martyrdom is viewed as the highest form of personal sacrifice (taḍḥīyah). These political subthemes are nourished by the historical ritual and symbolic motifs of sacrifice.

A modern commentator, Muḥammad ʿAlī (1874–1951), points out that the act of sacrifice itself is connected with righteousness, humility, patience in suffering, and the awe of the divine. In the midst of the verses of sacrifice (Qurʿān 22:34–35) appear verses that ask believers to be patient when experiencing trials and hardships in the path of God (22:39). Thus ritual sacrifice points to a higher sacrifice. Believers are encouraged, says Muḥammad ʿAlī, to “realize that if they have sacrificed an animal over which they have control, it is their duty to lay down their own lives in the path of Allāh.” There is a symbiotic relationship between the abstract and the actual, the spiritual and the material significations in sacrifice. Similar interpretations were also advanced by the Egyptian reformer Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā (1865–1935); in his commentary on the Qurʿān, Riḍā explains that the promotion of truth involves “fortitude, patience and sacrifice.”

ʿAlī Sharīʿatī (1933–1977), a prominent Iranian Islamic ideologue, interprets the symbolism of the pilgrimage lavishly in terms of political metaphors. The sacrifice of an animal, he explains, is an allegory for the extinction of the ego. “It means to abstain from, and struggle against the temptations of the ego.” The symbol of sacrifice has didactic value in the hands of intellectuals like Sharīʿatī and Muḥammad ʿAlī. Their meditations reach deep into the Muslim psyche in order to discover and realize the latent implications of sacrifice. If the ego can be freed from the servitude of materialism in order to attain a higher consciousness, Sharīʿatī argues, then the possibility of a peaceful political order becomes real. For his part, Muḥammad ʿAlī draws on the mystical impulse of the theme: the sacrifice of an animal is really the sacrifice of the animal within the human being. If this perception is socialized in the community, it ought to lead to the development of an ethos of self-sacrifice in society at large.

The symbolic and ritual meanings of sacrifice extend into the realm of the practical in important ways. Both social context and individual imagination play a crucial role in determining the range of meanings of sacrifice.

See also ḤAJJ; ʿĪD AL-Aḍḥā; and RITES OF PASSAGE.


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