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Sacrifice

By:
Ebrahim Moosa
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World What is This? Provides global coverage of the Muslim experience from the end of the eighteenth century through the twentieth century

Sacrifice

The ritual and symbolic practice of sacrifice also has socioeconomic and political connotations in modern Islam. In its ritual facet, the notion of sacrifice is important in the outward practice of 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 ῾Īd al‐Aḋḥā (the Festival of Sacrifice), viewed as a commemoration of the sacrifice of the prophet Abraham. Muslim lore has it that Abraham's son Ismā῾īl 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 Qur'ān 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 in disadvantaged communities. 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.

The consideration for welfare was always part of the wisdom of sacrifice, although it 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, welfare, and poor relief are its primary ends in the modern context. This is of special significance in light of the increasing criticism against this Muslim practice by animal‐rights groups in various parts of the world. The social context understandably plays a major role in shaping the welfare dimension of this ritual, and 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 ones in many parts of the Muslim world is the tradition of ῾aqīqah, 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 reported to protect the child from potential harm in the future. The ῾aqīqah 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 the scriptural requirements. Animal sacrifice may also be made in fulfillment of a vow or as expiation of a sin during the pilgrimage. [See also Birth Rites.]

The notion of sacrifice may also carry strong political undertones. This is observable in the literature of political Islam during the anticolonial struggles in the Muslim world and also 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 (taḋḥīyah). These political subthemes feed off the historical ritual and symbolic motifs of sacrifice.

A modern commentator, Muḥammad ῾Alī (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 (Qur'ān 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 ῾Alī, 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.” The symbiotic relationship between the abstract and the actual, the spiritual and the material significations to which the theme of sacrifice lends itself, is quite obvious. Similar interpretations were also made by the Egyptian reformer Muḥammad Rashīd Riḋā (1865–1935); in his commentary of the Qur'ān, Riḋā explains that the promotion of truth involves “fortitude, patience and sacrifice.”

One of the more visible ideologues of Islamic Iran, ῾Alī Sharī῾atī (1933–1977), lavishly interprets the symbolism of the pilgrimage in terms of political metaphors. Sacrifice expressed as the slaughter of an animal, he explains, is an allegory for the extinction and demise 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 Sharī῾atī and Muḥammad ῾Alī. Woven into the texture of their meditations is a propensity to 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 to a higher consciousness, Sharī῾atī argues, then the possibility of a peaceful political order becomes real. For his part, Muḥammad ῾Alī draws on the mystical impulse of the theme: the sacrifice of an animal is in reality the sacrifice of the animal within the human being. If this perception is socialized within the community, it ought to lead to the development of an ethos of self‐sacrifice in society at large.

It becomes clear that 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 this theme.

See also Ḥajj; ῾Īd al‐Aḋḥā; Rites of Passage.

Bibliography

  • ῾Alī, Muḥammad. The Religion of Islam. Lahore, 1983.
  • Bousquet, G.‐H. Dhabīḥa. In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 2, pp. 213–214. Leiden, 1960—.
  • Sharī῾atī, ῾Alī. Ali Shariati's Hajj: Reflections on Its Rituals. Translated by Laleh Bakhtiar. Tehran, 1988. Related topics: patience; taqwā; dhabīḥah.
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