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Sacrifice

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Sacrifice

    For Muslims, the ritual sacrifice of an animal on certain occasions serves as an outward symbol of the practice of Islam. In modern times, Muslims have also attached socioeconomic and political significance to the idea of sacrifice.

    Rites and Rituals.

    The most important occasion of sacrifice occurs at the end of the hajj, when pilgrims gather at the valley of Mina to commemorate the critical test of the Prophet Abraham's faith. According to the Qur'an, God ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son (identified as Ismail in the Islamic tradition and as Isaac in Judaism) as a sign of obedience to divine will. When God saw that Abraham was prepared to obey the command, he intervened and substituted a ram. Each pilgrim offers an animal sacrifice (qurban)—an unblemished sheep, camel, goat, or cow—to symbolize this miraculous event. The meat is consumed by the pilgrims and shared with the needy. Although Eid al-Adha (the Feast of the Sacrifice) is one of the ceremonies that pilgrims observe on the hajj to Mecca, Muslims worldwide may also offer animal sacrifices to commemorate the event. During the hajj, Muslims may make an animal sacrifice to fulfill a vow or to atone for sin.

    In many parts of the Islamic world, Muslims offer a sacrifice to celebrate the birth of a child. The tradition of aqiqah, the sacrifice of two animals for a male child and one animal for a female child, reportedly protects the child from potential harm in the future.

    Practical and Political Functions.

    In addition to its ritual significance, sacrifice has always had the practical function of feeding people, especially the poor. In recent years, however, Muslims have emphasized its role in fulfilling the needs of social welfare and charity over its importance as a ritual. Technology has been a key factor in this shift. In the past, Muslims buried most of the meat of the animals slaughtered during the hajj because they could not eat it all at once and had no means of preserving it for future consumption. Today, modern technology enables the pilgrims to preserve the meat so that it can be transported over long distances to feed people in poor Muslim communities. Those who do not perform the hajj, but sacrifice animals during Eid al-Adha, also donate a portion of the food to disadvantaged groups.

    For some, the idea of sacrifice carries political meaning. Modern Islamic movements often urge their followers to strive for martyrdom when their religious beliefs compel them to fight for a political cause. To die in defense of Islam is viewed as the highest form of personal sacrifice. Modern commentator Muhammad Ali ( 1874 – 1951 ) encouraged believers 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 Allah.” Social and political activist Ali Shariati ( 1933 – 1977 ) believed that sacrifice, expressed through the slaughter of an animal, symbolizes the struggle against the temptations of the ego. In his view, if the ego can be set free from materialism, then the possibility of a peaceful political order becomes real. See also Abraham; Charity; Dietary Rules; Eid al-Adha; Hajj; Ismail; Martyrdom; Rites and Rituals.

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