The sacrifice itself is over quickly: a few words are spoken, white powder is tossed over the animal’s mouth, and the blade is sharpened in the background. One man intertwines the legs of the animal, while the other negotiates the neck into a vulnerable position. And with one cut, the deed is done. The blood is quickly squeegeed into the drainpipe, while preparations already begin for the harvest. What Westerners think of as the “good” cuts of meat – the ribs, chops, and loins – are often given to the poor after Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice. Everything else is kept for the family: the liver, brain, heart, kidneys, even the stomach lining is boiled and saved for future meals. It is done with an efficiency and meticulousness that have been passed down for centuries from father to son. Everyone has their proper place either removing the wool, preserving the organs, washing the floors in the makeshift pen on the terrace, or slicing cubes of lungs in preparation for the shish kebabs at lunch. Everyone, that is, save Matt and I, who look on with grim curiosity.
When viewed as a ruthless slaughter of four sheep on a terrace, the holiday is given an unjustified air of barbarism. To be sure, it is unsettling, perhaps even horrific, to watch and hear and smell an animal breathe its final breath. But if we choose to only condemn the holiday as an unwarranted celebration of a brutal death, we miss the point of the sacrifice itself. Eid al-Adha is practiced in remembrance of Ibrahim’s near sacrifice of his son Ishmael. God asked Ibrahim to kill his firstborn son, and in a tremendous act of faith, Ibrahim complied. As he was set to give up his son, God recognized Ibrahim’s selflessness and devotion, spared Ishmael, and sent a ram instead. Muslims commemorate this tale with a sacrifice of their own sheep each year. And this is the lens through which I choose to view Eid al-Adha: not as a gruesome murder of an innocent animal, but as a profound demonstration of loyalty to God above all else.
Religion has never been of great importance to me. I grew up going to church every Sunday, but the denomination I belong to is very liberal. Questioning of my faith was allowed and encouraged, and as I grew older, the church became less a house of worship and more a hangout to catch up with old friends Part of this means I have never been asked to truly give up anything for God. Christmas and Easter were always times for celebration and getting new toys or Marshmallow Peeps, not for giving offerings. I never gave up anything for Lent, and even if I did, it was halfhearted and trivial. I put coins into the collection plate when it passes by, but I have never fasted or sacrificed an animal or done anything of true significance in the name of God. For me, then, to witness a sacrifice of that magnitude is both profound and remarkable, and I envy my host family for their undying faith and their unwavering belief that their practices are correct in the eyes of Allah.
Both the ritual slaughter and complete devotion to a higher power are foreign concepts to me. On the surface, both the gruesome death of a sheep and blind faith in God in an age of technology, science, and reason could be viewed as archaic as best, and as ignorant and savage at worst. Eid al-Adha is not a beautiful or romantic ritual; there is nothing aesthetically pleasing about blood on a brick floor and an animal in the throes of death. But I try to delve beyond the surface to see the holiness amongst the brutality. I want to see the holiday through my host family’s eyes; a celebration of God’s love for the faithful. It is a positive event – a test of faith, and a reward for believing in an omnipotent being. Eid al-Adha is a celebration based on a death, but it is, I believe, about affirming one’s relationship with Allah. Perhaps through by witnessing this holiday and sacrifice, I can better understand my own personal religion, and learn to repair my broken covenant with God.