Can slaughter be religion?

A few days ago, on September 22, a group of Indian animal rights activist went to the Taj-ul-Masjid in Bhopal, one of the largest mosques on the subcontinent, and tried to persuade Muslims to celebrate a vegan Eid al-Adha this year, by pointing out the many benefits of a plant-based diet for human health, the environment, and the welfare of nonhuman animals. One of the activists, a Muslim woman named Benazir Suraiya, wore a green hijab and an Islamic dress covered in lettuce leaves, and held a sign that said, “Make Eid Happy For All: Try Vegan.” The program was organized by PETA India, a Mumbai-based animal rights organization that operates under the principle that animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, or use for entertainment, and that has organized similar programs on other religious occasions in the past, including Christmas, Easter, Diwali, and Janmashtami. This time, however, things turned violent. A mob formed and started to attack the group of female activists. The women were punched, and hit with shoes, and stones were thrown at them, prompting them to flee the scene while police tried to contain the mob. Disturbingly, some people, including members of the media, seem to believe that the women deserved to be assaulted, and the police in fact booked Ms. Suraiya and two others on charges of hurting religious sentiments. All in all, a woefully common story that would be a good starting point for a discussion of the delicate feelings and sense of entitlement of some religious folk, and the rampant disregard for the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful protest. But I do not want to talk about that here. Instead, in the spirit of the free exchange of ideas, let us have the conversation that was successfully stifled in India.

I think Ms. Suraiya and her fellow activists make a point that deserves serious consideration in Bangladesh, too, particularly now that Eid al-Adha is imminent. “The religion of Islam has always viewed animals as a special part of God’s creation,” Ms. Suraiya explains. “We encourage everyone to help make the world a kinder place by taking the opportunity of […] [Eid al-Adha] for choosing delicious, healthy meals that no one has to die for.” The value of kindness she is appealing to not only is at the core of Islam, but at the core of all great religions of the world. That explains why Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu, was equally disturbed when he witnessed the sacrifice of animals at the Kali temple in Kolkata. In his autobiography, he recalls a conversation with a sadhu on said occasion. He asked: “Do you regard this sacrifice as religion?” The sadhu replied: “Who would regard killing of animals as religion?” To Gandhi’s mind, killing an animal is a heinous sin that has no place in religion.

Qurbani

Three years ago, an open letter signed by close to ninety people, mostly Bangladeshi Muslims, was published in various Bangladeshi newspapers. The authors – I was one of them – invited Muslims to reconsider the practice of animal sacrifice. We pointed out that the Prophet Muhammad, who is said to have been sent as a “mercy to all creation” (Qur’an, 21:107), was an ardent advocate for compassion toward nonhuman animals. In Sahih al-Bukhari, a major hadith collection of Sunni Islam, it is reported that he was once asked if kindness to nonhuman animals was rewarded in the afterlife. Muhammad replied: “There is a meritorious reward for kindness to every living creature.” Yet, what typically happens to sacrificial animals in Bangladesh, and many other places for that matter, has nothing to do with kindness. Eid al-Adha is not a happy time for Allah’s creatures. Prior to slaughter, many of them are made to walk inhumanely long distances, often for days at a time, from as far-away places as India, or they are packed into trucks without adequate space, food, water, and medical care. Many animals die of heat exhaustion or starvation before reaching their destination. When the time of sacrifice comes, the terrified animals are held down and a more or less sharp knife is drawn across their throats. A hopeless death-struggle commences. Sometimes, it takes minutes for the animals to bleed to death, and too often other animals are watching. The whole process – breeding, transport, slaughter – almost always is neither humane nor halal, and stands in stark contradiction to Islamic teachings on kindness and compassion. We hence suggested that people might want to consider donating vegetables, fruits, or money instead of meat, and argued that so replacing animal sacrifice is in line with the spirit of Eid al-Adha, and a perfectly legitimate way to commemorate the story of Abraham. After all, it is written in the Qur’an that the meat of the sacrificed animals “will not reach Allah, nor will their blood, but what reaches Him is piety from you.” (Qur’an 22:37)

Today, I would like to renew the invitation to Muslims to reconsider the practice of animal sacrifice. If compassion and kindness are in fact at the core of religion, we should look for alternative ways to celebrate Eid al-Adha, and make it a joyous time not only for humans but all animals. Eid Mubarak!