Sunday, September 2, 2007

Learning to Sacrifice


Maryam Sakeenah

“I will go where no road goes and the road shall go with me”.

For some reason, when I first came across this verse by Joscelyn Ortt, it occurred to me how remarkably it fitted in with the story of Ibrahim (AS)’s Struggle to Surrender. Courageously honest to the innate Truth within the self, he sought out the truest ‘God’__ beginning with the negation of false pagan godhood, he ultimately found Allah, forever. It is fascinating to read the account of his search for the Truth as Allah tells it in the Quran. The Quran recounts of Ibrahim (AS)’s struggle: “When he (Ibrahim) saw the sun rising up, he said: ‘This is my lord. This is greater.’ But when it set, he said: ‘…Verily, I have turned my face towards Him Who has created the heavens and the earth (in worshipping none but Allah alone), and I am not of those who join partners with Him… Do you dispute with me concerning Allah while He has guided me, and I fear not those whom you associate with Him in worship, except when my Lord wills something. My Lord comprehends in His knowledge all things. Will you not then remember?’ And that (faith) was Our Proof which We gave Ibrahim against his people. We raise whom We will in degrees. Certainly, Your Lord is All-Knowing, All-Wise.”(6:80-83)

Taking ‘the road less travelled by’ demands strength, persistence, honesty, and only the ‘hanif’ (uni-focal) can come out through the trials it involves, triumphant, able to ascend to a higher realm of the Contented Self (nafs e mutma’inna). Ibrahim (AS)’s struggle was a struggle to win ‘Islam’ (peace through submission). This struggle begins with the negation of false gods (‘la ilaha’), and leads the soul on to a recognition and acceptance of the Only Truth that brings with it the peace of ‘ill allah’. The achievement of the Contented Self brings out the human soul in all the richness, beauty and grandeur that human nature is capable of, till the exclusive title ‘ahsan i taqweem’ (the best of all creation) is earned. The Faith of the Contented Self expresses itself in ways larger than life, through means much greater than what is humanly understandable.

The sacrifice of Ibrahim (AS) was one such expression of the faith of the Contented Self, the intensity of which transcends beyond the limitations of historical time. Allah has preserved it forever, to be relived, refelt. Ibrahim (AS)’s faith broke free from the tethers that bind man to the pettiness of the Minimal Self (nafs e ammara).

The sacrifice on Eid ul Azha is a spiritual revitalization of that faith so vital for being ‘Muslim’ (the submitted). When we celebrate Ibrahim (AS)’s sacrifice, we celebrate the potential within our own natures for achieving exaltation through surrender, the zenith of which Ibrahim AS demonstrated through his great sacrifice. We learn to discover that part of our nature that can rise in the highest form Love knows and can liberate itself from the mundane and the trivial by giving in so completely to the Divine Will. It is an exercise in reinvigoration and self-discovery.

Like so much else, the sacrifice on Eid ul Azha has also fallen prey to ritualization. The spirit has fled and a mere compulsive performance of the act remains. The sacrifice on the 10th of Dhul Hajj is a recommended Sunnah (except during Hajj, when it becomes obligatory). However, it is carried out as an onerous obligation, willingly or unwillingly, with the dictate coming from social and ‘peer pressure’. This is deplorable and in many ways has led to the reduction of the sacrifice on Eid to a mere arduous ritual. Not surprisingly, Eid for us means devouring meaty dishes, blood, gore and animal-hides. The shameless way in which we throw off the slaughter-refuse out in the open, left to rot on roadsides ill fits the followers of a religion that calls cleanliness ‘half of faith’. If we cannot even observe basic Islamic manners and hygiene the way the Prophet (SAW) taught us, it beats me what value our ‘sacrifice’ carries. Observing rites and rituals is easy, but imbibing that spirit of ‘Muslim-ness’ that it teaches is the hard part we don’t like bothering ourselves with as long as carrying out rituals keeps us comfortably pleased with the ‘feel’ of self-righteousness. This spiritless carrying out of ritual sacrifice has developed a kind of aversion for the act of sacrifice in the modern mind. It seems ‘cruel’, and understandably so, to be cutting the necks off those poor animals merely for having the table full with savoury meat-dishes to please the train of guests. This, I believe, is an outcome of an inability to understand what sacrifice in Islam really means, and can easily be dispelled if only we learn to imbibe the essence of Islamic sacrifice. Faith gives meaning to a lot that the bare intellect finds hard to grasp.

However, there is an answer in commonsense as well. A belief in Allah entails a belief in His attributes as well, the foremost among which are those of Mercy and Justice. Allah possesses these attributes in the superlative degree for He is the Source of all Goodness. It is He who has placed mercy in the human heart. It is ridiculous therefore, that a command coming from The Most Merciful Lord could be suspected for cruelty. This attitude is symptomatic of a major lack of perception.

We believe in Allah to be the Creator of the Universe and all there is in it. It follows naturally that it is also He who has made different species of living things dependent on others for food. There exist ‘food chains’ in Nature and no one calls them ‘cruel’. This is natural law, by way of which life moves on and progresses. It is part of nature’s balance. The ‘halaal’ animals have been created for us to derive food that is ‘halaal an tayyib’. The very purpose of their creation in Allah’s Divine Scheme is to provide man a means of healthy sustenance. Allah knows, and He is Merciful. He created the animal, and when He asks us to slaughter it, we do so, believing in His command to be a wisdom that our limited perception can hardly ever gauge in full. This is the essence of ‘sumey’na wa ata’na’ (We hear and we obey, our Lord!). Allah says: “We have made them (sacrificial animals) for you as among the Symbols of Allah, wherein you have much (spiritual) good”. (22:34)

Yet more insightful is a series of experiments carried out by non-Muslims to determine the most painless and cleanest way of slaughter. Professor Schultz and his colleague Dr. Hazim of the Hanover University, Germany, proved through an experiment, using an Electroencephalogram (EEG - An instrument that records the electrical activity of the brain) and Electrocardiogram (ECG - an instrument that records the electrical current generated by heartbeat) that Islamic slaughter is a humane method of slaughter and Captive Bolt Stunning, practiced in the West, causes severe pain to the animal.

Several electrodes were surgically implanted at various points on the skull of all animals, touching the surface of the brain. The animals were allowed to recover for several weeks. Some animals were slaughtered by making a swift, deep incision with a sharp knife i.e. the Halaal method. Some animals were stunned using a captive bolt pistol slaughter by the western method.

The first three seconds from the time of Islamic slaughter as recorded on the EEG did not show any change from the graph before slaughter, thus indicating that the animal did not feel any pain during or immediately after the incision. For the following 3 seconds, the EEG recorded a condition of deep sleep - unconsciousness. This is due to a large quantity of blood gushing out from the body. After the above mentioned 6 seconds, the EEG recorded zero level, showing no feeling of pain at all. The maximum amount of blood was driven out of the body, resulting in hygienic meat for the consumer.

In Captive Bolt Stunning, (the non Islamic method), the EEG showed severe pain immediately after stunning. The hearts of the stunned animal stopped beating resulting in the retention of more blood in the meat. This in turn is unhygienic for the consumer.

It is also astounding to note the ‘ethics of sacrifice’ given in a number of ahadith which command that the slaughter animal must be treated gently. The Prophet (SAW) said: "Allah calls for mercy in everything, so be merciful when you kill and when you slaughter. Sharpen your blade to relieve its pain." This is because we kill the sacrificial animal not to satiate our appetite, but out of Love for the One Creator who made the animal a source of ‘halaal an tayyib’; Who created the human soul and blessed it with human-kindness, with the capacity to Love his Maker, and as a result of that relationship, to love His creation.

The ritual of sacrifice was not unknown to the world before Islam talked about it. Yet Islam purified and added a greater spiritual dimension to it. Unlike in pagan culture where sacrifice was made to atone for sins, or to‘bribe’gods to bring timely weather for a good crop yield, or to appease vindictive, vengeful, angry gods for their own ends, in Islam sacrifice is meant wholly and solely for reinvigorating the faith and enriching the soul through submission. It is meant to purge the self from the temporal by making us relive the faith of Ibrahim (AS) every year. This annual spiritual blossoming that Eid ul Azha brings with it keeps us in a healthy state of faith: “So mention the Name of Allah over them (the sacrificial animals),… and eat thereof, and feed the poor who does not ask (men) and the beggar who asks (men). Thus have We made them (sacrificial animals) subject to you so that you may be grateful. It is neither their meat nor their blood that reaches Allah, but it is piety (Allah-consciousness) from you that reaches Him”. (22:34-37).

Again, in complete contrast to the pagan practice where the sacrifice was exclusively reserved for the guardians of the holy shrines and temples, Islamic sacrifice has an important communal dimension to it. The equitable division of meat that Islam lays down ensures that the unprivileged too have a share in the blessings the occasion brings. The ‘unloved’ are the most loved by Allah, the ‘forgotten’ the most remembered. The ‘giving’ aspect of Eid ul Azha kindles in us a spirit of charity and generosity. When we give of what we are entrusted with by Allah in His way, we purge away the love of possession from the heart and in this way, create room in there for His loved creation. This is sacrifice.

It is interesting to note that all significant religious occasions in Islam have a social dimension to them. That is why we call Islam not a ‘religion’ but a ‘Deen’__ a Code of Life. We never turn oblivious in our happiness. For it is Allah who blesses with happiness and prosperity whoever He wills, and it is Allah who tests with deprivation whoever He wills. As there is trial in not-having, there is one greater trial in having__ the trial by the immense responsibility of sharing the Trust. The compulsive charity on both the Eids in Islam reaffirms the fact that we need to remember those who are in need each time we are blessed. For blessing is never merited, but loaned out. It is merited only when it is shared. Only in giving of oneself, in sharing and dividing the little happinesses, only in those big ‘small kindnesses’ is a happiness that lasts, and grows.

Eid has so much to give. Yet, as we brace up for our annual kite-flying mass-hysteria (i.e, the ‘Basant’festival) so soon after ‘celebrating’ with befitting sobriety the Day of Sacrifice without pause for breath, I wonder how much there is still left to be learnt; as we throw off the moral yoke to suit the madness-in-yellow just as hastily as we throw off the sacrificial carcass in the nearest dump after a well-done performance of the ritual, I wonder…

I wonder whether the squandering of easy money in a vulgar show can provide even a cheap substitute of the happiness one can gain by learning to sacrifice; I wonder whether the pretty kites__ yellow, red and green will make the world a brighter place. I wonder, when I see how the chosen madness of a few is the inevitable misery of so many without voices, whether Eid has really taught us to remember others in our happiness? I wonder how many starving, homeless, jobless on that other side could have got a day’s meal, had the enormous amount we are prepared to fritter away like those carcasses in the street, been used for a worthier end? I wonder how many will get the headlines of the ‘city’ pages next day making heartrending, real-life horror stories just because some of us are so unwilling to ‘sacrifice’ our bit of fun? I wonder if drawing one little lesson this Eid would be asking too much? Whether learning to sacrifice just by a small kindness would be a lesson too hard to learn?

And I am reminded of the Quaid’s words on Pakistan’s first Eid ul Azha in the midst of humungous suffering and misery. It comes to me as a sad, sad encore: “Dark clouds surround us on all sides for the moment but we are not daunted, for I am sure, if we show the same spirit of sacrifice as was shown by Ibrahim (AS), Allah would rend the clouds and shower on us His blessings as He did on Ibrahim (AS). Let us, therefore, on this day which symbolizes the spirit of sacrifice enjoined by Islam, resolve that we shall not be deterred in our objective of creating a state of our own Islamic concept by any amount of sacrifice, trials or tribulations which may lie ahead of us… we shall emerge triumphant and strong from the dark night of suffering and show to the world that the State exists not for life, but for good life… The greater the sacrifices we are made to undergo, the purer and more chastened we will emerge like gold from fire…” (October 24, 1947).

“Then after that your hearts were hardened and became as stones or even worse in hardness. For indeed, there are stones from which rivers gush forth, and indeed there are some of them which fall down for awe of Allah. And Allah is not unaware of what you do.” (2:74).