Every year during the festival of Eid al-Adha, Muslims around the world sacrifice an animal — a goat, sheep, cow, or camel — to commemorate Prophet Ibrahim’s (Abraham) willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail (Ishmael), after Allah (God) told him to do so. Then before he could do it, Allah gave him a lamb to sacrifice instead. Commemorating this test of trust in Allah on Eid al-Adha is known as Udhiya or Qurbani, the Arabic word for sacrifice.
A Muslim should donate at least one-third of the meat from the Qurbani animal to poor or vulnerable people. The remainder of the meat is split into one-third for the family that offers the Qurbani, and one-third for their own neighbors. The ethical lesson of Qurbani is to feed the hungry.
The spiritual lesson of Qurbani is to become closer to God, (Qurbani comes from the word ‘Qurb’ meaning ‘closeness’) by sharing a meal even though God is never hungry because: “Their meat will not reach Allah, nor will their blood, but what reaches Him is piety from you. Thus, have We subjected them (the animals) to you that you may glorify Allah for that which He has guided you; and give good tidings to the doers of good”. Qur’an 22:37)
For thousands of years, self-aware intelligent minds realize that gifts and offerings should be able to influence spirits (intelligent minds do not like to admit to impotence) and so regular offerings of food and slaughtered mammals were offered by a group/clan/tribe, to keep the natural and the super-national forces friendly. Even polytheists knew this and made ritual offerings of food in community observances.
Western anthropologists, influenced by Christian thinking, refer to these offerings as sacrifices. The Qur’an term Qurbani and the Torah term Korban, are both more insightful. In Hebrew the verb l’karayv means to draw near or come close; similar to the French words rapprochement or réconcilie, or the English words reconciliation, convergence, or reunion. This is exactly the same meaning as Qurbani, which Qurbani comes from the word ‘Qurb’ meaning ‘closeness.’
A korban is a way to re-connect, re-engage or re-unite the human realm to the spiritual realm. When food and drink are offered to another it is not a sacrifice. Food and liquid offerings are an invitation to a closer relationship. Especially during ceremonial occasions food and drink are served to bring people together, including those who have been estranged from one another because of transgressions that have occurred.
Thus offerings to God can help people who feel estranged from God return to a closer (karayv) relationship. Offerings help people reunite or reconcile with God. The food offered to God is usually eaten wholly or in part by those who contribute it or by the priests who offer it. The Biblical God doesn’t really want grain or meat offerings (Psalm 40:7). Humans offer them, especially when they feel estranged from the Divine, in order to draw closer (karayv) to the Divine.
Although the word Qurbani/Korban is usually translated as sacrifice, it is better to think of it as an offering of our ‘self’ i.e. a self-offering. As Allah says in the Qur’an: “It is neither their flesh nor their blood that reaches Allah; it is your piety that reaches Him.” (22:37)
What role does God (the One God of revealed religions) play in all this? According to Genesis 4:26 humans only began to call upon the name of the Lord in the days of Enosh or Adam. That could mean that prior to Enosh/Adam prehistoric religions evolved naturally. Only with the rise of scriptural revelations did the One God enter into human consciousness.
Or it could mean that human consciousness had finally risen to the level of being able to receive Divine communication from the One God. It took over 3,000 years for monotheism to spread worldwide even with scriptural revelations; so it is not surprising that it took over 100-150,000 years to get Homo Sapiens ready to receive revelations.
Spirituality among Homo Sapiens has been evolving for at least 100-150,000 years. Religion is as deeply, if not more deeply rooted, in the Homo Sapiens brain as art or music. Recent studies, especially those on adult twins who were raised apart, suggest genes contribute about 40% of the variability in a person’s general religiousness.
The idea that reason, socialism, or modern science would replace spiritual and religious thinking has turned out to be a wish-fulfillment fantasy of some people, many of whom bear a grudge against religion and spirituality. Religious rituals and ideas are ubiquitous among Homo Sapiens and continue to evolve as the creative intelligent minds of Homo Sapiens encounter changes in their environment. This will most likely continue as long as Homo Sapiens have creative intelligent minds.
I have deep roots in America. Some of my father’s forbears migrated to the Virginia Colony in 1609, and on my mother’s side are ancestors who fought with Washington and Lincoln and a great grandfather who was a Pony Express rider. Until I was sixteen, I myself had had an upbringing generally regarded as typically American, Midwestern, middle class and Protestant. I grew up in Bay City, Michigan, belonged to the Episcopal Church, went to Sunday School and sang in the church choir.
At sixteen however, I discovered the Qur’an. These words (of the first chapter), simple, and direct, so impressed me that I immediately set out to memorize them. Indeed they drew me into Islam, an example perhaps of Prophet Muhammad’s assertion that everyone is born a Muslim and made a Jew or a Christian by his parents.
From that time forward I charted my life on the direction of Mecca …
Before I had embarked on the Pilgrimage, its rituals seemed to me just so many curious exercises. But as I participated in the event of the Pilgrimage, the meaning of these rites unfolded, my understanding of Islam was deepened and I learned more fully what it meant to be a Muslim. Indeed, this is why God had commanded Muhammad to issue the call for the pilgrimage: ‘That they (the pilgrims) may witness things that are of benefit to them…’ (The Qur’an, 22:28)
(For example, towards the end of the Hajj when the time of making the Sacrifice came), I began to feel uneasy. Since I have not completely outgrown the tender-heartedness I had known as a child, I had balked at the idea of the Sacrifice long before being confronted with it and now the time had come to do it. What was I to do? As a girl I had cared for lost dogs or stray cats, adopting any fledgling that had fallen its nest, splinting a bird’s broken leg with matchstick and feeding injured butterflies on sugar syrup. But a companion had been adamant. ‘You must do the Sacrifice’.
Back at our building in Mina I turned to the Qur’an. I found that the Sacrifice has many meaning: it commemorates Abraham’s offering of his son’s life and God’s rejection of this sacrifice in exchange for Abraham’s submission to God’s will; it marks the end of idolatry among Arabs; it is an offering of thanksgiving to the God of Creation Who has been so benevolent to mankind; and it teaches the well-to-do to share their blessings to ‘eat thereof (the Sacrifice) and feed the beggar and the suppliant’. (Qur’an 22:36)
As I pondered what I had read, a great weight was lifted from my conscience. I suddenly saw that the Sacrifice upholds the sacredness of life, that it, in fact, constitutes a pledge by the pilgrim that he will slay for sustenance only. And where I had felt reluctance before, I know felt eagerness to fulfill all the requirements of my pilgrimage.
As printed in “Islam the natural way” by Abdul Wahid Hamid