We began to notice an increase in live sheep and goats being brought to market about 10 days ago when we traveled by bus to Septa (Spanish enclave on Moroccan soil) to do some shopping and in the process of leaving and returning to Morocco, get our visas renewed for another 90 days.
As we are still unfamiliar with the seasonal cycles here, we just noticed all the animals that were being offered for sale in the various village markets along the way. Little did we know that we were witnessing the beginnings of one of the most celebrated Muslim holidays – Eid al Adha — Festival of Sacrifice.
The next day, while sitting in a café with our friend, Mohammed, we heard him speak about “Sheep Day” coming up on October 5th.We looked at him with question marks in our eyes and he said: “That’s the day when each family sacrifices an animal to Allah. We’re supposed to give away two-thirds of it to the poor but many people just share it among family. Fatna will buy one for her family [even though most of them are in France – ed note.] Her neighbors, too. You’ll see.” October 5th seemed a long ways away, so we didn’t ask too much more at that time.
Next we noticed that the women in our neighborhood were meeting twice a day to confer about cleaning (apparently EVERYTHING gets a thorough cleaning) cooking and other festival preparations. Cookware was exchanged. Bedding (right down to mattresses and bed frames) were pulled out of the house and scrubbed. Every rug and carpet got a good beating or scrubbing and was hung on the roof to air or dry. A structure (a structure that may have been a dwelling at one point but was now “in ruins”) in the lot next to us was resurrected and we wondered what that was all about. Now we realize that the “ceremonies” will take place in this central area and the structure is probably the place where the animals in our neighborhood will be slaughtered.
The following Monday we were treated to the sounds of the auctioneer down in the bi-weekly souq, selling animals all day long and from that day on, we began to notice more and more sheep bleating in our small neighborhood. As sheep are herd animals, used to being in close quarters with one another, they do not like being separated (not only from each other but from their original flock and the folks who raised them) and they call to each other most of the day and into the night.
Yesterday (Thursday) we walked downtown past the main livestock sales lot and watched as money and animals changed hands and the new owners took their charges up the hill (even up steps) and led them along the sidewalks or held them at the curb until a van showed up to carry them away to distant destinations. You can’t really expect the taxi companies to help you out in this case, you need to arrange your own transport – and some of these animals are BIG and some of them are FEISTY, because you can’t offer a castrated animal to God, only “perfect” animals are accepted. ( Update: Saturday, Tomas saw a goat in the trunk of a taxi, so I guess they will transport your livestock.)
In general, though, we saw the animals handled with care and affection. Often the purchasers carried home branches of fresh foliage to serve as food over the next few days. Tomas and I watched one of our neighbors lead her goat up their stairs and into their house. Before you jump to conclusions, I’ll tell you that this family is keeping its goat on an enclosed patio that can only be accessed from inside the house. So the woman was taking the goat through the house to spend the night on the patio. The point is that from the time the animals are acquired, they become part of the family and enjoy a privileged status. And according to Mohammed, it’s fun for the children.
We tried to get more details from Mohammed about what to expect on Sunday and he was not too forthcoming. “Fatna will explain it to you.” We turned to the internet – Google, The Universal Brain.
Well, we didn’t really intend to become “Islamic scholars” (and we do not pretend to be) but we had to download (into our brains) a whole bunch of Islamic history and theology to begin to grasp the multiple layers of significance of this three/four/five day holiday, which begins Saturday in much of the Arab world but on Sunday here in Morocco.
First off, I want to dispel the popular assumption that Allah requires blood sacrifices from those who practice Islam. There is no place in the Qur’an that suggests this. In fact, the same commandment of “Thou shall not Kill” exists in this religion as in the other major world religions. We are discovering that anytime we want to understand a part of this religion, we need to first understand the HISTORICAL CONTEXT in which that particular scripture is set.
So imagine yourself living in “Arabia” in the 6th Century, A.D. and you would probably find yourself among people who kept animals as part of their daily subsistence requirements. (There are still parts of this world where nomadic tribes who keep livestock move with the herds to provide food for their animals.) Most likely your family (or extended family) kept some goats or sheep. And as part of that lifestyle, several members of your family would know how to skillfully slaughter and butcher those animals to provide food for your family.
Such was the case with the Prophet Mohammed: he and his family kept animals and ate them as part of their regular diet. But not everyone was prosperous enough to keep their own herds, so part of this festival is about sacrificing (from the same root as the word “sacred”) one of your best animals once a year and sharing the meat with those less fortunate than you. The Qur’an is very clear that what is being offered to Allah is one’s purity of heart and intention to submit to God’s Will in all matters and NOT the blood or the death of the animal. Sharing one’s bounty with others, in this case is God’s Will. As we have discovered, much of what Mohammed recorded in the Qur’an lays the groundwork for a harmonious social structure.
This holiday is something like Thanksgiving in the States, where turkeys are raised for that particular holiday, except that most people do not kill (or witness the killing) of the turkey’s they eat during that meal that is a celebration of gratitude for the abundance that God has given.
This holiday also aligns with the time of the annual mass pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the five “pillars” of Islam and the duty of every adult Muslim to make at least once during his/her lifetime. This pilgrimage (called the Hajj) is comprised of several elements that parallel events that are chronicled in the Old Testament during the lifetime of the Prophet Abraham (Ibrahim.) It takes several days to complete these activities, which require physical, mental and spiritual stamina. At the end of Hajj, there is the sacrificing of animals as a re-enactment of the story of Ibrahim and Ishmael (Abraham and Isaac in the Judeo-Christian context) wherein God substitute’s a lamb at the last moment, as Ibrahim is about to sacrifice his son Ishmael.
This story is also told differently by the Prophet Mohammed in the Qur’an. Ibrahim has a vision or dream, in which he believes that he hears Allah asking him to sacrifice his son, Ishmael. Ishmael is a young man in this version, so Ibrahim consults his son and tells him what he believes God has asked him to do and what does he (Ishmael) think about all this? Ishmael agrees that if this is God’s Will, they should submit and trust that all will work out. And as they get ready to perform this act of ultimate sacrifice, Allah’s angel stops them and God’s voice is heard to say: “I did not ask you to sacrifice your son, only to be willing to surrender and submit to my Will. Your willingness and purity of heart is what pleases me.”
And so, part of the ritual of sacrificing the animal during this festival is for those who actually kill the animal and those who witness and those (the poor) who wait for their share of the food to hold a pure intent in their hearts that their lives may be lived in surrender to God’s Will.
The Prophet Mohammed also gave specific instructions about HOW the animals should be killed during this sacrifice: 1) the knives should be sharp so that the killing is fast and the animal does not suffer; 2) only those who are skilled should do the killing; 3) the animal should be tied in a way that it is comfortable; 4) other animals should not witness the death and thus be subjected to fear and emotionally traumatized.
As I emphasized in my Ramadan posts earlier this year – this is the IDEAL. It may not be reflected in what we see tomorrow (Sunday.) As I’ve said before, I grew up on a farm where sheep were good friends. I have NEVER been present when one was killed. So this is BIG for me.
Tomas and I have had some discussions about the deeper meanings of this Festival. One aspect is that it brings us closer to the awareness of our own mortality when we witness the killing of a being that then becomes our food. Our modern lifestyle has sheltered us from this aspect of how meat gets to our table and many of us still eat other living creatures on a regular basis.
This Festival of Sacrifice — Eid al Adha – offers us the opportunity to become more consciously aware of the sacredness of taking life for the purpose of continuing our own.
Eid Mubarek — Blessed Eid