Asalamu 'alaykum warahmatullah Professor Abou El Fadl,
I pray this finds you well. I'm really hoping you can advise me, as I'm not sure who else to ask who has the classical knowledge background you do with the same acute insight into modern realities.
I'll try to be brief, as I know you are incredibly busy:
My question is in relation to the sacrifice of Eid al Adha. In a nutshell, I find the practice incredibly troubling, especially as so many horrific images reach us of the most horrendous animal welfare violations of the treatment of the animals in the lead-up to their slaughter (not to mention the actual act of slaughter itself).
It troubles me greatly, as their treatment appears to run completely contrary to the prophetic models and requirements of treating animals in life and death for them to be considered halal. I personally buy our meat from halal, organic free-range butchers in an attempt to avoid the practice of animals being deemed "halal" so long as "bismillah" is mentioned when the throat is slit and nothing else. And so to feel obligated to pay for the sacrifice of animals in conditions that are certainly not what I consider halal in spirit (and probably not in letter, either) sits very uneasily with me. I have a friend who is a vegan Muslim who feels even more conflicted about this.
So my question is whether there are any new opinions on the matter of Muslims paying for obligatory slaughter and the meat distributed to the poor for Eid al Adha? Do we simply have to do this? Living in the inner-city, there is no way we can legally purchase and slaughter an animal ourselves, so we either need to outsource it, or not do it at all.
Can we just donate the amount of money of killing an animal directly to the poor and circumvent the horrifically cruel slaughter that occurs in so many places around Eid al Adha (that I cannot in any way see as being deemed "halal sacrifice" given the way the poor animals are treated), or must we participate, even if we have serious, religiously-motivated concerns about the way the modern-day slaughter is practiced?
Thank you SO SO much for your work - I cannot tell you the number of people I have referred to your work. I quite literally thank Allah for your presence and scholarship in my lifetime.
With warmest salams,
[Name withheld for privacy]
Thank you very much for your kind and thoughtful message. Like you, I am deeply troubled by the way that the slaughter of animals has become commercialized and in so many situations, has become a practice in cruelty. Simply mentioning Allah’s name at the time of dhabh does not make the meat halal. The mentioning of God’s name is an invocation that had it not been but for God’s permission, the killing of an animal would not be allowable. In other words, it is a dhikr that we are taking this life in the name of God knowing that every life has an entitlement to exist and this entitlement cannot be revoked except with God’s permission. After the invocation of God’s name, the dhabh has to be with a sharp knife administered in the correct place so that the animal will not suffer and its nervous system would be severed immediately, and there will be a correct bleed out of the animal after the severing. Add to this the Prophet’s sunnah that animals should not be slaughtered in front of another because slaughtering an animal before another causes the animal fear and anxiety. While I have not done a close inspection of the dhabh practices in Mecca or Medina, I could not help but notice that many of the images I have seen of animal slaughter during Eid al-Adha seem to be far more focused on the interests of the person doing the killing instead of a proper focus on being merciful and compassionate towards the animal being killed. In short, I have seen many instances of cruelty and undue suffering caused to animals in Eid al-Adha, and these images have been deeply troubling, if not traumatizing.
The proper sunnah is that if one is a meat consumer, then after having slaughtered an animal, the meat must be distributed according to the sunnah of the Prophet (peace and blessings upon him) in Eid al-Adha. If one has not slaughtered an animal, they can either give money for an animal to be slaughtered and distributed to the poor according to the sunnah of the Prophet, or they can give money to needy families so that they can purchase the meat themselves. In other words, although many contemporary Muslims do not realize this, the udhiyah can take either the form of meat distributed directly or through an agent, usually an agent who is paid for their services, or it can take the form of direct financial pay-out.
In Shari'ah, contrary to what many contemporary Muslims believe, the very idea behind the udhiyah is not to partake in a sacrificial offering in remembrance of the Prophet Abraham’s sacrifice of a sheep instead of his son. The sacrifice is not an offering to a deity, and it is not a symbolic reproduction of the atonement offered Abraham when God instructs him not to kill his son but to slaughter a sheep instead. Rather, the consumption of meat in pre-modern times was considered a delicacy that only the rich could afford. The poor preserved their livestock, usually for harvesting or the production of milk products, but they were rarely in a position to consume their livestock. The rich, on the other hand, who could afford to consume livestock, would enjoy the meat of animals, especially in feasts and special occasions throughout the year. Remember that there was no real way of preserving meat in mediums such as freezers or the like, so even among the rich classes, the consumption of meat was not commercialized as it is today. The slaughter of animals took place on special occasions and unless you were part of the elite, you had no opportunity to enjoy meat unless it was gifted to you by the elite of society or unless once or twice a year you could afford the high expense of slaughtering a sheep or goat. The situation is materially different today in that animals are regularly slaughtered every single day of the year. People have grown accustomed to consuming meat regularly, perhaps even daily. This has given rise to a rather reprehensible industry of preserving and overfeeding animals for the sole purpose of slaughter and for the mass production of meat products. While I do not think it is possible to outlaw the consumption of meat, the least that a conscientious Muslim should do is to moderate their consumption of meat even if it is so-called halal, and to be circumspect in the purchasing of halal meat from outfits that do not observe the full sunnah of slaughtering animals with compassion and mercy. More specifically as to the udhiyah, I think it is fair to say that the gifting of meat does not carry the egalitarian meaning and purposes that it did in pre-modern times. Quite often, meat is cheaper than other foodstuffs in the West, and it is definitely not considered a rare delicacy for most of society. While the zakat due in the udhiyah remains obligatory, the consumption and providing of meat is not. In other words, one may slaughter and donate meat; one may pay for the slaughter and donation of meat; or one may simply donate the amount of money due directly to needy families for the recipients to spend it as they deem fit.
Note that there is another suppressed and forgotten meaning in the whole logic of the udhiyah. The initial idea was to bring the various classes of society together in a social event where the poor dine with the rich, eating the food items of the rich at the same table. In other words, the sunnah was to slaughter animals, and then to share the meat with needy families in festive social events. Today, Muslims have transformed the practice so that it has lost much of its original meaning. The desperate classes of society do not come together over festive events, but rather meat is distributed in ways that are impersonal and at times demeaning to the needy. In order to rekindle the meaning and true spirit of Eid al-Adha, I would recommend that other than paying the zakat due at Eid al-Adha, which as I said above is not necessarily limited to payment to a butcher but could be a payment directly to the needy, that one organize meals and social events that would bring the community together and would fulfill the original meaning of Eid al-Adha in acts of sharing and kindness with others.
I do realize that so many Muslims today seem to be under the misimpression that the whole point of Eid al-Adha is either to slaughter a sheep or to pay for the slaughter of the sheep. The point of Eid al-Adha is not the sheep or the meat; the point is sharing and community and above all, brotherhood and sisterhood in the true sense of the word. To my knowledge, among the classical jurists, it is well-established that money can be dispensed directly to the needy so that they may feed themselves in the way that they see most fit, and one does not need to be limited to the distribution of meat. In fact, some jurists have allowed the distribution of whatever food material is most expensive and unattainable by the needy, be it meat or some other consumption item.
I hope this answers your question. I know that my response is somewhat lengthy, but I thought it is important to clarify the spirit and purpose of Eid al-Adha since they seem to elude so many Muslims in the contemporary age, and Allah knows best. I pray that you and your family enjoy God’s peace, mercy, and beauty, and that Allah increases our knowledge, probity, and wisdom. May Allah accept.
Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl