In pre-Islamic times the years were measured from hajj to hajj amongst the Arabs, ever since the times of the prophet Ibrahim – upon whom be peace – who had originally initiated it as a rite at the Behest of God. This was so, because, apart from its tremendous spiritual significance and meaning, it was probably the most spectacular socio-economic event in the annual course of the desert life, or rather, it became that in the course of time. Originally there was none of that; it was a pure ritual of worship without any worldly diversions from its exclusively spiritual nature. Like everything else, however, within the matrix of the time-space continuum of phenomenal existence, its spiritual purity was not to last.
With more and more people of lesser dedication than its founders and their immediate clan, following, the atmosphere and environment, in which the rituals took place, became more mundane and intermingled with materialistic concerns. This however, is the natural course of things, and can perhaps be understood as a divinely designed balancing mechanism to dampen the extreme emanations of divine light, which are being poured out at this occasion, the immensity and intensity of which would be too much to bear for people of a lesser degree of spiritual purity, much like the clouds that screen the torching heat of direct sunlight.
The essential meaning of the hajj is of course to turn away from all mundane concerns of one’s life, and turn to, or rather return to one’s Maker, bare of all possessions and decorations, stripped of all pretenses, in pure humility and realisation of one’s utter insignificance – nothingness – before His Greatness; rehearsal for the ultimate return to Him on the day, when all the sons and daughters of Adam will be brought back into His Presence. This should at least be the intention of anyone, who hopes to be admitted to that ‘Court of Divine Presence’.
I would like here to draw attention to one very special element of the hajj – the slaughtering of a sacrificial animal, or ‘qurbani’, as it is commonly known.
For one thing, the sacrifice is the reminiscence of an event, which occurred before the hajj was instituted as a ritual. The prophet Ibrahim saw in a dream that God demanded of him to sacrifice his son, and when he was about to actually obey God’s command and put the knife to his son’s throat, an angel prevented him from slaughtering his son, and gave him a ram to substitute for the required sacrifice. The unquestioning submission of Ibrahim and his son Ismail to God’s Command pleased Allah so much that He instituted it as a ritual and living memorial.
Secondly, sacrifice in its overall spiritual meaning and objective, is one of the most essential means of drawing near to Him (which is the central idea of the hajj altogether); this reality is literally reflected in the word ‘qurbani ’, which is derived from the Arabic root ‘qaf-ra-ba’, meaning to ‘be near’ or ‘to draw near’.
Thirdly, it is the only hajj-ritual, which is not only performed then and there, but emulated at that time beyond the venue of the hajj, all over the Muslim world, so much so that it has become integrated as an almost mandatory tradition in the Eid celebrations.
Unfortunately, the above touched upon tendency of sidetracking original spiritual contents and meaning in exchange for prominence of materialistic externals has widely gained such an overpowering momentum that in the worst cases it has reached the limits of sheer profanation, in that not only inward meanings have been lost beyond recovery, but such behavioral patterns and attitudes are manifesting, which are perverting those cherished values into their total opposites.
Humility and self-negation, have been replaced by boastful pride and showing off. Giving up something that is dear to us ‘for the Countenance of God’, i.e. unconditionally seeking His Pleasure – which is what sacrifice is all about – has been alienated into pampering our self-importance by blowing a lot of cheap, if not ill-gotten money in order to parade an animal that outweighs any other beast in the neighborhood.
That Allah has stated in His Holy Word, that it is not the blood and flesh of the sacrificial animals that reaches Him, but rather the spirit of those, who offer the sacrifice. What has, instead, become important is that the blood and flesh reach the attention of the onlooker.
This shift in priorities has brought yet another desecration in its wake. The sudden increase in demand results in a noticeable ‘butcher-boom’. At the time of ‘Eid ulAdha’ our cities experience a ‘mushrooming’ of part-time butchers, amateur butchers, seasonal butchers, opportunity butchers, in most cases, unskilled people, eager to make a quick buck. The bigger the animal is, the more skill is required on the part of the butcher, and the less skilful the butcher is, the more suffering it entails for the animal, something God disapproves of in the strongest terms. I have seen camels being dragged through the agony of death for hours of torture before they eventually collapsed in weakness, and their throat was finally cut. How can the most Merciful God find any pleasure in this?
Nowadays, qurbani has become an unwritten law for everyone moving in society above poverty level, and some people are doing it, even though they are appalled by it, only to save their faces – out of fear, others might be pointing fingers at them, if there isn’t a puddle of blood in front of their porch. On the other hand, God does not at all make the sacrifice compulsory for people who are not performing the hajj, and even those hajis, of whom it is required, are only conditionally obliged, i.e. if they can afford it. If not, they can substitute for it by keeping a certain number of fasts. This is very significant, because fasting keeps completely in line with the essence of sacrifice – it is self-denial or sacrifice of one’s desires and habits. Slaughtering an animal out of fear for one’s reputation is not only utterly unacceptable in the eyes of God, but it is an outright abomination: the sacrifice of another life out of fear of, or to appease a power other than God.