Is Animal Sacrifice An Ethical Act?

Is animal sacrifice an ethical act? The issue of sacrificing and being sacrificed in the way of God

The below is a translation of the transcript of a lecture given by Ustad Mohammad Soroush Mahallati on the night of Eid al-Aḍhā, responding to the question “Is sacrificing an animal an ethical act?”

Although this question is considered an ethical one, it is also a religious question from another aspect. This is because in Islamic law, there is an encouragement and exhortation to sacrifice animals. This is true for the occasion of Eid al-Adha as well as for other occasions, such as performing ‘aqīqah’ (the sacrifice of an animal) upon the birth of a child. Therefore, the question can be posed as to whether this encouragement and exhortation, which sometimes becomes obligatory, such as the sacrifice during Hajj rituals, and sometimes becomes recommended, is in conflict with moral values and how it can be morally justified.

The Opposing View and the Supporting View

This discussion can be approached from two aspects. The first aspect is whether killing an animal, such as a sheep or a cow, is considered a moral act or an immoral one. The second aspect of the discussion is that, assuming killing an animal for its meat is not deemed immoral, can this act attain a religious aspect and be considered an act of worship that brings a person closer to God Almighty? The first discussion is a general one. Any tradition that permits the killing of animals, whether in ethical schools of thought or religious traditions, needs to address this question. However, the second question, which is purely religious, necessarily relates to the tradition of sacrificing animals, which is considered an act of worship, particularly in the Abrahamic religions. We cannot thoroughly examine both aspects, as multiple sessions are required to explore the various dimensions of the discussion. However, we must briefly touch upon the first aspect and focus more on the second aspect.

Regarding the subject of animal slaughter, does it have a moral justification or not? There are two different perspectives on this issue: an opposing view and a supporting view. If you study some Eastern traditions, you will encounter the idea that one of their fundamental principles is that harming animals is an act of injustice, and injustice is considered immoral. In the first limb of the eight limbs of Yoga practices, non-harming is emphasized, including not harming animals. Consequently, based on this principle, there is no place in these traditions for killing animals and using their meat.

In contrast to this view, there is a perspective that defends the slaughter of animals based on rational principles. For example, among those who discuss this topic are Allamah Ṭabāṭabā’ī and Shahīd Muṭahhari. However, the discussion on this matter has a rational aspect. This means that, in addition to the religious texts from the Quran and Sunnah, since the audience of this discussion includes those who are outside the realm of Islam and who present non-religious arguments, the response given to them is necessarily based on rational premises.

The Issue of Nutrition is Based on the Real Interests (maṣlaḥa al-wāqi’ī) of Life

The reasoning path of Allamah Ṭabāṭabā’ī differs from that of Shahīd Muṭahhari on this subject. Some of their premises are shared, but some are different. Allamah Ṭabāṭabā’ī’s rational argument is based on the premise that Sharia must be in accordance with nature and human disposition (fiṭrah). First, we must see how the nutrition of living beings occurs in the system of creation, and then see how legislation aligns with this natural order. If you want to follow this discussion, a detailed scientific and philosophical debate is found at the beginning of Surah Al-Ma’idah. In this context, they discuss that the continuation of human life depends on nutrition. Human food must be compatible with the human body system, and what is compatible has two negative conditions: one is that it should not be harmful, and the other is that it should not create natural aversion in humans. Based on this, he argues that nutrition from animals is suitable for humans. This is the basis of his argument. Here, a secondary discussion arises: using meat is suitable for human nutrition, but it necessitates killing the animal, which is considered harm to the animal and contrary to compassion, thus being considered immoral from this perspective.

Allamah here begins a second discussion with the title “How can we be commanded to kill animals while compassion opposes it?” Just as we avoid pain, discomfort, and death, animals are the same; they also dislike pain and flee from it. Therefore, we are not permitted to do this.

Here, Allamah Ṭabāṭabā’ī turns to the system of creation. The system of creation has an interconnectedness, and in this perfect system, God has provided food for every creature. However, we cannot prohibit the system of nutrition solely on the grounds of discomfort. When a cat catches a mouse, the mouse also tries to escape, but there is a system and connection in the cycle of all beings. Humans are no exception. Yes, compassion and empathy are good, but the issue of nutrition is not based on compassion and empathy; it is based on the real interests of life. In social life, we do many things that cause discomfort to individuals, but the interests of social life require it. When we imprison or punish someone, is it pleasant for them? These are discussions that Allamah Ṭabāṭabā’ī has pursued based on looking at the entire system of creation, and I have only briefly listed them.

The Criterion in the Issue of Dealing with Animals is Injustice, Not Harm

The late Shahīd Muṭahhari approached the issue from a different angle and added another premise. This premise is that, while it is true that animals are distressed and hurt by being killed, the criterion in dealing with animals and non-animals is not pain. Our red line is not the presence of pain, where we would say any hurtful or painful action is reprehensible; rather, our red line is injustice and oppression. Wherever there is injustice, it is disgraceful and immoral. Therefore, some pains can be instances of injustice and some may not be, and they might not be immoral either. Just as in human society, the foundation is justice and not the absence of pain. This is the discussion he presents. How can we discern justice? His premise is that we must refer to nature and observe the relationships between things. Some ends are for the sake of others. Why does a nursing infant have a right to its mother’s milk? Because God has placed this milk in the mother’s breast at the time of the infant’s birth, the infant has a right to it. Then Shahīd Muṭahhari puts forward this argument: whatever is created for humans, humans have a right to it. Shahīd Muṭahhari fundamentally believes in natural rights, and he uses this premise in this issue as well.

Islam has a special sensitivity towards two matters.

What needs to be discussed now is the subject of sacrifice. Assuming that killing an animal is not an immoral act, the question arises: why is this act considered an act of worship and a part of the Hajj rituals, or why is it prescribed to sacrifice a sheep as part of expiations?

This question is a serious and fundamental one, and it’s not a new issue; it has a historical background. Some of our scholars have raised this question: How can it be that by causing harm and killing an animal, this action becomes a means of drawing closer to God and is perceived as pleasing to Him? As Shahīd Muṭahhari puts it, is God bloodthirsty, that He would rejoice upon seeing the blood of an animal shed? What meaning and logic does this have?

To explain this matter, I must first provide an introduction, which is as follows: The sacrifice we consider as worship is the same sacrifice that has been addressed with specific boundaries in Islamic law. We do not claim that sacrifice is rationally and ethically justified in all religions. Sacrifice varies greatly in different religions. Some sacrifices may be defensible, while others may not. Here, we discuss the sacrifice mentioned in the verses of the Quran and in the tradition of the Prophet (s).

The first issue raised regarding sacrifice in Islam is that sacrifice is only permissible for the sake of the Almighty, and it cannot be made for anyone else. Islam is sensitive to two particular matters: the first being prostration. Prostration is not permissible for anyone other than the Almighty. The same sensitivity applies to sacrifice, and it cannot be made for anyone other than the Almighty. The purpose of sacrifice is solely for the sake of the Almighty.

The second point Islam raised was to abolish the practice of throwing away the meat of sacrifices, which was common in the pre-Islamic era, and instead stated: “You may consume the meat of the sacrifice.” Another action taken by Islam in this regard was that before Islam, sacrificing was considered a special privilege of religious scholars, and ordinary individuals were not allowed to sacrifice. Islam eliminated this condition and stated that there is no such requirement, and anyone can perform a sacrifice.

The issue of sacrificing and being sacrificed in the way of God is indeed present in Islam, and the verses of the Quran testify to it. How can this sacrifice be considered worship? Can shedding the blood of an innocent animal bring one closer to God? The late Ayatullah Murtaza Muṭahhari provided an answer to this question. He stated that the act of slaughtering an animal and sacrificing does not have objectivity; rather, it is a means to utilize its meat. What brings humans closer to God is not the killing of an animal. We want to sacrifice the animal to make use of its meat. Therefore, the mere act of killing an animal is not the subject at hand.

What brings one closer to God is not the killing of an animal; rather, it is feeding others. In fact, we need virtuous actions (ḥusn al-fi’lī) i.e., actions that bring perfection to man. According to Ayatullah Muṭahhari, another effect of sacrifice is reviving the memory of the champion of monotheism, Prophet Ibrahim.

However, another argument can be made in this regard: besides the benefit derived from consuming and feeding, there is a desirability and utility in sacrificing that does not exist in any other action. It is the act of sacrificing and being sacrificed in the way of God. Humans must be willing to sacrifice and give up everything they have, even themselves.

While it is commendable for a person to prepare meat and give it to those in need, it is not considered a sacrifice because sacrifice must possess two qualities together: the act of being sacrificed and sacrificing, as well as feeding others. Among the literary figures, there are nuances that help us understand the issue, such as Sā’dī who says:

“If I perish for your sake, what does it matter?
It was for the festival that the sheep was sacrificed.”

Here, the sacrifice of the sheep symbolizes human sacrifice in the way of the Almighty.