by Tasneem Jhetam
Image source: Bianca Ackerman
I was reading about the Pennsylvania Amish a few weeks back. I’ve always been fascinated by the ways this group of people have maintained their ways of life, enduring an increasingly modernising world and living as a relatively sovereign society. Adhering to Amish principles includes not wearing jewellery which was, and is, believed to encourage pride. Jewellery, as followers of Amish law understand, does not inherently convey pride, it is a symbol — a physical manifestation which represents something more intangible. Perhaps more relatable to contemporary life is pride, packaged in the form of bigotry or supremacy of any kind. We have built a society and its systems on the bedrock of hierarchy, claiming — our way, our bank balance, our jobs and lifestyles, our race, class, sexuality, ability, gender, our species — are above someone else’s. For the most part, we participate in these systems with reckless abandon, often while fulfilling our symbolic duties but not necessarily how they translate into this time and place. We are all familiar with a bigot who adheres to every ritual in their given book, in their given cultural practice. Someone who requires a spiritual reason to show basic humanity, and when that reason runs out, so does the humanity. We have seen how people can find symbolic loopholes for their objectively shitty behaviour while maintaining their moral and cultural high ground — what a treat it is to live in this limbo of misinterpreting the past to justify present behaviour, free from the throes of accountability. Not understanding that, without active and ongoing internal work, and interrogation of one’s belief systems and emotions, avoiding jewellery (or the likes of it) will not miraculously make a person any less prideful.
So we understand that we are capable of behaviour that has historically been condemned through the symbols they represent, while artfully tiptoeing around only those symbols but not the behaviour itself. Using that as a point of departure, we can begin to question almost anything we do for the sake of religion or culture. Too much information exists at our fingertips not to. As we approach Eid-al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice, we would be remiss not to deeply question the practices that we engage in. As someone who is making a shift toward a more plant-based lifestyle, I wanted to know what options exist for celebrating Eid-al-Adha in an alternative way. Shaazia Ebrahim writes here about how people who are vegan and Muslim observe Qurbani (often interpreted as simply to mean ‘sacrifice’). The contributors, from all over the world, maintain unequivocally that it is not paradoxical to hold both identities at once. I posed a question to my family WhatsApp group recently, about what Eid-al-Adha could look like without the sacrifice of animals necessarily while holding on to its significance. It sparked some interesting debate, which all have their merits. One family member found that the meat they’d slaughtered themselves was by far the most ethical way they could consume meat. I agree with the sentiment to an extent. When faced with the reality of taking the life of another being, the conscious practice of doing the least harm would (hopefully) come naturally to anyone still sensitised to such a visceral act. Another sibling, and the self-proclaimed animal rights activist of the family, offered more of a wider lens, looking at the Qurbani system in its entirety. They asked: How did the animal get to its final resting place? How was it transported? How was it raised? How did it live before this day of sacrifice? Did it feel pain or fear? Was it kept in an overcrowded pen? And in many cases, when we are not wielding the knife ourselves, how was it slaughtered? In reality: probably not very well.
If we look at the history of Qurbani, it began as a practice at a time where the global population was significantly smaller than it is now. The collective proportion of people observing Qurbani together annually, within that global population, was minuscule. Few households even had the means to observe the ritual. Meat consumption and greenhouse gas emissions were generally low, factory farming was non-existent, and in many ways, their lifestyles looked nothing like ours do. Today, with almost 1.6 billion Muslims globally, the same standards do not appear to hold water any longer. With growing prosperity, more people are able to purchase and consume more meat, and so more Muslims have the means to observe the sacrifice ritual. This means that from a once novel practice has emerged a massive industry for a now commercial event. I call this phenomenon Big-Bakri — Like Big-Agriculture but make it Urdu (Bakri = The Urdu word for Goat, and Bakri Eid is the common term for Eid-al-Adha in places where the language is spoken). Like Big-Agriculture has perpetuated a system of commercial, unsustainable and unethical farming, Big-Bakri sees the same outcomes during its peak. Muslims for Progressive Values details it here. No system that large, time-sensitive, and commodified, can ever operate effectively. Maintaining a level of consistency, integrity or animal welfare that a smaller system might have been able to coordinate is unthinkable today. Without ensuring ethical practices throughout the animal’s life, it is simply not possible to claim that this arrangement is fair or just.
Amid a global pandemic, more families will undoubtedly outsource their Qurbani practice, as has been an increasing trend amongst Muslims with financial means. They will donate the equivalent amount of money to an organisation who will slaughter and donate their meat for them. Apart from the levels of fraud and factory farming-like conditions that this enables in many organisations, this detachment from the spiritual practice allows us to feel like our work here is done. Somehow our spiritual obligations are met, and we don’t need to question what sacrifice really means, as per the sentiment. We are parting with our money, not sacrificing it. In addition to this, the charitable responsibilities yield questionable results — our donations can perhaps sustain a few families for up to a week, and often we have no relationship to the people we are donating to. If donated through a third party, we don’t even know their names. How can this in any way empower people who, more than anything, require upward mobility, as opposed to a hunk of tinned or frozen meat? I am not against small acts of charity like food donations per se, I think they have been lifelines for many people on the brink of hunger. I am questioning the circumstances under which they are done, and how they can complement other types of charity — ones that we have given critical thought to. Our work is not done once our animals are slaughtered.
But why stop at just our Eid rituals? Shouldn’t we be questioning our consumption habits all year round? Perhaps this can be a springboard for us to explore our eating habits outside of Eid too. Like the concern we have for whether our meat was slaughtered in a Halal way. With unethical and inhumane factory farming being so prominent, what does ‘Halal’ even mean today? Some of these entrepreneurs might offer insight. What are the ethics behind that meat? If we’re consuming meat so widely and with such little thought, aren’t we contributing to a system of oppression? Gabriel Abraham offers some reasonable points about modern-day Halal meat here. Real, ethical Halal meat is hard to come by, especially i in a country like South Africa where Muslim people are in the minority. This does not justify our blinkered approach to consumption, or the sheer volume of (certified-but-not-truly-Halal) food that we eat. The certification industry is itself a group of capitalist organisations that operate on relatively dodgy dealings, and whose Halal status could be brought into question (but that’s a story for another time). Fish has remained relatively apolitical when it comes to matters of Halal, swimming under the radar of certification requirements. We enjoy fish freely wherever we can find it. Have we asked ourselves whether we’re doing the right thing by consuming the types of fish and seafood at the levels that we do? Since we don’t need to look for a Halal certificate, do we check that it is ethically and sustainably sourced? That we’re reducing our consumption? That it is a green-listed species? When it comes to events or restaurants, we somehow equate the Halal option with a Halal meat option. If there is no Halal option, why not opt for the vegetarian one? Why not opt for vegetarian even when Halal meat is available? We can no longer use our status as being culturally on the fringes of the societies we live in to justify behaviour that is not in line with the common good. We need to end our entanglement with Big-Bakri and unethical consumption.
The good news is that many of us have the privilege of choice. We are able to ask questions. We can start right now, with every choice we make, and encourage those around us to do the same. When we are accountable for our own actions as we move through the world, we can create blueprints for others to do the same. In that way, change can become a community effort. Thanks to the tireless efforts of activists in all corners, we are questioning our realities more and more, and getting closer to better ways of life. Mindsets are shifting, behaviour is changing, the world is evolving. Are we letting ourselves be left behind, or are we interrogating all of our beliefs and practices and making our symbols more meaningful. We have a responsibility to enact our rituals in ethical ways that make sense today. Now that we have things to think about, here’s where we can start:
Research the farms and food production facilities we get our meat and animal products from, but also facilities we get other types of food from (e.g. corporate chains, supermarkets, restaurants, crop farms, etc) — look at who the system is empowering and who it is exploiting. How can we change our purchasing habits?
Visit farms and food production facilities. Start asking them questions. If their answers are cagey, their meat is probably not cage-free (lol).
In South Africa (and all over) We can audit the bodies that govern what we consume. We can hold our systems accountable, including those that are certifying our food.
Research how we can do better with religious rituals like Eid-al-Adha and others. Mehrin Masud-Elias has written an amazing and comprehensive document on this topic for further reading.
Think about our personal consumption and ethical practices. We can come to our own conclusions, and choose our lifestyles — in how we eat, donate, and observe our rituals (and many other aspects).
Start conversations with the people in our life about what it means to be an ethical consumer.
Try using Eid as an opportunity to have conversations on how we can think differently about Eid. I used onGather to create this template which can help you easily create a gathering to celebrate eid on a video call with loved ones.
Rethink Eid rituals. We can take a page out of the book of vegetarian and vegan Muslims.
Reduce our meat, fish, animal product, (and unethical produce) consumption. If and when we do consume them, make sure they have done the least harm possible, from farm to fork. Then take it a step further and see how we can actually empower marginalised groups of people through the choices we make.
We do not need to consume meat in every place it is available, just because it is certified Halal. Vegetarian options exist and they can be delicious and nutritious.
We have to let go of the idea that a meal must include meat. It is an irrational belief and a completely modern one. We’ve thrived on far less meat in times gone by.
Consider shifting toward a more plant-based diet.
Consider that if you cannot observe Qurbani yourself and need to outsource it, then should you be doing it in the form of animal slaughter in the first place? What is the logic behind it?
Perhaps observe other types of sacrifice or charity instead of animal slaughter.
If we are going to be doing ritual animal slaughter, it must be somehow regulated or done in a manner that would be approved by animal authorities and geared toward sustainability. This is somewhat done in South Africa but not to a great extent. When we outsource Qurbani, it is much more difficult to regulate.
Remember that this is not about being perfect, it’s about acknowledging that we are imperfect and consistently working harder at moving the world in a better direction.
In essence, what is a better and more inclusive framework for understanding Eid and Halal in this time and place, beyond simply a series of transactions? What are the creative things we could think up with more voices in the room? I don’t have the answers. I think those can only come when we all get involved, so I’d like to start a conversation. Let’s chat.