At least 900,000 animals killed among 24 nations
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia––After decades of global controversy over animal transport and slaughter in connection with Eid al Adha sacrificial rites, the animal victims of the 2015 Islamic pilgrimage season went almost unnoticed amid furor over human victims.
The start of the pilgrimage season, called the haj in Arabic, was marked on September 11, 2015 by the collapse of a construction crane at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, one of the major haj destinations. The falling crane killed 111 people; 238 were injured.
The “stoning of the devil ritual” forming part of the haj climax was then marred on September 24, 2015 by a human stampede that officially killed 769 participants, with 863 injured.
Reports from Pakistan and India on September 26, 2015 suggested the actual death toll may have been as high as 1,100. Whatever the final number, the 2015 stampede was the second worst of many haj stampedes over the centuries. The death toll was exceeded only by the 1,426 known to have been killed in 1990.
The haj itself was criticized by some Muslims, including poet, blogger, and physician Akif Kichloo, originally from India, now practicing in New Haven, Connecticut.
Wrote Kichloo in the September 12, 2015 edition of The Wire, “On one side, there are two million displaced Syrian refugees, crying for help, and on the other, more than two million Muslims, totally disconnected from the tragedy, spending their life savings to indulge in a 1,400-year-old ritual.
“The same money,” Kichloo pointed out, “if donated for the cause of Syrian refugees, could solve all their problems. And the Saudi government – which has housed more than 25 million pilgrims in the past 10 years – could lend a helping hand by giving temporary asylum to a major proportion of the most needy refugees by diverting the same manpower and wealth used to host the pilgrims. There are 100,000 air conditioned tents standing in the city of Mina in Saudi Arabia,” Kichloo wrote, “with a holding capacity of about two million people – which, coincidentally, equals the number of refugees displaced from Syria. These tents are used for just five days in a year to house the haj pilgrims and they stand empty for the rest of the year.”
The animal toll
Kichloo said nothing of animals. But Kichloo’s criticism of the haj echoed the prescription of Qurbani, as issued by the Prophet Mohammed himself, who required that at least a third of the meat from each animal sacrifice should be given to the poor, and raised the central contention of haj slaughter critics: that any deed of charity can satisfy the requirement of Qurbani, not just killing an animal.
About 50,000 animals, mostly sheep, were slaughtered in Riyadh on September 25, 2015 in Eid al Adha sacrificial rites performed at seven officially recognized hallal slaughterhouses. Nearly four times as many slaughterhouses have operated in Riyadh the past, but more than two dozen were closed in a 2014 crackdown on those operating in violation of hallal rules.
Altogether, about 900,000 animals were slaughtered in 24 nations for Eid al Adha 2015, including 770,000 sheep, by 40,000 hallal butchers working under the auspices of the Saudi Project for Utilization of Haj Meat, an international project of the Islamic Development Bank.
As many as 2.5 million animals were slaughtered in Saudi Arabia to feed about two million haj participants during the haj season, reported Syeda Amtul of the Saudi Gazette, in Jeddah. Many of this number may have been poultry. Amtul cited numbers from 2014 provided by Suleiman Bin Al-Jabri, chairman of the Livestock Traders’ Committee at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
About one million of the animals killed in both 2014 and 2015 were imported. The 2015 numbers by species were not expected to significantly differ.
Camel slaughter prohibited
Camel slaughter, however, was prohibited in 2015 in the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina, by order of the Permanent Committee for Fatwa, to fight the spread of the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus, called MERS-CoV for short. The disease, believed to have originated in bats, is statistically associated among human victims with exposure to camels.
First recognized in 2013, MERS-CoV as of the 2015 haj had appeared in 26 nations, but most of the 532 known dead were either Saudis or had recently been in Saudi Arabia.
Australian welfare assurance scheme falters
As during most haj seasons in recent history, there was in 2015 at least one controversy involving the transport and slaughter of imported animals. Reported Tyne McConnon for BC Rural, “The Australian Livestock Exporters Council will reassess the live export market in the Middle East after Australian sheep were found outside approved supply chains. Exporters have reported finding sheep from Australia in several local markets in Oman, which were not approved under the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System in the lead up to Eid al Adha.”
The Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System, McConnon explained, “requires exporters to ensure animals are slaughtered in approved abattoirs that meet animal welfare standards.”
The Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System was introduced in 2012, after extensive exposure of abuses in live animal transport and crude amateur slaughter during the 2010 haj.
Animals Australia investigations
Much of the 2010 exposure built on the work of Animals Australia investigator Lyn White. A former police officer, White since 2003 has repeatedly visited Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan and Egypt, documenting conditions at feedlots, market places and slaughter sites. After White showed the way, reporters for leading media in several majority Islamic nations uncovered further violations of hallal, illegal slaughter in front of children, poor animal welfare leading to the spread of disease––including the often deadly tick-borne Crimean Congo hemorrhagic fever––and misuse of the haj pilgrimage as a cover for wildlife trafficking.
Abraham & Isaac
The Eid al Adha, the only actual practice of animal sacrifice prescribed by Islam, is a symbolic re-enactment of the story of Abraham and Isaac, or Abraham and Ishamel, as described in the Q’ran, the Hebrew Torah, and the Christian Bible.
According to the story, God as a test of faith commanded Abraham to sacrifice his first-born son, who is not named in the Q’ran. In the Sunni Islamic tradition, the son is believed to have been Ishmael, Abraham’s son by his wife Sarah’s servant Hagar, but in the Shi’ite Islamic tradition was Isaac, his son born to Sarah six months later, as is also the case in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Whichever son was to be sacrificed, when Abraham moved to obey, God sent a ram to be sacrificed instead.
The story of Abraham and Isaac is shared by all of the Abrahamic religions: Islam, Judaism, Christianity by descent from Judaism, and many of the idol-worshipping tribal desert religions, some still practiced by scattered minorities, whose adherents Mohammed drew into Islam.
Eid-like sacrifices were historically practiced in Judaism, but were restricted to the Jerusalem temple. Jewish animal sacrifice ended after the temple was destroyed during Bar Cochba’s Revolt circa 70 A.D.
Christians never practiced animal sacrifice, but the most common interpretation of Jesus’ life and death is that offered himself in sacrifice to redeem human sin, fulfilling prophecies issued by Isaiah, who opposed animal slaughter.
(See The Lost Religion of Jesus: Simple Living & Nonviolence In Early Christianity.)
Easter & Passover
From an animal welfare perspective, the differences between Eid al Adha sacrifice and the slaughters of millions of animals each year for consumption at celebrations of major Christian and Jewish holidays are relatively small.
The animals killed for Easter and Passover are not killed in public ceremonies, but most of the animals killed at Eid al Adha are now killed in slaughterhouses.
The killing for Easter and Passover is not considered sacrificial, yet the occasions are preceded, like the Eid, by ritual periods of abstinence, followed by a large family or communal meal. The celebrations also typically include participants making donations to charity.
Claiming to teach in accordance with the beliefs of the Muslim mainstream, the web site of the Islamic university Darul-Uloom, in Karachi, Pakistan, explains that the word Qurban, from which Qurbani comes, originally meant any act of charity, and only later came to be commonly interpreted as specifically the distribution of meat from the sacrifice of an animal slaughtered for the sake of Allah. Thus an offering of Qurbani made in the original sense of the term could again be interpreted by devout Muslims as any act of charity––and by many, it is.
But Darul-Uloom goes on to denounce what it terms “the fallacy of those who raise objections against Qurbani on the basis of economic calculations and statistics and make it out to be a waste of money, resources, and livestock.”
Says Darul-Uloom, “Some people think that instead of offering a Qurbani they should give its amount to some poor people as charity. This attitude is totally wrong.” Darul-Uloom goes on to define Qurbani in terms that if strictly followed could require the estimated one billion Muslims to kill at the Eid al Adha about 10% of the sum of all hooved animals, other than pigs and horses, who are slaughtered for meat worldwide each year.
Similar fatwas, or religious interpretations, have appeared from many other leading Islamic authorities. California Muslim Institute president Imam Ali Siddiqui, for example, issued a parallel fatwa in 1982.
Yet an entirely different view of Qurbani was expressed by Allama Yusef Ali, a British/Indian scholar noted for his translation of the Qur’an, who was honored by Pakistan in 1996 by being depicted on a postage stamp. According to Allama Yusef Ali, “Charity is the true end of a sacrifice, not propitiation of higher powers, for God is One, and He does not delight in flesh and blood, but a symbol of thanksgiving to God by sharing meat with fellow men.”
Added Muhammed Asad, who was born Leopold Weiss in Austria, but converted to Islam, helped to establish modern Pakistan, and also translated the Qur’an, “Whereas pilgrims are merely permitted to eat some of the flesh of the animals they have sacrificed, feeding the poor is mandatory, and constitutes, thus, the primary objective of these sacrifices.”
Qurbani not meant to be expiation
Commented B.A. Hafiz al-Masri of the Shah Jehan Mosque in England, in his 1987 book Animal Welfare In Islam, “Muslims generally believe that replacement of animals with any other kind of offering would be wrong. However, close study makes abundantly clear that the Qur’anic approach is not meant to take animal sacrifice as an end in itself; it is meant to be used as a means to serve a social need.
“One salient point that emerges from these verses is that the main purpose of [Mohammed] allowing the Muslims to continue with animal sacrifices was to turn this age-old tradition into an institution of charity,” Masri emphasized. “Even the literal annotations which some Muslim theologians put on these verses to the effect that animal sacrifice is an act of worship and thanksgiving to God becomes valid only if the sacrifice ends up as an act of charity. Sacrifice is meant to be an act of worship and thanksgiving to solicit the approbation of God neither in the sense of atonement nor in the sense of transposing one’s sins onto a scapegoat; but it is meant to be an act of benevolence to fulfill a social obligation. Any sacrifice that is allowed to go to waste is a sinful as well as a criminal violation of Islamic law (Shariah.)
“The original purpose of offering gifts (Hady) at the sacred house of Kabah,” Masri continued, “was to succour the ancient Meccans who were the descendants of Prophet Abraham. In those days the supply of provisions, such as meat, was their most essential need. The whole area was a desert. Under those circumstances, it was a very sensible and practical proposition for Islam to ask pilgrims to offer gifts in the form of sacrificial animals. Today the Meccans are in a position to import their food without anybody’s help. If gifts of cash, for example, were to be substituted for animals, the money could be used for various advantageous and needed services of Islam.”
Academy of Islamic Research
Similar words came about 50 years earlier from Sheikh Mohamed Farid Wagdi of Egypt, who in November 1932 was among 20 scholars nominated by readers of the Cairo newspaper Al-Ahram to form the membership of the first Arabic Language Academy, but was not, however, among those who were actually appointed by the Egyptian government.
According to Wagdi, “Islam sanctioned sacrifice and expounded its wisdom and purpose; the wisdom being to induce the rich to spend, the purpose being to feed the poor unfortunate. Wagdi suggested that in time Muslims might replace animal sacrifice with other methods of giving alms.
The Academy of Islamic Research in 1966 convened a conference in Cairo specifically to discuss how to stop excessive and non-hallal sacrifice at the Eid al Adha.
Reminded Academy member Sheikh Abdul Rahman al Kalhud, “The Holy Qur’an states in clear terms that the Creator wants the sacrifice not as such but as a symbol of the sacrificer’s devotion to God, as is evident from the verse: ‘Their flesh will never reach Allah, nor yet their blood, but your devotion will reach Him. (Qur’an 22:37) This verse expressly indicates that the sacrifice is not meant in itself as an essential part of the religion but as an act of charity to reach the poor.”
Added Academy member Sheikh Muhammad Noo el-Hassan, “Anyone who witnesses the sacrifices slaughtered during the time of pilgrimage, cast away on the ground, left to decay and putrify, anyone who witnesses this disgraceful state of affairs, will be immensely grieved about Muslims’ mismanagement and their unawareness of Islamic rules. We implore God the Almighty to save Muslims from this ignorance and to guide them to the right path.”
The Saudi Project for Utilization of Haj Meat
The 1966 Cairo conference passed a resolution urging “all Islamic people and governments” to adopt and promote the measures to enforce hallal slaughter practices and eliminate wasteful killing which were in 1983 implemented by the Saudi Project for Utilization of Haj Meat.
The haj in 1966 attracted about 300,000 pilgrims. Enforcing hallal and reducing the killing were not yet seen as priorities in Mecca and Riyadh. A surge in participation, however, came after the Saudi government in 1981 opened a new airport to expedite the previously arduous journeys to Mecca. A then-record two million pilgrims killed as many as one million animals that year. The uneaten remains were mostly burned in pits.
The Saudi Project for Utilization of Haj Meat started relatively slowly, handling 63,000 carcasses in 1983 and 144,000 in 1984, but gradually gained momentum. More than 8.8 million carcasses were relayed to charity during the first 20 years of the program. The average of 440,000 carcasses per year appeared to be about half the total haj slaughter volume.
Since then, the average haj slaughter volume handled by the Saudi Project for Utilization of Haj Meat appears to have been about 700,000, except in December 2007, when the toll fell to 182,000, and 2015, when the toll rose to 770,000 after the 2014 crackdown on illegal slaughter.
The December 2007 crash came during a suspension of livestock exports to the Middle East by the Australian government, after requirements for humane animal treatment were not met in the destination countries, and a suspension of livestock exports from Sudan due to an outbreak of the tick-borne disease Rift Valley fever.
Haj slaughter down to 1 animal per six pilgrims
Discounting the abnormally low December 2007 toll as a fluke, total haj slaughter has apparently dropped by as much as 30% in 30-odd years, even as the total number of pilgrims increased to as many as three million.
The ratio of animals slaughtered specifically for haj sacrifice has during the same years fallen from one for every two pilgrims, to perhaps fewer than one for every six pilgrims in 2015. Since Mohammed prescribed one sheep per seven men as the minimum acceptable sacrifice, the toll appears to be dropping toward the perceived minimum––if the requirement of Qurbani is interpreted to include only gifts of meat from sacrificed livestock.
A variety of data available from Egypt, where 94% of the population are Muslim, indicates that Egyptian Muslims kill only about one animal per 70 humans to mark Eid al Adha, with only about 30% of the adult male population taking any active part in the slaughter.
Charity on behalf of animals
The interpretation that Qurbani includes any charitable giving permits a much broader scope for charity than just sharing meat, including for charity on behalf of animals, a view supported by Mohammed’s own many statements favoring helping animals.
Perhaps most notably, according to Hadith 4:538, narrated by disciple Abu Huraira, “Allah’s Apostle said, ‘A prostitute was forgiven byAllah, because, passing by a panting dog near a well and seeing that the dog was about to die of thirst, she took off her shoe, and tying it with her head-cover she drew out some water for it. So, Allah forgave her because of that.”
For aiding a dog, among the animals with the least status in much of the Islamic world, the woman was forgiven not just one but three grave sins: practicing prostitution, removing her head-cover, and dipping her shoe into drinking water.
H. Leblebicioglu says
ref: Leblebicioglu H, Sunbul M, Memish ZA, et al. Consensus report: preventive measures for Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever during Eid-al-Adha festival. Int J Infect Dis. 2015; 38: 9-15. doi:
“Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever (CCHF) is endemic in Eurasian countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. CCHF virus is spread by the hyalomma tick, which is found mainly on cattle and sheep. Muslim countries, in which these animals are sacrificed during Eid-Al-Adha [22-23 Sep 2015], are among the countries where CCHF is endemic, and it has been observed that CCHF is associated with practices surrounding the Eid-ad-Adha festival. The dates for Eid-Al-Adha drift 10 days earlier in each year according to Georgian calendar. In previous years Eid-al-Adha occurred in autumn-winter months however in the next 10-15 years it will be take place in the summer months when CCHF is more prevalent. This may lead to a rise in the number of cases due to increased dissemination of CCHF virus with uncontrolled animal movements in and between countries. This consensus report focuses on the variable practices regarding animal handling in different regions and possible preventative measures to reduce the incidence of CCHF. Environmental hygiene and personal protection are essential parts of prevention. There is a need for international collaborative preparedness and response plans for prevention and management of CCHF during Eid-Al-Adha in countries where the disease is prevalent.