At this moment in the Islamic calendar, we stand between two holidays in which truth is performed with the spilling of blood: Eid al-Adha, which was celebrated this past week, and Ashura, which will take place late in November. In both cases, the annual observations are accompanied by debate over the meaning of this blood and how “religion” is supposed to look.
Last week, Muslims around the world observed Eid al-Adha, which marks the completion of the hajj. The central character in the story of hajj is not Muhammad, but Abraham, whose willingness to sacrifice what he loved most in the world—his own son—is imitated when pilgrims throw stones at walls representing the devil. In honor of Abraham’s absolute submission to God, Muslims celebrate Eid al-Adha with the slaughter of a goat or lamb.
Towards the end of November, Shi’a Muslims will commemorate another sacrifice: the martyrdom of Husayn, Muhammad’s grandson, on the day of Ashura. Husayn gave his life in an impossible war against the unjust powers of his time. In a controversial practice, many observers of Ashura will mark their love for Husayn on their own bodies, whipping their backs with blades or lacerating their heads. Even within Shi’a communities, the practice’s Islamic appropriateness is debated. The image of men parading through the streets, drenched in their own blood, has become ammunition for more than one polemical agenda: Sunnis might use the practice to say that Shi’as are not legitimate Muslims, and Islamophobes look at the scene as evidence that Islam at large is fanatical and violent.
In the cases of both Eid al-Adha and Ashura, there are Muslims who seek to reform these practices to match their own ideas of what it means to be modern, rational, and humane. In alternative visions of Eid al-Adha, the slaughter of an animal and the distribution of its meat among the needy can be replaced by other forms of charity. In commemoration of Husayn’s willingness to be slaughtered on Ashura, many Muslims choose to donate their blood, either as an alternative or complement to self-injury. On the day of Ashura in Shi’a-majority Iran, blood banks collect nearly four times their daily average.
I can appreciate efforts to read these stories of Abraham and Husayn as calls to ethical action in the world; Muslims have been doing this throughout their history. Muslims who refrain from slaughtering animals on Eid do so with belief that Islam privileges compassion and mercy over ritual demands. Muslims who donate to blood banks on Ashura are following the supreme example of Husayn, who gave his blood in a much more drastic fashion. While innovating in their practice, these Muslims remain invested in their tradition, seeking to uphold its power and meaning in new contexts.
Unfortunately, some Muslims who call for such reforms can sound like vehement Islamophobes, charging their brothers and sisters with “blind” adherence to “senseless” or “barbaric” rituals. Following certain assumptions about what makes good religion—namely, a location of meaning only in the soul, never on the body—they insist that there can be nothing spiritual about spilling blood.
If someone has an objection to eating animals, I can understand the refusal to slaughter for Eid. However, I am a meat eater, and I do not raise or hunt my own meat. I benefit from the destruction of animals without ever having to think about it. The Eid slaughter, if we perform it with mindfulness, forces a confrontation with the unpleasant reality that sustains us. At least it’s better than buying meat at the store and then pretending to be detached from the process.
It’s hard to find mosques in the United States where I can cut myself for Husayn, but at the very least I will join a community in matam and participate in ritual chest-slapping, until my pecs turn bright red. Husayn left Mecca for Karbala with a promise that he would complete the rites of hajj by sacrificing not a goat, but his own life; like the slaughtered goat, the death of innocent Husayn became a source of sustenance for others. We will cry for Husayn and his camp of maybe one hundred supporters who stood against an army of thousands, and our own guilty status as the beneficiaries of Husayn’s sacrifice, and we will write our love, grief, and guilt on our bodies. With each sting of my hand on my chest, I will consider how much worse Ashura must have been for Husayn. Every day is Ashura, said one of Husayn’s descendants; every land is Karbala. The tragic slaughter of Husayn by a tyrant’s order represents the injustice and suffering that continues in our own time. However, as the world is filled with oppression and undeserved privileges of various forms, I know that I occupy the role of Husayn’s killers much more than that of Husayn’s supporters.
Many people, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, would say that spilling blood is disgusting and pain has no place in spirituality. Of course, these practices don’t necessarily leave us feeling good. Putting a knife into an animal is not fun, either. But between these two holy days, Eid al-Adha and Ashura, we remind ourselves of the violence of our own lives—a violence that continues to feed us—and our roles within that violence. It’s sad and heavy. Some folks want no sadness or heaviness in their religion, which is fine; but for me, it’s kind of the point.
Michael Muhammad Knight (@MM_Knight) is the author of nine books, including Journey to the End of Islam, an account of his pilgrimage to Mecca.
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