What I Learned From Witnessing a Muslim Animal Sacrifice

“Teacher? How do we say-” Unable to use English words, my student slid her finger across her throat to mimic a killing motion. I responded promptly by writing the phrase “slaughter the sheep” on the board. I had done so countless times for students in the three Beginning English classes I taught in Oujda, Morocco between June and September.

I had started teaching during Ramadan, the holy month which culminates in Eid al Fitr, or small Eid. Now, the summer season was reaching a spiritual crescendo: big Eid was upon us.

“There will be no class from Monday to Wednesday. Happy Eid al Adha!” I said this to my students as the bell rang. Throughout the summer, my students, in their holiday-themed drawings, essays and presentations, had explained to me what occurs on Eid al Adha. Each family purchases, slaughters, cooks and eats an entire sheep. This of course was unheard of in South Florida, where I come from. However, I came here with the objective of learning and adapting to another culture, so my mind was open.

I dismissed my students on Wednesday night, excited for what was to come. I had been invited to my neighbor’s house the following day for the Eid celebrations. She told me to meet her early at 10:00am, which I gathered meant that I was to witness the sacrifice firsthand.

That morning, I arrived promptly at 10:00 am outside my neighbor’s bakery, where I thought we had agreed to meet. However, there was no one there to meet me. Had there been a misunderstanding? Probably. After all, my command of Moroccan Arabic was disjointed at best. In place of the words I didn’t know, I mimed or used other words to awkwardly describe what I wanted to say. I used the phrase “Ma afhamsh” (Moroccan Arabic for “I do not understand”) quite often.

I waited for 20 minutes. After that, I decided to give her a call. But there was no credit on my phone! Beginning to feel anxious, I walked along the road, looking for someone who could lend me their phone to make a call. Thankfully, I found Mohammed, my teenage neighbor, whose father owned a convenience store I shopped at regularly. Mohammed kindly allowed me to put credit on my phone, even though the store was closed – and he didn’t even let me pay for it! Then, he led me into the garage, where I found his entire family.

They were delighted to see me. The mother of the house, Fatiha, kissed me warmly on both cheeks, as did the 8-year-old daughter, Kouthar. It was almost as if they had been expecting me. But of course, they weren’t. It must have been the excitement of the holiday, the tradition of welcoming guests to share the meat of the sacrifice, or just plain old Moroccan hospitality. Whatever it was, I was grateful to have a home to spend the holiday.

I sat on a stool as I was instructed and began to survey my surroundings. Omar, the father, was busy removing the organs from the sheep’s carcass, which was hanging by its feet from a hook on the wall. The head had already been severed, a bloodied stump in its place. The skin and hide lay in a pile on the street, soon to be picked up by a street cart that existed for that sole purpose. There was a portable grill on the floor, which the kids were filling with coal to prepare for cooking.

I didn’t know how I would react to such a sight. However, I can report that my most prominent impression of the scene was one of peace. As mother and children watched their father toil over the sheep’s carcass, there was an air of overwhelming joy and reverence in the room. Everyone seemed proud to share this experience with me. It was almost like Christmas morning – except instead of opening presents under a tree, they slaughtered a sheep!

Later during the meal, one of the four children, Kouthar, showed me pictures on her phone that she had taken when the sheep was alive. In the pictures, she stood with the sheep, hugging it and caressing its fur, as if it were a beloved pet. Yet as she showed me its photos, she munched happily on small pieces of its liver and heart!

This seemed incongruent. Perhaps she was not emotionally attached to the animal, as we were to our pets in the west. Or was she? Was eating the animal just another way to connect with it, in the most intimate yet carnal of ways?
The purpose of the Eid sacrifice is to commemorate Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael. At the last moment, God intervened, telling him to spare his son and sacrifice an animal instead. The animal sacrifice symbolized Abraham’s devotion to the one and only God, and perhaps also the preeminence of humans over animals.

Kouthar was clearly aware of the sheep’s place in the circle of life. She was aware of its connectedness to her family – that through its death, she and her family could thrive. I wonder, do western, non-rural children know that the meat they are eating was once a living being with a heart and soul? Do they accept that through its sacrifice, we thrive? Do they understand that one day we too will perish, and our remains will nourish other living things?

By growing up with the Eid al Adha sacrifice, kids learn a valuable lesson about our connectedness to the natural world. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt for western kids to take a step outside their homes and classrooms and experience something like an Eid al Adha sacrifice. Could they come away from it scarred? Maybe. But they might learn something.

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