Before addressing the concept of sacrifice in the Islamic religion, we have to go back to the founding text – the Holy Qur’ān – and its verses that point to the roots of this religious ritual, such as verse 102 of Sūrat al-Ṣaffāt where God Almighty says:  And when (his son) was old enough to walk with him, (Abraham) said: O my dear son, I have seen in a dream that I must sacrifice thee. So look, what thinkest thou? He said: O my father! Do that which thou art commanded. Allah willing, thou shalt find me of the steadfast.


THE QUESTION HERE is that most of the commentators considered the vision that Abraham saw to be an order from God to slaughter Ismā‘īl (Ishmael) or Isḥāq (Isaac), while the text is clear, and the Arabic language does not support the complexity that some of the commentators were resorting to, since there was no order to engage in any slaughter. Nor did Ismā‘īl tell his father to do what was shown, or what he saw in a dream, but told him to do what he was commanded to do.

There is also another dispute about who it is that is to carry out the duty of sacrifice – is every Muslim in every part of the world to be a pilgrim to the Holy Shrine? And what about the fact that the sacrifice is to be made with livestock slaughtered as a means to draw nigh unto God and made between the time of the ’Īd al-Naḥr prayer to the last days of al-Tashrīq[1] (which is the thirteenth day of Dhū al-Ḥijja) as it says in God’s noble book: So pray unto thy Lord, and sacrifice[2] and 

Say: Surely my prayer and my sacrifice and my life and my death are (all) for Allah, the Lord of the worlds; No associate has He; and this am I commanded, and I am the first of those who submit.[3]

He also said in Sūrat Al-Ḥajj, verse 34:

And for every nation have We appointed a ritual, that they may mention the name of Allah over the beast of cattle that He hath given them for food; and your god is One God, therefor surrender unto Him. 

Thus, we find that sacrifice has a clear meaning, and that is: worshiping God, getting closer to Him, obeying Him, following the sunna of the Prophet of Islam, restoring the sunna of Abraham and obeying His Lord. It is therefore obligatory to follow this practice of sacrifice, even though it closely resembles the very essence of ancient pagan belief.

It is obligatory to follow this practice even though it closely resembles ancient pagan belief

In addition to the evidence we adduce from the Holy Qur’ān, we may also refer to the sunna of the Prophet of Islam, whereby both Imam Aḥmad and Ibn Mājah narrated – on the authority of  Abū Hurayra – the following hadith of the Prophet:

Whoever can afford to do so, but does not offer a sacrifice, let him not come near our prayer place.[4]

Therefore, the sacrifice is not held to be some ordinary ritual, since it is a duty incumbent on those who have the means or capacity for it (here being meant material capacity to buy or own that which is to be sacrificed), and the importance of the ritual of slaughter and bloodshed in Islam can be seen from the hadith of the Prophet reported from ‘Ā‘isha: 

The son of Adam cannot do any deed on the Day of Sacrifice dearer to Allah than shedding blood. It will come on the Day of Resurrection with its horns and cloven hoofs and hair. Its blood is accepted by Allah before it reaches the ground. So be content when you do it.[5]

It is also mentioned that the Prophet said to her: 

Get up and perform your sacrifice and bear witness to it, for at the first drop of its blood you will be forgiven.

We observe here how this celebration of slaughter and the shedding of blood is a ritual of paramount importance carried out for the sake of pleasing God Almighty, avoiding His punishment and seeking His reward. As regards the nature of the sacrifice, the hadith of Anas related by al-Bukhārī n his Ṣaḥīḥ mentions how 

the Prophet offered as sacrifices two horned rams, black and white in colour. He slaughtered them with his own hands and mentioned Allah’s Name over them and said the Takbīr[6] and placed his foot on their flanks.[7]

This means that the well-to-do Muslim is to express his gratitude to God for his many blessings including: the blessing of guidance, the blessing of surviving from one year to the next, the blessing of safety and health, and the blessing of increase in livrelihood, in addition to mediating an atonement for the sins that have been committed, and extension of this atonement for the family of the sacrificer, his relatives, friends, neighbours, and for indigent Muslims. 

But the question arises as to why Muslims, in general, should follow this sunna while the historical record says that the Companions of the Prophet did not follow him, even though they were living alongside him for a large part of his life. And although the history of this sacrifice dates back to Abraham the Prophet did not celebrate this sacrifice until the second year of the hijra. In a hadith related by Anas bin Malik it says that

The people of the pre-Islamic era had two days each year when they would play. When the Messenger of Allah came to Al-Madīna he said: “You had two days when you would play, but Allah has given Muslims something instead that is better than these days: the day of Al-Fiṭr and the day of Al-Aḍḥā”.

Nevertheless after the Prophet’s death, the Companions did not follow his sunna in this, and we find in Ibn Kathīr’s commentary:

Abū Srīḥa said, “I was a neighbour of Abū Bakr and ‘Umar, and they did not sacrifice for fear that people would follow their example.”[8]

And in Ibn Ḥajar al-‘Asqalānī’s Subul al-Islām we find: 

The actions of the Companions are indicative of the lack of any affirmation of sacrifice. Al-Bayhaqī narrated from Abū Bakr and ‘Umar that they did not sacrifice for fear that they would be imitated.[9]

Similarly, we have in al-Shāṭibī’s I‘tiṣām

The Companions did not sacrifice – meaning that they did not keep to this ritual. 

So had the ritual of sacrifice not fallen into disuse in the early community, the Companions – Abū Bakr and ‘Umar above all – would have been the first to perform it.[10]

[1] Al-Tashrīq is the ancient name for the three days following the Day of Immolation (the 10th of the month Dhū al-Ḥijja). (Ed.)

[2] Qur’ān CVIII (al-Kawthar), 2.

[3] Qur’ān VI (al-An‘ām), 162-163.

[4] Sunan Ibn Mājah 3123.

[5] Sunan Ibn Mājah 3126.

[6] The takbīr is the formula: ‘Allāhu akbar’.

[7] Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 5565.

[8] Tafsīr Ibn Kathir, Part IV, page 646.

[9] Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, Subul al-Islam, Part IV, p.91.

[10] Abū Isḥāq al-Shāṭibī, Kitāb al-I‘tiṣām, Part VIII, p.91. The work Al-I‘tiṣām, is an encyclopedic treatise on religious innovations.

See Part One of this essay here

See Part Two of this essay here