Spilling blood: Muslim sacrifice rituals, as seen in the GTA

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By Sadaf Ahsan

My parents were born and raised in Pakistan with the mentality that friends are outsiders and family is forever. So losing a family member is like losing a limb. In Islamic tradition, when family is sick and their blood metaphorically or literally spills, there must be a sacrifice of similar spiritual value to offset that loss.

As the story goes in the Qur’an, the Prophet Abraham once dreamt that he was sacrificing his young son Ismail in honour of God, to show his dedication. A devout believer, the prophet took his dream literally and decided to sacrifice his son, who consented. Upon seeing the selflessness of his decision, Allah interjected, taking mercy on Abraham and offering father and son divine wisdom. Many Muslims interpret this story as one that ends with an animal sacrifice—specifically, a ram—in place of Abraham’s son. 

This ritual, referred to as qurbani when performed during the three days of Eid al-Adha or as aqiqa (a sacrifice in the occasion of a child’s birth), is not about taking the blood of another to seek favour with a higher power, but for many, it is performed to thank that power for providing bounty in one’s life—one third of the slaughtered meat is eaten by the family, another third is offered to friends, and the final portion is given to the poor. It must be Halal, and therefore traditionally sacrificed, in order to be a worthy offering. In Pakistani towns and villages, where blood is considered sacred and only those with enough resources can afford to spill it, the ritual suggests a vampiric antidote, where one lifeblood is exchanged for another. 

My dad had a near fatal heart attack in the fall of 2014. This event had an indelible impact on my
family, coming at a time when our wounds were especially raw; that spring, my mother's brother, my Mamu, had passed away unexpectedly a month after her other brother was diagnosed with cancer and given six months left to live. 

After my father had spent what felt like nearly a month in the hospital, my mother sent her family back home 50,000 rupees ($1000 CAD) with a request to slaughter two lambs as a prayer to God to spare him, just as she did when my uncle received his cancer diagnosis. For my family, religion is useful when things get dire—when there isn’t much else to lean on besides belief. But when these last resorts come into play, so ritualistic and ingrained in their processes, they become family customs, abstractly defined by individual belief. My mother will receive bad news and act accordingly, without thinking twice. “I used to do it all the time, until I moved here. Then, when your Papo was sick, I didn’t even think about it—I barely remember doing it,” my mother tells me. “It’s about lightening your load.” 

Having carefully watched this ritual performed time and again while growing up in Pakistan, my
mother found it exciting. It was an event back home. She remembers those who were less fortunate than her family saving up and pooling their money months before Eid, raising an animal and keeping it healthy for the big day. When the time came, the family would decorate the animals like show ponies, draping flowers and painting intricate patterns in henna across their bodies after shaving and washing them for the moment when the knife-wielding kasai (butcher) came to do his job. 

When I ask my aunt, Shahzeena, if a slaughter ever stayed in her mind, she tells me with a smile about a particular time Mamu had performed a sacrifice on the family’s farmland. By the time the slaughter was complete and the meat divided, over a hundred people had gathered, wearing their best clothes, with Mamu having long run into the house to avoid the crowds. They began to knock on the door, and as it creaked, rattled and came off its hinges, he ran up to the roof of the house. The crowds began to shout to him, “Heads!” “Legs!” as he threw packages of meat down over the edge, everyone cheering for what would finally be a full month of food on the table. 

“If people cannot afford to provide for themselves and take care of their families, we band together. So I feel like I am doing something small, but something right,” Shahzeena tells me. “It’s giving sadaqa (charity) to those in need.” 

Animal sacrifice may be common in Pakistan, but the tradition continues in Canada, where much of my family immigrated in the 1970s. The country’s Muslim population is growing at a rate much higher than any other religious group, largely due to immigration—according to Statistics Canada, the most Muslim immigrants to Canada come from Pakistan. Ontario is home to 61 per cent of Canada’s Muslim population, as well as most of the country’s Halal ritual services. Ontario alone boasts over 35 meat plants that provide ritual slaughter services at the hands of certified butchers, licensed by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

“Independent slaughterhouses are almost untouchable in Toronto, because major corporations have taken to false Halal labelling,” says Abdul Wakil, the owner of Ottawa’s Bilal Farms, and a butcher who has performed qurbani rituals for over 20 years in Ontario. “Muslims in Ontario prefer locally slaughtered meat from trusted, familiar faces, because they know what they’re getting. We like to say our meat comes fresh from our home to your plate.”

In order to classify meat as Halal, the animal must not only be blessed to be cleansed, but be
slaughtered with minimal pain, which means, for example, no shooting or electric shock, but a knife that is razor sharp and cuts in one shot, draining all blood. In Pakistan, one cow can be worth the blessing of seven heads, while one lamb can be worth the blessing of one head. The bigger the animal, the higher its cost, with camels and cows the most expensive. In Ontario, cost also depends on size. 

Beef can run you $75-300, while lamb is $30-45. One farm can go through 600 to 1,000 animals over the three days of Eid, and easily between 6,000 to 10,000 animals in a year.

Animal sacrifice can be viewed as a glorified interpretation of an act of killing, redemptive in its
sustenance, as each believer follows the swish of the knife and the oozing of blood as one might watch the intricate footwork of a ballet dancer. And yet, after several brutal weeks of life as a heart patient in a Scarborough hospital, Papo made it through, with a better, stronger cliché of a heart, surprising an entire team of doctors. His recovery can be attributed to the wonders of medicine, but whether one particular ritual had something to do with it, my mother can’t say. I do know that for my Pakistani-Canadian family, spilling blood remains a sacrifice—a currency of blessings and sheer optimism.