Sacrifice, Sapi, and Selamat Lebaran

Selamat Lebaran and Eid Mubarak to all who celebrated yesterday!

“Mau lihat?” Do you want to watch? My friends repeated until finally, anxiously, I walked from the porch over the to corral. People and animals around me seemed stressed and excited, stimulated by lots of activity and new smells in the air.

In the Islamic tradition, the Qu’ran permits animal sacrifice on Eid al-Adha to commemorate Ibrahim’s devotion to Allah and his willingness to sacrifice his son, Ismael. In Sulawesi, the holiday involves potong sapi which literally translates to ‘cow cutting.’ Part of me wanted to observe this ritual that I knew was so important to my Indonesian friends, but in the end, I averted my eyes.

Sapi (2)
Young sapi (cows)

Months later at the local university, as I sipped coffee and waited for data to transfer to my flash drive, a professor showed me videos of potong kerbau (buffalo) from his recent trip home to Toraja. I stared at the corner of the laptop screen staving off a panic attack and trying, again, not to watch. I saw out of the corner of my eye as the video was paused right at the moment when the machete met the neck of the buffalo. The animal was understandably panicked after having already seen four of his kind meet the same fate. He could probably smell their blood, we speculated. As the video resumed, the buffalo thrashed around for a few minutes, still bleeding.

Kerbau (buffalo)

Soon after my stressful, peripheral viewing of the Torajan buffalo sacrifice I happened to watch the 2011 film Samsara which included horrific footage from the factory farms in North America producing chickens and cows and pigs. It was so obvious: If I were a sapi, I would much prefer a life wandering the Sulwesi countryside, grazing and basking in the sunshine, mating by the night light of camera traps, and experiencing a few moments of suffering at death, than to endure a lifetime of cruel treatment by Americans who treat animals like nonliving commodities.

Potong sapi is only one example of animal sacrifice from a particular region. Within Islam, a lot of variation exists in the role animals play in religious practice. For example, I recently read about the Van Gujjars, a community of Muslim, historically migratory buffalo herders in the Himalayas, who are traditionally averse to consuming the animals they raise. How/do they celebrate Eid al-Adha?

In Animal Intimacies, Radhika Govindrajan wrote about goat sacrifice in a Hindu community in Kumaon, India: “The death of an animal with whom people feel embodied kinship creates a sense of loss and grief that is essential to making sacrifice truly a sacrifice…At the heart of all such gestures was an acknowledgment that one’s life was intertwined with that of another and that this connection implied some responsibility on the part of those who were alive to those who were or would soon be dead, especially because that death was intended to benefit the living.”

We must remember that in order for a sacrifice to be a sacrifice, loss, sometimes even heartbreak, is experienced. When we are removed from the act of the sacrifice, ritual or not, we lose out on the connection and responsibility that comes with using and consuming the bodies and products of other beings for the sake of religion, nutrition, or any other reason. In the end it is not the meat and blood that matters to Allah or Ma Kalika or any other deity- it is the intention within the heart of the one who sacrifices.

And what of the nonhuman animal’s experience? Much like I wondered about snakes in the signs following churches of Appalachia, I ask myself: Is there any part of the experience of sacrifice that is not characterized by fear and suffering for the animal? Maybe we will never know, but we can use questions like these to consider ways of relating to other animals that seem unlike our own, but may actually not be that different.

Following the events of potong sapi, families and communities gathered together in brand new outfits to enjoy elaborate feasts. Meat and other foods were generously shared with those who were unable to afford the sacrifice themselves, and with a non-Muslim researcher from the United States who wanted to avoid the heartbreak of the loss of a life and still consume the result. As I chewed on delicious beef rendang that night six years ago, I regretted not having the courage to watch.

South Sulawesi Lebaran feast (Photo credit: KT Hanson)

Further reading about people and livestock, sacrifice, and other good stuff:

Animal Intimacies: Interspecies Relatedness in India’s Central Himalayas by Radhika Govindrajan (Chapters 2 & 3)

Animals in Islamic Tradition and Muslim Cultures by Richard C. Foltz

Himalaya Bound: One Family’s Quest to Save their Animals And an Ancient Way of Life by Michael Benanav

The Milk Lady of Bangalore: An Unexpected Adventure by Shoba Narayan

The Qur’an, 37: 102-111

The Bible, Genesis 22: 1-14


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