Why do Muslims sacrifice animals on Eid al-Adha (Bakra Eid)?

Ibrahim's Sacrifice.
Timurid Anthology, 1410-11
Let's get a few things straight,

1. A person with a vegetarian or vegan diet preference can totally be a true and practicing Muslim and fulfill all his or her religious duties. It is not mandatory for a Muslim to consume non-vegetarian food (Since I don't like Mutton, I usually get a "mutton nahi khate? what kind of Muslim are you?" comment every now and then)

2. The very basis of Islam is a doubtless belief in the central religious book - the holy Quran, which includes stories of about 25 prophets including Musa (known as Moses in Judaism), Isa (known as Jesus in Christianity) among others

3. Animal sacrifice does not eliminate your sins. In certain cultures, animal sacrifice is considered as "washing away sins", that is not the case in Islam

So if this doesn't "wash away sins" and it is not mandatory to eat non-vegetarian food in Islam, why exactly do Muslims offer the animal sacrifice?

Story of Sacrifice
The story begins with Ibrahim (known as Abraham in Judaism and Christianity) being commanded by God to sacrifice his dearest possession, his son Ismail. When Ibrahim told his son about the divine command, the young boy urged his father to comply with God's will.

However, when Ibrahim attempted to cut his son's throat, the Lord informed Ibrahim that this was only a trial and a test to see if Ibrahim was true to his word. God ransomed the life of Ismail and commanded Ibrahim to slaughter and sacrifice a ram (animal). The Lord then honored these great Prophets and made their act an obligatory rite for the Hajj pilgrimage as a remembrance and a commemoration of their momentous sacrifice amongst the generations to come until the end of time. 

Christians will recognize this story from the Bible. This story also appears in Judaism and is known as the Akedah. Since Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) belongs to the progeny of Ismail, this event becomes very important in Islam. 

It should also be noted here that Ibrahim and Ismail reconstructed the Kaaba in stone and mortar structure in Mecca. Kaaba was first built by Adam but was destroyed in the great flood at the time of Nuh (known as Noah in Judaism and Christianity). Muslims perform the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca and the Kaaba is one of the holiest places in Islam. This again points to the importance of the life of Ibrahim in Islam

When is Eid al-Adha?
Kaaba, Mecca
Eid al-Adha is the 10th day of Islamic month Dhul Hijjah which, like the month of Ramadan, (my blog on Ramadan here) is one of the holiest months. It also marks the end of Hajj, the annual pilgrimage

Which animals can be sacrificed?
Usually, sheep, goat and camels are sacrificed across the World. Due to Muslims traditionally sacrificing a goat, Eid al-Adha is also known as Bakra Eid in the Indian subcontinent. It should be noted that the animals have to meet certain standards in order to qualify for sacrifice. They cannot be ill, blind, visibly lame or emaciated. A minimum age restriction also applies

Distributing the sacrifice meat
It is suggested that the meat be divided into three parts,
  • One is to be shared with family, friends and neighbors
  • Another is to be distributed among the poor and needy
  • And one part is for yourself and your immediate family
However this division is not compulsory and one is free to donate the entire portion, if he may so prefer

Bottom line
Eid al-Adha is often misunderstood by those outside the Islamic faith. It is often linked to animal cruelty which is totally opposite to what the festival symbolizes. How can one sacrifice an animal that is not dear to him or her as a part of the day that commemorates the test of willingness to give up something beloved on the Lord's command? By right, a sacrifice is a sacrifice only when one gives up something dearly loved.

Ibrahim had shown that his love for the Lord superseded all others. That he would lay down his own life or the lives of those dearest to him in submission to God's command. Muslims commemorate this ultimate act of sacrifice every year on Eid al-Adha. While Ibrahim was prepared to make an ultimate sacrifice, God prevented it, additionally signifying that one should never sacrifice a human life, especially not in the name of God.
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