Sacrifice as Practiced Among the Shi'ahs of Khorasan

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Sacrifice as Practiced Among the Shi'ahs of Khorasan
by W. M. E. Miller
1921 article in The Moslem World

I. Id-i-Qurban[edit]

Wealthy people are supposed to make the required pilgrimage to Mecca, and at least once in their lives keep the Id-i-Qurban, or feast of Sacrifice, on the tenth day of the month Dhu '1-Hijja at the House of God as Mohammed appointed. But the great majority of Moslems in Khorasan do not have the means to make the pilgrimage, and so they perform the rites of the sacrifice year by year in their own homes. When asked the meaning of the Feast of the Sacrifice, the reply universally given is that it is in memory of Abraham, who tried to offer Ishmael, his son, in sacrifice. The Patriarch several times applied the knife to the throat of his son, but the knife would not cut. Instead it fell from his hand and cut a rock that was lying on the ground. Just then Gabriel brought a sheep, which he told Abraham to offer in place of his son. When he had done this, the blood of the victim went to the sea and became red coral, the horns became amber, and the eyes pearls. The Persians think they are following the precedent set by Abraham in every detail of the sacrifice.

The night before the feast sleep is forbidden. The gates of heaven are said to be open, and it is incumbent on Mussulmans to spend the night in worship, preferably in the mosque, for the sound of their voices raised in prayer goes above like the buzzing of bees. On this night the prayer of a worthy person is sure of an answer, and the sin of a sinner is counted less. If one spends the night in prayer he will share in the merit of those who make the pilgrimage to Mecca. Some say that washing one's body is also required (wdjib), others say that it is merely preferable (mustahabh) ^ but all agree that at the return of the Twelfth Imam it will become required. On the morning of the feast no food is to be eaten till one eats the flesh of the sacrifice.

The general rule is that there must be one animal sacrificed for every household. But if several of the members of a household are hd'j'fis, then one animal must be offered by every haj'ji male or female. If the family can afford it, the merit will be greater in every case to offer one victim for every member- of the family, but this is seldom done. If a group of poor people wish to club together to buy an animal, they may do so up to the number of seven, or even to seventy, according to some authorities. If a poor man says in his heart, "Would that I were able to offer a sacrifice !" he will gain the same merit as though he had offered it. It is permitted to borrow money in order to buy an animal, a tradition being brought forward to the effect that Mohammed gave his wife Umm Salma permission to borrow for this purpose. If an animal cannot be found, its price in money may be given to the poor. There is a tradition that Mohammed offered two animals, one for himself and one for any believer who might not happen to have one. And so it is possible for the Mussulman to offer a special sacrifice for Mohammed, or for a friend or member of the family who has died. In this case the merit is credited to the account of the dead person.

The victim may be a camel, sheep, cow, or goat; but in Khorasan camels are very expensive now, and it is the sheep that is almost universally chosen for the sacrifice. If a camel is chosen, it must be at least five years old, a cow or goat must be at least one year old, while a sheep must be six months or more. The female camel and cow are to be sacrificed, but if the victim be a goat or sheep it must be an unmutilated male, fat, and not too old and without a flaw. An animal that is branded or blind or lame or sick, or that has a broken horn or a split ear or a bruised hoof will not be accepted, unless no other can be found. It is considered an abomination to sacrifice a sheep that has been raised as a pet in one's house.

In the morning or at noon on the tenth day of the month, or on the eleventh or twelfth of the month if one is prevented from sacrificing on the appointed day, the victim is brought into the house and prepared for the sacrifice. Its eyes are blackened with sormeh, and then it is made to look into a mirror, for it is said that Hagar (or Abraham) blackened Ishmael's eyes to make him beauti- ful for his sacrifice, and then made him look into a mirror to see his beauty. The people who offer the sacrifice also blacken their own eyes. The victim is then turned with its face toward Mecca and its feet are tied together. If it be a camel the fore feet only are bound. Water is then given the animal to drink, for it is considered inhuman that it should die thirsty. The Shi'ahs remember with horror the cruelty of the soldiers of Yazid, who would not allow the Kerbela martyrs to go to the river for water to quench their thirst, and they say that since the Holy Family suffered from thirst, they should not allow the victim so to suffer.

Then all the members of the household stand about the victim and place their hands on its back, saying in Persian, We have a share in the blood of the sacrifice, may God accept it!" The one who kills the sacrifice should be the head of the house, a male fifteen years of age or older, a Mussulman, who is able to repeat at least the following formula in Arabic: "In the name of God, for the sake of God, in the way of God, according to the tradition of Abraham, the friend of God." If he is able, he adds the following Arabic prayer which Abraham is said to have repeated at the sacrifice of Ishmael : "I have turned my face toward the place of God in the name of him who' created the heavens and the earth, since I am a Mussulman and not one of those who attribute a partner to God. In truth my prayer and works and living and dying are for God, who is the provider for both worlds. He has no partner, and to this act of sacrifice I am commanded by God, and T am one of the Moslems. O God, this sacrifice is from Thee and for Thee. I begin in the name of God who is great [at this point the victim is killed]. Accept this sacrifice from me."

A camel is killed by being stabbed on the right side of the neck just in front of the shoulder, but the throat of a sheep must be cut. The knife used must be made of steel or iron, any other metal being forbidden. The blood is sometimes smeared on the finger nails to prevent the skin from cracking, and is put as a medicine on the forehead and nose and roof of the mouth of children who have colds. Some say that this is done as a sign of one's purpose to sacrifice the following year. The blood must be washed ofif before prayers. The skin of the victim may be used for a prayer rug, or for an upper garment by a very religious man, but it must in no case be defiled. The flesh is to be divided into three parts, one of which is to be eaten by the people who ofifer the sacrifice, a second part is sent as a present to one's neighbors, and the rest is to be given to the poor. But one may gain greater merit by giving all to the poor. If a man from without is called in to kill the sacrifice, he should be repaid with money, not with the flesh of the sacrifice, unless he be a poor man.

Some years ago it was customary for a camel to be decorated and led about the streets of the city, after which it was taken to the place of sacrifice outside the city walls. A prince would take his seat on a platform near by, and a great crowd would gather about the camel. At a given signal they would set upon the poor victim with knives, and the man who could first bring its head or tail or foot to the prince was given a sum of money. This barbarous custom has now been discontinued.

Various answers are given when the Persians are questioned as to the purpose of the Feast of Sacrifice.

Usually they say that it is to commemorate the offering of Ishmael, and as such is a work of merit. Thus, if one should keep all the flesh of the sacrifice for himself, sending none of it to the poor, still as a memorial of Abraham it has a numerical value of ten in the "good works" account. But if he gives one third of it to the poor, it will count one hundred to his credit. It is also said that on the day of resurrection the animal will appear "with its horns, hair and hoofs," and will carry the one who sacrificed it on its back across the Bridge (Sirat) over Hell to Paradise. But the more immediate benefit derived from the sacrifice is that it protects the household that ofifers it from sickness and misfortune during the coming year. For this result to be obtained, at least one-third of the flesh must be given to the poor. Some say that it is the prayers of the poor who receive the flesh that protect one from evil. Others seem to think that the sacrifice is vicarious, the victim suffering in place of the offerer, and God is thus influenced not to send misfortune and sickness. But one thing is clear, the sacrifice has no reference in the minds of the people to sin. It is considered only as a work of merit and as a preventive against physical evil.

II. Sacrifice FOR the Sick[edit]

When medicine and prayers have failed to cure a sick person, frequently a sacrifice is offered as a last resort. The victim is always a sheep, preferably a black one. It is brought into the room, and is led three times around the sick person, an omen of good being eagerly looked for all the while.

Then it is taken out, and its throat is cut in a place that has no roof over it. Before it is killed, the following Arabic prayer is spoken into its mouth: "O my God, in truth this sheep is for Thee, and is of Thy favor and Thy mercy, and it has become mine, and I have substituted this sheep for Thy servant , son of . O my

God, this sheep is his substitute, its flesh for his flesh, its blood for his blood. Now accept the sheep from me as Thou didst accept it from Thy friend, Abraham, when he offered a substitute in place of his son Ishmael. For the honor of Mohammed! O my God, truly for Thee I have made the substitution of this sheep. Now accept it from me. God is Great!" Or this simpler formula may be used: "O God, this sacrifice is in place of the sick man, accept it and heal him."

The blood and excrements are buried in the ground, that people may not walk over them. The skin must not be cut loose from the feet, for skin and feet must be one piece, and the entrails must be one piece. The flesh is to be cut into fifty-seven pieces and put into the skin. The pieces are then taken out one at a time, the name of some poor person is called, and the piece is handed to him. None of the flesh of this sacrifice is to be eaten by the family of the sick, all is to be given away. The sacrifice is usually called Sadaqa.

III. Sacrifice for a Child.[edit]

When a child is three years old, or younger, if the parents so desire, a sheep is frequently sacrificed to insure its continued life and health. This is done more often for a boy than for a girl. The prayer used is the following: "O God, I give this sheep in place of my child, accept it flesh for flesh, blood for blood, bones for bones, life for life." None of the victim's bones must be broken, but they are to be buried as a substitute for the bones of the child. None of the flesh may be eaten by the parents of the child, but one- third of it may be eaten by other members of the house- hold, and two-thirds are to be given to the poor. The vicarious character of the sacrifices for the sick and for children is very clearly marked in the thought of the people, though it is also said that the blessing is due to the prayers of the poor who eat the meat.

Sistan, Persia. Wm. McE. Miller.