Atonement by Blood Sacrifice in Islam

The three great theistic religions of the world all commemorate in some solemn way the celebrated sacrifice on Mount Moriah by Abraham the friend of God. In Judaism we have not only the full record of this heroic faith but the Akedah prayer, which recalls the binding of Isaac, has a place in the Jewish ritual to this day. In the New Testament there are several references to the faith of Abraham (Heb. 11:17-20; James 2:21-23.). The first announcement of the Messiah by John, "Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world," runs like a golden thread through the epistles and the book of Revelation. The substitutionary death of Christ for sinners is the theme of the New Testament. In the Old Testament Judaism and in New Testament Christianity it is obvious that without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin. This basic principle of sacrifice as atonement is also found in nearly all of the ethnic religions, even in primitive tribal customs.

In Islam there are also sacrifices, blood-covenants and consecration by blood, of which many seem unaware. The chief feast in the world of Islam is the Feast of Sacrifice held at Mecca during the pilgrimage and simultaneously in every Moslem community from Tangier and Timbuctoo to Bombay and Bokhara.

The sacerdotal function in Islam as in all religions is that of blood-sacrifice. Abraham not only made the great renunciation at Mount Moriah but was a priest of his household, built altars and sacrificed. Melchizedak was a priest of the most High without special consecration. So among the Semites the patriarch was priest. Among the Arabs we also find blood-sacrifice as a household rite before Islam and in Islam; and the great festival, the Feast-of-Sacrifice was consecrated and perpetuated by Mohammed at Mecca when he acted as priest-prophet for his followers for the first time as conqueror of the old Arab shrine.

There are six words used in the Mohammedan religion to express the idea of sacrifice. Zabh, used in the Koran (5:4) for Abraham's sacrifice of his son. Qurban, this word occurs three times in the Koran. In places (3:179; 5:30) it obviously means an offering or sacrifice; in the third passage (46:27) the meaning is obscure. In Christian-Arabic the word signifies the Eucharist. The Lisan dictionary give two striking traditions: "The characteristics of the Moslem community lie in the fact that their qurban is their blood," i.e., those who died in jihad as martyrs. And the other: "The daily prayer is the qurban of every pious man." This same word, however, is used in Persia and India and China for the sacrifice at the great festival 'Id-i-Qurban.

Nahr, to cut the jugular vein is used in the Koran (108:1-2) in a command to the prophet to sacrifice a camel. Udhiya is the word used in Moslem tradition for the annual sacrifice at Mecca (Mishkat, Bk. IV, ch. 19). Hady occurs four times in the Koran for animal victims sent to Mecca when the pilgrim himself is not able to be in time for the sacrifice, (2:193 and 5:2, 96, 98). It signifies a vicarious present. Finally, there is the word mansakh (Koran 22:35). "We have appointed to every nation a rite." The commentator, Baidhawi, explains this as sacrifice (Tafsir, p. 91).

There are two main occasions when Islam enjoins a blood-sacrifice, namely, at the birth of a child (‘aqiqa), and at the annual feast in Mecca which is also celebrated in every Moslem community. The first is the sacrament of initiation, like Christian baptism. The second is commemorative, as the Eucharist also is in part. Yet both have features and prayers which seem both expiatory and vicarious.

Elsewhere there is a full account of the 'aqiqa sacrifice.1 Suffice to say it consists in shaving the head of the new-born child, killing a sheep or goat as sacrifice, no bone of which may be broken, and offering this prayer: "O God, here is the 'aqiqa for my son [giving the name], its blood for his blood, its flesh for his flesh, its hair for his hair and save my son from the fire, etc." (The full prayer is given by Herklots and Swestermarck).2 Doughty states that this sacrifice is the most common of Islamic religious ceremonies in the Arabian desert. It may be derived from Arabian paganism but it has Jewish features and, in parts of the Moslem world (e.g. Morocco and China), the sacrificer is not the father of the child but the mullah or imam. So this custom is common everywhere in Islam today. What does it signify? Why does a Moslem child need blood-atonement?

The great Feast of Sacrifice in the world of Islam is annually celebrated to commemorate Abraham's faith in willingness to sacrifice his son. That was Mohammed's attempted unhistoric explanation of the ancient pagan ritual at Mecca which he perpetuated. The details of the annual celebration at Mecca have been described by Burckhardt, Burton, Hurgronje and later travelers. The whole ceremony is based on an injunction of the Koran (22: 33-38). It includes prayers, a brief exhortation, the killing of a sheep, goat, camel, or other clean animals, a partaking of the sacrifice, ablution, and shaving of their hair. Although the sacrifice can be made by any male Moslem, the religious part of the festival is always in the charge of an imam and is conducted in a musalla, a special area set apart for prayer on this annual occasion.3 Everywhere the head of the sacrifical victim must be turned toward the Ka'ba. Edmond Doutté and Westermarck have written extensively on this feast of sacrifice and other blood-sacrifices common among Moslems of North Africa and in Islam generally. There are such sacrifices at laying foundations of a house, launching a ship, in time of epidemic, to fulfill a vow or to atone for some omission in the ritual of Islam. The idea of expiation and the sanctity of the sacrificer when he officiates are so evident that Doutté, a Roman Catholic, closes his chapter with this observation: "With us the sacrifice of the Mass renews every day this expiation and the Church defines justification as the application of the merits of the suffering of Jesus Christ to the sinner. Moslems have not reached that far. The idea of redemption has not penetrated their thought as it has Christian thought. But we have told enough to show the great importance of the idea of sacrifice in the development of their dogma in this respect."4

Westermarck tells of blood-sacrifices made by Moslems at the tombs of saints to secure their intercession; on the sea for a safe voyage; at the eclipse of the sun or moon; on the threshing-floor to bless the harvest; on taking a solemn oath; or even to consecrate a new market place in the village.5 He also gives traditions and practices regarding the expiatory value of the blood shed at the annual animal-sacrifice feast.

We may well ask, what does all this mean to a thoughtful Muslim? The Koran denies the death of Christ on the Cross and yet makes sacrifice, the great Feast of Islam at its focal centre, Mecca, obligatory on true believers.

There is also no question that for orthodox Jews, Yom Kippur has as its central significance, atonement for sin (Lev. 17:11) by penitence – but today usually without the shedding of blood! The day Christians call Good Friday brings to memory the perfect and final atonement and satisfaction for sin on the Cross of Calvary by the world's Redeemer, the Lamb of God. He died for our sins and arose from the dead for our justification.

Does the 'Aqiqa sacrifice with its beautiful prayer for expiation and the many traditions regarding the value of the sacrificial victims slain in Arafat, for crossing the Sirat on the day of doom, give no deeper and worthier message?

Is not the Cross of Christ the one missing links in the Moslem creed? "For without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin." And Allah is merciful and forgiving to sinners.

"Note, for example," says an Anglican priest, "how universal has been the institution of sacrifice in all ancient religion. Whatever the differences between ancient religions – and they are very many – they were united in their recognition that man had offended his gods and that their anger must be placated. How incredibly shallow were the rationalists of the so-called Enlightenment in their attitude to this fact. The fear of the gods, if you please, was the invention of priests. O sancta simplicitas! Deep down in the roots of his being, ancient man knew that he had ‘offended against Thy holy laws.’ It takes much more than the superficial idiocies of the French rationalists of the eighteenth century and of the still greater idiocies of their modern successors to get over that fact."6

The great day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, and the annual sacrifice at Mecca seem to have much in common. Both date back to the days before the Hegira; and there was a time, as we all know, when the followers of Mohammed turned toward Jerusalem to pray. Read the description of the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16 and in Numbers 29:7-11 with the contrast drawn in Hebrews 9:6-28. The Jewish high-priest offered sacrifice for himself and for all the people annually, as now at Mecca there is the annual sacrifice. In both cases we have "ordinances of divine service and a worldly sanctuary." "But Christ being come an high-priest of good things to come... neither by the blood of goats and calves but His own blood entered in once [for all] into the holy place having secured eternal redemption for us. For if the blood of bulls and goats... sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?"

Good Friday, 1946

Samuel M. Zwemer

The Moslem World, Volume 36, 1946, pp. 187-192

1 The Influence of Animism on Islam, pp. 87-103.

2 Westermarck, Ritual and Belief in Morocco. Vol. II, pp. 387-397. Whoever it be that pronounces such a prayer, father, imam, or mullah, is ipso facto a priest. The exact words of this prayer are also given in Herklot's Qanoon-i-Islam, London, 1832, p. 30. He describes popular Islam throughout all India.

3 Cf. Wensinck on Festival, Victims and Musalla in his Muhammadan Tradition.

4 Maie et Religion. p. 495.

5 Ritual and Belief in Morocco, Vol. 1, pp. 70-90; 554-559, 568, etc. Similar sacrifices are common in Arabia and in Lower Egypt.

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