Tabaski, or On Sacrifice

For the most part, our itinerary within the Muslim world has been planned based on visa procurement, climate and, most of all, routings to minimize air travel and maximize our ability to see related places in close succession, the better to compare and contrast them. However, there are some detours we have made for the sake of experiencing special days, such as holidays and festivals, in special places. Perhaps our most significant such planning was to spend Ramadan in Egypt, where it is said to be the most festive (which in hindsight might have been a mistake, see post of 9.23). We arranged our time in Mali to spend Tabaski, also known as the Eid el-Kbir (and countless other names, depending on from where in the Muslim world you hail), in Timbuktu.

Tabaski is a commemoration of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to God. According to Jewish, Christian and Muslim tradition, God ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son, and in full obedience Abraham took his son up the designated mountain, the son carrying wood for the fire to follow the slaughter. At the last minute, after his son had already been bound and as his throat was about to be slit, an angel announced that the whole thing was a test, and Abraham offers God a ram in place of his son. Now, every year, Muslims around the world slaughter a ram (or some other animal) in the name of God, and celebrate a feast, which is shared not only with friends and family but with less fortunate neighbors.

Tabaski is, as I mentioned above, sometimes called the Eid el-Kbir, which means the “Great Feast,” and indeed it is one of the largest holidays in the Muslim calendar, at least by nomenclature even greater than the festival ending Ramadan, Eid ul-Fitr, which is also known as the “Lesser Feast.” The build-up to Tabaski is tremendous. All over Senegal and Mali, we saw huge herds of sheep and makeshift sheep markets (consisting of adult rams, the only animals considered suitable for the sacrifice), the vendors often Fulani, the nomadic herding people seen all over Africa, in their characteristic hats. We were told that, predictably, the price peaks prior to the holiday, with the leftovers sold at a discount starting the late afternoon of the night before. (To clear confusion (we certainly were confused in the beginning), the animals pictured here are all sheep–West African sheep do not have the woolly fleece that most of us are accustomed to, and so look like goats.)

Sheep on the Faidherbe Bridge in St. Louis, Senegal

Sheep being washed at a market in Bamako, Mali

Sheep at the Monday Market in Djenne, Mali, chased from behind by Fulani herders

Sheep being led to market in Timbuktu, Mali, past the Sankore Mosque

Sheep market, Timbuktu, Touaregs in their blue bubus

I do not recall the name of the author, but it has been postulated that man created religion in order to explain how we could eat other animals. Especially in the case of domesticated animals, such as sheep and cows, to whom we as fellow mammals can grow attached, we needed some kind of justification for why we had the right to kill them, in order to consume them for food. Just as a young child growing up on a farm may be disturbed the first time he sees what he thought a household pet go to the slaughterhouse, our distant ancestors saw a moral conflict and created the framework of religion in which to couch it. It may all have started as a ritual or ceremony to commemorate the life of the animal, the sacrifice that it is making for our survival; from there, the slaughter developed into an offering of the animal to the gods, although of course the meat generated would turn up in our stomachs. This theory would explain why animal sacrifice has played and continues to play such a big role in many religions–because the slaughter of animals was the reason that the religions developed in the first place. I personally don’t take much stock in this theory–the religious impulse seems much more primal and less rational–but I like it because it paints such a sympathetic picture of mankind. We are, at some deep level, all ethical vegetarians, and had to create the tremendous byzantine construct of religious dogma in order to justify our murder of fellow living creatures.

And so, today, that is how I will think of Tabaski. Not as the celebration of a Judeo-Christian-Muslim God who would order his subject to commit filicide–to a nonbeliever such a lord, urging his follower to act against all sense of decency, would not seem to represent a religion worth respecting, let alone believing–but as a sort of tribute to the animals we eat. Not a statement on the expendability of the life of living things as a gesture of our subservience to some master, but as recognition that an act that may seem ordinary, slaughtering an animal for meat, is actually one that is fraught with moral problems, one that is to some extent comparable to killing a fellow human, though perhaps not your own son. Yes, the animals are being killed in the name of God, but the “animal sacrifice” here is neither primitive or savage (neither I nor likely you, dear reader, are vegetarians, and contribute to the deaths of hundreds of animals each year); that in the case of Tabaski (and all halal meat, for that matter) the slaughter is (quickly) performed in the name of God makes it if anything less barbarous, an attempt to place the slaughter within an ethical framework that is conscious and takes note that a life is being taken and to justify it with the loftiest aims.

Our Timbuktu Tabaski experience? We began Tabaski by attending prayer just north of the town, in the desert location preferred by the town’s Touareg/nomad population (the black African population prays in the mosques in the town itself). At first we weren’t sure to what extent we would be welcome to observe, but any such concerns were quickly allayed by the number of people telling us exactly where and when to go to see the prayer and happily mimicking photo-taking by clicking an imaginary camera. Our primary concern, it turned out, was to be the breakdown in discipline we seemed to be causing when dozens of boys, not much interested in praying, crowded us for pictures.

After prayer and a brief sermon was the time of the sacrifice, when the families returned to their homes for the preparation of the feast.

Pools of blood were a common sight in the sandy streets of Timbuktu.

We took our Tabaski meal with our generous hosts, Shindouk and Miranda of Sahara Passion (link), who welcomed us to join them for Tabaski as they did for all meals during our stay. We were told that the extended family would slaughter two rams, one on Tabaski and one on the next day, all to be shared with family and neighbors.

As we ate our meal in the courtyard of the house, we heard the plaintive cries of Sheep #2, who was tied to a post a few feet away–did he know what had happened to his friend? did he know what was to come? He seemed thirsty, and hungry, as he bleated and tugged at a nearby thatch basket, as if to unravel it for food.

One thought on “Tabaski, or On Sacrifice

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *