What do vegetarian Muslims do on the Festival of the Sacrifice?

Tomorrow marks the beginning of Eid al-Adha, the festival that concludes the Hajj and is celebrated by Muslims all over the world. The festival commemorates Abraham (Ibrahim) and his willingness to sacrifice his son at God’s command, a story that should be familiar anybody who knows their Bible stories (though the identity of the son differs — Isaac for Jews and Christians but Ishmael/Ismaʿil for Muslims, although the Qurʾan’s rendition of the story never actually specifies which son it is). For those on the Hajj the festival celebration is just incorporated into the full pilgrimage experience, but for those who are not, the centerpiece of the festival is the ritual sacrifice, again in memory of Ibrahim, of the best herd animals (assuming one has the means to do so): cows when applicable, but also sheep, goats, and camels as the case may be. Believers keep a third of the meat they sacrifice for themselves, give a third to family and friends, and are expected to give the other third to the poor, so that nobody goes hungry.

(I was going to include some kind of photo here, but all the photos I could find of Eid al-Adha celebrations — the ones that aren’t just indistinguishable pictures of crowds of people milling around — involve either dead animals or animals that are in the process of bleeding to death. I figured nobody really needed to see that.)

Hence the dilemma in the title of this post, because if you’re a vegetarian who also happens to be a Muslim, what the heck do you do on a holiday devoted to sacrificing animals? The sacrifice is a Qurʾanic obligation, so it’s not just some tradition that can be discarded. According to the Guardian, there are a couple of coping mechanisms (at least in Egypt).

You could just get out of Dodge for the festival:

“Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve had to get out of Cairo,” says Alaa Sharshar, the 25-year-old owner of the Vegan Kitchen, which bills itself as Egypt’s first vegan restaurant. “They were slaughtering a cow behind my building, and I remember everything from seeing the blood, seeing the life come out of the cow, the smell, and I felt very uncomfortable. So ever since we’ve always got out the city for that day.”

Or just suck it up and eat a little meat as part of the celebration:

“Meat in Egypt is an indication of wealth,” says Dorghamy, who doesn’t order meat, but won’t spit it out if it turns up in a meal. “Your host providing meat is an indication of generosity. So if you’re invited somewhere as a vegetarian, sometimes you have to take a bit.”

Or you just plow through and stick to your guns. As the article says, eating meat-free in Egypt actually isn’t that difficult. It’s harder to go vegetarian in richer Arab countries, because culturally meat is associated with wealth (so those with means want to show that they have those means by eating meat, and those without are often gifted meat by charitable rich folks), and it has a sort of machismo to it that encourages men in particular to eat meat whenever possible. In Egypt, though, there’s so much endemic poverty that for most people eating meat is a rare treat. At the risk of seeming culturally insensitive, because I know these dishes are created out of that poverty, my favorite Egyptian dishes either are or can easily be made without meat — taʿamiyah (Egyptian falafel), mulukhiyah (a thick broth made from the boiled leaves of a spinach-like plant, which none of my Arab friends have ever believed I really like even though I do), mahshi and dolma (vegetables and grape leaves stuffed with either seasoned rice and meat or just seasoned rice with a tomato sauce), and especially kushari (naturally the least healthy of the bunch, pasta and rice and lentils covered with spicy tomato sauce and fried onions). But you can imagine that during this holiday there’s a lot of pressure for all Muslims to partake of some meat for religious reasons.

Anyway, Eid Mubarak to any Muslim readers I have (Bayramınız mübarek olsun if you’re Turkish), and for any Jewish readers (Yom Kippur began this evening), Tzom Kal.

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