The Meaning of Sacrifice
According to Sunni law, giving Qurbani is wajib (ﺐﺠﺍﻮ) not obligatory (fardh); among Shias offering qurbani is only wajib for people doing Hajj at Mecca, and few people practice it otherwise. So there are different opinions about Qurbani.
In the Qur’an we read:
We gave him [Abraham] news of a gentle son. And when he reached the age when he could work with him, his father said to him: ‘My son, I dreamt that I was sacrificing you. Tell me what you think.’ He replied, ‘Father, do as you are bidden. God willing, you shall find me steadfast.’ And when they had both submitted to God, and Abraham had laid down his son prostrate upon his face, We called out to him, saying: ‘Abraham, you have fulfilled your vision. Thus do we reward the righteous. That was indeed a bitter test. We ransomed his son with a mighty sacrifice.” (Sura Saffat 37:101-107)
Now, if your nephew heard his father say, “I dreamed I should slaughter you”, what should the son say? He should tell his mother that dad’s gone crazy, pour cold water on his head! Now let’s listen to the account of this sacrifice in the Taurat:
Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied. Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”
“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.
“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together. When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied. “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. (Genesis 22:1-14)
Here we see a fuller account of this sacrifice.
Now what is Qurbani? It is spilling blood. What was the first sacrifice, the first spilling of blood? It was actually done at the time of Hazrat Adam, right after the first sin by God himself:
The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them (Genesis 3:21)
We see that sacrifice serves the purpose of covering over or atoning, as a ransom. This is the same concept we see in Sura Saffat:
وَفَدَيْنَاهُ بِذِبْحٍ عَظِيمٍ
We ransomed his son with a mighty sacrifice.”
(Sura Saffat 37:101-107)
“Ransom” (فدية fadiya) means to purchase back in exchange for something else. Now the sacrifice that redeemed Isaac’s life was a “great” (عَظِيمٍ ‘ajeem) sacrifice. Now when you buy something back, you have to pay something of equal value or more in exchange. Is a goat or sheep “greater” in value than ashraful makhlukhat? This indicates that it was speaking of a later sacrifice. Likewise, in the Taurah Abraham prophesied that “God himself will provide the lamb” but what was given then was not a lamb but a full-grown ram, indicating again that the real ransom for the son’s life was a later sacrifice that was “greater” and a “lamb”, indicating sinlessness.
So these early Qurbanis were a picture or foreshadowing of a greater reality or fulfillment that was to come. Notice too that Abraham managed to sacrifice a full-grown ram alone – when we sacrifice a big goat, it takes five or six people, right? This points to another thing about real sacrifice, that the victim has to be voluntary for God to accept it.
Let’s look at what the Psalms say about Qurbani:
I do not rebuke you for your sacrifices
or your burnt offerings, which are ever before me.
I have no need of a bull from your stall
or of goats from your pens,
for every animal of the forest is mine,
and the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know every bird in the mountains,
and the creatures of the field are mine.
If I were hungry I would not tell you,
for the world is mine, and all that is in it.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls
or drink the blood of goats?
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
fulfill your vows to the Most High,
and call upon me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you will honor me.”
If I visit a friends house and realizing I forgot to bring a gift while going through his gate, pick some fruit off his trees and give it to him as a gift, what will he think? “The scoundrel gave me my own fruit!” The real sacrifice for us only God can provide, and there are many indications in scripture of what that ultimate sacrifice was.
“He who slaughters an ox is like one who kills a man;
he who sacrifices a lamb, like one who breaks a dog’s neck.” (Isaiah 66:3)
The real qurbani we must perform is not to slaughter an animal, splattering its garments, but to sacrifice and submit ourselves. When you see the imam in his alkalla splattered with blood slaughtering the animal, you can’t help but think the same man would slaughter people as well.
“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”
The real qurbani is living a life of honesty, justice and integrity. If I say, ‘lend me some money, I’ll repay you tomorrow afternoon’, and then don’t show up that afternoon, that’s the sort of issue where the real struggle is. It’s easy to buy a cow; it’s hard to do real qurbani. The final qurbani has already been given; our qurbani is about self-denial and living an upright life.
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Romans 12:1)
This is the real qurbani, fanafillah, surrendering our life as a spotless sacrifice into God’s hands.