More Than One Way to Sacrifice a Goat

This November, for the second year running, Tooba Waqar will be arranging a goat sacrifice online.

It’s the most convenient way, the 28-year-old Pakistani said, to perform the essential Muslim rite of Qurbani from her home in Boston, Mass.

Qurbani takes place during the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. It is a ritual slaughter of livestock, meant to symbolize Abraham’s sacrifice of a ram to God in place of his son. It is also an annual act of charity, or Zakat, with a portion of the sacrificial meat meant to be shared with the needy.

In South Asia, most families perform Qurbani themselves at home. But Muslims in the United States have adopted different means of fulfilling this Islamic duty. Some send money back home, while younger Muslims like Waqar donate money for sacrifices online. The most devout—or intrepid—head to suburban Halal slaughterhouses to do the ritual in the manner of the old country. Though the Internet has widely been embraced as a tool, the traditional method of Qurbani still remains paramount.

“The web site [option] works really well for us,” said Waqar, who has donated money for the sacrifice through the web site of the Chicago-based Zakat Foundation of America. “We don’t have many other options [where we are].”

Site users load an online form with a drop-down menu of more than 30 countries with Muslim communities, from Mali to Tajikistan. Then they pay for a slaughter in their location of choice.

For $85, Waqar arranged for a goat to be sacrificed in her native Pakistan—and for the meat to be donated to poor families nearby. One donation usually covers a single goat or sheep, but in some cases, shares from multiple families are combined to pay for a cow or water buffalo. Families with lower income can still finance a sacrifice by donating to a country where livestock is cheaper. In India or Haiti, a share for Qurbani costs as low as $65.

Last year, roughly 4000 shares of meat were distributed to around 30,000 families in 33 countries, explained Program Coordinator Sumayya Ahmed. Of those shares, 280 went to Pakistan.

To ensure the donors’ trust, the Zakat Foundation, which has operated since 2001, provides them with pictures of the animal sacrificed whenever possible. Other organizations, like Pakistan-based Qurbani Online, allow participants to pick their goat from a roster of images online, and promise photos from before, during, and after the slaughter.

Even so, some American Muslims still feel that the character of Qurbani gets lost when everything is arranged on the Internet.

“I personally think that [buying online] is the cop-out,” said Imran Uddin, manager of the Madani Halal slaughterhouse, in Ozone Park, Queens. “The holiday is a day of sacrifice. It’s your obligation to [personally] distribute the meat [to the poor].”

Even younger Muslims in the United States, like New York graduate student Sarah Shah, can’t help but romanticize the traditional Qurbani practices. “When we were kids, we’d name the goat, and pet it,” Shah reminisced. “The idea that it would [be sacrificed] on the first day of Eid symbolized that nothing lasts forever.”

If Qurbani is paid for through a website, she feared, it would be difficult to track where the funds actually go. “I’d rather go to a mosque or community center so I know exactly where the meat is going,” noted Shah.

Each Eid al-Adha, Uddin sells 400 to 500 goats and lamb. Like in South Asia or the Middle East, buying a goat in the United States is not an endeavor to be taken lightly. Madani Halal’s animals go for upwards of $250. “The farmers are getting smart,” he laughed. “Like, ‘Oh shit! There are these Muslims who want goats for the holidays!’” Prices have skyrocketed in recent years as a result.

Families come to Madani Halal to pick a goat and oversee its sacrifice, first inspecting the animal to ensure that it’s healthy; Islamic law states that the specimen must be free of imperfections. The person performing the slaughter utters a prayer while severing the animal’s jugular veins, trachea, and esophagus in a single stroke.

Some parents, Uddin said, even have their children touch the goat as it’s being sacrificed. “Most people wouldn’t want their kids to see an animal being slaughtered,” he observed. “I think it’s a beautiful, sacred thing: we need to thank God for what we have.”

As for fulfilling Qurbani duties with a few clicks online? Uddin, born and raised in the United States, wasn’t convinced. Witnessing the slaughter is “part of the whole experience,” he reasoned.  “It’s like the birthday cake at a birthday party. Without it, it’s not the same.”