Islam, Jan - Mar 2004

Sacrifice at Rock Falls

By Yahya Lopez

The resolution

As the day of Eid ul Adha (Dhul Hijjah 1423/ February 2003) approached, I had been inching closer to making the intention to attempt to sacrifice an animal this year with my very own two hands. Even though I was solely striving towards the intention at that time, the overall implications, nonetheless, created a potent, gut-wrenching dilemma within me that weighed heavily upon my heart and mind.

On the one hand, there was the powerful feeling of duty and compliance. Out of His infinite, unfathomable wisdom, Allah, Most High, had commanded, by way of His Holy Book and Last Messenger Muhammad, peace and blessing be upon him, the sacrifice of an animal as part of the Hajj observances. This religious duty had been performed by believers since the very institutionalization of the pilgrimage over fourteen hundred years ago. In support of this, my beloved wife had been faithfully reminding me that it was highly recommended for the man of the house to personally carry out the act himself.

Although I truly wanted to please Allah (swt) and comply with this command, I was, on the other hand, repulsed and horrified by the idea, the very thought itself, of physically killing an animal which, by the way, was not the same, in my mind, as setting a mouse trap or placing poison pellets under furniture or in remote corners of rooms. “How,” I asked myself, “could a man or anyone for that matter, even entertain the thought of grasping a knife and cut the throat of another creature, thereby taking its life? How could their conscious not be tormented as a result?” It was inconceivable. This, then, was the quandary paralyzing my decision-making process throughout the Hajj season.

In past years I had always opted to let the local Muslim meat merchant to fulfill the task in my family’s stead. The option was much more convenient, cleaner, less of a burden on the mind, and, most important, within the parameters specified by our Islamic tradition. As such I avoided the inevitable indefinitely. This year, though, I challenged myself to confront and settle this issue once and for all regardless of the fears, insecurities, or revulsions generated by it.

At one point during this troubling predicament, I had considered the possibility that my early childhood experiences could have left a traumatic imprint on my subconscious. And thus, the idea of slaughtering an animal had now become distasteful and abhorrent. The only relevant memory I could recall was when I had witnessed the killing of pigs back in Lares, Puerto Rico some forty years ago. One incident in particular surfaced instantly without the need of engaging my mind’s search engines. It was the day when a large, fattened, black and white, ornery hog was bludgeoned repeatedly atop his massive head with a two-by-four in order to stun him before the death blow was to be applied. The head shots only managed to infuriate the gigantic, squealing, snorting beast sending him into an enraged, uncontrolled rampage.

Before eventually being subdued, the hog had either bit, slobbered on, bruised, knocked down, or trampled over several spectators. It took a handful of neighbors to finally bring him down. While on the ground, one of the more daring young men drove a shinny, long, sharpened knife deep into his throat. The struggling behemoth let out a deafening, gurgling shriek and fought fiercely until his very last breath. In the course of the ferocious battle, his blood had sprayed over everything and everyone. As a result of witnessing this intense, horrific experience, those images remained engraved within me to this very day.

During the last days of the Hajj, while continuing to reflect over this serious issue, I thought about Prophet Ibraheem, peace and blessings be upon him. He had been ordered to do much, much more than what faced me. He was ordered to slay his very own son. The implications of that scenario were simply unimaginable. How could anyone have carried out such an undertaking unless firmly grounded in absolute, unshakable faith? Most people, without exception, would have cowered before such a demand or preferred to give their own lives instead. Although Allah, Most Kind, tells us that He never taxes anyone with burdens they cannot bear, I sincerely believe that this sort of test would have been much too unbearable for me. Yet, Allah knows better.

And consequently, I began to wonder, “What was the lesson to be learned from this powerful example?” One thing was certain. It was obvious that Allah, the All-Knowing, who is aware of the exact computations involved in the trajectory of every falling leaf and of that which stirs underneath dark, murky stones, knew the outcome. He knew how Ibraheem (p) would react, but, Ibraheem (p), being mortal and finite, did not. Therein, lay the answer. It was unquestionably a test whereby he would perchance confront the true dimensions of his faith, obedience, patience, and certainty. It was also possible I speculated that in the fulfillment of the sacrifice my own faith would similarly be proved. Again, only Allah knew best that answer.

In order to further commit myself towards this end, I along with other members of my family subscribed to a local effort by a group of Maghribi Muslims who already had established the yearly tradition of going to farms outside Chicago and killing the animals themselves. The popularity of this event had snowballed over the years to the point where eighty animals were said to have been pre-purchased this year. As time drew closer the pressure created by my commitment began to bear down upon my soul. Would I comply or relent? I agonized deeply over this. Yet, while my confidence and determination waned and oscillated, Allah, Most Generous, sent me words which allowed my mind to analyze this problem from a different perspective.

It was the morning of the day of Eid. As I sat listening to the khutba at the Mosque Foundation, the Imam, Sheikh Jamal Said, stated that the Eid ul Adha, the celebration of the sacrifice, was “the most important” of all Muslim holy days. “The most important”, he reiterated several more times. Those words were captured by my radar and masticated for the rest of the morning as I bought my children Eid gifts and as we drove to a friend’s house for breakfast. If this holy day was “the most important” then the sacrifice had to also be of equal importance. If so, I had to make a concerted effort to fulfill it, at least one time.

Rock Falls

The plan on the morning of the Eid was to meet at a brother’s house for breakfast, then drive to the site where the sacrifices would take place. Five families about twenty to twenty five men, women, and children met at his house and had a pleasant, bountiful breakfast, al-hamdu lil Lah. We talked, laughed, exchanged stories, and prayed Zuhr then caravanned in a four vehicle convoy westward on I-88 one hour behind schedule. The ninety five mile drive was to consume over an hour. It was bitterly cold on that 11th day of February and a serious snow storm was forecasted later that evening. But, we were on a mission which neither distances nor elements could deter. It was Eid, our “most important” holy day, and we intended on celebrating it to the fullest as prescribed my Allah, Most Bountiful.

After a long drive we arrived in the small, agricultural town of Rock Falls, Illinois and quickly found the farm. We had arrived more than an hour late. The farm grounds were bulging with an assortment of vehicles and people which had converged upon it, mostly from the Chicago land area. We had to carefully maneuver our way through hastily parked vehicles, playing children, and strolling family groups to find parking. Once everyone had parked and regrouped, the men hurriedly made their way to the slaughter house and found out how the scheduling had been affected by the tardiness.

The older children split in several different directions all at once as they went about the business of burning off all that pent up energy within them. The usual restrictions placed upon them in their homes and during the long drive were lifted. They could now run, jump, skip, hop, or romp freely and unencumbered, and that they did. The smaller children were immediately drawn to the assortment of farm animals that were crowded behind fenced enclosures. They were soon petting, feeding, or being licked by cows, sheep, and goats. Many of the women stayed warm inside a shelter especially designated for them and their babies. Other women walked the grounds in groups while pushing strollers and socializing. Outside the women’s shelter area, a small group of men huddled around a large, black Weber grill out of which rose a thick, swirling, plume of smoke. They had apparently completed their sacrifice and were barbequing portions of the meat.

Meanwhile, more vehicles filled with families continued to arrive. There was a definite festive and joyous feel in the air. I felt good being there. It felt like Eid. Upon entering the slaughter house we found a relatively disorganized and chaotic environment. The place was packed mostly with men whom aggressively jockeyed for better positions on the line or argued with organizers over scheduling troubles. There were some, women included, who sat quietly on chairs along the walls and waited patiently while loved ones completed their sacrifices. Others were simply taking shelter here from the bitter cold and biting winds that could be heard howling just outside the walls or whistling through the door cracks.

To gain control of the frenzied situation and to render the room more accessible, the organizers who were referred to as ansars had to ask those not scheduled yet to leave the building until their turn. After approaching one of the main organizers, our group found out that our turn had been rescheduled a half hour later. Because we were very late, this was good news. We went back out into the freezing temperatures and spent some chilly moments with our wives and children. I took this opportunity to document this happy day with photographs and video.

Within minutes an Algerian brother named Hassan informed us that our group was next. Although surprised, we hurried back only to learn that the reigning confusion had generated yet another scheduling error. And so, we returned to our families and the cold and waited. No more than a half hour later we were summoned yet again. This time it was legitimate. Needless to say, my heart jump started and raced when faced with the reality of having to carry out the inevitable. Understandably so, I looked for a way out; a last minute reprieve perhaps. As we walked, I asked a family member, my sister-in-law’s husband, if he would be kind enough to do the deed in my stead. He declined graciously and admitted that he also had issues. This was to be his first time as well as the trepidation in his eyes attested.

Once inside we were promptly herded onto a sizeable, relatively organized line. The line meandered through a narrow, congested waiting area where the final stages of the butchering process were carried out. Skinned, steaming carcasses from recent kills were rolled to this sector from the slaughter room on tall, vertical racks and placed next to a large, rectangular, waist high, blood-stained table. At the table, a farm employee and an ansar wearing white, bloodied aprons and large, knee-high, rubber boots systematically dissected them into large sections using loud power saws and industrial size chopping tools. At this final station, an individual would place his quartered chunks of meat onto plastic bags, give away his sadaqa portion to an organizer, and take what remained to his vehicle. The option of cutting the meat into smaller pieces on a smaller table around the corner was also available.

Within moments our group made it to the entrance of the inner room. Just inside this portal, the sacrifices were taking place at a rapid, assembly-line pace. While waiting, someone said that the entire process took only ten minutes. Although I was extremely intimidated and nervous by this new experience, I allowed myself to take quick, measured peeks inside the slaughtering room. The first noticeable effect that struck me while standing at the doorway was the thick, stifling smell of flesh which saturated the air. That strong odor, in fact, lingered on my clothes, skin, hair, and mind for the rest of the day.

This small, ten to twelve foot squared slaughtering chamber was not spared from the congestion and confusion that chocked the waiting room. It was an overcrowded, busy place where everyone inside engaged in one aspect or another of the slaughtering process. Across from the entrance door in the furthest corner of the room was a large, red stain covering most of the concrete floor. It was the killing spot. The blood from previous kills still oozed slowly toward the drain in the center of the room. Along the wall adjacent to this corner was a tall and narrow, wooden fence into which the animals were herded from outside corrals. From these animals we were expected to make our selections.

In front of the corral area, several men stood over two triangular-shaped wooden racks unto which the dead, bleeding animals were lifted and placed on their backs to be skinned. One animal atop this rack was still twitching and had to be given a final coup de grace stroke. Across from them were more of those tall, metal racks where the skinned animals were hung to be gutted by a muscular, young white man who sported his baseball cap backwards and wore blood splattered clothing, apron, and boots. The chill in the air made visible oscillating columns of rising steam from the warm, skinned bodies. It was, in essence, the last remaining signs of life. Positioned underneath these racks were containers intended to catch whatever internal organ matter that poured out from the gutted animals. Other similar containers of assorted sizes were around the young man’s feet some of which were filled with guts, heads, and hoofs.

As we waited at the doorway, I observed the reactions and behavior of those ahead of me. Men who were about to make their kill were joking, laughing, and posing for group photos as if oblivious to the solemnity of this sacred moment. Their attitudes for some reason upset me. Although this was Eid, a day of happiness and celebration, their gaiety seemed acutely inappropriate and dreadfully out of place. A life, after all, was about to be taken. Somehow, I had naively expected more somber, sober comportment at least during this portion of the holy day.

The chaos in the room, meanwhile, raged on as the sounds of loud chatter, the buzzing of saws, and banging tools were exacerbated by a heated debate that broke out between organizers and farm employees over discrepancies in the exact number of animals killed so far. Forward progress became dawdling until lists were checked and double checked. When all had been settled, the word went forth that I would be next. Although I anticipated being called, the suddenness with which I was had nonetheless caught me totally unaware. My heart, consequently, began pounding mercilessly within my chest. My head and ears felt hot. They must have had, undoubtedly, turned red. In an unconscious, reflexive effort to abort my self-imposed vow, I quietly re-appealed my sister-in-law’s husband to relieve me of the responsibility. “No Yahya!” He said with a smile, “You have to do it yourself!”

The Test of Ibraheem (p)

At this juncture everything began moving much too fast. Like a person circumventing the Ka’ba in a sea of compressed humanity during the Hajj, my movements were dictated by the inertia of the circumstances around me. In short, there was no time to think or even postpone the decisions already set in motion; none that were dignified or face-saving anyway. While being escorted through the hanging carcasses, the laboring employees, the chaos, and stains of blood, I thought about making one last, desperate attempt to abort the mission. This time I thought about asking my escort, an ansar named Zuhair, to do the sacrifice for me. However, before I could even address the brother, I was hurried along to choose a lamb from behind the fenced-in area, and then I was placed into position. After all, deadlines and quotas had to be met; one animal every ten minutes.

When asked to choose from among the three available lambs, I made my selection without looking directly at any of the animals. The feelings of premeditation had, without a doubt, prevented me from doing so. I could only manage to glance in the general vicinity and quickly made a choice based on size. All of these animals, by the way, were supposed to be yearlings as agreed beforehand by both parties. But, out of the three, two were very young and small. These two which resembled the little, white lambs of famed nursery rhymes were far too cute and cuddly for my preconditioned mind to have chosen them. And, that choice without a doubt had been heavily predicated upon by my avoidance of any additional guilt.

Zuhair came to me and asked if this was my first time. Although he asked this of everyone, I wonder if my body language and overall uneasiness and apprehension were really behind his query. I nervously replied, “Yes brother!”, as I tried not to appear alarmed. While looking into my eyes, he smiled then handed me a long, heavy, black-handled, sharp, clean, shinny knife and gestured for me to wait in place. Not wanting to let anyone detect the inner trepidation swirling within me, I quickly grasped the knife and inspected the sharpness of the blade as if one having experience in such matters. Two Hispanic farm workers then brought out and wrestled the animal to the ground where they secured its legs and head. The lamb struggled a while but soon quieted down. Zuhair returned and asked me if I knew what to say. I answered, “Yes! Bismillah and Allahu Akbar!” He said, “Okay, when we are ready, just repeat after me!”

While poised to take life, I began addressing Allah, Lord of all the Worlds, Who had caused the life of this helpless creature and mine to intersect in this defining moment. I recall earnestly beseeching Him to forgive what I was about to do and to know that had He not approved of this act, I would have never engaged in it. While locked in this profound moment, the word went out to get ready. I knelt down over the animal and made my intention. Instinctively, I began feeling through the thick, white tufts of wool on the lamb’s neck in search of the jugular vein and wind pipe.

In the meantime, my heartbeat and the deafening noise echoing throughout the room prevented me from hearing my own supplications. Extremely intense was the moment that I do not remember hearing or feeling the animal beneath my knee. I waited with the knife firmly gripped in one hand and the animal’s throat under the finger tips of my other hand. At this point, there was no turning back. Strangely enough, though, at this point, I did not want to. My only remaining, uncertain issue was whether or not I could administer a clean blow whereby the least amount of pain and suffering would be afflicted upon this hapless creature. This, I was firmly determined to do.

I then repeated word for word a special prayer in the Arabic language dictated to me by Zuhair. At its conclusion, he asked me to dedicate the sacrifice in the name of my family. I did so. After a momentary pause, the okay was given. I immediately began striking upon the neck with tremendous, exaggerated force. Oddly enough, this action also seemed instinctive as if the terrifying potential to kill lay dormant within me all along. After the cutting strokes, I beheld the results of my action. A sudden explosion of dark, red blood burst out from the neck area of the animal and poured onto the floor beneath it. At that instant all the chaos and activity in the background became silent and faded as if having been temporarily erased from existence. There was, though, only the knife at the end of my clenched hand, the lifeless animal, and the red, viscous fluid gushing forth.


Soon after the death stroke I stood up hastily and was gripped with a sudden, overbearing feeling of self-consciousness and flight. I felt compelled to run away, to flee somewhere, anywhere but this place. But, again, the power of the moment and the gauntlet of heavy traffic prevented my escape. Zuhair asked me for the knife while still kneeling over the animal. Apparently, the lamb was still twitching and had to be finished off. He then applied the final stroke with great ease as if spreading butter on a slice of bread. Meanwhile, I raised my hands and continued offering more supplications. I kept repeating the only words available to my mind at the time. “Oh Allah, please forgive me! Had You not commanded it, I would not have done it!”

Seconds later, I was asked to return to the entrance where others awaited their turn. The three brothers in our group received me with smiles, approval, and felicitations. When noticing my nervous, anxious state, my brother-in-law asked if I was alright. My response was emotional, stuttered, embarrassing. He laughed, offered sympathies, and was kind enough not to make fun of me. Nevertheless, being away from the spotlight and within the comfort, safety, and cover of others helped me calm down considerably. The attention shifted to the next brother who stood with knife in hand over his animal.

As mandated by the event’s rules, each person had to stay in the room and follow the slaughtering progress to avoid ending up with someone else’s animal. To further illustrate this point, two men who had lost track of their animals began arguing civilly about whose animal was whose. My ordeal, therefore, was not over just yet. I had to remain there to monitor my lamb as it passed from station to station being bled, skinned, beheaded, be-hoofed, and gutted hurriedly to make way for the next one.

Meanwhile, other men were called forth to make their sacrifices within clear eyesight of my position. At first, I dare not look in that direction for fear of seeing the actual moment the fatal blow was applied. To me the taking of life was not an easy or pleasant sight to witness no matter the angle. Yet, I reasoned that the best way to confront these embedded fears was to observe the actual slaughter no matter how grisly it may be.

And so, I watched as several people held down a struggling goat while my brother-in-law sliced upon its neck. Without a doubt, the sight was sickening and disturbing. In my mind for some unfathomable reason, the sight came accompanied with the teeth-grinding sounds of sharp, pointy claws scratching the surface of a blackboard. Like the memory of that large hog some forty years ago back in Puerto Rico, this unforgettable incident had subsequently secured its rightful place in the virtual depository of my mind forever to be retrievable with ease and at will.

Shortly thereafter, a short, clean shaven man with thick glasses, an intense, concentrated gaze, and a pride-laden smile walked up to the entrance and prepared himself to be called. A young boy was tightly wrapped in his arms. He must have been nine or ten years old. The smiling man told me with great satisfaction and happiness that this was his son’s very first time witnessing the sacrifice. “It is good for him to see this!” He asserted confidently. I then looked down at the boy while his father spoke those bold, confident words for him. The thin, shy boy looked up, forced a smile, and tried his best to project a look of courage. But, it was obvious from his demeanor, however, that he was extremely nervous and afraid. I knew exactly how he felt.

In no time my sacrifice had made its way out of the slaughter room where it was scheduled to be divided. The crowd and noise in the waiting room had not abated in the least. There was still a long line of tightly packed brothers awaiting their turn. On their faces were looks of excitement and great anticipation. While hanging on the rack, my lamb’s carcass was quickly cut in half by an employee using an electric cutting tool with sharp, offsetting, jagged teeth. The two halves were subsequently cut into several smaller pieces. After giving the prescribed portion of sadaqa to an awaiting ansar, I put the rest in white, plastic bags and took it to my car. The whole process had taken place in no more than fifteen minutes.

The weather outside, meanwhile, had progressively gotten colder and windier. The children, however, still ran and played as if oblivious to the worsening elements. Some pre-teen boys had gathered around a deer head lying atop some crates and were poking at it with long, thin tree branches. A different group of cold, shivering, young men now crowded around the warmth and smoke of that popular black grill as they waited for their sizzling, charred morsels to finish cooking. On another smoke-emitting, steel-drum grill nearby, women zinged the hair off of goat and lamb heads and feet atop a bed of smoldering charcoals while joyfully retelling stories of similar experiences back home. My wife informed me that those animal body parts were used to make a special, hard to make dish served on special occasions. Young girls and boys curiously observed their mothers’ unusual custom and the resulting pleasure. Little did they suspect that a time-honored tradition was being passed on to them.

Although the women seemed unfazed by the horrible smell of burning hair and flesh, my olfactory senses were quite traumatized and sickened by it. I, therefore, retreated expeditiously inside the shelter area; yet, the strong, burning odor followed me around like a loyal friend. Once the women were thoroughly satisfied with their roast, we collectively decided that it was time to head back home. Strong winds had descended upon the area thereby blowing and swirling dust everywhere and making it nearly impossible to be outdoors. The predicted storm was also approaching.

We loaded up the vehicles, made a final head count, and left the farm in a convoy. Our drive out of the farm area was much easier given that the crowd had, by then, thinned considerably. About an hour later, while driving eastward toward Chicago, a fierce snow storm descended upon us bringing with it blinding, white-out conditions. By far, it was the worse storm I had ever seen or driven through. The snow was blowing horizontally across our cars, and we could hardly see the vehicle in front of us. It was so dangerous that we slowed our speeds to about twenty miles an hour.

The blizzard eventually passed over us, but not before dumping several inches of snow and leaving treacherous driving conditions all the way to Chicago. Everyone was exhausted or sleepy by the time we arrived. We all decided to call it a day rather than sharing a cup of tea at one of the family’s house as was the original plan. As the day of Eid ul Adha drew to a close there was much learned and much to reflect upon. But, little did I know, my moving experience had not yet ended.

One Final Lesson

A day or two later, the lamb’s meat made its way to my dinner table in the form of a tasty Moroccan dish made of meat, potatoes, and green peas called Tajeen. I was about to face the final phase of my test. As everyone awaited this deliciously smelling, appetizing meal, other more pressing thoughts troubled my mind which, consequently, dampened my appetite. There was a relationship, a history if you will, between this morsel of flesh and me. I had ended this creature’s life, by Allah’s will, and now I had to consume it. For me, that would not be so easy.

Usually, I had no qualms whatsoever about eating meat as long as it met the Islamic requirements for consumption. Actually, I loved eating meat, lots of it, and in just about every meal. Before this Eid we simply visited stores to select desired cuts from neatly arranged rows of meat assortments. The whole process was convenient, tidy, sanitized. There were no vexing, lingering memories to speak of. There were no scratching sounds upon a blackboard then.

And so, I sat there as my wife and children indulged freely, innocently, unencumbered. My wife, may Allah, Most Compassionate, bless her, noticed my discomfort and did not push me to eat. In time, I finally found the courage to reach out for a portion and ate it. The message transmitted to my brain from my taste buds was that the meal tasted good. But I somehow found it most difficult to savor. I may have sampled one or two more pieces before eventually opting not to eat any more of it. All subsequent meals involving this meat resulted in the same reaction. And, this held true until the meat finally finished, which, by the way, I expedited by giving more of it away to friends. What remained was eventually consumed by my family.

As the month of February came to a close, I began to arrive at some conclusions from my overall experience. First of all, I realized that I had taken Allah’s blessings for granted. I had consumed meat hundreds of times without giving any serious reflection about the life that had to be extinguished. Apparently, life’s distractions and repetitiveness had lulled me into not fully valuing this reality. I also learned that obeying Allah’s command would, at times, require difficult and painful sacrifices which most of us would rather not have to face. In addition, I came away from this experience with a newfound respect and appreciation for Prophet Ibraheem (p) and his ultimate example of true faith and obedience.

Allah, Most High, says in His Holy Book that there are things we do not like which are good for us. How true! I definitely did not delight in or enjoy the repugnant and abhorrent task of taking a life. Yet, it was good for me in the sense that, after witnessing and participating in it, I learned a valuable, unforgettable lesson. Allah, Most Merciful, had allowed me this horrid experience for a reason. All life was and is sacred, even those creatures He put under our trusteeship. Animals should not be taken for granted under any circumstance without His justification or permission. May Allah, Most Compassionate, help me never forget this timeless lesson.