Muslim Kurban Meat: To Eat or Not to Eat?

Doug Coleman Anthropology, Central Asia, Cross Cultural Ministry, Islam 4 Comments

[Note: This is a guest post from a friend and colleague used with his permission. Whether you agree with the conclusions or not, I think the post is a good example of how to think through issues from biblical, theological, and anthropological angles.]

KurbanMy family will likely never forget our first Sacrifice Holiday (Kurban) here in Central Asia. Behind our apartment sat an empty lot with a small car wash. On the morning of the holiday, cows instead of cars occupied the lot. The concrete slab transformed into a temporary slaughter house, and the pressure washer rinsed away the blood. To our westerner eyes, the sacrifice was quite a spectacle.

According to the teaching of Islam, those submitted to Allah cut the yearly sacrifice in remembrance of Abraham’s obedience and as a way to share with others. Typical practice involves keeping a third for one’s immediate family, sharing a third with friends or extended family, and giving a third to the poor. In many ways, the custom truly is an act of kindness and generosity.

In our first couple of years in country, friends and neighbors would show up at our door during the holiday with warm, fresh meat in a plastic grocery bag. We appreciated their kindness and accepted the offering. After all, meat from the market was quite expensive, and we didn’t want to offend our neighbors. However, I always had a nagging thought in the back of my mind: “Should we really accept this?”

Developments in Our Understanding of Kurban

During our third year here we became more involved with a church of local believers. We also had developed a number of relationships with local Christians over the years. Out of curiosity we began to ask what they did over the Muslim holiday of sacrifice. Without fail, all of our believing friends said they would refuse the meat. Not that they were indignant. They were simply convinced that the death of Jesus represented the final sacrifice, and they could not accept meat that had been offered to Allah. When I asked about their neighbors’ inevitable response, they said it provided opportunities to witness about the meaning of sacrifice for Christians.

Needless to say, I became increasingly concerned about our own practice of receiving the meat. First of all, I didn’t want to go against what seemed to be the custom of local Christians (at least the ones we knew). Nevertheless, I realized that, also unlike us, many of our believing friends would never even visit their Muslim neighbors on holidays. I wasn’t sure if this was an issue of personal preference, a biblical conviction, or a lack of evangelistic engagement.

Meanwhile, almost all of my expat friends and teammates accepted meat given to them during the holiday. And I had even heard stories of Christian expats sacrificing their own animals as a means of sharing with their Muslims friends and showing Christian piety.

Further complicating the matter, I knew that the Christian scriptures taught that meat sacrificed to idols was forbidden (Acts 15, 1 Cor 10). However, I also realized that there was some debate about the application of Paul’s instructions in his letter to the Corinthians. I was convinced that this was a topic worth investigating.

Islamic Understanding of Kurban

Standard Islamic teaching states that the purpose of the sacrifice is for two basic reasons, submission and sharing. They don’t understand their sacrifices to be atoning or as an offering for sin to appease God. It is simply meant to be a reenactment of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail (according to the Quran). Through animal sacrifice modern-day Muslims show their own submission to the will of Allah and generosity toward the poor. Because of this, many expat Christians I knew, including myself, viewed sacrificed meat as scarcely different from a cup of tea. After all, my Muslim friends had told me before that everything they do is an act of worship, and even tea offered to a stranger is worthy of earning Allah’s favor.

However, to speak of standard Islamic teaching on the subject of sacrifice would be a misnomer. The singular tree of Islam has many branches, not to mention myriad superstitions and folk beliefs. As I talked with my own Muslim friends and neighbors, they echoed the fundamental understanding of sacrifice, but they also added their own interpretations. In order to come to terms with my personal convictions and to square the teaching of scripture with the practice of Islamic sacrifice, I began inquiring my friends whenever possible. The answers I received were many.

Some did it merely as a family tradition with little or no religious significance. Others emphasized the purpose of giving to the poor. Some mentioned Abraham, but they rarely knew the specifics of the story. There were even more, when pressed, who opened up about the need for sacrifice. It was a way to show devotion to Allah. It was a way to merit salvation. Some said that if they didn’t sacrifice they couldn’t go to heaven.

Then just the other day during the Ramadan Holiday one of my neighbors asked for my thoughts on the sacrifice holiday. Mostly he was curious what I thought of the dry field outside of our apartment that would run red with blood in two months. But I was more interested in the meaning behind the sacrifice. He told me that kurban was a sacrifice for sin. If he offered a lamb, he could earn merit for one person. But if he offered a bull, he could earn favor with God for up to seven dead relatives. Through the sacrifice he could essentially purchase salvation for himself and his family.

While his understanding is perhaps at odds with orthodox Islamic teaching and certainly different than the biblical idea of atonement, his sacrifice is ultimately offered for sin to purchase salvation. When I asked him if he would say that his sacrifice was for the forgiveness of sins, he agreed. Through the favor he earns with his sacrifice, he believes that he can cancel out the debt of his sins and those of his relatives.

In our particular context, I have come to find that views on the purpose of sacrifice vary from city to city, even family to family. Furthermore, the spectrum of religious significance can be quite broad. Some understand the ritual as a way to appease Allah or even purchase forgiveness. Others, however, may perform the sacrifice as a cultural tradition almost completely void of meaning.

Biblical Teaching on the Subject of Sacrificed Meat

For some time I assumed that the teaching of scripture on meat sacrificed to idols was somehow incongruent with a Muslim context. If Islamic sacrifice was simply an expression of obedience and generosity and not an offering for sin, it seemed to be in a different category. After all, even meat sold in the market has an Islamic prayer recited over it before it is butchered. Wouldn’t it then be virtually impossible to find meat in a Muslim country that has not been killed or sacrificed in the name of Allah?

When I considered the biblical witness on the subject, I began to find some clarity. In Acts 15, during what was to be the first church council, the apostles and James came to the conclusion that Christians were not obligated to obey the Law of Moses. However, in a seemingly strange amendment, James did put stipulations on the churches’ freedom. They were to abstain from meat offered to idols.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul lays out a full argument on the issue of meat offered to idols (chapters 8-10). While he does admit that idols are nothing, and meat offered to them is simply meat, in chapter 8 he cautions against eating in front of a weaker brother who might misunderstand and fall back into idol worship. He then argues for believers to follow his example and give up their rights (freedom to eat) for the sake of their brothers and the gospel (chapter 9).

But then in a seemingly strange twist, Paul argues for much more than selfless service. He urges his readers to give up idol meat for self-preservation. In fact, this is Paul’s mindset in preaching, always checking himself lest he also fall into sin and away from grace (9:27). At this point in the argument, Paul provides the notorious example of the wilderness generation (chapter 10). Despite having experienced God’s manifold grace and power, the children of Israel turned back to idols in the wilderness.

Following the logic of Paul, this is his exact fear for the Corinthian believers. Not only should they be concerned about their weaker brother’s stumbling, they must worry about their own souls’ proclivity to turn back to idols. At this point, Paul gives his most clear rejection of eating meat offered to idols. Even though idols are no real gods, behind them are a host of demons. Partaking in food offered to idols is sharing in the table of demons. And no true follower of Christ can or should partake in the Table of the Lord (Communion, here a symbol of salvation) and the table of demons.

While most western Christians that I know seem to be aware of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians, without fail the emphasis seems to be on chapter 8. Idols aren’t really anything. Food offered to idols is therefore without significance. But they fail to take into account the full force and scope of Paul’s argument. When read in the context of chapter 10, the passage makes a strong case for the reasoning behind the decision of the first church council. Christians must not eat meat sacrificed to other gods.

The issue becomes even more interesting when we consider the cultural context of the Corinthians and the early church. Pagan worship in the Greek world of the New Testament involved animal sacrifice to idols. Their particular view of sacrifice was not equivalent to a Judeo-Christian view of atonement, propitiation and expiation. Perhaps the most common purpose for pagan sacrifice was to appease the gods or to earn favor before an important endeavor, such as going to war. Even though these sacrifices were not necessarily offerings for sin or propitiatory in nature, Paul unreservedly rules out the option of knowingly eating meat from such sacrifices.

In other words, there does not appear to be an exception for meat that is not sacrificed as a sin offering. In fact, the pagan purpose for animal sacrifice mirrors many of the common reasons for Islamic sacrifice—particularly for the kind of sacrifices offered in our country at the grand opening of a new business or when a president is elected. The only possible difference between the contexts is that pagans offered their sacrifices to physical idols. Muslims offer theirs in worship of the invisible Creator. Ultimately Christians must ask themselves if, like the pagan idols, they believe the worship of Allah in Islam constitutes idolatrous worship. Put another way, they must determine if they believe the kurban of Islam is offered to the God of Christianity.

More Questions That Must Be Answered

Given these considerations, and particularly in light of the local understanding of kurban in our neighborhood, our family has made a firm decision to not receive meat sacrificed during this year’s holiday. However, that does not mean we believe Christians in every place, regardless of context, should abandon receiving meat from their Muslim neighbors and friends. In every area, we would encourage Christians, foreign and local, to consider some fundamental questions that will aid them in coming to a right application of biblical teaching on the subject.

Do Christians and Muslims both worship the true God?

Is Islamic worship idolatrous in nature?

What constitutes a sacrifice of worship? (Opposed to cultural tradition or normal slaughter)

Can we participate in Islamic sacrifice and the sacrifice of Christ (in Communion)?

What constitutes such participation? (Paul seems to establish two criteria: eating in the pagan temple in the presence of the idol, or eating meat elsewhere that we know was sacrificed to an idol.)

Once these questions have been addressed by an individual, a family, or a community of faith, further investigation may still be necessary. Of course, I would recommend a careful study of Paul’s instructions to the church at Corinth. But there are other avenues of study as well. Ask what the local believers in your city do. Ask what local Muslims in your context believe about the meaning of sacrifice. Then, if possible, consult with other expat believers who have more wisdom and experience on this issue.

As Christians seeking to be faithful to scripture and desirous to reach the lost around us, we may come to different conclusions. Some may fear that refusing sacrificed meat would offend Muslim friends. Others may desire to use the sacrifice holiday as a way to connect with neighbors and contextualize the message. However, we must not make such important decisions while ignorant of the clarion teachings of scripture on the crucial subject of sacrifice. We must follow the guidance of Paul and put others before our own convenience or preferences. We must protect the consciences of our brothers and seek the salvation of our neighbors. And we must take care lest we stumble and fall like those in the wilderness into unwitting idolatry.

On this critical topic, every believer should make an informed decision based on his or her conscience, taking into account the text of scripture and the context of ministry. Whatever the decision, whether we eat or drink or whatever we do, may it all be done to the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31).

Doug ColemanMuslim Kurban Meat: To Eat or Not to Eat?

Comments 4

  1. Ed Roberts

    The author above concludes: “When read in the context of chapter 10, the passage makes a strong case for the reasoning behind the decision of the first church council. Christians must not eat meat sacrificed to other gods.”

    This is a helpful discussion but I wonder about a few things related to the Corinthian context: Might the different statements on idols and meat be rooted in Paul’s distinction between eating food sacrificed to idols while on the temple premises and eating food sacrificed to idols in other more private contexts? It’s not immediately clear to me in the various verses what is meant by eating meat sacrificed to idols, though I’m certain the NT believers in Corinth or other pagan cities would have known what this meant and did not mean. Put another way, would it ever have been possible for anyone in Corinth to eat ANY meat that had not been sacrificed to idols? Was not all meat sacrificed to idols in Corinth? Could believers frequent and patronize the Christian equivalent of “halal butchers” in Corinth? Might Paul have forbidden eating idol meat in pagan temple or worship settings, but permitted it in some other more private and less religious settings? Could it be that Acts 15 restrictions on eating meat sacrificed to idols has in mind the eating of meat in an idol’s temple only (I Cor 8.10, cf I Cor 10:25-6 ) and not the participation in other meals where meat (sacrificed to idols, incidentally) might be included without necessarily violating any sensitive consciences? If so that might adjust how we approach the problem of eating a variety of foods in a variety of contexts in Muslim cultures. Perhaps?

    I like the questions at the end but would refine them a bit:

    It would help to know what you mean to include in worship when you ask if Islamic worship is idolatrous? Do you mean the cultus, the forms and practices, the 5 pillars, all that the Hadith entails?

    What’s the difference between observing muslim feasts, rituals as a non-participating spectator and participating actively and “religiously” in a sacrificial ritual? There seems to be a difference and that difference should be teased out it seems to me. You started to do that a bit, but I was left confused.

    Thanks for raising these important issues!

    1. Post
      Doug Coleman

      Hi Ed,
      Thanks for commenting. These are good questions. I’ll make sure to pass them along to the author. As you mention, there are lots of other issues that need to be considered if we are concerned with developing a full-blown framework for living in Muslim contexts. However, the author here is dealing with a rather specific question: Will I accept meat offered to me by Muslims during the Sacrifice Holiday when I know it has been sacrificed as part of their observance of Islamic teaching?
      Thanks for your input. It’s always welcome.

    2. Elliot Clark

      First of all, Ed, I want to thank you for interacting with my writing. I myself am still wrestling with the application of Paul’s instructions, so your questions have helped sharpen my own understanding. You also bring up a number of helpful questions. I will likely not be able to address every one of them, but I will try to focus on those that relate specifically to the issue of receiving kurban meat.

      As you imply, Paul does seem to make a distinction between eating meat in the idol temple and eating it elsewhere. In the case where it is uncertain or only possible that the meat has been sacrificed to idols, he recommends not making it an issue. The believer need not fear. He is free to eat in good conscience. However, as soon as the meat is known to be sacrificed to an idol, Paul’s instruction is to not eat it.

      Incidentally, I think this example argues against any assumption that all meat on Corinth dinner tables must have been sacrificed to idols. If that were the case, Paul’s teaching regarding potentially-sacrificed meat becomes essentially meaningless.

      If we can agree that Paul (and the apostles) were against eating idol meat in the pagan temple (8:10), and if we agree that Paul warned against knowingly eating idol meat in the context of a separate dinner (10:28), the only remaining scenario is the possibility of knowingly eating idol meat in private, or at least not in front of those who might be tempted and stumble. Translated into our context, if there were no MBBs in the dining room who could be negatively affected, would it be permissible to knowingly eat?

      Here again I return to what I consider to be the climax of Paul’s argument. Christians cannot partake in the table of demons and the table of the Lord. On this issue, I think it may be helpful to consider further what Paul meant by the term “participation”. Does participation only happen when the participant eats at the temple? Interestingly, Paul draws an important parallel in 1 Corinthians to the people of Israel’s participation in the altar. But when we look back at Leviticus 7, I think we can safely draw the assumption that participants in the altar did not necessarily eat the sacrifice on the tabernacle/temple grounds. In particular, I have in mind the directives regarding the consumption of sacrificed meat. In some cases it had to be eaten before sundown. But in others, the meat simply needed to be eaten before the third day (7:17). Presumably, those who “participated” in the altar were eating the sacrifice in the hours and days following in their own homes.

      In other words, Paul does not explicitly equate the idea of participation in the table of demons with the mere act of eating at the idol temple. Instead, by drawing the comparison to the Jewish temple cult, he opens the door to understanding participation in the sacrifice much more broadly (i.e. eating in private homes).

      Lastly, it seems to be an argument from silence to suggest that the prohibition of eating idol meat should be restricted to eating in the temple. When we look at James’ prohibitions in Acts 15, Paul’s letter to Corinth, or even John’s correction of the churches at Pergamum (Rev 4:14) and Thyatira (Rev 4:20), the caveat of “within the temple” is never provided.

      Interestingly enough, each of those texts also addresses the issue of sexual immorality. More than likely, they referred to the gross immorality that accompanied idolatry within the pagan temple. However, none of us would argue that the prohibition of sexual immorality in the NT stems from Acts 15 and is therefore limited to its practice within a pagan temple. In other words, I think the burden of proof is on anyone who would claim that the preclusion of eating idol meat for Christians is confined to the ceremonies and celebration within an idolatrous house of worship.

      Lastly with regard to the question of Islamic worship being idolatrous, I have only a short response. While Muslims do not worship a graven image in violation of the second commandment, they do worship (in my view) another god entirely, which clearly violates the first. With that in mind, I understand any worship, praise, good work, prayer, or sacrifice offered to Allah of Islam to be inherently idolatrous. However, I would not necessarily view certain forms that such worship takes to be necessarily idolatrous.

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