[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.]
My 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).