Tuesday, December 20, 2016

PIA's Black Goat Sacrifice

Genesis 8:21. And the LORD smelled a sweet smell; and the LORD said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake; for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.

A few days ago a PIA ATR-42 aircraft crashed while on a routine flight; as a result, all ATR aircraft were grounded while PIA carried out some tests and made sure they were good to fly. Having conducted whatever testing PIA engineering considered necessary (and I have no doubt they did whatever testing is standard in the industry; they are a well established airline with many competent engineers), they resumed flight operations. But the engineering department at Islamabad international airport felt they should take some extra precautions before they sent off their first flight. They decided to sacrifice a black goat to ask for Allah's blessings on this occasion. Pictures of this (necessarily blood-stained) ceremony went viral on the internet and excited considerable interest.

Westernized Pakistanis (and Indians for that matter) were almost universally derisive about the event. Some common themes included:

1. That this is rank superstition and shows us in a bad light, as it seems that PIA is relying on superstitious mumbo-jumbo instead of good engineering practice. 

2. That while quasi-religious or religious rituals (even this one) maybe OK for someone to do in his or her private life, a state owned corporation should not be indulging in them. 

3. That it looks gross and unsanitary and is a horrible image to put out there. 

And so on. 

There was also some comment from orthodox Muslims saying that sacrificing a black goat is "not our tradition" and is a form of "bidaa" (innovation); there was some discussion that this is a Hindu practice and not "really Islamic"

I had the following thoughts on this and wonder if people have any comments. 

1. We are obviously not the only people who perform some rituals to obtain divine favor, good luck or simply honor tradition, on such occasions. As the following pictures make clear, this kind of thing is nearly universal and most societies seem to have some rituals that are performed when any new or hazardous undertaking is begun. Airlines may not always perform any complicated ritual when clearing a fleet for operations, but it all seems to depend on how routine you feel your undertaking happens to be. In this case, PIA seems to have felt it was important enough. You can disagree with that, but it is not totally outside the realm of normal human practice to ask for divine favor at such a time. 

2. Nor is the shedding of blood that far outside traditional practice. Mary and Joseph offered two doves (Luke 2:21-24) for the birth of the prince of peace. Muslims offer two sheep for the birth of a boy and one for a girl (Sunan Abu Dawood 2836). If the clearance of an aircraft for flight sounds a bit less significant, consider that the hadith literature includes a hadith about the holy prophet advising a man to sacrifice a sheep to help get rid of head lice (the man was also advised to shave his head, so the sheep was NOT the only intervention) (Sahih Bokhari 71:604) . And of course, we sacrifice millions of animals on Eid every year. And of course, there are goat sacrifices (and chickens, and other animals) in Shaktist Hinduism and the horse sacrifice was a famous part of ancient Indo-European religion.

So, while many people may consider animal sacrifice outdated or cruel, it it neither uncommon, nor outdated, certainly not for Muslims (considering how many animals are sacrificed every year for various reasons).

3. I take it as a given that we all agree that rituals per se are an important part of any shared culture and no culture can really exist without any rituals. Whether a particular ritual is good or bad is another discussion.

4. So I propose that the opposition to this particular ritual really reflects something else about our culture. That it is not, in fact, a culture where there is wide agreement about what constitutes our culture. No culture has universal agreement on such things, and all cultures are hybrids and are constantly in transition, but ours is perhaps more so than most. Are we Indians? Ex-Hindus who retain some Hindu features? Arabs (or rather, neo-Arabs)? Westerners? Something else entirely?

When the PIA engineers sacrificed this goat, they thought they were doing something well established and even standard in our culture: i.e. sacrificing a black goat to ward off bad luck. They felt so easy about this that they did it in public and probably made videos and took pictures as they did it with no fear that they will be ridiculed and insulted for doing so. They turned out to be wrong (i.e. they were widely ridiculed). Now, there can be no doubt about the fact that many people in Pakistan do think sacrificing a black goat to ward off evil is not a bad idea. The ex-president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, is said to have sacrificed one every day of his presidency (and it worked, he completed his term). But equally clearly, there are many neo-orthodox Muslims who are convinced that his is, in its origins, a Hindu ritual (they may be right). These orthodox Muslims clearly do not approve of it. And then there are many Westernized Pakistanis (whether "moderate Muslim", secretly atheist, semi-secretly agnostic or vigorously rationalist) who find this superstitious, distasteful and even laughable.

I am not too concerned in this post with "who is right", but mostly with just bringing it up that we have very sharp divisions on this topic. If President Obama pardons a Turkey or Queen Elizabeth smashes a bottle on the Royal Navy's few remaining ships, almost nobody finds it objectionable. Even rationalists will go along with it as a "harmless ritual". Our culture is more conflicted. And when it comes to animal sacrifice, things start to get even more complicated. In a Muslim country, this is not yet a topic on which there can be strong public disapproval of ALL animal sacrifice as such; the practice is too firmly supported by classical Islam for anyone to risk a blasphemy or apostasy charge by going too far in their opposition, whatever their private feelings. But it is increasingly likely that animal sacrifices outside of Aqeeqa and Eid (two occasions on which the classical Islamic position is crystal clear, so no opposition can go too far) will become increasingly controversial. Those (like sacrificing a black goat) that can be accused of pagan roots will become less and less likely in official settings, though private use will likely continue for generations.
What do you think?