Religion Behind the Scenes spotlights the less visible, but no less crucial, tasks that keep religious communities running, and the people who make it all happen.
The festival of sacrifice, Eid-ul-Adha, is one of the central rituals of the Muslim faith. The festival commemorates the sacrifice described in the Qur’an, when Ibrahim—one of the messengers of Allah—was commanded in a dream to sacrifice his son, Ismail. Just as the blade grazed Ismail’s neck, it is believed that Allah put a ram in Ismail’s place. Every year, Muslims commemorate this ultimate sacrifice and test of faith over a three-day festival by sacrificing a goat, cow or camel, and distributing one third of the meat among the underprivileged.
It is estimated that Pakistan sacrificed nearly 8 million animals last year alone—and that’s less than usual. But who are the people slaughtering these animals? The sacrifice is a ritual, after all, with many nuances, and numerous obligations must be fulfilled. What does Islam demand, not just in the moment of taking the animal’s life, but in all the moments leading up to it?
Meet Arsalan Qureshi, a fourth-generation butcher trained in the art of halal slaughtering. He is part of the Qureshi tribe in Pakistan, which has been compassionately butchering animals as far back as their elders can remember.
Tell me about your family history with halal slaughtering.
My great-great grandfather was one of the most renowned slaughterers in Agra, India. I’m told that, after partition, my great-grandfather moved to Pakistan and set up a small butchering shop. By my father’s time, we were rearing livestock—mainly goats, cows, and bulls—in the outskirts of Karachi, Pakistan. I grew up around these animals, and each would be a part of the family for 3-4 years before we slaughtered it—at times for the festival of Eid, but often just for the meat shop.
Fueled by this “expiration date” on my relationship with each animal, I regularly skipped school. My father would be furious but, with time, he started letting me watch him as he slaughtered the animals for the shop. I was 8 when I watched the full process for the first time, during Eid. He looked the animal in the eye, turned her face towards Mecca and, with one strong swoop and jerk of the neck, felled her to the ground.
My training began soon after. I pulled out of school eventually—no one in my family really stayed for long—and would watch my father tend to the animals, train them...and slaughter them. He never cried, except when he sold an animal to someone else for Eid. Like his father and his father’s father, he taught me about the rights of the animal, such as diligently sharpening your knife each time (to avoid undue suffering). I started with odd jobs, trying to emulate my dad in giving each animal—and later, each cut of meat—the reverence it deserves.
That was 20 years ago and, today, I can slaughter the largest animal you put in front of me independently. It’s in our blood, I guess. But we’re not qasaai [Urdu for slaughterers or butchers]. We are Qureshis.
Wait, so they’re not the same thing?
Anyone can be a butcher. You could hack an animal with an axe and say you’re done. That’s one of the biggest misconceptions of our craft—that it’s just about cutting through the neck or saying a few words. It is, veritably, an art form. We’re animal whisperers. Our job begins far before the animal is slaughtered, and it ends long after the first cut. Meat does not become halal in just the moment of slaughtering. It’s how the animal is raised and cared for.
Animal whisperers...Tell me a little bit about the intuitive relationship you have with the animals while you raise them.
Understanding these animals is our livelihood. Sure, we don’t do any of the fancy things that the Defence-walay [a euphemism for members of the elite in an affluent neighborhood of Karachi] do, like putting them in air-conditioned tents or feeding them desi ghee and pistachios. These days, I’ve even seen DSLR-armed photographers showing up for photoshoots and ostentatious backdrops prepared for slaughter. Those types of things...you do them for a few days or weeks and it’s over. It’s never really about the animal.
But we get them. We look after each creature for a minimum of 2 years, more when we’re raising Sibbi bulls [one of the largest and most expensive bulls], or breeding a cow. Our relationship goes beyond milking and feeding. You need to be respectful. I have so much respect for all these animals, especially the ones for the sacrifice. They’re the ones that are going to take us across Pul-e-Siraat. [The bridge traditionally believed to stretch across the gaping flames of Hell. The bridge is said to be thinner than a hair, sharper than a sword, and hotter than fire—and only the believers will be able to cross over it unscathed. Hadith (the collected sayings of the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him, states that the sacrificed animals will carry the person who offered the sacrifice over the bridge at lightning speed]. So, you’ve got to respect the animals.
But you also need to be firm. Nobody wants inferior meat, especially when the animal’s been artificially fattened up through steroid injections, harmful feed, or not being allowed to graze and wander. I can touch the tail of any cow, goat, ram or camel and tell you any defects it may have. Whenever we eat beef or mutton curry, I point out to my wife what cut of meat it was, whether the animal was young or old, and what type of life it had. In our lineage, we all do that. It’s pretty frustrating for outsiders when we attend their weddings!
In what other ways is it a family affair?
Our children constantly play with the animals; but they know that it’s forbidden to sit on a sacrificial animal, so there’s that reticence as well. We also take great pride in the fact that none of our clothes are sent to the dhobi [Urdu for laundryman], no matter how drenched in blood they might be. None of the women—my mother, sisters, aunts or wife—gets queasy or squeamish around blood.
What are the tools of your trade?
In halal slaughtering, it’s important for the knife to be extremely sharp—almost surgically so— so the animal doesn’t suffer. I need to make a clean cut through the carotid arteries, the windpipe and jugular veins. If you think about it, none of these animals come inscribed with a theological identity from the heavens. Goats aren’t born halal or haram [lawful or unlawful]. It’s my knife, and the ritual, which charge meat with such spiritual meaning and make it lawful for you and me to consume.
I never share my knives with another slaughterer—even from my own family. There’s also great emphasis in Islam in weighing the meat correctly, so I have my own balance. I’ve heard of unscrupulous butchers messing with the weights as well, so I always carry my own. I use the best, thickest blocks I can afford, and like them to age out. The tree trunk becomes softer and more pliable the more it’s worked on. And the rope; it seems so banal, but a good quality rope that’s strong enough to restrain a 1500-pound animal—but not splintery or made of plastic to dig into the neck—is vital. Qureshis don’t actually believe in tying the animal’s hooves until it’s absolutely necessary. I look straight into the eyes, like my father, and twist its neck to bring it down [but not kill it]. A good dose of bravery is crucial. Physical strength helps.
How exactly is halal slaughtering different?
First of all, it’s Sunnah [or the way of the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him] to provide the animal free access to water and food before slaughtering. We soothe and touch it, then turn it to face qibla (Mecca) and bring it down on its left flank, because the pressure on the heart encourages more blood to be pumped out. The heart keeps pumping for a few seconds after we slaughter it, so you get these gushes of blood. It needs to drain out of the carcass fully, both to eject toxins and because blood is considered haraam (unlawful and forbidden) for Muslims.
A big misconception is that when the animal is spasming—I’ve seen animals get up and run while their head is detached—it means it’s fighting for life and in immense pain. But when you sever the throat, it can’t feel pain anymore. Those are muscle spasms as the blood courses through and the animal relaxes.
Alternatives to halal slaughter, like these high-tech stunning techniques or powerful jerks to break the neck, stop the blood from flowing freely. That causes both blood clotting and trauma. And the more stress you put the animal in—the more it struggles—the less tender and juicy the meat is. And of course, [as we perform the slaughter] we say Bismillahi-Allahu Akbar [In the name of Allah the greatest] three times to bless the act.
Tell me about the day of the festival.
In the weeks leading up to Eid-ul-Adha, I’m contacted by hundreds of families in the city. I have some regulars, whose parents’ animals I slaughtered...whose grandparents’ animals my father slaughtered; but [requests] increase each year through word of mouth. If the animal hasn’t been purchased from me, I ask the weight, breed, and price before committing, and visit the residence if I can. I need to know what its temperament is.
On the first day of Eid, sacrifices start right after Eid prayers, so I don’t even sleep on Chand Raat [the night before Eid]. My team and I offer our prayers and set out. I keep 9 to 11 semi or fully trained butchers with myself, and we move from house to house in a Suzuki. I do the slaughtering myself, and divide the cow into 4 general parts, and then leave assistants to help create the shares. A goat or sheep has one share; cows and camels have seven. Often, there’s more than one person offering the sacrifice—in a joint, collective sacrifice—so we divvy it up for them equally. But, after that, the people offering the sacrifice have to divide their own share into three parts: one for themselves, the second for relatives, and the third for the needy.
With this system, I slaughter 40-42 animals on each day of Eid, which makes around 120 animals overall. The first animal I slaughter is immediately after the prayers, and you need to finish slaughtering before sunset, but preparing meat can take longer. There’s more sawaab [reward in the afterlife] for [sacrifices made on] the first day, so it’s the busiest.
What are the religious obligations for qurbani [sacrifice]?
Well, the act of slaughtering is pretty much the same. One still doesn’t need to be in a state of purity through ablution. Our nature of work isn’t such. Halal slaughtering is halal slaughtering during or outside of Eid. It’s the whole ecosystem surrounding it that needs to be respected. Islamic etiquette dictates that the animal being slaughtered doesn’t see any other animal’s sacrifice, or blood, because it strikes terror in their hearts.
The real art comes in selecting the animal. In remembrance of Prophet Ibrahim’s (AS) act of devotion, it’s meant to be as dear to you as your son. An unblemished animal is necessary, meaning it can’t be injured in any way or form—from cracked hooves to chipped horns. It needs to have at least two teeth, unless the offeror of the sacrifice has personally seen it grow up for two years. And a female can’t be expecting or have just given birth. If you’ve slaughtered the animal and see she was with child, it becomes mandatory to make another sacrifice of an animal of equal or more value than the original. The same applies if the animal is injured in any way during your care. If it’s a fatal injury, it’s considered carrion meat and not consumed. But if it’s just a broken limb, we can proceed to slaughter it—though it won’t be considered a sacrifice. Last Eid, one of the families I was booked for lowered their bull from the roof of an apartment complex through a crane, and it fell. The sacrifice wasn’t accepted, and the injured bull was just slaughtered to be put out of its misery.
Ideally, such strict requirements would mean that all the rearers would take exceptional care of their animals, making for better animal treatment overall. But I’ve seen so many unscrupulous breeders hot-gluing horns or getting fake teeth for their animals. There’s an entire black market for goat dentures and glue-on tails or horns.
In Islam, actions are judged by intention. In my experience, the most esteemed sacrifice is when the offeror gets the animal months in advance and takes care of it. There are families that apply mehndi designs [or body art], adorn them with necklaces, get special bangles, take them on walks, and just spend time loving them.
And the halal-ness of the slaughter doesn’t stop after the sacrifice. You need to make the seven portions, and then the three portions, equally. Each portion needs to have equal meat, bones and fat. You can’t just hand the scraps to the poor and keep the best for yourself. There’s a lot that can render the sacrifice void. Especially these days.
Well, this is one of the biggest misconceptions. The qasaai [or slaughterer] has rights too. In fact, the qasaai has the biggest right to the kidney, which is cooked fresh. But these days, that just doesn’t happen.
You see the imams [Islamic community leaders] who perform the nikkah [marriage vows] or the doctors who perform circumcision...everyone who makes these rituals possible…they are appreciated and given gifts. But, as these animals become more of a status symbol in Karachi, people are getting stingier instead of more generous. They’ll say they don’t have cash at the moment, and I’ll have to rush to my next appointment. But, when I come back, the women answer the door and claim no men are at home. I go a couple of times, but I have my own self-respect too, you know? I can’t beg for what was rightfully mine. In that kind of situation, I just quietly revert to my Allah. I make the intention that the sacrifice was void, because an act of devotion can’t be built on deceit.
Ironically, the nicer the neighborhood and the richer the household, the higher the likelihood that we’ll be ripped off. How can you pay a million rupees for an imported animal and then haggle with us for the measly 16,000 PKR (around 100 USD) that we charge for slaughtering? It’s a vicious cycle. Other so-called qasaais drive the rates down.
During Eid, everyone’s a butcher looking to make a quick buck. I’ve seen construction workers lay down their hammers for a few days and use brute strength to butcher animals. Rickshaw drivers, pushcart peddlers, even sweepers all become qasaais for the festival. They have no idea how to go about it. Here’s how to tell whether your qasaai is experienced. A Qureshi, or any professional qasaai, will remove the hide entirely intact, including the tail. But these amateurs? They’ll chop off the tail and throw it a mile away.
Tell me a bit about the different animals you’ve slaughtered. Do any stand out with unusual stories?
The slaughter I’m proudest of is an 800 kilo (1700 pound) bull; but camels are always interesting too. There’s such potent healing in every part of that animal, and you can feel the centuries of tradition in the primal technique. Neighbors throng to see the camel sacrifice, and queue up to get a bone (burying it in your home is believed to reverse the effects of black magic), or catch the spilling blood (it aids in joint relief for the elderly). It’s disruptive to me at times. I get frustrated, too, but it’s such a regal animal.
What’s a side of Eid only you see, that might surprise people?
The remonstration of the kids who’ve grown attached to the animals is endearing. I always glance up at the building or house window as I approach the animal. 8 times out of 10, you’ll see a small (or big) tear-stained face peering down. Almost every year, I have households who ask me to come back on the third day of Eid as their child wants to spend as much time as possible with the animal. I also see the greed of some adults, saving delicacies (such as the brain) for themselves. I see power struggles between family members as I’ll let a family member hold the knife with me, and there’s a sort of prestige in that—so brothers and cousins might compete. Some purchase the animal on the first day of Eid (because the rates are lower and the breeders from rural areas are itching to go home), and then sacrifice it on the second or third day. But that’s the exception, not the norm.
The side of Eid I’m blessed to see most is when families have saved for months—at times, for years—and are carrying out the ritual in the spirit of generosity it was intended. I see the meat distributed to the poor and the way they enjoy the rarity of having such protein-rich meals. Some families time marriages around Eid because they know they’ll have food. So, I’d say that what I see, through my work and through my animals, is humanity.
Describe a typical day outside of Eid.
I reach my shop at 7 am. I slaughter 4 cows or bulls a week, a 100 kg one on Monday, which lasts from Monday to Thursday usually. On Friday, I aim for a 90 kg animal, Saturday is 110, and Sunday is usually the heaviest—and sold out in a day. More people come on Sunday. Alhamdulillah [All praise to Allah], people throughout the city seek me out as ‘Aslam bhai’s [brother’s] son’ for my clean cuts of meat, regardless of religion. I get more customers from other faiths for mutton, and I slaughter goats on and off throughout the week. How many hours does it take me, you ask? Ha! I’m done with the entire process and ready to start selling meat within 20 minutes.
What motivates you to keep doing this work?
It’s a respectable profession. I risk my life with every halal slaughter I undertake. Butchers...they slaughter people. They suck them dry. Qureshis? We know the rights of the human, the rights of the animal and, most importantly, the rights of the ritual. All we ask, in return, is for ours.
Interview conducted, edited, and translated by Aysha Imtiaz. All images courtesy of Aysha Imtiaz.
Aysha Imtiaz is a freelance journalist and elementary school language arts teacher in Karachi, Pakistan. She is a teacher by day, editor and writer by night — and mom to twin boys and a girl 24/7.
4/14/2021 7:02:46 PM