Azerbaijan: Debating the Meaning of Kurban Bayram

Author: Ilkin Huseynov

It’s the blood that draws the eye. But beyond that is the question of how predominantly secular Azerbaijan should commemorate Kurban Bayram (Eid al-Adha), the Festival of Sacrifice, one of the Islamic world’s major holidays.

Seven decades of communist rule did nothing to dent the popularity of Kurban Bayram among Azerbaijanis. It has been a state holiday since 1992, just following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  This year it was marked on August 22-23.

To mark the holiday, religious Azerbaijanis visit mosques, perform special namaz (ritual, five-times-a-day prayers) or complete a pilgrimage to Mecca, but many others see Kurban Bayram as a secular event; a chance to take a short vacation, throw a dinner party and spend time with relatives.

The holiday’s roots date back to a story from the life of the Prophet Abraham, familiar also to Jews and Christians. Muslims believe that Allah ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son, Ishmael (Jews and Christians state Issac),as a test of his faith in God. As a true believer, Abraham prepared to execute this order to demonstrate his submission and devotion. But God sent a ram to sacrifice instead.

That act remains at the center of Kurban Bayram. On the holiday’s first day, observant Azerbaijani males go to open-air markets to purchase a sheep, pay for its slaughter, the skinning of its carcass and the carving of its meat. Young boys sell bags for customers to take the meat home.  Islamic tradition dictates that the meat be distributed to the underprivileged.

No one challenges this tradition, but some animal-rights defenders question the necessity of the public slaughter of sheep, an act they consider unethical and cruel.

Elkhan Mirzoev, a vegetarian and prominent animals’ right activist, refuses to celebrate Kurban Bayram. “Painting streets [red] with the blood of animals is a disgusting scene,” Mirzoyev says. Observant Muslims can mark the holiday in ways other than by slaughtering animals, he underlines.

In certain villages, for instance, animal-rights defenders have gone to shops and asked to be shown the lists of shoppers who owe neighborhood shopkeepers money. “They paid those debts for the people in need. It was a way of animal lovers sharing values” appropriate for the holiday.

Buying flour, rice and other necessities for those in need would also “better match the [holiday’s] philosophy of sacrifice,” he continues.

To Ulfat Namaz, a practicing Muslim and head of the non-profit Azerbaijan Vegetarian Community, that philosophy means “to sacrifice, let’s say, bad behavior, a harmful feature that we are dependent on.”

The holiday does not justify the widespread killing of animals, he believes. “God created humans and animals equal. The only difference is just about their consciousness. Both are children of God.”

The fact that both children and animals apart from sheep witness the widespread slaughter for Kurban Bayram disturbs Mirzoyev and others still further. “Religious belief should be inside human beings. Why should I see bloody streets when I open my window? It’s not acceptable,” Mirzoyev says.

Shi’a cleric Haji Shahin Hasanli, though, maintains that Kurban Bayram is a religious rite which should not be questioned.  “Animals are slaughtered all over the world; not just in Muslim communities,” he notes.

But he concedes that Azerbaijanis should avoid slaughtering sheep “in public places, in the open air in front of people; especially children.” The slaughter, he advises, should occur amidst “hygienic conditions on closed premises.”

This year, in Azerbaijan, the Food Safety Agency authorized 32 sites, ordinarily used to butcher cattle, for the slaughter of Kurban sheep. Elsewhere, local officials were instructed to designate for the slaughter sites that met state sanitary regulations.

Male sheep, cows and camels can all be sacrificed. However, in Azerbaijan, sacrificing sheep, an integral part of Azerbaijani cuisine, is the norm. On the eve of the sacrificial ritual, the animals are decorated with red ribbons or their fleece is painted red.

Namaz, though, believes that Azerbaijan’s slaughter of sheep during Kurban Bayram has no connection to religious rules. “This has become a trade,” he charges. “This situation serves the interests of the meat industry.”

Some traders, indeed, use the occasion to justify raising their meat prices. The day before the holiday, prices at a few Kurban sheep markets in Baku ranged between 11 - 12 manats ($6.46-$7.05) per kilogram or higher. Some locals complain that such prices are beyond their means, media report.

Whether religious or secular, families and friends on the second day of Kurban Bayram donate a portion of the purchased sheep meat to charity and attend a celebratory dinner. They also visit the graves of family members and honor the dead by cleaning their graves and leaving flowers.

For many, though, the holiday has become simply a set of rituals; one that they follow without necessarily pondering the philosophy of sacrifice.

To learn more about this tradition, photographer Ilkin Huseynov visited some of the most popular sites for sheep sacrifices in Baku. 

A sheep at a temporary Kurban Bayram market in the outlying Baku district of Yeni Yasamal, a popular destination for meat buyers, wears a red band that designates it for slaughter.

A butcher’s juvenile assistant watches haggling over sheep for Kurban Bayram at a market in Baku’s 8th micro-region.

A sheep seller (left) explains to a customer the correct way to keep hold of a sheep.

In Baku’s 8th micro-region market, a young boy plays with a sheep while another sheep is slaughtered for his family to commemorate Kurban Bayram.

A man holding his daughter chooses a sheep for the Kurban Bayram sacrifice. Some Azerbaijanis object to the presence of children where sheep are slaughtered.

Shoppers paid 11-14 manats ($6.45-$8.21) per kilogram of sheep at this temporary Kurban Bayram market in Baku’s 8th micro-region.

Men place a live sheep in their car to slaughter on their own for Kurban Bayram.

City sanitary workers picking up pieces of trash were among the few women at one Baku Kurban Bayram market.

At a temporary Kurban market in front of a Baku wedding-dress store, a butcher slaughters a sheep. He had dug a deep hole next to the site to collect the blood.

At the Kurban sheep market in Baku’s 8th micro-region, a woman collects donations for a disabled boy she says is her son.

At the Keshlya bazar in east Baku, a man sacrifices a sheep for Kurban Bayram while another sheep looks on.

A butcher skins a sheep for Kurban Bayram at Baku’s 8th bazar, one of the city’s largest markets.

Alongside a Kurban slaughter site in Baku’s 8th micro-region, young boys sell customers 10-kopek ($.06) plastic bags for taking home the meat of their Kurban sheep. The boys work a full day at the market, until it closes in the early evening.

At Baku’s 8th Bazar, one of Baku’s largest, a butcher counts money from sheep sales for Kurban Bayram. Buying a sheep and having it sacrificed and butchered are generally seen as tasks for men.

A trash bin full of sheep scraps at a temporary Kurban market in Baku’s Yeni Yasamal district.

September, 2018 Religious Beliefs


Religious Beliefs


Chai-khana Survay