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.