By Abak Hussain
In my many years as an op-ed editor, one of my main goals for the pages was to engage with as many ideas and viewpoints as possible. I didn’t need to agree with something to deem it worthy of print – my primary concerns were: Does it make a compelling point? Does it make me think? If your argument can challenge my pre-existing views and push me out of my comfort zone, all the better, because few things are as dull as being stuck in an echo-chamber, insulated from the diversity of thought that exists out there. Refusing to confront dissenting opinions is also a sure-fire road to intellectual decline, which is why the most intellectually impoverished places on earth are the ones where freedom of speech is low or non-existent.
A time of predictable clamor was Eid-ul-Azha, when, along with the usual pieces celebrating or glorifying the sanctity of the event, we ran pieces with alternative ideas. Sometimes there were think pieces on animal rights and the ethics of consuming meat. These were not moral edicts dropped like truth bombs but simply points to ponder. The ensuing vitriol flowed predictably in the comments section – as though simply having a discussion on the ethics of animal sacrifice was an affront to the religious commandment, which, after all, was seen to be set in stone.
But as much as some religious leaders may, preaching from high up in their altar of certainty may insist, the notion of sacrifice is not a singular, unambiguous one, and has never been clear cut. In fact, even religious scholars have vehemently disagreed with one another about what feelings one should carry in one’s heart when sacrificing to God. Not only do Jewish scholars, Christian scholars, and Muslims scholars disagree on their Abrahamic interpretations, it is hard to deny that over time, as the world has changed, and our creature comforts have changed, so has our psychological and spiritual orientation. It is not an affront for our ethics to also evolve and ask the hard questions. It is the responsible, and, dare I say, moral thing to do.
The tale is as old as time: God tested the prophet Abraham’s faith by commanding him to sacrifice his son. As Abraham proceeds to comply, binding his son to an altar, an Angel appears, confirming that his faith has been successfully tested, and that now there is no need to sacrifice his son. A ram is sacrificed instead. In Eid-ul-Azha we remember the spirit of sacrifice by slaughtering cows and goats, and distributing the meat around family, friends and relatives, and the poor. For many, this hallowed scriptural account requires no further thought, and certainly no anxiety comes of it. It is an account of religious certitude guiding us: If God commands, one obeys, period. No matter how difficult the task may be, no matter how cruel the assignment may seem. No other ethical complications or debates enters the picture.
Photo: Austin Chan
But this was not the case for Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, one of the forefathers of existentialism and (unlike Sartre) very much a theist. Kierkegaard lost countless hours of sleep pondering the account of Abraham, and his thoughts are recorded in the book Fear and Trembling (1843) where he feels conflicted between the ethics of killing a child, and carrying out a direct order from God. One can further complicate the picture by asking: How can I be sure of what is being asked of me? How can I be sure that what I am doing is the right thing? How can I reconcile my ethical compass with my religious duties?
We stand on the verge of a rapidly changing world. This statement has become a cliché, I know, because the world is always changing. But it can hardly be denied that a level of real-time connectivity has been achieved in our lives that could not have been dreamt up by our ancestors. The rapid emergence of AI, Internet of Things, biotech, genetic engineering, robotics, and space exploration will confront us with ethical questions never faced before. Scriptures will not have straightforward answers to scenarios we are about to be faced with. Science and technology will try to tell us if we can do something, but only our ethical systems will determine what we should. Climate change is at a tipping point, and with each day it becomes clear that our current farming practices are unsustainable. And in this arena, Kierkegaard becomes relevant again: Forcing us to ask ourselves – how are we so certain of things? What really is sacrifice? Do we experience the fear and trembling we are supposed to when confronted with a gargantuan loss, or are we able to conveniently dissociate, like it is all pre-set and all the hard, mental work has already been done for us?
I am neither a theologist nor a preacher, and it is not my place to sermonize about faith. As a citizen of this planet (the only one we have), I do, however, feel part of a global discussion on how to formulate our ethics in a world where adherents of all religions (not just one), and those without religion but a strong ethical compass, ought to be respected. In Bangladesh, so many attacks have taken place on Hindu temples and Buddhist temples, so many homes have been torched and villages destroyed that we have lost count. Not enough has been done for the protection of minorities, and not enough has been done to prevent violence that breaks out at the drop of a hat when someone’s religious “certainty” is challenged. We claim we wish to sacrifice, but we are entirely unwilling to sacrifice our mental and spiritual complacency.
Today in 2023, animal sacrifice can be done through an app. It is as easy as pulling out your smartphone and ordering a pizza … if you have the money, that is. The ease of smartphones didn’t exist in scriptural times – so are they kosher in this matter? Only our own ethical judgment can give us the answer.
Abak Hussain is Contributing Editor at MW Bangladesh