Faith-based

Islam’s Great Meat Feat

How tens of millions of sheep, goats, and cows will find their way to hungry families.

A hand over a slab of meat.
Armando Ascorve Morales on Unsplash

Saeed Ahmed speaks with a warm smile befitting of his name—Saeed means “happy” in Arabic. As he talks to me, goat after goat is removed from a meat hook behind him. Skinned and gutted but with eyeballs still bulging from their heads, each goat is heaved over to a band saw by Ahmed’s butchers. First their rear hooves are lopped off, then front hooves, then head.

After immigrating from Pakistan, Ahmed opened Atlantic Halal Meat in 1992. Today, business is booming. He estimates that this week he’ll process almost triple his usual number of orders: Some 400 goats, but also many cows and sheep. It’s all in preparation for one of the holiest days on the Muslim calendar. Eid al-Adha, which translates to “festival of the sacrifice,” commemorates a story that is central to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam alike. As the story goes, the Prophet Abraham receives an order from God that he is to sacrifice his son. Though understandably reluctant, Abraham eventually obliges. But moments before the sacrifice, God intervenes and reveals that it has all been a trial: Abraham is relieved from the grisly deed and sacrifices a ram instead.

In emulation of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice, financially secure Muslims around the world make a charitable donation on Eid al-Adha. But not just any donation. While clothing drives and monetary donations are options, there’s a pretty sizable consensus that meat is a must. Which is why halal butchers like Ahmed have their noses to the grindstone this weekend. A financially able Muslim will typically give an entire animal (a sheep, goat, or cow) to the needy as her sacrifice, or udhiyya. With 1.8 billion Muslims around the world, that’s a stupendous amount of meat.

Just how much meat? Aamir Rehman, senior advisor to the United Nations Development Programme, offered a rough estimate, pegging it at around 50 to 100 million individual donations globally. Just how those tens of millions of goats, sheep, and cows find their way to hungry families around the world while minimizing waste poses a serious logistical challenge. For example, in Mecca alone, where millions of Muslims are completing their pilgrimage on Eid al-Adha, approximately 1 million sheep are slaughtered in the span of 48 hours. Some 40,000 workers see that the meat is quickly butchered, frozen, and distributed to 25 different countries.

Technology has also played a substantial role in streamlining the practice of udhiyya. Several charitable organizations like Islamic Relief USA make the donation process logistically simple: With a couple of clicks and a credit card, you can send a goat to any one of 34 different recipient countries. IRUSA takes care of the rest. Syed M. Hassan, a public affairs and media relations specialist at IRUSA, explained what it does behind the scenes to make this all possible: Each year before Eid al-Adha, committees are sent to each recipient country to assess its level of food insecurity. Individual families are then identified (by word of mouth or application) to IRUSA. As Eid al-Adha approaches, local butchers are contacted and paid, and local mosques and food pantries mediate the final distribution to families. Each year, IRUSA sees that $3 million to $4 million of donations are translated to fresh halal meat for needy families around the world. In the U.S. alone, some 50,000 to 70,000 pounds of meat are distributed to families regardless of their religion.

Udhiyya makes up only a small part Muslim philanthropy. Rehman pointed out that zakat, an obligatory form of almsgiving and one of the five pillars of Islam, has a much larger footprint. Through zakat, Muslims are required to give 2.5 percent of their total wealth (above a certain minimum amount) to people in need. Altogether, some $200 billion to $1 trillion is donated annually in the form of zakat. By contrast, Rehman noted that the United Nations Development Programme operates on a budget of about 1 percent that of annual zakat donations. As another point of comparison, Jeffrey Sachs, an economics professor at Columbia University, estimated in 2011 that the bill to eliminate extreme global poverty would be about $175 billion dollars annually. That number is around the same size as global zakat: What might global poverty have looked like without consistent Muslim aid? There’s still a long way to go, of course. But udhiyya gives food insecure families, many of whom cannot otherwise afford meat, a moment of joy: a feast with all Muslims on Tuesday.