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Muslim rite of sacrifice collides with law

A farmer who sold goats and lambs to families to kill is accused by state officials of operating an illegal slaughterhouse.

December 21, 2007|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

PRINCETON, N.C. — For six years, it has been a tradition for Muslims in the Research Triangle: After morning services on the first day of Eid al-Adha -- the "festival of sacrifice" -- scores of families leave the tweedy environs of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill and head toward an obscure plot of land on a two-lane country road.

They come to visit Eddie Rowe, a hog farmer.

The children typically run around among Rowe's loose chickens. The women prepare picnic sandwiches. And the patriarch of each family awaits his turn to slit the throat of a lamb or a goat that Rowe has sold him.

To Muslims around the world, this is an important ritual -- a tribute to Allah and to the prophet Abraham, who in both the Koran and the Bible is said to have offered his son as a sacrifice to God.

To research scientist Ahmed Mamai, 40, a native Moroccan, performing the sacrifice on Rowe's property allows him to maintain an ancient tradition that would be difficult to square with his lifestyle in suburban Raleigh. If he slaughtered an animal in his backyard, Mamai said with a smile, "My wife would sacrifice me."

But this year, things are not going as planned on Rowe's farm.

Last week, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services obtained a restraining order alleging that Rowe was operating an unsanitary and illegal slaughter facility.

And so on Wednesday, the first day of the three-day festival, confusion reigned in place of celebration. Throughout the day, minivans and sedans pulled into Rowe's driveway. About 250 animals had been ordered; most of the families had pre-paid. Now some of them were canceling, and Rowe -- in his red baseball cap and deer-hunting jacket -- was returning up to $160 for each animal, counting out crisp bills into waiting hands.

Other families took their animals, saying they had plans to kill them somewhere else. State agriculture officials determined that such slaughter fell into a legal gray area and said they would not prosecute anyone who did so.

That was of little help to Muhammad Mannan, 56, from Bangladesh, who holds a doctorate in statistics and lives in Apex, just west of Raleigh. "But Eddie, where can we go?" Mannan asked the hog farmer Wednesday.

"Well," Rowe said, "y'all can take 'em home and kill 'em. That's what we were told."

"I do have a big backyard," Mannan said, as if thinking aloud.

And so the doctors and scientists -- most lured to the region by research firms, hospitals and major universities -- chatted on cellphones in Arabic, Bengali and Uzbek, trying to find someplace to kill their lambs. Young sons and daughters stuck their noses through fences, staring at animals that were unaware they may have won a reprieve.

Families with a plan backed their vehicles into Rowe's barn. There, a farmhand named Dwayne would bind an animal by its ankles, then dump it into a trunk.

Many of the Muslims said they felt no ill will toward the Agriculture Department -- the law was the law; they just wanted a place to practice the ritual.

Mannan suggested they might lobby for a way to do it legally next year. "I think we will have to go to the governor," he said.

But Rowe, 34, was angry. The Carolina native said the lost revenue was not the issue -- he hardly made anything off Eid al-Adha. More important, he said, he has come to count his Muslim customers as friends. He knows many of them by name and has been invited into some of their homes for dinner. And though raised in a Pentecostal church, he has come to respect their convictions.

"When I first did this, some people around here thought I'd turned Muslim," he said. "But hey, it's 2007. We can be friends with anybody. . . . And I'll tell you, in the years I've been dealing with the Muslim community, I find they've got one of the strongest faiths I've seen."

Animal sacrifice on Eid al-Adha is not a requirement in Islam, but it is suggested by the Prophet Muhammad. A feast with family and friends typically follows the slaughter, and some of the meat is given to the poor.

In the U.S. and elsewhere, many Muslims find the sacrifice impractical; instead, they may choose to donate money to poor families.

But Mohamed Majdan, who has been in the United States for 10 years, said it was important to teach customs of the old country to his 5-year-old son. "It's our tradition," he said. "In Morocco, we do it every year."

In previous years, Rowe allowed the men to kill the animals in the barn. The farmhands then buried the remains in the woods.

Rowe said the government gave him no warning when it sought the restraining order. But agriculture officials said they had been concerned about the sacrifices for some time. Officials cited Rowe and his father for unsanitary slaughters on the farm in 2004 and again in 2005, issuing a $10,000 fine that Rowe has yet to pay.

Steven C. Wells, director of the meat and poultry inspection division, said Rowe had a his- tory of slaughtering animals illegally outside of the Muslim holiday.

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