When my secretary told me last week that Oct. 15 had been declared a holiday, I asked why and she answered she didn’t quite know except that it was an “aid something.” I thought I’d do an instant survey of non-Muslims and indeed, of the more than 10 people I asked, no one knew.
I will admit that I wasn’t sure myself. I had an inkling that it had something to do with the Haj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, but I didn’t know what the name of the feast day was. I was obliged to do some research before I found out it was Eid al Adha (sometimes spelled Eid ul Adha and Eidul Adha and, in Malaysia and Indonesia, Idul Adha).
I think it’s well and good that our government has, in recent years, been recognizing two major Muslim Eid (solemn festivals), but wish there were more efforts to explain these holidays as a way of encouraging an understanding of different cultures and to do this without oversimplification. Some years back, on Eid al Fitr, I asked some high school students if they knew what the holiday was about, and they answered, “Muslim Christmas.”
To help bridge the gap (maybe “chasm” is a better term) between Muslims and Christians, I’m going to describe what yesterday’s holiday was, and then move on to the bigger picture of the Islamic calendar and Islam itself.
Eid al Adha means Feast of the Sacrifice and extends for four days. It commemorates Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice his first-born son Ismael (or Ishmail), with God intervening at the last minute and allowing a lamb instead to be slaughtered.
Christians are always surprised when they hear of familiar Old Testament names being mentioned by Muslims. Eid al Adha should be an occasion to talk about how three global religions—Islam, Judaism and Christianity—are “people of the book,” meaning sharing scriptures which Christians call the Old Testament and Jews call the Torah. Muslims see the Quran as a completion of God’s (or Allah’s) revealed word. Muslims in fact recognize Jesus Christ, not as the son of God but as one of several great prophets. Mary, incidentally, is also recognized, and loved, by Muslims.
The sad reality is that religions can be divisive, and more orthodox Christians, Jews and Muslims dislike the term “people of the book,” preferring to deny not just shared aspects of faith and common origins. In fact, another term, “Abrahamic faiths,” refers to the monotheistic religions that emerged in the Middle East, supposedly all tracing back to Abraham. These include the three global religions, and Bahai.
Note how central Abraham is. Eid al Adha is also called the “greater Eid,” more important than Eid al Fitr, which is marked by gift-giving (and which gave rise to the comparison to Christmas). Eid al Adha is the greater festival because it marks complete obedience or submission to one God. Today, Eid al Adha is celebrated through communal prayers and rituals, as well as by feasting and a repetition of Abraham’s animal sacrifice. On these occasions, one third of the meat is kept for the family, another third for relatives and friends, and the last portion for the poor, in accordance with the Muslim precept of “zakat” or alms-giving.
Eid al Adha is also used to mark the end of the Haj or pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. This is why in Malaysia and Indonesia, where I first learned about this holiday, the term used was Hari Raya Haj (literally the “feast of the Haj”). Muslims are obligated to make this pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime.
All these feasts vary each year on the Gregorian calendar because they are based on an Islamic calendar which is lunar-based, but not the same either as the Chinese lunar calendar. Like other global religions, Islam marks each year with many observances to remind people about the central points of their faith. Islam, in particular, emphasized the crafting of a calendar that was integral to religion.
It is fascinating how this religious orientation spurred Islamic science, which had its golden period from the 9th to the 12th centuries, with Muslims seeing the quest for knowledge as part of a glorification of Allah. Their work around astronomy was particularly impressive, and was related to the creation of their calendar for religious observances, as well as to the determination of the times for each day’s obligatory five prayers.
There is an interesting twist to the calendar: Although calculations can be made in advance, many Muslims prefer an actual observance of the skies and the moon to establish when a new month begins, and when a solemn feast starts. Muslim countries usually have an official “sighting committee” that takes care of declaring when a new month starts. This is why even in the Philippines, the official declaration of Eid al Fitr and Eid al Adha is usually done only two or three weeks before the feast day, only after official Muslim sighting committees have declared when they fall on our Gregorian calendar.
Eid al Adha’s relationship to the Haj should remind us, too, of how Islam situates followers not just in time, but also in space. The commemoration of the Haj unites all Muslims, whether they are doing the pilgrimage or not. And this unity is achieved geographically, oriented toward Mecca, or, more specifically, the Kaaba, a shrine which you see in photographs looking like a black box and is considered by Muslims to be the most sacred place on earth. Muslims must pray in the direction of Mecca. The dead are also buried in that direction.
Again, Islamic science figures in all this; calculations are made so that a Muslim, wherever he or she might be in the world, will be able to “find” Mecca. To guide Muslims, you will find in many places—in mosques and prayer rooms, as well as in hotel rooms, even airplane seats—an arrow called the “qibla,” which points to Mecca. For Muslims, it is a reminder that prayers should be offered facing Mecca—so important that there are now even apps, Android and iPhone, with a “qibla” compass as well as prayer times.
Muslim or not, there is much that can be learned from Islam, including our human needs for community solidarity, brought together at particular times each year and, even when geographically separated, a common point of reference to a sacred place.
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