Monday, September 22, 2008

Understanding Eid-al Adha and the Hajj

Understanding Eid al-Adha
Ryan Keating

Eid al-Adha, is the Islamic festival that coincides with the end of the annual pilgrimage in Mecca and is marked by sacrificing an animal such as a sheep, goat, or bull.

It is the most important festival in Islam, followed by the Eid al-fitr, which marks the end of the month-long fast of Ramadan.

It begins on the tenth day of the month of Dhu al-Hijja on the Muslim calendar and continues for four days.

The basic theological meaning is to identify with Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice everything, including his son, to Allah, and to celebrate God’s deliverance of Abraham by providing a sheep as a substitute.

Hajj: Tracing Abraham’s steps

It is impossible to understand the significance of Eid al-Adha without placing it in its context within the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

Hajj, or “pilgrimage” is the fifth pillar of Islam, marking one of the most basic Muslim practices. All Muslims who are financially and physically able are required to make at least one trip to Mecca during their lifetime. While a Muslim may visit Mecca at any time of year, the Hajj is only recognized if it is performed during the assigned days on the Muslim calendar, that is during the second week of the month of Dhu al-Hijjah.

The rituals of the pilgrimage center around reenacting important episodes from the life of Abraham, Hagar, and Ishmael. It begins with “tawaf”, circumambulating the Ka’ba seven times. The Ka’ba is said to have been rebuilt by Abraham and consecrated to Allah as a center of pilgrimage. Pilgrims pray for the cleansing of their sins and often try to kiss or touch the Black Stone which is lodged into one corner of the Ka’ba.

Pilgrims then perform “say” a ceremonial running back and forth between two hills in a reenactment of Hagar’s desperate search for water for her son Ishmael after she was shunned by Sarah, Abraham’s wife. The well of Zamzam is said to have appeared under Ishmael’s feet to save them from death. Pilgrims bathe in and drink this water during this ceremony.

Then the actual “pilgrimage” takes place as pilgrims make the trip to Arafat to gather in tents for prayer and conversation from noon until sunset. Prayers are said to be especially effective during this time.

After spending the night under stars at Muzdalifa pilgrims proceed to Mina where the ritual “stoning of Satan” occurs. Pilgrims throw seven rocks at large stone pillars said to represent Satan. This ceremony reenacts Abraham’s stern rejection of the temptation by Satan to refuse to obey God’s command to sacrifice Ishmael.

This ritual is followed by the offering of an animal sacrifice by each pilgrim, identifying with Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Ishmael and God’s provision of a sheep as a reward for Abraham’s complete faithfulness in Allah. It is on this same day that Eid al-Adha begins and many Muslims around the world participate vicariously in this Hajj ritual by sacrificing an animal themselves.

Muslims believe that if the Hajj has been performed properly, without violating the important regulations regarding ceremonial purity, and with the right intention of approaching God, then all previous sins are absolved. However, a Muslim cannot ever be certain that his Hajj has been accepted in this way.

Sacrifice in Islam: Eid al-Adha

Throughout the Muslim world, the festival of Eid al-Adha begins with morning prayers in the mosque followed by a sermon. This is in accordance with a hadith attributed to Muhammad:

Narrated Al-Bara: I heard the Prophet delivering a Khutba (hutbe) saying, "The first thing to be done on this day (the first day of 'Id-ul-Adha) is to pray; and after returning from the prayer we slaughter our sacrifices (in the name of Allah), and whoever does so, he acted according to our Sunna (traditions) " (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 2, p. 37).

As with the hajj itself, the sacrifice must be performed with the pure intention of approaching God. Sacrificing an animal is not considered to be merely an optional or advantageous ritual, but a religious commandment signifying one’s readiness to surrender everything to Allah.

The Qur’an depicts Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son in Sura 37:

“We gave him [Abraham] news of a gentle son. And when he reached the age when he could work with him, his father said to him: ‘My son, I dreamt that I was sacrificing you. Tell me what you think.’ He replied: ‘Father, do as you are bidden. God willing, you shall find me steadfast.’ And when they had both submitted to God, and Abraham had laid down his son prostrate upon his face, We called out to him, saying: ‘Abraham, you have fulfilled your vision.’ Thus do we reward the righteous. That was indeed a bitter test. We ransomed his son with a noble sacrifice and bestowed on him the praise of later generations. ‘Peace be on Abraham!’

And the commandment to sacrifice an animal annually is understood from Surah 22:28, which is referring to the pilgrimage rituals:

“they will come to avail themselves of many a benefit, and to pronounce on the appointed days the name of God over the cattle which He has given them for food. Eat of their flesh, and feed the poor and the unfortunate.”

The sacrifice is to be performed by anyone who is financially able to do so. Guests in someone else’s household are understood to be exempt as are travelers and the poor. The sacrifice is considered an individual act, but if a wife and children are completely dependent on the income of the husband, then they are not required to sacrifice. Similarly, a sheep or goat cannot be shared between men or families as a joint sacrifice, but a larger animal such as an ox, camel, or cow can be shared by up to seven people as having fulfilled the sacrifice requirement of all of them.

While the 10th of Dhu al-Hijjah is the most spiritually profitable day on which to sacrifice the animal, many Muslims believe that it may also be performed on either of the following two days as well.

The animal must be without blemish and smaller animals such as chickens are not acceptable for sacrifice. The sacrifice should be performed with care not to cause unnecessary suffering to the animal, and small children and other animals should are often excluded to prevent them from being traumatized. While the animal is being cut, the name of Allah is pronounced and a ritual prayer is usually recited:

In the name of Allah.
Allah is the greatest.
O Allah, this is indeed from you and for you.
O Allah accept [this] from me.

The meat should be divided into three portions, with one third given to the poor, one third given to friends, family, and neighbors, and one-third reserved to eat. According to some, poorer families may reserve a larger portion for themselves to eat. The hide should also be donated and cannot be sold for profit.

Celebrating Eid al-Adha

The festival often includes visits to family members, beginning with parents and then extended family, friends and neighbors. A trip to distribute meat to friends and family is often an occasion for a social visit as well. The graves of relatives are also visited during this time and mosque visits are often made more frequently.

Special foods, most of which include meat, are prepared during this time, and large family gatherings occur during the evenings of the festival. As with Eid al-fitr, traditional deserts and candy are also given as gifts and included in family celebrations.

Since many businesses are closed during these days, families often take the opportunity to go on vacations or to visit out-of-town family members. In Turkey, during years when the festival falls in summer months, the beaches are full of vacationers, for example.

Sacrifice as a Theological Bridge: Ransoming Ishmael with a lamb

The Qur’anic story of Allah saving Ishmael’s life by substituting a lamb has obvious value as a bridge for sharing the gospel. Just as Allah honored the faith of Abraham by ransoming Ishmael with a sacrificial lamb, Christians believe that Allah ransomed all of humanity with the life of Jesus, who is called the Lamb of Allah, and that by exercising the same kind of faith that Abraham had, that is, a willingness to surrender everything we have to God, we are able to be saved from the death that we otherwise deserved in Hell.

Also, just as Muslims believe that faithful participation in the Hajj results in absolution of all previous sins, Christians believe that faith in the sacrifice of Jesus, the substitute lamb of Allah, guarantees that our sins are also forgiven.

In more simple terms, Christians can affirm the value of Abraham’s faith, which is also recorded in the Taurat. It is the kind of faith that is willing to surrender everything to God. And we can identify with the concept of sacrifice because of its Old Testament parallel in Abraham and the system of temple sacrifice as well as its New Testament fulfillment in Jesus.

Of course, Muslims often respond to this kind of presentation by arguing that the sacrifice in Islam is different from the sacrifice in Judaism and that it doesn’t wash away our sins the way that we believe Jesus does. For example, the Qur’an says about the sacrificed animal:

“Their flesh and blood does not reach God: it is your piety that reaches Him.” (Sura 22:37)

Muslims sometimes use this verse to show that it is not the sacrificed animal itself that has any value to God, but the faith of the person performing the sacrifice. In this way, they might argue, a more perfect sacrifice does not have a greater effect, the way that Christians believe Jesus’ sacrifice is effective for providing forgiveness for the sins of the whole world.

Still, the parallel is helpful for Muslims to understand what Christians believe about the sacrifice of Jesus.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Have you ever considered that Islam may also be a true religion, besides Christianity, according to the promises of God in Genesis, the one concerning Isaac and the other concerning Ishmael? It may be that the Muslims have a seperate inheritance from we Christians who trace our covenant made new in Christ to the promise God made to Abraham concerning Isaac. It would not be blasphemy to consider this, and believe that the Muslims know God on their own terms, through their own prophet.

Peace, Ian