This week, Muslims around the world are celebrating Eid al-Adha, one of the holiest days of the year honoring Father Ibrahim’s willingness to slay his son Ishmael at Allah’s request.
According to the Quran, when Ibrahim — or Abraham — had a blade to his son’s neck up on Mount Arafat, the angel Gabriel appeared to stop him, telling him that he had demonstrated his willingness to be obedient. Instead of Ishmael, a goat was laid on the altar and sacrificed. Today, depending on the region of the world, a goat, sheep, cow or camel is sacrificed in honor of the angel delivering Abraham’s son.
After an animal is sacrificed, it is cut into thirds, with one portion going to the poor and needy, one portion going to friends and family and the final third being kept and eaten by the family. Faithful observers of the holiday also donate to charities that benefit the poor.
The point of the Eid al-Adha sacrifice is to make an offering to God of something important as a reminder to avoid becoming preoccupied or overly focused on material possessions and losing sight of the most important things in life. In many ways, it is similar to the idea of Lent for Christians, or even fasting once a month. It is a time to give up something you love and refocus on what really matters.
Eid al-Adha is connected to the Hajj, or annual pilgrimage to Mecca. One of the five pillars of Islam, the Hajj is a sacred duty that every Muslim is expected to do at least once in their lifetime, if they are physically and financially capable. It commemorates the Prophet Muhammad’s own pilgrimage from Medina to Mecca, ridding the Kaaba of pagan idols and reconsecrating the holy site to Allah.
When Abraham’s wife Hajara and her son Ishmael were left in the desert of ancient Mecca as an act of faith, she was desperate to find water. She searched between the hills of Safa and Marwah seven times, finding none. Then, a fresh spring of water sprang out of the ground from underneath Ishmael’s foot.
In thankfulness for the miracle of water, Abraham constructed the Kaaba on the spot. The Kaaba, or “cube” is the holiest site in Islam and is often called the House of God. The modern Kaaba still includes the Black Stone said to have fallen to earth to be used as an altar by Adam and Eve and then given to Abraham by the angel Gabriel.
The pilgrimage to Mecca is to remind the devout of the miracle of water in the desert and how all are alike unto God. To perform Hajj, Muslims must enter the sacred state of Ihram by a ritual washing of the head, mouth, nose, arms, hands, and feet with water. In a state of Ihram, a man must not tie any knots or wear any stitched items and wear plain white, seamless robes. Women must wear long, loose gowns and have their faces uncovered, while their hair remains covered.
Pilgrims then walk seven times counterclockwise around the Kabaa. Additional parts of the ceremonial Hajj include saying two prayers at the Place of Abraham, reenacting Hajara’s hunt for water and drinking from the Zamzam Well, or the well that sprang forth from the ground under Ishmael’s feet. Pilgrims also spend a day praying and standing vigil at Mount Ararat and spend a night on the plains of Muzdalifa. They cast stones at three pillars, a symbolic act representing the casting out of evil from men’s hearts, and finally, they too must slaughter a goat.
As I have learned more about Islam, it adds depth to my own spiritual beliefs and worship. Truth, I believe, can be found in many quarters. To my Muslim friends: thank you for sharing your faith and your traditions with me. What a gift. Eid Mubarak.
Holly Richardson is a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune and loves learning about other people, cultures and traditions.