A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

‘Id Mubarak: The Feast of ‘Id al-‘Adha

‘Id Mubarak to my Muslim readers. ‘Id al-‘Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice or Greater ‘Id (also Qurban Bayram and many other names in many languages), begins today. The major festival of the Muslim year (the other major feast being the ‘Id that ends Ramadan), it coincides with the sacrifice carried out in Mecca in conjunction with the Hajj.

Last year, the ‘Id overlapped with the American Thanksgiving holiday, so my greetings were offered without much background. But since this blog is intended to educate as well as entertain, I'd like to take a little more time with it this year.

The Feast of Sacrifice is generally seen as the most important religious feast, hence the fact that it is often called the ‘Id al-Kabir or "Greater ‘Id," and it coincides with the central ritual of Islam, the fifth pillar of Islam, the hajj. Animals are sacrificed (the meat then distributed to the poor) in a ritual of great antiquity, one Muslims themselves say partially predates Islam itself.

What most non-Muslims probably do not know is the fact that, like the hajj itself, the ‘Id commemorates a story known to Jews and Christians as well: God's demand that Abraham sacrifice his son, only to relent and substitute an animal sacrifice when Abraham had demonstrated his obedience even in such a horrific task. The Qur'an and Islamic tradition say the son was Isma‘il (Ishmael in the Bible) rather than Isaac (Ishaq in the Qur'an) as in the Book of Genesis, but the story and its moral is virtually identical.

Now, these days Abraham, venerated by Judaism (Avraham), Christianity (Abraham), and Islam (Ibrahim) is often more of a source of conflict among the three faiths which claim him than a unifying factor, but he is a shared Patriarch of all three "Abrahamic" faiths: Our Father Abraham to Jews, the "first Muslim" and "friend of God" to Muslims, and a familiar patriarch to Christians, though he is not quite so central for them. Whether you consider Abraham a historical figure, a mythic culture hero, a Bronze Age myth or some combination of these, he is a potent symbol, and as I have noted, his tomb in Hebron is second only to the Temple Mount/Haram in Jerusalem as a disputed holy place.

The story of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, whether Isaac or Ishmael, strikes most modern people as something incomprehensible, but his absolute obedience is central to the symbolic message of the story: his profound obedience is what led God to proclaim his covenant with Abraham.

The hajj itself is profoundly linked to the Abraham story: the running between Safa and Marwa, part of the ritual, reflects Hagar's search for water for the infant Isma‘il, rewarded by the discovery of the well Zamzam, the water of which is drunk by every hajji, and the sacrifice of an animal today represents the sacrifice of Abraham. The Ka‘aba itself is said to have been first built by Abraham.

Despite the profound divisions Abraham's legacy sometimes creates today, the Abrahamic core of this particular feast could potentially, in some alternate universe, make it a potential meeting place for the three "Abrahamic" faiths.

Interestingly, Arab News, a Saudi English-language daily whose readership includes not only Westerners but many South Asians, including non-Muslims, takes this sort of "ecumenical" tack in its editorial today, seeking to link the interfaith dialogue promoted by King ‘Abdullah with the Abrahamic common ground the feast invokes. If such sentiments could prevail year round and not just on holidays, the region might be a better place.

‘Id Mubarak wa Sa‘id.

1 comment:

David Mack said...

For an ecumenical message in the stories of Avraham/Abraham/Ibrahim and his various progeny, I urge followers of the three religions to give special attention to two texts holy to their traditions. One is Genesis 25: 5-18 (as regards the death of Abraham and how his sons, notably Ismail and Isaac, come together to honor and bury him). The other is Sura 37: 99-113, which has particularly kind things to say about both Ismail and Isaac. Those of the various faiths who want to look for grounds for discord can do so. For me, however, the language of brotherhood is a cause for hope. 'Id mubarak.