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31 August 2017
The Muslim Feast of Sacrifice, celebrated this year on 1 September, comes at the end of the Hajj and commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son in obedience to God. (photo: Abraham’s sacrifice, from a fresco in Bulgaria/Wikimedia Commons)
This year, Friday 1 September marks the Muslim feast of Eid ul-Aḍḥā, the Feast of Sacrifice, one of the most significant feasts in the Muslim calendar. It comes at the end of the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca which Muslims are obliged to make at least once in their lives during the Month of the Hajj.
To understand its significance, it helps to understand the story of Abraham and his two sons.
Muslims trace their religious lineage back to the patriarch Abraham, as do Jews and Christians, though in different ways. For Jews, Muslims and Christians, Abraham had two sons. Ishmael, Abraham’s first born, was the son of Hagar, Sarah’s servant. Sarah was childless, so Abraham, following the customs of the time, had a son through Hagar to carry on the line. Later, when Sarah miraculously conceived and gave birth to Isaac, the Bible sees Isaac as the main heir of Abraham and, therefore, of God’s promise (Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-21). After the birth of her own son, Sarah convinced Abraham to send away Hagar and their son Ishmael. In Genesis 22 there is the familiar story of Abraham expressing willingness to obey God by sacrificing his son Isaac; the Lord intervenes and provides, instead, a ram (Genesis 22:13).
For Muslims, Ishmael — not Isaac — is the child of the promise. The Bible and the Quran differ on the story. If in the Bible Abraham is commanded to sacrifice Isaac, the account in the Quran 37:103 ff. presents Ishmael as the intended sacrifice. Both the Bible and the Qur’an agree that Ishmael was sent away, but they differ greatly in the details. In the Muslim telling, Abraham and Ishmael traveled to Mecca and set up the House of God there.
Much of the ritual of the Hajj revolves around Abraham and Ishmael’s time in Mecca. At the end of the Hajj, commemorating the “sacrifice” of Ishmael, Muslims recall that sacrifice by slaughtering (or having someone slaughter) a sheep or some other acceptable animal and giving the meat to the poor.
Interestingly, there are similarities between the two major Muslim holy days, the Feast of Sacrifice and the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast (of Ramadan), and two major Christian holy days, Christmas and Easter.
For Muslims, the Feast of Sacrifice is more important theologically — as Easter is theologically more important for Christians. However, the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast for Muslims and Christmas for Christians have somehow captured the hearts and imaginations of believers. There are many more popular traditions around the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast than of the Feast of Sacrifice. Greetings, visits and family events are often closely related to the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast. Nevertheless, theologically, if not emotionally, the Feast of Sacrifice remains, al-‘eid al-akbar, “the greater feast.”