On this coming Tuesday, August 21st, more than a billion Muslims around the globe will celebrate Eid-ul-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice. This religious celebration, which traditionally lasts for three days, follows the culmination of the Hajj, which is the annual pilgrimage to Mecca undertaken by all Muslims who are financially and physically capable once in their lives.
The Eid-ul-Adha is the second of two Eid celebrations in the Islamic calendar. The first is Eid-ul-Fitr which takes place at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. Eid-ul-Adha is consider the greater of the two Eids. On this day, Muslim families across the world sacrifice an animal such as a goat, sheep, cow, or camel, to show gratitude and obedience to God, who is referred to Allah in Arabic.
To understand the full significance of the Hajj and Eid-ul-Adha, we have to be familiar with the sacred history of Islam. The Hajj pilgrimage is directly related to the life of Abraham (known as Ibrahim in the Islamic tradition). Muslims believe that God ordered Abraham to travel to a barren valley in the Arabian peninsula (later to be known as Mecca) with his wife Hajar and older son Ismail (Ishmael). He was asked to leave Hajar and Ismail on their own in the desert. This was a difficult moment for the family as there was nothing in the desert to nourish either of them. In her desperation, Hajar ran back and forth between two hills looking for water for her infant son who was crying from thirst. She did this a total of seven times. After this, through a miracle from God, a spring of fresh water erupted from the ground at the feet of the infant boy and both mother and child were saved.
Many years later Abraham returned to visit his family in the desert. He had seen a vision from God where he saw himself sacrificing his son Ismail to God. He came to his son and told him about the vision and his son willing resigned himself to the command of the Lord.
Abraham fulfilled the vision by preparing his son for sacrifice, but at the last moment, God replaced is son with a goat. God was pleased with Abraham for showing obedience to his command, and showed mercy by substituting his son with a sacrificial animal. It is this momentous event that Muslims celebrate when they sacrifice animals on the day of Eid. Years later, Abraham and Ismail together, once again on the command of God, built the Kaba, the sacred cube shaped structure that is the focus of the Hajj and the locus towards which Muslims face when they say their daily prayers.
The Hajj, which is the fifth pillar of Islam, is itself a series of rituals that take place in the 12th month of the Islamic lunar calendar that among other things, symbolizes the above mentioned events from the life of Abraham, Hajar, and Ismail. These rituals include circumambulation of the Kaba, drinking from well of Zamzam, and running between the two hills following in the footsteps of Hajar in her search for water. The culmination of the Hajj is the day of Arafa, which is the name of a plain some distance from Mecca where all the pilgrims gather together to pray to God and seek his mercy and forgiveness. The day of Arafa is a the holiest day in the Islamic year and pious Muslims will fast on this day. The three days of Eid-ul-Adha follow the day of Arafa, and this is the time that the animals are slaughtered. Nowadays, Muslims in wealthier countries will arrange to have their animals slaughtered in places where poor families can have access to the meat and thus benefit from the blessing of the occasion.