Blessed Feast of the Sacrifice!

On this second day of the holiday,

‘Eid mubarak to all of my Muslim friends and neighbors!

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Auntie Viv arrived in Jordan in the first week of January 2006 for a two week visit. I had suggested this timing to coincide with the ‘Eid al-Adha break at the rural girls’ school where I was a Peace Corps Volunteer. On Auntie Viv’s first day in the kingdom, I would have to go to school, giving her the morning to sleep off her jet lag before I got home around two.

“No problem,” she told me when she landed. “I’ve brought my Bible Study homework so I can follow along with my group while I’m away.”

By coincidence, that week her Bible Study group was studying the Book of Genesis, Chapter 22 – the story of the Hebrew prophet Abraham in the land of Moriah.

After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac….

The God of Islam is the same God of Abraham, and Muslims believe themselves to be the last and most correct iteration of God’s People, the community most closely aligned to how God intended His people to live a virtuous life. They believe that the Torah and the Bible were once the Word of God, corrupted over time by translation, interpretation and cultural influences, and that the Qur’aan is the most correct version of God’s word, what a digital native like myself might call Version 3.0. The story of Abraham in the Qur’aan follows the same basic story, but differs in its particulars in As-Saffat (Those Who Set the Ranks), verses 101 and following:

So We gave him good tidings of a forbearing boy. And when he reached with him [the age of] exertion, he said, “O my son, indeed I have seen in a dream that I [must] sacrifice you, so see what you think.” He said, “O my father, do as you are commanded. You will find me, if Allah wills, of the steadfast.”

The Qur’aan never names the son to be sacrificed, calling him only the eldest son, and because Muslims allow polygamy, as did the ancient Hebrew people, so while Judaism tends to understand “your only son Isaac” to mean “your only legitimate son,” most Muslims consider Ismail, son of the “handmaiden” Hagar, to be the first-born son intended for sacrifice.

Because Abraham is acknowledged by several faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as well as the Baha’i – as the father of all monotheism, the first follower of the one true God, therefore the most important feast day in Islam is ‘Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice. On her second morning in Jordan, I supplemented Auntie Viv’s morning Bible study with a quick synopsis of the two faiths’ understandings of Abraham, before we joined my neighbors to celebrate the feast day of ‘Eid al-Adha.

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On a mountaintop in the ancient land of Moriah (which in Jewish tradition is in Jerusalem, and in Muslim tradition is near Mecca in Saudi Arabia), Abraham bound his son as a sacrifice, and raised the knife, and at the last moment God (in Muslim tradition) or one of his angels (in Jewish tradition) spoke to Abraham: “Stop! You have proven your devotion. Now kill that ram in the bushes instead.”

Accordingly,  as the last part of the rituals of the Hajj pilgrimage, Muslims sacrifice a ram (or a ewe, goat, cow, camel, water buffalo…) on ‘Eid al-Adha in honor of the first Muslims – the first men to submit fully to the will of God – Abraham and his son Ismail. In Muslim communities around the world on that day, it is also customary to make a similar sacrifice. My neighbors were sacrificing a ram.

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Several nephews brought the ram over from their herd, hands buried in its thick wool pelt to guide and contain it, while the eldest cousin rigged up a rope from the corner of the adjacent shed. Then the father of the house, Abu Anis, came from the high-walled porch with the long knife he had been sharpening hidden behind his back. In order for the slaughter of an animal to be halaal or permissible in Islam, it must be done with a sharp knife, and the animal must not be able to see either the sharpening of the knife or the killing of other animals.

In Abu Anis’ other hand was a bowl of water. He explained to Auntie Viv and I that in order for the sacrifice to be good, the animal must be comfortable and not unduly frightened, and offering the ram a drink of water was meant to calm him in his last moments. We watched as he took hold of the ram, gestured the boys away, and urged the ram to drink. Once the animal had calmed somewhat, he brought the knife around outside the ram’s line of sight, and drew it swiftly and firmly across the animal’s throat, severing carotid, jugular and windpipe all in one motion. He hugged the ram close through it’s death throes, and then with his eldest nephew, strung it up by the hind feet to the shed so the blood could drain from the carcass.

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Over the course of the next couple hours, more than a dozen of us worked to disassemble the carcass and chop it into usable parts, and then package these pieces in plastic bags that the little children delivered to all their aunties’ and neighbors’ houses, sharing the Feast with the community. Except for Auntie Viv. Someone had handed her the fussy four-month-old Siddeen, and my aunt was wandering around the yard and the neighbor’s yard with the baby.

Meanwhile, some of the boys next door had started a fire outside and were roasting bits of liver, kidney and choice bits of meat. Once the butchery was done, we gathered to eat. From sacrificial ram to dinner in just a few hours, in a community effort shared by and with the community.

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In different ways, each Eid al-Adha in my Jordanian village has been a warm, special family affair to remember in its own way. Each Eid al-Adha that I’m away from the Arab world is a day of nostalgia for that feeling.

From Sheep To 2nd Breakfast by 10:30am, Eid al-Adha, 2008

Thanksgiving and Politics, Eid al-Adha meets Thanksgiving, 2009

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