This weekend, Muslims in the United States and around the world will celebrate Eid al-Adha, which translates literally to holiday of the sacrifice. The holiday is tied to hajj — the pilgrimage to Mecca that is one of the five pillars of Islam — and marks Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to God. I became intimately acquainted with the celebration while living in Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories, teaching at a Palestinian university in East Jerusalem and being married to a Muslim.
In Arabic, Abraham is Ibrahim and, according to the Quran, the son he nearly sacrificed was Ismail, not Isaac. Beyond the name differences, the story is the same as the biblical narrative: at the last moment, God spared both Ibrahim and his son, rewarding Ibrahim for having passed the ultimate test of faith, mercifully commanded Ibrahim to sacrifice a ram instead. Ibrahim obliged and, to this day, observant Muslims mark the festival by slaughtering a sheep, goat, ram or another animal, and then sharing the meat with family, friends and those in need. (Islamic law specifies that those with the means should share one-third of the meat with the poor.)
In some places, the family of someone who has just made the hajj to Mecca dips their hands in the blood and decorates the exterior walls of the home with their handprints. I still remember walking through the Muslim quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City and seeing such adornments. All who pass the house know to call the person who made the pilgrimage to Mecca “hajj” (for men) or “hajjah” (for women). This is an old regional tradition that was once common in Palestine; younger generations partake in it less than their grandparents, my husband says. But traditions vary greatly by region; in Egypt, some children and adults dip their hands in the blood of the slaughtered animal and put the handprints on homes, businesses and even cars to protect from evil.
The rules for how to slaughter an animal so that it is halal (kosher) are very strict and are intended to minimize the animal’s suffering. Most hide the knife so the animal doesn’t see it; the one who kills the animal is supposed to do so quickly, with a cut to the throat. There’s also a particular way of draining the blood, and meat must be completely free of blood before it’s consumed (the prohibition against eating meat with blood is deeply embedded in the psyche of many Muslims, like the prohibition against eating pork. Just as you won’t catch a Muslim eating bacon, you won’t see one ordering their steak medium rare.)
To celebrate the holiday, observant Muslims go to mosque on the morning of the first day of the Eid. They also gather with friends and family and have a festive meal, which almost always features meat. In much of the Arab world, people enjoy ma’amoul, semolina cookies dusted with powdered sugar and stuffed with dates or nuts (in the lead-up to the holiday, some families gather to make ma’amoul together); people also drink qahwa saada, which is bitter coffee. Eid is especially fun for children, who get toys and money for the holiday. Muslim men also make a point of visiting their female relatives; they often give cash to their female family members at this time.
Eid al-Adha begins in the U.S. at sundown on Friday, July 8, this year. The holiday is four days long (though in some places it’s celebrated for three days.) When Eid al-Adha falls in the warm months, many Muslims go for picnics, hikes or to the beach to enjoy food, fun and the company of family and friends.
Though Americans might have more familiarity with Eid al-Fitr, which comes at the end of Ramadan, Eid al-Adha, from a religious standpoint, is considered to be the more important of the two, which is why in Arabic it is called the greater festival. It is also called the greater holiday because it is literally bigger: it’s longer than Eid al-Fitr.
Islam has only two official holidays: Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.