On the twelfth month of the Islamic calendar each year, Muslims from all around the world prepare for the annual Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. Al-Hajj is one of the Five Pillars of Islam and is an obligation only for those who are physically and financially able to undertake the journey. Its activities take place within six days (8th-13th) of the Islamic lunar month of ‘Thul-Hijjah’, the last month of the year.
Over two million men and women of all races and backgrounds go to Mecca each year. It is a unique opportunity for those of different nations to meet one another. Live broadcasts of the events can be found on Middle Eastern channels and viewers can witness pilgrims from all over the world performing the Hajj rituals. The Hajj is a form of worship that involves the entire being: body, mind and soul. Pilgrims wear simple garments, which strip away distinctions of class and culture, so that all people stand equal before God.
The rites of the Hajj, which are of Abrahamic origin, include going around the Kabah seven times, and going seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwa. The ritual is an emulation of Hagar’s search for water for her baby son Ismail after she was left in the desert to fend for herself. Hagar was the Prophet Ibrahim’s wife along with Sarah. The pilgrims then stand together on the wide plains of Arafat (a large expanse of desert outside Mecca) and join in prayer for God’s forgiveness. The event is perceived as a preview of the Day of Judgment.
The rituals of Hajj, based on actions done by Ibrahim, Ismail and Hagar, are expressions of readiness to sacrifice everything for God. It is also a form of training in patience and endurance and the reward for performing the Hajj properly (refraining from arguments, fights and lewd behavior), is that the pilgrim will return home as free of sin as the day his/her mother gave birth to him/her. A Muslim does not believe in original sin or inherited sin, so that means all sins could be forgiven.
‘Eid Al-Adha’ – Festival of Sacrifice, also known as ‘Eid Al-Kabeer – the Great Festival, occurs on the 10th day of the month of ‘Thul-Hijjah’ and coincides with the last day of the Hajj pilgrimage.
What might come as a surprise to many is that the Hajj also commemorates the willingness of the Prophet Ibrahim (peace be upon him) to sacrifice his son Ismail (peace be upon him) as per a command from God.
In his willingness to sacrifice his son, Ibrahim had shown that his love for his Lord superseded all others that he would lay down his own life or the lives of those dear to him in order to submit to God. So God replaced Ismail with a sheep at the last second, and the sheep was slaughtered instead.
As a result, Muslims from all over the world celebrate this Eid by slaughtering sheep, camels or cows of their own. However, sacrifice is not a pillar of Islam. Nor is it obligatory during Hajj and/or Eid Al-Adha, so those who cannot afford it (or are vegetarian) are not obligated to do so.
Muslims slaughter animals in the same way throughout the year, by slitting the animal’s throat in a swift and merciful manner (animal rights activists may say it’s still cruel, however it is said to be much less painful than other conventional methods), and by saying the name of Allah (In the name of Allah, The Most Gracious, The Most Merciful) at the time of slaughter. This type of ritual is what makes food Halal, which is the Islamic word for Kosher. In this way, Muslims are reminded that life is sacred.
One third of the meat is distributed to the poor, one third to neighbors and needy relatives, while one third is kept by the person who offered the sacrifice for use within his or her own family. This act symbolizes the willingness of a Muslim to give up some of his/her own bounties in order to strengthen ties of friendship and help those who are in need.
During Eid Al-Adha, Muslims wear their nicest clothing and attend a special prayer gathering in the morning. This is followed by a short sermon, after which everyone stands up to hug and greet one another. The traditional Eid greeting is ‘Eid Mubarak’, which translates to ‘blessed festival’.
Next, people visit each others’ homes and their family to partake in festive meals with special dishes, beverages, and desserts. Meanwhile, as per cultural customs of the Middle East, children receive gifts and sweets on this joyous occasion, as well as a sum of money from everyone in their family, ranging from $100 or more to a few pennies, depending on the financial status of the family.