The Eid al-Adha and Hajj, overlapping religious institutions for Muslims

Said Ahmed-Zaid
Said Ahmed-Zaid

Earlier this past week, Muslims all over the world celebrated the Eid al-Adha, or the Festival of the Sacrifice. This is one of two religious celebrations in the Islamic faith tradition, the first one being the Eid al-Fitr, or the Festival of Fast Breaking, which occurs the day after the fasting month of Ramadan. I wanted to review some interesting details about this important religious holiday which overlaps with the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca.

First, the Eid al-Adha is called the big Eid whereas the Eid al-Fitr is referred to as the small Eid. The Eid al-Fitr marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan and was celebrated this year on June 15. The Eid al-Adha, on the other hand, marks the culmination of the Hajj. Since the Eid al-Adha occurs during the pilgrimage season and involves an animal sacrifice, it is considered the greater festival of the two.

As a religious institution, the Eid al-Adha was always celebrated on the 10th day of the last Islamic lunar month of Dhul Hijjah in Medina where the Prophet resided during the last 10 years of his life. The Prophet performed the Hajj or pilgrimage from Medina to Mecca only once, during the ninth year.

The pilgrimage to Mecca is considered by Muslims as the fifth pillar of Islam. Every able-bodied and financially able Muslim should perform this religious obligation at least once in their lifetime.

The period of the Hajj occurs during the first 10 days of the lunar month of Dhul al-Hijjah. On the eighth day, the official pilgrimage starts at Mecca as all pilgrims have removed their valuable garments and now don two simple pieces of white linen to cover themselves, except for their right shoulder and right arm. With this gesture, they cast away their pride and status and become indistinguishable in the sea of pilgrims. Women are allowed to keep their regular clothes, leaving only their faces and hands uncovered.

After the afternoon prayers, the pilgrims head for the nearby town of Mina, where they make their own food without killing any living animal and spend half a day and a full night in meditation, prayer and reading the Quran.

In the morning of the ninth day, they immediately set out for the plain of Arafat, which they have to enter around noon and remain there until sunset. Standing at Arafat on this day, near the mount of Mercy, is a fundamental rite of the pilgrimage. It is a day of fasting and atonement for Muslims around the world who commiserate in spirit with the pilgrims. The pilgrims, however, are not allowed to fast.

Just after sunset, the pilgrims leave for the valley of Muzdalifa, where they will make a temporary stay after offering delayed sunset and night prayers. Muzdalifa is an area where all pilgrims must spend the night, some even sleeping on the ground. This is a lesson in extreme poverty as well as a reminder that all pilgrims are from the soil of this earth and will one day return to it.

On the morning of the 10th day, the pilgrims are back in Mina, where they throw small pebbles at three symbolic pillars representing the temptations of the devil who tried to dissuade Abraham, or Ibrahim in Arabic, and his son from going through with the sacrifice. The Hajj is a reminder of Abraham’s firmness and steadfastness in his faith, which was rewarded by God with a sacrificial ram. The pilgrims commemorate this event by offering a sacrificial animal, which goes to feed the poor and the needy.

There are other rituals that are accomplished by the pilgrims before and after the Hajj, such as walking seven times around the Kaaba, a cubic temple at the center of the Grand Mosque in Mecca and believed by Muslims to have been built by Abraham and his son Ishmael, as the first house of worship to God. Pilgrims also offer prayers at the Station of Abraham near the Kaaba.

Another ritual involves walking briskly seven times between two small hills named Safa and Marwa. Nowadays, the passageway between these two hills is entirely covered and contiguous to the Grand Mosque. This walk represents Hagar’s desperate search for water for her baby Ishmael. On the seventh walk, she found that a well had sprung miraculously at the feet of Ishmael. The water from this blessed well, named Zamzam, continues to quench the thirst of pilgrims to the present day.

This year, around two to three million Muslims performed the Hajj in Mecca. I always call my relatives on this day to wish them a Eid Mubarak or a blessed Eid. For Muslims, it is a day of joy and celebration, eating and drinking (no liquor allowed), and remembering the creator. The Hajj itself is a reminder to Muslims that all of humanity will be resurrected one day and will appear before God to account for actions committed on earth. As the Quran says in Chapter 99 named The Earthquake, whoever did an atom’s worth of good will see it and whoever did an atom’s worth of evil will see it.

Dr. Said Ahmed-Zaid is a Boise State University engineering professor and the 2004 recipient of the annual HP Award for Distinguished Leadership in Human Rights.

The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.