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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April/May 1992, Page 74

Issues in Islam

All About Eid

By Greg Noakes

The two Eids, or feasts, of the Muslim calendar are occasions for celebration ands remembrance. They are times for family, friends and society as a whole to come together. Two of the most important holidays of the year for the Muslim community, they also represent the completion of two of the "five pillars" of Islam, through which man fulfills his obligations and renews his commitment to God.

Preparations for the Eid begin several days in advance.

The Eid al-Fitr (the Feast of Fast-Breaking) is also known as the Eid as-Saghir (the lesser Eid), and comes first in the Islamic calendar. The Eid falls on the first three days after Ramadan, and is determined by the sighting of the new moon or the passage of 30 days from the beginning of Ramadan, whichever occurs first. Since the lunar year is approximately 11 days shorter than the solar year, the Eid falls on an earlier date each year. This year the Lesser Eid will begin around April 2.

Aside from celebrating the fact that the difficult period of fasting during the daylight hours is over, the Eid al-Fitr is a time to rejoice that one has performed his or her duty toward God, since the Ramadan fast is undertaken not for reasons of health or tradition, but because God commanded it for the Muslim community.

Preparations for the Eid al-Fitr begin several days in advance. Families are out in the streets, going from shop to shop to buy new clothes for the children and to stock up on food for the holiday. In some areas of the Muslim world it is traditional to visit cemeteries on the last day of Ramadan and recite the Qur'an over the graves of loved ones. Many of the most devout spend this final day and evening at the mosque, praying and reading.

This is also a good time to dispense the sadaqat al-fitr, charitable giving which must be paid before the Eid prayers. The head of a family must provide to the poor food or money equivalent to one meal for every member of his or her household, including servants and guests.

On the first day of Eid, Muslims take a light breakfast and then go either to a mosque or a large outdoor clearing for special Eid prayers, which are said in addition to the five daily prayers. The Eid prayer begins with recitations of praise to God and the asking of blessings for the Prophet Muhammad, his family and his Companions. Then the prayers themselves are said in congregation, followed by a short talk or sermon on the importance of the day.

The rest of the three-day feast is spent visiting family, friends and neighbors. People open their houses to guests, then return the visits. Coffee or tea is served along with cookies and pastries. Children, wearing their new clothes, often receive additional presents, and guests are invited for exquisite meals. There is a festive air to these visits, but it is not purely socializing. Eid al-Fitr is a time to renew old acquaintances, bring the family together and join with neighbors in celebrating the season. It is particularly stressed that enemies should put aside their differences, greet one another as fellow Muslims and start afresh. Though this time of festivity is particularly intense during the holiday itself, it continues through the next Eid, which arrives about 10 weeks later.

The Eid al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice), or the Eid al-Kabir (the Greater Eid), is a three-day feast which begins on the tenth day of the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah. This year it will fall around June 11. It marks the culmination of the pilgrimage to Mecca, when pilgrims prepare to end their haj by ritually sacrificing an animal, usually a sheep. This sacrifice is required of pilgrims, but is strongly encouraged by Muslims everywhere who have sufficient means, who in this way confirm the unity of the Islamic community and share in the joy of those able to perform the haj.

The sacrifice commemorates the Prophet Ibrahim's (Abraham) readiness to sacrifice his son, identified in Islam as Isma'il, at God's request. Through their actions Ibrahim and Isma'il demonstrated a powerful faith in and unswerving obedience to God. As Ibrahim prepared to draw the knife across Isma'il's throat, God ordered him to stop, save his son and instead sacrifice a ram. Today's Muslims re-enact that sacrifice not as a blood offering or as an atonement for sin, but in commemoration of Ibrahim's example of belief and submission to God's will.

On the morning of the Eid al-Adha the believers traditionally go to the mosque without having eaten. The Eid prayers are conducted just as for the Eid al-Fitr, though the sermon revolves around the story of Ibrahim and Isma'il and the lessons it teaches. After returning home the animal is sacrificed, either by the head of the household, a neighbor, the imam of the mosque or a butcher. The sheep is held in place facing Mecca, the words "In the name of God; God is Greatest" are said over it, and its neck is cut in one stroke. The killing must be instantaneous so that the animal does not suffer, and afterwards the animal is laid out so that the blood drains from its body. After being butchered the meat is divided into thirds; one for the household, one for friends and neighbors, and the third for the poor. The remainder of the holiday is spent visiting with friends and family members.

Living in a Non-Muslim Society

Celebrating the two Eids poses certain challenges for Muslims in North America. Eid often occurs during the week, and many Muslims have difficulty taking time from their work or classes. In many cases family members live overseas, and their absence from the celebrations can be difficult. Muslims from the Islamic world miss the festive ambience of the season that they are accustomed to experiencing.

The act of sacrifice for the Eid al-Adha can be very difficult because of health codes and the lack of suitable facilities. Some mosques organize contacts with farms or abbatoirs for their congregations, while other Muslims who wish to honor the Eid fund sacrifices for poorer families around the world. Although the Eids are occasions for celebration within the Muslim community itself, many North American Muslims are painfully aware at Eid that they live in a non-Muslim society.

American can make things easier by remembering their Muslim friends and colleagues. Employers and school officials should remember that these days are as important to Muslims as Christmas and Easter are for Christians or the High Holy Days for Jews, and try to adjust schedules accordingly. Many Muslims send cards to their friends at Channukah or Christmas; non-Muslims should feel free to return similar greetings on the occasion of the Eid.

Although the two Eids mark occasions specific to Islam with distinct activities and practices, there are aspects of the feasts that will be familiar to followers of other religious traditions. Festive celebration with family and friends, solemn remembrance and renewed commitment to God are elements that are common to all faiths.

Greg Noakes, an American Muslim, is the advertising director for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.