Eid al-Adha literally means “Festival of Sacrifice.” It is also called Eid al-Kabeer – “The Large Feast.” It marks the culmination of the religious rituals on the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. The four-day holiday begins on the 10th day of the Islamic month of Dhu’l-Hijja, the twelfth month of the Islamic calendar, and continues for three more days.
Eid al-Adha honors the willingness of Ibrahim (Abraham) to sacrifice his son as an act of obedience to Allah’s command. This story, so familiar to Jews and Christians from Genesis 22, is told in Surah 37 in the Quran. While the Quran does not clearly state which son of Ibrahim (Abraham) this was, most Muslims believe that it was Ishmael. The account in Genesis 22 stresses that it was the son of the promise – Isaac.
This is the second of the two main holidays celebrated by Muslims of all sects and affiliations. Just as Eid al-Fitr comes as the culmination of the month of fasting, Eid al-Adha comes as the conclusion of the month of pilgrimage.
In the Quranic story, Ibrahim showed that he was willing to submit to Allah’s command and make the ultimate sacrifice. But while Ibrahim was willing, Allah did not require it. He provided an animal to sacrifice in the son’s place.
Though this festival commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, the Old Testament meaning of such blood sacrifices is not understood by Muslims. Muslims understand that the sacrifice itself, as practiced during Eid al-Adha, has nothing to do with atoning for their sins or seeing blood as necessary for cleansing from sin.
The symbolism of the blood sacrifice is in the attitude – a willingness to make sacrifices in their lives, to give up some of what they treasure, in order to stay on the “straight path.” A true Muslim – who submits completely to Allah – is willing to completely follow Allah’s commands
The central event of Eid al-Adha is a family’s ritual slaughter of a costly animal. Every family that can afford to do so voluntarily slaughters a ritually acceptable animal (a sheep, goat, cow, or camel). Each family kills the animal in the courtyards of their house or in the streets.
They cut the carcass into thirds and distribute it equally among themselves, the poor, and friends and neighbors. Every year, hundreds of millions of animals are slaughtered on this day around the world.
A typical Eid al-Adha begins with Eid prayers in the morning, along with the killing of the sacrificial animal.
Many communities organize a massive public outdoor prayer time in the morning of the first day of the festival. The women spend hours cooking specialty foods for the holiday, and everyone dresses in new clothes. Families, friends, and neighbors share food and gifts with each other and visit one another late into the night.
Former Muslim believers in Christ often find it the hardest time of the year, and some substitute this Muslim feast with a new Christian celebration. Others see it as mostly a social event and happily join their Muslim families as they visit and enjoy time together.