Foreigners’ understanding of Islamic celebrations [Archives:2007/1012/Reportage]

January 1 2007

Muslims celebrate two main eids in a year. Eid Al-Fitr, celebrated after the fasting month of Ramadan, is considered the 'small' eid. Eid Al-Adha, the feast of the sacrifice, also is known to Muslims as the 'big' eid and this year falls on Dec. 30.

What do foreigners know about Muslim celebrations in general and about Eid Al-Adha specifically? What do foreigners in Yemen do during Islamic holidays? The Yemen Times asked these and other questions to tourists and foreigners in Yemen, whose answers follow:

Some foreigners have limited information about eid, especially non-Muslims. Dutch Christian Karin Veltman was surprised to hear that Muslims celebrate Eid Al-Adha. “I don't know anything about this eid. This is the first time to hear about Eid Al-Adha. I thought Muslims only celebrate one eid, which is the Ramadan eid,” Veltman remarked, adding, “I just arrived 11 days ago. I'm thinking to travel around Yemen [for eid], but I don't know yet where I'll go.”

Sarah is an American Christian student at Sana'a Institute for Arabic Language. She's been in Yemen only two weeks. “My knowledge about Eid Al-Adha is limited, especially because I never spent this period in a Muslim country. I don't have Yemeni friends yet, but I plan to travel somewhere to celebrate the eid vacation,” she commented.

Linda, an American who has lived in Yemen for more than 10 years, responded that Eid Al-Adha has to do with when God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, explaining that as Abraham was about to kill him in obedience to God, God stopped him and replaced him with a ram. “As I understand it, that's why Muslims buy and kill their own sheep on this occasion, but I think that's just the beginning of the celebration,” she added.

“This year, the eid is very close to Christmas, the time when we Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. The purpose of Eid Al-Adha ties in wonderfully to our celebration of the birth of the lamb of God, who was born to die in obedience to God so that his sacrifice and blood would be poured out for all people so we can become sons and daughters of God. Abraham was willing to accept God's gift provided to spare his son, so if we're willing to accept God's gift of Jesus, we too can receive the blessing,” Linda said.

Asked if she shares in the eid celebration, she said sometimes a neighbor will invite her for a meal or bring her some food, adding, “Once I was invited to the actual sacrificing of the sheep – not my favorite experience!”

She often spends such holidays traveling, commenting, “Because most businesses are closed, it's an excellent time to travel in Yemen, although some of the resort areas are crowded because lots of other folks have the same idea.”

Diane, another American who has lived in Yemen for a year, agreed that Eid Al-Adha commemorates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son in obedience to God. “Of the two eids, Eid Al-Adha is the one I can support the most because it's about the same story written in our holy book, the Bible.”

Regarding celebrating the eid, she said, “I expected the streets to be running with blood from the slaughtered animals, but that wasn't the case, at least in my area. I usually travel during the eids because I have a holiday from work, but if I'm here, I visit friends and neighbors, wishing them a happy Eid and a good year.”

Many Muslim foreigners visit Yemen either to study or for tourism. They already know about Eid Al-Adha, but how do they celebrate it in Yemen?

An American Muslim student at a Sana'a language institute, who has spent a month and half in Yemen, commented, “I know enough about Eid Al-Adha to practice it. I'll spend the eid vacation with my family and other Muslims. I actually go to pray and slaughter animals. I don't like to travel anywhere.”

He advised his fellow Muslims on this occasion, “Practice your religion as the Prophet [Mohammed] practiced it, and for non-Muslims, don't confuse Arab culture with Islam.”

A British Muslim student who has lived in Yemen for nearly a year said he spent the 2005 Eid Al-Adha in Yemen, noting that Eid Al-Adha in Yemen is very boring without family and because nearly all restaurants are closed, food is a problem, except for those cooking at home.

He added, “I spend the eid in Yemen with other foreign students and sleep the rest of the day. I want to say to all Muslims around the world and Yemenis specifically, 'Eid Mubarak and may Allah accept it from you and us!'”

Having arrived in Yemen six months ago, Malaysian Muslim Farah Afzon noted that Eid Al-Adha in Yemen has different aspects than Malaysia and other countries. “My sisters and I generally visit each other during the eid. Because we don't have many friends in Yemen, I either visit my Arabic teacher's house or Yemeni neighbors in our area. We enjoy a nice time together making cakes and sweets for the eid.”

She continued, “On the day of the eid, we go to the Malaysian Embassy to celebrate with the other Malaysians in Yemen and practice our own eid customs and traditions. We pray the eid prayer and eat chocolates and sweets, then visit our Yemeni friends.

“Really, Yemenis are very friendly and helpful and they never lack in sharing knowledge of Islam with me. Their words, characters and nearly everything else they present in a very nice way. I love Yemen and I want to say 'Happy Eid!' to all Yemenis,” Afzon concluded.

Fellow Malaysian Muslim Nora Azizi Uzir remarked that she likes spending the eid with Yemenis. “Visiting each other actually is the main thing we do in Yemen during the eid.”

Fozia Anarwala, an American originally from India, commented about Eid Al-Adha, “We celebrate it to mark the sacrifice of the son of Abraham, who was ready to sacrifice his son, but Allah replaced him with a lamb.

“In the U.S., it's not allowed to sacrifice animals at home, so we only make a simple celebration. Because our family is in India, we ask relatives there to sacrifice animals on our behalf and distribute it to our family and to the poor. In the U.S., we attend the eid prayer, visit friends and give money to children. I want to wish all Yemenis a very happy Eid and Eid Mubarak!” she added.

Anarwala's daughter, Zeeba, was born in the U.S. and has grown up celebrating the eid in both an Indian as well as a uniquely American way. Although she has just been in Yemen for a month, she said Eid Al-Adha is her favorite holiday due to its festive atmosphere. “I like distributing the meat from the sacrifice to friends, family and the poor. Eid Al-Adha is a holiday that brings all Muslims together.”

She noted, “In the Indian tradition, women usually put henna on their hands, buy new clothes for the day and make special sweets.

“In America, Muslims greet each other with a smile and say 'Eid Mubarak!' Men and women go together to a big hall for the eid prayer. Usually in the big cities, 10,000 people will show up for the prayer at just one location,” she added.

Eid Al-Adha concept in Islam

Eid Al-Adha is the celebration concluding the event of the pilgrimage, called the Hajj. Pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the five pillars of Islam. Eid Al-Adha begins on the 10th day of Dhu'l-Hijja on the Islamic calendar.

According to Islam, one of Abraham's main trials was to obey Allah's command to sacrifice his only son. Upon hearing this command, he prepared to submit to Allah's will. When he was prepared to sacrifice his son, Ismail, Allah revealed to him that his sacrifice already had been fulfilled because he had shown that his love for his Lord superseded all others and that he would lay down his own life or the lives of those dear to him in order to submit to Allah.

While the Hajj, which involves a series of extensively detailed rituals, is a religious obligation to be fulfilled at least once in every Muslim's life, religious law grants many exclusions on the grounds of hardship.

Eid Al-Adha is celebrated by sacrificing a lamb or other animal and distributing the meat to relatives, friends and the poor. The sacrifice symbolizes obedience to God and its distribution to others is an expression of generosity.

Meat from the Eid Al-Adha sacrifice mostly is given away to others: a third is eaten by immediate family and relatives, a third is given to friends and a third is donated to the needy. Such an act symbolizes Muslims' willingness to give up things that are beneficial or close to their hearts in order to follow Allah's commands.