Virtually all major religions have holy lands — places they consider to be especially important to their faith — and visiting those places often is deemed to be a crucial show of devotion. For Christians and Jews, that place is Jerusalem; for Hindus, it’s the Himalayas; and for Muslims, it’s Mecca in Saudi Arabia
These religious travels are called pilgrimages, and for Muslims, the pilgrimage (or Hajj) is not just recommended but required of all able-bodied Muslims. Every year, millions of Muslims from throughout the world visit Mecca during Hajj to pray to Allah, ask for forgiveness for they’re wrongs, meet and commune with those who share their faith, and recommit themselves to Islam. This year’s Hajj (pronounced “Hodge”) began yesterday and ends on Monday.
When it’s over, they’ll celebrate Eid al-Adha. You’ll see my rundown on that holiday below.
Hajj is such an interesting pilgrimage because it’s so f’ing huge, first of all, and also because there are so many specific things the pilgrims must do to complete it correctly. Firstly, there are rules about what can be worn (white, seamless clothing) and not worn (perfume, deodorant), what must not be done (flirting is a huge no-no) and what rituals must be performed. Arguably, the most important of the rituals is circling the Kaaba counter-clockwise seven times. The Kabaa is the black, cubed-shaped building in the center of Mecca. It is the most holy site in Islam, and when Muslims pray — no matter where they are in the world — they turn their prayer rugs to face that building. I can only imagine what a powerful experience it must be for people who have been praying toward the cube all their lives to finally see it up close. (You’ll notice in the picture above the swirl of people around the building. A very cool image, I thought.
Other interesting things about the Kabaa:
• The ancient, brick-and-mortar building is shrouded in a black curtain.
• Inside, it is held up by pillars.
• According to Muhammad, it was built by Abraham himself, with the help of Abraham’s son, some 2,000 years ago.
• On one side is the famous “Black Stone,” now set in gold. Muhammad was said to have kissed this stone, which is why people touch or kiss it as they pass.
Anyway, the other rituals of Hajj are: walking back and forth between Al-Safa and Al-Marwah (which is now enclosed in a long hallway) seven times, drinking from the Zamzam Well, and visiting Mount Arafat (where Muhammad gave his final speech after performing Hajj himself on March 9 in the year 632.)
Now that you know what Hajj is, check out these fantastic pictures of this year’s event. I really would love to visit Mecca someday — but probably will never have the chance. For years, the city has been closed to non-Muslims, and something tells me the Arabs aren’t going to make an exception for me.
Okay, now about Eid al-Adha:
Pronounced: Eed el-AH-dah. (Say it out loud, and you’ll find it sounds like “eat-a-lotta.” Given that this holiday is based on food — killing it, eating it and sharing it — this couldn’t be more apropos.)
AKA: ”Festival of Sacrifice”
Religion Represented: Islam
Date: Eid al-Adha falls on the 10th day of the month of Dhu al-Hijjah in the lunar Islamic calendar. In 2012, the date is Oct. 25-26, 2012. In 2013, it’s Oct. 14-15.
Celebrates: The willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son for Allah.
On a Scale of 1 to 10: Eid al-Adha is a 9 or 10. It comes at the end of Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia — which is incredibly important to Muslims.
Star of the Show: Abraham
Back Story: Although the story of Abraham is worth noting in its entirety, Abraham is perhaps most famous for being willing to sacrifice his son to prove his devotion to Allah. As the story goes, just as Abraham was about to do the deed, Allah revealed that there was no need — that Abraham’s willingness to make the sacrifice was enough. A ram was sacrificed instead. And Abraham said: “Phew.” (Or, you know, probably did.)
The Food: To mimic the slaughter of the ram, many Muslims slaughter an animal — such as a sheep, cow, camel, or goat. Once cleaned and cut, one third of the animal is kept, one third is shared with friends and family, and one third given to the poor and less fortunate. It’s this last part —sharing your wealth with others by giving your meat away — that serves as the heart of this holiday.
The Fun: Here in the United States, Muslims pray, exchange gifts and hold feasts. Meat is distributed throughout the community. Many Muslims go where the needs are — soup kitchens, hospitals, homeless shelters — as well as to graveyards to pay their respects to the dead.
Why Eid al-Adha is Often Misunderstood: The word “sacrifice” causes images of bloody, nasty torture rituals. But that isn’t the case. Eid’s sacrifices are akin to the slaughter of turkeys at Thanksgiving — with one exception: In the Middle East, people traditionally kill the animals themselves, while we have slaughterhouses do it.
Conveying Meaning to Kids: Giving food away is a concept all children can get on board with. You can then explain that Muslims give food away in order to honor Abraham. Maybe listen to some Arabic or Egyptian music on Pandora while making cookies and then give the cookies away to neighbors. Or donate toys and clothes to local shelters. Be sure to check these delicious-looking Eid recipes out, as well. They’ll make your mouth water.
Traditional Greeting: ”Eid Mubarak”