This week, millions of Muslims worldwide will celebrate Eid al-Adha, an Islamic religious festival commemorating Prophet Abraham’s faithfulness to God after being tested with the unfulfilled command to sacrifice his son.
The holiday also marks the end of the annual Hajj pilgrimage. It is different from another major Muslim holiday, Eid al-Fitr, which was recently celebrated in May to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
Depending on the country, celebrations will take place at different times. In the United States, most Muslims will be celebrating Eid al-Adha on the evening of July 19.
Eid is a three-day celebration in Muslim-majority countries. In the United States, most people observe just one day.
Under usual circumstances, Muslims would visit mosques and have large community gatherings. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, celebrations are looking a bit different this year.
Here is what to know about the holiday:
What is Eid al-Adha?
According to Mohammad Hassan Khalil, a professor of religious studies and director of the Muslim studies program at Michigan State University, Eid al-Adha falls on the 10th day of Dhu al-Hijjah, the 12th month of the Islamic Lunar Calendar.
It is also celebrated during the annual Holy Pilgrimage of Hajj, in which thousands of Muslims travel to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia to worship in the Ka’bah, the most sacred site in Islam.
Khalil says that the day of celebration is determined by the sighting of a new crescent moon at night. If people spot it, this indicates a new month.
“Since this holiday overlaps with the pilgrimage or the Hajj to Mecca, which takes place in Saudi Arabia, many people will look to Saudi Arabia to determine the timing of this holiday,” Khalil told USA TODAY. “In Saudi Arabia, there will usually be a select group of people looking for the new moon.”
The day of celebration varies for different countries and even communities. In the United States, most celebrations will begin the evening of July 19.
The meaning of ‘al-Adha’
“Al-Adha” refers to sacrifice, specifically the “one in which Abraham was asked – as a test – by God to sacrifice his son, only to have God intervene and substitute a ram (or lamb) instead,” Omid Safi, professor of Islamic studies at Duke University, said.
The sacrifice as depicted in the Quran (the Islamic holy text) has similarities to what’s in the Bible, though according to most Muslims, Abraham is asked by God to sacrifice his son Ishmael, not Isaac.
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In present-day, animals, typically goats, lambs or cows, are still sacrificed to mark the occasion. Khalil says that while there are Muslims who engage in this practice in the U.S., some Muslims will work with a company to pay for meat to be distributed in other countries where there is a great need.
The meat from the animals sacrificed is shared with the community and food banks in areas where there are impoverished or food-insecure Muslims, said Anna Bigelow, associate professor of religious studies at Stanford University.
Safi said for many poor Muslims, Eid al-Adha marks an occasion where they receive meat.
He added, “Since the notion of sacrifice initially referred to sacrificing that which is precious (thus the test of offering one’s child to God), there is a longstanding Muslim tradition of taking the sacrifice at the symbolic level, implying that the real sacrifice is not the killing of an animal, but rather sacrificing one’s own egoistical desires.”
How will Eid al-Adha be celebrated this year?
Celebrations normally include spending time with friends and family, wearing new attire and giving gifts. Khalil says there is usually a big communal religious ceremony or service, which includes a prayer and a sermon. In the age of COVID-19, there are exceptions.
“Each community is different. Some communities may cancel the prayer, some may hold it outdoors with social distancing, while others may hold it indoors, and so on,” Khalil said.
In commemorating the story of Abraham, Muslims will practice the act of Udhiya (or Qurbani), which involves a sacrifice and distributing the meat to the needy and to family members.
In certain countries or regions, there are dishes that are made to celebrate the holiday.
“During this time, there are special desserts that are made in Egypt, which is where my family is from. But this is going to vary from country to country and from region to region,” Khalil said.