Eid al-Adha: what is it and how is it celebrated in Southeast Asia?

For the millions of Muslims in East and Southeast Asia, and for Muslims around the world, Eid- al-Adha, meaning ‘festival of sacrifice’, marks one of the most significant times in their calendar (28 June – 2 July 2023).

The occasion remembers Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son and the ram given to sacrifice in place of his son. Islam teaches that the son who is to be sacrificed is Ishmael son of Hagar. You may know of a very similar story where Abraham is asked to sacrifice Isaac, son of Sarah, from Genesis in the Bible. In both stories a substitution is provided and the son is saved.

It’s a time of feasting, celebration, prayer and teaching. In many parts of East and Southeast Asia there is also the symbolic sacrifice of an animal, representing the one given in place of Abraham’s son. Traditionally, a third of the meat from this is eaten by immediate family, a third for relatives and friends and a third for those in need in the community. Today the festival is a major community occasion across East and Southeast Asia.

The festival also marks the end of Hajj, an annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia which all Muslims who are able to must perform at least once. Muslims believe the Kaaba, the black cube-shaped structure in Mecca, was built by Abraham and Ishmael. Mecca is also the place Muslims believe the Qu’ran was revealed to the prophet Muhammad.

At such a significant occasion in the Muslim calendar, how can we bless our Muslim friends and neighbours? At least we can take some time to learn more about the festival. Perhaps we can also have conversations with our Muslim neighbours about it.

How is the festival celebrated in Southeast Asia?
Here are a few snapshots of this festival from a colleague in Southeast Asia:
‘I’m a bit sleepy but excited as I walk along the quiet road, it’s before 6am and I am loving the peace and listening to the birds singing. It’s going to be a busy day, this is my first Eid al-Adha and I am going to my local friend’s house for a celebratory breakfast to prepare ourselves for the full day ahead. It’s 6 am and the sun has no heat yet and the shadows are long and slanting. I hear a rasping ahead, metal on stone, the whir of a grinder and then see a flash of light reflected. Squatting back against in the shadows on the cusp of the sunlight two men are sharpening the knives on the ground that will be used later to carve up the meat of the animals that will be sacrificed. They test their blades on the bunched green bananas at their feet.’

‘I’ve got myself up the rickety bamboo scaffolding onto the first floor of the partially constructed mosque that is going to be the pride of the community. Meantime it’s all exposed brickwork and grey concrete but it’s also a brilliant perch as its high up here and I can get a bird’s eye view of all the goings-on. Looking out on the sunny scene I see crowds gathered chatting as they inspect the preparations for the sacrifices; watching the master as ceremonies shine the ritual knives or the digging of holes to go beneath the sacrificial animals’ necks. There’s lots of men and children on this side of the mosque but I’m more interested on what’s going on in the shadowy cooler side. Cooking is my thing and I love hospitality so I am drawn to the women there, they have gathered to prepare a vast meal for the whole community. My friend is in charge of making sure the fire works for the boilers, lots of women are sitting around in circles around great big dishes into which they are throwing chopped vegetables. Visually circles are the main motif, the great bowls of water, the round fires, the ladies grouped around huge platters chatting over their work, the mounds of vegetables to be prepared behind them, the open-mouthed bags of ingredients, and the circles of the dishes that are filled and the fried eggs already stacked up on plates. My friend looks up and her hijab frames her face as she calls me down and I go to join them.’

Something extra special
‘This is normally a peaceful spot with a few men sitting on the ground chatting in the shade of the portico, the cigarette seller with his wares on a sheet beside them, protecting themselves from the burning sun. Today it feels like there are animals everywhere today, there are lots of hopeful dogs watching the proceedings. There are temporary stalls full of sheep and goats as bullocks tied up to posts in the small square to the front of the community’s older mosque – everyone in the community has contributed to buy these animals together, it will be a fine community sacrifice. Leaving the chaos, the noise and the rich aromas behind us, my friend and I walk towards the place where the community will gather later to sacrifice and celebrate together. Peace settles on us as we chat about my friend’s plans for what she will do with her share of the distributed meat. To my right there is a sudden bustle, the local kids stop their playing and watch as a latecomer arrives. The beautiful brown bullock is led by a large man, they are followed by a small jubilant crowd that pushes it down the street. My friend explains that several families will have joined together to buy this lovely animal as an extra sacrifice. She is happy as there will be more meat to share out among the community.’

How can I bless my Muslim neighbours at this time?
While the celebration of Eid al-Adha may look different where you are, the festival is a great opportunity to bless our Muslim friends and neighbours by:
1.    Asking questions
Take time to ask respectful questions about the festival and what they believe about it and why.
2.    Listening to the answers
Really listening to their answers will help you ask better questions. Plus, as we explore what our Muslim friends believe, and why, doors open for greater love and understanding.
3.    Spending time
A cup of tea, a chat, shared food are all good ways to bless our friends and neighbours. Could you make the first move?
4.    Blessing
Invite your friends into your life beyond Eid – look for ways to love, encourage and support.

Next steps
Will you be part of a community seeking to bless East Asia’s Muslim people?

Find out more about blessing East and Southeast Asia’s Muslims.

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