Aidiladha, or the Celebration of Sacrifice, is a three-day occasion that is filled with symbolism and a reminder of an epic drama that took place in the early part of human history.
During the three days, but mostly on the first day, many Muslims in Malaysia take part in the sacrificial slaughter of animals held in mosque compounds and other open places.
Some 7,000km away, two million Muslims perform rituals such as running back and forth from two hills (sa’ie), circling the black cube called Ka’abah (tawaf), spending a part of the day in the middle of nowhere (wukuf) and stoning the devil, which is symbolised by several pillars.
All these acts are aimed at showing devotion to God. They are re-enactments of the great drama between God and Abraham, that patriarch of the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Abraham plays a central role in the celebrations of Aidiladha.
The sacrificial slaughter re-enacts the story of Abraham and his son (Ishmael, according to Islamic tradition, but Isaac, according to Judeo-Christian tradition), who were prepared to carry out a most difficult command from God.
For years, Abraham and his barren wife Sarah spent their nights praying for a child. Eventually, Sarah told Abraham to take her handmaid, Hagar, as his second wife, and it was Hagar that gave Abraham his first child. Isaac was born to Sarah 14 years later.
Ishmael grew into a charming and pious lad, but when he was 13 according to some traditions and younger according to others, God commanded Abraham to give him up by slaughtering him. The common Muslim interpretation of this story goes on to tell that just as Abraham set out to carry out the slaughter, God replaced Ishmael with a sheep and spared his life. Both father and son had passed their tests of piety.
The message from this morbid episode is simple: one must be prepared to give up one’s most prized possessions for love of God and that sacrifice is about experiencing pain and loss.
Every year, Muslims slaughter tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of beasts, and the tonnes of meat are then distributed to the poor.
A cow in Malaysia costs about RM2,000 and a goat about RM400, and that would indeed be a sacrifice for the many Muslims who are struggling to meet the high cost of living.
But it’s something a rich Muslim can easily afford. Will the same rich Muslim part with his bungalow in Damansara or some other fancy address in the Klang Valley? Will he part with the ferocious looking BMW that he drives frequently to the mosque?
We may not want to compare a prime piece of real estate or a German marque to a bundle of joy long awaited by a barren old couple. But it is definitely the kind of possession that many of us will be reluctant to part with in the name of sacrifice.
Other sacrifices are easier for these rich Muslims, and so, we see them eagerly taking part in the annual slaughter of animals, hoping that their “sacrifice” will be worthy in God’s eyes.
Today, millions travel to Mecca, stay in comfortable hotels and take part in the many rituals, hoping that the great acts of Abraham and his family are commemorated.
But thanks to the Saudisation of Islam, history and symbolism have been erased from their role in understanding religious rituals. The hajj is one casualty. It has now become just a mechanical ritual.
Lost in the deluge of books to educate Muslims on hajj is its philosophical and ideological perspectives. Every year, millions of pilgrims from all over the world contribute immensely to the Saudi economy, where a multi-billion industry is built around the hajj and umrah. It is this monstrosity that in recent years has also seen the transformation of Mecca and Medina into modern metropoles, devoid of the history that Muslim rulers had preserved for centuries.
This year, Aidiladha comes at a time when the Muslim world is faced with its greatest crisis of perception in recent times, the rise of IS and nincompoops speaking for Islam being part of this.
In Malaysia, this crisis of perception has to do with how the problems of the country are tied to Muslims and their dominance in many fields such as security, politics and the civil service.
Correcting this perception requires sacrifices from Malaysian Muslims, which can come in the form of giving up certain comforts and quotas in the name of race.
Muslims need to go back to Islam’s principles of social justice and equality and make little sacrifices that will go a long way to correcting the wrong perceptions of their religion.
That will be a tiny sacrifice compared to Abraham’s, but certainly more meaningful than the rituals that have taken centre stage in the Aidiladha celebrations.
Abdar Rahman Koya is Editor-in-Chief at FMT.