Preparing for the Great Feast
By Idris Tawfiq
In contrast to all the glitz and the glamour surrounding Christmas, the feasts of Islam must seem very dull to those who are not Muslim. How wrong they are! For months, the shops in New York, London, and Paris will have been full of Christmas toys, luring parents to spend more and more on their children. The Christmas lights and the decorations are often put up in many a High Street in November. Billions of dollars are spent each year on wrapping paper, gifts, food, and drink. One of the saddest facts is that while many people are feasting and making merry, just around the corner from them in the same town or city, others are begging for food or clamoring to get warm.
If we remember what happened at Ramadan, we get a clue to what the two Muslim feasts are about. For a whole month, we fasted and prayed at Allah's command, trying to please Him and to get closer to Him by our good deeds. In some years, we succeed and manage to feel better and a bit more religious. At other times, we don't quite stick to all the resolutions we made. However, the important thing is that we tried and that Ramadan was a spiritual time. The feast at the end of Ramadan, `Eid Al-Fitr, the feast of fast-breaking, is a family celebration and a time to rejoice together that we had kept the fast.
The Feast of Sacrifice
`Eid Al-Adha, the feast of sacrifice, is one of the most beautiful times in the whole year. No glitz and glamour, there is just Allah once more at the centre of our lives and the centre of our thoughts. We celebrate the feast at His command, and in it we try to draw closer to Him.
How then, as Muslims, can we prepare for the great feast of `Eid Al-Adha? What is the feast really about? How is it different from all the other festivities around the world, like Christmas or Passover? How can a feast make us better people?
`Eid Al-Adha, of course, is bound up with the Hajj - that once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Makkah which all Muslims make at the command of Allah, if they are able to - and it comes at the end of it. Muslims throughout the world who are not physically present on the plain of `Arafat or at the sacred Ka`bah during those holy days of Hajj, can nonetheless take part through their celebration of the feast and their preparation for it. So how can we prepare for the feast, if we are not going to be present in the pilgrimage?
Our beloved Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said of the first ten days of the month of Dhul-Hijjah - the month in which the pilgrimage takes place - that "there are no days in which righteous deeds are more beloved to Allah than these ten days." (Al-Bukhari) As Muslims, then, we should seize the chance that these special days offer us. How blessed we are that we are continually being offered chances, time and again, for our sins to be forgiven and for us to draw closer to Allah. How slow we are, though, to respond.
Preparing for the Feast
There are basically six ways in which we can prepare. The first is by fasting. How many of the days we fast, if we choose to do so, is quite up to us, but on the ninth day, it is Sunnah to do so. In other words, the Prophet of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) used to fast on this day and encouraged others to do so, in solidarity with those who are taking part in the pilgrimage. On that ninth day of Dhul-Hijjah, the pilgrims stand on the Plain of `Arafat, close to Makkah, begging for their sins to be forgiven. In the blistering heat, they beg for mercy and forgiveness. It was on the Plain of `Arafat that Almighty Allah once gathered all the souls of everyone who would ever live and told them that there is no God but He. It was here that Adam and Eve were forgiven. It will be on this same spot, at the end of time, that all souls will gather for the Final Judgment. In our mosques, in our homes, and in our workplaces, then, throughout the world, we can fast on this blessed day and pray for forgiveness in our own lives.
The second way we can prepare for the feast is by repeating certain words and phrases during these days, which will keep us in mind of Allah. The Hajj pilgrims will constantly be calling out Allahu Akhbar and La ilaha illa Allah, as they perform the Hajj rituals. We too, then, can do the same. On our way to work or to school, what more beautiful words could we utter? Instead of wasting time chatting on the Internet, or watching nonsense on the television, we can prepare ourselves by the exclamation of these words. Saying them makes us think about what they mean. Thinking about their meaning makes us bless and praise Allah.
The third way we can prepare for the feast is by doing good deeds. Remember what the Prophet said (peace and blessings be upon him)? Doing good deeds need not mean extraordinary things. Helping with the washing-up, tidying your room, helping your little brother with his homework, opening a door for someone, all of these can be counted as good deeds, in sha' Allah, if we do them to please Allah. Of course, we can also help the poor, we can do acts of kindness for our neighbors, we can speak to others about Allah. What greater deed than to speak about the sweetness and beauty of Islam to those who know nothing about its message?
Another way to prepare for the feast during these ten days of Dhul-Hijjah is to do what the pilgrims on Hajj will have done. They will have asked forgiveness of all those they offended, before setting off. They will have repaid debts. In fact, they will have done everything they can to set their lives straight before journeying to place themselves in the presence of Allah. This year, the `Eid will take place just as one New Year merges into another in the Western calendar. What better time, then, to try and set things straight in our lives? Think about all the people we have offended by careless words and actions. These days are a chance to wipe those offences out and to re-kindle friendships and relationships. Muslims, after all, are at peace with all people. To find some real peace in our lives, we need to be at peace with others. Use the blessed days of Dhul-Hijjah to make up.
The fifth action we can perform in preparation for the feast is one of the central acts of the Hajj, and one which causes such misunderstanding in those who are not Muslim. It is to sacrifice a sheep, in imitation of Prophet Ibrahim's sacrifice of a ram in place of his son Isma`il (peace be upon them both). We do this, of course, with our families, who will share in the food with us. So much nonsense has been written about the sacrifice of these animals each year, as though Muslims were slaughtering animals just for the sake of it. It is enough to say to these critics that all the turkeys at Christmas didn't commit suicide, did they? Unlike the turkeys, though, the sheep are not being killed just for a lavish meal with wine and cigars. They are being offered first of all as a sacrifice to Allah, and a share of their meat will be given to the poor. There will be no beggars in the streets whilst Muslims eat their fill next door to them. The sacrificial animals will be used to feed the hungry.
Finally, just before the `Eid begins, but also throughout the whole of the ten days, we ask for Allah's forgiveness and mercy. Islam is not about decorations on a tree. It is not concerned with glitz and glamour. Instead, Islam means "submission" to the will of Allah. Submitting to His will means being honest about ourselves first and admitting that we do so many things wrong. Begging Allah for forgiveness in the middle of the night or while we are alone in our rooms or when we are gathered in congregation in the mosque, is at the heart of the meaning of this feast and it is at the heart of Islam.
Our beloved Prophet has told us that "an accepted Hajj brings no less reward than Paradise." By preparing well during the first ten days of Dhul-Hijjah, we, too, can enjoy the Hajj's blessings and its benefits. Let's not waste them.