This is based on a conversation involving Aafia where she discussed Eid Al Adha and what it meant beyond performing the ritual acts.
It was a casual social conversation sometime in the 1990s. The Hajj was about to conclude, and Eid Al Adha was approaching. A point was made that perhaps this Eid is really only a celebration for those attending the Hajj as it marked the successful conclusion of their pilgrimage. For the rest of the Muslim world it was only about the sacrificing of animals. As symbolic, solemn and beneficial to the poor as the ritual was, what was the cause for celebration?
As was the case with many of Aafia’s perspectives, the response was neither traditional nor focused solely on the logic of obedience to God, blessings for the Hereafter and remembering the enormous tribulations of the prophets of God. These reasons provide satisfaction and comfort to those already in the fold of “believers” and are popular when one is preaching to the proverbial choir. But the root of the question was a challenge seeking a more pragmatic response that would resonate more universally
To Aafia, Eid Al Adha, as a celebration, was not just about the rituals themselves even though it is the culmination of perhaps the most ritual laden event of the Islamic calendar – The Hajj. In order to truly celebrate and enjoy this Eid universally, she suggested the examination of what the rituals were highlighting:
The Hajj essentially marks the challenges posed to the Prophet Abraham and his family as believed in the Islamic tradition.
First, the taking of Hagar and Ismail to a barren spot in the “middle of nowhere” and leaving them with no sustenance other than a faith that an unseen God will provide. Then, later, the Hajj marks the willingness of a father to sacrifice his son, again on the order of that unseen God. So, is the lesson here one of blind obedience regardless of how harsh the commandments seem?
To Aafia the lesson was not one of slavish obedience but one of faith and trust – faith in knowing that God would always be reasonable. She argued that this is the faith we place in those we trust completely and know they will not betray us – the faith that is demonstrated when tested in adversity. Hence, she argued, that God called Prophet Abraham not his servant or slave but His “friend”. In Arabic, Prophet Abraham is called “Kahlil-Ullah” – The friend of Allah. True Friendship is generally considered the most valued relationship in almost every human culture because it is voluntary and not tied to blood but earned by actions.
To Aafia, this was the lesson here – for each of us to examine whether we are selfish, slaves or friends? Do we follow blindly or do we have faith and trust? Whom do we call our friends and are we worthy to be friends the way Abraham stood by God? In India there is a saying “Only a tested friend is a true friend.”
The Eid also reminds us of the anxiety and alarm of a mother as she dashed back and forth in desperate search for water for her gasping son. Just as one would wonder why God would warrant such a situation, we are reminded of the miracle that the water so desperately sought sprang from under the very heels of Ismail’s feet and runs to this day.
To Aafia this was a reminder of the value of perseverance and the sanctity of life. Hagar’s struggle to seek water repeatedly over the same ground in an impossible terrain showed her refusal to surrender in despair despite the odds and also demonstrated her desire to preserve the life of her son. To Muslims life is considered God’s most precious gift to humanity and Aafia suggested that this ritual showed the value of preserving this. In the end God produces the water at the child’s feet but not until Hagar had earned it with her sincere effort. To Aafia this was the embodiment of the Islamic creed: that people are obligated to persevere and do their part sincerely despite the odds and leave the results to God.
Perhaps one of the most misunderstood rituals of the Hajj is the “stoning of the devil”. Seemingly archaic and superstitious in this age of space travel, the symbolic shunning of the devil is often mocked. Historically it represents the appearance of the devil in different forms to try to dissuade Abraham on his way to sacrifice his son.
Aafia suggested that these are to serve as reminders to hold firm to one’s principles and path to do the right thing despite challenges whether they come in the form of temptations or threats. But a more remarkable point she made was that this also highlights the need for people to act with free will and not follow blindly or take convenient ways out when they know what is right and what is not. The Prophet Abraham was asked to do something difficult and given multiple opportunities and pressured to excuse himself, but the free choice of both him and his son proved to be stronger. Aafia commented that free will did not mean the easy choice; often it was the opposite.
So in the end Aafia surmised that Eid Al Adha was a celebration not just of rituals but of faith – faith in friendship, loyalty, perseverance, free will and perhaps most importantly the faith that God’s Mercy is ultimately always greater than His test.
This is the consciousness Aafia left with us during that discussion about Eid Al Adha. As with many impressions and with the passage of time, we may remember them differently in details but when something leaves a lasting impression, the essence is seldom lost.
We do not know how Aafia feels about Eid today as we are not allowed to speak with her as she spends her 21st Eid in a solitary cell. All we have is the memory of a conversation and the ironic twist of fate that almost all the points she made and the lessons she put forth, she and her family are having to experience.