The Muslim Feast of Sacrifice is observed in our county, even under extremely unlikely circumstances.
The nearly six hundred Muslims serving sentences at SCI Waymart make up Wayne County’s largest religious minority. To minister to these men’s spiritual needs, Imam Sayed Afify travels from Binghamton, New York, sometimes braving nearly impassable roads, to lead prayer services and celebrate important Muslim feast days. One of the year’s biggest occurred less than two weeks ago; Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice. It has its roots in a story familiar to most Christians.
“Eid Al-Adha goes back to the Prophet Abraham (found both in the Quran and the Biblical Old Testament,” explains Imam Afify. “Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son, and the Angel told him that he could not disobey the command of God.”
Though the Old Testament states that the son in question was Issac, Muslims believe the potential victim was actually Ishmael, Isaac’s half-brother who was believed to be the ancestor of the Arabic people. Nonetheless, the rest of the story is familiar; As Abraham prepared to do the Lord’s bidding, but at the last moment was given a reprieve, sacrificing instead a ram and sparing his son.
“Eid translates to ‘Feast of the Sacrifice,” says Chaplain Paul Gagas, who ministers to the prison’s Protestant Christian population and works closely with Imam Afify. “It is a day where they can reaffirm their commitment to their faith, and their willingness to sacrifice for God and others.”
This affirmation is accomplished in a very literal way; any Muslim who can afford to do so sacrifices an animal. The traditional choices are goats and lambs, though five devout Muslims may choose to share in a cow or camel.
“(The sacrifice) must be done before the Eid prayer,” says Imam Afify. “Eid prayer is an additional prayer said between 7 and 11 a.m., the earlier the better. Some American Muslims say three Eid prayers, one in their native language.”
The concept of ritual animal sacrifice has its roots in much older traditions than Islam. Animal slaughter was an integral part of the polytheistic religions of Ancient Greece and Rome, and the winter Boar Hunt and subsequent feat in pre-Christian Northern Europe gave us much of the symbolism with which we have imbued Christmas (symbolism which includes decorated trees, holly and ivy, and Santa Claus himself). Even today, meat-producing regions and nations the world over surround the harvesting of animals with a panoply of community activities, from the traditional Pig-Slaughter of rural Portugal to our own 4-H festivities at the Wayne County Fair.
Central to all these commemorations is the sharing of the meat, and Eid al-Adha is no exception.
“The meat is split into three parts,” says Imam Afify. “One part is given to the poor, one part is for friends, and the last part is for family.” This sharing is generally accomplished in the form of a great feast, which is followed by visits to others in the community.
In addition to being an important holiday in its own right, Eid al-Adha also marks the end of the Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca which constitutes one of the five Pillars of Islam. For this reason, it is sometimes referred to as Eid al-Kibir, or ‘The Big Feast.’ But it is a coincidence of astronomy that placed it so close to America’s biggest feast this year.
“The date of Eid is calculated by the Muslim calendar, and as such it moves around every year,” says Chaplain Gagas. “Next year it will fall much earlier.”
Yet, even without the synchronicity with Christmas, Eid al-Adha, along with the holy month of Ramadan, is becoming more widely recognized by Americans of all faiths. And this recognition extends to the inmate population at SCI Waymart. Though the Muslims there are not permitted to sacrifice, they do make sure that they can share a lamb dinner—which they pay for out of their own general welfare fund. It may not be traditional, but a more fitting display of the sacrifice and fellowship which characterize Eid al-Adha can hardly be imagined.