Celebrating ‘The Feast’ in the Age of COVID 19

Physical Distancing at the Hajj (photo credit Times of Republic)

The 31st of July 2020, for most Muslims will be celebration of the Feast (or Eid ul Adha) symbolizing the culmination of the pilgrimage by Muslims to Mecca (the Hajj one of the five fundamental pillars of Islam). These few days of light and love are supposed to characterise meditation, reflection, symbolize meditation, a return to the Creator and prayers. Prayers for peace, for happiness, for justice. The Hajj serves as a symbol of unity in diversity as Malcolm X wrote “…we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood…. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colours together, irrespective of their colour”.

Thus, the Hajj represents a spiritual journey answering the invitation from God to visit Makkah and completing one of the essential pillars of Islam. It is a journey that asks for God’s forgiveness, as the human being is stripped to its core representing the destruction of the inner demons and an equalization with one’s peers. It is a journey that represents the chance to be ‘reborn’, cleansed of the challenges of life, re-energized. It is a journey of a humbling spiritual experience that takes one back to the essence of what creation and consequently life is about. It is about understanding the purpose of life’s journey.

It is about understanding the purpose of life’s journey.

The ultimate and most difficult lesson to learn on this journey is to understand our destination. For those of you who have read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, the understanding of this destination is very simple:

‘Go; travel the world, look for the truth and the secret of life — every road will lead you to this sense of initiation: the secret is hidden in the place from which you set out’.

This is the apparent paradox of spiritual experience whereby the constant effort that we make to purify, to control and liberate our hearts is in the end, reconciliation with the deepest level of our being and the spark that the Creator breathed into our heart which is the spark (the fitra) of humility, the awareness of fragility, the consciousness of limitation, the shoulder of responsibility. The responsibility to live justly and fairly. It is a responsibility that connects to the ‘other’ as God reminds us that he ‘has made us into tribes and nations so that we may know each other’ (qur’an 49:13)

The Hajj affords us that opportunity both in terms of faith but in terms of the shared history of the region and of the Abrahamic Faiths. Pilgrims performing the hajj are in fact answering the prayers of Prophet Abraham / Ibrahim and his son Prophet Ishmael / Ismail (Peace Be Upon them Both), who built the Ka’abah (the House of God) and subsequently prayed to God that His most beloved of followers (and believers) would come. In the Qur’an, God orders Abraham (Peace Be Upon Him — PBUH) “…proclaim the pilgrimage to humankind, they will respond, coming to the sacred house on foot, riding every possible conveyance coming from every distant path.” (Qur’an 22:27). Those who come for the pilgrimage proclaim ‘Labbaik Allahumma Labbaik — here I am at your service O Lord, here I am’.

You come purely for the purpose that you are invited by God and respond to the prayer of Prophet Abraham (PBUH). In this journey you enact an inter religious experience that was initiated by Prophet Abraham (PBUH) and his family. The hajj allows us to follow in the footsteps of his family, from the running of Hajar (between the mounts of Safa and Marwa) to the recommended act of worship of performing a sacrifice of a sheep in remembrance of the proposed sacrifice of Abraham’s son.

As the main inspiration and father of the lines of Prophets that brought the three world religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Eid ul Adha is not only significant for Muslims but should be symbolic for Christians and Jews as well. The common grounds and the commonalities of the stories of ‘the leader of all mankind’ as God describes him in the Qur’an (2:124). Abraham (PBUH) was not only a ‘nation’ (16:120) by his own right, with his descendants including Isaac, Moses and Muhammed (Peace Be Upon Them All), he was also the ‘friend’ of God (4:125) due to his qualities of sacrifice, extraordinary faith, an uncompromising commitment to upholding the oneness of God and righteousness. This is in essence the core of the three Abrahamic religions that derive their ethics and qualities from these attributes that not only lays the foundation for inter-faith dialogue but for multi-faith action as the Qur’an says “Who could be of better faith than the one who surrenders utterly to God and is a doer of good and follows that faith of Abraham, the upright one?…” (4:125)

Abraham (PBUH) teaches us belief in the one God and urges the leading of an upright life. He fought against the idols that sought to destroy society and its natural inclination to God and when the time came was willing to sacrifice his son (who in the Islamic teachings consented after being consulted by his father) in a joint act of submission to God.

Whilst there is a dispute in the different Abrahamic teachings about the identity of the son who was supposed to be sacrificed (and how things actually transpired), there is a more fundamental lesson for us to learn and that is in the willingness to give up that which is dearest and closest to us; it is whether we have the resolve and willpower necessary to achieve the higher spiritual goals deemed of us, to understand our journey back to the beginning, to understand the common and ancient origin of our human roots which is about the worship of the One Creator and the same reality of what this life means, what we have to do and where we will end up.

We have forgotten what the sacrifice is supposed to symbolize. The story and lesson of Prophets Ibrahim and Ismail (Peace Be Upon Them) deserves to be shared, remembered, and celebrated. The conversation between father and son on this most hardest of scenarios bears serious contemplation. In the height of challenging circumstance, the consultation of a parent with his child and the firm but soft acceptance of a parent’s wish by a child highlights a dying relationship in the world today.

In today’s context these lessons are even more poignant. Faced with the need to physically distance with COVID-19, we have learnt to ‘sacrifice’ those things that are close to us to survive. In many sad cases, we have had to sacrifice people for others, many of them being the elderly. COVID-19 really has brought to reality the importance of inter-generational dialogues and the need for delicate balance that is necessary in human relationships to ensure respect, understanding and acceptance. The Abrahamic story of Sacrifice reminds us of this delicate balance and responsibility. It also reminds us of the need for mutual respect and consultation, something that the pandemic has forced us to understand. The lockdowns in many cases has created sites and times of tension between people as a result of our close proximity. We have been forced to re-evaluate what is important and who is important in our lives. Many times, we have either drifted apart of become closer.

The story of the Sacrifice tells us that through showing the ultimate sacrifice of a parent’s closest and beloved possession for the sake of the One to whom you will eventually return, we are taught that whatever we own and are close to, pales in comparison to the ultimate possession that we have: Our relationship with The One Most High. This sacrifice coming at the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca is the very essence of the celebration. In our journey back to the beginning, to rediscover ourselves, how much will we be able to sacrifice?

how much will we be able to sacrifice?

At the heart of our consumer society, where materialism and individualism drive our daily lives, the question of the sacrifice reinforces our personal effort and commitment and invites us towards the deep horizons of introspection and meaning. This in effect is the current analogy of what Abraham (PBUH) faced in terms of his fight. We have a fight against modern and post modern consumerism and narcissism that does not take into account the beauty of human nature or the crushing debt and poverty faced by millions around the world and we must be prepared to sacrifice all that is dear to us in order to fight it. The lessons of the covid-19 lockdown reinforced that sense of going back to understanding what is really important for us.

Such is the meaning of profound spirituality requiring man to acquire a force of being and doing, rather than to undergo despotic relentlessness of a life reduced to mere instinct. Within this space, we marry the purpose of our existence with the purpose of our subsistence.

That purpose in following Abraham’s footsteps is to serve humanity, those in need; those without! That purpose is to awaken our conscience in the proximity of the wounds and the injustices people face! That purpose is to move away from selfishness / greed and waste; to distance ourselves from the darkest dimensions of our being, our violence, our jealousies, our superficialities. That purpose is to face our responsibilities with confidence and assurance

In an age of commercialism, these lessons of the Hajj have been lost amongst Muslims who settle more for the rituals and practices. Custom has transformed into duty and practice descend into commercialization and waste: waste of money; waste of meat; waste of food. A symbolic and recommended act of worship in remembrance of the Prophet Ibrahim’s (Peace be upon him) sacrifice becomes a literal obligation of animal sacrifice, so that the blood flows deep and the distribution of meat becomes the anchor for the duty. Yes, the poor, vulnerable and needy do not have meat, but no one stops to ask whether giving them meat for a day would help improve their lives or doing something else is needed.

So, in the essence of rushing to seek that instant satisfaction of redemption, we trivialize the essence of the need on the ground. Therein lies the problem. The closure of the space for reasoning, debate and rational thinking about faith, spirituality, and practice.

This sacrifice should not only remind us to be thankful for all the blessings that we have, but to be content with them. We are asked to keep in check our greed as whatever excess; we share with those who deserve special attention — the poor and needy people, as well as the orphans. This is the true meaning of the sacrifice that we make so that those in need will benefit. For the benefit of the voiceless, it is imperative not to lose our way by being driven blindly by traditional practices or by commercialization, and to come back to the very essence of the message that is part of all Abrahamic Faiths: respect and love of human beings (especially those who are vulnerable and have been unjustly treated) is a manifestation of the love for the Almighty.

getting out of the ideological box and isolationist cultural ghetto

The blessed feast of Eid ul Adha thus should not become a feast of food as it is now commonly practised but a feast of the faith of fraternal atmosphere that is shared with all brothers and sisters in faith and humanity. It should as we follow in the footsteps of Abraham (PBUH) become a rallying point to bring all members of his progeny together. Unfortunately, over the last couple of years, the concept of a fraternal atmosphere has been denigrated to a single notion within the mindset of the Muslim community, who have gradually entrenched themselves into an ideological box. This ideological comfort zone is an intellectual arrogance leading to an isolationist mentality and cultural ghetto, which world over, Muslim communities; especially those that live under minority situations, place themselves in. This isolationist mentality imbibes an ‘us’ vs ‘them’ attitude and has meant that the Muslim community has always been worried about ‘us’ rather than taking an all encompassing ‘we’. This assumption of singularity is the weapon of sectarian activists who want people to ignore all affiliation and loyalties in support of one specific identity. This is deeply delusive, divisive and is one that leads to social tension and violence for there is a sense of injustice and intolerance that is created from potential misunderstandings and misperceptions.

The hajj, and the symbolic teachings of the life of Abraham (PBUH), should help us to identify with others in different ways which is important in our role of living in society. It should help us remember that we are much more than a label, that our plurality and diversity are not divisive elements but are a cause for celebration but within that celebration is an understanding of common humanity and universal principles. This is the call for unity of the Muslim community and society that is made during this blessed journey. By not allowing space for discussion to examine these ideas and principles, we negate the very concept of our heritage and teachings.

The Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) said “You shall not enter Paradise until you have faith, and you cannot have faith until you love one another. Have compassion on those you can see, and He Whom you cannot see will have compassion on you”. This is the Prophetic vision, fed down from Abraham (PBUH) which demonstrates how we must work, together, with others, with our neighbours. So, a world which makes sense, is a world in which we connect with other people, beyond our immediate communities and experience, and show them compassion and love.

Through Abraham’s progeny we are united by familial ties and the deep connection of our kinship. This shared human experience gives us the opportunity to remember our original spiritual substance and to realign our moral compass. We can either fight about our differences or remember that we are united in the singular conviction that Abraham (PBUH) held.

This is the shared message we share with our brothers and sisters of Abraham’s progeny: ‘to serve humanity, those in need; those without… To awaken your conscience in the proximity of the wounds and the injustices people face…To move away from your heart, your bad thoughts…To distance yourself from the darkest dimensions of your being, your violence, your jealousies, your superficialities’

The fortunate 1000 out of the 2.5 million who have been chosen to perform the Hajj this year, specially invited by God carry the hopes and prayers of billions on their shoulders as they answer Abraham’s (PBUH) prayer. They remind us of the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic which has really disrupted normalcy and created many more questions for us to ponder as we physically distance from each other. Seeing the 1000 perform their rites, it reminds us that to truly bask in the legacy of Abraham (PBUH), it is imperative not to lose our way by being driven blindly by traditional practices or by commercialization, and to come back to the very essence of the message of the respective faiths: respect and love of human beings as a manifestation of the love for the Almighty and to remember our responsibilities to humanity.

So, with the Hajj being performed under the Pandemic conditions let us come back to the essential. Let us remember that this more than anything is a feast of fraternal atmosphere that is shared by all and thus in reaching out to address the true objective of spirituality through prayers and good deeds, let us remember the right that the poor have on us. Let us avoid the waste and more importantly the wasted sacrifices. Let us remember how to reach out to the ‘other’ from our shared heritage.

May the Almighty, who loves you, guide and protect you. May there be peace and respite for all those who are suffering. May you spend time with your loved ones in an atmosphere of happiness; Happy Feast!!

is an analyst writing on decolonisation,peacebuilding,humanitarian,interfaith,Islam, Sri Lanka & other issues of interest. Have a PhD on ethno politics