I should say at the outset that much of what follows flows not from my own scholarship but from conversations with learned friends, Wikipedia and Islamic journals. I like to think that I'm a practitioner of penmanship, and not of plagiarism. (Nevertheless, you will find that I have dispensed with footnotes in the interest of ensuring smoother textual flow.)
I am not a Muslim. I was born into a Hindu family in Bombay (now known as Mumbai); I went to a high school run by tough Jesuits; and I attended secular colleges and universities in Boston and New York.
I am by no means a theologian, but I am drawn to the spiritual life. Islam, in particular, fascinates me: along with Christianity and Hinduism it is one of the world's great religions -- not only on account of its teachings but its massive demographics. (According to an authoritative Pew Forum report, Christianity was by far the world's largest religion, with an estimated 2.2 billion adherents, nearly a third -- 31 percent -- of more than 7.4 billion people on Earth. Islam was second, with 1.6 billion adherents, or 23 percent of the global population in September 2016.)
That's why I have always enjoyed religions that lend themselves to enjoyment by all. And Eid is a universal celebration. My fervent wish is that all my friends of every faith join in this great fest and feast of prayer and amity! In the United Arab Emirates, where I've lived for the last decade, Eid al-Adha formally starts this year on Monday, September 12. (Islamic scholars wisely stayed away from designating 9/11 as the beginning of the Eid -- the metaphor would have been much too painful and would have invited opprobrium from most everywhere.)
Some fundamentals first: The Muslim calendar holds two Eid festivals. The first, Eid al-Fitr, lasts several days and marks the end of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting.
The second, known as the Greater Eid or Eid al-Adha, commemorates the willingness of Abrahim to sacrifice his son Ishmael as an act of obedience to Allah. Eid al-Adha or the Feast of Sacrifice, is celebrated by Muslims all over the world as a major holiday for a period of three to four days. Muslims attend special prayers held at different major mosques and Islamic centers all over the world. In some Islamic countries, Eid holidays are lengthened to a week or more. The idea is to encourage piety and prayer, not to promote sloth.
When asked about the origin of Eid al-Adha, The Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (PBUH) is reported to have said, "It is a tradition that has come down to us from Abraham."
The Feast of Sacrifice dates from the historic event when the Prophet Abraham was commanded by God, in a form of a dream vision, to sacrifice his son, Ishmail.
But while he was in the act of sacrificing his son, God sent the Angel Gabriel with a huge ram. Gabriel informed Abraham that his dream vision was fulfilled and instructed him to sacrifice the ram as a ransom for his son. The story is mentioned in Chapter #37 of the Holy Qur'an.
Eid al-Adha enjoys special significance because the Day of Sacrifice marks the climax of Hajj or Pilgrimage, the fifth pillar of Islam. This annual pilgrimage to Makkah and Madinah in Saudi Arabia is an obligation only for those men and women who are physically and financially able to perform it once in their lifetime.
The five pillars of Islam constitute the foundation of Muslim life:
(1) Faith or belief in the Oneness of God and the finality of the Prophethood of Muhammad (PBUH);
(2) Establishment of the five daily prayers;
(3) Concern for and almsgiving to the needy; (4) Self-purification through fasting;
and (5) The pilgrimage to Makkah.
It is impossible not to be moved by these edicts. They are a call for leading the good life. In one form or another, we, all of us -- Muslims and non-Muslims alike -- can extract the essential goodness and vitality of these edicts, and adapt them to our own lives and our own faiths. You don't have to convert to Islam in order to believe in its goodness and purity.