Sacred Sacrifice - By STEVE HEISLER


   Would you kill for God? It's a question raised by the experiences of Ibrahim (Abraham), recognized as the father of monotheistic religions.

Celebrated in the Koran, the Bible and the Torah, his choice of Allah (God) over the material world and his willingness to kill a son helped Muslims, Christians and Jews come to terms with their own spirituality.

Ibrahim's odyssey comes sharply into focus now, as a billion Muslims worldwide celebrate Eid al-Adha (the Feast of the Sacrifice). The Muslim holiday coincides with the upcoming new moon and begins with al Hajj -- the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia that all Muslims must make at least once in their lifetimes, according to Islamic law.
The experience, during which the actions of Ibrahim's wife and then Ibrahim are duplicated, is unique among the major monotheistic religions."

This is fascinating within the Muslim tradition, that everyone should take that pilgrimage," said Susan Marks, a religion professor at New College and an expert on early Judaism and Christianity. "It's a very strong principle; it's very different." As Marks is quick to point out, differences abound in the distinct versions of the story of Ibrahim, or Abraham. In the faith of Islam, for example, Ismail (Ishmael) is the son who came under the knife of this, the first prophet, during the renowned test of faith, and yet was spared by God.

        In Judeo-Christian takes on Abraham's life, it is Isaac whom the prophet nearly sacrifices.

In the annual Islamic pilgrimage, each element of Ismail's life -- from his mother, Hajar's (Hagar's), running between two hills in search of water to the discovery of the still-pumping Zamzam Well (the well of Ismail) -- gets played out. Daily prayers and running around Mecca's Kaaba, the ancient mosque that contains a black stone venerated as holy, are all part of the trek, which Punta Gorda's A. Karim Khudairi has made four times.
"He (Ibrahim) believes in one God, the Creator, and that's where Moses followed, and Jesus the same way, and Muhammad," said Khudairi, a member of the Islamic Community of Southwest Florida in Port Charlotte. "So the three religions are going to be following the teachings of Ibrahim and one God and one Creator."
Khudairi participated several times in what he termed "the lesser hajj." That means he did not partake in full-blown traditional replications of events from Ibrahim's life, including the tossing of 21 pebbles over a period of days at stone pillars that represent the devil.

For Adris Khan, the president of the Islamic Society of Sarasota & Bradenton, each element of the rite resonated during his two trips to Mecca. He talked about the events that take place in Mina, such as kissing the black stone -- believed to be sent from heaven -- praying at a footprint believed to have been left by Ibrahim, and a full day spent on Mount Arafat. The latter is where, just as Adam and Eve are believed to have done long before, believers must cry out for forgiveness from God.

"It is (with) the promise you will be (granted) forgiveness and have the innocence of a newborn child," Khan said. "This very special occasion (al hajj) signifies the separation of all material things from obedience to God, or Allah. That's the legacy left up to today, for us to do."

Although Khan isn't going on the pilgrimage this year, he is helping to organize holiday events locally. On the first day of Eid al-Adha (pronounced eed-al-adha), Feb. 1, for example, he will take part in a 7:30 a.m. prayer at his mosque followed by a potluck brunch. The following Sunday a picnic will be conducted at Longwood Run Park in Sarasota County to mark the end of the holiday. Traditionally, a ceremonial meal with a sheep, goat or bovine animal is shared (with the meat typically divided into three portions: one third for the poor, one third for neighbors and friends, and one third for the household serving the meal). The meal marks God's sparing of Ismail from sacrifice by replacing him with a sheep.

Also, traditionally this period is marked by visits with relatives and gifts for the children.

In Port Charlotte, visitations with loved ones and children's activities are planned, as well as prayer at the mosque, beginning at 8:30 a.m. Sunday.

Whether one celebrates Eid al-Adha here or by going on al hajj, Khan sees it as a recognition of the greatness of Islam -- as well as of other religions.

"These three great religions, they are great because we all believe in very similar things: God and angels and prophets and life after death," he said.

"We are all very similar in that regard."

A send-off by relatives is among the traditions specific to al hajj, and so Malak Elrefai of Punta Gorda on one recent evening waited patiently for her husband to return. He had flown to Washington, D.C., to bid farewell to a son who was making the journey to Mecca.

For Malak, who herself has gone three times, the convention of faith and peace awaiting her son serves as a startling counterpoint to her existence in Southwest Florida.

"When I get there (Mecca), I wear the simplest clothes and I leave my beautiful home and go live in a tent," she said. "It teaches me something I need to know -- that this life is a temporary one and to God we belong and to him we will return," she said.

Husni Albarguthi, the imam's assistant at the Islamic Society of Sarasota & Bradenton, shared that sentiment. He has gone to Mecca three times, most recently two years ago. "You feel people are really trying to beautify themselves, trying hard to be better people and to control their anger during the process of the hajj," he said. "You're living in a completely different atmosphere. I'd call it a holy atmosphere."

In preparing for immersion in the holiday traditions, he follows Islamic law as it applies to the cleaning of hair and nails before the lunar month begins. Like some Muslims at Mecca and locally, he also takes part in the slaughter of an animal for Eid al-Adha.

In Mecca, this practice, which is not seen as a sacrifice to God, has required nearby refrigeration facilities to handle the thousands of pounds of camel, cow and sheep meat involved. Regionally, many will travel to Arcadia or Lakeland, where animals are available for slaughter, to accomplish the same thing, he said.

"You have to have the intention to slaughter an animal and give it in the sake of God," he said. "Distribute the meat to the needy or poor or cook some and distribute it or invite the needy to your meal."

Such a tradition is distinctive of Islamic practice. And that's fine with Marks, the religion professor who stressed the importance of disparate beliefs leading to one God.

"What they (religions) do have in common is a respect for text and processes and a respect for a certain conversation between the different traditions," she said. "There's a similar monotheistic tradition of God, but traditions unfold in different ways. It's very valuable to understand (by) talking to people who understand stories differently."

According to Marks, one source of such understanding is author Bruce Feiler, whose book "Abraham: A Journey to The Heart of Three Faiths," examines the first prophet's role as a spiritual ancestor. In Feiler's writing, he touches upon an Abraham who can be embraced by all.

"The Abraham I long for," he has written, "would be a bridge between humanity and the divine, who demonstrates the example of what it means to be faithful but who also delivers to us God's blessing on Earth. This Abraham is not Jew, Christian or Muslim."

The Islamic Community of Southwest Florida is at 25148 Harborview Road, Port Charlotte, and may be contacted at (941) 625-8855. The Islamic Society of Sarasota & Bradenton is at 4350 Lockwood Ridge N., Sarasota, and may be contacted at 351-3393.

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