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The Muslim Holidays More of Us Should Know

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This year, Eid-al-Adha, the four-day Muslim holiday literally known as “festival of the sacrifice” in Arabic, narrowly avoided falling on September 11th. Beholden to the lunar calendar, the date changes every year.

In the run-up to this year’s celebration, many of my Muslim friends joked that they wouldn’t publicize the fact that they were celebrating Eid-al-Adha; they worried that proclamations of pride in their faith could be misinterpreted as a callous lack of sympathy for 9/11’s victims.

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A Sweet for Eid that Takes a Village to Make
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A Sweet for Eid that Takes a Village to Make

There are two official holidays decreed by Islam, both called Eid. Eid-al-Adha is distinct in intent and feel from Eid-al-Fitr, Arabic for “festival of breaking the fast,” the celebration that follows Ramadan. Lavish feasts are integral to both holidays, yet their flavor profiles are wildly different.

The story behind Eid-al-Adha goes as follows: In a moment of divine instruction, Ibrahim became convinced to sacrifice Ishmael, his thirteen-year-old son. Ishmael himself was a willing participant, so deep was his devotion to God. Just before enacting the sacrifice, though, God intervened, instead offering Ibrahim a ram to sacrifice in his son’s stead. The cuisine of Eid-al-Adha is an offshoot of this mythos.

After humanely slaughtering a goat, sheep, cow, or camel, families distribute the animal’s remnants among three groups—their wider family, their dearest friends, and the financially disadvantaged. Fried liver is usually served for breakfast, while, for other meals, the outcomes vary by region. Biryanis are popular in South Asia, while kebabs are ubiquitous in Turkey. This has earned Eid-al-Adha the occasional moniker of Salty Eid.

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Eid-al-Fitr, instead, is sometimes called Sweet Eid. Eid-al-Fitr falls at the end of a month-long fasting in observance of Ramadan, and its dishes don't pivot around a central ingredient—they're usually sweet desserts, ranging from Turkish baklavas to Indian kheer, a type of rice pudding.

Home for the Holidays, in Oman
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Home for the Holidays, in Oman

I admit that I didn’t know the difference between the two Eids myself until a few years ago. My private school in suburban New Jersey didn’t place much emphasis on enforcing a basic understanding of Islam upon its students. My knowledge of Islam’s basic tenets was largely self-taught because I noticed that people tended to believe that I—a Hindu, South Asian guy—was Muslim.

I graduated from high school six years ago, though. I'm hoping a lot has changed about our education system in the years since. This is a cultural literacy everyone should have—something our current political moment especially enforces. At the start of this year's festivities, the mosque that Orlando Pulse nightclub gunman Omar Mateen once attended was set ablaze by an unknown arsonist. Before that, an Albanian immigrant woman attacked two Muslim women with strollers. A still-unnamed assailant set a Muslim woman on fire in Midtown over the weekend. My friends spoke to a fear of similar fates, too. All of this urges the need to understand the multifarious core beliefs of our country, ultimately moving toward the goal of allyship.

Update, 9/15: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Eid-al-Adha falls in September each year, and that Ramadan is in the summer. We've updated accordingly.


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Tags: eid, ramadan, holidays, middle eastern cooking, south asian cooking