More than two million pilgrims from around the globe have been, over the past couple of weeks, flooding into Mecca to perform the holy pilgrimage of Hajj, which officially began this week. Meanwhile, Muslims in Brussels are making the final preparations, along with over a billion of their brethren, to celebrate Eid Al-Adha (the feast of sacrifice) that marks the culmination of the annual pilgrimage.
Muslim homes have been a hive of activity over the past couple of weeks: shopping for clothes, calling loved ones back home, booking holidays to visit relatives, making arrangements for the sacrifice, buying the ingredients for favourite traditional dishes that will be served at family gatherings and seeing off those relatives and friends fortunate enough to be going on the Hajj.
The Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam which must be performed by every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it at least once in their lives, falls in Dhul-Hijjah, the twelfth month of the Islamic Hijra calendar. Many Belgian Muslims dressed in their Ihrams (simple white cloths wrapped around the body to symbolise purity and equality) are already in Mecca performing the rites of their spiritual cleansing and rebirth.
However, travel agents in Brussels canvassed by The Bulletin report that numbers have dropped off some 50-60% this year due to new Saudi regulations. These require pilgrims, many of whom prefer to make their own arrangements to reduce costs, to travel to the holy land only with pre-booked flight and accommodation. This is partly to guarantee that no pilgrims stay behind in the kingdom to seek work illegally.
“Accommodation alone has shot up to about €1,600, whereas it used to cost BEF10-15,000 (€248-€372) for those travelling independently,” a Moroccan travel agent explained. “This has naturally put a lot of people off performing the Hajj this year.”
“Eid will conveniently fall around the weekend and so a lot of Moroccans and other Arabs are still booking short holidays home this year to see family and friends over the feast,” she added.
Eid, which begins, this year, on Friday 22 February and usually lasts about three days, is not an official holiday in Belgium, but many Muslims make arrangements with their employers to have a few days off from their leave.
“Eid doesn't have the same feel here because it's not a holiday and there aren't enough people celebrating it. I often try to get time off to go to Morocco where everyone is in the festive mood,” a young Moroccan office worker said.
However, Brussels provides its Muslim community with plenty of festive activities. Dressed in their spanking new outfits, the faithful will start the feast on Friday by heading to one of the city's 50 mosques shortly after sunrise to perform the Eid prayers.
The Islamic Centre, Brussels' first official mosque, will resonate with the ethereal tones of 3,000 worshippers chanting, in unison, dedications to God before they rise in communal prayer behind the Imam (a Muslim cleric who leads the faithful in prayer).
The Eid prayer, while not obligatory, is an integral and important part of Islamic feasts. In Muslim countries, main squares outside large mosques are often sealed off and turned into ad hoc prayer areas to deal with the surge in worshippers.
Another important component of Eid Al-Adha takes place later in the morning. The ritual sacrifice of an animal, usually a sheep or lamb, is a symbolic testimony to what Muslims perceive as God's mercy at sparing Abraham from sacrificing his son, which the ancient prophet had foreseen in a dream and interpreted as a divine command.
Beyond the symbolism, the sacrifice is an exercise in charity and social consciousness, where those who can afford to are asked to slaughter an animal. The meat must then be distributed fairly and equally between immediate family, extended family and the poor. Many Muslims decide to make a voluntary financial donation to charity, either in addition to or instead of the sacrifice.
This year, the local authorities in Brussels, in consultation with the Muslim community, have set up temporary slaughter houses, or abattoirs, to meet the huge surge in demand and curb the practice of animals being slaughtered by unauthorised personnel at unlicensed locations, or at home, that has drawn the fire of animal rights groups and raised concerns over hygiene.
Halal butchers also see good business in the run-up to Eid as those not sacrificing an animal themselves flock there to buy meat for upcoming family banquets, where abundance and hospitality are the keyword.
“You have to set a good table for Eid. Everyone has to be content and well-fed,” said a Tunisian mother as she outlined her meticulous plans that would shame a royal caterer.
Sweet delights are more commonly associated with Eid Al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan. Nevertheless, many Muslims still like to top off their Eid Al-Adha meal by indulging the tooth fairy with delicious syrupy sweets, stuffed pastries, Turkish Delights, and biscuits stuffed with dates and sprinkled with profuse quantities of sugar.
Muslims traditionally make their own entertainment with large gatherings of families and friends. Those looking for a little more excitement, however, will head off to one of several Arab concerts, where singers, belly dancers and music will keep their waists gyrating into the early hours.
This article appeared in the 21 February 2002 issue of The Bulletin.