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Middle East Brian Dispatch

Of Sheep and Sacrifice
March 25, 2000

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I look down from above on a shepherd and his flock
As we drove through the Iranian countryside to visit the Black Church, our bus passed a most unusual sight. Two men wrestled a sheep on the side of the road, struggling to tie its feet together with rope. Several feet away a car waited with an open trunk. A young boy stood to the side and watched the struggle between man and beast. The sheep was not very excited about riding in the trunk, and I wondered who would win that battle. I had seen many animals in the streets during the previous days. In fact, my first sight as I was crossing the border into Iran was a shepherd and his flock making their way through the streets. Many sheep were tied to posts and waited by the side of the road for their owners to return. Jasmine passed a store and saw a box of rams' heads sitting in a window.

What was the meaning of this? When visiting a country for the first time it is easy to draw conclusions when we observe unusual behavior or practices. But it is important to educate ourselves to the habits and customs of the people before making hasty judgements. At first glance, it seems that Iran has a strange preoccupation with sheep, but upon closer inspection we discovered that was not the case.

As it turns out, we are visiting Iran at an important time. The animals in the street are a preparation for Eid al-Adha, or Feast of the Sacrifice. On this day, these animals will be sacrificed as a sign of faith in God. This may sound strange or barbaric to those in countries where animal sacrifice is illegal, but the meaning of the sacrifice is actually a reminder of Holy Scriptures and the importance of faith in God. This year, Eid al-Adha also falls just before the Persian New Year, so the ceremony will also serve as a good omen for the coming year.

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This ancient stone ram shows that <em>Eid al-Adha</em> is an old tradition
The origins of Eid al-Adha trace back to the story of Abraham, which is found in both the Bible and the Koran. God tested Abraham, and the story of his faith is very meaningful to the people of the Middle East. Let's find out why this day is remembered through the ritual of animal sacrifice. I am not as familiar with the Koran, so I will recount the tale of Abraham as it is told in the Bible.

According to the Scripture, God called Abraham when he was seventy-five years old. He didn't call him on the phone of course, he just spoke directly from Heaven. God told him he would be the father of many nations; in fact, the name itself means "father of many." Abraham had always wanted a son, but his wife Sarah was unable to bear children. When Abraham voiced this complaint, God responded "Look up at the heavens and count the stars-if indeed you can count them. So shall your offspring be."
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What are they doing with all these sheep?

Abraham spoke with his wife Sarah about this, and for several years they tried to conceive a child with no success. Sarah doubted the prophecy in which Abraham placed so much faith, and she eventually suggested that he might bear a child with Hagar, their Egyptian maidservant. He followed her suggestion and Hagar soon became pregnant. Upon learning of this, Sarah became jealous and cast Hagar out of the house.

Hagar returned once more to Abraham's home, but Sarah's jealousy and mistreatment caused her to flee once again. She wandered in the desert and eventually settled in a fertile region that is now known as Saudi Arabia. She named her son Ishmael and raised him there.

Meanwhile, God visited Abraham again and told him that he would bear another son, this time by Sarah. By now, Abraham was ninety-nine years old and Sarah was in her nineties, so he found this scenario highly improbable. But the prophecy proved to be true, and Sarah bore him a son whom they named Isaac.

omen - a sign foretelling good or evil
cast - to throw out
pyre - a pile of materials that easily catches fire
in vain - without success
facet - one of numerous aspects

Several years later, after Isaac had grown to adolescence, God delivered the test of faith that is still celebrated today. According to Genesis 22:2, God said "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about." Abraham saddled his donkey the next day and set out with Isaac and two of their servants. Isaac knew that they traveled to present a burnt offering, but he thought it would be a traditional offering of a sheep. When he asked his father why they were not bringing a sheep to sacrifice, Abraham replied, "God himself will provide the burnt offering, my son." Abraham arrived at the mountain and prepared the sacrificial pyre, and even tied Isaac to the pile of wood. This was the ultimate test of faith; that Abraham would sacrifice his only son and heir for the love of God. And Abraham's faith was so strong that he raised his knife and prepared to sacrifice his only son.

At this moment he heard a voice from Heaven that said, "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God because you have not withheld from me your only son." Abraham looked up and there was a ram in the bushes that was caught by its horns. Abraham took this ram and sacrificed it instead of his son, and the life of Isaac was saved. This test was a turning point for the people of the Middle East. Isaac later gave birth to Jacob, who in turn fathered twelve sons who established the twelve tribes of Israel. If he had been sacrificed on the mountain that day, the race of the Jews may have never arisen.

And what about Hagar and Ishmael who lived in Saudi Arabia? Hagar's home became a popular stop for travelers, and soon a village sprung up around this oasis. Ishmael started his own family that grew into the race of the Arabs and established the holy pilgrimage site of Mecca.

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This modern sculpture is proof of the continued importance of the Feast of the Sacrifice
In the Koran, this story has one important difference: it was Ishmael that was nearly sacrificed on the mountain rather than Isaac. Hagar was the legitimate wife rather than Sarah, so Ishmael was the heir of Abraham. Ishmael survived and went on to found the race of the Arabs in Saudi Arabia. In either case, the outcome is the same. But in the Koran, it was the father of the Arabs that was truly spared by the hand of God and the strength of Abraham's faith. So you can see why this holiday is of special significance to Muslims and Arabs everywhere.

Each year this holiday is a reminder to Muslims of the importance of faith in God, because the races of the Jews and the Arabs both arose from the strength of Abraham's faith; the Jews from Isaac and the Arabs from Ishmael. As Muslims sacrifice the sheep they remind themselves that God will provide for the faithful.
The Feast of the Sacrifice

What do you think happens after all of those sheep are sacrificed? That's right! Iranians everywhere enjoy wonderful feasts. Friends, neighbors and relatives gather together in celebration. Special sweets are prepared and exchanged. Children also receive gifts and money called Eediyeh from all members of their families. The celebrations last for 4 days and culminates in a Pilgrimage, called Hajj, of the Muslim faithful in the Holy places of Mecca and Medina.

To learn more about Eid al-Adha, check out these sites. You can even learn how to make a traditional dessert!

I would have never guessed that this was the reason that there were sheep everywhere in the streets! I think of the tales of early explorers and anthropologists who came upon new cultures and tried in vain to explain behaviors that they did not understand. Luckily these days we have guidebooks and tour guides that educate us about these new cultures and save us from jumping to conclusions. Now I can look out on the street and say, "Aha! They are preparing for Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice." But then I look in the other direction and see another facet of Iranian culture that I want to learn more about.

Your Turn!!!

Have you ever felt misunderstood about your beliefs or cultural heritage? Do you have any preconceived notions of people who are different than you?

How can we better educate people who may not be familiar or comfortable with other people who hold different beliefs or values?

Share your thoughts
and see what others wrote!

What things do you want to learn about Iran? This is a country that is often misunderstood, and hopefully we can help dispel some myths. So if anyone tells you that they wrestle sheep in Iran, you can just tell them that they are preparing for the Feast of the Sacrifice; their confirmation of the power of faith in God.

- Brian

p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Abeja - Fire Jumping in Modern Persia
Jasmine - 'Cause you gotta have faith... A Visit to the Black Church
Kavitha - Mission Impossible? Crossing the Border into Iran
Monica - We are Family! Come on Everybody and Sing!
Team - Amnesty International fights for Human Rights in the United States

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