March 25, 2000
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...email@example.com
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