Celebrating Islam's great festival
NIKI GAMM ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
Islam has two major festivals every year, a smaller one known as the Şeker (Sugar) Bayram holiday and a greater one known as the Kurban Bayram. Although people tend to think of the Şseker Bayram as more important since it occurs at the end of nearly a month of fasting, the Kurban Bayram (Feast of the Sacrifice) has a stronger religious connotation. Both holidays originate with the dawn of Islam and their origins are related to the events surrounding the Prophet Mohammed’s efforts to establish the Muslim faith. For centuries activities connected with the two occasions have been carried out in the same way across countries in which Muslims are to be found albeit with some, though not many, cultural differences.
This weekend marks the beginning of the Kurban Bayram, when Muslims commemorate an event common to Judaism and Christianity as well, the near sacrifice of a young man who was saved by divine intervention. This is, of course, the story of the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) and his son Ishmael (Isaac) and how the prophet was commanded by God to sacrifice his one and only son. Only at the very last moment did an angel appear with a ram to be sacrificed in the boy’s place. The story is chiefly one of total obedience to God’s commands although it also signifies that human sacrifice is not welcome to the deity. So began the sacrifice of sheep and other similar animals like cattle and camels.
One of the pillars of Islam is undertaking the pilgrimage to Mecca and at the end of this journey a pilgrim is required to sacrifice an animal. Since only a few people out of the millions of Muslims have ever had a chance to go on the pilgrimage, the sacrifice was made at home or in mosques. Over the centuries it was done in the same fashion, including during the Ottoman period.
In the days leading up to the holiday, people would start preparing the presents they would exchange. But this was considerably different in an age when there were no department stores. For example, clothes had to be made by hand. One had to go in person to make selections of material and give a tailor or seamstress measurements. Because of the time involved in preparations, people were given a half day off the day before the holiday actually started. The women of the household would spend hours cleaning to ensure that everything was sparkling since the holiday was also a time for visiting relatives and friends. Today in Turkey only banks and government offices seem to enjoy that half day. The first day everybody would put on their new clothes early and the men went off to the mosque to pray. When they came home, it would be time to eat and then sacrifice an animal, usually a sheep. The person who purchased the animal was entitled, along with his immediate family, to one-third of the meat. More distant relatives and friends got the second-third and the final third went to the poor.
Then it would be time to go visiting, starting with the oldest living male member of the family on the husband’s side. The second day it was customary to go to the eldest living male member on the wife’s side. This continued with the custom of going to kiss the hand of your employer, a practice reflecting that of the grand vizier, lower ranking viziers and officials accompanying the sultan to prayer and then attending him in the palace. The sultan himself would conduct the first sacrifice with his own hands, continuing with sacrifices for each member of his family. He would then sit on his throne in front of the Gate of Felicity with the members of his court, around him as a long procession of dignitaries would fare its way across the parade ground. According to court etiquette, people were not allowed to speak loudly and the palace had its strict regimentation. So any thoughts of 40 to 50 children mobbing their sultan father to kiss his hand are totally out of the question.
Another custom during the Kurban Bayram was going to visit the family graves. Some might even camp out in the cemeteries. It was also a time of revelry and there are accounts of swings and platforms for clowns and musicians and story tellers being set up to beguile the people along the streets of the city. But most importantly the Kurban Bayram was an occasion for people to get together in sharing, peace and giving alms.