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The secularization of an Islamic Feast

Thursday 3 January 2008, by Mustafa Akyol

For observant Muslims, the four days of the feast are filled with religious duties and emotions. For secular Turks, the Feast of the Sacrifice means time for pleasure and rest. The four-day period is especially a good opportunity to ’escape’ from cities like Istanbul.

It is often said that we owe our weekends to the Israelites. Before they started to refrain from work on the Sabbath some 3500 years ago, human societies did not have the tradition of a weekly resting day. Then came the 10 Commandments of Moses. “The seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God,” it decreed. “You shall not do any work.

In the modern world most people still do not do any work on the Sabbath, but they do not devote it to the Lord either. Neither do they go to church on the Christian Sabbath, commonly known as Sunday. The weekend, despite its religious origins, became a secular fact of life and, to be sure, a comfort for all of us.

Something similar has been going for some people in Turkey with its religious feasts – the Feast of the Ramadan and the Feast of the Sacrifice. Especially the latter, which we are in right now, has totally different meanings for two fundamentally different cultures within Turkey.

The meaning for the observant

For observant Muslims, the four days of the feast are filled with religious duties and emotions. Very early in the first day, at around 8:00 a.m. according to the current time schedule, all men go to the mosque in order to perform the special “Feast Prayer.” The prayer is be accompanied by a sermon of the imam on issues relating to God, morals and probably the family.

When men return from the mosque, the real deal starts. A lamb – or perhaps a cow if you are rich – has to be sacrificed to God. The animal had probably been waiting in the backyard for some time, and an emotional link might have been established between itself and the children in the family. But when the time comes, knives are sharpened and begin to work unhesitatingly. The butcher, who could well be the father himself, recites, “In the name of God, the Almighty,” and slits the throat of the animal, which is blindfolded and tied. Then comes the whole process of skinning and tearing into pieces.
This bloody ritual reminds many deep mysteries about life and death to bystanders: Seeing the death of an animal reminds that the Lifegiver is also the One who will take it someday. Life is short, and those who exercise it, including us humans, are not its ultimate owners.

The Feast of the Sacrifice goes on with more social events. The fresh meat is shared with neighbors and the poor, while some of it is cooked and consumed at home.

The meaning for the non-observant

For secular Turks, the Feast of the Sacrifice means what the Sabbath means to most people: Time for pleasure and rest. The four-day period is especially a good opportunity to “run away” from cities like Istanbul. For the well-off, the destination is generally somewhere in Europe. They might wake up as early as the mosque-goers, but to catch up with not the Feast Prayer but the plane to Paris, Prague or perhaps Amsterdam. The trip could include entertainment in bars, nightclubs and even more.

On the way home, gifts are bought from duty free shops. Chocolates, wine and vodka are the most popular. Unlike the observant Turks who present stew to their neighbors in the name of God, secular Turks offer delicatessen in the name of fun.

The third culture on the way

So far, so good. Different cultures may well exist within the same country, and it is only normal that there are different perceptions and practices in Turkey about the Feast of the Sacrifice. But the problem is that Turkey has the potential to be sharply divided between the two polar opposites here. Sometimes Turkey in fact seems to have two nations under the same flag.

The better news is that syntheses between the two camps have also been evolving. Practicing Muslims are developing modern ways to observe their 14-century-old practices. Modernist theologians are arguing that one needs to be less literal in understanding the meaning of sacrifice, and companies offer ways to turn the practice from a bloody ritual to a neat charity. If Turkey can really nurture that “third culture,” it can indeed find ways bridge the gap between the other two, the observant and the secular.

After all, most people need the spirit of the tradition and the form of modernity. The question is how to combine them.

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Sources

Source : Thursday, December 20, 2007 TDN

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