Every time a religious holiday is approaching, I become a bit more thoughtful. I begin to reflect on the importance of all the things that keep us busy in our everyday lives. I think more about friends and relatives who are near and far away, and I think about those who have gone before us. I worry about the future of the young and fragile. What will their future be? And how will the rich, powerful and successful fare, yes, except for making and spending money, deciding on issues they may not know much about, and become tired and burnt out before they are 50? I also become humble and thankful for what life has given me, especially when I see all those who are better human beings around me, but have to struggle more than I have had to do.

Early yesterday morning, as I sat down to write this column, the sad message came that the poet and teacher Jocelyn Ortt-Saeed had passed away. She had just returned to Lahore from her country of birth, Australia, where she had gone for treatment a few months ago. She lived most of her life, almost sixty years, in Pakistan, her husband’s land. That is where their five children were born and bred, and where her seven poetry books were published and where she gave lectures and held readings. Relatives and friends mourn Jocelyn’s passing and we feel grateful for having known her and her writings. Her poem “Where No Road Goes” will be with us for many years to come.

The beautiful Muslim festival of Eid-ul-Azha is coming up in a few days. It is also included in the Bible’s Old Testament, based on the story about Abraham/Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his only son, the dearest and most beloved he had in this world, before God Allah intervened, and Abraham sacrifices a lamb instead.

If we think about the story and take it literally, if Abraham had really sacrificed his only son, it would have been a tragedy. That story would have been too farfetched to be acceptable in our modern time, maybe at any time. But the meaning of the story is not found in the literal event. We have to think far beyond the dramatizing elements. That also goes for many of the other stories in the holy books. The concrete events belong to their time and culture, and they were often told in ways that made them live until our days. But the literal stories are nothing unless we understand the message and meaning of the stories. It is the message in the story for Eid-ul-Azha that makes it live – till today and forever.

If we only see the actual event, and take the story literally, we have not taken time and efforts to understand much. Eid-ul-Azha would not have been such great Muslim festival, with a universal message, till this very day, if we had only read the story as an account of an event. And had the dramatic element of the story been realized, had Abraham actually sacrificed his only son, the story would not have been included in the holy books. And it would not have given the lasting and eternal message that the current story has. On the other hand, as seen from a pedagogical and communication perspective, had the dramatic aspect not been included, would we perhaps not have been so fascinated with the story – and its message?

Theologically, Eid-ul-Azha is about sacrifice and obedience to God, and it is about doing what is right towards our fellow human beings. If we have more than we need, we must give to the needy, not just as routinely business-transfer, but because we care for those we help; it should cost us something, too, not just be giving from our abundance. Many ordinary Muslims do exactly that, at Eid-ul-Azha and throughout the year.

The message about sacrifice, Eid-ul-Azha’s message, can be found many places in the holy books, the Quran and the Bible. The message is fundamental to any religious, moral and ethical teaching.

In the Bible’s New Testament, in Matt. 16:24-26, one of the frequently cited verses read as follows: ‘Jesus/Issa said to his disciples: If anyone wants to follow me, he must turn away from his selfish ways, take up his cross and follow me.’

And then it continues: ‘For whoever wants to save his life, will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake, will find it. For what would it benefit a man if he wins the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?’

I should hasten to add that ‘he’ and ‘his’ mean he/she, and his/her. The word ‘life’ can also be translated into ‘soul’. This reminds us that we must read and translate the texts in the holy books carefully, so that we understand the words correctly and, even more, so that our understanding and the meaning of the words are correct in our time. We should also realize that the deeper nuances of philosophical and theological texts can be lost if we don’t take time to understand the intention of what we read.

Eid-ul-Azha’s focus on sacrifice is important in our time when we often are so preoccupied with self-realization and individual development, especially in the Western culture, which is also influencing the rest of the world. The term sacrifice, though, can be too strong for many people. We can use a slightly milder term and concept; we can simply say that we should do something that is good for our neighbours, friends and relatives. And to do that, will always be modern and ‘in’, even in the West.

To do good, not only sacrifice, is an integral part of Eid-ul-Azha. The sacrificial meat is shared in three equal parts, with one third for the poor, one third for neighbours and friends, and one third for own household. Muslim children learn the practical aspects of sharing and giving, even if what they can give is little. Poor people share with each other, too, perhaps more than others, and not only material things.

Through Eid, we all learn that, ‘It is in giving that we receive.” That was one of the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). He was the son of a wealthy silk trader in Italy, and he lived the life of a young wealthy man, until he had a vision when he was 22 or 23, on the way to war; he lost his taste for the worldly life, and from then, he devoted his life to prayer and the poor. He is also known as the patron saint for animals and the environment. The current leader of the Catholic Church has taken the name Pope Francis.

As we all prepare for Eid-ul-Azha, Muslim and Christian, Jew and Greek, rich and poor, faithful and searcher, may we sit in tranquility and reflect on the festival and its message. May your wishes, and mine, come true, and may we use this Eid-time to give, to receive, to rethink, forgive and pray. May we listen to those we disagree with – in politics, business, and other everyday fields – and in faith and theology. May we be able to share with everyone, as we will accept gifts, advice and just simple thoughts and concern from whoever wishes to give share with us.

Dear reader, may I wish you Eid-ul-Azha Mubarak.

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.

atlehetland@yahoo.com