- Summary: an Islamic festival that celebrates the Prophet Muhammad appointing Ali ibn Abi Talib as his successor
- 2019 Date: 19th August (starting at sunset on 18th August)
- Celebrated by: Shi’ite Muslims; Iran, Iraq and other Shi’ite countries (as a National Holiday)
- Linked Holidays: The Hajj
Background and Theological Significance
Eid al-Ghadir (in Arabic, عید الغدیر), roughly translating as ‘the feast of the pond’, is one of the most important festivals within Shia Islam. It commemorates the sermon that the Prophet Muhammad gave at Ghadir Khumm in the year 632 CE, the last public sermon he preached before his death only a few months later. Ten years after Muhammad’s migration (‘hijrah’) from Mecca to Medina, he undertook his one and only ‘hajj’ pilgrimage to the Kaaba in Mecca. On his return, the Prophet and his followers stopped at a pond (‘ghadir’) in Khumm (modern-day Al-Juhfah), where he preached a sermon to thousands of Muslims gathered there. In this sermon, Muhammad declared that his cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib was to be considered a ‘mawla’ (master). Some of his followers believed that this meant that Ali was Muhammad and Allah’s chosen successor, whereas others believed that it meant simply that Muhammad regarded Ali with great trust. The division between these two interpretations eventually caused the split between Shi’ite Muslims, who believe Ali was the rightful successor, and Sunni Muslims, who believe that he was not; a split that exists within the Islamic world to this day.
The festival of Eid al-Ghadir is celebrated by Shi’ites in honour of the day when they believe that Muhammad appointed Ali as his successor, although naturally it is not usually observed by Sunnis. Shi’ites consider the festival to be among the most significant feasts of Islam, and it has even been referred to as ‘Eid Allah al-Akbar’ (the greatest Eid of God). The festival is held each year on the eighteenth day of Dhu al-Hijjah, shortly after the end of the annual Hajj pilgrimage, just as the sermon at Ghadir Khumm occurred on Muhammad’s return from his own Hajj observance.
The festival of Eid al-Ghadir marks the split between the two major branches of Islam; Shia (from the Arabic for ‘party of Ali’) and Sunni (from the Arabic for ‘following the traditions of the Prophet’). Shia (adjective Sh’ite) Islam holds that Ali ibn Abi Talib was specifically appointed as Muhammad’s successor, and it rejects the first three caliphs who reigned following the Prophet’s death (Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman) prior to the caliphate of Ali himself in the period 656 to 661 CE. Shi’ite Muslims constitute approximately 15% of Muslims in the world today and are mainly concentrated in a geographic crescent that runs from populations in Yemen, through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, with Iran at its center. Iran is the only Islamic country where Sh’ite Muslims are the majority. In contrast, Sunni Islam holds that the leadership of the faith should be elected from amongst the Muslim community without any preferential status for Muhammad’s own family. Ali ibn Abi Talib is considered to be a legitimate leader, but only the fourth in a line of caliphs chosen to lead the Muslim community. Sunni Muslims constitute about 85% of the Islamic world today and are prevalent in countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia.
Historical records show that Eid al-Ghadir was observed at least as early as the ninth and tenth centuries CE by the followers of Imam Ali. It was made an official Eid in Egypt during the Fatamid caliphate, and has been an official holiday in Iran since at least the reign of Isma’il I in the sixteenth century.
Eid al-Ghadir is celebrated each year on the eighteenth day of Dhu al-Hijjah, the twelfth and final month in the Islamic calendar. This calendar is composed of twelve lunar months without an intercalary period in order to align it with a full solar cycle, meaning that the Islamic year is about eleven days shorter than the Gregorian year. Therefore, the date for Eid al-Ghadir is brought forward by about eleven days every year according to the Gregorian calculation.
The two most prominent Islamic festivals are called Eid al-Fitr (celebrating the end of Ramadan) and Eid al-Adha (celebrating the Ibrahim’s offering of his son). These are observed universally by both Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims. However, as Eid al-Ghadir is usually only celebrated by Shi’ites, it is regarded as a special time of unity for this denomination. The day is marked with the offering of special prayers, as well as having a ‘ghusl’ (ritual bath), and making time to visit relatives and share food and fellowship with other Shi’ite Muslims. There is also a traditional belief that anyone who fasts on Eid al-Ghadir achieves the equivalent of sixty years of worship. A particularly impressive celebration is held at the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf in Iraq, which is usually attended by many noblemen and scholars of Shia. Eid al-Ghadir is a time for Shi’ites to celebrate the leadership of both the Prophet Muhammad and Ali ibn Abi Talib, as well as a time to re-commit to discerning the will of Allah in the living out of the Islamic faith.