About 2,000 Muslims, many of whom came from far parts of the world, gathered for prayers and feasting on the Mall yesterday to celebrate the Islamic festival of sacrifice called Id al-Adha by distributing free food to the needy.

The festival marked the climax of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and brought Muslims together to renew old ties over a picnic lunch or a friendly game of touch football while the slow rhythms of instrumental music played from speakers on the other side of the lawn.

The morning prayer--the first of five obligatory prayers said daily--was broadcast on the Voice of America to Muslims in 70 countries and marked the beginning of a three-day festival that Muslims observe by slaughtering an animal and giving a portion of the meat to the poor.

Yesterday's event on the Mall was the second annual gathering sponsored by three Washington-area Muslim groups. Another prayer service was held at the Islamic Center-Mosque on Massachusetts Avenue NW.

The holiday's origins trace back to the Old Testament story of Abraham, who proved his fidelity to God by demonstrating his willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac. According to the Old Testament story, God intervened and Abraham sacrificed a sheep instead.

In the spirit of charity yesterday, some festival participants approached strangers to play touch football or to spread the word of their faith.

Neel Abdul-Hameed, 36, of the District made his way across the lawn, greeting people with a handshake and an "Assalam alaikom"--Arabic for "peace be unto you."

Others, like Mikal Muhammad, 38, of Southeast, reclined in the tree shade to watch over their families.

"It's actually a time when all Muslims come together," Muhammad said as he sat on a blanket beside his sleeping 18-month-old triplets, who were dressed alike in cream-colored corduroy pants, striped shirts and white shoes.

One family from Cairo said the District's celebration fell short compared to the one at home.

"It's a big feast, but this is okay for America," said Dalia Ibrahim, 18, who came to the United States in January to study biology at American University. "Americans don't feel it like people at home feel it."

Ibrahim, following the Islamic custom of wearing a long red dress and white scarf to cover all but her face and hands, chided her 19-year-old sister for not doing the same.

"But I will wear it in the future," said Dina Ibrahim, wearing a skirt and blouse, who also attends American University.

Miraj H. Siddiqi, president of the Muslim Development Corp., said area places of Muslim worship will be distributing freshly killed meat to the poor until Monday as part of the three-day festival.