Under a shaded pavilion in Anacostia Park, they shed their shoes and kneeled on traditional prayer rugs, men and boys in their modest Muslim dress at the front, and women swathed in brilliantly colored caftans and scarves seated behind. Babies and children, wearing ribbons and bows, clung to their mothers as they chanted Arabic phrases in unison.
"God is the greatest. There is no God but Allah," they said. They had come to pray, and share and celebrate. It was the time of the Eid al Adha, the annual festival of sacrifice. They, and other Muslims throughout the world, yesterday joined in commemorating the story of Abraham who was asked by God to sacrifice his son and later allowed to substitute a ram.
About 2,000 Muslims from the metropolitan area converged on the Southeast neighborhood that offered plenty of space for the prayer and festival. Although most were D.C. residents, they came from different cultures, many of them immigrants from countries such as Egypt, Somalia, Sudan, India, Iran, Pakistan and Lebanon, all joined by the Coordinating Council of Muslim Organizations in the District.
Mohammed Hosein, assistant secretary of the council, said the festival of sacrifice also was celebrated at the Islamic Center on Massachusetts Avenue NW and at the Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring.
At the Islamic Center, an estimated 3,000 Muslims, many carrying prayer rugs, streamed into the mosque as D.C. police officers looked on. Despite heightened tension in the Persian Gulf region after the recent violence at Mecca, where 400 Iranian pilgrims were killed during a clash with Saudi police, the rite passed quietly.
A group of Iranian nationals standing across the street from the Mosque held anti-Saudi Arabia placards and prayed. A line of boys displayed signs for passing motorists to see, including one that read: "Saudi ruler violates the principles of hajj."
Inside the courtyard of the elaborately tiled mosque, men prayed with their palms raised. Sandals, leather shoes and sneakers were arranged in neat rows on the floor.
Women prayed, their heads covered with veils of lace or fabric woven with silver or gold threads.
The separate ceremonies reflect the large number of followers of Islam in the area, Hosein said.
For many, the importance of the day seemed to overshadow the politics of strife in Mecca.
Tradition calls for prayer services in the morning, followed by slaughter of at least one lamb to be shared with friends and the poor. Muslims who participated in the slaughtering began their day yesterday with the ritual before coming to the prayer.
"The idea is that God doesn't want human sacrifice. He wants a sacrifice of the human spirit. When you sacrifice the animal, it's to feed the people," said Dawud Mahdi, acting imam, or leader, of Masjid Muhammad.
Participant Peggy Mohammed said that all at the festival had a common bond of praying in Arabic. "Every day is a holy day for us because God made every day for us, not just Saturday or Sunday," she said.
Mohammed said that part of the ritual is to have women sit behind men. "Americans think that's degradation," she said, but it is really a sign of "respect" and "modesty."
The festival comes during a time when about 2 million people from across the world are making hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca, and the high point of the Islamic year. Rasheedah Abdul-Majeed, of the District, made hajj in 1977. "It's something that you should do once in a lifetime," she said. "It's one of the highest things you can do."
Sayeed Mohammed, chairman of the Coordinating Council, said that when he arrived in the District from his native Trinidad 30 years ago, "You couldn't even find Muslims around. Today, there are about 50,000 in the Washington area."
Lonnie Kashif, author of a narrative on the hajj pilgrimage, said the festival exemplifies Muslim unity. "You have politics on one hand, but this is the way Islam is really supposed to be."
Staff writer Victoria Churchville contributed to this report.