WEST VALLEY CITY — The cold, crisp air outside the Khadeeja mosque early Friday morning was a stark contrast for Dr. Salman Masud, who was standing in the oppressive heat of the Saudi Arabian desert around this time last year.
"This is a totally different environment," the soft-spoken Pakistani said as hundreds of Muslims passed by and removed their shoes and coats before entering the mosque for prayers marking Eid al-Adha, or The Feast of Sacrifice, one of Islam's holiest days.
The holiday, which commemorates the ancient prophet Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, also marks the completion of Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, which was undertaken by more than four million Muslims in the past week.
Hundreds of men, women and children filed into the mosque here — some dressed in their western business and school attire and others in more colorful robes, caps and scarves — for special prayers and to hear words of encouragement and admonishment from Imam Muhammed Shoayb Mehtar.
"Today is a new beginning," the bearded Imam pronounced to men seated on the carpeted main floor of the mosque and women gathered in the balcony. "Beautiful beginnings that all come with choices."
He had earlier admonished the gathering to have the "backbone" to choose right from wrong or else others will be making their choices for them (reminding them that it is an election year).
Following the service, many gathered in a field adjacent to the Khadeeja Islamic Center for the sacrifice of lambs and goats. The animals were bled, skinned and butchered, then the meat purchased by followers who will distribute it to the poor. Those overseeing the ritual said it honors Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his first-born son, Ishmael, in obedience to God, who stopped Abraham from carrying through and provided a ram in his son's place, according to the Quran, Islam's holy book.
The same story is in the Old Testament of the Bible and the Torah, although in those accounts Abraham offers his son Isaac to be sacrificed.
The contrast between Friday and last year's Eid celebration for Masud was more than just the climate.
In 2011, Masud celebrated Eid at the completion of his first Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam. For those who are financially and physically able to accomplish it, it is the ultimate religious experience. The pillars, which are faith, prayer, giving alms, fasting and Hajj, are the obligatory acts of observant Muslims.
Masud recalls standing with millions of fellow Muslims near Mount Arafat on the fourth and final day with all of them dressed in the same white, cotton clothing and all praying in their native languages. The ritual is also rare in Islam because men and women stand together as they pray.
"There is no distinction between people. You are from 160 different countries and you have no idea where people are from," he recalled. "Our prayers are from our hearts. No one is leading the prayer. No one is observing what others are doing because everyone is so engrossed. It's an overpowering feeling."
Masud said the ritual, one of several that pilgrims must perform with exactness for their Hajj to be accepted by God, replicates judgment day when all that distinguishes one person from another is how they have lived their lives.
"It is like a dry run of what it will be like, but fortunately this time we get a chance to improve" before the real judgment day, he said. "This is the most powerful experience that you can imagine."
Masud's pilgrimage to Mecca was a life-changing experience.
Since his return, his effort to live the tenets of his faith are more intense and sincere.
A pediatric anesthesiologist, Masud says he tries to make his interactions with patients and co-workers more meaningful. "When I go into work and say, 'Good morning' to 10 people, are those words meaningful? Do I really care?" he said of the questions he asks himself to make sure his expressions toward others are sincere.
Masud participated in Hajj with his siblings who live in Canada. He would like to take his wife and children in the future, so they can share the profound experience.
"It opened my eyes that in the house of God there is no discrimination," he said of the pilgrimage. "Despite all the sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia, everybody prays together. There is a very strong sense of unity. They leave their differences with their slippers at the door. This was very inspiring for me to see."