How best to Honour the Memory and Sacrifice of Abraham?
By Paul Salahuddin Armstrong
Today (or tomorrow) is Eid Al Adha, the most important of the two main festivals in the Islamic calendar. On Eid Al Adha, Muslims honour the memory of Nabi Ibrahim, on whom be peace, known in English as the prophet or patriarch Abraham, the founder of the monotheistic religious tradition from which Judaism, Christianity, and Islam sprang, plus a few less well known religions.
Abraham was a man born in Ur, located in what is now Iraq. He was a questioning man, of great wisdom, high moral character, and deep integrity. Abraham questioned the religious and social order of the day. In his time, people were dedicated to the worship of idols. From what we know from the Abrahamic scriptures, the people in Ur worshipped statues, were incredibly superstitious, and actually believed these statues held supernatural powers that could help or harm them.
“And We indeed gave unto Abraham his sound judgment aforetime, and We knew him when he said unto his father and his people, ‘What are these images to which you are cleaving?’ They said, ‘We found our fathers worshipping them.’ He said, ‘Certainly you and your fathers have been in manifest error.’”
~ Holy Quran 21:51-4
Prophet Abraham didn’t believe in statues, and there is a story in the Jewish Midrash and in the Holy Quran that recounts one occasion where Abraham challenged this prevailing belief system. Abraham’s father used to have a shop where he made and sold idols. Abraham used to question his father about these idols and why people prayed to them. On one occasion, Abraham smashed up all the smaller idols in the shop and left the stick by the biggest of the statues.
“Terah, the father of Abraham and Haran, was a dealer in images as well as a worshiper of them. Once when he was away he gave Abraham his stock of graven images to sell in his absence. In the course of the day an elderly man came to make a purchase. Abraham asked him his age, and the man gave it as between fifty and sixty years. Abraham taunted him with want of sound sense in calling the work of another man’s hand, produced perhaps in a few hours, his god; the man laid the words of Abraham to heart and gave up idol-worship. Again, a woman came with a handful of fine flour to offer to Terah’s idols, which were now in (the) charge of Abraham. He took a stick and broke all the images except the largest one, in the hand of which he placed the stick which had worked this wholesale destruction. When his father returned and saw the havoc committed on his ‘gods’ and property he demanded an explanation from his son whom he had left in charge. Abraham mockingly explained that when an offering of fine flour was brought to these divinities they quarreled with one another as to who should be the recipient, when at last the biggest of them, being angry at the altercation, took up a stick to chastise the offenders, and in so doing broke them all up. Terah, so far from being satisfied with this explanation, understood it as a piece of mockery, and when he learned also of the customers whom Abraham had lost him during his management he became very incensed, and drove Abraham out of his house and handed him over to Nimrod.”
~ Bereshith (Genesis) Rabba p. 59-60
“So he broke them into pieces—save the largest of them—that haply they may have recourse to it. They said, ‘Who has done this to our gods? Verily he is among the wrongdoers!’ They said, ‘We heard a young man mention them; he is called Abraham.’ They said, ‘So bring him before the eyes of the people, that haply they may bear witness.’ They said, ‘Was it you who did this to our gods, O Abraham?’ He said, ‘Nay, but it was the largest of them that did this. So question them, if they speak!’ So they consulted among themselves and said, ‘Verily it is you who are the wrongdoers!’ Then they reverted, ‘Certainly you know that these speak not!’ He said, ‘Do you worship, apart from God, that which benefits you not in the least, nor harms you? Fie upon you, and upon that which you worship apart from God. Do you not understand?’”
~ Holy Quran 21:58-67
When the destruction was discovered, Abraham was called to account for his actions. In the Midrash account, it is narrated that Abraham was called to account by his father, who left him in charge of his shop. In the Quranic account, Abraham is called to account by the people of his community. When questioned, Abraham said the largest one did it, and he still has the stick! The people laughed and said this obviously couldn’t be the case, as it’s just a statue and statues can’t do that sort of thing! So Abraham asked, why then do they worship these statues?
In the Midrash account, Abraham is thrown out of his father’s house and handed over to the king, Nimrod.
“Nimrod suggested to Abraham that, since he had refused to worship his father’s idols because of their want of power, he should worship fire, which is very powerful. Abraham pointed out that water has power over fire. ‘Well,’ said Nimrod, ‘let us declare water god.’ ‘But,’ replied Abraham, ‘the clouds absorb the water; and even they are dispersed by the wind.’ ‘Then let us declare the wind our god.’ ‘Bear in mind,’ continued Abraham, ‘that man is stronger than wind, and can resist it and stand against it.’ Nimrod, becoming weary of arguing with Abraham, decided to cast him before his god—fire—and challenged Abraham’s deliverance by the God of Abraham, but God saved him out of the fiery furnace.”
~ Bereshith (Genesis) Rabba p. 60
Similarly, the Quran describes how the people tried to punish Abraham by casting him into a fire, but that God intervened, protecting Abraham from the fire.
“They said, ‘Burn him, and help your gods, if you would take action!’ We said, ‘O Fire! Be coolness and peace for Abraham.’”
~ Holy Quran 21:68-9
Later, Abraham left Ur with his nephew Lot (Lut in Arabic), and they set off to make a new home. In addition to wondering in the desert in search of a new home, the Quran relates to us an account of Abraham’s search for the Truth. What is the true religion? Is there anything worth worshipping?
“When the night grew dark upon him, he saw a star. He said, ‘This is my Lord!’ But when it set, he said, ‘I love not things that set.’ Then when he saw the moon rising he said, ‘This is my Lord!’ But when it set, he said, ‘If my Lord does not guide me, I shall surely be among the people who are astray.’ Then when he saw the sun rising he said, ‘This is my Lord! This is greater!’ But when it set, he said, ‘O my people! Truly I am quit of the partners you ascribe. Truly, as a ḥanīf, I have turned my face toward Him Who created the heavens and the earth, and I am not of the idolaters.’ His people disputed with him. He said, ‘Do you dispute with me concerning God, when He has guided me? I fear not the partners you ascribe unto Him, save as my Lord wills. My Lord encompasses all things in Knowledge. Will you not, then, remember?”
~ Holy Quran 6:76-80
This is one of the most beautiful passages in the Quran, that gives some insight into the personal spiritual journey of Abraham, and how he was questioning the power of natural phenomena over his life, questioning the ideas he would have been taught as a child. He didn’t blindly perpetuate rites and rituals that his ancestors had practiced, and which his community was still continuing. Instead, he questioned, and sought to follow that which was best, and made the most sense.
“Then God said, ‘Take your son, your only son, whom you love – Isaac – and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain that I will show you.’”
~ Genesis 22
“When he had become old enough to partake of his father’s endeavors, Abraham said, ‘O my son! I see while dreaming that I am to sacrifice you. So consider, what do you see?’ He replied, ‘O my father! Do as you are commanded. You will find me, God willing, among those who are patient.’”
~ Holy Quran 37:102
Eid al Adha commemorates Abraham’s sacrifice of a ram in place of his son, based on the account in Genesis chapter 22, and in the Quran surah 37. Some people question whether the son taken to be sacrificed was Isaac or Ishmael. I don’t focus on this point, as it really doesn’t change the meaning of the story.
Many people question why this story is even in the Bible or the Quran, but perhaps the reason is opposite to what some may think; the overall message of the account is that God doesn’t require or want human sacrifices, which to the modern mind might seem obvious. But this was far from obvious all those millennia ago, when human sacrifice including the sacrifice of small children was a widespread rite practiced in many ancient religions all over the world. The story of Abraham helped to put a stop to that widespread slaughter, stressing that this isn’t, nor could possibly be what any deity worth worshipping would want from us.
In Islam the festival of Eid al Adha is traditionally celebrated through the sacrificing of an animal, often a sheep. The meat is then used for a feast, a significant portion of which is distributed to the poor – people that historically and even today in some places, would rarely get the opportunity to eat meat.
The sacrifice itself known as ‘Qurbani’, is a continuation of a form of ritual that was once practiced by the ancient Hebrews – animal sacrifice. Nor was it restricted to them, animal and human sacrifices were a part of the beliefs of many ancient peoples, and we can see evidence of this everywhere. People who follow this practice, past and present, believe their sins will be forgiven by God – in the Abrahamic tradition, or by the deities in which they believe, through the sacrificing of an animal. In essence, the animal pays for their sins. Which when you think about it… is hardly fair on the animal! But the idea has nevertheless been a widespread one. In addition, people may believe they will receive other blessings for performing the rite.
Even in Christianity, animal and human sacrifices are the origin of Christian beliefs around the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, on whom be peace. Christians believe that Jesus was the ultimate “Lamb of God”, as many Christians hold to the belief that Jesus was the “begotten son of God”. Hence, through the act of being crucified Jesus is believed to have become the ultimate sacrifice, that unlike the sheep traditionally sacrificed by Jews and today’s Muslims, the spilling of his holy blood could wash away the sins of ALL who believed in him.
This, incidentally, is one of the key reasons I have never been a Christian… Instead of placing the emphasis on Jesus’ message and teachings, many Christians place all the emphasis on this belief in being washed clean through the blood of Christ! If only they placed more emphasis on living by his words…
Even today, when I meet with Christians there are those who, especially among the more evangelical types, tell me I’m not “saved” because I don’t believe in Jesus’ sacrifice, and won’t allow myself to be (metaphorically) washed clean through his blood… Each to their own! Christianity has a lot of good teachings, and many Christians including evangelicals are wonderful people. But this idea is not a doctrine to which I could ever subscribe.
Where is the emphasis on personal responsibility? Why all the emphasis on blood and literal sacrifice, even if for Christians this was a couple of millennia ago? Though Christians don’t practice any death resulting sacrifices today, there is a human sacrifice at the heart of their religious beliefs. I personally have always found this deeply troubling, and see it as a throwback to former, more primitive times.
‘“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: go ahead, add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat yourselves! For when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, but I gave them this command: obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in obedience to all I command you, that it may go well with you. But they did not listen or pay attention; instead, they followed the stubborn inclinations of their evil hearts. They went backwards and not forwards. From the time your ancestors left Egypt until now, day after day, again and again I sent you my servants the prophets. But they did not listen to me or pay attention. They were stiff-necked and did more evil than their ancestors.”
~ The Bible, Jeremiah 7:21-6
Why in the 21st Century should we be placing so much emphasis on sacrifices that result in death, whether past or present? Surely, we should have moved beyond this? Even the Prophet Jeremiah, on whom be peace, who lived in the 7th Century BCE questioned the emphasis on sacrifice in chapter 7 of the Book of Jeremiah, highlighting how even back then, people were not trying to live better, more honourable, and constructive lives, but just doing animal sacrifices in the belief God would be happy with them and all their sins forgiven. Jeremiah highlighted that we should strive to live right, then our consciences would be clear, and we wouldn’t feel the need to sacrifice animals to attain forgiveness.
“‘I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve.’”
~ The Bible, Jeremiah 17:10
Another Hebrew prophet, Hosea who lived even earlier in the 8th Century BCE, spoke out against the practice, saying:
“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”
~ The Bible, Hosea 6:6
The Holy Quran reinforced this message stating clearly and unequivocally that it isn’t the blood or meat that reaches God, but the ‘taqwa’, the God-consciousness or reverence of the person.
“Neither their flesh nor their blood will reach God, but the reverence from you reaches Him. Thus has He made them subservient unto you, that you might magnify God for having guided you. And give glad tidings to the virtuous.”
~ Holy Quran 22:37
Even though animal sacrifices have traditionally been part of Islam, this shows that it is not the sacrifices themselves that are really important, but the intention behind them and ultimately the God-consciousness of the believer. The same point is related in a hadith attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, in which it is reported that the Prophet said, “The sacrifice is accepted by God before the blood reaches the ground.” (Sunan Tirmidhi and Sunan Ibn Majah)
The real sacrifice isn’t the animal itself, but our intentions; what we intend and how we strive to live. Surely, it is these therefore that God really desires from us, not the killing of animals to wash away our sins. If we seek forgiveness, God is the Forgiver, whose Endless Oceans of Compassion have no shores… God will forgive if we sincerely turn to Him, and intend to amend our ways.
“O you who believe! Be steadfast for God, bearing witness to justice, and let not hatred for a people lead you to be unjust. Be just; that is nearer to reverence. And reverence God. Surely God is Aware of whatsoever you do. To those who believe and perform righteous deeds, God has promised forgiveness and a great reward.”
~ Holy Quran 5:8-9
“He said, ‘O my people! Why do you seek to hasten evil before good? Why do you not seek Forgiveness of God, that haply you may be shown mercy?’”
~ Holy Quran 27:46
We best honour the memory and sacrifice of Abraham, by being the most honourable and upright people we can be, upholding justice, promoting enlightenment, looking after those in need, and serving God through serving humanity.
All quotes from the Bible in this article are taken from the NIV.
All quotes from the Quran are taken from The Study Quran, edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr