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Sacrifice of Abraham

‘Id-ul-Adha Khutba, April 1998

From The Light & Islamic Review
May - June 1998

by the Editor

“And when Abraham and Ishmael raised the foundations of the House (praying): Our Lord, accept from us; surely Thou art the Hearing, the Knowing. Our Lord, and make us both submissive to Thee, and raise from our offspring a nation submissive to Thee, and show us our ways of devotion and turn to us mercifully; surely Thou art the Oft-returning to mercy, the Merciful. Our Lord, and raise up in them a Messenger from among them who shall recite to them Thy messages and teach them the Book and the wisdom, and purify them. Surely Thou art the Mighty, the Wise.” (The Holy Quran, 2:127–129)

      The festival we are commemorating today — Id-ul-Adha — marks the event of the readiness of Abraham even to sacrifice his son Ishmael when Abraham thought that he had been commanded by God to sacrifice him.

      The first question which comes to mind is: Why should Muslims, the followers of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, be required to mark this event, in the life of another prophet Abraham? Why doesn’t Islam require instead the commemoration of some event in the life of the Holy Prophet Muhammad?

      The answer is that this shows the broad approach and attitude of Islam. It is giving honour to a man who is a revered religious figure of at least two other religions — Judaism and Christianity — and some scholars believe that the Hindu sacred figure Brahma mentioned in their scriptures is the same as Abraham, so that he is respected by a vast mass of humanity.

      Islam does not teach that God’s true guidance to mankind was given for the first time through the Prophet Muhammad, and that the religions which existed before his time were false. On the contrary, it teaches that God had been raising His true messengers before the Prophet Muhammad in all nations. Many of these prophets and their stories are related in the Quran. Their examples are also an inspiration for Muslims. The Prophet Muhammad’s life showed a reflection of the qualities of all these prophets, so that a Jew can see Moses in the Holy Prophet Muhammad, a Christian can see Jesus, and even a Buddhist can see Buddha in the life of the Prophet Muhammad.

      The Prophet Muhammad came to revive the same fundamental teachings as all these prophets had been giving. The followers of earlier religions had drifted away from the original teachings given to them by their prophets, and the Prophet Muhammad came to remind them of those original teachings.

Significance of Abraham

It is here that Abraham becomes significant. From his son Isaac there grew the nation of Israel and the Jewish religion. Later, after the coming of Jesus in the nation of Israel, the Christian religion developed. Yet these two religions came to hold opposite and contradictory beliefs, as below:

Jewish religion   Christian religion
  1. Belief in One God.
  1. Belief in Trinity.
  1. Following the Law leads to salvation.
  1. The Law is a curse. Only belief in atonement leads to salvation.
  1. Only outward forms and rituals of worship are of importance.
  1. Only the spirit of religion is important, the form does not matter.

How could religions arising from one origin hold such opposite beliefs?

      Islam gave its judgment on these differences. It said that this divergence was a result of a departure, by both Jews and Christians, from the simple and basic principles of religion taught by Abraham. The Jews made the law too complicated and elaborate, and the Christians made the beliefs too complicated.

      The religion taught by Abraham was as follows: belief in One God, and devotion to and love for Him in one’s practical deeds. The Christians forgot the belief and the Jews forgot the teachings about deeds.

Ishmael and the Arab nation

Abraham had another, older son, Ishmael. Through a command from God, Abraham settled him along with his mother Hagar in the utter wilderness where there now flourishes the city of Makka. God promised Abraham that from Ishmael would grow another nation, and in the distant future when the followers of Abraham through Isaac had turned away from his true teachings, a man would be raised among the nation of Ishmael who would restore those teachings to their original form.

      In fact, in that nation which grew up from Ishmael in the peninsula of Arabia, no prophets arose till that Promised Prophet, while in all nations of the world numerous prophets came, such as Moses, David, Jesus, Buddha etc. One deep wisdom in this was that the nation in which the Last Prophet arose, to judge between all the various religions prevailing in the world, that nation had no prophets or religious traditions of its own, so that that Last Prophet could be a fair and impartial judge of all the earlier religions. If there had been prophets among the Arabs before the Prophet Muhammad, as among the Israelites, then he would be considered biased in favour of his ancestral religion. And his followers would naturally have revered those Arab prophets as being their own, and held them above the prophets of other nations. But as it is, all the prophets before the Prophet Muhammad whom the Muslims respect and revere belong to other nations, so much so that the Muslims believe in and honour the prophets of nations with whom they have been at war in modern times.

Incident of sacrifice

Turning to Abraham’s act of sacrifice that we are commemorating, the Holy Quran gives the following account:

“(Abraham prayed:) My Lord, grant me a doer of good deeds. So We gave him the good news of a forbearing son. But when he became of age to work with him, he said: O my son, I have seen in a dream that I should sacrifice you; so consider what is your view. He said: O my father, do as you are commanded; if Allah please you will find me patient. So when they had both submitted and he had thrown him down upon his forehead, and We called out to him saying, O Abraham, you have indeed fulfilled the vision. Thus do We reward the doers of good. Surely this is a manifest trial. And We ransomed him with a great sacrifice.” (37:100–107)

The main points of this incident are as follows:

  1. It was after much prayer that Abraham at last had a child, and that too in old age.
  2. But he was then commanded to settle the infant and his mother in the wilderness of Arabia, which he immediately did.
  3. Now when Ishmael reached his teens, Abraham saw in a dream that he was sacrificing him.
  4. His attachment to his son was not only of love, but the son was of economic value as well. He could work and Abraham was old.
  5. As human sacrifice was a common practice, although of course it was wrong and barbaric and not sanctioned by any teaching from God, Abraham thought that the dream was a command to sacrifice his son literally.
  6. Abraham put it to Ishmael: What is your view? This teaches us that parents should seek their children’s opinion about their lives. Abraham was not forcing this sacrifice upon Ishmael; the son’s willingness was a part of this act of sacrifice. The Quran says: “So when they both submitted”; it was a submission of both of them.
  7. But then God stopped them from going further and said that Abraham had already fulfilled the vision. He had already done the real sacrifice required by settling his son in the desert.
  8. To commemorate this event, the practice of sacrificing an animal was instituted as a symbol.

Concept of sacrifice

This event also taught that human sacrifice was a wrongful practice. This practice prevailed very widely in the ancient world among most nations. Indeed, it continued among certain Hindu castes till modern times and had to be banned by law. Usually, a child was sacrificed physically in the belief that the offering would please certain gods.

      Leaving aside the extreme of human sacrifice, the practice of sacrificing something such as an animal or burning some foodstuff such as butter or ghee, as a gift to certain gods, is an almost universal practice. It is believed that you make some god happy by giving him a gift, just as you make a person happy by a gift, so that the god would return the favour in some way.

      But the Quran presented the true concept of sacrifice. It is that God does not need anything from man. The Quran says:

“He (God) feeds and is not fed” (6:14),

“I (God) desire no sustenance from them, nor do I desire that they should feed Me.” (51:57)

What God wants is for you to sacrifice your lower and material desires for a higher purpose. We all want to have physical comforts and to satisfy our material desires, but God tells us that for our moral and spiritual progress, for the betterment of our character, and to make us real human beings, there are times when we must sacrifice, willingly and voluntarily, some of our material possessions for a good cause.

      The sacrifice of the animal that is carried out is an expression of our willingness to sacrifice our own animal desires. The Quran clearly says that it is not the flesh nor the blood of the animal that reaches God, but the dutifulness on your part. The sacrifice is accepted if it leads you to be more dutiful, to make a sacrifice of your own self and not of just the animal.

Christianity’s highest sacrifice

The concept of sacrifice is so universal that we will see in just a few days another commemoration of what is held to be a great sacrifice for mankind. Christians will be marking at Easter what they believe to be the sacrifice by God Himself of His son, Jesus. It is believed that God sacrificed His son on the cross to make him suffer punishment for all the sins of mankind.

      However, sacrifice is an act which cannot possibly be attributed to God, but can only be done by man. For, sacrifice means that you lose something which you possessed so that you then have to undergo hardship and loss because of that deprivation. But as God is all-powerful, how can He be said to make a sacrifice? He cannot possibly suffer a loss because He has the power to have anything. To give an analogy, suppose that a man could print as much money as he liked. Then no matter how much he gives in charity, even if it is billions, it is not a sacrifice.

      Secondly, that sacrifice on the cross is claimed to take away the sins of mankind by paying the penalty for all the sins ever committed. But that sacrifice has not stopped, nor can it stop, people from sinning. In contrast, it is the concept of sacrifice as presented by Islam — the sacrifice by a person of his lower desires — that can take away sin by training people to abstain from wrongdoing.

Our sacrifice

Finally, to commemorate Abraham’s sacrifice, we should make some real sacrifice of our desires and our possessions. Abraham made his sacrifice for the cause of religion, so that a nation be raised in the barren land of Arabia among whom the great Last Prophet would come. Our Movement, the Ahmadiyya Movement, provides us also with the opportunity to make sacrifices for the cause of religion.

      From the beginning of our Movement till today, it has had in it people who made the most tremendous sacrifices, much beyond their apparent capacities. They made sacrifices of their whole lives, and of properties, and the Movement today is the fruit of those sacrifices, doing the work of propagating the true picture of Islam which the world does not know.

      In two days’ time, it will be twelve years exactly since a man — Muhammad Anwar — lost his life who used to stand at this very pulpit and address you. He was killed for no reason except that he was working for this Movement. It is only when we have among us such people who are willing to accept these risks, even putting their lives in jeopardy, that this Movement can survive and advance.

      Besides such examples of the ultimate sacrifice, there are other lesser sacrifices of money for this cause. However little you give, it is still a sacrifice on your part. The degree of sacrifice depends on how much you needed or wanted that money for some material end of your own, but disregarding your own desires you gave it for this noble cause. For one person, one pound (or dollar) may be a greater sacrifice than one thousand pounds is for another person. It is a matter only between that person and God.

            May Allah enable us all to sacrifice in His way to the best of our ability!