Eid Mubarak!

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Eid Al-Adha, The Feast of the Sacrifice, commemorates the occasion when Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham), in accordance with a dream he saw and interpreted as a divine command, was about to sacrifice his son Isma’il when Allah called him to stop, and replaced Isma’il with a great sacrificial animal, thus sparing the life of his son, a future prophet. There is more to this narrative than meets the eye, more than one usually hears in discussions regarding this event.

The Quranic narrative differs from the Judeo-Christian in a number of ways: first, the son in the Judeo-Christian version was Is’haq (Isaac) instead of Isma’il; second, Isma’il had reached adulthood, whereas in the J-C version he is sometimes depicted as a child; third, the J-C version depicts the son as an unwilling victim, whereas in the Quranic narrative Ibrahim’s son Isma’il was fully willing to be sacrificed and expressed that openly. In the Judeo-Christian account, the son is shown to be taken against his will and restrained, sometimes shown as a child, which is how I pictured it in my youth from the Biblical narrative. The Quranic passage, however, does not even outright state that this was Allah’s command, but rather Prophet Ibrahim’s perception of it. The narrative below is preceded by ayat relating that Prophet Ibrahim asked Allah for a righteous son, and that Allah in response granted him a “compassionate child.”

Quran 37:102
فَلَمَّا بَلَغَ مَعَهُ السَّعْيَ قَالَ يَا بُنَيَّ إِنِّي أَرَىٰ فِي الْمَنَامِ أَنِّي أَذْبَحُكَ فَانظُرْ مَاذَا تَرَىٰ ۚ قَالَ يَا أَبَتِ افْعَلْ مَا تُؤْمَرُ ۖ سَتَجِدُنِي إِن شَاءَ اللَّهُ مِنَ الصَّابِرِينَ

And when he grew enough to work with him, he said: “My son, I am seeing in a dream that I am sacrificing you. What do you think?” He said: “O my father, do what you are commanded to do. You will find me, God willing, patient.”

Quran 37:103
فَلَمَّا أَسْلَمَا وَتَلَّهُ لِلْجَبِينِ

And when they had both submitted and he put him down upon his forehead,

Quran 37:104
وَنَادَيْنَاهُ أَن يَا إِبْرَاهِيمُ

We called to him, “O Ibrahim,

Quran 37:105
قَدْ صَدَّقْتَ الرُّؤْيَا ۚ إِنَّا كَذَٰلِكَ نَجْزِي الْمُحْسِنِينَ

You have fulfilled the vision.” Indeed, We thus reward the doers of good.

Quran 37:106
إِنَّ هَٰذَا لَهُوَ الْبَلَاءُ الْمُبِينُ

Indeed, this was the clear trial.

Quran 37:107
وَفَدَيْنَاهُ بِذِبْحٍ عَظِيمٍ

And We ransomed him with a great animal sacrifice.

Quran 37:108
وَتَرَكْنَا عَلَيْهِ فِي الْآخِرِينَ

And We kept his history for those who came later.

Quran 37:109
سَلَامٌ عَلَىٰ إِبْرَاهِيمَ

“Peace upon Ibrahim.”

Most notable in the Quranic narrative above is that upon seeing a dream that he is sacrificing Isma’il his son, his first act was to tell his son and take his opinion. This itself speaks volumes: preceded by the statement that Isma’il had reached an age of maturity sufficient to work with his father, and therefore no longer a young child, this shows that Prophet Ibrahim was completely open and direct with his son, and also that he wanted his son to know the quandary the dream put him in, wanting to obey Allah’s will, but considering dreams could be a channel for other than God’s word, he may have wondered within himself if this could seriously be God’s will, to commit such a seemingly horrible act. First, he loved his son and obviously didn’t want to slaughter him, so he informed Isma’il about this honestly and directly. Also, both father and son presumed that seeing such a dream meant that Allah was asking for the father to commit this act as a religious sacrifice. Neither father nor son openly questioned the logic of this. Both acquiesced to what they felt was Allah’s will.

This is in stark contrast to the Judeo-Christian account, wherein it is far from clear whether or not he son was willing and understood what was going on, or even how old he was.

Another aspect of the Quranic narrative is the nature of communication between Allah and a prophet via dreams. In the narratives of Prophet Yusuf, whose special skill was the interpretation of dreams, such interpretations are often predictive of future events and shown to be reliable Prophet Yusuf’s case. This further indicates that dreams are indeed a method by which Allah sometimes communicates with people.

But then, after Prophet Ibrahim thefather put his son in position for slaughter, Allah Himself spoke to Ibrahim by name to immediately halt the slaughter. In this case, the method of communication was unequivocal. It was by direct communication by voice. Also, Allah informed Ibrahim that his “vision” was fulfilled——without having to go through with it. This also shows a willingness to do a thing is equal in credit to actually doing it when circumstances or a reminder from Allah intervene.

Also, Allah mentions in the aya above that this was a great test, indicating that this was indeed Allah’s will to introduce a dream giving Prophet Ibrahim the notion that he is being given a command to see what he will do. Prophet Ibrahim did the best possible thing: tell his son Isma’il that he saw this dream, thus showing honesty and directness, and also asking the opinion of the son he felt he was being asked to slaughter, thus making of it an act in which his son would be a willing participant. Then they went all the way with the full intention to do it, but Allah’s intent was only for this to be a test, not to truly kill his son.

Why such a test? This requests that a father slaughter his own son to conform with Allah’s command. Now that the Quran has come, would the very best response to such a perceived command be to go through with the slaughter, or considering the aya which states Allah does not command sin or evil, would such an act contradict this Quranic dictum and hence one must presume this dream did not come from Allah Himself?

Of course, this event only occurred with Prophet Ibrahim and no other prophet. This narrative is not only history, but also symbolic of the nature of the father/son relationship, one about which much is implied in many of the narratives regarding the prophets. Why did Aissa (Jesus) have no father? Why did Prophet Mohammad have no heirs? Why was Prophet Ibrahim’s fraught relationship with his own idolatrous father so significantly repeated in the Quran?

We can look to this aya, an example of several mentioned in the Quran regarding the father, the authority and privileged role-member of patriarchal society:

Quran 2:170

وَإِذَا قِيلَ لَهُمُ اتَّبِعُوا مَا أَنزَلَ اللَّهُ قَالُوا بَلْ نَتَّبِعُ مَا أَلْفَيْنَا عَلَيْهِ آبَاءَنَا ۗ أَوَلَوْ كَانَ آبَاؤُهُمْ لَا يَعْقِلُونَ شَيْئًا وَلَا يَهْتَدُونَ

And when it is said to them, “Follow what Allah has revealed,” they say, “Rather, we will follow that which we found our fathers doing.” Even though their fathers understood nothing, nor were they guided?

An almost identical aya is 5:104. In response to this truth, that father’s can be misguided and their example and advice should therefore never supersede Allah’s truth and guidance. In a sense then Islam must break up the patriarchy, which when followed entirely can be a force for destruction and disobedience of Allah’s will. Prophet Ibrahim shows us by example:

Quran 6:74

۞ وَإِذْ قَالَ إِبْرَاهِيمُ لِأَبِيهِ آزَرَ أَتَتَّخِذُ أَصْنَامًا آلِهَةً ۖ إِنِّي أَرَاكَ وَقَوْمَكَ فِي ضَلَالٍ مُّبِينٍ

And Abraham said to his father Azar, “Do you take idols as deities? Indeed, I see you and your people to be in manifest error.”

Clearly it was important for Prophet Ibrahim to defy his father and his father’s people because they were idolaters. In fact, he was the original iconoclast!

Quran 21:52
إِذْ قَالَ لِأَبِيهِ وَقَوْمِهِ مَا هَٰذِهِ التَّمَاثِيلُ الَّتِي أَنتُمْ لَهَا عَاكِفُونَ

When he said to his father and his people, “What are these statues to which you are devoted?”

Quran 21:53
قَالُوا وَجَدْنَا آبَاءَنَا لَهَا عَابِدِينَ

They said, “We found our fathers worshippers of them.”

Quran 21:54
قَالَ لَقَدْ كُنتُمْ أَنتُمْ وَآبَاؤُكُمْ فِي ضَلَالٍ مُّبِينٍ

He said, “You were certainly, you and your fathers, in manifest error.”

Here Prophet Ibrahim admonishes his own father and his father’s community that what they are worshipping and doing in their lives is a total mistake and wrong, will lead them away from truth. So he takes matters into his own hands.

Quran 21:57
وَتَاللَّهِ لَأَكِيدَنَّ أَصْنَامَكُم بَعْدَ أَن تُوَلُّوا مُدْبِرِينَ

And [I swear] by Allah, I will surely plan against your idols after you have turned and gone away.”

Quran 21:58
فَجَعَلَهُمْ جُذَاذًا إِلَّا كَبِيرًا لَّهُمْ لَعَلَّهُمْ إِلَيْهِ يَرْجِعُونَ

So he made them into fragments, except a large one among them, that they might return to it [and question].

When they discovered their idols broken into pieces, they were angry and called for Ibrahim.

Quran 21:62
قَالُوا أَأَنتَ فَعَلْتَ هَٰذَا بِآلِهَتِنَا يَا إِبْرَاهِيمُ

They said, “Have you done this to our gods, O Ibrahim?”

Quran 21:63
قَالَ بَلْ فَعَلَهُ كَبِيرُهُمْ هَٰذَا فَاسْأَلُوهُمْ إِن كَانُوا يَنطِقُونَ

He said, “Rather, this – the largest of them – did it, so ask them, if they can speak.”

Quran 21:64
فَرَجَعُوا إِلَىٰ أَنفُسِهِمْ فَقَالُوا إِنَّكُمْ أَنتُمُ الظَّالِمُونَ

So they returned to [blaming] themselves and said [to each other], “Indeed, you are the wrongdoers.”

Here we can see that the truth was made manifest to them after iconoclast Prophet Ibrahim broke their statues into pieces. Clearly they also knew that their statues cannot speak and were exposed as entirely powerless inanimate objects.

Later they reversed themselves and blamed Ibrahim for destroying their idols, to the point where his father and father’s people tied up Ibrahim to be burned at the stake and set him on fire, but Allah saved him and made the fire “cool and peaceful” on him. Thus they committed the heinous act of murder, against a prophet no less, and only a miracle, enacted by words, saved his life and rendered the fire, their murder weapon, entirely impotent.

Here is exactly the inverse of the narrative of Prophet Ibrahim’s dream and slaughter of his son. In the latter case, Allah saved Ibrahim from committing the act that would have taken his son’s life, literally calling out to him and he immediately stopped and the son was replaced by a sacrificial animal. Here there was a chance for the son, who also heard Allah’s command, to also comply and leave the place of sacrifice, and the sacrificial animal to take his place. It may also have miraculously replaced his son on the spot, but because the son was also a willing adult, and not a victim, more leeway in the logistics of th he miracle is possible. Compared to the situation with Azar, Ibrahim’s father who went through the lighting of the fire (activating the process of killing), in that case Allah’s intervention was to disable the murder weapon (fire) itself, which made it appear to Azar that indeed his intention to kill had been fulfilled. Whereas Ibrahim had no intention to kill but only to fulfill God’s command/will, and even informed his son, the one to be sacrificed/killed, of this intention which would end his son’s life. This shows us the importance of intention in action with a very clear example. Also in the case of Ibrahim, Allah spoke directly to him and directly intervened, not by disabling the means of slaughter (knife) but by commanding Ibrahim to reverse his action and stop the killing, saying to Ibrahim that he had “fulfilled the vision,” which was a message from Allah, and thus let him know that he had done what Allah wanted him to do, in this case a test of his level of obedience to God. I’m in that he succeeded entirely.

Also in the case of Azar, Ibrahim his son was a victim and oppressed. In the second case, Isma’il was a willing participant in an act they mutually agreed was God’s will and to which both submitted. But it was not an act either of them would have enacted without being sure it was God’s will.

These are important points indeed. An iconoclast must be an iconoclast for the truth, smashing the idols of idolatry or false worship of worthless things. Azar tried to destroy the truth in burning his son at the stake, and thus earned his own place in the fire of hell. In a sense then, Azar in killing his son to support worthless idols killed instead his own self and his eternal future.

Meanwhile, Prophets Ibrahim and Isma’il built together the place of worship, Home to believers for centuries, we call the Ka’aba in Makkah (Mecca). So God’s will was also fulfilled in that way; and thus a good relationship between father and son, and between generations of Muslims, is based not on strict inflexible inherited authority, but on mercy, taqwa (reverence/ fear of Allah), and using one’s mind to correct the mistakes of one’s elders, even if it means smashing idols and risking one’s life. And so we commemorate not tradition per se, nor the patriarchy as an institution, but the inquiring, daring and faithful-to-God-above-all mind and heart of the father of prophets, Prophet Ibrahim, performing the Hajj as Allah requires and dedicating ourselves to His worship.

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