The Quranic Story of Abraham’s Sacrifice – Its Surprising Message and Precision

Hajj pilgrims on Mount Arafat

Eid Mubarak!

The story of Prophet Abraham (Ibrahim in Arabic) being commanded by God to sacrifice his son, whose slaughter was Divinely replaced by a sacrificial animal, is one of the most famous narratives in Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, found in the Quran, the Bible, and the Torah. Although the basic tale is the same, there are major discrepancies between the narratives, which alter what message one takes away from it. 

In the Quran, the son in question is Ismael (Ismail in the Quran, Ishmael in the Bible, this being a spelling that reflects both), the first-born son, not Isaac as in the Bible. And he was specified as an adult willing participant, not a child, eliminating the issue of “the binding of Isaac”. Ismael is not named in the relatively short narrative, but the story begins with Abraham’s prayer for a righteous son (Quran 37:109), then Allah’s response in the form of a “forbearing” son (37:101) who would be his first, and only son at the time of the “test”. Then, when that son reached the “age of exertion,” meaning maturity, Abraham tells him of a dream in which he saw himself ritually slaughtering him, asking what he thought. Ismael replied that this was Allah’s command to slaughter him, and he, the father, should definitely do what Allah ordered, and for the son’s part, he (Ismael) was willing and able. 

Both a Test of Faith and Lesson about Animal Rights

In the Quran, this narrative not only portrays Abraham’s exemplary trust in Allah and His essential goodness and mercy, that even the act of killing his own son must also have an as-yet-unknown-to-him element of mercy in it, but also portrays that same level of trust in his son Ismael, and further, as discussed below, gives us a powerful experience of the importance of reverence for all life, especially that of those subjugated for our use, in this case animals. In the modern era where animals are raised as commodities to be shot in the head and processed within a system where the highest value is not their or even our lives but only profit in terms of money, this story is a powerful message of justice, equality/ fairness, and God’s mercy, in surprising contrast to the Biblical narrative, and these values are strikingly revealed in both words and numbers.

While the Quranic narrative is the shortest and least detailed account, yet Islam is the only religion that actually has a major religious rite associated directly with the narrative itself: the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. At the end of the Hajj, animals are sacrificed on behalf of the pilgrims, and the meat is distributed to the poor (Surat Al-Hajj 22:28). This is symbolic of the Abraham story, but also, as we shall see, is related to the idea of equality and reverence for life central to the Hajj. The Quran mandates equality in the Hajj between “locals and foreigners” (Surat Al-Hajj 22:25), and indeed between all people, expressed in the ritual dress: all men mandated to wear the ihram or a simple white sheet as clothing, thus all participants dress alike: no differences of culture, wealth or poverty. And in the Quran, the message of Abraham’s test in the sacrifice is also a message of equality: the son, who was mature and whose advice Abraham sought, and father were both willing participants. And it’s a message of reverence for the lives of livestock animals whose slaughter for meat has been permitted for people by the grace of God under certain protocols, and has been “ordained for all religion” (Surat Al-Hajj 22:34). 

Fascinatingly, although much criticism is leveled at Muslims for sacrificing animals at the conclusion of the Hajj, despite that all their meat is distributed among the poor, the most overlooked lesson from the story of Abraham’s sacrifice is about reverence for all life and especially for animals, whom we slaughter for meat, as conscious beings with families like us. 

What indeed was Abraham feeling that moment before Allah called him by name, stopping the imminent slaughter? He experienced, then, in excruciating reality, what the animals being slaughtered, and their parent(s) and other animals, must feel. So such an act (meat being in many locales an essential form of protein) must be done in the sacred way, invoking Allah’s name and following protocols not to cause suffering to the animal. The highest value here is placed on life, and what more powerful lesson on the value of life can there be like confronting the taking of life? But our society has become desensitized to this. The Quran is, then, a wakeup call.

And so we examine the actual text in the Quran telling us this story. It is surprisingly brief, yet complete, emphasizing what is essential. In fact, it is brief enough for us to count the words, which counts reveal a distinct relationship to the meaning of the text. This shows us how carefully each word was chosen, and how these details also reveal the striking difference between Divine and human presentations of meaning/ a message. 

The entire narration is contained in eight verses, in Surat Al-Saffat 37:100-107, followed by four verses 37:108-111 honoring Prophet Abraham. I included the number of words for each verse and the Arabic text for those who wish to confirm the count (bear in mind I count the letter waw as a word when used to mean “and” and not attached to any other word, per researcher Dr. Abduldaem Al-Kaheel).

Examination of the Quranic Text’s Meaning in Words and Numbers (Surat Al-Saffat 37:100-111) 

رَبِّ هَبْ لِي مِنَ الصَّالِحِينَ

My Lord, grant me [a child] from among the righteous.” (4 words)

Surah Al-Saffat 37:100

فَبَشَّرْنَاهُ بِغُلَامٍ حَلِيمٍ

So We gave him good tidings of a forbearing boy. (3 words)

Surah Al-Saffat 37:101

These 2 verses — the du’a prayer of Abraham for a righteous son (verse 100, 4 words) and Allah’s answer in the form of a “forbearing boy,” a most essential characteristic for what was about to transpire (v. 101, 3 words), use a total of 7 words, a significant number in many ways, among them representing a balance scale (in Arabic, number 7 looks like this: ٧ which is like a letter v and looks somewhat like a stylized “scale”), which in turn relates to equality in the sense of justice, and also represents a “test.” One can envision 3 on each of two sides, with a 1 in the center as a ”fulcrum.” (Numbers in most ancient/ historical cultures had qualitative symbolic meaning, more significant than as solely quantitative “numerals”.) These verses tell us the significance of the “boy” as the answer to Abraham’s prayer and as a first-born son, identifying him (without using his name) as Ismael. A perfect introduction to the story: a prayer, and its answer from God. 

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 reached with him [the age of] exertion (meaning “maturity” – 4 words), he said, “O my son, indeed I have seen in a dream that I sacrifice you, so see what you think.” (12 words) He said, “O my father, do as you are commanded. You will find me, if Allah wills, of the patient.” (12 words) (Total for verse: 4+12+12 = 28 words)

Surah Al-Saffat 37:102

فَلَمَّا أَسْلَمَا وَتَلَّهُ لِلْجَبِينِ

And when they had both submitted and he put him down upon his forehead, (4 words)

Surah Al-Saffat 37:103

The two verses 102-3 describe the acceptance of the dream as a test containing Allah’s command by both Abraham and his son in verse 102, emphasizing justice and equality, and their both acting on it in v. 103. In verse 102, the fact of Ismael’s maturity is emphasized in 4 words, 4 representing the heart (4 chambers), the essential part of a person wherein decisions and choices are made (according to the Quran). This number reinforces that the son’s heart was at the age of responsibility, able to make decisions. Abraham’s words to his son, asking his advice, are 12. This is followed by his son’s reply, also in 12 words. This shows an equivalence between father and son in this event, where both decide in mutual agreement they must fulfill the dream. The following verse 103, showing how they act upon the dream and actually are about to carry out the sacrifice, also expresses equality “when both had submitted” – containing 4 words, again symbolizing the heart. This shows how the test was a test of the heart, which can only be tested by actual experience and action, what we do

And indeed this was the ultimate test of the heart: for Abraham, a test of his faith in Allah vs his love for his son, which test he wisely faced by telling his son about the dream and asking his opinion as an equal “partner” in this dream. Thus he also showed faith in his son; the result, as his son was a “forbearing boy,” is that Abraham removed the conflict between son vs God since his son actively chose to participate as the sacrifice itself. This took place in verse 102, the total number of words of which is 4+12+12 = 28, which is the product of 7×4, the factor 7 representing both a test and the balance scales/ equality, exemplified very powerfully in this verse, and 4 being as we said the number of the heart. The number seven, as an odd number representing the balance scale, has a fulcrum, one could picture as a “chiastic number” whose center is the number 4. Further emphasizing this as a test of the heart, given to them in this verse. But 4 can have two meanings: it can mean the heart, or Allah’s name, the “Heart of hearts,” as the ultimate “fulcrum” or center of human lives, and that too is shown in that both prophets Abraham and Ismael agree to follow what they felt was Allah’s will as the center of both of their hearts and lives. With the additional 4 words of verse 103, the sum of these 2 verses showing the 2 men’s decision and action of submission to Allah, is 32, or 2^5 (2 to the 5th power), a number composed entirely of 2’s, showing “pairs,” in this case 5 pairs of hands: the hands of Abraham, the father who had to do the action and Ismael, the son who had to still his hands of resistance to receive the action; the 5th hand being that of Allah the Exalted who gave them this test, as well as its final outcome. The subtle inclusion of the number 5 as a power of 2, representing “hand(s),” (5 fingers), gives us this graphic representation of the story in numbers. See how precisely the Quran relates this event! 

The next section is the response of Allah the Exalted to the submission of both men. 

وَنَادَيْنَاهُ أَن يَا إِبْرَاهِيمُ

We called to him, “O Abraham, (5 words)

Surah Al-Saffat 37:104

قَدْ صَدَّقْتَ الرُّؤْيَا ۚ إِنَّا كَذَٰلِكَ نَجْزِي الْمُحْسِنِينَ

You have fulfilled the vision.” Indeed, We thus reward the doers of good. (6 words)

Surah Al-Saffat 37:105

إِنَّ هَٰذَا لَهُوَ الْبَلَاءُ الْمُبِينُ

Indeed, this was the clear trial. (5 words)

Surah Al-Saffat 37:106

وَفَدَيْنَاهُ بِذِبْحٍ عَظِيمٍ

And We ransomed him with a great sacrifice, (4 words)

Surah Al-Saffat 37:107

In verse 104, Allah calls Abraham, thus stopping the action – 5 words again relates to “hand” where here the father’s hand is literally stopped by these words. This hand shows Allah’s mercy to intervene and save both men from the sacrifice by a father of his son. 

In the following verse 105, Allah the All-Merciful tells Abraham he has “fulfilled the vision/ dream,” thus giving immediate relief to their hearts: 6 words – the number 6 relates to healing and receptivity/ mercy, and indeed the submission of their hearts was a terrifying thing, so these words bring healing to both, as their submission is accepted by Allah without having to go through with the killing. It thus shows Allah’s mercy, the number 6 also representing receptivity or yin, the power of Allah as Al-Raheem the All-Merciful, to reprieve. The 6th Surah in the Quran is Al-An’am, or “Livestock animals.” Leading us to the next verse. 

Verse 107’s 5 words again show the completion of Allah’s grace by providing a sacrificial animal  to replace Ismael, which is miraculously given “out of nowhere” by Allah’shand”/ power as Almighty, Al-Rahman. Ending this section of Allah’s response with a mention of the animal, described as ‘atheem or “great”, gives great importance to the animal here who comes as a gift from Allah. This in turn gives Abraham, and through his example, all of us, a lesson in the sacredness of living things. To have these animals subjugated is a sacred privilege which must always be approached with respect and reverence, invoking Allah’s name on the animal (making it halal), both before slaughter and afterwards (Quran 22:36), the first for taking a life by Allah’s permission and the second for using its meat as sustenance for oneself and others. The deeper meaning of the English expression “to say grace” before a meal is reflective of this requirement. Except, of course, that saying grace does not help one become aware of the life taken to produce what one eats. 

This last section (the response of Allah) of 4 verses 104-7, contains 20 words. This is symbolic of 4 hands (4•5) or 2 sets of hands: the hands of Abraham, spared from having to kill his son, and the hands of Allah, indicating it was Allah the Exalted with His 2 great powers/ symbolic “hands” of Mercy by which he removed the necessity of killing, and Power, by which He miraculously provided the lamb for sacrifice (the word translated “sacrifice” is thibh, which means “sacrificial/ slaughtered animal”) replacing Ismael, thus fulfilling the test. Thus Allah both accepted their sacrifice, on the one hand, and saved them from it on the other.

The total words at this point from verses 100-107 inclusive (8 verses) are 52 (4•13), narrating the entire event. The sum of digits for 52 is 7, representing a test, and justice/ balance/ equality. But there are 4 additional verses that follow, honoring Abraham’s faith and forbearance as an example by 1) raising his stature through future generations, 2) granting him peace, 3) mentioning him as “doer of good, and 4) confirming his as one of the faithful. 

وَتَرَكْنَا عَلَيْهِ فِي الْآخِرِينَ

And We left for him [favorable mention] among later generations: (5 words)

Surah by Al-Saffat 37:108

سَلَامٌ عَلَىٰ إِبْرَاهِيمَ

“Peace upon Abraham.” (3 words)

Surah Al-Saffat 37:109

كَذَٰلِكَ نَجْزِي الْمُحْسِنِينَ

Indeed, We thus reward the doers of good. (3 words)

Surah 37:110

إِنَّهُ مِنْ عِبَادِنَا الْمُؤْمِنِينَ

Indeed, he was of Our believing servants. (4 words)

Surah Al-Saffat 37:111

There are a total of 15 words in the above 4-verse section (5•3). If one adds 15 (words) + 4 (number of verses) = 19, which a significant Quranic number relating to Allah’s plan fulfilled. The section regarding Allah’s “part” in response to Abraham’s and Ismael’s submission, using 20 words, plus the 15 words in the 4 final verses honoring Abraham, also part of His response, add to a total of 35 words, or 7×5, a significant multiple of 7, signifying a “test,” multiplied by 5, signifying one “hand,” signifying Allah’s plan to test Abraham completed by Him. Indeed this narrative is well-measured. 

The total words of the entire passage of this narrative, verses 100-111 inclusive (12 verses), 52 (the sacrifice story) + 15 (honoring Abraham) = 67, the 19th prime number which is the sum of 5 consecutive primes: 7+11+13+17+19, all of which are significantly used in the Quran. Note the number 19 is found in the relationship between the 4 final “honoring” verses and their word count, as well as in the total words in this narrative being the 19th prime, the number 19 itself being the last addend of the 5 consecutive primes of which it is the sum. And the appearance of the number 5 also throughout this story, relating to “hands” (5 fingers) as described, is significant as this is an action done by hands

Of course, when reading this narrative, no one is likely to count the words, let alone interpret them, so I am doing it for you, to show the difference between Divine and human messages: the more one dives into the details, the more amazing it becomes. Sort of like what happened to scientists studying the quantum level of existence. It becomes increasingly convoluted to find anything less than the “signature” of Allah, the Almighty, All-Merciful. Teaching us, as always, to be more reverent, more truthful, more compassionate, more just.

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