All Muslims know the story of Ibrahim’s sacrifice and we say that it was a test by Allah (Glorified be He). But do we really understand what Ibrahim went through? Do we appreciate what it was like to be Ibrahim? Can we grasp in thought what happened? Why is it that we regard Ibrahim as the father of faith? What was it that he achieved?
Ibrahim, peace and blessings be upon him, is distinguished in the Quran with the title of Khalil-ul-Allah (the intimate friend of Allah). In Surat An-Nisa, Allah says: “For Allah did take Ibrahim for (an intimate) friend ” (4:125)
He is also described in Surat An-Nahl as a model: “Ibrahim was indeed a model. Devoutly obedient to Allah, and true in faith, and he joined not gods with Allah ” (16:20).
Ibrahim was born among the star- and idol-worshipping people of Chaldea, in the home of Azar, his father, the idol-maker of the tribe. Ibrahim was among the kuffar, but not of them, like a spring of Tawheed (monotheism) arising out of the swamp of shirk (polytheism). The Quran tells us in Surat Al-Anam ” Lo! Ibrahim said to his father Azar: Do you take idols for God? For I see you and your people in manifest error? ” (6:74).
From the revolt in the house of Azar, his father, Ibrahim went on to challenge the polytheism of his people. Indeed Ibrahim is know as history’s great idol-smasher, as the founder of monotheism and the crusher of ignorance.
There are numerous verses in the Quran which describe how Ibrahim argued against idol-worshippers, his rational arguments against skeptics and those who worshipped celestial bodies, how he deals with unbelievers, how he preaches to his people. For instance, in Surat Al-Baqara Allah says: “Hast thou not turned thy vision to one who disputed with Abraham about his Lord, because God granted him power? Abraham said: My Lord is He who giveth life and death.’ He said:I give life and death.’ Said Abraham: `But it is God that causeth the sun to rise from the East: Do then cause it to rise from the West.’ Thus was he confounded who (in arrogance) rejected Faith. Nor doth God give guidance to a people unjust.” (2:258)
In another example in Surat Al-Anbiya: We bestowed aforetime on Abraham his rectitude of conduct, and well were We acquainted with him. Behold! he said to his father and his people, What are these images to which ye are (so assiduously) devoted?’ They said, We found our fathers worshipping them.’ He said, ‘Indeed ye have been in manifest error — ye and your fathers.’ They said, ‘Have you brought us the Truth, or are you one of those who jest?’ He said, Nay, your Lord is the Lord of heavens and the earth, He who created them (from nothing): I am a witness to this (truth). And by God, I have a plan for your idols — after ye go away and turn your backs.’ So he broke them to pieces, (all) but the biggest of them, that they might turn (and address themselves) to it. They said, Who has done this to our gods? He must indeed be some man of impiety! ‘ They said, We heard a youth talk of them: he is called Abraham.’ They said, Then bring him before the eyes of the people, that they may bear witness.’ They said, Art thou the one that did this with our gods, O Abraham?’ He said, Nay, this was done by — This is their biggest one! Ask them, if they speak intelligently!’ So they turned to themselves and said, Surely ye are the ones in the wrong!’ Then were they confounded with shame: (they said)Thou knowest full well that these idols do not speak!’ (Abraham) said, Do ye then worship, besides God, things that can neither be of any good to you nor do you harm? Fie upon you, and upon the things that ye worship besides God! Have ye no sense?’ They said, `Burn him and protect your gods, if ye do (anything at all)!’ (21:51-68)
As usual, when falsehood is defeated on intellectual grounds it resorts to plotting and oppression. The response of his people to his Da`wah is given in Surat Al-Ankabut: “So naught was the answer of (Ibrahim’s) people except that they said: Slay him or burn him ” (29:24) Ibrahim could have given up his message and his beliefs to save himself from the fire of Nimrod. Nut he chose martyrdom. He chose to die for Allah’s message to live. He chose to step into the fire of ignorance and tyranny in order to save humanity from the fire of ignorance and tyranny. So he was cast into the fire.
But Allah had a different plan for Ibrahim and he was unhurt by the grace of Allah (Glorified be He): “But Allah did save him from the fire. Verily in this are signs for people who believe ” (29:24). Allah also says: “We said `O fire! Be cool and a means of safety for Ibrahim’ ” (21:69). His miracle did not refrain the idol-worshippers from continuing for very long years their plots, persecution, abuse, cruelty and isolation against Ibrahim but he remained uncompromising, unshakable in his beliefs, patient in his suffering, gentle in his manners until he made his Hijrah (he migrated) to the lands of Aram and Canan.
He left the land of his fathers to become a stranger in the land of promise
Brothers and Sisters, it was indeed a land of promise. A land where Ibrahim continued a lifetime of struggle, da`wa, movement, bearing alone the heavy responsibility of the mission of Tawheed (monotheism) in an age of darkness, oppression, prejudice and ignorance. Ibrahim did not have children. And through- out his century of Prophethood and service of God, as Ibrahim grew older, his desire to have a son grew stronger. The now old Prophet Ibrahim desperately longed for a son but his wife Sarah was barren.
“O my Lord! Grant me a righteous son!” (37:100) was his call to Allah.
Against every expectation, Allah fulfilled His promise of making Ibrahim the seed of a great line of Prophets, the root of the great universal religions. “So we gave him the good news of a forbearing boy” (37:101).
Allah brought mercy to the agedness, loneliness, hopelessness and anguish of his trustworthy Messenger. For Ibrahim, Isma`il was not just a son for a sonless father, he was the end of a life of waiting, the reward of a century of suffering, the fruit of his life, the hope after despair and the young boy of an old father.
Isma`il being the promise of future generations was in some sense the whole world for Ibrahim.
So there was joy and rejoicing in Ibrahim’s house as Isma`il was quickly growing under the sun of his father’s love.
But Allah decided that it was not to remain so.
Brothers and Sisters, Ibrahim was to be tried once more. Ibrahim had a vision in which he was commanded by Allah to slaughter his only son.
Brothers and Sisters, why should Ibrahim, whose entire life was devoted to prophethood, to Jihad, to removing ignorance, to laying the foundations of Tawheed be tried once again?
Is it because man should not rest?
Is it because man should not be deceived by 100 years of Jihad and victories?
Is it because he should not think of himself without weakness?
Is it for the fact that whatever we fix our eyes upon in this world will blind us?
And finally, is it because the higher the spiritual height we reach, the greater is the danger of falling?
Brothers and Sisters, it is not possible to convey in words what it must have meant for Ibrahim to be commanded by Allah (Glorified be He) to sacrifice his only son Isma`il. The magnitude of the pain does not allow the imagination to enclose it. It inspires fear and trembling.
How can Ibrahim take his beloved son, the fruit of his life, the joy of his heart, the meaning of his living and staying, his Isma`il, and hold him on the ground, put a knife to his throat and kill him?
If it were only the slaughter of Ibrahim at the hand of Ismail, how easy! But no! The young Ismail must die and the old and aged Ibrahim must remain!
Ibrahim, the steel-like idol-smasher must have felt torn apart!
Within him, there must have been a war, the greatest Jihad. Which war? The war between God and Isma`il! The difficulty of choice!
Who should Ibrahim choose?
Love of God or Love of self?
Prophethood or Fatherhood?
Loyalty to God or loyalty to family?
Faith or Emotion?
Truth or Reality?
Consciousness or Instinct?
Responsibility or Pleasure?
Duty or Right?
Tawheed (Monotheism) or Shirk (Polytheism)?
Advancing or Remaining?
To Become or To Be?
And finally, God or Isma`il?
What should Ibrahim choose?
Brothers and Sisters, Ibrahim did not choose immediately. He doubted and wavered under the crushing force of pain and anguish. Only after the third vision did he finally decide to carry out Allah’s command. This is reflected in the Hajj ritual of stoning the three idols representing Iblis who tempted Ibrahim to disobey Allah.
When a ‘truth’ enhances one’s earthly life, most people become seekers of truth. But when a truth opposes life and leads to problems, loss and dangers the seekers of truth are few in number.
Iblis works wherever he finds traces of fear, weakness, doubt, despair, envy, selfishness and even great affection towards someone or something. Iblis sometimes blows logical reasons, intellectual and religious justifications to achieve his ends.
For instance we may imagine that, under the powerful crush of his pain and distress, Ibrahim could have used many justifications. Perhaps the meaning of Dhabh (slaughter) is just metaphorical and means kill your ‘ego’. Perhaps Ismail might be a general noun and not Ibrahim’s son. Perhaps ‘slaughter Ismail’ actually means ‘slaughter the love of Ismail’. Ibrahim could have also tried many interpretations of his vision.
But Ibrahim, Khalil-ul-Allah, the intimate friend of God, had faith in Allah and he knew that Allah (Glorified be He) demanded the sacrifice. Abraham’s conscience would make a mockery of all these logical justifications and reasons.
Ibrahim chose the Love of God over the Love of self, Prophethood over Fatherhood, Loyalty to God over Loyalty to family, Truth over Reality, Consciousness over Instinct, Responsibility over Pleasure, Duty over Right, Tawheed over Shirk. He preferred Advancing to Remaining.
Ibrahim chose God and gave up Isma`il
Brothers and Sisters, in Mina, an amazing and frightening conversation between a father and a son took place.
Ibrahim said to Isma`il: “O my Son, I see in a vision that I offer you in sacrifice. Now see what is your view? ” (37:102)
What frightening words for a child to hear!
Isma`il could have kept silent. He could have asked Ibrahim to refrain.
But Ismail had also faith. He submitted to Allah’s will. Realizing his father’s distress, Ismail gave him these comforting words: “O my father! Do as you are commanded. You will find me, if Allah so wills, patient and constant ” (37:102)
Allah-u-Akbar! Allah-u-Akbar! Allah-u-Akbar!
Ibrahim had consulted his son who willingly offered himself to Allah’s command. The choice of Ibrahim was sacrifice. That of Isma`il was self-sacrifice: Martyrdom.
This gave Ibrahim strength. Ibrahim tied his heart to God, he took the Ismail of his life in one hand and the knife of his faith in the other and he walked until he reached the place of sacrifice. Ibrahim was suffering while believing and at every moment it was possible for him to retract and turn back. Yet he laid Ismail on the ground, putting his face away from him to give strength to his crushed soul and paralyzed hand. And so he slaughtered Isma`il. But, by Allah’s grace, the knife did not cut.
Ibrahim received a sheep and was called by Allah
“O Ibrahim! You have confirmed the Vision; thus indeed do We reward those who do right; this is indeed the manifest trial!” (37:104-105)
Allah-u-Akbar! Allah-u-Akbar! Allah-u-Akbar!
Brothers and Sisters, Ibrahim gained everything and kept Isma`il. This means that the God of Ibrahim is not thirsty for blood like the Inca gods or Hindu goddesses were thirsty of blood.
It is the people, the servants of God who are hungry, and hungry of sheep meat.
And, symbolically, the only blood shed in this story is the blood of Iblis.
Brothers and Sisters, this means that from the very beginning God did not want Ismail to be slaughtered. He wanted Ibrahim to be the slaughterer of Ismail. When he became so, the slaughter became useless.
God, from the beginning, wanted Isma`il to be the slaughter of God. And when it happened, his sacrifice became useless.
Mankind has needs but God has no needs. He is Self-Sufficient. Allah (Glorified be He) in His Wisdom raised Ibrahim to the highest peak of sacrificing his Ismail without sacrificing Ismail. Allah (Glorified be He) promoted Isma`il to the highest peak of being the great sacrifice of God without bringing any harm to him.
This event is not about the torment and torture of mankind but about the perfection of humanity, the freedom from the prison of instinct and selfishness and about the elevation of spirit.
This momentous event also teaches us, through Ibrahim, that human life, Ismail’s, Ibrahim’s, everyone’s, acquires its meaning and value from God — The Source of Creation — and not from nature. It signifies that the good things in life, represented by Ismail, derive their value not from the mere fact that they exist and can be valued, enjoyed and delighted in, but from God, The Source of Creation Himself. Ibrahim was, in some sense, giving back Isma`il to receive him again on the proper basis.
Brothers and Sisters, different people organize differently their loyalty to God, to the family and to the nation or the state. A secular mind owes and absolute duty to the nation (and the family) whereas a religious conscience owes absolute duty to God. For a secular mind Ibrahim was willing to MURDER Ismail but for a religious conscience he was willing to SACRIFICE Ismail. Ibrahim therefore instructs that we should owe absolute duty only to God and it is our relationship to God which ought to transcend and determine out relation to family/nation and not vice-versa.
Brothers and Sisters, there still is a lot to understand and discover about this momentous event. These are only a few possible meanings. Only a few, and just possible, because as Ibrahim taught us to be less complacent and more critical about having attained faith, we should be less complacent and more critical about having attained understanding.
Brothers and Sisters, the Ismail of Ibrahim was his son. But you, who is your Ismail? what is it?
Your degree? Your reputation? Your position? Your money? Your home? Your car? Your beloved? Your family? Your knowledge? Your title? Your dress? Your fame? Your soul? Your spirituality? Your Beauty? Your strength? Your career?
How does one know?
Well, you know this yourself. One can only give its signs to you.
Whatever is in your eyes which holds the place of Isma`il in the eyes of Ibrahim!
Whatever weakens you on the way of faith!
Whatever stops you in your movement!
Whatever brings doubt to your responsibility!
Whatever has enchained your freedom!
Whatever leads you to compromise and justification!
That very thing which deafens your ears before the Message of Truth!
Whatever calls you to remain with yourself!
Whatever causes you to flee from your duty!
Whoever or Whatever keeps you behind in order to remain with her/him or it!
Brothers and Sisters, these are the signs of our Isma`il’s. Let us search for them in ourselves and let us slaughter them to move towards Allah (Glorified be He) and to remove the real knife from the throat of oppressed Muslims from Bosnia to Kashmir, from somalia to Palestine.
Brothers and Sisters, let us revolt against the heartless worshippers that we have become.
Remember our Eid is not a Eid of victory. It is the `Eid of Sacrifice (Adha).