Eid al-Adha is one of the two Islamic celebrations and commemorates the idea of “sacrifice”. The celebration marks the end of the Hajj and is known by the ritual sacrifice or Qurbani. However, I contend that the Qur’anic story of the sacrifice does not only speak to the ritual slaughter but rather to the larger themes of faith, family and sacrifice. Moreover, the story is often read independently of the Biblical tradition and other Qur’anic verses. By reading the narrative intertextually, we can better appreciate how the Qur’an views “sacrifice” and understand the larger lessons that the scripture conveys.
The story of the sacrifice begins when Ibrahim prays to his Lord to bestow on him a righteous child. God responds to Ibrahim’s prayer by giving him a “forbearing boy”, which modern Islamic orthodoxy holds to be Isma‘il.1 As the boy becomes old enough to work, Ibrahim sees a dream that he is sacrificing his son. He then remarkably turns to his son and asks him:
“Oh my (dear) son, I see in a dream that I am sacrificing you, so tell me what you think?”
The verse is unique because, in contrast to the canonical Bible, Ibrahim asks his son what he should do, consulting him and acquiring his consent.2 In the Biblical narrative, Ibrahim never tells his son what God has instructed him to do. Genesis 22 narrates that as Abraham and Isaac approach the place of sacrifice, Isaac speaks up and asks his father, “the fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham answers “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son”.3 Instead of telling Isaac what he is planning, Abraham advises him to trust in God and assures him that He will provide.4
The verse is further noteworthy because it contrasts to how Ibrahim’s father spoke to him. In verses 19:41-48, a young Ibrahim approaches his father imploring him not to worship idols: “O my father, Why do you worship that which does not hear and see?” Ibrahim continues to plead with his father to follow him, not Satan, and warns him about the hellfire. However, his father replies harshly stating, "Abraham, do you reject my gods? I will stone you if you do not stop this. Stay away from me for a long time!'' Ibrahim’s father does not listen to him but rather responds by ordering his son to leave him alone and even threatens to stone him. Conversely, in the story of the sacrifice, Ibrahim has now grown up, becoming a father himself, and has decided to speak to his son in a loving, consultative manner.
After Ibrahim asks his son regarding his dream, the son responds by stating, “Oh my (dear) father, do what you are commanded, you will find me, by the will of God, among the patient”. The son answers with affirmation declaring that he will go along with the plan and that he will be patient if God wills. The son understands the order to be from God and has faith in the wisdom of God's plan.
The story continues with the next verse:
“When they had both surrendered to God (aslamā), and he had laid his son down on the side of his face”.
Ibrahim is now ready to sacrifice his son positioning his head to be slaughtered. What is notable here is that Arabic verb aslamā is used, the same verb that forms the noun “Islam”. Ibrahim and his son’s actions could therefore represent the religion of Islam as a whole, being faithful to God even when it is not clear what the future holds. What is further significant is that the Qur’an employs the dual form of the verb aslamā signaling that both Ibrahim and his son surrendered to God’s will. The story has transitioned from that of only Ibrahim to one in which both the father and child are the protagonists.
But before Ibrahim is able to carry out the sacrifice, a voice calls out stating “you have fulfilled your vision: verily we reward those who do good.” Ibrahim has not sacrificed his son but has still “fulfilled” God’s command. The verse is consequently analogous to another verse on sacrifice, verse 37 in the chapter on Hajj: “It is neither their meat nor their blood that reaches God but your piety.” It is not the actual sacrifice of the son which is important but rather the piety of both the father and the child.
In conclusion, by reading the story intertextually, we gain a greater appreciation for the Qur’anic narrative of the sacrifice. In the story, Ibrahim consults his son and speaks to him in a loving manner, one that contrasts with the way that his father spoke to him. Moreover, both Ibrahim and his son consciously surrender to God’s will making the sacrifice not only that of the father’s but that of his child as well. In the end, Ibrahim fulfills God’s command, not by sacrificing his son, but by demonstrating his piety. The Qur’anic narrative is thus rich for larger discussions of faith, family and sacrifice.
1. For more on how this orthodoxy developed, see Younus Y. Mirza, “Ishmael as Abraham’s Sacrifice: Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Kathīr on the Intended Victim,” Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations 24, no. 3 (2013): 277–298.
2. Abraham’s act of consulting his son is consistent with the qur’anic concept of shurā which is mentioned in verses 3:159 and 42:38.
3. “Genesis 22”, in the Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version, containing the Old and New Testaments: with the Apocryphal (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Bible Publishers, 1993).
4. The Study Qur’an makes a similar argument: “Thus Abraham’s son is not a passive participant, as in the Biblical account, where he remains unaware of the Divine Command and asks, ‘Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’ (Genesis 22:7). Rather, he is a free and active participant who chooses complete obedience to God at the greatest personal sacrifice”; The Study Quran: a New translation and Commentary, eds. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Caner K. Dagli, Maria Massi Dakake, Joseph E. B. Lumbard, Mohammed Rustom (New York, NY: Harper One, 2015), 1094.
By Younus Mirza , 09 Sep 2016