By Paul Salahuddin Armstrong
“When the boy was old enough to work with his father, Abraham said, ‘My son, I have seen myself sacrificing you in a dream. What do you think?’ He said, ‘Father, do as you are commanded and, God willing, you will find me steadfast.’ When they had both submitted to God, and he had laid his son down on the side of his face, We called out to him, ‘Abraham, you have fulfilled the dream.’ This is how We reward those who do good ― it was a test to prove [their true characters] ― We ransomed his son with a momentous sacrifice, and We let him be praised by succeeding generations: ‘Peace be upon Abraham!’ This is how We reward those who do good: truly he was one of our faithful servants.”
The Qur’an 37:102-111 (M.A.S. Abdul-Haleem)
“Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, Father? Yes, my son? Abraham replied. The fire and wood are here, Isaac said, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering? Abraham answered, God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son. And the two of them went on together. When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, Abraham! Abraham! Here I am, he replied. Do not lay a hand on the boy, he said. Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son. Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.”
Genesis 22:7-14 (NIV)
The story is familiar to Jews, Christians and Muslims; the prophet Abraham, peace be upon him, was asked by God to make the ultimate sacrifice, his beloved son, though perhaps disagreeing on which son Abraham was asked to surrender, the meaning of this account doesn’t change. Who could make such a sacrifice, when we’d give everything for our children? Abraham dearly loved both his sons and their mothers, he surely would not have wanted to harm either of them in any way or form. To understand this account, we need to look beyond the worldly veils disguising it’s true meaning. Everything that manifests in the physical world begins with an intention, a beginning within a person’s heart.
The Holy Torah and Holy Qur’an are sacred scriptures, revealed through prophets and intermediaries to us, as such they do not speak directly of the physical world, but of spiritual matters. Reference is made to the physical world, only to help us to understand the spiritual world. Therefore, if we think the accounts in these holy scriptures are only about physical affairs, we can really miss the point. That is not to say these accounts are just stories and didn’t occur in reality, only that the physical aspect of these accounts, is not the most important one, but the spiritual message and the positive change which that can elicit within the heart of the reader, is the overriding concern.
We can see this point clearly within the parables of Jesus, peace be upon him, or those found in the Holy Qur’an.
“By their fruit you will recognise them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognise them.”
Matthew 7:16-20 (NIV)
“[Prophet], do you not see how God makes comparisons? A good word is like a good tree whose root is firm and whose branches are high in the sky, yielding constant fruit by it’s Lord’s leave – God makes such comparisons for people so that they may reflect – but an evil word is like a rotten tree, uprooted from the surface of the earth, with no power to endure. God will give firmness to those who believe in the firmly rooted word, both in this world and the Hereafter, but the evildoers He leaves to stray: God does whatever He will.”
The Qur’an 14:24-27 (M.A.S. Abdel Haleem)
Obviously, it goes without saying, these verses are not talking about fruit, but the characteristics of different types of people, which if one takes note of, can reveal a great deal about the individuals who possess such traits.
Returning to Abraham, we can see he was being tested, after having a dream or vision where he saw himself sacrificing his beloved son. Yet, Abraham had great trust and faith in God, that nothing bad would come of this trial. Such was the depth of trust Abraham had in his Creator. One only has to look at the life of this extraordinarily pious man, to realise how much he sacrificed for his Creator, trusting that living in faith and trust would only lead to greater goodness than the apparent cost it bore.
Prophet Abraham was born in the city of Ur, which was either in southern Turkey or in what is now present day Iraq. The inhabitants of the civilisation he grew up in, were not conscious of their Creator, having faith instead in the illusory idols created by their own hands. Abraham didn’t accept this world-view, realising that the things created through our own labours, couldn’t even protect themselves, never mind be of any real benefit to us!
“Remember when Abraham said to his father, Azar, ‘How can you take idols as gods? I see that you and your people have clearly gone astray.’”
The Qur’an 6:74 (M.A.S. Abdel Haleem)
“Tell them the story of Abraham, when he asked his father and his people, ‘What do you worship?’ They said, ‘We worship idols, and are constantly in attendance on them.’ He asked, ‘Do they hear you when you call? Do they help or harm you?’ They replied, ‘No, but this is what we saw our fathers doing.’”
The Qur’an 26:69-74 (M.A.S. Abdel Haleem)
The people were simply following an ignorant tradition! Even though they freely admitted they didn’t see any benefit coming from doing so, they were so attached to old customs to change their ways. Not only that, but they actively persecuted anyone who wouldn’t go along with them! These people certainly didn’t recognise individuality and personal liberty in the way we do nowadays. In a tradition narrated in the Holy Qur’an and in Jewish religious literature, Abraham tries to enlighten his people, by literally smashing their idols, though this doesn’t seem to have gone down too well with them…
“‘By God I shall certainly plot against your idols as soon as you have turned your backs!’ He broke them all into pieces, but left the biggest one for them to return to. They said, ‘Who has done this to our gods? How wicked he must be!’ Some said, ‘We heard a youth called Abraham talking about them.’ They said, ‘Bring him before the eyes of the people, so that they may witness [his trial].’ They asked, ‘Was it you, Abraham, who did this to our gods?’ He said, ‘No, it was done by the biggest of them – this one. Ask them, if they can talk.’ They turned to one another, saying, ‘It is you who are in the wrong,’ but then they lapsed again and said, ‘You know very well these gods cannot speak.’ Abraham said, ‘How can you worship what can neither benefit nor harm you, instead of God? Shame on you and on the things you worship instead of God. Have you no sense?’”
The Qur’an 21:57-67 (M.A.S. Abdel Haleem)
According to Islamic tradition, the people tried to burn Abraham, though God saved him from the fire, instead making the fire seem cooling to him (Holy Qur’an 21:68-69). The trials Abraham had to go through as a result of seeing through the veils of this realm, were tremendously testing and difficult even for us to imagine.
“The LORD had said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’”
Genesis 12:1-3 (NIV)
Abraham left Ur with his family together with Lot, they travelled through the wilderness to Egypt. Eventually, Abraham settled in the land of Canaan, modern day Israel or Palestine (depending on your political views). Even, later in his life, it’s said that Abraham travelled widely. Muslims believe Abraham rebuilt the Kaaba, the cube shaped building in Mecca, with the help of his son Ishmael. To put this into perspective, there were no aeroplanes or Land Rover’s back then, so all this travelling would have had to be done on foot, with at most, the aid of camels and donkeys. What a tremendous feat!
When we reflect, we should consider the inner journey, those of a spiritual inclination make throughout their lives – the wandering in the wilderness, the smashing of false perceptions and discovering the Light within… Never an easy journey to make, one many are scared to even embark upon, but the only one that truly satisfies our deepest and truest desires. Prophet Abraham was a pioneer on this spiritual odyssey, which is why today, three of the world’s major religions and especially their inner esoteric aspects, continue to honour Abraham.
Although in Judaism and especially Christianity, the ritualistic sacrifice of an animal to remember Abraham, is no longer such a focal point of their religions; Muslims even today, still make a Qurbani (animal sacrifice) on the festival of Eid ul Adha. However, we should surely beware the mere following of tradition, the mistake of Abraham’s ancestors, ensuring any sacrifices we make aren’t just dead animals, but things truly meaningful and beneficial.
In Abraham we all find our roots and unity. The goal, like any worthy aspiration, will not be reached without sacrifice. Our ego, through it’s imperfect perception, always resists any kind of renunciation, believing we are in some way losing out on something we have an inherent right to. Ego, not realising the interconnectedness of reality, fears it’s own loss, it’s own death. But ego is only part of the veils of ignorance, like the idols of the people of Abraham, sooner or later everyone’s ego faces the same fate…
Our Creator, infinitely loving and merciful, gives us the opportunity to grow, through facing up to reality ourselves, before the hammer falls. If we can do this, we all have the potential to transform our selfish nature into a vehicle of Divine Light, thereby becoming a blessing to humanity and all creation like Abraham, peace and blessings be upon him.
The story of Abraham, the “Beloved of God” (habîbullah) also teaches us that, instead of following a tradition, we are meant to find God through intellectual research and empirical knowledge. He first tried to worship the Sun, then the Moon, and finally the stars, before he understood that God couldn’t be represented in such a way. He was alone against his whole community and still wasn’t afraid to test things and find God in his own way. I believe this is the reason why God named him “habîb” or beloved, because he was willing to open up to the unknown and even leave his country to go to an unknown promised land.
Ur is situated in Chaldea, in today’s Iraq, and the excavations show that his country was opulent and well off. Another reason to believe that his sacrifice was considered great by God.
How many of us are Muslims because they believe in its truths, and how many are just following the way of their ancestors?
Happy Eid and greetings from Paris to all,