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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2404

Eid-ul-Adha: the story behind the sacrifice

By Habib Siddiqui

Muslims are celebrating the Eid-ul-Adha in many parts of the world. It is the festival of sacrifice. The tradition goes back to the prophets - Ibrahim and his first son Isma’il alayhis salam (AS: peace be upon them).

Ibrahim (Abraham) (AS), considered the patriarch of monotheistic religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam, was born in the house of a well-known idol sculptor – Aazar - in the kingdom of Babylon. At that time, some people worshipped idols of stone and wood; others worshipped the planets, stars, sun and moon; still others worshipped their kings and rulers. There was none who worshipped One God – Allah or Eloh or Elaha.

Ibrahim was born into that atmosphere, into a typical family of that ancient time. As a young child, Ibrahim used to watch his father sculpting those idols from stones or wood, which would end up being worshipped by people in the temple: they would offer food, seek forgiveness, cry and ask for help from those idols. He could not understand why a sane person would worship an idol, something that someone either had carved out with his own hands or bought from the market. He noticed that these idols did not have any power and they could not even turn themselves up if someone had turned them upside down. How, then could people believe that such statues could harm or benefit them? Ibrahim's mind rejected idolatry, and he felt a strong repulsion towards the idols.

He was endowed with spiritual understanding from an early age and was destined to stand against polytheism, his own family, against the prevalent Taghoot (the false gods) and the entire system of his society. Allah states: Indeed, We bestowed aforetime on Ibrahim his (portion of) guidance, and We were well acquainted with him (as to his Belief in the Oneness of Allah). (Qur’an 21:51)

Time went by, and Ibrahim became a young man. One night, Ibrahim went up to the nearby mountain, leaned against a rock, and looked up to the sky. He contemplated and realized the folly of his people who were also worshipping those celestial bodies that glittered the sky at various periods. The story of his spiritual enlightenment is depicted in the Qur’an, as follows:

“Thus, did We show Ibrahim the kingdom of the heavens and the earth that he be one of those who have Faith and certainty. When the night covered him over with darkness he saw a star. He said: "This is my lord." But when it set, he said: "I like not that those who set." When he saw the moon rising up he said: "This is my lord." but when it set he said: "Unless my Lord guides me, I shall surely be among the erring people." When he saw the sun rising up he said: "This is my lord, This is greater." But when it set, he said: "O my people! I am indeed free from all that you join as partners in worship with Allah. Verily, I have turned my face towards Him Who has created the heavens and the earth Hanifan (Islamic Monotheism, i.e. worshipping none but Allah Alone) and I am not of the Al Mushrikeen (those who worship others besides Allah)." [Surah Al An'am 6:75-79]

With that profound statement, Ibrahim made it clear to his people that the celestial bodies are unworthy of worship, they are among the signs of Allah and that he was worshipping Allah – who had created the heavens and the earth and all that is contained therein - by rejecting polytheism of any kind.

Ibrahim’s (AS) people disputed with him. He said: "Do you dispute with me concerning Allah while HE has guided me and I fear not those whom you associate with Allah in worship." (Qur’an 6:80)
“And from among His Signs are the night and the day, and the sun and the moon. Prostrate not to the sun nor to the moon, but prostrate to Allah Who created them if you really worship Him.” (Qur’an 41:37)

Ibrahim (AS) did his best to make his people heedful to the belief in the oneness of Allah and to the worship of Him alone. He bade them to firmly renounce the worship of idols.

Allah recounted: “Recite to them the story of Ibrahim. When he said to his father and his people. "What do you worship?" They said: "We worship idols, and to them we are ever devoted." He said: "Do they hear you when you call on them? Or, do they benefit you or do they harm you?" They said: "Nay but we found our father doing so." He said: "Do you observe that which you been worshipping, you and your forefathers? Verily! They are enemies to me, save the Lord of the Alamin (mankind, jinn and all that exists); Who has created me and it is HE Who guides me and it is HE Who feeds me and gives me to drink. And when I am ill, it is He who cures me; and Who will cause me to die and then will bring me to life again and Who I hope will forgive me my faults on the Day of Resurrection." (Qur’an 26:69-82)

He (AS) entreated his father: "O my father! Verily! There has come to me of knowledge that which came not unto you. So, follow me. I will guide you to a Straight Path. O my father! Worship not Satan. Verily! Satan has been a rebel against the Most Beneficent (Allah). O my father! Verily! I fear lest a torment from the Most Beneficent (Allah) overtake you as that you become a companion of Satan (in the Hellfire)." He (the father) said: "Do you reject my gods, O Ibrahim? If you stop not this, I will indeed stone you. So, get away from me safely before I punish you." Ibrahim said: "Peace be on you! I will ask forgiveness of my Lord for you. Verily! He is unto me, Ever Most Gracious. And I shall turn away from you and from those whom you invoke besides Allah." (Qur’an 19:43-48)

His father's harsh treatment did not stop Ibrahim (AS) from delivering the message of truth. Sad to see his people prostate before idols, he was determined to stamp out these practices and went to the town to debate with the people knowing full well that he might suffer harm.

Allah says: “And remember Ibrahim when he said to his people: "Worship Allah Alone and fear Him that is better for you if you did but know. You worship besides Allah only idols and you only invent falsehood. Verily, those whom you worship beside Allah have no power to give you provision, so seek your provision from Allah Alone, you will be brought back. And if you deny then nations before you have denied their Messengers. the duty of the Messenger is only to convey the Message plainly." (Qur’an 29:16-18)

Ibrahim (AS) was not deterred by the rejection of his community to his message of Oneness of God - Allah. He decided to do something about their idolatry and devised an intelligent scheme. On a day of celebration when everybody had left the town for a big feast on the riverbank he walked into the temple armed with an ax. He looked at the idols of stone and wood and at the food laid in front of them as offerings. He approached the statues and asked: "Will you not eat of the offering before you? What is the matter with you that you do not speak?" (Qur’an 37:91-92)

He (AS) then raised his ax and started smashing the idols, destroying them all but one (the biggest of the idols) on whose neck he hung the ax. Then he left the temple. He had fulfilled his vow to show his people a practical proof of their foolishness in worshipping something that had no power to save itself.

When the people returned, they were shocked to see their gods smashed to pieces, lying scattered all over the temple. They began to guess who had done that to their idols and Ibrahim's (AS) name came to their minds.

The Qur’an says: “They (the polytheists) said: "Who has done this to our aliah (gods)? He must indeed be one of the wrongdoers." They said: "We heard a young man talking against them who is called Ibrahim." They said: "Then bring him before the eyes of the people, that they may testify." They [approached Ibrahim and] said: "Are you the one who has done this to our gods, O Ibrahim?" Ibrahim said: "Nay, this one, the biggest of them (idols) did it. Ask them, if they can speak!" So, they turned to themselves and said: "Verily you are the Zalimun (wrongdoers)." Then they turned to themselves (their first thought and said): "Indeed you (Ibrahim) know well that these idols speak not?" Ibrahim said: "Do you then worship besides Allah, things that can neither profit you nor harm you? Fie upon you, and upon that which you worship besides Allah! Have you then no sense?" (Qur’an 21:59-67)

The polytheists could clearly see the stupidity of their beliefs. However, their arrogance would not allow them to admit their foolishness. They demanded that Ibrahim be arrested and be put to death. They said, “Burn him and help your ailah (gods), if you will be doing.” (Qur’an 21:68)

Accordingly, they dug a deep pit, filled it with firewood and ignited it. They brought a catapult, and as the people stood away from the pit because of the extreme heat it generated, Ibrahim (AS) was catapulted into the middle of the fire. Immediately, the Angel Jibra’il (Gabriel) came near Ibrahim (AS) and asked him: "O Ibrahim do you wish for anything?" Ibrahim (AS) replied: "Nothing from you [i.e., Allah knows my condition; I don’t need your help, and am submissive to Allah’s wish].”

Allah the Almighty ordered : "O fire! Be you coolness and safety for Ibrahim." (Qur’an 21:69)

The fire submitted to the will of Allah, becoming pleasantly cool and safe for Ibrahim (AS). He walked out of the fire as if he were walking out of a garden. Cries of astonishment were heard from the heathens. Allah says in the Qur’an about Ibrahim : “And they wanted to harm him, but We made them the worst losers.” (21:70)

This miracle shamed the polytheists, let alone Namrud (Nimrod), the Babylonian Emperor, who claimed himself to be a god to his people. Namrud became very angry and feared that the status of his claim to godhead might be in jeopardy by Ibrahim. He summoned Ibrahim (AS) to the palace and held a dialogue with him which Allah recounted:

“Have you not thought about him (Namrud) who disputed with Ibrahim about his Lord (Allah) because Allah had given him the kingdom? When Ibrahim said to him: "My Lord (Allah) is He Who gives life and causes death." He (Namrud) said: "I give life and cause death." Ibrahim said: "Verily, Allah causes the sun to rise from the east; then cause it you to rise from the west." So, the disbeliever (Namrud) was utterly defeated. Allah guides not the people who are Zalimeen (wrongdoers).” (Qur’an 2:258)

With that clear victory in the debate, we can assume that Ibrahim's (AS) fame spread throughout Babylon. He was commanded by Allah to settle in Palestine. So, he left Babylon with his wife Sarah and his nephew Lut (Lot) who had believed in his message of monotheism. As for Lut (AS), he eventually emigrated to the land of Sodom [Dead Sea area] and settled there. In this regard, the Qur’an says: So, Lut believed in him (Ibrahim's message of Islamic Monotheism). He (Ibrahim) said: "I will emigrate for the sake of my Lord. Verily, He is the All Mighty, the All Wise." (29:26)

Ibrahim (AS) resided in Palestine for quite some time, where he preached belief in Allah, judging fairly between people, and guiding them to truth and righteousness. Once he traveled to Egypt, accompanied by his beautiful wife. When they crossed into the territory, they were seized by the soldiers of the tyrant who was ruling the territory. The tyrant, being informed of Sarah’s beauty, wanted to possess her. He sent for Ibrahim (AS) and asked him about Sarah saying: "Who is this lady?" Ibrahim said: "She is my sister [in faith]." Ibrahim (then) went to Sarah and said, "O Sarah! If this tyrant knows you are my wife, he would surely take you from me by force. So, if he asked you, tell him that you are my sister; and you really are my sister in (the religion of) Islam].”
The tyrant then called Sarah, and when she went to him, he tried to take hold of her with his hand, but his hand got stiff and he was confounded. He asked Sarah: "Pray to Allah for me and I shall not harm you." So, Sarah asked Allah to cure him and he got cured. He tried to take hold of her for the second time, but his hand got as stiff as or stiffer than before and he was more confounded. He again requested Sarah: "Pray to Allah for me, and I will not harm you." Sarah asked Allah to again, and he became all right. He then called one of his guards who had brought her and said: "You have not brought me a human being but have brought me a devil." The tyrant then gave Hajrah (Hajar or Hagar: an Egyptian princess) as a companion to Sarah [perhaps to avoid any further harm coming to him from Sarah]. Ibrahim (AS), gesturing with his hand, asked: "What has happened?" She replied: "Allah has spoiled the evil plot of the infidel (or immoral person) and gave me Hajar (also called Hajrah) for service." [Bukhari and Muslim: Abu Hurayrah narrated the story.]

Time went by and no children were born to Sarah. She realized she was sterile. She offered Hajar as a wife to her husband, and prayed Allah to bless Hajar and Ibrahim with a child. Hajrah gave birth to a child who was named Isma’il (AS). The name, Isma’il, itself comes from the root word 'Samia' meaning 'to hear', because Allah heard and answered the invocation of Ibrahim (AS) who had prayed: "O my Lord! Grant me a righteous (son)!" [Surah Al Saffat 37:100] Ibrahim (AS) was then nearly eighty years old.

One can imagine the joy of Ibrahim (AS) who had become father at a very advanced age. He loved his son Isma’il very dearly. Allah wanted to test his sincerity and devotion to Him and thus, commanded him to settle his second wife, Hajrah and their newly born son, Ismail, in an uninhabited and barren valley of Makkah, hundreds of miles down south of Palestine. Ibrahim (AS) fulfilled that commandment by settling his son and second wife there.

Ibn Abbas radhi Allahu anhu (RA), a companion of the Prophet Muhammad sallal-lahu alyhi wa sallam (S) narrated:
"... Ibrahim (AS) brought her (Hajrah) and her son, Isma’il while she was suckling him, to a place near the Kaaba (which was to be rebuilt later at that spot by both Ibrahim and Isma’il (AS)) under a tree on the spot of Zam-Zam, at the highest place in the mosque (to be built later by them). In those days, there was no one in Makkah, nor was there any water. So he made them sit over there and placed near them a leather bag containing some dates, and a small water-skin containing some water, and set out homeward. Isma’il's mother followed him saying: "O Ibrahim! Where are you going, leaving us in this valley where there is no person whose company we may enjoy, nor is there anything (to enjoy)?" She repeated that to him many times, but he did not look back at her. Then she asked him: "Has Allah ordered you to do so?" He said: "Yes". She said: "Then He will not neglect us." And she returned (to her child) while Ibrahim proceeded on his way. On reaching the Thaniya (mountain) where they could not see him, Ibrahim (AS) faced the Kaaba, and raising both hands, invoked Allah saying the following du’a (supplication): "O our Lord! I have made some of my offspring to dwell in a valley without cultivation, by Thy Sacred House; in order, O our Lord, that they may establish regular Prayer: so fill the hearts of some among men with love towards them, and feed them with fruits: so that they may give thanks." [Surah Ibrahim 14:37; Sahih Bukhari]
Ibn Abbas (RA) further continued the story saying:

"Ismail's mother went on suckling Ismail and drinking from the water (she had). When the water in the water-skin had all been used up, she became thirsty and her child also became thirsty. She started looking at him (i.e. Ismail) tossing in agony. She left him, for she could not endure looking at him, and found that the mountain of Safa was the nearest mountain to her on that land. She stood on it and started looking at the valley keenly so that she might see somebody, but she could not see anybody. Then she descended from Safa and when she reached the valley, she tucked up her robe and ran in the valley like a person in distress and trouble, till she crossed the valley and reached the Marwa mountain where she stood and started looking, expecting to see somebody, but she could not see anybody. She repeated that (running between Safa and Marwa) seven times.

The Prophet Muhammad (S) said:

"This is the source of the tradition of the walking of people between them (i.e. Safa and Marwa during Umrah and Hajj rituals). When she reached the Marwa (for the last time), she heard a voice and she asked herself to be quiet and listened attentively. She heard the voice again and said: 'O (whoever you may be)! You have made me hear your voice; have you got something to help me?' And behold! She saw an Angel at the place of Zam-Zam, digging the earth with his heel (or his wing), till water flowed from that place. She started to make something like a basin around it, using her hand in this way, and started filling her water-skin with water with her hands, and the water was flowing out after she had scooped some of it."

The Prophet (S) added:

"May Allah bestow Mercy on Ismail's mother! Had she let the Zam-Zam (flow without trying to control it) (or had she not scooped from that water) (to fill her water-skin), Zam-Zam would have been a stream flowing on the surface of the Earth."

The Prophet (S) further added:

"Then she drank (water) and suckled her child. The Angel said to her: "Don't be afraid of being neglected, for this is the House of Allah which will be built by this boy and his father, and Allah never neglects His people." The House (i.e. Kaaba) at that time was on a high place resembling a hillock, and when torrents came, they flowed to its right and left. She lived in that way till some people from the tribe of Jurhum or a family from Jurhum passed by her and her child, as they (i.e. the Jurhum people) were coming through the way of Kada'. They landed in the lower part of Makkah where they saw a bird that had the habit of flying around water and not leaving it. They said: "This bird must be flying around water, though we know that there is no water in this valley." They sent one or two messengers who discovered the source of water, and returned to inform them of the water. So, they all came (towards the water)."

Muhammad (S) further related:

"Ismail's mother was sitting near the water. They asked her: "Do you allow us to stay with you?" She replied: 'Yes, but you will have no right to possess the water." They agreed to that."

The Prophet (S) further said: "Ismail's mother was pleased with the whole situation as she loved the company of people. So, they settled there, and later on they sent for their families who came and settled with them so that some families became permanent residents there. The child (i.e. Isma’il) grew up and learnt Arabic from them and (his virtues) caused them to love and admire him as he grew up, and when he reached the age of puberty they made him marry a woman from amongst them." [Sahih Bukhari]

As if Ibrahim (AS) did not go through enough of trials and still needed to be tested for his absolute trust, love and devotion to Allah, he saw a dream about slaughtering his only son Isma’il when the child was old enough to walk with him (perhaps 7-10 years old). Can Ibrahim (AS) pass this test? He ponders on this unusual, rather cruel, test. He has grown old and he has no other offspring. In his very old age, Allah has listened to his prayer and has blessed him with this son through his second wife, Hajrah. As a thanksgiving for answering to his prayer, he has named his son, Isma'il (meaning: God listened [to my prayer]).

Yet, Ibrahim (AS) was asked to settle Isma'il and his mother in the valley of Makkah when the child was still an infant. And now that the lad has become old enough to walk and reason, Allah wants him to sacrifice that son to prove that his true loyalty and love is only for Allah and no one else. Just ponder on this for a moment (Quran 37:102)!

Satan tries to create doubt in Ibrahim’s (AS) mind: 'O Ibrahim, are you sure you want to sacrifice your son, your true love, your joy, the meaning of your existence, the fruit of your life; who would there be after you to worship your Lord; don't you have heart, any soft feelings toward your son?' Ibrahim (AS) is momentarily confused. Should he or shouldn't he carry out Allah's command, "you must sacrifice your son?" Is he dreaming or is it the reality? No, there is no confusion what he saw in his vision is crystal clear: God truly wants him to sacrifice his beloved Isma'il. He wins over Satan, the sneaking whisperer. But then Satan returns and tries to digress him from his task. Ibrahim (AS) wins over again. But Satan does not give up that easily, he tries to create confusion for the third time. Ibrahim (AS) wins over Satan's temptations yet for the third time. He is mentally all prepared now to carry out the task.

Ibrahim’s (AS) choice is obvious - absolute obedience and devotion to Allah; Isma'il must be sacrificed. He wanted to share the message with his beloved son. Thus, he talks to his young lad, Isma'il (AS) of his dream and asks his opinion. And what does this "gentle" son (whom the Quran calls Ghulamin Halim) reply? He calmly says: "O my father! Do that which you are commanded. Allah willing, you shall find me of the steadfast." (Quran 37:102) He answers like the rock of Gibraltar!

What did you expect? Did you expect the son of Ibrahim (AS), the upright, to be any less faithful than his father? Isma’il (AS) requests his father to tie him well so that during his slaughter he could not move and to sharpen the knife so that the task is done fast.

When both the father and the son - Ibrahim and Isma'il (AS) - had surrendered to Allah and Ibrahim (AS) had flung Isma'il (AS) down upon his face and was about to put the knife on his son's neck, Allah called Ibrahim (AS): "O Ibrahim! You have already fulfilled the vision." (Quran 37:104-5) Ibrahim (AS) doesn't have to sacrifice his son. Instead, he should sacrifice this ram, which has been sent to him, as ransom for Isma'il (AS). Unlike the false-gods of polytheism, Allah, the One True God, is not bloodthirsty. He just wanted to check where Ibrahim (AS) stood in his devotion and love, whether he was capable of overcoming his personal feeling of love for his son to please Allah. A lesson was taught by Allah - from now on there would be no human sacrifice in the altar of God. Sacrifice of a halal animal whose meat you can eat and distribute among the poor is a sufficient substitute.

As can be seen from the above account, the sacrifice was a manifest trial for both Ibrahim and Ismail (AS), which they both passed as truly devoted servants of Allah. When Ibrahim (AS) was ready to fulfill the dream, his Isma'il (AS) was returned unto him, unscathed and unharmed. And he (AS) was made a model for humanity: "And We left for him [Ibrahim] among the later folk (the salutation): Peace be unto Ibrahim. Thus, do we reward the good (Muhsinin)." (Qur’an 37:108-9)

A lesson is taught here: if you love something more than you love Allah, then that thing has become your idol and you must be ready to sacrifice that. Are we ready to slaughter or sacrifice our worldly desires to free ourselves from such attachments to be close to Allah, the Almighty? If we are ready, then our sacrifice of a ram, goat, cow, sheep or camel is a sacrifice that is acceptable to Allah, otherwise it is a butchery! As Allah says in the Qur’an:

"It is not their meat nor their blood, that reaches Allah: it is your piety that reaches Him:" [Surah Al Hajj 22:37]

As we celebrate the Eid-ul-Adha throughout the world, let’s not be oblivious of the very background of this ritual sacrifice.

- Asian Tribune -

Eid-ul-Adha: the story behind the sacrifice
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