Eid Al Adha: the sacrifice of Abraham

Eid Al Adha: the sacrifice of Abraham

According to Islam, the Koran is the terminal point of Revelation for this humanity. It is presented in fact as a recapitulation and synthesis of previous messages, and many biblical stories are related in a condensed and allusive way. The sibylline character of the “Book”, as we will realize, appears clearly in the episode of the sacrifice of Abraham.

This episode, evoked in sura 37, stems from the Koranic theme of the test (balâ’), which acts as a true spiritual pedagogy for believers and, a fortiori, for prophets: election and investiture have for obligatory passage the purification.

Abraham (Ibrâhîm in Arabic) was chosen as “an intimate friend of God” (khalîl Allâh), because he has successfully undergone many trials1.

One of the most intense was undoubtedly this dream, during which the patriarch saw himself in the process of sacrificing his son:

– “O my son, I see in a dream that I am cutting your throat. What do you think ? »
– “Father,” answered the son, “do what you are ordered to do. You will find me, God willing, among those who support [l’épreuve] (Cor. 37:102).

All translators render this passage in the past tense – “ O my son, I saw in a dream that… »-, but it is important to restore the present tense used in the Arabic text, because its function is to bring about the instantaneousness of Abraham’s vision. If we are allowed the image, this one lives the vision live, not deferred.

The commentators insist on the dreamlike dimension of the scene – absent from the biblical account -, and Ibn ‘Arabî, the great master of Sufism, underlines that it is in fact a ram which appeared to Abraham during his sleep, but under the features of his son. However, Abraham did not interpret, “transposed” says the Arabic, this vision because, according to the opinion of the commentators, the dream or the vision of the prophets comes under revelation (wahy), and is perceived by them as a immediate reality.

In effect : “ When they had both abandoned themselves to the divine will (aslamâ) and Abraham had laid his son face down on the ground, We called him: “O Abraham, you have given faith to the vision! “This is how we reward beings endowed with excellence (103-105) “.

In reality, the vision that Abraham received did not tell him to materially immolate his son, but to consecrate him to God. Here we join the Judaic tradition2.

“Here is certainly the obvious test” (106): supreme test of submission to God to believe oneself constrained to cut the throat of one’s son! According to some Sufis, the test consisted in giving its true meaning to the vision. They point out that the child is the symbol of the soul. It is therefore his “me” that God asks Abraham to immolate, this prophetic soul elevated, certainly, but still capable of love for someone other than God. Now, in order to be fully invested with divine intimacy, Abraham must empty his heart of all attachment to creatures.

Moreover, the episode of the sacrifice immediately follows a passage where we see Abraham destroying the idols adored by his people (84-98). In his case, the ultimate realization of Oneness (tawhîd) presupposed the destruction of all natural inclinations, of all ego residue, a subtle form of idolatry.

“We ransomed him with a solemn sacrifice” (107), because the stake is immense. A ram coming, according to tradition, from paradise, and led to earth by the angel Gabriel for the sacrifice, replaces the son: thanks to this transfer, God redeems from Abraham all his descendants, prophetic and otherwise, in order to better preserve and bless it. Thus, “We perpetuated [le souvenir d’Abraham] among later generations (108). Peace be upon Abraham! (109): after submission (islâm) comes peace (salâm).

The animal, being pure, because it knows its Creator by direct intuition, like the mineral and vegetable kingdoms (Ibn ‘Arabî), can indeed take the place of a pure human being, prophet and son of a prophet. . Through his consented sacrifice, he allows the “sons of Adam” – and not only of Abraham – to regenerate their vital and spiritual energies.

Nowhere in this story does the Koran mention whether the son offered as an oblation is Ishmael, father of the Arabs, son of the servant Hagar, jealous of Sara, or Isaac, her younger brother, father of the Jews. This imprecision divided the Muslim authors, each drawing arguments in opposite ways from the same Koranic passages in favor of Isaac or Ishmael. From an Islamic perspective, it was tempting to identify the sacrificial victim with Ishmael.

Indeed, this one helped Abraham to build the Kaaba of Mecca (Cor. 2: 125-127), and certain current rites of the Pilgrimage (Hajj), such as the stoning of Satan, find their foundation in the sacrifice which allegedly took place at Mina, one of the Hajj sites. However, most commentators do not give in to this temptation, and expose the differences of opinion. Here is a fine example of the reigning pluralism within medieval Muslim thought.

Nevertheless, the commemoration of Abraham’s sacrifice, updated each year by the sacrifice of animals, has become the “great feast” (al-‘îd al-kabîr) Muslims, celebrated on the 10th of Dhû l-Hijja, the month of the Pilgrimage. The Hajj, those who have accomplished it know well, is a test: repetition of the Last Judgment, he is dead to this world and resurrection.

Like the beast, the pilgrim is the sacrificial offering, whose ritual journey allows the Muslim community, and beyond that, humanity, to regenerate. If animal sacrifice retains all its relevance today, and if the sharing and gift of meat perpetuate the “sacred hospitality” of Abraham, it is important not to lose sight of the primary meaning of sacrifice: inner purification.

For those familiar with the Quran, the ambiguity of the divine discourse about Isaac and Ishmael is deliberate. It recalls that which hangs over the Koranic story of the crucifixion or non-crucifixion of Christ (3), who, according to Christians, sacrificed himself on the cross for the redemption of humanity.

Finally, the Koranic silence on the identity of the sacrificed – or sanctified – son, with regard to the current context, can be perceived as a source sometimes of rivalry and enmity, sometimes of closeness or even intimacy between Jews and Muslims. Wouldn’t it be by going beyond the ego, the true meaning of the Abrahamic sacrifice, that both sides will manage to restore an age-old harmony, undermined by recent political developments?


1. See Cor. 2:124.
2. See for example Exodus 13:2.
3. See Cor. 4:157.