The Essence of Sacrifice in Islam

In Islamic tradition, the consciousness of God is referred to as taqwa, and it is considered to be the most central ethical concept of the Qur’an, occurring over 250 times in different forms.

In Islamic tradition, the consciousness of God is referred to as taqwa, and it is considered to be the most central ethical concept of the Qur’an, occurring over 250 times in different forms.

Celebrated mostly on the day of Eid Al Adha as part of one of the core concepts of Islam, Muslims around the world commemorate the tradition of Hazrat Ibrahim (as), who is known for his devotion and sacrifice in all Abrahamic religions.

When believers read about the trials and tribulations that Prophet Ibrahim (as) faced, they are often left amazed and sometimes find it difficult to make sense of it. From experiencing the wrath of the powers of his time for propagating monotheistic ideas to being childless for a good part of his life to leaving his homeland for Allah’s cause, Prophet Ibrahim (as) established for all people to come that the pleasure lies only in seeking and fulfilling the Divine Will.

It is for this reason the Holy Qur’an mentions him as an exemplary human being and asks believers to walk in his footsteps:

Abraham was truly an example: devoutly obedient to God and true in faith. He was not an idolater; (he was) grateful for God’s favours who chose him and guided him towards the straight path. And We gave him good in this world, and he will be, in the hereafter, among the righteous. Then We revealed to you (O Muhammad), follow the creed of Abraham, a man of true faith who was not an idolater” (Quran, 16:120-23).

Despite all his trials, within Muslim communities, he is most known for his readiness to sacrifice his beloved son, Ishmael, for the sake of attaining the pleasure of Allah. In our times, the idea that any person or group would willingly sacrifice their own children to their God is so contrary to modern moral sensibilities that it is almost impossible for us to even imagine such an act.

But Dr. Heath D. Dewrell, in his book ‘Child Sacrifice in Ancient Israel’, indicates that there were different types of rituals among the ancient Israelites that required such a sacrifice. However, by the time of the Bible – scripture revealed to Prophet Isa (as) – these rites had fallen out of favour. 

Within the Islamic scripture, it is mentioned that “when (Abraham’s) son reached an age of working with his father, Abraham said: O my son, I have seen myself sacrificing you in a vision. So, what do you think? He said: Father, do as you have been commanded and God willing, you will find me steadfast” (Quran, 37:102).

When Prophet Ibrahim (as) was almost near his act, the Divine intervened and ransomed his son with a momentous sacrifice and as a reward left for him among generations to come salutations from the believers. It was a clear trial from God and Prophet Ibrahim (as) had succeeded in fulfilling the vision (Quran, 37:103-09). His submission and good deeds earned him the status of a friend of Allah (Quran, 4:125). 

The submission and sacrifice of Prophet Ibrahim (as) was adored so much by the Almighty that our beloved Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) was asked to observe this as an annual festival. For over fourteen centuries, Muslims in all corners of the world have been commemorating this day with great fervour.

At this point, it is important for us to remember that “the sacrificial animals are among the symbols from Allah” (Quran, 22:36). The act of sacrificing an animal is not the goal in itself but means of attaining the pleasure of Allah. A local word often used in our culture is ‘Qurbani’, which comes from ‘qurb’ and denotes the meaning ‘ways of attaining the closeness to Allah’. And the best way of attaining the Divine pleasure and nearness is to have the ‘mindfulness’ (taqwa) while undertaking the act of sacrifice.

In Islamic tradition, the consciousness of God is referred to as taqwa, and it is considered to be the most central ethical concept of the Qur’an, occurring over 250 times in different forms. Pious, virtuous, righteous, God-fearing, God-wariness, etc. have all been used to define this concept. It is this very consciousness of the Almighty that unites all believers in their devotion and prayer. It is the constant feeling of the presence of God within that a believer finds his source of morality. It is taqwa that pushes a believer towards righteousness. And it is this cognizance of the Most Merciful that becomes a source of comfort in times of need.

Taqwa has been regarded as the best garment one can wear (Quran, 7:26), and it is the primary principle based on which nobility is appointed near Allah. The Qur’an, addressing all humankind, says: “We created you male and female and We made you [diverse] people and tribes so that you may come to know one another. Indeed, the noblest among you in the sight of Allah is the most mindful…” (Quran, 49:13).             

The Holy Qur’an beautifully ties this notion of taqwa with sacrifice. The story of Adam’s two sons depicts that although both had offered a sacrifice, it was accepted from one and not the other because God only accepts the sacrifice of those who are mindful of Him (Quran, 5:27). Hence whenever we honour the symbols of Allah, it should only be out of the piety of our hearts (Quran, 22:32).

Another notion closely tied to the concept of sacrifice is the notion of charity. We have been guided to look after those ‘who do not ask’ and also those ‘who do’ (Quran, 22:36). It is by sharing our blessings and favours with our fellow believers that we begin our festivities. One can always keep all their blessings to them but what good does it bring if they are not used to help and bring a smile on the faces of our fellow human beings?

The notion of charity becomes even more important in times of uncertainty. Humanity, at this point, is going through a difficult phase where we have been reminded of our finitude. Many amongst us have lost their loved ones and livelihoods. Those who have been fortunate enough to not be affected by it either financially or health-wise, have found themselves struggling in other ways. During this difficult period, any support that we can extend to our fellow humans would go a long way in bringing peace and solace in their lives.

When we speak of sacrifice, we can think of other ‘symbols from Allah’ that are much needed during this pandemic to extend support to others. Hopefully, with Divine Grace, when we will come out of this global situation, the world as we knew may not exist. Some of us, being privileged enough, will have the right skills and capacities to adjust in the new world but many would struggle, not because of any innate deficiencies, but due to lack of favourable conditions. It is in this regard that we should deliberate and find ways to support each other. In addition to our material support, dedicating our time and knowledge for the betterment of others will make a considerable difference.  

With every Eid and with every day, let us revisit the essence of sacrifice and explore ways with which we can please the Almighty. And remember the beautiful words of a 13th-century Iranian poet, Saadi Shirazi:

All human beings are members of one frame,
Since all, at first, from the same essence came.

When time afflicts a limb with pain,
the other limbs at rest cannot remain.

If thou feel not for other’s misery,
a human being is no name for thee.