Bilal Atkinson, UK
Editor, Christianity Section
The great Prophet Abraham (as) plays a prominent role as an example of faith in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He is known as the ‘father of religion’, as these three religions stemmed from him. His people were devoted to idolatry and he was commissioned by God to announce the reality and Unity of God and to preach to his people to abandon the worship of idols.
Although, his name was Abram, when he reached the age of ninety-nine years, the Bible records that God said to him, ‘I am God Almighty, walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm My covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.’ Abram fell face down, and God said to him. ‘As for me this is my covenant with you. You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram, your name will be Abraham, for I have made you father of many nations’…..(Genesis 17:1-5)
In Islam every celebration, every command has a purpose, a deep philosophy and benefit for the whole of mankind. Nothing is done as a ritual or just to fulfil a tradition or custom. The purpose of our life as described by the Holy Qur’an is to worship God and to achieve communion with Him. All teachings and practices of Islam are, therefore, directed towards achieving this object.
The Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha (Festival of Sacrifice) is no exception. In fact, it teaches us one of the most fundamental lessons in our struggle to achieve nearness to God, and that is, ‘Sacrifice is essential to meet God.’
It reminds us of the great sacrifice offered by Abraham (as) who lived over 4,000 years ago in the country now known as Iraq.
He married a lady called Sarah, but for many years they did not conceive any children.
Meanwhile, due to persecution by his own people and to spread his message of the Unity of God to others, Abraham (as), who by this time had reached the age of seventy-five years, was commanded by God to migrate. Together with a few selected followers, including his nephew Lot (as), he travelled through a number of countries including Iraq, Palestine and Egypt and worked hard to propagate the Unity of God. Whilst in Egypt he came to the notice of the King, who was duly impressed by Abraham (as) and the King offered him presents and also a royal lady by the name of Hagar to him.
Abraham (as) & Hagar (as)
The Holy Qur’an and the Bible are at variance with one another regarding the relationship between Abraham (as) and Hagar (as) and his subsequent progeny.
The Bible intimates that Hagar was Sarah’s servant (bondwoman)(Genesis16:1-2) and because Sarah was still childless she instructed Abraham (as) to sleep with her maidservant (Hagar), therefore, God forbid, making any progeny, illegitimate with no legal rights.
However, the next two verses of Genesis intimate a completely different relationship between Abraham (as) and Hagar:
‘Abram (Abraham) agreed to what Sarah said. So after Abraham (as) had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarah his wife took her Egyptian maidservant Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife.’
Some people out of ignorance or jealousy call Hagar (as) a concubine or in modern terminology, a mistress, but prophets of God, because of their purity and sinless lives never keep concubines. A prophet of God is also a Messenger of God who puts that message into practise. They are always guided by God and their lives are free of sin. They manifest God’s Holiness and they lead pure lives as examples for others to follow.
Ishmael & Isaac
Genesis 16:10-12 states.
‘And the angel of the Lord said unto her (Hagar), I will multiply thy seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude. And the angel of the Lord said unto her, Behold, thou art with child, and shall bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael; because the Lord hath heard thy affliction….’
The marriage resulted in the birth of Ishmael (as) when Abraham (as) was eighty-six years old (Genesis 16:10-11). Ishmael (as) became his first-born legitimate child and subsequent heir.
This was all in accordance with God’s design. The Unity of God demanded the unity of mankind one day and mankind and the world were in the process of slow and gradual development and evolution.
Naturally, Sarah was upset as she had been married to Abraham (as) for many years but had not conceived and the birth of Ishmael (as) brought about an element of jealousy between the two wives.
According to Genesis 21: 1-5
‘Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him…..Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.’
These verses confirm that Isaac (as) was born some 13-14 years after Ishmael (as) and was therefore, Abraham’s (as) second son.
Some evangelists have vainly tried to show that, “Ishmael being of the handmaid, was born after the flesh while Isaac being born of the free woman was by promise.” (Galatians 4:22-23). Apart from the fact that Hagar (as), Ishmael’s (as) mother, belonged to the royal family of Egypt and was no handmaid, Ishmael (as) has repeatedly been mentioned in the Bible as Abraham’s (as) son, exactly as Isaac (as) has been mentioned as his son. (Genesis16:6, 17:23-25) Moreover, analogous promises were made to Abraham (as) in regard to the future greatness of Ishmael (as) as were made to him about Isaac (as).
Abraham (as) Commanded to Leave His Wife and Son in a Barren Land
When Ishmael (as) was a year or two years old, God told Abraham (as) that the time of the sacrifice had arrived and that he should take Hagar (as) and their infant son to Arabia. Abraham (as) was directed to take them to a place where the city of Makkah is situated today. But at that time, the place was a desert, without any water, food or population. It was only populated by wild animals.
Abraham (as) brought them to the spot revealed to him by God. The only provision he could bring for them were a bag of dates and a ‘skin’ of water. He knew that leaving his wife and child in that desert was tantamount to certain destruction, but that was the sacrifice demanded of him by God.
Abraham (as) was a great prophet and his faith and loyalty to God were perfect. He knew nothing but complete obedience to the command of God. He, however, did not have the heart to reveal his intention to his wife that he had to leave them alone in the desert.
After bringing them to the revealed place, he started to walk away. But every so often he would stop and look back at his wife and child. When he did this a few times, Hagar (as) became suspicious and anxiously got up and came over to him. She asked him if he was leaving them behind. Abraham (as), who by this time was filled with emotion, was unable to speak. Tears rolled down his cheeks and he turned his face away from her.
Hagar (as) was now convinced that he was leaving them behind. She thought for a moment and realised that, after all, Abraham (as) was a prophet of God and would not do such a thing of his own accord. So she asked him if he was leaving them in the desert on the command of God. He nodded but couldn’t speak again. When she saw that, she told him that God would not forsake them and that he could certainly leave them alone.
This is the great sacrifice God had demanded of Hazrat Abraham (as) as the likelihood would apparently seem to be that his young son would die a slow tortuous death over a period of days due to hunger and thirst.
This demonstrates the depth of Abraham’s (as) faith and the faith of Hagar (as) in their unshakeable belief in the existence and powers of Allah.
In worldly eyes, there were no means of survival, but Abraham (as) and Hagar (as) had complete faith in the powers of their Creator. Abraham (as) was not asked to sacrifice his time, wealth or his energy or even his own life. He was commanded by Allah to sacrifice his young son and he obediently complied.
After a few days, the water ran out and the child started to cry due to thirst. Hagar (as) became very anxious and perturbed. She ran around, here and there to look for water. There were two small hills nearby (Safa & Marwah). She ran to the top of one and then the other in order to search the area for any trace of water. In her anxiety she ran seven times from one hill to the other and she also cried and prayed to Allah.
After the seventh time, she heard a voice. It was a revelation from God. She was told to go back to the child and that water would be provided. She ran back to Ishmael and saw that a spring of water had emerged from where the child was kicking with his heels. She thanked God and named the spring Zam Zam (Song of happiness). This spring of water is providing water even today and near to the Ka’ba.
The Sacrifice of a Son
Genesis 22:1-2 states – ‘Sometime later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”:
“Here I am,” he replied. Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”
As Hazrat Ishmael (as) grew older, the Holy Qur’an 37:103 states –
‘And when he was old enough to work with him, he said, “O my dear son, I have seen in a dream that I am slaughtering thee. So consider what thou thinkest of it!’ He replied, ‘O my father, do as thou art commanded, thou wilt find me, if Allah please, of those who are patient.’
The Holy Qur’an and the Bible disagree as to which of his two sons – Ishmael (as) and Isaac (as) – Abraham, in pursuance of God’s command, offered for sacrifice. The Qur’an says that it was Ishmael (as), but, according to the Bible, it was Isaac (as), The Bible, speaking of the sacrifice says, ‘And he said, ‘Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac and get there to the land of Moriah, and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I tell thee of.”
The Qur’an, on the other hand, declares clearly and unequivocally, that it was Ishmael (as) who was offered for sacrifice. The Bible, however, contradicts itself in this respect. According to it, Abraham (as) was commanded to offer his only son for sacrifice, but Isaac (as) was at no time his only son. As stated earlier, Ishmael (as) was born to Abraham (as) when he was 86 years old while Isaac (as) was born to him when he had reached the advanced age of 99 years. Thus for 13 years Ishmael was Abraham’s only son, and being also his first born, was doubly dear to him, It stands to reason, therefore, that Abraham (as) must have been required by God to offer for sacrifice his nearest and dearest thing which was his only and first-born son, who was Ishmael (as).
Apart from the substitution in the Bible of Isaac (as) for Ishmael (as) which seems to be deliberate, and of Moriah for Marwah, an hillock which lies in the vicinity of Makkah near which Abraham (as), in fulfilment of a vision, left Ishmael (as) with his mother while yet a child, there is nothing in the Bible to lend the slightest support to the view that Abraham (as) offered Isaac (as) for sacrificed and not Ishmael (as). Whereas no trace is to be found in the religious ceremonies of Jews and Christians of the supposed sacrifice of Isaac (as) by Abraham (as), Muslims, who are the spiritual descendants of Ishmael (as), commemorate his intended sacrifice by slaughtering every year animals such as rams and goats all over the world on the tenth day of Dhu’l-Hijjah. 
The Holy Qur’an agrees with the Bible that Abraham (as) was told in a dream to sacrifice his only son. Dreams require interpretation, and this dream meant that one day, Abraham (as) would be asked to offer the sacrifice of his son.
The true meaning and reality of the dream was not that he should sacrifice his son in the manner in which he had seen himself doing, but that both he and his son should be ready and willing to make a great sacrifice to win the pleasure of God.
It was only a practical demonstration of Abraham’s (as) intention and preparedness to sacrifice his son that was asked of him. He truly was prepared to submit to the will of God even though it meant the loss of his only beloved child. His trust in God was absolute.
Abraham (as) returned to the vicinity of Makkah after a few years and he was commanded to build, with the help of his son, a house for the worship of God. A verse revealed in the Holy Qur’an states:
‘And remember the time when Abraham and Ishmael raised the foundations of the House, praying, ‘Our Lord, accept this from us; for Thou art All-Hearing, All-Knowing. Our Lord, make us submissive to Thee and make of our offspring a people submissive to Thee. And show us our ways of worship and turn to us with mercy; for Thou art Oft Returning with compassion and Merciful. And, our Lord, raise up among them a Messenger from among themselves, who may recite to them Thy Signs and teach them the Book and Wisdom and may purify them; surely, Thou art the Mighty, the Wise.’ (2:128-130)
The Holy Qur’an tells us that this was the place where the first house (Ka’bah) in the world, solely for the worship of Allah was built. It is believed that the prophet Adam (as) first raised a structure on the site. For some reason it was destroyed and the honour was reserved for Abraham (as) and his son Hazrat Ishmaelasto discover and re-build this House of God that is now called the Ka’ba. The Ka’ba thus became a place of pilgrimage and respect for the Arabs, even before the advent of Islam. They celebrated the sacrifice of Abraham and his son and visited the place once a year. Slowly however, the Arabs started to use the Ka’ba as a place to worship idols.
At the time of the advent of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa) the fulfilment of the prayer by Abraham (as) for God to raise a great prophet within the progeny of Ishmael (as) materialised. With the advent of Islam, the Ka’ba was cleared of all idols, but the pilgrimage to Mecca was continued and became one of the pillars of the religion of Islam.
Commemorating Abraham’s (as) Sacrifice
On the day of Eid al-Adha Muslims commemorate the great sacrifice of Abraham (as) and commit themselves to follow in his footsteps. Abraham (as) did not hesitate for one moment to offer a magnificent sacrifice in the way of Allah.
It was a shining example of obedience, devotion and sincerity. Above all it showed that God came first before anything else in Abraham’s (as) life; he was prepared to sacrifice his only son in the way of Allah.
God, in return, handsomely rewarded and accepted this sacrifice. He not only saved the family, but promised Abraham (as) that, for the sacrifice of his child, He would ensure that his progeny would grow into great nations and that they would also include some of the great prophets of this world
Today we are witness to the fulfilment of these favours of God. The great religions of the world, i.e., Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all proud to belong to the progeny of Abraham.
The Philosophy of Sacrifice
The sacrifice itself is also not forgotten. Islam makes it obligatory that, circumstances permitting, every Muslim should perform pilgrimage once during their lifetime and offer the sacrifice of an animal. On an annual basis, the sacrifice of an animal is obligatory on every Muslim who can afford it. But we must understand the motive and the spirit behind this sacrifice to make it fruitful.
The Holy Qur’an teaches us that though the act of sacrifice of animals is important and that this ritual must be respected and observed with care and attention, it also tells us that:
‘Their flesh reaches not Allah, nor does their blood, but it is your righteousness that reaches Him.’ (38:22)
According to Islamic teaching, God never required any people, ever to offer human sacrifice. People in the past, as the Bible tells us, did offer human sacrifices, but they were not divine orders from God, they were human inventions.
The Holy Qur’an teaches that only those sacrifices are acceptable to Allah that are performed with a willing heart, purely for the sake of Allah, and without any element of vain display or pride. They should not be contaminated with any desire for worldly gains or glories.
The sacrifice of the animals should therefore be only an expression of our will, that we are ready to lay down our own lives for the sake of Allah. We should be sincere in our declaration and determination, that everything we possess – our lives, energies, wealth, desires and ambitions – are secondary and ready for sacrifice to the will of Allah. This is what the sacrifice of the animals and the celebration of Eid al-Adha is all about. Muslims declare that they appreciate and recognise the great sacrifice of Abraham (as) and in a similar fashion, they are willing to do the same.
About the author: Bilal Atkinson is Editor of the Christianity Section of The Review of Religions. He is a retired police officer having served in forensics of scenes of crime for over two decades. He is also serving as President of the Hartlepool Chapter of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community UK.
- Commentary of Holy Qur’an Chapter 37 verse 103 edited by Malik Ghulam Farid – Islam International Publications Ltd
Biblical references taken from the New International Version published by Hodder& Stoughton Ltd. 1986
Holy Qur’an references unless otherwise stated taken from The Holy Qur’an translated by Maulawi Sher Ali 2004 Islam International publications Ltd.