Reflecting on Lessons from Abraham’s Sacrifice

In dealing with Idul Adha — literally, a feast of sacrifice — celebrated among Muslims worldwide this week, let’s reflect on a number of questions that often appear at this time of year. 

First, some questions, can Muslims replace meat, to be distributed to the poor, with money? This question has emerged in recent years given reports of the poor reselling their meat for more important needs. Apparently too many animals were slaughtered. But the notion of replacing the meat with money is rejected by many as it would neglect the ritual dimension of symbolizing the story of Abraham, whose son was immediately replaced by a goat when he was ready to sacrifice Ismail at the request of God. Replacing the meat with money has no precedence in the Muslim tradition and may be against the textual stipulations concerning the feast of sacrifice.

The varying opinions mainly concern which kinds of animal are to be sacrificed. The majority says that they must be either goat, sheep, cow, buffalo, camel, or those in the category of sacrificial cattle. A minority says any animals that are halal are sufficient — which has precedence in Islamic history. Ibn Abbas, for example, was reported to have sacrificed chicken. What matters for the latter opinion is the sacrifice itself, not the kind of animal, which is performed by shedding blood.

Further, what matters is the spiritual aim of the sacrifice, which is to be closer to God. Idul Adha is also Eid al-Qurban, and qurban means closeness to God. One text in the Koran says, “Their meat will not reach God, nor will their blood; what reaches Him is piety from you”.

So combining these considerations of the spiritual aim of sacrifice (closeness to God and piety) and of fulfilling the necessities of the needy, sacrificing money is worth taking into account in today’s context. 

However, figures such as Kyai Mustafa Ya’qub, a leading Muslim scholar of Nahdlatul Ulama and the imam of Istiqlal Mosque, Jakarta, have argued that the value of qurban, regarding its historical significance, religious meaning and rewards from God, cannot be replaced by cash alms, “which can be done throughout the year”.

Another lively subject of discourse is often which son Abraham was commanded to sacrifice: Isaac or Ismail? 

While the Old Testament states clearly that it was Isaac (Genesis 22:2), the Koran leaves him nameless — it only mentions the son to be sacrificed is ghulam halim (a forebearing boy). It implies that the Koran is more concerned by the moral lesson of the story, not the boy’s identity. 

And if we trace the classical interpretations we would find that both opinions have been contended by early Muslim scholars. These two opinions are acknowledged as legitimate even in the slimmest classical book of Koranic interpretation (for example in Tafsir al-Jalalain, Chapter 37, verse 101).

Maybe the differences have had something to do with asserting identity: If Christians say that it was Isaac (recorded in the Bible long before the advent of Islam), Muslims should say differently that the son to be sacrificed was Ismail.

But let’s remember the typical curt remark of the late cleric and president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid: Whatever you say about who was to be sacrificed, the story was that the boy was not slaughtered; he was replaced with a sheep. So why debate something which did not happen? 

Last, there is a worthy lesson in the story of Abraham’s faith being tested so that he must sacrifice his most beloved possession: his son. Abraham said, “Oh my son, indeed I have seen in a dream that I [must] sacrifice you, so what do you think?”

The Koranic version of the story shows how Abraham, despite feeling that it was a command from God through a dream, was taking into account his son’s view. Hopefully there can be a lesson here — that those struggling for formalization of sharia should consider the views of people to whom that sharia will be applied.

~ published in the Jakarta Post, 23/09/2015

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