Yesterday marked Eid ul-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice, for Muslims all over the world. The other Eid (Eid al-Fitr, or the Feast of Fast-Breaking) marks the end of Ramadan. This one both commemorates one part of the story of Abraham, called Ibrahim in Arabic, and wraps up the many rituals of Hajj.
The Quranic story varies somewhat from the Biblical one, most notably in terms of which son it is and in the amount of detail provided, but the gist is the same. In the Old Testament, the son whom Abraham offers to Yahweh for sacrifice is Isaac (Ishaq in Arabic), the son who just happens to be the progenitor of the Jews, while in the Quran, it’s Ismail (Ishmael in English) who is offered, the son coincidentally said to be the father of the Arabs.
The story begins with Ibrahim dreaming that Allah is telling him to offer up his son in sacrifice. The dream repeats to the point where Ibrahim thinks it is a command from Allah. He asks his son if he’s willing to be sacrificed and Ismail agrees. Along the way to the spot where he is supposed to slit his only son’s throat, Ibrahim is tempted three times by Shaitan (Satan) to disobey Allah’s dream-given command. At each point, Ibrahim throws small stones at Shaitan to make him go away. When he finally gets to the spot where his dream had told him to slit his son’s throat, he ties down his son and blindfolds himself, both at his son’s behest. Just before the knife manages to touch his son’s throat, an angel comes down and replaces Ismail with a ram. The angel tells Ibrahim that he has passed Allah’s test of faith.
Today, Muslims performing Hajj symbolically stone three pillars at the spots where Ibrahim was allegedly tempted by the Devil to disobey his god by not slitting his son’s throat. All Muslims who can afford to do it, whether performing Hajj that year or not, sacrifice a sheep or goat (or other halal animal if a sheep or goat is unavailable) to celebrate Ibrahim’s sacrifice. The story is taught to children as a lesson in obedience to one’s parents and to Allah.
All this leaves me skeeved out, to say the least. I wonder what sort of folks justify this sort of story, teach it to their children, commemorate and celebrate it, defend it to those who look at it in horror. Then, I remember.
I was exactly that sort of person. The story was a big part of my day on Eid and I participated very enthusiastically in the rituals. Before I started doubting my faith, I had used a knife to slaughter at least three cows and two goats with my own hands (as soon as even the faintest doubts entered my head, I found myself unable do it anymore). There is even a picture of me wearing hijab and holding up a severed goat’s head. Theologically speaking, I would defend the story’s cruelty to others, saying that it was just a test of faith, that not a hair on Ismail’s head was ultimately harmed, that Ibrahim was later blessed with another son for his loyalty to Allah, that Allah knows best, that life is difficult and this was the difficulty Ibrahim had to face to prove his strength of his conviction and character as a prophet and friend of Allah.
Would I have ever taken a knife to my baby brother’s throat because I had dreamt that my god had told me to do so? No. I would have felt sick to my stomach and prayed to Allah to keep evil dreams from my sleep. If the dreams had repeated, I would have asked my mother to take me straight to a mental health facility and wept the entire way, frightened and upset that my obviously unwell mind was turning me against the brother I so loved and cherished.
On the flip side, I’m sure that if Ibrahim did exist, he would have found whatever excuse, be it his deity or another, for the delusions and dreams that led him to nearly murder his son. It’s sick that a holiday is built around such a person, but thankfully, as with many other holidays predicated on gruesome stories, there’s a lot to it that has nothing to do with its origins, especially since many Muslims aren’t as painfully aware of the tale as I am. Each year, I remind myself to take a leaf from their book and focus on family, friends, and food.