As this issue of Crescent International goes to press, some two million Muslims are gathered to perform the Hajj, and the entire Ummah is preparing to mark Eid al-Adha. ZAFAR BANGASH, Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought, discusses the true meaning of sacrifice.
Every year about two million Muslims perform the Hajj in conformity with the commands of Allah in the Qur’an (2:196-197). The overwhelming majority of the Ummah–some 1.4 billion today–celebrates Eid al-Adha, the second of the two festivals celebrated by Muslims each year. Both the Hajj and Eid al-Adha commemorate the struggle and sacrifices of not one but two great Prophets of Allah, father and son, Ibrahim and Isma’il, upon them both be peace. While Hajj can be performed only by going to Makkah (specifically, by being present at Arafat on the ninth of Dhul Hijjah), Eid al-Adha can be celebrated wherever a Muslim is on the tenth of the month. The day of Eid starts with congregational salah in the morning, followed by sacrificing a lamb, in the pattern of the Sunnah of Ibrahim (as).
Most Muslims, however, have turned this supreme act of sacrifice into a ritual devoid of significance, either spiritual or physical. During this Eid celebration, it would be worthwhile to remind ourselves of what the true meaning of sacrifice is, especially when Allah has bestowed this great honour upon us by giving us an opportunity to walk in the footsteps of His noble Prophets. In the glorious Qur’an, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala reminds us that "It is not the meat nor blood [of the sacrificial animals] that reaches Allah; it is your taqwa [obedience to Allah, fear or awe of Him] that reaches Him" (22:37).
We need to understand the deeper meaning of sacrifice. It is not simply a matter of sacrificing a lamb or two and distributing the meat among the needy and poor, although this is part of the purpose; real sacrifice is that an individual feels pain and grief because of giving up something precious. Ibrahim (as) was commanded by Allah to sacrifice his son Isma’il, and he was willing to do so. We need to bear in mind that this son was born to him when he had reached the ripe age of 90. It is not as if Ibrahim (as) had not made numerous sacrifices already. He had faced a social boycott by the community in which he lived because he challenged their jahili practice of idol-worship. Even his parents condemned him for deviating from the religion that had been practised for generations. For his "insolence" and rebelliousness, Nimrod, the tyrannical ruler, threw him into the fire, but Allah (swt) turned that fire into "coolness and peace" (21:69) for him.
Faced by the hostility of his community and abandoned by his mushrik parents, he was forced into exile, together with his wife and a handful of followers. Wandering through many lands, he finally settled, probably in what has since become known as al-Khalil (in present-day Palestine). It was there that Allah blessed him with a son, Isma’il, from his second wife, Hajar. His trials and tribulations, however, were not yet done. Allah put him through another test by commanding him to leave his wife and their infant son in the desolate, barren valley of Makkah. Unlike today’s bustling city, not to mention the presence of the Ka’aba that attracts millions of people every year, there was neither vegetation nor habitation in Makkah at that time. It was as stark and barren as can be, like the rocks of Mina today. In fulfilling Allah’s command, Ibrahim (as) left his family in that desolate place. Human logic suggests that they would have perished because of thirst, but by Allah’s intervention a spring gushed forth in that barren soil to save both. Every pilgrim witnesses the miracle of the well of Zamzam, whose water quenches the thirst of millions of pilgrims every year without ever going dry. There was, however, one more test awaiting them even after being saved from certain death in the barren land between the hills of Safa and Marwa.
The sacrifices and tests endured by Ibrahim (as) would be enough for one person in his entire lifetime, but Allah wanted to test Ibrahim Khalilullah ("friend of Allah") one last time: the demand to sacrifice his son. Neither Ibrahim (as) nor his son flinched even in this final test; they both submitted willingly to Allah. Theirs is a lesson in true obedience and submission, but Allah then bestowed this great honour on them that He made their example an occasion to be marked by millions of people every year. Two million Muslims perform the Hajj by going to Makkah, in answer to the prayer of Ibrahim (as), standing at Maqam-e Ibrahim (the Place of Ibrahim in the Masjid al-Haram); hundreds of millions of other Muslims sacrifice animals in memory of the ram that Allah substituted for Isma’il (as) once both father and son had passed their test.
We also need to appreciate the struggle of Ibrahim (as) at another, much higher level. True, he was a Prophet of Allah–a very noble one indeed–and we are not Prophets, but all Prophets and their life-struggles are examples for us to emulate. Allah commands us to follow in their footsteps, especially on an occasion like this when we are reliving the example of Ibrahim and Isma’il (as). It is imperative that we analyse the nature of their struggle (especially that of Ibrahim as) in order to understand its deeper meaning. From early his days, Ibrahim (as) encountered dramatic, often violent challenges and opposition; he had to take on both the community in which he lived and the powers of the time. It also meant that he had to part from his own parents, who insisted on clinging to a life of jahiliyya. But from the Islamic point of view life is full of such challenges.
In the Qur’an Allah reminds us: "Do people think that they would be left alone by simply saying ‘We believe [in Allah],’ and they will not be tested? We did test those before them, and Allah will certainly know those who are true [in their commitment to Allah] and those who are false" (29:2-3). Trials and tribulations are part of the struggle of life for a truly committed Muslim; even Prophets were not exempt from these tests. An episode from the life of Prophet Muhammad (saw) in Makkah highlights this point. One day, while a group of Muslims were standing near the Ka’aba, Khabbab ibn al-Arat (ra), one of the Companions, complained to the Prophet, asking when their suffering would end. The Prophet is reported to have become visibly angry and chided Khabbab (ra), telling him, "People before you were tested far more severely. There were those who had their heads cut open with saws yet they remained steadfast in their iman. How can you complain about the oppression inflicted on you in Makkah?"
Today Muslims often complain about the oppression to which they are subjected worldwide. Muslims are suffering in Chechnya, Palestine, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Iraq and many other places, including the West; there seems to be no let-up in our persecution. This is all true, but how we respond to these challenges will determine our status in this life as well as in the Hereafter. If we open our minds and reflect a little more deeply about what is happening, we will find striking parallels between our current plight and the challenges faced by Ibrahim (as) in his local environment in Ur (in present-day Iraq).
Never before in the history of Islam have events coalesced to present such striking similarities with the experiences of Ibrahim (as). Even the locales are the same: Iraq, Palestine and Mina (outside Makkah). As Ibrahim (as) was thrown into the fire by Nimrod, so Muslims are facing the fire of the present-day Nimrod, both on the ground and from the air, in Iraq and Afghanistan (in particular). What is missing is the willingness of Muslims today to take the plunge, by making sacrifices and enduring hardships. This is the kind of action required of us if we are to become worthy of Allah’s grace and mercy. The history of the prophets (especially Ibrahim and Isma’il as) shows that Allah intervenes directly in those situations when the odds are so heavily stacked against His faithful servants that human potentiality gives up. This has been demonstrated by the example of many great prophets from Nuh, Ibrahim and Musa (as), to the last and final messenger, Muhammad (saw). Had it not been for Allah’s direct intervention, the sea would not have parted for Musa (as) and Bani Israel; at the Battle of Badr Allah helped the nascent Muslim community against overwhelming odds and enabled them to establish the deen firmly in Madinah and beyond. We Muslims today need to cultivate the attitude of Daud (as) when he confronted Jalut (Goliath); everyone else advanced the excuse that they could not fight Jalut because he was too big, but Daud (as) said that he was too big to miss! It is this attitude that most of us today lack.
We have witnessed such examples in contemporary history as well: the Afghans against the Soviet invaders, the Hizbullah in Lebanon, and now the fighters of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine confronting the zionists. In fact the people of Iraq are once again reliving the memory of numerous noble Prophets to confront taghut and kufr once again. What we Muslims need to bear in mind is that, in any situation, it is not physical disparity but a test of wills and commitment that ultimately proves the decisive factor.
After Ibrahim (as) had successfully completed all the tests that Allah (swt) saw fit to put him through, Allah gave him the glad tidings that he would be made the Imam (leader) of all mankind (2:124). This leadership is also available to us, the contemporary Muslims, provided that we are prepared to plunge into the fire and are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice of our most precious belongings. It is this willingness in Allah’s cause (fi sabeel-Allah) that is required to make us, the Muslims of today, worthy of mankind’s leadership. Without such commitment, we reduce ourselves to the same level as the kuffar, and the contest is reduced to a competition between material goods and other worldly resources. In such a contest we cannot win because the kuffar outstrip us in weapons and materials. Nor, even if we could win that contest, would such a victory be sufficient for the purposes and priorities of the deen.
The choice is clear: we either commit ourselves utterly to Allah and prepare ourselves to make the kinds of sacrifice that were required of Ibrahim (as) and the other anbiya’, or we rely solely on material resources and sink to the level of the kuffar. It is for us to decide our choice for ourselves; no one else can choose for us, or help us to choose. We at Crescent International and ICIT hope that we and Muslims all over the world will make the right, best choice, this Eid and always.