Illustration via Wikimedia User Евгений Ардаев
Last weekend Muslims around the world observed Eid al-Adha, which celebrates the conclusion of the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. As with so many religious holidays, there are parties, reunions with family, renewals of community bonds, and stories that can give us pause if we spend too much time with them.
Non-Muslims might find it surprising that the central historical figure in both Eid al-Adha and the hajj itself is not Muhammad, but rather Abraham. In hajj, pilgrims perform rituals at sites associated with Abraham and his family. We run between the hills of Safa and Marwa in imitation of Hajar, mother of Abraham’s son Ishmael, as she searched for water in the desert. We circumambulate the Ka’ba, which Muslims believe had first been constructed by Abraham and Ishmael. We also reenact Abraham’s rejection of the devil. When I performed hajj in 2008, it was the devil part that gave me the most struggle. Throwing pebbles at three walls that signified the devil, we dramatized three instances in which Abraham shot down the devil’s efforts to tempt him away from obeying God’s command. The command was for Abraham to kill his son.
The Qur’an does not name the son marked for sacrifice, but Muslim interpretive tradition has favored Ishmael, rather than Isaac, the intended sacrifice in the biblical version. For Ishmael to be the sacrifice ties the rites of hajj together, doubling the miracle of Ishmael’s life. Ishmael was first saved when God commanded Abraham to cast him and his mother into the desert, presumably to die. However, the well of Zamzam in the desert bubbled up with water and saved them from dying of thirst. Ishmael’s second rescue came when God stopped Abraham from slaughtering him at the last second, providing an animal to be sacrificed instead.
We retell the story of Abraham nearly slaughtering his son to celebrate his unflinching faith in God. We also honor Ishmael, who apparently accepted his role and complied with the order. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice what he cherished most in this world becomes a gauge by which we measure our own attachments and whether we could give them up if God asked us to. Abraham picking up the knife represents a victory over the ego that only prophets and the prophet-like might achieve.
However, there are other ways of reading the story, depending on the personal baggage that we bring to it as readers. Abraham’s sacrifice is challenging for me, because like Abraham, my father believed that he received communications from supernatural beings. Like Abraham having sex with his slave, my father conceived his son in a relationship defined by power and violence. Like Abraham, my father was told by the voices to subject his child’s mother to abuse and abandonment, and he complied. And like Abraham, my father believed he was ordered to put a knife to his son’s throat.
In my reimagining of the story, Abraham and his reported selflessness no longer occupy the center. Instead, I give my energy to reflecting upon Hajar the slave, her son born from rape, and their lives traumatized by God’s loyalty tests. During my pilgrimage to Mecca, I felt a more intuitive connection to sa’ee, our retracing of Hajar’s steps as she desperately searched for water to save her child, than jamrat, our imitation of Abraham stoning the devil. Abraham was given an unbearably hard choice. Hajar and Ishmael did not have choices. In Abraham’s divine trial, they were choices, and the wrong ones.
Among folks who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” I have heard it said that God is love. The Abraham story burns this down. God is not love. God is obedience. To claim love against obedience is a mere trick of the ego and the mischief of this world, another false idol that needs to be smashed. Abraham’s love for his child is what stands between him and perfect submission to his lord. Hajar’s love for her child’s life or her own stands between her and surrender to the divine chain of command: God, a man, a woman and child. We love each other for God’s sake alone, and God’s love is established by the fact that after this tortured family performed sufficient obedience, God allowed the child to live.
For those of us who care about locating or fabricating gender equality in our traditions, this narrative might be a problem—and not even because the patriarch is the only real agent in the story. Abraham’s willingness to slit his son’s throat tells us that a transcendent authority must be obeyed even when we are horrified by what it commands. Many of us reenact Abraham’s struggle when we attempt to negotiate with our traditions. Because we are human, our ideas about things like love, justice, and ethics are necessarily subjective and contextual. Against these flawed human constructions, some religious intellectuals would present the revealed word of God as universal and absolute, to be recognized and obeyed without question or challenge. This is where we repeat the story. We are commanded to always obey the divine words, even when they say the wrong things, even when they deny whatever we understand to be merciful and just.
Islam is a big tradition in which we can find plenty of interpretive escape hatches—both premodern and modern—from the problems of the words. I will always be disturbed by the story of God telling a father to put the blade to his child, and the failure of my own ego is that I will always read this story as the abused son of an abused woman. My life as a Muslim, however, is not reducible to my sitting alone with the Qur’an in my house, trying to reconcile textual content to my personal needs. Beyond what the book might say, I experience Islam in a Muslim family and in relation to Muslim communities. In this context, the Abraham story doesn’t go away, but its meaning can move beyond what I find on the page.
In Mecca, I achieved some peace with Abraham not through acts of reinterpretation, but through walking as a pilgrim among my sisters and brothers, throwing the stones as a performance of love. Pop-atheist types who flip through the Qur’an or Bible and point at Abraham’s sacrifice to prove that religion is inescapably oppressive have missed the way that traditions actually work in the world. Traditions are not driven simply by “what the book says,” but everything in the real world with which our books must interact and negotiate.
This means that the Abraham story is only partly about a father agreeing to murder his son for God. It’s also about sparkly clothes, joyous congregational prayers, big family dinners, and performing the uncle/auntie-function of handing out Eidi money to children. At the root of these celebrations lies a possible darkness, but if I located meaning entirely in the origins, I would be terrified by my own skin.