BY: USTADH UBAYDULLAH EVANS
ALIM Core Scholar and ALIM's First Scholar-in-Residence
The greatest liability of a good story is familiarity. Even the best stories are rendered a little less stirring with the passage of time and frequent repetition. Hakim Archuletta, a traditionally trained Islamic healer and homeopathy specialist, once described a good story as following life’s natural rhythm of contraction (qabḍ) and expansion (baṣṭ). The experience of listening intently, being wound up bit by bit, the tension (contraction) growing with the suspense, only to find relief (expansion) in the resolution is what holds our attention when listening to stories. As such, when suspense is lacking—because the outcome of the story is known—being present requires more intentionality. I’ve been told that the wheat is separated from the chaff among actors by a performer’s ability to completely act as if the story is unfolding before their character in real-time, in spite of their knowing the entire script.
On Eid-Aḍḥā, we commemorate the willingness of Prophets Abraham and Ishmael (upon them be peace) to make the ultimate sacrifice in obedience to God. Yes, we know how the story ends, mashallah. However, by emotionally investing in the narrative and trying—as much as humanly possible—to go to a place where the resolution of the story hangs in the balance, we’re able to glean new insights and perspectives.
Abraham (upon him be peace) had a premonition in which he thought he took the life of his own son. Allow yourself to fully absorb the morbidity of that notion. Morally enriching what we find in scripture is essential. Take for instance, the following verses:
“And kill them wherever you overtake them and expel them from wherever they have expelled you, and tumult and oppression are worse than killing. And do not fight them at the Masjid al-Haram until they fight you there. But if they fight you, then kill them. Such is the recompense of the disbelievers.” [2:191]
“When the Inviolable Months have passed, kill the polytheists wherever you find them. Seize them, besiege them, and wait for them at every place of observation. If they repent, observe prayer, and pay the obligatory alms then let them go their way. Allah is forgiving, merciful. [9:5]
They can either be read as proof that Islam sacralizes violence and is inherently incompatible with ideals of pluralism, tolerance, and conviviality or read as a limited set of directives for multilateral combat against a belligerent enemy. When teaching students to read the verses with the latter understanding our hope is that the moral enrichment of scripture becomes a part of their Islamic subjectivity. However, in the case of the story of Abraham and Ishmael (upon them be peace) the tendency to morally enrich the text can devolve into sanitizing the text, scrubbing it of feeling and real human emotion: “Abraham, the Prophet of God, had great knowledge of God. Therefore such a premonition wouldn’t have disturbed him. God wouldn’t torment someone by showing them a vision in which they slaughtered their own child. God is Merciful.” No. The story can only be appreciated when we realize that the premonition was absolutely harrowing. In fact, I can only countenance Abraham’s vision to sacrifice his son through a realization of who he was. The Qur’ānic narrative opens to find him ostracized by his community on account of pursuing the truth, disowned by his father and made the victim of a horrific attempt on his life, and forced to leave his family—essentially for dead—in a barren valley while clinging to God’s promise to provide for them. What was left for him to sacrifice? And yet, there is still an unmistakable reticence in Abraham’s tone when he addresses his son: “…O my son I have seen in a dream that I should sacrifice you; so consider what is your view…” [37:102] Again, all of his experience, even being thrown into a fire only to miraculously emerge unscathed couldn’t have prepared him for this. He doesn’t approach his son enthusiastically. Rather, he approached him cautiously. This is instructive for us. We tend to forget that in spite of their direct experience of the Divine, the Prophets (upon them be peace) and the righteous mentioned throughout the Qur’ān are human. Noah (upon him be peace) is clearly aggrieved about his son. Maryam (upon her be peace) is concerned about her reputation, and given the dictates of Mosaic Law, probably her safety after miraculously giving birth to Christ (upon him be peace). You can feel the anguish in Aasiyah’s (may God be pleased with her) words as she prays to God, declaring her innocence from Pharaoh and his blasphemy. Moses (upon him be peace) is being spoken to directly by God and yet is still worried about his welfare when he is commanded to liberate the Children of Israel and offer Pharaoh a chance to atone for his sins. These were real people. Faith didn’t insulate them from the frailties of human experience. Quite the reverse, faith gave them the ability to act in spite of.
For most of us, a level of faith and certainty which can rise to the challenges of Abraham (upon him be peace) is unimaginable. That said, our challenges in faith, though much more mundane than sacrificing our children, can feel just as weighty. Comparison to Abraham is not intended to trivialize our challenges. Reflecting upon the intensity of his sacrifice and perhaps most importantly the patience displayed by he and Ishmael awaiting God’s decree within the matter should be exemplary for us. Abraham (upon him be peace) is venerated by adherents of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. Collectively, we are known as the “Abrahamic” religions. In the Qur’ān, God says, “Indeed, Abraham was a nation obedient to God, by nature upright, and he was not of the idolaters;” [16:120] Abraham rose to the challenges placed before him and consequently became celebrated for his virtue until the end of time.
That reminds me of a conversation with a friend who was trying his hand at screenwriting for the first time. I asked him how it was going and he responded, “It’s one of the most spiritual things I’ve ever done.” “Subhanallah (Glory to God)!” I exclaimed. He appeared to be doing well but this certainly exceeded my expectations. Sheepishly, I followed, “how so? He then said, “I have these characters and I’m kind of in control of their destinies. And if I want to make a virtue of one of the characters known to the viewing audience I write trials and tribulations the character must overcome into his or her storyline.” Not quite making the connection, I shrugged my shoulders so as to indicate, “ok, and …” The aha moment came when he said, “Such is the case of Allah, Subhana wa ta’ala (Glorified and Exalted) with us." And yet, Abraham (upon him be peace) couldn’t have known that his action would result in such esteem and celebration. He couldn’t have known that erecting the Sacred House at Bacca would result in that erstwhile barren valley becoming a site of pilgrimage for the nations of the world. Further, he couldn’t have known that his willingness to offer his son in sacrifice would result in an annual ritual of charity through which many of the world’s indigent enjoy provision today. There is no Tawfīq except by the permission of God and the end is always for those who are conscious of Him.