The ‘Feast of Sacrifice’: Its Spiritual Significance for the Muslim Ummah

By Prof. Henry Francis B. Espiritu, New Age Islam

09 September 2016

 The Qur’anic Philosophy of the Feast of the Sacrifice (Eid-ul-Adha)

The Holy Qur’an testifies to Allah’s divine ordainment of the Feast of Sacrifice (Eid-ul-Adha) by this declaration: “And for every nation, We appointed acts of devotion (sacrifices) that they might mention the name of Allah on what He has given them of the cattle and quadruped beasts” (Surah Hajj, 22:34).

Eminent academic scholars of archaeology, anthropology and history unanimously attest that animal sacrifices and various rites of offerings to the Deity as undertaken by various tribes, races and ethnicities can be found universally throughout human history, and these pious acts of sacrifices can be traced even as far back to the most primitive time at the dawn of humankind’s advent on earth.

The Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his Companions), to whom the abovementioned passage (Surah Hajj 22:34) was revealed through Divine Revelation, himself knew of only few nations in his part of the world, and humanly speaking, he could not possibly know the fact that animal sacrifice has been a universal practice among all peoples on earth. Therefore the verse concerning sacrifice is indeed a clear proof of the truth that the Holy Prophet Muhammad is truly a genuine recipient and a true messenger of Divine Revelation from Almighty Allah.

Similarly, in the case of fasting, it is a universal act of worship, so widespread that fasting was prevalently practised even among primitive peoples of the world, just as the Qur’an tells Muslims that “fasting had been prescribed for those people before you” (Surah Baqarah 2:183). Therefore, the Holy Prophet Muhammad was clearly informed by Divine Revelation of this great fact that fasting and sacrifice are both universal pious acts prevalent in every race, religion and ethnicity of peoples in the world. And the same applies to the remaining two practical ordinances of Islam, namely: prayer (Salaah) and charity (Zakaah). These traditions of worship are spread throughout humankind because, according to the universal teaching of Islam regarding Risalah (prophethood), Allahu Taala had raised prophets in all nations and races on earth, and these messengers of Almighty Allah taught human beings to serve the One and Only God in the ways that are innate to human nature.

However, as time went by, all these widely-prevailing divine practices as ordained by past prophets sent by Almighty Allah to various nations and tribes had become corrupted and surrounded by vast arrays of misconceptions and superstitions. The advent of the Holy Prophet of Islam is for the divine purpose of restoring these acts of worship to their true significance, pristine meaning and real objective.

As regards the attitude of sacrifice in various religions such as the shamanic, animistic and various pagan cults, the worshipers offered a sacrifice as a gift to polytheistic deities, to a tribal or racial god, or to some other deity that they imagine, in order to please that deity, and to placate the anger of the deity or to get some favour from him/her. For example, the practice of animal sacrifices in paganism shows that their sacrifice was in fact a bribe given to secure the favour of particular godlings, spirits, demigods and goddesses. It was believed that if one offered the proper animal or grain or wine as sacrificial offering, the pagan deities could not refuse one’s prayer and is forced to grant what one has asked for.

The Holy Qur’an strongly criticized and corrected the false polytheistic, hedonistic, selfish and self-serving notion of sacrifice found in many religions that God, being likened to a needy human being, requires some gift as bribe to make Him happy, contented and pleased with the sacrificer. In criticizing this false notion among the previous religions, the Qur’an says that Allahu Taala is above need of anything that could be supplied by His creation. In the words of the Holy Qur’an: “Allah is above any need, and you are the needy” (Surah Muhammad 47:38), “He is above need of your thanks (or praise)” (Surah Zumar 39:7), “He is above need of the things in this world” (Surah Ahl-Imran 3:96). Here, it is also fitting to quote this verse: “Shall I take for my friend and protector someone other than Allah? He feeds (you) and is not fed (by you).” (Surah An’am 6:14).

These Qur’anic viewpoint as expressed in the above verses is significant because in most sacrifices what were offered were some eatables, ranging from grain and butter to, of course, animals such as chickens, goats, cows, bullocks and sheep: and the one who performs the sacrifice vainly thinks that he has placated God’s anger and has gained His approval by the act of sacrificing per’se.

For instance, in Vedic fire sacrifice, sandalwood and clarified butter are fed into the fire, and it is believed that the deity in the fire carries these offerings to the higher godlings in the skies. But the Quran tells us that the All-Merciful Allah is the One Who sustains or feeds all creatures and is not fed by anyone. In truth, Almighty Allah is in no need of our thanks or praise.

 Abraham’s Sacrifice: Denying of Worldly Goods and Repudiating our Animalistic Nature

This brings us to the subject of the sacrifice which Prophet Abraham was intending to make of his son, Hazrat Ismail, and how, through this incident, Allahu Taala communicated to mankind that sacrifice is not, in itself, what is really required, but that Allah Almighty was only testing Prophet Abraham if he fully believed and unreservedly submitted himself to the will of Allah. We remember that in the Qur’anic narrative, it was after much prayer that Abraham had a child, a son, and this happened in his old age. When Hazrat Ismail reached his early teens, Abraham saw in a dream that he was sacrificing him.

As human sacrifice, particularly of the first-born son, was a practice prevailing among various nations around him, Prophet Abraham came to interpret the dream that he was being instructed by Allahu Taala to sacrifice Hazrat Ismail. Having obtained Hazrat Ismail’s consent, Prophet Abraham tried to perform this act, but Allahu Taala stopped him and said: “You have already fulfilled the vision” (Surah Saffat 37:104–105). It was Abraham’s complete resignation and unreserved obedience to Allah’s command as well as his absolute surrender to whatever things he had, even giving-up his beloved child that merited him nearness to Allah and not the actual sacrificing of Ismail.

To mark this event of Prophet Abraham’s absolute surrender, the practice of the sacrifice of an animal was instituted, which takes place annually at the time of the Hajj pilgrimage to Makka.

Regarding the animal that Muslims are required to sacrifice, the Qur’an unequivocally says: “Not their flesh, nor their blood reaches Allah. What reaches Him is your righteousness” (Surah Hajj 22:37). According to Hazrat Shah Waliullah Dehlavi, a famous Naqshbandi saint and Muhaddith scholar of India, this verse clearly means that what reaches Allah is the sacrifice of our very own self, that is, the sacrifice and surrender of our animalistic desires or bestial Nafs (lower desires) as symbolized by the animal being offered (See Shah Waliullah, Aqidat-ul Hassanah-e-Ahlus Sunnah [The Pure Creed of Sunnis], Chapter 14, Section 3). As per Hazrat Shah Waliullah Dehlavi, when the animal is being sacrificed, the sacrificer is explicitly making the direct action while implicitly intending (Niyyah) that he is sacrificing and slaughtering his animalistic Nafs (the lower desires or base ego) within himself. This is the significant purpose and profound meaning of the sacrifice which has been ordained by Almighty Allah and continued as a practice in Islam up to now and until the Day of Judgment.

 Significance of the Qur’anic Concept of “Sacrifice” in Islamic Ideology and Ethics

Aside from the call to unity of humankind through the holy personage of Prophet Abraham, who is considered to be the Father of Believers as well as Father of the Monotheistic Faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), another lesson to be learned from the Feast of Sacrifice (Eid-ul-Adha) is the true meaning of “sacrifice” in Islamic perspective. As we have already explained in the earlier section, the ceremonial sacrificing of an animal at Eid-ul-Adha is symbolic of killing the animal passions within ones’ self. By willing to sacrifice his only child, Prophet Abraham was sacrificing everything in his life for the sake of gaining Allah’s pleasure. Prophet Abraham was given a son at a very old age; Hazrat Ismail, was not only a source of love and affection for Prophet Abraham, but also of strength economic support and security to him in his old age. Yet Prophet Abraham was willing to sacrifice all of this in order to submit to what Allah has commanded. And this is the true meaning of sacrifice, as we are told in the Qur’an: “Not their (animal’s) flesh, nor their blood, reaches Allah, but to Him is acceptable observance of duty on your part” (Surah Hajj 22:37). Thus, true sacrifice for Allahu Taala is not the offering of food, money or even another’s life and property, but rather the sincere willingness to wholeheartedly submit to His will.

Such loyalty to Allah and not to anything else—not even to one’s most beloved relations on earth! This is, in fact, a perfect illustration of firm faith in Allah’s will. Nothing, not even the life of his only son, could compete with Abraham’s allegiance to His beloved Creator.

There is also another aspect of the Abrahamic sacrifice in this Qur’anic narrative that is often overlooked by many. When Prophet Abraham was given the vision from Allahu Taala that he interpreted as a request to sacrifice his son, Ismail, he then went and asked his son for his opinion and his consent! He was a father, in a position of authority over his child, yet he consulted with his son and sought his advice (See Surah Saffat 37:102).

This point is so crucial in the narrative, so much so that Hazrat Shah Waliullah Dehlavi declared that the ‘sacrifice’ is both Abraham and Ismail’s sacrifice (See Shah Waliullah, Aqidat-ul Hassanah-e-Ahlus Sunnah [The Pure Creed of Sunnis], Chapter 15, Section 7). Consulting with others is certainly a sacrifice for it comprises the giving up of one’s power, authority and control. The great principle of consultation, mutual agreement and consent, which are the very cornerstone of Sunni Ijmaah (Islamic consultative democracy), was shown by Prophet Abraham even under these trying and difficult conditions. Every person in a position of authority over others, whether a president of a nation, a monarch or a leader of an Islamic society, should learn from this beautiful precedent set by Prophet Abraham. Consulting with and appreciating the opinions of those under one’s authority is certainly a sacrifice but it can lead to perfect unity, understanding, amity and harmony in the community. As in the case of Prophet Abraham and his son Hazrat Ismail, it is related in the Qur’an that “both of them submitted to Allah” (See Surah Saffat 37:103). Thus, Eid-ul-Adha also provides an opportunity to acknowledge the importance of the principle of mutual consultation, a necessary sacrifice for good leadership and a precondition to peace and unity in the Islamic Ummah.

To deepen our reflection on the sacrifice of Abraham and Ismail we can surmise that there is another kind of ‘sacrifice of son’ as well, which is greatly beneficial to the piety of the family. Often parents tolerate and cater to the wrong ambitions, habits, vices and desires of their children, out of misguided love, rather than correcting them. For instance, fathers in position of authority misuse their leadership power to allow wrongdoings, flagrant misdeeds and injustice by their children to continue unchecked. The worst examples of this are when wayward children of presidents and rulers feel free to violate the law of the land as well as transgress the rules of ethical sensibilities because the father condone the evil doings of their son and does not stop them nor allow the law to take action against them. These are occasions when a father should sacrifice his love for the son in the path of justice and righteousness.

 Pilgrimage (Hajj): A Practical Illustration of “Unity” and “Sacrifice” in Islam

The lessons of unity that one derives from the observance of the Feast of Sacrifice are all practically manifested in the Hajj pilgrimage. People of all nations, colours, socio-economic status and ethnicities, come together as equals, standing shoulder to shoulder as they circumambulate the Holy Ka’bah in their simple white sheets (Ihram): offering prayers to the One Sovereign Ruler of All, Allah Almighty.

There is no better example of the expression of human unity and oneness of community other than what is shown by Islam through the various rites in the Hajj pilgrimage. Moreover, the pilgrims voluntarily suffer the hardships of the journey, giving up their homes and native lands, surrendering the various normal luxuries one is accustomed back home, incurring the costs of travel and experiencing various physical difficulties. Indeed, such devotion is unique in the world, a true sacrifice, an ultimate display of selflessness—even dying in the desert if it needs be for the sake of fulfilling the rites of pilgrimage.

The Holy Ka’bah itself, the focal point of the Hajj pilgrimage, specifically, is a monument to the absolute oneness of Allahu Taala, for it was cleansed by the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his Companions) of all 360 idols that were inside it and restored to a place where the One True God Allah Almighty was, and is still today, the only One worshiped and glorified. From the perspective of Islamic Sufism, the heart is the Ka’bah or the house of Allah inside the human person. And just as the idols and deities of polytheists were removed from the physical structure of the Ka’bah that is considered the heart of Islam, so too, it is understood that the purpose of the Hajj is to sacrifice the many evil idols hidden within the Ka’bah of own one’s heart just as well.

Surely, the Hajj pilgrimage, one of the five pillars of Islam, an obligatory duty given to every able-bodied Muslim, presents an opportunity to put into practice the fundamental lessons learned from the festival celebrating the holy personage of Abraham. The lesson that Allah intends for us in the sacrifice of Abraham is to be ever prepared to sacrifice, when required in the cause of Islam, whatever we hold dearest to us, be it our lives, wealth, our family and loved-ones, our position in society, relationships, etc. It is not the thing we sacrifice that matters, but the sacrifice of our attachment to it and of our desire to possess and keep it, when that desire conflicts with doing our duty to Allah Almighty. True sacrifice of life is to spend our life working for the cause of Islam, only for the sake of winning Allah’s pleasure.

In conclusion, we must remember once more that the sacrifice of an animal at Eid-ul-Adha is simply a token of our firm resolve to make real sacrifices of those animalistic desires hiding within our heart and mind. On every Eid-ul-Adha, year after year, we should strive to give up at least one bad habit or vice permanently.

It is in doing this which is the real sacrifice that Allah accepts from us. Aside from the ritual sacrificing of an animal on this occasion in remembrance of Prophet Abraham’s ultimate sacrifice, if we also strive to sacrifice our prideful ego, slaying our beastly passions and idols of selfishness, vanity and self-love within ourselves, and reaffirm our commitment to submit to Allahu Taala’s will every day of our lives, then we will have truly learned and benefited from the narrative of Prophet Abraham and his son Hazrat Ismail’s sacrifice. In the faithful application of this lesson of Eid-ul-Adha lies the prospect of establishing unity and peace and of winning Allah’s favour and pleasure. May Almighty Allah give us the guidance and the strength to put these precious lessons into practice. Amen, a thousand times, Amen!

Prof. Henry Francis B. Espiritu is Associate Professor-VI of Philosophy and Asian Studies at the University of the Philippines (UP), Cebu City. He was former Academic Coordinator of the Political Science Program at UP Cebu from 2011-2014. He is presently the Coordinator of Gender and Development (GAD) Office at UP Cebu. His research interests include Islamic Studies particularly Sunni jurisprudence, Islamic feminist discourses, Islam in interfaith dialogue initiatives, Islamic environmentalism, Classical Sunni Islamic pedagogy, the writings of Imam Al-Ghazali on pluralism and tolerance, Turkish Sufism, Muslim-Christian dialogue, Middle Eastern affairs, Peace Studies and Public Theology.

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