‘Id al-Adha

‘Id al-Adha is upon us!  For those who may not know, ‘Id al-Adha (“The Feast of the Sacrifice”) is the major sacred festival of the Islamic calendar.  The significance of ‘Id al-Adha turns on an event that is remembered with equal reverence by Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike: the story of Abraham’s (peace be upon him) intended sacrifice of his son.

The Torah (Genesis 22:1-18) relates that God instructed Abraham to offer up his favorite son as a burnt offering, to which the faithful prophet readily assented.  Just as Abraham was lifting the knife to his son’s throat a heavenly messenger intervened, declaring that he had sufficiently proven his devotion.  Hearing this, Abraham sacrificed a ram in place of his son, whereupon the angel announced God’s blessing upon the prophet and his descendents and all nations.      

The account in the Qur’an (As-Saffat 102-113) is similar, with the difference that God does not verbally instruct Abraham to sacrifice his son.  Rather, Abraham has a dream in which he sacrifices his son.  On waking, with encouragement from his devout son, he resolves to carry out the act, believing it to be divinely ordained.

The great Sufi Ibn al-‘Arabi offers a crucial perspective on the Qur’anic account.  He writes:

“Know, may God strengthen us and you, that Abraham the Intimate said to his son, I saw in sleep that I was killing you for sacrifice.  The state of sleep is the plane of the Imagination and Abraham did not interpret [what he saw], for it was a ram that appeared in the form of Abraham’s son in the dream, while Abraham believed what he saw [at face value].  So his Lord rescued his son from Abraham’s misapprehension by the Great Sacrifice [of the ram], which was the true expression of his vision with God, of which Abraham was unaware.” (1)

Ibn al-‘Arabi is reminding us here that the revelatory symbols through which God speaks to humankind require proper interpretation.  When we think that God wants violence—think again!  In the absence of insight and empathy, faith is not only incomplete: it is the very seed of destruction.  The tragic attacks that recently shook Mumbai, apparently the handiwork of politico-religious extremists, are a chilling confirmation of this.

In remembrance of God’s blessing upon all of Abraham’s descendants and all of the nations of the world, we who seek to follow in the footsteps of Abraham must make a constant practice of systematically interrogating, with the full force of a wide-awake heart, all assumptions and thought-trains that estrange self and other and lead ineluctably to violence. We need to become earnest students of the divine compassion and learn, as promptly as possible, to see one another in the light by which God sees us.
This ‘Id al-Adha, let us resolve to joyfully offer up as a sacrifice that within ourselves which prevents us from loving and serving each other, and from committing our heart unhesitatingly to its Maker.    

May your Feast of the Sacrifice be a blessed one! 


1. Ibn al-‘Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, trans. R.W.J. Austin (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1980), 99.

Comments (2)
  • Your analysis of the symbolic meaning of this event is a great contribution - loving and peaceful. I’ve put in a twitter tweet too @sourcespirit so more people will be able to connect. Glad to see your web presence!

    — Carol Sill on December 8, 2008

  • i live in terrorised mimbai. words of peace in times of trouble show us thw way - the essence is peace and goodwill. look forward to reading more and more.

    — Kamal Sen on January 10, 2009

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