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Friday Thoughts 76

Sacrifice

 

And for each community We have made rituals of devotion, that they may remember God's name for the sustenance He has given them of the animals. For your God is One God, therefore surrender to Him. And give a message of joy to the humble, whose hearts are moved when God is remembered, and who are patient in their afflictions, and who establish prayer and spend of what We give them.

(Surah 22:34-35)

 

By the end of next week we are going to celebrate Eid al-Adha, also known as Eid al-Qurban, the Festival of the Sacrifice, or the Eid Kabir, the Great Festival, of Muslim tradition. It is based on a story that is well known both from from the Qur'an and from the Hebrew Bible: Abraham has a dream that he is to sacrifice his son. Believing that this was what God expected of him, he makes preparations to do so. In the last minute, the sacrifice is prevented by God's intervention: Abraham is told to sacrifice a ram instead.


Did you ever wonder why Abraham reacted the way he did, apparently without asking questions - a very untypical behaviour for Abraham who set off on his journey by questioning even his father's tradition and challenging his religious beliefs? The explanations that are usually given include that Abraham knew that this was commaded by God whom he trusted, whereas his father's idolatrous tradition didn't make sense to him at all and was obviously wrong. Well - but would it make more sense to sacrifice one's own child?


The concept of sacrifice dates back to ancient times, long before this story was written. Traces of sacrificial practices are found on prehistoric sites, giving the researcher an idea of the religious beliefs and practices of human beings at that very early stage. In those days, people perceived the earth as a flat surface like a disk, and God, along with the beings that were close to the Divine, were assumed to live in the dark blue inifinity beyond the clouds, directing rain and sunshine in a way that benefits creation. If they wanted to give them something in return, they thought that it would raise up to heaven along with the smoke when it was completely or partly burned on an altar.


And there were plenty of reasons for wanting to give something to God. One would be in order to avert the Divine anger or displeasure, especially if something wrong had been committed, trying to make up for something they violated and to emphasize their regret. Another reason would be in order to emphasize a request for help and assistance, for example when asking for a good harvest or for protection against a threat or for victory over an enemy. Another reason would be gratefulness for success and wealth; sacrifices of this kind would go along with an appropriate celebration.


Of course, it would be a matter of honour to give God from one's most valuable possessions. People would sacrifice fruits from their gardens and fields if they were farmers, or animals if they were herdsmen. Even human beings were sacrificed, depending on the cultural environment, people's concept of the Divine, and the situation. In the area of Canaan where Abraham was travelling, sacrificing one's child was therefore not such a strange idea after all.

If the message of revelation is understood as part of an educational process, there were several points that had to be made. One was certainly that no one was to be worshipped except God. Abraham had understood that at a very early stage as a result of his persistent questioning and observing. At this point, moreover, he had a long experience of "travelling with God" that resulted in his being "God's friend". This adds an additional dimension to his relationship with God. The "Original Covenant" of the day when God asked each and very human being, "Am I not your Creator and Sustainer?" does not necesarily imply more than a relationship between a servant or trainee and his master with an emphasis on dependance and obedience. Now, it would rather be one of conscious commitment and love, a relationship of a lover with the Beloved. Now love sometimes takes the shape of a strong emotional attachment, including a readiness to do anything for the Beloved's pleasure - even something that otherwise would be quite meaningless. The situation was therefore right to teach another essential lesson: in contrast to certain idols, ancient or modern, God does not want human sacrifice! Such an idea would neither agree with God's mercy and justice nor with the purpose for which human beings were created: to take on the responsibility for themselves and for creation. This is pointed out to us in this dramatic story. From this point in the tradition of ethical monotheism, sacrificing an animal is considered more meaningful and appropriate whenever a necessity for a "great sacrifice" is perceived.


Other educational steps were to follow. Indeed, there has been a variety of concepts of sacrifice that kept changing through the generations and in the development of religious traditions. Already in the time of the Biblical prophets, people increasingly understood that God was not located in a particular place on earth or "above the clouds" but omnipresent, and that He did not need or want material gifts from them that were taken up to heaven by smoke from an altar, but rather justice and generosity. This became even clearer when people discovered that the earth was not a flat surface below the dome of the heavens but a globe circling around the sun in a seemingly infinite universe. "Their meat does not reach God," says the Qur'an with regard to sacrificial animals, "nor does their blood, rather it is your consciousness of God's presence that reaches Him." We cannot possibly give something to God - unless we give it to fellow human beings, helping them when they need it and increasing their joy. A more meaningful way of sacrifice would then be giving food to the poor and to have a celebration of gratefulness for what we have been given. Therefore in our days, the story of Abraham is remembered by sharing the meat of a sheep or goat with the poor as well as with neighbours, friends and family members.


Yet there is still another dimension of sacrifice: the readiness to serve God according to our capacity, not just on Eid al-Adha but in our everyday life. The sustenance that God has given us includes more than a herdsman's animals or the fruits of a farmer's garden and field. It includes our potential that, if undeveloped, may remain in some kind of half conscious animal state. For us as human beings, it would be more appropriate to explore and cultivate it and use it in order to fulfil the resposibility that we bear as "God's trustee on earth", both in seemingly small actions of generosity, kindness and consideration and in making our contributions to all efforts of justice, recociliation and peace. No dramatic actions are required for this. It is a sacrifice like that of a candle that slowly uses its energy to spread light. Perhaps that is a reason for the festival to be called Eid al-Adha, the Festival of Light.


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(c) Halima Krausen, 2009