“Inspirational” Biblical/Quranic Intersections: Abraham’s Sacrifice

[Content notice: child abuse, attempted murder, animal slaughter]

Yesterday marked Eid ul-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice, for Muslims all over the world. The other Eid (Eid al-Fitr, or the Feast of Fast-Breaking) marks the end of Ramadan. This one both commemorates one part of the story of Abraham, called Ibrahim in Arabic, and wraps up the many rituals of Hajj.

The Quranic story varies somewhat from the Biblical one, most notably in terms of which son it is and in the amount of detail provided, but the gist is the same. In the Old Testament, the son whom Abraham offers to Yahweh for sacrifice is Isaac (Ishaq in Arabic), the son who just happens to be the progenitor of the Jews, while in the Quran, it’s Ismail (Ishmael in English) who is offered, the son coincidentally said to be the father of the Arabs.


The story begins with Ibrahim dreaming that Allah is telling him to offer up his son in sacrifice. The dream repeats to the point where Ibrahim thinks it is a command from Allah. He asks his son if he’s willing to be sacrificed and Ismail agrees. Along the way to the spot where he is supposed to slit his only son’s throat, Ibrahim is tempted three times by Shaitan (Satan) to disobey Allah’s dream-given command. At each point, Ibrahim throws small stones at Shaitan to make him go away. When he finally gets to the spot where his dream had told him to slit his son’s throat, he ties down his son and blindfolds himself, both at his son’s behest. Just before the knife manages to touch his son’s throat, an angel comes down and replaces Ismail with a ram. The angel tells Ibrahim that he has passed Allah’s test of faith.

Today, Muslims performing Hajj symbolically stone three pillars at the spots where Ibrahim was allegedly tempted by the Devil to disobey his god by not slitting his son’s throat. All Muslims who can afford to do it, whether performing Hajj that year or not, sacrifice a sheep or goat (or other halal animal if a sheep or goat is unavailable) to celebrate Ibrahim’s sacrifice. The story is taught to children as a lesson in obedience to one’s parents and to Allah.

All this leaves me skeeved out, to say the least. I wonder what sort of folks justify this sort of story, teach it to their children, commemorate and celebrate it, defend it to those who look at it in horror. Then, I remember.


I was exactly that sort of person. The story was a big part of my day on Eid and I participated very enthusiastically in the rituals. Before I started doubting my faith, I had used a knife to slaughter at least three cows and two goats with my own hands (as soon as even the faintest doubts entered my head, I found myself unable do it anymore). There is even a picture of me wearing hijab and holding up a severed goat’s head. Theologically speaking, I would defend the story’s cruelty to others, saying that it was just a test of faith, that not a hair on Ismail’s head was ultimately harmed, that Ibrahim was later blessed with another son for his loyalty to Allah, that Allah knows best, that life is difficult and this was the difficulty Ibrahim had to face to prove his strength of his conviction and character as a prophet and friend of Allah.

Would I have ever taken a knife to my baby brother’s throat because I had dreamt that my god had told me to do so? No. I would have felt sick to my stomach and prayed to Allah to keep evil dreams from my sleep. If the dreams had repeated, I would have asked my mother to take me straight to a mental health facility and wept the entire way, frightened and upset that my obviously unwell mind was turning me against the brother I so loved and cherished.

On the flip side, I’m sure that if Ibrahim did exist, he would have found whatever excuse, be it his deity or another, for the delusions and dreams that led him to nearly murder his son. It’s sick that a holiday is built around such a person, but thankfully, as with many other holidays predicated on gruesome stories, there’s a lot to it that has nothing to do with its origins, especially since many Muslims aren’t as painfully aware of the tale as I am. Each year, I remind myself to take a leaf from their book and focus on family, friends, and food.

“Inspirational” Biblical/Quranic Intersections: Abraham’s Sacrifice

22 thoughts on ““Inspirational” Biblical/Quranic Intersections: Abraham’s Sacrifice

  1. 1

    Weirdly, I never thought too much about the story of Abraham and Isaac until reading the science fiction book ‘Hyperion’ by Dan Simmons. Among a group of pilgrims heading to a mysterious alien archaeological site is a Jewish father whose daughter was afflicted with some kind of condition from the site itself years ago that reversed her aging. Carrying his now infant daughter, he confronts the entity that seems to exist there recounting the story of Isaac in his head and proclaiming “No more sacrifices!” It made me consider how unbelievably cruel and repulsive the apologetics around that story really were.

  2. 2

    I have never liked, gotten, or accepted this story. I think you have to have been raised to it. I would sooner destroy myself than my children–hell, I’d kill others for my children. I used to be a pacifist but then I stood by and saw harm done to someone I loved because I was a pacifist and that changed me. I suppose if I were a King and my child were being a jerk I would swoon in misery and concern but as an average parent… I rebel against tests of faith as they are always suspect–that I was being tested would be enough for me to abandon loyalty. If I have to be tested there isn’t a relationship anyway–and what of loyalty the other way? What of god’s loyalty to humans? How may we test that? What then of failure?

    I recently picked up a copy of “Maimonides” who lived a privileged life with Muslims. There is much in common between Islamic/Judaic medieval scholars but what struck me was his insistence on blind obedience. When he does talk about a contract with Judaism, he begins every assertion with “I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, blessed be his name…”

  3. 3

    Blind obedience is exactly the point of the story. Blind obedience to the top-down power structure is how you get young men to sacrifice themselves in battle, to skew the sex ratio among the survivors. This is how you get suicide bombers. This is how you get people to vote against their economic self-interest.

    1. 3.1

      I don’t think so. I think it looks like the sort of story that is invented to explain why a group does not do the human sacrifice thing any more. It comes from around 500BCE so the Jews are allegedly giving up human sacrifice before some of their neighbors.

      We know that human sacrifice was very common in the region several thousand years BCE and the Romans were likely engaged in it right up to the Punic wars. I rather suspect that is the point where the Romans ditched human sacrifice and made a big issue out of it as it became necessary to demonize the Carthaginians for propaganda purposes. Baal was the Carthaginian deity and required child sacrifices. So the upper class would bring up adopted children specifically to give away as sacrifices.

      Faced with the threat of invasion by Carthage, the Romans demonized the human sacrifice but conveniently forgot that their gladiatorial combats were essentially human sacrifices. Centuries later the Protestants denounced the Catholic church for the use of torture in the inquisition while conveniently forgetting that they were still doing that witch burning thing. One of the any details that the US histories of the revolution leaves out is that the reason Massachusetts was the epicenter is that it had more restricted autonomy than the other colonies which in turn was due to the salem witch trials and the judicial murder of Mary Dyer by the puritan fanatics.

      Initially the story would be told to explain why ‘we’ don’t do that any more, then later as the memory of human sacrifice faded it would be why ‘we’ never did that. But it is couched in the language of absolute obedience to God so as to cover up what would be seen by many as abandoning the old ways.

      1. It comes from around 500BCE

        The setting of the story is more like 2000-1000 BCE, IIRC. Or do you mean when we think the story took on its present form?
        Human (child/infant) sacrifice is mentioned in Kings and Chronicles, which covers the period 1000-500 BCE, according to Wikipedia.

        I’m wondering how the various Jewish sects handle this story? I remember learning about it in my (Episcopal) Sunday School, but don’t recall how they handled the idea of a father planning to kill his son purely for religious reasons. For some reason, the awfulness of it didn’t impress itself upon me, any more than the awfulness of being nailed to a post did. It’s only now, as I’m an adult and have sons myself that I’m horrified.

        1. I think any claim of historicity prior to the Babylonian exile is preposterous.

          In what universe is it credible that the people who are taken into exile where they are exposed to a monotheistic religion preserve the true faith while the folk who stay at home fall into pagan ways? Rather obviously it is the Babylonian exiles who made up the core of Judaism and then imposed it (as far as they could) on the stay-behind population on their return. The Exodus story is appropriated as a foundation myth around the same time.

          So anything prior to 600BCE is spurious. This is the sort of story the exiles would make up to save appearances after their captors tell them human sacrifice is not allowed.

          1. I’m not sure what you’re arguing exactly, other than perhaps that if it’s in the Bible, it must be a lie.

            Court documents were a feature of many nations at the time that Kings and Chronicles covers, so I see no reason to disbelieve the authors that they based their writing on such documents. That they edited and spun things to suit their agendas is also pretty obvious, at least to most biblical scholars. The biblical accounts pretty much state that the returning exiles had a somewhat different and much more doctrinaire version of their religion than when they left, and were quite intolerant of the non-exiles. So I’m not sure what you are disputing, unless it is whether there was, in fact, infant sacrifice during the Davidic dynasty. But, in the absence of scholarship (and/or archeology) to the contrary, I would tentatively accept the accounts of it as more or less true in the broad outlines. More than this I was not claiming.

            It’s certainly true that ancient accounts need to be taken with a grain of salt. But the same is true of modern histories, and to the same extent.

            To be honest, though, the certainty with which you make your assertions (e.g., calling things “preposterous”) make me more rather than less skeptical that what you say is anything but your personal opinion, especially as you don’t cite any evidence.

            None of which actually addresses Heina’s point: how are we, as people who at least believe we consider immoral to kill innocent children in obedience to some religious command[*], to understand a story and a tradition which seems to honor someone for being willing to do just that?

            [*] Of course, we as nations have no problem with wars or police actions in which innocent children are killed, or in which barely grown men and women are sent off to kill and be killed, all in the name of abstract ideals.

          2. The Davidic Kings were almost certainly pagan and the monotheism a development during the Babylonian exile.

            The point I was making is that the biblical chronology is obvious nonsense, the world is older than 6000 years for a start. There was no flood. So why pay any attention to a dating scheme that was originally designed to fit those milestones in? It is a creationist fiction.

            Incidentally, it has taken Western scholars quite some time to shake off the legacy of creationism. One of my friends from Oxford in the late 1980s was rather upset that the Western historians dismissed the first four dynasties as ‘mythological’, despite quite a bit of documentary evidence. I was rather puzzled too and did some digging. Seems that the original reason for dismissing those dynasties was that they conflicted with the established chronology of the flood. The western archeologists no longer believe in the flood but they demand more evidence to overturn an assumption than to make one in the first place.

      2. Phillip, while your overall interpretation seems reasonable, I think Daedalus is right too and I have seen the story used in a variety of ways to justify all sorts of things. (Q’elle surprise!). Do you really think that Rome vs Carthage had any connection to cultural changes in the Middle East? The situation may be similar but I don’t think the two were necessarily connected as part of an overall cultural shift.

        I get the impression though that any attempt to nail the Old Testament stories to a particular time is fraght with difficulties. Weren’t some of the kings like Solomon and Ahab the wrong way round according to archeological evidence? Many of these stories had been kicking around in verbal tradition since time immemorial and were rewritten many times to insert into the narrative. For comparison, Australian Aboriginal verbal history seems to go back to scarliy ancient times – I’m talking 60,000 years!

        1. Except the point wasn’t to not kill children. Moses ordered the killing of male children by the tens of thousands.


          It was exactly what basic training is designed to do to soldiers, break down their normal moral reluctance to kill other human beings and replace it with blind loyalty to the power structure.

          The ten commandments were within-group rules. If you were not one of the tribe, you didn’t matter. You were not a human being and in-group rules didn’t apply to you.

          That is the whole point of religion, to generate an in-group of individuals not related by blood. Loyalty to blood relations is only learned.

          1. Except Moses was not a historical figure either so who can say which came first? If you are saying Moses was a hypocrite for murdering POW’s in the name of sacrifice, I have to agree with you and observe that the same happens today.

          2. There is pretty good DNA evidence ruling out any mass migration as proposed in Exodus unless the people return to exactly the place they started from and didn’t intermingle with any of the locals in Egypt. Which is really really unlikely if they were slaves as suggested in Exodus.

            There is a somewhat plausible claim that a much smaller exodus took place, some towns being founded by a few dozen escaped slaves from Egypt (or maybe somewhere else!) and that being later adopted as a national foundation myth.

            These are troubadours tales that have been turned into a religion. Its like someone taking the left behind series and presenting it as fact.

        2. I think you underestimate the extent to which these peoples were linked and interacting. This is a fairly small part of the Eastern Mediterranean we are talking about and there is constant coastal shipping traffic. Palestine is being constantly invaded from the North, South and East. It was the bronze age version of Afghanistan, one of the last places most of the empires manage to capture before it all goes pear shaped and collapses.

  4. 4

    It’s stuff like this that helped me deal with the fear from leaving religion. I mean, what if it’s all true and this is a test?

    You are being offered immortality, eternal paradise, a free pass on doing bad things in this life, and all you have to do in return is ignore a large number of atrocities in the Bible including the rape and murder of children. The whole thing seems a bit Faustian, doesn’t it? If there was a movie where a guy was given that offer and he took it, would you be expecting something good to happen to him at the end of the movie?

    1. 4.1

      Take a look at a map of the Galaxy.

      Then ask yourself, is any power that could create such a thing going to speak to humans through the likes of pedophile popes, gay bashing pastors who frequent male prostitutes and all the rest of the liars and hypocrites?

      The keys to paradise are to be granted to people who believe such evil bastards without question? Really?

  5. 7

    These Old Testament stories – especially this one and the story of Job – are what kept me from ever considering myself a Christian, even as a child, and even though my family’s full of (Protestant, non-denominations, liberal) preachers and Pastors. I grew up ‘in the church’ but never caught the faith.
    And I couldn’t get behind being a ‘New Testament’ Christian, because even if you don’t accept the Old Testament as literal fact, what do those allegories say about your god? Nothing good, at best; something horrible and terrifying at worst.

  6. 8

    Each time I heard this story as a child I was DEEPLY disturbed. That was because I use to believe it. Honestly since I closed the door on religion, my life is better. There are no demons or scary gods to keep me up at night. And by the way, maybe a touch of topic, but the idea that I could just have a demon come and like somehow possess me, use to scare me to tears as a kid. Seriously there are some fucked up horror stories that religion teaches kids.

  7. 9

    Abraham’s sacrifice is considered by many christians to be precursor of God’s sacrifice of Jesus to save humanity, atonement. Now add the concept of trinity, arminianism, nestorianism to the equation… If Jesus was human versus if he were immortal anyway versus if he really died and came back versus what was the level of god’s actual sacrifice. Did Abraham do it knowing death was irrelevant, trusting god would stop-reverse the act, or that it was like sending a son off to war, a virtue? At the time the issue was less of a human sacrifice versus animal sacrifice than to which jealous god will you sacrifice.

  8. 10

    Sorry for this wall of text–hope it helps add to the narrative. Blame it on ADD or the deep desire to avoid painting the porch even at cost of loss of income…

    Agreed that within the canon and context the binding, or sacrifice, of Isaac is more complicated. However, the vast majority see it as a test of faith now. Abraham sacrificing a ram instead does add to it. Nevertheless, the angel stops that act with “now you fear god.” I don’t think most people now read this and say “whew, thank goodness we sacrifice animals now instead of humans.” The sacrifice of the ram seems more like a thanks than a substitution. However, Susan Ackerman and Stager & Wolf do make this very conclusion–remembrance of when human sacrifice was prime.

    In some ways it would be good if the story were considered a parable against human sacrifice and murder as that would take away from the literal blind obedience, trust in god, and fear of god aspects.

    Muslim canon is clear that it is a divine command from god that must be observed.

    Many see this story as comment on the ethos of altruism and self sacrifice. One would send one’s children or self into war to known death as well. In a sense they are both laying down their lives to god.

    Later accounts soften this to consider it a symbolic sacrifice even going so far that Abraham had actually imagined this command. Later, Joseph Hertz of modern times does say child sacrifice was rife among semitics and the sacrifice was known to be symbolic. Hertz does not say (that I can find) the act is a growth, advance, evolution from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice.

    Some say Abraham was being punished for his mistreatment of his son Ismael whom he kicked out for at the request of Sarah his wife.

    Some note that it is about Isaac who was willing to be sacrificed and that giving up one’s life for religion was and is a mundane deed.

    Other suggest that Abraham knew in his heart that the real sacrifice wouldn’t occur that he trusted god to stop the act.

    Maimonides states that acts delineates the human capability of fear and love. Also that prophetic vision is as true as logical truth.

    Some Christians think Abraham knew god would resurrect Isaac if his hand hadn’t been stopped. Some see this story as prefiguring the resurrection of Jesus. God sacrifices Jesus, the lamb of god. Here not as fear but trust.

    While Dawkins considers this to be like the Nazi’s “I was obeying orders” nearly all theological accounts assert the moral trust that god is just such that blind obedience is merited. By definition god would not ask for sacrifice unless it was necessary and virtuous.

    Human sacrifice in Rome had been abolished long before Christ but human sacrifice was common much more early in the Levant, Moab sacrifices his first born. Jephthah agrees to sacrifice the next human that enters the door and then has to deal with the fact that it is his daughter.

    Phoenicians and Carthaginians sacrificed children–one cemetery has some 20,000 infants. But some question whether it was sacrifice or something else.

    The division of humans from animals is not as strong as modern religious people like to assert. Death by destruction and disease was far too common and is difficult for modern sensibilities or sense to value. While an eye for an eye is justice compared to a body for an eye it still lags behind restorative justice, prevention of recidivism, or avoidance through fear of suspended liberty.

    Cannibalism was virtuous for many aboriginals because it was evidence of conquest and it was absorption of the enemy literally, including their bravery which would make you more brave.

    The Jesuits in encountering Native Americans have horrendous accounts of the viciousness of humans to each other as well as the often laments against it. We have a long history of treating each other like the worst kind of predating animals.

  9. 11

    Interesting. It reminds me of what “Lucy” (not her real name) once experienced. Lucy spent some years in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and she remembers once seeing something odd there. Lots of people buying sheep and stuffing those sheep into their cars to take home. She thought a bit, and she remembered that those sheep were to be slaughtered / sacrificed on Eid al Adha.

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