Feast of the Sacrifice

Feast of the Sacrifice
12-7-08
Rev. Douglas Taylor

It is the hope of every Muslim to make the Hajj at least once in a lifetime. The Hajj, the unique pilgrimage to the city of Mecca for prayers around the ancient Kabah, is one of the five pillars of Islam and as such is required of every Muslim if circumstances allow it. The Hajj celebrates Prophet Muhammad’s return to Mecca in 632 just before his death. Karen Armstrong, in her book A History of God, writes about the Hajj ritual.

These rituals look bizarre to an outsider – as do any alien social or religious rituals – but they are able to unleash an intense religious experience and perfectly express the communal and personal aspects of Islamic spirituality. Today many of the thousands of pilgrims who assemble at the appointed time in Mecca are not Arabs, but they have been able to make the ancient Arabic ceremonies their own. As they converge on the Kabah, clad in the traditional pilgrim dress that obliterates all distinctions of race or class, they feel that they have been liberated from the egotistic preoccupations of their daily lives and been caught up into a community that has one focus and orientation. They cry in unison, “Here I am at your service, O al-Lah,” before they begin circumambulations around the shrine. (p156)

But like any good ritual or religious practice, it ties back to more than a moment in history. It is more than remembering Muhammad’s bloodless victory of Mecca. The Hajj also connects to the story of Abraham and his son Ishmael through the legend that in later life Abraham came to visit his son Ishmael and together they built that massive black stone alter known as the Kabah.

At the end of the Hajj there is the Feast of the Sacrifice, or Eid al-Adha. There are two major festivals in the Islamic Calendar: Eid al-Ftir which marks the conclusion of Ramadan, the month of fasting, and is considered the lesser festival; and Eid al-Adha which marks the conclusion of the Hajj. Eid al-Adha will begin December 8th this year according to the western calendar. It is the 10th day of Dhul Hijja of the year 1429 according to the Islamic Calendar.

The Feast of the Sacrifice lasts three days and commemorates Ibrahim’s willingness to obey God by sacrificing his first-born son, Ismail. According to the Qur’an, a voice from heaven stopped Ibrahim and allowed him to sacrifice a ram instead. The feast re-enacts Ibrahim’s obedience by sacrificing an animal, often a ram. The family then eats a third of the meal, offers another third to relatives, and donates the rest of the meal to the poor.

Whenever I have returned to studying Islam I am always caught by the parallel stories in both the Qur’an and the Bible. The two scriptures share similar stories that often have only a few details that don’t line up. The story of Abraham sacrificing his son is one such story. In the versions told in Genesis, God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, who is his second son though his first child by his wife Sarah. The Qur’an does not specifically name Ishmael as the sacrificial son, though it is clearly implied in the fact that after the story of Abraham almost sacrificing his first-born son, the next story is about the birth of Isaac – ergo it must have been Ishmael almost sacrificed. In either case, Abraham is told to sacrifice his first-born. Abraham agrees to this and begins to follow through. At the last minute God tells him to stop and offers a replacement. Thus Abraham is honored for his faithfulness and obedience to God. (Surah 37:100–108; Genesis 22:2-18)

The Hajj, which is a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca to remind every Muslim of the roots of their faith and of the essential community and oneness of all Muslims, leads up to the Feast of the Sacrifice: the festival that reminds every Muslim of the faithfulness of Abraham.

I stand in good company among those who really do not understand why this story of Abraham is considered such a good and great story. I don’t like this story. The man was willing to kill his child. I find this abhorrent. Even following the storyline and seeing that God was not really wanting Abraham to sacrifice his son, that is was only a test – it only means that this God of Abraham is not a capricious sadist, merely petty and insecure: “If you really loved me you would prove it.” Many people respond to this story with rejection: that can’t be God. Surely that is not a story about the loving and merciful God I know. And yet all the western monotheisms trace themselves back to Abraham; Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike point to this story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son as a pivotal story of faithfulness.

Of particular note is Existentialist philosopher/theologian Soren Kierkegaard who spent a great deal of time with the story and eventually published his book Fear and Trembling using the story as a demonstration of the deeply religious life and the “teleological suspension of the ethical” or as it is more commonly known, the ‘leap of faith.’ Kierkegaard’s reasoning was that Abraham’s behavior could only be seen as ethically wrong, yet it was religiously the right thing for him to have done. Therefore the deeply religious life, he used the word ‘aesthetic’ in contrast of the word ‘ethical,’ the deeply aesthetic life was unreasonable: non grounded in logic or ethic. Faith requires a leap. Abraham leapt and by the internal argument of the story, he chose correctly. And so, perhaps this is reducible to a question of discernment: when should you leap?

I bumped into a riddle this week. A warrior stands before three seated men. The first is a king who says, “I command you to kill these other two men for the good of the realm.” The second is a high priest who says, “I command you to kill these other two men in the name of God.” The third is a rich man with bags of gold at his feet, he says, “I command you to kill these other two men and I will give you all this gold if you do it.” So who survives?

The answer, of course, is that it depends entirely on the warrior standing before these three men. Who would you obey? In which direction would you leap? What would need to change in the riddle to make it work for you? I want to answer outside of the riddle: I would not kill any of the three men, they would all survive. We Unitarian Universalists don’t have much use for words like ‘sacrifice’ and ‘obedience.’ We put our stock in words like ‘tolerance’ and ‘free-thinking.’ Our stories are about following your own path, marching to the beat of your own drum. We talk about questioning authority and welcoming doubt. Obedience and Sacrifice are not regular parts of our vocabulary of faith. When we speak of the faithful examples from our Unitarian Universalist history we refer to the rebels rather than the conformists.

Yet obedience is a big part of the three big western religious traditions. “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 9:10) “Whosoever submits his will to God, while doing good, his wage is with the Lord, and no fear shall be upon them, neither shall they sorrow.” (Qur’an 2:112) and I know this will sound familiar: “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and the keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I [Moses] command you this day for your good?” (Deuteronomy 10:12-13) It starts our like Micah, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8) But Deuteronomy is older than Micah. Before Israel was told to do and love and walk with justice, mercy and love they were told to fear and obey. The second phrase sounds so much like a line Jesus offered about which one commandment was the greatest: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27) But before Jesus told his followers to love God and neighbor they were told to fear God and obey the commandments.

Abraham is a model of faithfulness for Muslims, Jews and Christians alike: not because he question God as faithful Job had done, not because he called us to justice and righteousness as faithful Micah and Amos had done, but because he was impeccably obedient. Perhaps even obedient to a fault!

Perhaps I have being too hard on the story, and on these three great western religious traditions. Perhaps I am being too literalist in my understanding, and thus my critique. Certainly a socio-historical contextual reading of the story would be fairer. Such a reading would argue that this story is about a stage of development in the worship of God, perhaps even a stage in the education of God. It declares a shift away from the abhorrent practice of human sacrifice. It dramatically proclaims an end to sacrificing of your first-born child to honor and empower your God. From now on, a goat will suffice. Now, a few thousand years later, the ritual killing of goats for the Feast of the Sacrifice is seen as cruel and even barbaric. But back when this story was first being told it was pretty good: “Oh we can just use a goat? That’s my kind of God!”

As our understanding of God evolved from a God who wants human sacrifice to a God who craves a burnt offering of goat and first fruit, perhaps we can allow understanding to evolve more fully into a God who yearns for ‘justice to roll down like water and righteous like a mighty stream’ as the Jewish prophets would have it (Amos), or a God who commands us to ‘love our neighbors as ourselves’ as Jesus would have it (Matthew), or a God who proclaims: ‘be mindful of your duty, and do right; Allah loves the doer of good’ as Muhammad tells us (Surah 5:93).

All of which is clearly already available in the scriptures. The story of Abraham is not going away and the Feast of the Sacrifice does have a strong aspect of justice enfolded into the festival. After the ritual sacrifice of a goat, a significant portion of the food is given to the poor. The story will not fade to the background as the western monotheisms evolve and grow. And the literalists and fanatics continue to use the story as justification to wage war – a clear perversion of the original intent as well as the more common contemporary interpretation of the story.

And this swings me back around to our melancholy Danish Existentialist: Soren Kierkegaard who is not easy for me to dismiss as simply a non-logical, anti-philosopher who makes the unreasonable leap of faith. Kierkegaard is anything but simple. Despite my argument against his sensational dismissal of the use of reason, Kierkegaard is on to something very important when he writes about the demands of living a deeply religious life. The key to understanding Kierkegaard, I have been told, is in his insistence that Subjective truth is superior to objective truth. Objective truths are the truths of history and science. These truths are verifiable, external, confirmable. Subjective truths are all the internal values and understanding within each person’s being. And, here is the key statement, according to Kierkegaard, subjective truths have primacy over objective truths.

I could spend considerable time just unpacking that idea, but let me leap back to the story of Abraham and his sacrificial son – be it Ishmael or Isaac! Kierkegaard offers this story as the basis of his explanation of the leap of faith into the religious or aesthetic life. For Abraham to kill his first-born son would be ethically wrong. But, Kierkegaard suggests, true faith calls us to heed ‘divine purpose’ which transcends ethics. At its face, this statement is wildly dangerous: it is the logic of fanatics and tyrants: I can do as I understand God to be calling me to do even though it is unethical. Kierkegaard takes us into the heart of dangerous fanaticism. But only if we forget the key to understanding Kierkegaard: which is that Subjective truth is superior to objective truth. For Kierkegaard the story of Abraham and the sacrifice of his first-born is not a public occasion or historical event. It is certainly not a model for action in the world. (see Kierkegaard in 90 minutes by Paul Strathern, pp 45-6; 50-4)

This story plays out a subjective truth: to live a deeply religious life, an aesthetic life – I suppose today’s vocabulary we can say a ‘spiritual life’ – to live thus you will need to make sacrifices. Abraham and Ishmael are different elements of the same person. The leap of faith is not a call to take up arms and slay innocent people; it is a call to see that what is precious to you in your life may be exactly what is keeping you from the deeper life of the spirit that you yearn to live. Buddhism offers us much the same revelation. Western monotheism’s problem (by an Existentialist’s point of view) is that it is too tied in with the history and as such the great and powerful myths are mistaken for literal, objective, historical truths.

I think this brings us back to the same place we were in before: Faith requires a leap. Abraham leapt and by the internal argument of the story, he chose correctly. And so, perhaps this is reducible to a question of discernment: when should you leap? We approach the sacred Muslim festival Eid al-Adha – the feast of the sacrifice. As Unitarian Universalists, we may take this opportunity to learn more of the faith and practice of Islam. We may take this opportunity to explore a deeper level of our own faith. When should you leap? Without disregarding the ethical, as in, it is important to still give one third of the goat to the poor; the sacrifice for Abraham can be read at a spiritual level. The story is not a model for action in the world, but for action within you. In that riddle of the king and the priest and the rich man: the question is not whom would you be willing to kill for; rather it is what aspect of your soul rules the others. What, in yourself, do you obey? And, turning it back to Abraham, what might you need to sacrifice, or at least offer to sacrifice, in order to grow?

Would that then whole world could learn to hear stories at this level!

In a world without end, may it be so.