Today, October 26, 2012 (1433 on the Muslim calendar), the world’s Muslims will celebrate `Id al-Adha, the festival of the sacrifice, commemorating Abraham’s willingness to demonstrate his love of God by sacrificing his son. While most Muslims assume that the son Abraham intended to sacrifice was Ishmael, this was not the unanimous opinion of early Muslims and Qur’anic scholars. One tabulation of authoritative medieval Qur’anic commentaries finds a near-tie, with 133 scholars favoring Ishmael and 130 favoring Isaac. By examining the Qur’anic account of the sacrifice and its differing interpretations, we learn a good deal about Islam and its relationship to biblical and later Jewish tradition.
Qur’an or Koran is Arabic for “recitation.” Its 114 chapters are arranged—except for the first, which is considered a testimony of faith—in descending order of size. The chapter featuring the story of al-Adha, the sacrifice (akedah in Hebrew), is titled, “The Ranks.” It begins by introducing Noah and describing his righteousness. It moves on to Abraham (in Arabic, Ibrahim) and his miraculous rescue from the fire into which he was thrown because of his belief in God, an account also found in Jewish aggadah. There follows the story of the sacrifice, presented here in close paraphrase:
Abraham prayed to God to grant him righteous progeny. God told him that he would have a gentle son. When the boy began to run about with him, Abraham told his son that he saw himself, in a dream, slaughtering him. The son replied: “Do what you are commanded. God willing, I will be steadfast.” When both were ready to submit to God’s will and Abraham had cast his son down upon his face, God called to him, saying: “Abraham. You have indeed fulfilled the vision. . . . This was surely a clear trial.” God then ransomed the boy with a “great sacrifice.”
The chapter continues with tidings of the birth of Isaac.
While the Qur’an does not name the son whom Abraham intended to sacrifice, its subsequent reference to tidings of the birth of Isaac would seem to imply that the sacrificial son was not Isaac but Ishmael. This is the majority view, but there is a significant minority opinion. One of the foremost commentators on the Qur’an, Abu Ja`afar Muhammad al-Tabari (d. 923), provides a view of both.
Tabari dutifully cites the arguments for Ishmael as the potential sacrifice. For instance, God promised Abraham that Isaac would have a son; commanding Isaac’s sacrifice would have abrogated God’s promise, an impossibility. So, the intended son must have been Ishmael, not Isaac.
But Tabari favored the method of scriptural interpretation that biblical commentators call “peshat”—simple or straightforward. He notes that every reference in the Qur’an to tidings about a child refers to Isaac; therefore, Abraham’s prayer for a child in the sacrifice story must also refer to Isaac. The child for whom Abraham prayed was the child he intended to sacrifice; therefore, that child must have been Isaac. Tabari preferred this interpretation.
There are pervasive connections between the Muslim and Jewish sacrifice stories. Early Muslims knew that stories of Abraham and Isaac had been told in the Jewish Bible and become part of Arabian Jewish folklore. Several companions of Muhammad and his successors, the Caliphs, were converts from Judaism; some, like Ka`b al-Ahbar, had a profound impact on the early Muslim understanding of the many Qur’anic references to Biblical personalities and events.
In some Muslim traditions the Qur’anic “great sacrifice” that substituted for the son was a ram, in others a sheep. This “great sacrifice” is the forerunner of the annual sacrifice celebrated during the `Id al-Adha festival, which begins the preferred time for pilgrimage to Mecca.
This pilgrimage (in Arabic, hajj, related to the Hebrew hag, or festival) is incumbent upon every Muslim at least once in a lifetime. Its focus is the Ka`aba shrine in Mecca, which, according to the Qur’an, was built by Abraham and Ishmael. Today’s Ka`aba is a cube-like structure shrouded in black, occupying the center of an immense public square and usually surrounded by thousands upon thousands of pilgrims. Inside the structure is a black rock—possibly a meteor—which has occupied the site since pre-Islamic times.
On the eve of the festival, after bathing, the pilgrims enter a state of purity (in Arabic, ihram, related to the Hebrew herem) in which they may not engage in violence or sexual activity. At the beginning and conclusion of the pilgrimage, dressed in white, they perform seven circumambulations of the Ka`aba, reminiscent of the seven circumambulations of Jericho or the seven circumambulations of the altar that were performed on Sukkot. Bathing, dressing in white, performing an act seven times—these are practices highly reminiscent of certain Jewish rituals, particularly those of Yom Kippur. There is significant evidence that of all the Jewish rituals with which Muhammad may have been acquainted, those of Yom Kippur made the greatest impression on him. The most reasonable explanation of Islam’s five daily prayers connects them to Yom Kippur, the only day in the year on which the addition of the ne`ilah service brings the number of prayers to five.
Other similarities are more profound. According to post-Qur’anic Islamic tradition, when the Caliph Umar (c. 640) was questioned on the Akedah, it was a Jewish convert whom he summoned. Tabari recounts that Umar asked the convert, “Which of his two sons was Abraham commanded to sacrifice?” The convert answered, “Ishmael, by God, O Prince of the Believers.” His reply was clearly intended to ingratiate himself with the Caliph, but his explanation is telling:
The Jews know that [Ishmael was the intended sacrifice], but they are envious of you, O Arabs, because it was your father who was named in God’s command and to whom God ascribed such merit for his steadfastness in obeying God’s command. They reject that and claim that it was Isaac because Isaac was their father.
In other words, Muslim tradition attaches to the sacrifice the same significance that Jewish tradition gives it. It is the most fundamental of connections—and gives birth to the most fundamental of discords.
Moshe Sokolow, professor of Jewish education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Yeshiva University, is the author of Studies in the Weekly Parashah Based on the Lessons of Nehama Leibowitz (2008).
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