The glorious Quran mentions Ibrahim 73 times and tells a dozen of his different stories and encounters with various people, over and over again. The Quran pays a glowing tribute to his wisdom, bravery, love of God and dedication to the progress of humanity. The book of Genesis in the Old Testament gives a detailed biography of Ibrahim and commentators of the Quran have freely used these to embellish the Quranic narrative. His legacy is preaching boldly the belief in one God (Tawhid), and his shunning of the idols of the pagans and challenging them to reflect and think about who they worship and above all his willingness to sacrifice his most prized beloved son for the love of God. Here we retell this wonderful story.
Ibrahim was born nearly 4000 years ago in what is now days Iraq. It was known as the Chaldean Empire, where he grew up in ‘Ur’ near present day city of Mosul. The city was a famous centre for worship of stars, the moon, the sun and they believed that these celestial bodies had enormous influence on human destiny. In addition, they worshipped idols made of wood, stone or any other material they could lay their hands on. These became the household gods, and their worship was regarded as essential part of daily life and would lead to better health and good fortunes in family life and the city’s running. Despite the rejection by his family of Ibrahim’s message of Tawhid he continued to be caring and respectful towards his family.
From his youth Ibrahim wholeheartedly believed in one God and rejected the worship of these idols, in fact the Quran talks about how he challenged his father, family, and people around him and even debated with the Emperor Nimrod. The glorious Quran tells the story as follows “O Prophet have you not thought about the man who disputed with Ibrahim about his Lord, because God had given him power to rule? When Ibrahim said, it is my Lord, who gives life and death, he said I too give life and death. So Ibrahim said God brings the Sun from the East: so bring it from the West. The disbeliever was dumbfounded: God does not guide those who do evil” (Baqara; 258). He denounced their polytheism and attempts to associate idols with the Almighty Lord.
The Quran shows Ibrahim’s passion for God and his shunning of the idols when it narrates the story of Ibrahim smashing the idols. Ibrahim said “How can you worship what can neither benefit nor harm you, instead of Allah? Shame on you and on the things you worship instead of God. Have you no sense? They said, burn him and avenge your Gods if you are going to do the right thing” (Anbiya; 66-8).
Of course, this action provoked intense opposition from the idolaters, and the authorities decided to punish him by burning Ibrahim in a bonfire. The Quran tells us how the fire became a bed of roses for Ibrahim, “but we said fire, be cool and safe for Ibrahim” (Anbiya;69). This was regarded as one of his great miracles and proof of his truthfulness and the falsehood of idol worship. However, this did not convince the idolaters, for a moment. Finally, it appears that Ibrahim became frustrated and despaired at the stubbornness of his family and community so with his wife and few possessions and his loyal nephew Lut he decided to migrate from Ur. He went North West passing through Syria to Canine and later in Egypt, Ibrahim travelled widely and lived almost a nomadic life and later on visited Makkah. His aim was to please his Lord and to spread the message of the oneness of God.
The Quran describes his commitment, dedication and love of God in these glowing words “when Ibrahim’s Lord tested him with certain commandments, which he fulfilled. He said I will make you a leader of people. Ibrahim asked and would you make leaders from my descendants too? God answered my promise does not fall for those who do evil” (Baqara: 124).
Ibrahim continued his teaching, preaching and lifelong Jihad for the divine cause, by now he was an old man and had no children. So he begged God to bless him with a child “Lord, grant me a righteous son, so we gave him the good news that he would have a patient Son. When the boy was old enough to work with his father, Ibrahim said my son, I have seen myself sacrificing you in a dream. What do you think? He said, father do as you are commanded and, God willing, you will find me steadfast. When they had both submitted to God, and he had laid his son down on the side of his face, we called out to him Ibrahim you have fulfilled the dream. This is how we reward those who do good. It was a test to prove their true characters, we ransomed his son with a momentous sacrifice and we let him be praised by succeeding generations, peace be upon Ibrahim! This is how we reward those who do good: truly he was one of our faithful servants” (Saffat; 99-112).
This was one of the most difficult task and assignment that Ibrahim had to fulfil and he came out of it with flying colours, success, leapt and kissed his feet, glory crowned him with a halo whose radiance will last till the day of judgement.
When Ibrahim had the dream that God told him to sacrifice, the next day he sacrificed one hundred goats, he had the same dream during the second night so he sacrificed one hundred camels the second day. However the dream came back to him on third night. This time Ibrahim said O Lord! I have been sacrificing for two days. The voice said “my dear friend, sacrifice your beloved Ismael!” Ismael was only 13 or 14 years old, a teenager, enjoying the prime of his life, however when time came, he presented himself for the sacrifice. It is narrated that Satan did everything to dissuade both Ismael and his mother Hajrah to resist. Being people of faith and piety they immediately understood his trickery and pelted the Satan with stones and told him to be on his way, for they too were in love with their Lord and were willing to make any sacrifice like Ibrahim. Coming from the household of Ibrahim they knew that sacrifice meant; giving up things which are valuable for something that is even more important valuable and more. Their mantra like Ibrahim’s was “my prayer, my sacrifices, my living and dying are all for the Lord of the universe” (Al Anam; 162).
The next thing we see in this story is Ibrahim sharpening the knife and tying the hands and the legs of his beautiful teenage son and preparing to make that great sacrifice. However, when he had laid him on his face on the ground ready to be slaughtered the Lord said to him stop! This is all I wanted to see and to show the world how much you love me and for my pleasure you are willing to make every kind of sacrifice.
It is not unusual for God to abrogate, change a previous order and replace it with another, the sending of a ram from heaven as a ransom for Ismael is example of how Allah applies this principle of abrogation. Sometimes this is the only way to get across a powerful message. What was the wisdom in consulting Ismael? Imaam Razi suggests that Ibrahim did so in order to reveal the extent of patience of his beloved son in divine obedience and in order to give him opportunity to be an active participant in the sacrifice and thereby receive the divine grace and reward. Ismael’s reply, “you will indeed find me amongst the patient God willing.” Showed his complete reliance, and trust in God and the desire to get divine blessing and support in his willingness to be sacrificed. According to the commentators when Ibrahim had laid Ismael on the ground ready to be slaughtered a call from the Mountain drew his attention saying “O Ibrahim you have fulfilled the dream”, this was indeed a big trial and test to show the genuineness of Ibrahim’s faith and as a result God gave a ram from paradise as a ransom for his genuineness and sincerity. Imaam Razi gives a moving account of how Ibrahim and Ismael spend the last few moments before the momentous event, Ibrahim said to his beloved son, my darling and beloved son, you are under the divine command, then kissed him tied his limbs and both of them began to cry as he laid on the ground and Ibrahim with the sharp knife in his hand over the soft throat of Ismael heard the divine command “O Ibrahim you have fulfilled the dream”.
After this Ibrahim and his patient son Ismael began to build the Ka’bah, wherever he went he built a house of God, the mosque and alter, the Quran specifically talks about his building of the Ka’bah in Makkah, “as Ibrahim and Ismail built up the foundations of the house, they prayed. Our Lord, accept this from us. You are the all hearing the all knowing. Our Lord make us devoted to you, show us how to worship and accept our repentance, for you are the ever relenting the most merciful. Our Lord make a messenger of their own, to rise up from among them, recite your revelations to them, teach them the scripture and wisdom, and purify them: you are the mighty, the wise” (Baqara: 127-130).
He settled his nephew Lut in the valley of Jordan in the town of Sodom, he was his protégé and a prophet of God. His task was to preach the message of oneness of God to this town that was sunk in all kinds of wickedness and vices. As is the custom and the habit of these people they refused to listen to him and obey him. Not only that, but continued in their obnoxious habits of sodomy. As a consequence God punished them severely, however Ibrahim had requested God to save Lut and his followers.
God Almighty is very appreciative of the work of his servants and this is repeatedly seen in history, in the form of God honouring his faithful servants both with accolades, titles and promising them an everlasting legacy. How can someone as illustrious and dedicated to God not be honoured, the Quran says “Ibrahim was truly an example: devoutly obedient to God and true in faith. He was not an idolater, he was thankful for the blessings of God, which shows him and guided him to a straight path. We gave him blessings in this world and he is among the righteous in the hereafter. Then we reveal to you O Muhammad follow the creed of Ibrahim a man of pure faith was not an idolater“ (Nahl: 120-23).
Moral lessons from the sacrifice of Ibrahim
The momentous sacrifice or at least the willingness of father and son to carry out the sacrifice has many lessons. Here are four lessons that I have gleaned.
1. Diversity & pluralism
This is to acknowledge the fact that all humans are different in their language, culture and ethnicity yet all equal, share their brotherhood and sisterhood in humanity. They are all children of Adam & Eve. Therefore, they are equal. Ibrahim is the father of Jews, father of Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David & Suleiman, Jewish prophets that Muslims have to believe “We make no distinction between them” (Quran).
We have to live together in harmony with people of other faiths, cultures and ethnicities. When our beloved prophet 9Peace be upon him) arrived in Madina, he found that there were Jews, Pagans and Muslims. He made a legal agreement known as Sahifat ul Madina – constitution of Madina. In this he wrote “We the Jews, Pagans and Muslims will live together as one community”. Last month I visited Bosnia with a group of Muslims and Christians I saw how Muslims in the past honoured the prophetic tradition. We went to the Serb Orthodox Church and the priest pointed to a plaque at the entrance saying the Muslim ruler Sultan Mehmet gave a donation for building this church. When we went to the Roman Catholic seminary they showed us a five hundred year old letter which gave the Roman Catholics freedom to teach and preach in Bosnia.
2. Nurturing and developing good qualities in our children
The old father Ibrahim after telling his dream asked his teenage son Ismael “What do you think?” Seeking his opinion, making him part of the decision. The instant and wise response was “O my dear Father! Do as you have been commanded you will find me patient”. Ismael had been trained and educated by Ibrahim who was described by the Quran as “Gentle, a role model of purity and goodness”. In the free society that we live in today, this is something we all cherish – however there is a need for learning self-restraint, self-control and to develop a sense of responsibility.
To withstand difficulties and to endeavour to achieve great works at risk to one self – it’s reflected in our behaviour when we become self-reliant, have a sense of responsibility and feel free to achieve our ambitions. The opposite of courage is cowardice: being afraid of taking necessary risks, scared of being injured, fearing loss. Courage is the ability to face danger and fear. It is the opposite of cowardice.
Qadi ‘Iyad says, “The Prophet was often to be found in dangerous situations. He went more than once into difficult places from which the valiant and heroic had fled. He was firm and did not leave. He advanced and did not retreat nor waver” (Al-Shifa).
Ibn Umar said, “I never saw anyone more courageous, intrepid, generous or pleasing than the Messenger of Allah” (Al-Darimi).
During the battle of Badr, the Prophet (peace be upon him) was in the thick of the fight and his valour was evident. Similarly in the battle of Hunayn when the Muslim soldiers were scattered and were fleeing, the Prophet (peace be upon him) galloped on his mule towards the enemy and summoned the Muslims to fight.
One night there was a lot of commotion outside Madina. People were frightened and came out of their homes. Some men mounted their horses and went to investigate. They were surprised to meet the Prophet (peace be upon him) coming back. He explained to them that it was Abu Talha’s horse that had gone on a rampage.
His courage and boldness cannot be underestimated as he stood against the arrogant, ignorant and proud Makkans. He did not make a single compromise on his principles. He challenged the ‘idolators’, he stood up against the oppressors and stood by the oppressed.
This is to bear difficulties, to have patience means to remain calm and composed in times of difficulty. This moral virtue manifests in different ways: waiting for one’s turn, getting up early in the morning for prayer, walking to the mosque, fasting and avoiding worldly pleasures, and so on.
Below, we will read how the best of Allah’s creation nurtured patience in his disciples. The Quran makes dozens of references to patience, for example:
“O believers! Be really patient” (Surah Al-Imran: 200).
“And indeed we will try you with fear, hunger, damage to your wealth and lives and give glad tidings to the patient” (Al-Baqara: 155).
The Messenger (peace be upon him) once said, “The affairs of a believer are most strange: they are all good. This is only for the believer. In good times he is grateful to Allah and in difficult times he is patient” (Muslim).
Anas reports that the Messenger (peace be upon him) passed by a woman who was crying near a grave. The Messenger (peace be upon him) told her, “fear Allah and be patient.” She retorted, “be off, for you have not been affected like me”. She did not recognise him (peace be upon him). Someone told her that he was the Messenger of Allah, so she went to the Messenger’s apartment to apologise. She said “I did not recognise you.” He told her that “Patience is when you are first struck by affliction”(Muslim).
Anas reported that I heard the Messenger (peace be upon him) say that Allah says “When I test my servant by taking from him his beloved and he is patient, I will reward both of them with Paradise” (Muslim).
Ibn Masud said, “I visited the Messenger (peace be upon him) when he was ill with fever. I said, ‘you have high fever.’ He said, ‘Yes, my fever is equal to two men’s fever.’ I said, ‘Then will you get double the reward?’ He said, ‘Yes, when a believer is injured or pricked by a thorn, he is rewarded, his sins are erased and they fall off him like the leaves fall off a tree” (Bukhari).
Abu Huraira said “When Allah wants good for someone, He afflicts him with difficulties” (Bukhari).
Abu Huraira said, “The Messenger (peace be upon him) said, “the strong one is not a good wrestler, but one who can control his anger” (Bukhari).