Eid al-Adha, not to be confused with the entirely different holiday of Eid al-Fitr that marks the end of Ramadan, was celebrated by Muslims about a week ago. Eid al-Adha takes place at the end of the designated period for the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, and “commemorates” the mythical episode known to Jews, Christians and Muslims in which Abraham was ordered to sacrifice his son to God but was permitted at the last minute to slaughter a sheep instead. Eid al-Adha means “the festival of sacrifice”.
In the Biblical version of the story (basically Chapter 22 of the Book of Genesis), Yahweh tells Abraham to sacrifice “thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest” as a “burnt offering” on a specific mountain in the land of Moriah. So Abraham dutifully grabs some wood and heads off to Moriah with Isaac and two young men, travelling for a couple of days before the designated place appears in the distance. Abraham then continues alone with Isaac, making him carry the damn wood, towards their ultimate destination. When Isaac has the presence of mind to ask an awkward question, cunning old Abe flat out tricks him:
(7) And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire [Abraham seems to have been carrying a torch] and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering? (8) And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering…
Mollified, the poor little bastard cheerfully accompanies Abraham the last bit of the way. Abraham builds an altar, lays out the wood “in order” – and then ties Isaac up, plunks him on the altar and reaches for his trusty knife. Fooled ya, kid!
Fortunately, Abraham has now proven his fanatical devotion to the satisfaction of der Führergott, who interrupts the proceedings and then says:
(12)…Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.
However, Yahweh still wants his burnt offering. Fortunately, Abraham looks up and spots a ram stuck in a nearby thicket, rather ironically validating the general line of bullshit he peddled to poor unsuspecting Isaac a little while ago. The business done, Yahweh promises Abraham blessings and then all the humans go back to Beer-sheba, where Abraham had been planting trees towards the end of the previous chapter.
The Koran does not actually tell this story, but only alludes to it. However, the Koranic understanding of Abraham’s abortive act of filicide (as expressed in the middle of Book 37 of the Koran, “Arrayed in ranks”) is slightly more humane than the account in Genesis, in that Abraham actually consults his son before going through with the rite:
“My son, I saw in a dream that I was sacrificing you, so reflect and give me your opinion.”
He said: “Father, do as you are commanded and you shall find me, God willing, steadfast.”
With consent (though hardly of the informed variety) established, they get right on it:
When both submitted to the will of God, he bent his head down and on its side.
Interestingly, Muslims insist that the son whose jugular was spared by Abraham was Ishmael, Isaac’s older brother. The issue of which bumptious boy was nearly bumped off can be relied upon to spark abstruse, farcically earnest debates between certain Christians and Muslims. There is also a Muslim tradition, apparently derived from the Hadith rather than the Koran, that Satan appeared three times to Abraham in order to attempt to talk him out of sacrificing Ishmael. Each time, Abraham drove Satan off by throwing rocks at him, a tactic whose success doesn’t exactly burnish Satan’s credentials as a Mighty Lord of Darkness (just try that with Loki!). In a notoriously overwrought and physically dangerous part of the Hajj, the pilgrims reenact this story by throwing rocks at three large pillars that supposedly mark the spots where Satan manifested himself. A coherent and interesting account dryly notes, “Last year, when I went on Hajj, twice, my wife and I were almost trampled to death.” And this despite the fact that they “stoned the pillars in the wee hours of the morning” to beat the crowds!
Some religious stories can resonate, at a mythological or at least literary level, even with non-believers. It’s possible to take genuine inspiration from David’s victory over Goliath, or Prometheus’ theft of fire from the gods of Olympus. Perhaps even more than the Book of Job or the story of the expulsion from Eden, however, the legend of Abraham and Son is difficult to read sympathetically if one hasn’t drunk the Holy Kool-Aid. If you don’t start with the premise that Yahweh (or Allah) is good by definition, and obedience to him is virtuous, Abraham seems absurdly servile. Isaac is hapless and gullible, unless you prefer the Islamic version in which Ishmael is brainwashed. Satan, if the Hadith can be believed, is the adult in the room who has the presence of mind to say “Wait a minute, is this really a good idea”? Abraham’s answer is a resounding “Yes!”, plus rocks.
The main combatants in Syria’s civil war grudgingly agreed to a ceasefire over the sacred Eid al-Adha period, but it was violated almost immediately and made at best a slight dent in the mayhem. Considering the rather vicious nature of the story that inspired the holiday, perhaps the near-seamless continuation of the violence was a more appropriate commemoration than a gentlemanly pause would have been. The Lord seems to have approved, inasmuch as the human bodies that got in the way of the bombs and bullets are not reported to have been exchanged at the last instant for those of sheep.
In lieu of a tidy conclusion, here’s Leonard Cohen: