Muslims: The most literal Abrahamists

Muslims: The most literal Abrahamists

Today is the third day of Eid al-Adha, the “Feast of the Sacrifice.” It means that millions of Muslims around the world have taken the knife in their hands, or more commonly paid a butcher, to slaughter animals, most typically sheep, as a sacrifice to God.

Meanwhile, about 2 million Muslims have gathered in Mecca to perform the Hajj, or pilgrimage. This means that they have rotated around the Kaaba, the cube-shaped sanctuary at the heart of the city, “stoned the devil,” and gave their prayers in the sacred locations nearby.

I bet many non-Muslims around the world look at all these rituals with some amazement, wondering why Muslims are doing all this complicated stuff. Many of them, however, can easily find the answer in their own heritage — if they happen to be Christian or Jewish. For all this complicated stuff comes from none other than the father of the three major Semitic faiths: Abraham. 

Muslims slaughter animals for God, in other words, for no reason other than commemorating Abraham’s sacrifice to God. Every Muslim child learns that “our Prophet Abraham” was told by God to sacrifice his own beloved son — but only to test his faith. When Abraham obeyed God and almost put his son to the knife, the Lord sent a miraculous lamb so that the boy could be saved. That is a story narrated in the Quran and kept alive in the Muslim culture. Hence so many lambs face the knife all around the world on Eid al-Adha.

The whole Hajj affair is directly related to Abraham as well. Why is the Kaaba so sacred? Well, because it was enacted by none other than Abraham. According to the Quran, Abraham built the shrine with his son Ishmael as a monotheist temple, but later polytheists turned into a pagan pantheon. Only with Islam, we learn, was it restored to its original purpose. 

Almost everything around the Kaaba is connected to Abraham. There is a stone block literally called Maqam-e-Ibrahim, or the “Place of Abraham.” It is believed to be sent from heaven to Abraham, as a founding pillar of the temple. Just meters away is the Hijr-Ismail, or “Stone of Ishmael,” a walled enclave in which people believe Ishmael and his mother Hagar were buried. Hence pilgrims don’t walk on this part.

But pilgrims must walk between the two tiny hills called Safa and Marwah. Why? Well, because Hagar, Abraham’s wife, hopelessly ran between them for water, with Ishmael in her arms, till God created a miraculous water spring. That spring, called Zamzam, is another key symbol of the Hajj. Pilgrims drink from it ritually, and often put its water into bottles to take back home.

The bottom line is that Muslims have their “Feast of the Sacrifice” and their pilgrimage for a simple reason: They are Abrahamists, and they are very literal about that. That is why some Muslims also still believe in stoning adulterers, and really do so. 

For sure, Jews and Christians are also Abrahamists, the former being in fact the quintessential ones. For various reasons, though, they have become less literal about it. Christianity went through a metaphorical interpretation right at its beginning — at the hands of Paul the Apostle. Judaism traveled a more de facto road, as its lack of state power led to the natural abandonment of the penal code. 

Islam, however, never had a Paul, and always had a state. This has kept alive its literalism, which is understandable. But it is also necessary to think whether the time has come to take some of its injunctions less literally.