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Revisiting Muslim Narratives on Abraham

11/16/2014 10:16 EST | Updated 01/16/2015 05:59 EST

Last month, Muslims across the world celebrated the feast of sacrifice, Eid al Adha, which takes place after the annual pilgrimage, Hajj. Many devout Muslims offer the ritual of animal sacrifice after early morning prayers. They do so to commemorate the 'binding of Ishmael'. Muslims believe that by offering his son, the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Abraham, completely surrendered to God.

However, Islam is not a monolith. Conservative Muslims, be they Sunnis and Shiis or even the marginalized Ahmadis, find meaning in this age-old story. But not all Muslims find comfort in the idea of slaughtering millions of animals on a single day every year.

The late Anila Muhammad, co-founder of Universalist Muslims, was a staunch animal welfare activist and wanted to end the mass slaughter of animals. She opined that the Qur'an does not indicate that God wanted Abraham to sacrifice an animal let alone his own son.

Concerned for the humane treatment of animals, Anila actually became a vegan. She also expressed that distributing the sacrificial meat among the poor only helps feed them for a short while, whereas long-term change on poverty and social justice requires sustained investment in community projects.

Anila was not the only voice to express her discomfort with the tradition of animal sacrifice. Many Muslims express their concerns in private conversations and Anila collected many such voices against animal sacrifice on "The Compassionate Muslim" website.

Other than the concern for animal welfare, some Muslims are also disturbed by the potential bastardization of the narratives involving Abraham.

Stories such as the potential sacrifice of Ishmael and the abandonment of Hagar in the desert are interpreted by traditionalists to evoke the lesson of putting one's absolute trust in God. But these stories do raise ethical concerns, much like those raised by the Biblical narrative of Lot offering his daughters to a frenzied mob.

Is the patriarch of Jews, Christians and Muslims to be viewed as a figure, who is willing to slit the throat of his son and abandon his wife (according to Muslim tradition) to prove his faith in God? Should Abraham's deity, and for that matter that of Job, be viewed as a trial master, who decrees unstinted servitude as the purpose of life?

Or do we focus, as some Muslims do, on Abraham's crisis of conscience? Likewise, do we focus on Hagar's role in discovering water and in becoming the founder of Mecca and the Matriarch of Islam?

If mindless servitude to God is to be defined as the purpose of life then what does that suggest about the merit of using reason to stop those who are joining ISIS to kill, rape and plunder? Reason indeed becomes futile against those who reject peaceful Ahmadis as kafirs (apostates) but who view ISIS as Muslims, or those who view consensual relationships in the West as shameful but who justify the rape of Yazidi women in Iraq.

While the story of Abraham has not been expressly used by the ISIS ilk to justify their horrendous crimes against humanity, their approach is reflective of a mindset that glorifies absolutist and supremacist views, which demand unrelenting servitude.

The view of Abraham as willing to abandon his family for one's perception of God is a dangerous idea. How different is that from young men and women leaving their distraught parents to pursue their idea of creating a "Caliphate" that marginalizes and quells dissenting voices?

Traditionalist Muslims may use the interpretive device to explain Abraham's actions on the basis of his having witnessed miracles and direct communication with God. But some atheists, who discount the supernatural, may assert their point on abandoning religion altogether.

However, the age of Prophets and miracles is long past. Likewise, jettisoning all religion may be akin to throwing the baby with the bathwater. The issue at stake isn't about miracles or the vapid questions on the existence of God, but about mindless subservience to an ideology or "ism."

Submission without question or critique leads to absolutism and has the potential to strip one's humanity. Indeed, terrorists have a takfiri (excommunicating supremacist) mindset, which can be only destroyed by embracing diversity of views and values.

Are we forever bound by the words and stories of the ancients or can we empower ourselves to find new meaning and purpose in our lives?

Can the binding of Ishmael be viewed as a narrative of Abraham rejecting the ancient custom of child sacrifice, instilling the notion that no blood sacrifice, even of animals, is required to please God? Likewise, can Abraham's abandonment of Hagar be interpreted as a story of Hagar's strength, leadership and defiance to patriarchy?

And if that can be construed then so can the end of man-made "Caliphates."