C. EID-UL-ADHA : THE FESTIVAL OF SACRIFICE.
1. The Command to Abraham to Sacrifice his Son.
If you were to ask the average Muslim to tell you which of the festivals in the Islamic year he regards as the greatest he would almost certainly answer 'Idul-Adha - the "Festival of Sacrifice". There are two great Eid festivals in Islam, the other being 'Idul-Fitr - the "Festival of Breaking the Fast", which occurs on the first day of the month of Shawwal after the Fast of Ramadan is past. The Festival of Sacrifice, however, also known commonly as Baqri-Eid (the Cow Festival), is regarded as the 'Idul-Kabir, the "Great Festival", while the other is known as 'Idus-Saghir, the "Lesser Festival" (Hughes, A Dictionary of Islam, p. 192).
The great festival Eid-ul-Adha occurs on the tenth day of the last month of the Muslim year, namely Thul-Hijjah, and coincides with the last day of the Hajj pilgrimage (see the companion volume to this book, Muhammad and the Religion of Islam, pp. 305-307, for further details regarding this festival). On this day the pilgrims to Mecca are required to sacrifice a cow, sheep, goat, camel or other appropriate animal in commemoration of the occasion when Abraham was willing to offer his son as a sacrifice to God and was told to offer a ram in his place. The festival of sacrifice is also held throughout the Muslim world and the duty to make an offering on this day is laid on every Muslim household. We shall proceed to see what tremendous potential there is to present the Gospel to Muslims against the background of this festival, especially as it is the most important in their calendar.
We have considered God's promise to Abraham that he would have a son, Isaac, as well as Abraham's contemplation of the promise. We come now to the command which subsequently came to him to sacrifice his son. We do not know how old Isaac was when the incident took place but we know that he was still a young boy ("a lad" - Genesis 22.5). The command came to him in these words:
The Qur'an also records this incident but suggests that the call to sacrifice came not by a direct command of God from heaven but through a vision. Abraham is recorded as saying to his son:
The son replied: "O my father! Do as thou art commanded: Thou wilt find me, if God so wills one practicing Patience and Constancy" (Surah 37.102). Both the Bible and the Qur'an relate that as he was about to perform the sacrifice God called out to him to stay his hand as he had already given sufficient proof of his love and devotion to God (Genesis 22.12, Surah 37.105).
Abraham must have been struck with bewilderment when he first heard the command to sacrifice his son. We would dishonour Abraham as a real man of God if we were to suggest that he received this order without any emotional shock or immediate repulsion in his heart over what he was commanded to do. We cannot believe that such a father who loved his son so much could respond to the command with unaffected resignation or a straightforward complacency with the divine will.
The very wording of the command shows that God did not expect it to be received without heart-rending astonishment but rather that he intended that Abraham should be shocked to the core of his great human soul. God deliberately placed emphasis on the nature of the price Abraham was to pay to fulfil this demand and quite clearly determined to test him to the extreme of his affections and love for his son and for his God:
What a tremendous trial of faith this was for Abraham. God put him to a severe threefold test - firstly to show his overriding love for God by giving that which was dearest to his heart and which could not be replaced, even his only son; secondly to maintain his trust in the absolute moral holiness and trustworthiness of God who he had hitherto believed would never will something that was evil or morally questionable; and thirdly to persevere in his faith in the steadfast faithfulness of God to his own promise that he would yet give him descendants through this son as many as the stars in the sky.
For some real faith implies an unquestioning resignation to what appears to be the will of God, no matter how improbable or morally suspect the exercise of that will may appear to be. Abraham was not such a man. He could not summarily abandon himself to the command to sacrifice his son without considerable reflection on its implications and circumstances. God confronted him with this awful test of faith because God knew that this man would never go through with the command unless, as in the case of the birth of Isaac, he was fully convinced both of the moral excellence of the order and its thorough consistency with the promise that God would give him descendants as many as the stars in the sky.
The greatness of this man's faith is found in his refusal to believe anything unless it was credible - no matter who commanded it - and his determination to understand and recognise the credibility of that which appeared to be overpoweringly incredible - when the One who gave the command was the God in whose absolute holiness and faithfulness he had always trusted, the "Holy God who shows himself holy in righteousness" (Isaiah 5.16).
God would have been most unimpressed with Abraham's attitude if he had simply resigned himself to the divine will that his son should be sacrificed without any serious consideration of what was involved in the matter. God wanted him to explore at length the conciliation between the apparent horror of the command and the transparent eternal trustworthiness of the God who gave it - because through this he intended to reveal to him the glory of his salvation for all mankind which flesh and blood could never show him.
2. Abraham's Contemplation of the Command.
Abraham had reasoned very carefully about the promise that his wife would bear him a son. With this same inspired reasoning this man, who sought earnestly to gain as much understanding and knowledge as he could of the God he loved, through the commands and promises he was given, thought through the command to sacrifice his son according to the test God had set in a threefold form before him.
The average Christian or Muslim is well aware of the nature of the first test. It was a test of Abraham's love for God. He was called on to prove that his love for God was unsurpassed by his love for anything else by giving up that which was dearest to his heart, even his own son. God did not want his goods, possessions or material wealth, he required that which Abraham could neither replace nor substitute, something of his very own being, his son. Every Muslim will agree that God called for the sacrifice of his son because there was nothing more precious that he could forsake to prove his love for God. If there was, God would surely have asked it. Many are the Muslims who have said to me, "if a man will give his son for God, he will give anything for God". Because of his unfailing love for God Abraham duly stood the test and resolved to obey God and sacrifice his son.
At this point, however, we come to the vital issue of the nature of Abraham's response to the command insofar as Abraham's faith is concerned. Up till now we have seen that this great prophet is marked in the Bible and the Qur'an, not so much as a man exemplified by his love for God (unparalleled as this is among ordinary mortals), but rather by his faith in God's faithfulness. How does this relate to the command to sacrifice his son?
We have already mentioned that God put Abraham through a threefold test. The first put the prophet on trial before God - did he love God above all else? The other two, however, put the faithfulness of God himself on trial before Abraham. The first related only to the nature of Abraham's love for God. The other two related to the nature of God himself. The one was simply this - was the command to sacrifice morally justifiable and consistent with God's own holiness? The other was how God's promise to him that he would have descendants as many as the stars of the sky could be fulfilled. Let us proceed to consider each in turn.
During his lifetime Abraham witnessed with moral abhorrence and repulsion the manner of the idol-worship of his contemporaries. To him the worship of idols was really offered to demons and the formalities of this worship confirmed his misgivings. The worst idolaters offered their sons up as sacrifices to idols and to Abraham this was the last word in human degradation and wickedness. In a later age Moses himself warned the people of Israel not to enquire how the other nations served their idols that they might imitate them:
To him the worst abomination of the idolaters was their Custom of human sacrifice. Ahaz is recorded in the Bible as one of the worst kings of Judah and the one who led his own people into the worship of Baal, the great pagan idol of his time, even though his forefathers had resisted the temptation which had long overcome the kings of Israel. This indictment against him in Scripture includes the charge that he "burned incense in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and burned his sons as an offering, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel" (2 Chronicles 28.3).
Now Abraham was confronted with a similar order to sacrifice his own son to the God he worshipped in spirit and in truth. How could he reconcile this command with his belief that God was absolutely moral and holy? Abraham did not have the low concept of God that some men have. To these God's omnipotence allows him to do anything he pleases, no matter how arbitrary it may appear to be. To them any suggestion that God can do only what is morally and properly right is a restriction on his power to do anything he chooses. To Abraham such arbitrary acts, far from being proof of God's power, would be evidence of a lamentable weakness in his character.
How does the Muslim answer this question? How could God's command to Abraham to sacrifice his son be consistent with his moral holiness and not be an imitation of the worst pagan excesses? As we have seen the Qur'an simply says that God commanded him Aslim - "Submit". Abraham's reply was aslamtu - "I submit" (Surah 2.131). Did Abraham immediately come to heel out of an unquestioning obedience to the command? We regret to say that there is nothing in the Qur'an to suggest otherwise. All that the Qur'an says is that he put the command to his son to see if he was willing to go through with the ordeal. In the Qur'an it is significantly said that, after his son had given an indication of his acceptance of the command, they both submitted their wills (to God) (Surah 37.103). The word used for submitted is once again from the same three root letters (sin, lam and mim) as Islam and Muslim, namely aslamaa. This seems to be the sum of the Qur'an's treatment of Abraham's response to the command - an unquestioning resignation to the will of God. He did not enquire how the command could be reconciled with God's holiness or what purpose it served, nor how the promise could yet be fulfilled. He simply took the command as it came and resolved to obey it, irrespective of the implications.
A Western writer perhaps gets right to the root of the matter when he defines the character of Abraham's faith in the Qur'an in the following words:
In the Christian Bible we find, on the other hand, that Abraham was a man who never simply submitted to God's commands without enquiring in deep faith how these revealed or could be reconciled with his faithfulness. On a similar occasion, when God told him he was about to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham did not automatically submit in unthinking obedience to God's word. Instead he reacted immediately against the word of God because it seemed to conflict with God's faithfulness and righteousness. He replied:
In a similar way Moses too reacted when God told him to let him consume the nation of Israel and let his wrath burn hot against it because of the golden calf the people had made and worshipped (Exodus 32). Moses responded:
Abraham and Moses were not the kind of men who believed that true submission to God consists in an unquestioning obedience to his will. God tested both of them with his intention to destroy the peoples of Sodom and Gomorrah and the nation of Israel respectively so that he could bring out of them a response of true, deep faith in his own faithfulness. Both men called on God to be true to his own righteous nature and how this exercise of faith must have delighted the Lord! He responded positively to both, promising Abraham that he would not destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if he could find ten righteous men in them, and turning from the wrath he intended to pour upon those who had worshipped the golden calf.
Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? - this was the hallmark of the character of Abraham's faith in God and when he heard the command to sacrifice his son he did not simply obey unquestioningly. He had a high concept of God and believed that God was absolutely holy and righteous and that he bound himself accordingly to do only that which was morally right and proper at all times. In the circumstances he was constrained to reconcile in his mind the moral holiness of God and the apparent contradiction of it that confronted him in tie command to sacrifice his son.
This brings us to the second test of his faith. He had to consider this command in the light of God's promise that he would have descendants as many as the stars in the sky. How could God fulfil his promise if his son was to die and be cremated before he could bear any offspring and descendants? Abraham was confronted with a command which at face value was morally questionable and which made the earlier promise apparently devoid of any possibility now of fulfilment. But as he set about considering all this, he was destined to resolve this whole matter in such a way that he was to find the significance of the sacrifice far more astonishing than its immediate implications.
He began by presuming that "Every word of God proves true" (Proverbs 30.5). Therefore that which appeared to be morally questionable must in some way be morally excellent - and he was determined to find out what that excellence was. Secondly that which now appeared to be beyond the possibility of fulfilment must in the providence of God yet be fulfilled - and with these reasonings Abraham sought out the meaning of the command he had been given.
God at first had promised him a son through whom he was to have innumerable descendants. The promise consisted of two extremes - the birth of Isaac by God's intervention at the beginning, and the countless descendants by his will and power at the end. In between these two suddenly came the command to sacrifice. Abraham could not believe that it was contrary to or destructive of the earlier promise he had received. God gave the promise - the same God gave the command to sacrifice. Because of his knowledge of God's total consistency in his acts, Abraham believed that the command to sacrifice, rather than violating the promise, was inseparably linked to it. He concluded that the miraculous birth, the sacrifice and the descendants were all linked together and that somehow the promise of descendants was dependent upon and was to be fulfilled through the sacrifice of his son Isaac.
The command to sacrifice seemed to come like a pair of scissors cutting the string that connected the promise of a son to the many descendants which were to follow. By exercising his faith in God he was to see, rather, that the command to sacrifice was really the two hands that joined the pieces of string together and gave meaning to the promises of a son and the blessing upon a multitude of descendants to come through him.
When the command came to Abraham to offer his son up as a burnt offering he could well have pictured the smouldering ashes on the altar and a gust of wind coming down upon them, scattering them into the air. He might well have said to himself, "there goes the promise of God to the wind". At face value the pending sacrifice seemed to render the promise null and void. Yet it is here that Abraham's developing process of faith was to come to a wondrous climax.
Abraham could have reacted to God's command in any one of four ways. He could have said to himself, "It seems God has forgotten his promise. Well, fourteen years is a long time and anyone can forget something in that time". Or he could have thought, "God has changed his mind. After all, he is God and can do what he likes. Perhaps my son has not come up to expectations and God has decided not to fulfil his promise". Virtually any Muslim will agree that Abraham, a man of faith, would never have believed such things. God neither forgets, nor does he fail to fulfil his promises (Joshua 21.45). The third reaction open to him was simply to say, "I do not know or understand how God can fulfil his promises if I must sacrifice my son, but if he so commands, I will simply obey". In this case, however, we have very much the Qur'an's limited assessment of Abraham's faith. Aslamyu - "I submit" - is the sole reaction of Abraham to God's decree (Surah 2.131) - an uncomprehending submission, an unquestioning resignation. This is nothing more than what many call blind faith and we cannot accept that this was the full character of his faith, especially as it is set forth as a model for all believers.
There remains a fourth possible reaction, and this is the one we eventually find in the great prophet, namely the one set out above. God, in his faithfulness, must yet fulfil his promise. His word must yet prove true. Although his son was to be sacrificed and reduced to ashes, somehow the promise that he was to have offspring as many as the stars of the sky must yet come to pass. Abraham was left, through his implicit faith in God's faithfulness, that which alone is true faith, to contemplate, consider and work out just how the promise could yet be fulfilled. He therefore set about considering the possible ways in which he could yet have the descendants God had promised him.
There was only one way that Isaac could beget offspring after he was sacrificed - by God raising him from the dead. Abraham had realised earlier that Isaac could only be born through the power of God who could cause things to exist that do not exist. Therefore he concluded that if God could create him out of nothing, he could also raise him from the ashes after he was sacrificed as a burnt offering. As Paul said of Abraham, he believed in God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist (Romans 4.17). If God could give life to a body that was as good as dead because it was about a hundred years old, then he could also give life to the dead remains of his son Isaac. This is no speculation for the Bible expressly tells us that Abraham believed that his son would be raised from the dead:
Although the Qur'an shows no appreciation of the deep character of Abraham's implicit trust in God's trustworthiness and his corresponding inclination to test all that God said to him against his assurance that the Judge of all the earth would always do what is right and that every word of his will always prove true, it paradoxically does confirm Abraham's belief that God could raise the dead:
Abraham believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead. This resolved the apparent impossibility of the fulfilment of the promise. It also led to Abraham resolving the moral issue as well. Abraham considered that the Isaac who was to beget all these descendants was to be a risen Isaac - one who could, in a resurrected body, fulfil the promise of God. When Abraham reasoned that the remarkable promise of descendants was dependent upon the renewed, remarkable condition of the son who was to beget them, he saw at last the moral excellence of the command. Somehow, only through a resurrection and a body which had overcome death, could the promise be fulfilled. Abraham rejoiced before God as, in a wondrous triumph of faith, he resolved in his mind the moral excellence and consistent nature of the command he had received - and the God who had given it.
He saw how the command he had received was inseparably linked to the promise rather than contrary to it as it at first had appeared. He used the same process of faith to discern that the hope of a multitude of descendants upon whom the blessing of God would rest was dependent upon his immediate offspring, the progenitor of his descendants, conquering death. When he originally received the promise, he considered his own body which was as good as dead . . . he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb (Romans 4.19), and now we read "he considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead" (Hebrews 11.19), and by this same process of reflection and contemplation against the assurance of God's absolute faithfulness, he not only saw how the command could be reconciled with the promise but even how it in fact gave it its meaning and impetus. He saw how it was, in fact, the two hands that tied the two pieces together - the promise of a son and the ultimate blessing upon a multitude of descendants.
3. The Significance of the Sacrifice.
This leads us to the climax of Abraham's faith. We have already seen that he was designated the Friend of God because of his faith in God's faithfulness and that he was made the father of many nations. We have also seen that, just as the moon at best can only partly reflect the sun's light, so Abraham's faith in God was only a limited reflection of God's own faithfulness. Finally we have also seen that Abraham was a man who gave much consideration to whatever God told him. He therefore would have given much thought to this declaration:
I have made you the father of many nations. Romans 4.17
Why, he reasoned, should he be made the father of the faithful and a leader for mankind as the Bible and the Qur'an jointly testify? There could only be one logical answer. God is the true Father of the faithful and Abraham's high status could therefore only be seen as a reflection of God's great glory in heaven. Abraham's faith was a reflection of God's faithfulness and the righteousness imputed to him was thus also only a reflection of God's own righteousness. So likewise his position as a father of many nations could only be a reflection of God's own honour as the Father of all true believers. By thus reasoning Abraham could draw only one further conclusion - everything proceeding from him was therefore also only a type and reflection of something greater yet to proceed from God himself. Thus his son, the unusual birth, the sacrifice, his son's resurrection and the promise of a blessing through him upon a multitude of descendants were only a reflection of a greater reality yet to come.
Abraham put it all together. The father was to have a son in this world born wonderfully of a woman by the Spirit and this son was to be a decidedly spiritual man all his days Before he could have any descendants he was to be sacrificed as an offering to God, struck down by the hand of his own father. But he would rise from the dead and the risen son would beget descendants of great number through whom the nations of the world would be blessed.
By searching out the meaning of all this as he moved away from the reflection to the reality, Abraham was able to outline in his mind a glorious process of salvation that was to fill him with unspeakable joy. God, the true Father, was to send his own Son into the world, born miraculously of a woman by the power of the Holy Spirit, to be a man who would live solely by the Spirit he was to be born by - a man who would spiritually be the image of his eternal Father in every way. By his own eternally spiritual nature, he would transform men of all ages and in all nations from sinners of mere flesh and blood into saints of true spiritual dignity and would ultimately bring these offspring of the Spirit to eternal glory in the kingdom of God he had come to make available to them. But first he was to be sacrificed as an offering for sin. He was to burn within as he endured the wrath of God on behalf of sinners of every nation and in every age. He was to be struck down, not only physically at the hand of man, but spiritually by the hand of his own Father as he endured his wrath against the sins of men so that he might make a full atonement for them.
The Son of God was to rise from the dead, however, and the risen Son was to make available to men of true faith the Spirit of God so that they might become not only children of Abraham through the manner of their faith but spiritually children of God through the saving reality of that faith.
To put it in a nutshell, Abraham saw the whoIe of the Christian Gospel. By a faithful consideration of nothing more than two apparently contradictory divine statements, by exercising faith in "the unchangeable character of his purpose" (Hebrews 6.17), he worked out the whole plan of God's salvation. This is no mere speculation. As Abraham and Isaac were walking to the place of sacrifice his son said to him:
Abraham at last had to explain to Isaac that he was to be the sacrifice, but when he told him he added an assurance that shows he had perceived all that God was doing in this traumatic experience:
"My son, you are to be the sacrifice, you are to be the lamb we will offer up to God", Abraham was saying to him, "but take heart, all this is only a reflection. God will yet give of himself a lamb for an offering, a sacrifice for us". Abraham had perceived that all he was commanded to go through was simply a reflection of God's coming salvation and that in the sacrifice of Isaac God was revealing to him and all his descendants that he was to send his own Son to die for the sins of the world.
Centuries later another prophet, fully conscious that he had been raised especially to reveal the Son of God to the world, when he saw Jesus coming towards him, cried out:
"God himself will provide the lamb for an offering", Abraham had declared, and when John beheld Jesus, he proclaimed "There is the Lamb of God who comes as an offering for the sins of the world" (cf. Isaiah 53.10). Abraham thus foresaw that the sacrifice of his son Isaac was only to be a type of the sacrifice of the Son of God who would likewise be offered so that a blessing could come upon his true offspring:
To confirm finally that all we have been considering is not a speculation about what Abraham perceived through the command to sacrifice his son, let us hear Jesus himself in argument with the Jews about Abraham. When they declared that Abraham was their great forefather but that they did not know where he came from, Jesus replied:
"You do not know me, yet your father Abraham knew me", he declared, "and when he saw my day he was delighted". It is only in the reassuring words of Genesis 22.8, "God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son", that we can see how Abraham foresaw the coming of Jesus Christ as the Saviour of the world. Yet, as Abraham was about to slay his son in the hope that he would rise from the dead to typify the resurrection of the Son of God from the dead in an eternal victory over sin and death, a voice came from heaven, telling him to withhold his hand.
As Isaac was one of those who was to become one of the objects of the atoning work of the Son of God, he could not ultimately be slain as his type. God only wanted a full shadow and reflection of the work of his Son to be formed in Abraham's mind. But for the perfection of the type, it was necessary that something figuring the work of the Son of God should be sacrificed instead of (and indeed in place of) Isaac. So a lamb without blemish, caught in the thicket, was slain instead as God stopped the human sacrifice and deeply commended Abraham for his steadfast love and trust (Genesis 22.11-13). For the Lamb of God was to be caught in the thicket of sin as he died as a sufficient offering once for all for the sins of God's true people. But, while he beheld by the eye of faith the redeeming work of the Son of God through whom all the nations would be blessed, Abraham once again was reminded of the great blessings God had promised to his descendants. When the sacrifice of the lamb was finally over, God said to him:
Abraham realised that those who were to be redeemed by the work of the Son of God were in some way to be his descendants as well. Abraham was promised that all the nations would be blessed through his son - and, although he had seen that Isaac was only a physical type of the true Saviour, yet he knew that the real, effective outworking of the promise had been made to his descendants through his son. Abraham realised that the Son of God according to the Spirit was to become his son according to the flesh - and that his real descendants were to be those who would obtain the blessings promised through faith in his greater son yet to be born. Abraham saw that his true offspring were not to be his sons by the flesh but his students by faith:
God had promised Abraham descendants "as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore" (Hebrews 11.12). Were the latter not surely a reflection of the former? Both appear to be tiny specks to the human eye and both are too many to number. So the true children of God appear to be of the same stature today as the natural children of men and both are a great multitude. But what a vast difference there ultimately is between a grain of sand and a star. The first is really only a speck of dust on the earth, the second is a heavenly giant of unimaginable glory and splendour. Grains of sand are only feeble types of the splendid stars that shine in the heavens.
So Abraham realised that his earthly descendants through his promised son Isaac, namely the Hebrew people, would only be an earthly shadow of the true children of God who would one day "shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father" (Matthew 13.43). He realised that he would have physical offspring through Isaac but that he would also have spiritual offspring through the one Isaac was representing and that they would have the same faith that had commended him to God.
Abraham looked forward to the coming of Jesus, his greater son, to redeem the world from sin. It is for this reason that one of the first titles Jesus is given in the Gospels is "the son of Abraham" (Matthew 1.1). He is the ultimate Redeemer - the one who was to really bring about that which was prefigured in the sacrifice of Isaac many centuries earlier. Both Jesus and Isaac were properly descended from Abraham according to the promise but as Isaac was really only the son of Abraham, the reflection, so Jesus is ultimately the Son of God, the true Father of the faithful, the reality.
4. The Gospel that was Preached to Abraham.
Abraham, who exercised his faith and reasoned deeply in his heart about the command to sacrifice his son, saw the salvation of God in one glorious comprehension of the significance of the sacrifice. He foresaw the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and knew that it was to be the Son of God who was to be made a sacrifice for sin so that the blessings promised to Abraham and his descendants might become real to men in all nations who would turn to faith in Jesus:
God revealed to Abraham that he was to send his own Son Jesus Christ into the world, born of Abraham's seed as his greater son, so that the blessings he had promised to all nations might take real effect through the saving death of his Son on the cross and his subsequent resurrection to glory and honour at the right hand of God.
Let us, in conclusion, analyse how all we have considered can be turned into an effective witness to Muslims. We have stated that the best way to reach Muslims with the Gospel is to set it against the background of Muslims beliefs which we hold in common with them.
Both Islam and Christianity hold that Abraham was "the Friend of God", that he was appointed a leader for mankind and the father of the faithful, and that his faith, his millah, is an example of true faith in all ages. Against that background Christians can show Muslims precisely what Abraham's faith really was and how this led in time to a full appreciation of God's coming salvation in Jesus Christ. The Eid-ul-Adha festival, commemorating as it does the sacrifice of Abraham's son, is likewise a further point of contact where Christians can show Muslims just what was really happening when this great prophet prepared himself to lay his hand against his own son. The Eid sacrifice is an uncanny testimony in Islam to the ultimate truth of the Gospel.
Muhammad has thus become a witness to the doctrine of the Christian faith that "without shedding of blood, there is no remission". (Hughes, A Dictionary of Islam, p. 193).
It is important at this point also to consider why the Qur'an claims that Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian (as we have seen in our study of Surah 3.67). The argument runs as follows:
How could Abraham be a Jew when at-Tawraat, "the Law", was only revealed to Moses long after him? And how could he be a Christian when al-Injiil, "the Gospel", was only revealed at the time of Jesus yet many centuries later? Muhammad's attitude was that the Kitab, the "Scripture", of each of the ahlal-Kitab, the "People of the Book", only came after Abraham and he could therefore not have been a Jew or a Christian. Nay, says the Qur'an, he was muslimean - "a Muslim" (Surah 3.67). The reasoning is extremely hard to follow. If Abraham could not have been a Jew or a Christian because the Tawraat and Injil were only revealed later, how could he have been a Muslim when the Qur'an, the Scripture of the Muslims, came yet later still? The great commentator Baidawi was not unaware of this obvious anachronism in Surah 3.65-67 and tried to get around it by commenting:
The only way he could avoid the obvious refutation was to suggest that Abraham did not belong to the millah of Islam. In fact this is just what we have been saying. His millah, his faith and creed, were based on certain premises that led perforce to an anticipation of the whole Christian Gospel. But can we refute the claim that he could not have been a Christian if the Gospel only came later? Indeed we can, for it is written:
The Apostle Paul hits the nail on the head. The Gospel was preached beforehand to Abraham. To put it in Qur'anic terms, the Kitab preached the Injil beforehand to him in the promise that he would have so many descendants for, when this promise was linked to the command to sacrifice by Abraham, he was able by the eye of faith to perceive the whole of the Christian Gospel.
Abraham's faith was a reflection of true Christian faith. As he put his faith in God's faithfulness and so foresaw the Gospel, so we too do not rely on our own works but trust in the faithfulness of God who sent his Son to save us from our sins. Just as Abraham's faith was "counted to him as righteousness", so our faith in Jesus will be reckoned to us as righteousness as well.
Just as Abraham became the Friend of God, so we too have been assured by Jesus that we are no longer called servants, "but I have called you friends" (John 15.15). True Christians are the true children of Abraham.
But there remains one more thing to consider. God said to Abraham, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love" (Genesis 22.2). This called for the greatest manifestation of the love of Abraham for God - there was nothing greater that he could sacrifice to prove his surpassing love for God in heaven. He had to sacrifice something living that had come from him - something that would cost him far more than all his material possessions put together.
There is ultimately only one reason for this - God did not ask him to sacrifice his son just to test his love for him - rather it was through this that God desired to impress on Abraham how great his love was for him and all mankind. He was to send his only Son into the world to become a sacrifice for Abraham and all mankind as a glorious manifestation of his infinite, undying love for wayward sinners.
What greater sacrifice could a man make for God than to give his own son for him? What greater proof of God's love for man can be found than this - that he gave his only Son to die for our sins? And God only required that Abraham should contemplate the sacrifice. But God himself actually went right through with his love for men by giving his Son to die for our sins so that we may obtain the opportunity to possess eternal life through faith in him.
Just as Isaac willingly showed complacency with the will of God, so Jesus willingly of his own free will laid down his life for us. If God had redeemed us through anything he had created, it would have cost him nothing for he created it out of nothing. But God never asked any man to do more for him than he was prepared to do for men. He commanded Abraham to give up his own son who came from his own body. So God gave his own Son for us - one who was not created but whose blessed presence the Father had enjoyed from all eternity.
What a wondrous proof of God's love we have in this - that he gave his own Son to die for our sins. Abraham's exercise of love for God through the sacrifice of his only son was a magnificent shadow of God's love for us being made manifest through the sacrifice of his only Son.
Could God have tested Abraham's love for him any more deeply than he did by commanding him to give his son as a proof of his love? Could the deep love of God for us be proved in any way greater than this - that he gave his Son to save us from our sins? The command to sacrifice was merely a token and foreshadowing of God's perfect love yet to be revealed through the gift of his Son Jesus Christ for us.
I have often asked Muslims one simple question - what has God done to show his love for you? The answer is usually that he has given them children, good health, wealth, Islam, the Qur'an and the like. I have then asked if he has ever given them anything of himself by which he has paid a price to show his love for them. Has he ever done anything for the human race to-emulate Abraham's supreme act of love and self-sacrifice in being willing to sacrifice his own son for God? Here the Muslim must fall silent. One of the great anomalies of the Eid-ul-Adha festival is that it commemorates an act of love by a man for God which, in its excellence, has no parallel from heaven in return. God has given man things - children, health, possessions, religion - but he has given him nothing of himself. It is like a man who bestows gifts upon his beloved but never gives himself to her in marriage. In the Eid sacrifice we see a man showing more love for God than God has ever shown for man.
Not so in Christianity. The sacrifice of Abraham's son was only a foreshadowing of the supreme manifestation of God's love yet to come when he gave his Son as a sacrifice for us. Ask a Muslim this simple question - if the greatest way a man could show his love for God was to be willing to sacrifice his son for God, what is the greatest way God could ever show his love for us? There can only be one answer.
Still it does not end there. God's love for us in his Son Jesus Christ far outshadows Abraham's love for him. On the one hand Abraham, a man of dust, was willing to give his son, also made of dust, for the God of glory in heaven. An obligation rested upon him to be obedient to God's command. But what obligation was laid on the God of all glory in heaven to give his Son, who shares his glory to the full, for sinful men of flesh and blood on earth? On the other hand we must remember yet again that God spared the son of Abraham when the time finally came for him to be sacrificed. He did not spare his Son.
Once a year the Muslim world remembers a man's love for God in being willing to sacrifice his son for God - but every day of the year all true Christians honour God's incomparable love in actually giving his Son for us. What a price God paid to secure our salvation - and that so that we could receive it as a gift! (Romans 6.23).
In the Qur'an's teaching about Abraham - that he was taken by God as a friend, that he was appointed both leader and father of the faithful, that his millah was an example of true faith, and that he was willing to offer his son as a sacrifice to God - Christians have tremendous material upon which to build the message of the Gospel. Here we have a glorious opportunity to show Muslims that Abraham was, at heart, a true Christian and that God's love for the human race was fully revealed when he sent his Son Jesus Christ into the world to die for our sins. Here too we have many ways by which we can show Muslims wherein true faith consists - not in a blind, somewhat fatalistic resignation to God's will, but in an enquiring spirit which seeks out the mind and will of God against the background of the assurance that God is absolutely faithful and that he will always do that which is right and true.
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