Last week I missed posting on one of Islam’s holiest days—Eid Al-Adha, held October 25-26—so here’s my belated make-up. A day celebrating our willingness to sacrifice to God, Eid Al-Adha is centered on the Biblical account of Abraham and Issac. You probably know the story, how God demands that Abraham sacrifice his only son but then, at the last moment, sends a ram to be sacrificed in the boy’s stead.
The story has disturbed many people, especially those who focus on Issac. Wilfred Owen, for instance, used it as a vehicle to express his fury at the European elders who were sending their young men to die in the trenches of World War I:
The Parable of the Young Man and the Old
By Wilfred Owen
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned, both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake, and said,
My Father, Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets the trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
The Sufi mystic Rumi, however, whose spiritual vision I trust, takes the story in another direction. In his version, the parable is about how we hold on to unhealthy attachments and fail to put our entire trust in God. We hold on to a grudge for years, heavy and mired in mud, and we fail to be “as wide as the air.” As a result, we don’t understand that God “takes care of each wave till it gets to shore.”
The priest says “Bismillah” or “In the name of God” as he sacrifices the animal. If we were to accept grace and live in the name of God, we would sacrifice our old selves and step into our real selves.
In Rumi’s version, it’s as though Isaac isn’t part of the story. Or rather, we are each of us both Abraham and Isaac. Here’s the poem:
It’s a habit of yours to walk slowly.
You hold a grudge for years.
With such heaviness, how can you be modest?
With such attachments, do you expect to arrive anywhere?
Be wide as the air to learn a secret.
Right now you’re equal portions clay
and water, thick mud.
Abraham learned how the sun and moon and the stars all set.
He said, No longer will I try to assign partners for God.
You are so weak. Give up to grace.
The ocean takes care of each wave
till it gets to shore.
You need more help than you know.
You’re trying to live your life in open scaffolding.
Say Bismillah, In the name God,
As the priest does with the knife when he offers an animal.
Bismillah your old self
to find your real name.