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Leap of Faith

God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac in His honour. Abraham is at a loss; he does not understand how a nation can
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Absurdism, an offshoot of Existentialism, holds that every human effort to find meaning or rational explanation in the universe ultimately fails because no such meaning exists. In his philosophical discourse, Le Mythe de Sisyphe (Myth of Sisyphus) published in 1942, Albert Camus deals with the concept of absurdism through the story of Sisyphus in Greek mythology. According to Camus, the image of Sisyphus condemned forever to roll a rock up a hill which will inevitably roll down as it reaches its destination is a metaphor for the human condition characterised by absurdity. In the consciousness of the inherent irrationality and futility of the tedious task of Sisyphus lies the sense of the absurd. 

One may argue that in the belief that there is more to life than what is rationally or empirically verifiable lies the absurd. In the belief in a transcendental reality, God (who according to the French existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre, not only does not exist but cannot exist), lies the absurd. In the belief in meaning, significance and purpose while apparently there is none to go by lies the absurd. There are different philosophical positions answering the question as to how one is to respond to one’s consciousness of the absurdity of human existence. 

According to Soren Kierkegaard, the father of Existentialism, our confrontation with the absurd calls for a ‘leap of faith,’ that is, the acceptance of meaning, relevance, purpose, significance etc., outside the boundaries of human reason. To believe in something that cannot be confirmed empirically, rationally and objectively is to take a leap of faith. Kierkegaard is categorical in arguing that based on our ordinary human experience, we cannot come to conclude that God exists. Only faith makes us believe in the existence of God. Faith is not built on empirical or rational proof. One has to take a leap and support one’s entire existence on one’s faith. The absurdists would argue that to believe in God is to believe in the absurd, i.e., to believe in that which is contrary to reason. 

In his book, Fear and Trembling, which he wrote under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio, Kierkegaard argued that it is the biblical character Abraham’s belief in the absurd that makes him agree to sacrifice his son Isaac (born to his wife Sarah) in accordance with the command of God who had promised Abraham that He would make him the father of a great nation (which would later be revealed as Israel). Some years after making the promise, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac in His honour. Abraham is at a loss; he does not understand how a nation can emerge out of Abraham without the survival of his son. Abraham realises that the situation in which he finds himself does not make sense; it is irrational, illogical and absurd. However, Abraham responds to the situation by making a leap of faith which entails his unequivocal willingness to sacrifice his son in obedience to the command of God. As the biblical account goes, God intervenes as Abraham is about to strike his son who is bound to the sacrificial altar. Miraculously God produces a ram before Abraham for the sacrifice in place of Isaac, and Abraham sacrifices the ram. It is as Abraham makes a leap of faith that the miracle happens. The anecdote of Abraham trying to sacrifice Isaac is found not only in the Christian Bible but also in Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. 

sacrifice of isaac caravaggio
Sacrifice of Isaac, Caravaggio (1603).

It is God testing Abraham and the latter’s leap of faith in total self-surrender that lies at the heart of the Islamic festival Eid al-Adha (Festival of Sacrifice) also known Eid al-Kabir, (the Major Festival), Kurban Bayram (Feast of the Sacrifice), Bakra Eid or Bakrid (Goat Festival). If the Christian and Jewish traditions have Abraham preparing to sacrifice Jacob, the Islamic tradition has Ibrahim (Abraham) preparing to sacrifice not Isaac, but his firstborn Ishmael born to Hajar (Hagar) as per the command of God. As per the biblical account, Hagar was the Egyptian servant of Sarah and therefore, not Abraham’s legal wife. However, the Islamic tradition regards Hajar (Hagar) as his Egyptian wife and the grandmother of Arabians with Abraham as their grandfather. It also regards Ishmael as a prophet and an ancestor to Muhammad.  

As per the Islamic tradition, based on his dream of Allah asking him to sacrifice Ishmael his son as an oblation to Him, Ibrahim makes Ishmael understand his dream and the divine plan. Ishmael who is in total agreement with and submission to the plan of Allah accompanies his father to the place of sacrifice to fulfil the plan of Allah. As Ibrahim begins the preparation for the sacrifice, he even has to fight hard against the devil who tries his best to dissuade him from the divine plan.  Pleased with Ibrahim’s total obedience, submission and devotion to Him, Allah sends Jibreel (Angel Gabriel), carrying a sheep for the sacrifice in place of Ishmael. Ibrahim offers the sheep as a sacrificial offering to Allah.    

The Quran reminds Muslims that the act of animal sacrifice is not sufficient.

In commemoration of Ibrahim’s and Ishmael’s obedience and surrender to the will of Allah, and Allah’s sending a goat through Jibreel, the Muslim community sacrifices animals such as goats, lambs, cows, bulls, buffalos, camels, etc at the festival of Eid al-Adha, the festival of sacrifice. Because of the traditional practice of sacrificing bakri (goat) on the occasion, in the Indian subcontinent, the festival is known as Bakra Eid or Bakrid. On the morning of Eid, after Eid Salaah (Eid Prayers), Qurbani (the act of sacrifice) which is symbolic of human self-sacrifice and surrender before God is performed. In the book, Understanding Islam and Muslim Traditions, Tanya Gulevich says, “The Eid al-Adha sacrifice must be offered according to Islamic law. The person who performs the killing must be an adult male of sound mind. Animals selected for sacrifice must be without blemish. The animal to be killed must face in the direction of Mecca while the man who performs the sacrifice cuts its throat, severing the windpipe and jugular vein. Certain prayerful phrases must accompany the killing.”

By means of the animal sacrifice (often of a sheep) at the festival of Eid al-Adha, what is being celebrated is Ibrahim’s exemplary faithfulness to God and Ishmael’s survival through divine intervention that resulted in the sacrifice of a ram in place of Ishmael. After the ritual sacrifice of the carefully chosen animal, the faithful share the meat of the animal among the members of the family, friends, and the poor. 

As per the Islamic tradition, based on his dream of Allah asking him to sacrifice Ishmael his son as an oblation to Him, Ibrahim makes Ishmael understand his dream and the divine plan. Ishmael who is in total agreement with and submission to the plan of Allah accompanies his father to the place of sacrifice to fulfil the plan of Allah.

Eid al-Adha is the second biggest Islamic festival, the first being Eid al-Fitr, popularly known as Eid or Ramadan Eid which marks the end of the sacred month of Ramadan, a time of fasting and prayer.  It is celebrated on the 10th day of Dhu al-Hijjah in the 12th month of the Islamic lunar calendar. The meaning of the Arabic word, ‘Eid,’ being ‘festivity,’ or ‘recurring happiness,’ Eid al-Adha is a festival specially marked by joy and peace. It is an occasion to reforge relationships with family and friends by letting go of all that separate people from each other. Therefore, soon after the Eid prayers, the faithful embrace one another wishing Eid Mubarak (Happy Eid or Blessed Eid) and exchanging gifts. It is also an occasion when the faithful are expected to be explicitly charitable to the poor and the needy. Moreover, an overwhelming sense of faithfulness, surrender and gratitude to God permeates the entire festival. Gulevich tells us that “The Quran reminds Muslims that the sheer act of sacrificing an animal is not sufficient and that God does not actually benefit in any way from the slaughtered animals. Instead, it is the faithfulness of those who perform the sacrifice that reaches God.” Gulevich’s argument reminds us of the profound quranic verse 37 of chapter 22 that says “It is not their meat or blood that reaches God: It is the fealty of your heart that reaches Him. That is why He has subjugated them to you so that you may glorify God for having shown you the way.” The celebration of Eid al-Adha is an invitation to the faithful for an inner transformation in and through its profound religious symbolism revolving around the anecdote of Ibrahim and Ishmael.  

Year after year, amidst all the prayers, rituals and festivities around Eid al-Adha, I prefer to fall back on Ibrahim’s (Abraham’s) leap of faith – a momentous landmark in the discourses of the Abrahamic religions that speaks volumes to the sceptical minds struggling to cope with the manifold manifestation of the absurdity of existence.

Images courtesy: Pxhere, Wkimedia Commons, Albumarium

Sacaria Joseph is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata. Having pursued his undergraduate studies at St. Xavier’s College, he furthered his academic journey by obtaining a Master of Arts degree in English Literature from Pune University, a Master of Philosophy from Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and a PhD from Visva-Bharati University, West Bengal. In addition to his academic pursuits, he writes on a wide array of subjects encompassing literature, philosophy, religion, culture, cinema, politics, and the environment.

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