Sacrifice in the twenty-first century

Yesterday was Eid-al-Adha (“Festival of the Sacrifice”), one of two major Muslim holidays during the year. It is meant to commemorate the willingness of Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham – the same Abraham of the Bible!) to sacrifice his son for God’s sake. Of course, it was merely his willingness that was being tested, for his son Ismail, as Muslims believe, was never intended to die that day. Eid-al-Adha is also the day that the yearly Hajj pilgrimage comes to its end.

Muslims all over the world celebrate this holiday, whether on the pilgrimage themselves or not, and are asked to make a sacrifice of their own. Ritually, it is usually a livestock animal, a portion of which is distributed among the poor. Yes, livestock includes cows, I know. Ours was a goat, I made sure. I asked my husband twice just to be safe.

For many, including myself, the sacrifice ends at that.

When I went to prayer yesterday, sitting at the back, I witnessed just how disconnected we are from Prophet Ibrahim’s story. We are reminded each year of his sacrifice and his level of faith moves us… for a time. But what do we do after the end of the sermon?

Some of us can’t even listen attentively to the entire sermon! The women to my left were busy taking Eid selfies and laughing. I was in the middle of making my own bi-annual “Eid Moobarak” status update when I realized: What am I doing? I am guilty of this disconnect as well. As soon as I remembered, I put my phone away. But it wasn’t an easy task. Theoretically, I knew my status update could wait, but I felt an internal struggle in putting my phone away. Seek instant gratification or listen to the speaker remind me of a story I’ve heard countless times before?

This situation later got me thinking about the meaning of sacrifice for us living today. This applies to Muslims specifically, but I think more generally to anyone who considers him or herself a devoted servant of God.

I used to think that sacrifice meant I had to give up something as precious as a son. But because I am clearly unable to do that, whatever I did do wasn’t a sacrifice at all. What this way of thinking resulted in was a whole lot of guilt and a pervading feeling that I am not a “good” Muslim.

After prayer, over tea and donuts, I asked Mr. Rafia this question, “What does sacrifice mean in the 21st century?” After he facetiously answered, “I think it means the same thing it always did,” to which I rolled my eyes, he told me that I was being too grandiose with my definition. “Just waking up for the morning dawn prayer is a sacrifice,” he said. “Is it really?” I asked. “It’s an obligation! That’s not a sacrifice,” I told him.

Is a religious obligation a sacrifice? Perhaps it is. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t wake up at 5 AM to pray if I didn’t have to.

I think a large reason why Muslims are so disconnected to our history is because the messages we’re hearing aren’t presented in a way that have salience in our lives. We could never sacrifice our children or even think of doing it. So how do we find inspiration in Prophet Ibrahim’s story? It’s not so easy. We need guideposts. Otherwise, we risk our history remaining just that – a bunch of facts that don’t have much meaning today. A part of me feels that because such a grandiose message is being relayed, it’s falling on deaf ears. It’s not enough for our scholars and religious leaders to know our history, they also have to know how to relay it to us, their students.

We haven’t reached this point yet in my opinion, based on my experience. The evidence is in the fact that taking selfies while our religious leaders are speaking is not only happening, it seems like a better use of our time.

P.S. I may have posted this prematurely, by not giving myself more time to properly compose my thoughts. I am by no means suggesting that social media addiction is not a problem. But this disconnect is not a result of solely that alone. There was a time when I had no social media presence whatsoever, but the disconnect was still there. Human beings need guided direction given the quagmires we have gotten ourselves into. Grandiose messages full of platitudes that are more disheartening than inspiring is not the answer.

9 thoughts on “Sacrifice in the twenty-first century

  1. Great post as always Rafia. There is much in your experience that I can relate too. I do believe that when it comes to taking ownership of our history as an Ummah, the scholars have their role, but we also have to put in some work from our side. As much as scholars can relay that history to us in great details, and help us interpret the lessons to be learned from it, only we can really figure out how it relates to our individual journeys. We have to take the time not only to learn that history, but to ponder on it, and find those points of intersection that always link the past to the present.

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  2. I think sacrifice is subjective for everyone depending on the stage they are in their spiritual journey. Prophet Ibrahim obviously had greater iman and was thus tested accordingly, and – that’s so true – I wish it wasn’t relayed in such a grand form, because that just wouldn’t apply to our day to day lives. Also can I just take a minute to say that I would never have the guts to take selfies in that situation?! :P Hope your Eid was memorable – I always learn so much through you <3 :)

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  3. That is true and I guess if the message were catered to a specific group of people, it would alienate others. Well, to be fair, these were women who weren’t able to pray. But I couldn’t either – also, I don’t take selfies (mostly because I don’t know how and that’s a good thing!). Thanks, Naureen! It was a nice Eid. I had one of the best lunches I ever had and I saw cows (THEY WERE ALIVE!) at the end of the day. I hope your Eid was great as well, dear!

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  4. That is very true and you make a great point! I think I wrote my post in a way that makes it seem that I’m putting all the blame on the scholars and I realize I should have taken more time to explain myself. I guess, having been on the side of trying to figure it out largely on my own, I’ve felt lost and misguided. It’s hard for Muslims who haven’t devoted their entire lives to studying the Islamic sciences to navigate it on their own (YouTube lectures are no replacement). But when we do try to seek out more information, the ones we go to might actually do more harm than benefit (this is not always the case though). I think both sides need to be doing more seeking and more relating, if that makes sense. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Geeky Muslimah, I really appreciate it!

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  5. You are absolutely right that it is very hard for Muslims seeking to increase their Islamic knowledge to know where exactly to go. There are plenty of material on the internet but how do you know which ones are accurate and which ones aren’t. There are so many ways one could end up being misguided, and in fact I think we are all witnessing the effects of that in our communities (so many trends that tend to be a lot more radical in their interpretations). In my humble opinion that’s where scholars need to do a better job of presenting knowledge in a more comprehensive manner to the rest of the Ummah. Especially now, when we are really feeling the effects of what being misguided can lead to. Thank you Rafia for this very apropos conversation on how we approach and utilize Islamic knowledge in our lives.

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  6. “What does sacrifice mean in the 21st century?” I don’t know the answer but even the yearly sacrifice of a goat or cow for Bakrid is done so mechanically by the lot that the essence of “Prophet Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son” is never or hardly felt. We were on a road trip for 6 days across Saudi and we saw so many trucks of goats being transported even a day before Eid. If one has chosen to sacrifice a goat to commemorate Prophet Ibrahim’s story, I believe it would be worth if we spent some days feeding it etc. I also feel too much information does harm and being ignorant is better than being misguided. “Sacrifice” is a grandiose word here because we don’t have to sacrifice anything as nothing belongs to us!! By just doing all the things obligatory wholeheartedly will refine your choices. May He guide us all to the right path. Ameen. I love to read your articles Rafia, as it makes me ponder too. Always thought provoking!

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  7. Thanks so much for your comment, Famidha! “Being ignorant is better than being misguided” – so true and yet it strikes me. Neither should be an option for us. But one is definitely worse than the other! And yes, you’re right! Nothing belongs to us, so perhaps we shouldn’t even think of it as a sacrifice. I’ll have to ponder on this a bit and I wonder what this will lead me to discovering! :)


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