Today is Eid-ul-Azha. A day of sacrifice, a day of remembrance of
Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him)'s gesture of faith.
Sacrifice, however, was the way far before the time of Prophet Abraham
(peace be upon him). To give one's dearest thing away is a tradition
as ancient as humanity. To give away from one's possessions enabled a
human to move on, to ascend higher in character, to become empty, to
The Qur'an acknowledges that there was a time when a fire would leap
down from the sky, and devour a sacrificial offering, as a sign of its
acceptance. I understand that this occurred in the most primal times
in human history, perhaps before the discovery of fire that could be
intentionally created through firestone. And that, at that time,
'religion' was a naturalist tradition.
A better phrase than 'religion' is 'the way' (which is what the Arabic
term 'deen' refers to. 'Deen' is not religion, nor is it ritual. Deen
is 'the way of life'.). It is true that 'the way' evolved with human
consciousness. If it is hypothesized that religion has evolved, and
that with advancement of human knowledge that which was once deemed
'beyond comprehension, beyond reach' became both comprehensible and
with human reach -- then this is exactly as it is.
'The way' is essentially the same, and yet it has evolved. To take an
example, spontaneous chemical reactions must have awed and even
overwhelmed the earlier Human. Today, humans replicate them in labs
and fabricate them in factories. Yet, the elements (as identified in
the periodic table) remain the same. Perhaps these elements were
200,000 years ago as they are today. Perhaps their relative
proportions have changed. Perhaps, the half life of many is incredibly
short. The fact is, however, that their totality has remained the
same. Total Earth has remained total Earth.
Human consciousness has evolved. The way we witness and describe and
identify and classify existence has evolved.
In order to evolve, to go ahead, humans have traditionally given up
that which was the dearest to them. Because that is the culmination,
the 'fruit', of the state they are in out of which they seek to
evolve. When one gives up the most significant outcome or achievement
of a state (or stage), they are free to move on to the next state (or
Sometimes the situation compels a human to seek that advancement --
that is, they reach a visible roadblock -- and sometimes an inner
voice, a curiosity, an inner urge, one's 'own idea' become their
inspiration to seek that advancement. Either way, it's one and the
Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him) ushered in a new era in human
consciousness. It was he who rebelled from ancestoral gods; and he
broke away from a naturalist religious tradition too. The story of the
young Abraham in the Qur'an shares that he looked upon the sky and
observed the stars, the Moon, and the Sun. When he each rising, he
mused, "This brilliant object there in the sky must be
What-Governs-My-Affairs!" Yet as the stars, the Moon, the Sun -- each
progressively more luminous than the other -- set in the sky, Abraham
(peace be upon him) despaired of them. In each instance he declared,
"This cannot be my Lord!" until, finally, the most brilliant of them
all -- the Sun -- set too. At which the Prophet declared: "My Lord is
the One Who created all these finite objects!"
With this declaration, an era of consciousness in which the human
engaged with the Primal Mystery through natural phenomena ended.
Nature no longer frightened or dominated Human. Human became
integrated with Nature. Another era began.
This was the era of cognition as we know it today. One of the
underlying abilities of cognition is to alter one thing into another
through a metaphorical bridge.
Have you ever walked through Earth's cultures and realized that there
are some cultures which simply do not comprehend idiom or sarcasm --
anything which is not literally what it is? I once visited a mountain
village at the foot of a glacier -- as remote as they could get. In
that primal territory, I realized, people did not understand a joke or
even knew it was a joke. I participated in a joke that a group was
pulling on the villagers. Shortly, we realized, we were in trouble and
perhaps being cruel -- because these people took us for our word
(about a 'marriage proposal'). We thought they were playing and making
conversation. But they were 'serious'.
Upon reflection, I realized they could not be otherwise. They lived in
direct touch with earth and their world was limited to a tiny village.
They had meanings ('a goat means food, economic power') but no
metaphors. Everything was direct.
So it was to the ancient human. Everything was itself. Phenomenon
spoke to them directly. Language was encoded as pictures of the thing
that it referred to, not as symbolic alphabets referring to that
thing. You can look at a cave drawing and tell that it spoke of a
bull. You cannot look at contemporary modern languages and tell what's
what. This ancient language had meaning, but it had no metaphor. It
could tell a story by painting a literal scenery of the event, such as
the story of a hunt. If this story had a 'moral, it would be fairly
Why, then, was cognition needed? Why turn one thing into its symbol?
One reason that comes to mind is 'portability' of information. Symbols
could point to the truth -- once again, as in equations of chemistry.
This also allows, for all practical reasons, a wider distribution of
knowledge which could now be encoded. "C-O-W" can tell you what is
being referred to without the need to touch or see the actual object.
It also facilitates learning by seeing.
More critically, it allows transformation -- an alchemical reaction
that turns one thing into another. This is exactly the point made by
the story of Abraham's intended sacrifice of his son.
Cognitive understanding, and working with symbolic language, is the
hallmark of the Abrahamic evolution in human consciousness. Abraham
defined the transition point when he saw a dream in which he is
'sacrificing' his son.
Let us pause for a moment, and come back to 2009. Much work has been
done in the field of symbols and, too, dream interpretation. Even to
this day, many people see dreams that appear to be literal, but are
indeed metaphorical. 'Being naked' (possibly) means getting rid of
pretense, being free, or even exposure and shame -- depending upon how
the seer of the dream takes nakedness in waking life, within their
Once metaphor is understood, the meaning can be, too.
Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him) was at the cusp of a transition of
consciousness. According to the Qur'an, the comprehensive knowledge of
dream interpretation first manifested through the gift of another man,
Prophet Yousuf/Joseph (peace be upon him), who was the progeny of
Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him).
Quite appropriately, Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him) saw a dream
in which he 'gives up' his 'dearest thing' -- that being his son at
that time. This was the same son, from slave girl Hajra ('Hager'), who
had already been rescued from death in the desert which later became
Makkah the city as a child. An everlasting foundation, Zamzam, had
burst forth as a deserted Hajra searched for water fir his child.
According to tradition, Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him) did not
immediately act upon the dream. However, the dream recurred. Finally,
he shared it with his son, Ishmael (peace be upon him) who said, "Dear
father! If this is what you see, then act upon it. You shall find me
Remember, at that time, humans were in direct touch with their
inspiration. They had no access to television, experts, and remotely
accessible data. To act quickly upon what appeared in their mind was a
matter of survival to humans, who had no 'sight beyond sight' as we
are granted today through electronics.
Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him) followed the ancient literalist
tradition of taking a scene as it is, and prepared to physically
sacrifice his son. Sacrifice, as has been shared, meant giving up,
going on, going up and ahead. Sacrifice was noble. This dream was a
noble call, to the Prophet's understanding.
Tradition has it that even as Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him) was
about to slaughter a blindfolded but willing Ishmael, he heard a sound
that declared, "Stop! Your intent of sacrifice has been accepted! You
do not need to slaughter Ishmael!" It is said that Ishmael was
'replaced with' a ram.
Finally, Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him) had interpreted his dream
in a flash of inspiration.
And that was the moment when the human collective crossed over into
the new era of consciousness: the era of metaphorical language and
cognition. The beginning of an era where humans could gain knowledge,
transport it, and use it to bring transformation.
It was apt that the very thing that became the first symbol, through a
dream, was Sacrifice: giving up the fruit of the life lived thus far,
so a transition is made into the next moment.
by: Ramla Akhtar
on: November 28, 2009
Eid-u-Azha, 1430 Hijri