Dwelling in Abraham's Shadow
On the origins of humanity's axial shift away from human sacrifice and why we celebrate it every year.
God inserts saints and prophets into the tides of history to shift the collective axial dimension of mankind. There are less than a dozen such metahistorical events scattered beyond the deepest memories of men, and though most lack the himmet to perceive it, we live in the shadow of them all. What differentiates these metahistorical events from the ordinary great events of history is that the former defines not just their own civilisation but all civilisations thereafter. And they are all of them enacted by the divine will. This week, we celebrate one such event for the 1444th time come the end of June 2023 in the Gregorian calendar.
The Feast of the Sacrifice, (in Arabic, Eid Al-Adha, or in Turkish, Kurban Bayramı) is the celebration of God’s mercy towards Abraham, and marks a turning point in humanity’s psychological condition. The progenitor of the Abrahamic faiths was given a test in which he was compelled to prove his faith in God by sacrificing his own son, Ismael.1 As the knife descended, Abraham was prevented by God from sacrificing Ismael, and God instead declared that this sacrifice would henceforth be replaced by ‘a greater sacrifice’.2 This event is remembered through the Feast of the Sacrifice in which Muslims sacrifice animals and distribute their meat to the poor. This event is a harbinger of much more than ritual gratitude: it is one of the few metahistorical events that saw an evolution in the human condition that informs our fundamental moral attitudes today: the transfer of man’s compulsion to sacrifice other men to pagan idols to the sacrifice of animals.
A cursory look at pagan history reveals that human sacrifice has been the norm in pagan societies since time immemorial. From the bloodied steps of Aztec temples deep into the jungles of Nusantara, human sacrifice reared its ugly head wherever pagan idols were worshipped. Bereft of divine revelation and left to our own devices, men have often assumed that the greatest offering to their Gods was the life of other men. It is something that contemporary man can barely begin to fathom, assuming that our moral attitudes against the practice emerged almost by happenstance, or that some philosopher had reasoned his way to the fact that human sacrifice was wrong. By some process or another, over time entire cultures and civilisations bought into the idea and eventually the practice became nearly extinguished around the world.
None of this was an emergent phenomenon: a metahistorical event took place that fundamentally changed our moral assumptions. It is the significance of Abraham’s life that his sacrifice not only abolished human sacrifice wherever the followers of Abraham went, but that this event has come to so dominantly shape our moral attitudes today that we do not even know their origins. The moral assumptions of both Islamic and Christian civilisation share the same roots, and from their competitive dominance of the world over the past few millennia has emerged an almost universal framework for what is right and what is wrong. At the heart of it all is Abraham himself, without whom it is uncertain that we would not have seen the practice of human sacrifice to our pagan idols even into contemporary times.
Such a thought would be preposterous to contemporary man, who labours under the conceit that his moral attitudes today are informed by his capacity to reason, which in our time means freedom from ‘religious dogma’. Yet contemporary man lacks the imagination or moral depth to imagine a different trajectory for society if it were to be informed by a different set of founding principles to those of Abraham’s, in whose shade contemporary man takes supreme comfort and confidence while scorning the prophet himself. In short, contemporary man overestimates his ability to reason his way to a new set of founding moral assumptions and principles, i.e. a religion, and out of this error we receive glimpses into a void in which eldritch terrors threaten to rise and swallow us whole.
Men will always follow a religion, and today that means a secularised simulacra of our Abrahamic foundations. The knife of Abraham once used to transfer human sacrifice to animal sacrifice is today exchanged for the knife of the murder of the unborn and the mutilation of children. The rise of transhumanism is an attempt to fill the void of Christianity in the West with paganism in sterile scientific form. Transhumanism ranges from technological utopianism to medical interventionism, yet they all share a fundamental assumption: that the power of man has overcome the restraint of God’s biological boundaries and that we can remake man in our own image, and create our own moral attitudes and laws to guide civilisation. Our breakneck dive into sacrifice and mutilation after abandoning Abrahamic morality in a single generation calls into question man’s capacity to reason without some form of divine revelation or intervention.
The situation in the West is severe, yet Christianity is not alone in facing this unrelenting assault. Those sufficiently divorced from the biological realities of this material plane and their own bodies increasingly take aim at the Feast for “environmental” and “ethical” reasons. Not content with mere condemnation, halal and kosher slaughter is being banned state by state across continental Europe. Increasingly shorn from our fitra, and perhaps too insulated from the true nature of man and his history, the more timid of our religious kinsmen question the need to conduct what is often depicted as ‘an orgy of animal sacrifice’. Perhaps in lieu our humanity may be proved by the ritual consumption of lettuce, or something else as fittingly weightless as the conviction of contemporary man. Perhaps we have morally evolved to the point where even God can be proved wrong and man has superseded the need for divinely-revealed morality. Now we can make our own laws.
It would be a poor show on the part of the believers to permit those who are ignorant of history and the true nature of man the hubris to preach about common sense and intentions. Yet it is precisely the ignorance of the believers towards their own faith and traditions that is ceding ground year after year. The weight of generations has made ambiguous the Feast’s transformation of the human psyche and its consequences for the human race, and why today more than ever we must remember the origins of our traditions and their continued relevance in the face of this re-emerging paganism that is increasingly militant in its proselytisation.
Lest we forget, our revulsion towards human sacrifice is a recent phenomenon in the grand scale of history. For those who ponder, the Feast is a memory of a time before when human sacrifice was widely practised — a memory that has been largely forgotten. It is a celebration of God’s mercy on Abraham, distinguishing Him from the false idols of pagan societies who not only often sacrificed men but for the sake of their ‘Gods’ also sacrificed their own children. It is a turning point with Abraham as the divinely-ordained harbinger whose laws until today informs our most fundamental beliefs in right and wrong. This event created the decisive shift away from human sacrifice through the symbolic transfer to the ritual sacrifice of animals, and informs our attitudes on the sanctity of life — when and when not to kill, what is sacred and profane, and where man’s capacity to reason his way to moral action ends.
All that stands between the sanctity of human life and the pagan desire to sacrifice human life to pagan idols is the knife of Abraham. As millions prepare to conduct the great sacrifice this year, they should remember to give thanks to God for delivering us from pagan ignorance, and remember how quickly we may fall back into that ignorance if we are forgetful.
In the Biblical version, Isaac takes his place, although there is some dispute in the Islamic tradition as to which of Abraham’s sons were to be sacrificed, with Islamic scholars slightly more in favour of Ismael.