Many Christians are unaware that Muslims believe in sacrifice. In fact, there is an annual celebration that commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son and God’s merciful provision of a substitute ram in his son’s place. The celebration is called Eid-al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice). The celebration takes place at the end of the Hajj or pilgrimage. Every Muslim who is financially able purchases an animal to sacrifice. The animal must be killed following Islamic law to be considered Halal or permissible. This entails a short prayer of blessing while slitting the animal’s throat, giving careful attention to drain all the blood. The meat is then shared with family, friends, and especially the poor. The celebration happens all over the Muslim world but it is certainly not limited to Muslim majority countries. Here in the United States, I have seen goats and even a cow sacrificed to celebrate Eid. It is always a treat to see the interaction of my Muslim friends with rural South Carolina farmers negotiating the purchase price of an animal and then killing it with a knife rather than allowing the farmer to use his usual methods for butchering.
Several years ago, I memorized the story of Abraham and Isaac so that I could go to the Mosque and share it with my Muslim friends during this celebration. As I entered the mosque, my friends excitedly greeted me, “Eid Mubarik” or “Happy Eid!” The atmosphere reminded me of Christmas celebrations. The food was abundant. Everyone had on new clothes. The mood was genuinely joyous. I sat down with a small group of guys I knew fairly well from previous mosque visits. I told them I had memorized the story concerning Abraham and his son and asked if they would like to hear it. Everyone wholeheartedly agreed and so I began: “God told Abraham to go to a mountain and sacrifice his son…” but before I could continue, a young man interrupted, saying, “I have heard this story, it’s about Abraham and his son Ishmael.” Someone else in the group replied, “no, the story is not about Ishmael, it’s about Isaac.” Within seconds, people began taking sides. My friends looked at me and asked, “Well, which is it?”
Before going to the mosque, I had already decided I wouldn’t make the child’s name a stumbling block for my Muslim friends. I was simply going to refer to him as Abraham’s son. I never expected my Muslim friends to begin arguing about this issue. I immediately prayed and asked for wisdom, and this is what came out: “The Qur’an doesn’t actually say and not all Muslims agree on the name of the child.” Someone recommended calling the Imam to sort it out for us and another suggested we get the Qur’an and look for ourselves. We chose the latter, and when reading in Surah 37 where the boy is not named, they began laughing and heckling one another. The Imam did eventually come over and give us some insight as to the confusion and agreed that the name is not so much as important as the event itself.
I eventually continued the story, drawing attention to the most important detail—a point of agreement between the Bible and Qur’an—that Abraham’s son was ransomed by God with a substitute sacrifice. The Qur’an says he was ransomed with a “momentous sacrifice” (37:107). I then went on to explain how in the Genesis account, God provided a ram to take the place of Abraham’s son. My next question to Muslim friends was simply this, “Why did God provide a sacrificial lamb in the place of Abraham’s son?” Couldn’t he have just told Abraham, “Stop, don’t do it! You have passed the test and proven your faith.” But that is not what happens in the Biblical or Quranic narratives.
Though Muslims believe in much of the Old Testament, the sacrificial system is virtually absent with the exception of this story. For that reason, our discussion surrounding the role of sacrifice and forgiveness was quite lively. I told them how John the Baptist (Yahya in the Qur’an) called Jesus the “Lamb of God” who takes away the world’s sin and that this referenced God’s provision for Abraham as well as the Passover lamb in the Exodus story. The conversation shifted to whether or not God required sacrifice to forgive sin. The Qur’an says it is not the blood of sacrifices which reach Allah but rather the piety of a man’s heart (22:37). I partially agree with my Muslim friends on this point. God is interested in the heart of the one presenting a sacrifice. He condemns careless and vain sacrifices. He calls them an abomination and a burden that He is weary of bearing (Isaiah 1:10-20). Yet, the author of Hebrews is clear—“without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin” (9:22). May our Muslim friends recognize that just as God ransomed Abraham and his son as a means to point toward the coming sacrifice of his own son that can ransom us. He has provided us with a momentous sacrifice in Christ, our Passover Lamb, who has been sacrificed for us (1Cor. 5:7). He is a lamb without blemish and capable of washing us white as snow (1Pet.1:19).
For more on Ishmael and Isaac, listen to the episode Ishmael and Isaac: Who Does God Bless on the Podcast Muslims Christians and the Zombie Apocalypse.
Dr. Trevor Castor is the Director of the Zwemer Center for Muslim Studies. He is also a professor of Muslim Studies and program director for the MA in Muslim Christian Relations at Columbia International University. He and his wife served as missionaries and worked in South Asia among a 100% Muslim population. He has a Ph.D. in Muslim-Christian Relations from the Australian College of Theology.