Updated: Jun 20, 2020
I seek refuge from Satan the rejected
In the name of GOD, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
Eid al-Adha (festival (of) the sacrifice) is an Islamic holiday celebrated by many Muslims to commemorate the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son as an act of obedience to God (due to a dream he had). Whilst this is by far the most common understanding of the incident (even among those who follow a Quran based Islam) there is some variance in terms of how it is explained away.
Some claim the vision was not from God (but from the "devil"), some claim Abraham mistakenly took the vision literally instead of as a metaphor (i.e. sacrifice his preoccupation with his son), and some claim it was a test/trial but God never intended for it to be actually carried out and stopped it before it happened. The primary reason for trying to explain it away is that it is seen as a problem that God ordered an innocent/righteous child to be killed. As such, translations frequently include interpolations and misrepresent the Arabic to aid such an interpretation.
So, is there an understanding based on The Quran that could provide a better fit? In my view yes.
I will present evidence that the more likely meaning of Abraham's dream was to leave his son (i.e. separate from him). The following is a simple/literal translation of the Arabic:
"My Lord, grant me from the righteous."
So We gave him good news of a compassionate child.
So when he reached the age of striving/working (with him), he said: "Indeed I have seen in sleep/dream that I am sacrificing you, so look what you see?" He said: "O my father, do what you are commanded (you will)*find me, if God willed, of the patient ones."
So when they both submitted and he (Abraham) brought**him (son) to***the forehead (or side of head).
And We called him: "O Abraham,"
"Surely you have believed/confirmed the vision." Indeed like thus We reward the righteous/good-doers.
Surely this (was) a clear trial.
And We ransomed/exchanged him with/for a mighty/great sacrifice.
And We left upon him in the later generations****
Peace be upon Abraham.
Like thus We reward the righteous/good-doers.
Surely he was of Our believing servants.
And we gave him good news of Isaac a prophet from the righteous.
*Arabic "sa" is a prefixed particle (i.e. coming before the verb "find me") indicating action in the future. The obvious problem for the conventional understanding is how can one be of the patient ones after having been sacrificed/killed?
**Arabic word "TaLLa" (root: Ta-Lam-Lam) also means "to draw something to one's self" / "to lay oneself down upon one's kin" as well as "lay/threw someone down" (which is the conventional translation here). Interestingly this latter meaning given in classical arabic dictionaries primarily implies forcefully put down but that would not be the case here since they both submitted, i.e. the son lay down willingly. This verb only occurs once in Quran.
***Arabic "li" predominantly means "to/for" not "upon" which is the conventional translation here.
****this phrase apparently means "upon him (i.e. his story/remembrance) is left/preserved for the later generations". Also occurs in 37:78, 119, 129.
Note the use of particles of emphasis/certainty throughout, e.g. indeed/surely, and the use of "We".
To clarify, the action described by the verbTaLLaabove is one that could be displayed during a heartfelt moment, e.g. when greeting a loved one or saying goodbye. Father and son examples shown below:
Many are not aware that at some point in the story of Abraham in Quran there was a family separation:
"...I have settled SOME of my progeny in an uncultivated valley..." [14:37]" i.e. they are not all in one place.
This is reinforced by the fact that Abraham and his sons Ishmael/Isaac and Jacob (grandson?) are never mentioned being together in one place. For example 2:125-128 mentions Abraham and Ishmael only when working on 'al bayt' (the shelter) and in 2:128 the dual form is used when Abraham asks "...make us both (i.e. Abraham and Ishmael) submissive...".
It is important to note 37:102 mentions the son reaching the age of striving/working telling us he was able to fend for himself which only seems relevant in an Abraham leaving scenario.
Note how key words are in the perfect/past tense, e.g. "submitted" (aslama) and "confirmed" (saddaqta) implying Abraham carried out the vision. Hence "...like thus We reward the good-doers..." i.e. he actually did good not was about to do good as some claim.
Further, when Quran says "indeed We like thus reward the good-doers" it is indicating this is an exemplar/model for us but if this incident is understood conventionally then we cant take it as an exemplar because no-one can replicate the practice/lesson in this story, i.e. do something because you THINK it is from God and you will be rewarded (even if it goes against Quran's principles!). Is there any other comparable example to this in The Quran? Not to my knowledge.
The conventional understanding claims that "the great/mighty sacrifice" refers to a sacrificial animal that was exchanged/ransomed for Abraham's son, which seems odd to me, because one may ask why the sacrificial animal is described as "great/mighty", especially in comparison to the slaughter of a son.
In the Abraham leaving scenario the "great/mighty sacrifice" would refer to the great sacrifice made by leaving his beloved son, making it a self-contained explanation.
It should be noted that the pronoun "hu" (i.e. "...exchangedhim...") in 37:107 is commonly taken to refer to the son, however the flow of the context suggests it refers to Abraham. In the sacrificial animal story the pronoun "hu" must refer to the son otherwise it doesn't work. In the Abraham leaving scenario it doesn't matter whom the pronoun refers to as it will work either way (i.e. separating is a mighty/great sacrifice for either Abraham or his son).
Elsewhere in Quran where the noun "trial" (balao) is used, it is from God, not another (e.g.shaytanoriblis), thus suggesting the dream/vision was from God.
No mention of a misinterpreted dream is found in Quran, and this position requires us to believe that both Abraham and his son misinterpreted it, which seems unlikely. Note that his son clearly thought it was a command.
Possible connected verses:
As such, your Lord has chosen you (Joseph), and He teaches youthe interpretation of narratives, and He completes His blessings upon you and upon the descendants of Jacob, as He completed it for your fathers before that,Abraham and Isaac. Your Lord is Omniscient, Wise. [12:6]
Abraham was tested*by words from His Lord, which he completed.He said, "I will make you a leader for the people." he said, "Also from my progeny?" He said, "My pledge will not encompass the wicked." [2:124]
*verb, samerootas the noun "trial/test" in 37:106. These two verses are the only times it is used in the context of Abraham in Quran, strongly suggesting a link.
Having said all of the above, it is not definitive that the dream was from God (as it is not explicitly stated), but there is certainly evidence implicating it was as outlined above. There is one weakness in my view and that is the use of "dhib'hin/sacrifice" (root: Dh-B-H) in 37:107.
Dh-B-Ḥ carries the meanings:
a) to split something,
b) to slit someone's/something's throat
c) to strangle someone/something.
The reason for the weakness is that this root is used twice in this story (once as a verb in "I am sacrificing you" in 37:102, and then as a noun "exchanged him with a great sacrifice" in 37:107, and this word is always used to mean a literal slaughter/sacrifice/kill in Quran.
The first use in 37:102 can be easily explained away as this is what he literally saw in his dream, so to take the literal meaning in 37:102 makes sense, but to take it literally in 37:107 is problematic because the "great sacrifice" in 37:107 was not a literal slaughter/sacrifice/kill. However, it should be noted that the noun form "dhib'bin" in 37:107 is only used once in the entire Quran.
My view is that this is a play on words to emphasise the significance/severity of this deed, i.e. Abraham was giving up his son, never to see him again, thus it is as if his son was sacrificed, lost to him forever. It is interesting to note the core meaning of the root seems to be "to split something".
I have noted The Quran use play on words before but I never noted down the instances for future reference. Some that come to mind are Chapter 111, and the use of"cast" in 20:70. If anyone knows of other possible examples please let me know.
To end I would like readers to ponder over the following point. Please note the interesting use of different words for 'the sleep/dream' (al manam) in 37:102, and 'the vision' (al ru'ya) in 37:105. Please re-read the verses above.
At first I thought this was unusual but my research of Quran has often taught me that its use of language is precise and for a reason so I decided to dig deeper and I was amazed at what I found. The usage of 'al manam' in Quran always indicates a literal dream meaning, i.e. no interpretation required, but 'al ru'ya' involves foretelling of a future event that requires interpretation. Thus, Abraham saw in his dream/manamthat he was literally sacrificing his son in 37:102, but in 37:105 God states he confirmed the vision/ru'ya(i.e. interpreted dream). If Quran had said he confirmed his 'al manam' that could have implied he was about to carry out what he literally saw. Coincidence?
The Quranic evidence suggests that God tested Abraham with a dream in which he saw himself literally sacrificing his son. However both Abraham and his son correctly understood its meaning/significance, and when Abraham confirmed the vision by leaving his son he/they was rewarded. For those familiar with the story of Abraham in Quran will know that he was dedicated to spreading the message of God throughout his life and is considered animam(leader/exemplar) for the people.
Note: early Traditional Muslim scholars considered the sacrificial son to be Isaac, but later changed their minds and think it was Ishmael. The Quran does not specify who, it is left open it seems. I am of the view it suggests it was Isaac, thus giving us a self-contained story above. Note the good news in 37:112 is of Isaac's prophethood not of him being born.
Peace be upon you.