Q. I was listening to an Eid khutba and the Imam, a renowned Muslim leader in the U.S, talked about the incident when Allah tested Abraham in relation to sacrificing his son Ishmael. He came up with two interpretations from this: Abraham was willing to kill for Allah, and his son Ishmael was willing to die for Allah. He then asked the thousands of people present: How many of you are willing to "kill and die" for Allah? Was his interpretation of this Qur'anic event correct?

A. There is an Arab proverb: "Faaqid al shai la yu'ti" -- He who does not have something cannot give it. Assuming that you have reported the Imam's message faithfully, it seems evident that he had nothing to give. Is the test of Abraham restricted to being perceived as if he would kill for Allah? Certainly this is the most absurd interpretation one can adduce. Yes, there was some killing involved in the test. But that was not the issue. A Jewish leader, Abraham Geiger, came up with a fantastic and beautiful understanding of the Abrahamic episode. The crux of the story lies not in the sacrifice to be, for at Abraham's time, it would appear that child sacrifice was not uncommon -- infants being sacrificed to Moloch. This may have been, to use the term in its purely linguistic context, a "sunna" of sorts for the idol worshippers of Abraham's time and place.

Geiger says that the crux of the matter came when Abraham was willing to accept that Allah had told him to sacrifice a lamb instead. He was willing to believe in a gentle Lord who did not want him to sacrifice a human life, and also willing to go against the practice of his people in order to obey Allah, thereby showing how Muslims should understand the Qur'anic verse -- "And if it is said to them follow that which Allah has revealed, they say, rather we will follow that which we found our fathers doing."(Q2:170) Abraham was willing, even though he knew that those who deemed child sacrifice a true act of devotion would oppose him, to listen to a Lord who absolved him of this inhuman act. Certainly, if one reads the Qur'an with a thematic approach, one can see that Abraham Geiger's take on the matter is more in keeping with the spirit of the book than the khutba you report.

There are many facets to be learned from the story, and the nonsense you reported is all that the Imam could glean? If Abraham was tested to demonstrate that he was willing to kill for Allah, then certainly he failed, for when he saw the dream, he asked his son: "I see in a dream that I sacrifice thee...see then what is your view.(Q37:103)" So here, Abraham does not carry out Allah's plan as an obedient servant, he seeks his son's counsel. This begs the question: What would have happened had the boy been unwilling? I know this is not salient to the answer, but solely for the point of information, I need to point out that even though the later Muslims have taken the sacrificial son to be Ismail, the matter was much debated, and Tabari seems to suggest that it was Isaac, and al-Shawkani takes a neutral ground after relating both views.

The (alleged) khutba is dangerous on two levels: It inculcates wrong values into our Muslim umma -- this business about killing to begin with. Did Allah not forbid us to kill without due cause? Are we not supposed to see killing as a last resort, and only when there is clear allowance for it? And from the diplomatic point of view -- we already have bad press as it is. All it takes is for a khutba like this to be aired and the Muslims will be portrayed as bloodthirsty savages, and in all honesty, I don't think the people would be wrong if they extrapolated this inference. Personally, I am greatly troubled by this khutba, hence my long answer. In fact, I could go on and on. But to summarize, I guess we may say that the Prophet Muhammad was not as submissive as the Imam who delivered this khutba, because when the people of Ta'if stoned him, he went away, when if he were "willing to die for Allah," he should have continued his preaching nonetheless. And when he fled Mecca, he was not willing to "die for Allah' since such an ideology would have necessitated that he remain and be a martyr.

But then I guess Muhammad was only a Prophet, and the deliverer of the khutba you referred to one of the modern "scholars" who knows more and can interpret Allah's book in a manner that is alien to sound reflection. After all the foregoing, one must conclude that the interpretation given by the Imam is "mustab'ad, mustaheel, and madhmoom" -- far-fetched, absurd, and sinful. May Allah protect us and our children from such distortion.

Posted March 21, 2000