Skip the tests of faith

I’m not sure the story of Abraham and Isaac is the best way to start a column urging condemnation of the murder of Alan Henning, unless you’re using that story as an object lesson on what can happen when you think you’re supposed to obey “God”. I don’t think that’s how Yasmin Alibhai Brown is using it, although she may be – she doesn’t really exactly say what she thinks of it.

It is Eid, the second annual Muslim festival, when we mark the end of Hajj and remember Abraham, who – when God asked him to – agreed to make the ultimate sacrifice and kill his son Isaac.

It was a test of faith; God stopped the slaughter. The story appears in the Book of Genesis. God did not stop the slaughter of Alan Henning, the taxi driver from Salford who went out to help desperate Syrians, or the British aid worker David Haines or the two American reporters James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

Was it a test of faith? It looks to me more like a test of obedience, and a very sick one at that. If it’s a test of faith and Abraham passed, then faith is very evil. Also, Abraham’s murder of his child wouldn’t be “the ultimate sacrifice” for him, but rather for the child. Or for both, yes, but the point is that Abraham’s murder of Isaac wouldn’t be something that happened just to Abraham; it would first of all be something that happened to Isaac. A rape is first of all something that happens to the person who is raped, and only then something that happens to her (or his) relatives and friends. In short the story of Abraham is a very horrible story indeed, and it should be forgotten instead of remembered with a festival.

Imams have denounced the killers with real feeling, so has the umbrella body, the Muslim Council of Britain, which, before this, tended to equivocate and was a bit unreliable. Young Muslims have started a #notinmyname campaign; Inspire, an impressively effective counter-extremism organisation, has launched #makingastand to get Muslims to “pledge allegiance to their country and to respect human rights”. These responses are encouraging. But it isn’t enough. It absolutely isn’t enough.

Henning’s untimely death must be a watershed, a defining moment for Western Muslims. We must change. Or rather, those devout Muslims who have been taking up Wahhabi practices and others who feel only anger for the West must change.

First, do no harm.


  1. Blanche Quizno says

    It was indeed a test of obedience, and a very sick one of that. It apparently dates back to when the tribe that developed into the Israelites still practiced child sacrifice.

    There are actually TWO distinct narratives woven into the Biblical Abraham-and-Isaac story, the earliest Elohist narrative (Genesis 22:1-13,19), and then some different narrative details, which were later added by Yahwist interpolators/editors (Genesis 22:14-18). The resulting chimera is woven together by a redactor, who oddly seems to have made no attempt to harmonize the two stories, leaving several telling statements as-is.

    In the original story, Abraham killed Isaac. We see this in the following phrases:

    “now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me” (v.12)
    “because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son” (v. 16)
    “And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.” (v. 18)

    Even that “only son” bit sticks out, because Isaac had an older brother, Ishmael, born when Abraham’s wife gave her slavewoman Hagar to Abraham to rape/impregnate when Sarah believed she couldn’t have children herself (Genesis 16). All this was *just fine*, you see. Perfectly normal! Later, perhaps when the Israelites had developed a culture/system of ethics/religious doctrine that condemned child sacrifice (a practice they nonetheless returned to over and over throughout the Old Testament), the story is modified to make it sound like Isaac was spared by angels yelling and the godly substitution of a ram or something.

    However, Abraham and Isaac went up the mountain together (v. 5-6), yet Abraham comes down alone (v. 19). Oddly, he and his menservants then went off to somewhere Abraham had never been before, Beersheba, and settled there, never to think of Sarah or Hagar or Ishmael ever again. Later, in Genesis 25:1 (where the Elohist narrative picks up again), we see Abraham taking a new wife, Keturah. They had children together O_O

    So the Abraham-and-Isaac story is WAY worse than most people realize. And it’s solely about obedience, unquestioning obedience no matter what. It’s about NOT allowing your intellect, your ability to think and reason, to interfere with what you believe are commands from some “god”.

  2. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    In the Koran Abraham sacrifices “a son” and muslims generally believe it was Ishmael (who they claim was legitimate) who was sacrificed and that it was only when the knife was at his throat that god intervened to turn the knife aside.

  3. says

    God did not stop the slaughter of Alan Henning.

    Ah! I think she means to say that since God did not stop the slaughter, that must mean God did not command it.

    I don’t know…I hope that’s not the reasoning, but I wouldn’t put it past any religion apologist.

  4. Eric MacDonald says

    In Jewish tradition the “sacrifice” of Isaac is traditionally called the “binding” (Akedah) of Isaac. Whether it is a test of faith or obedience is really neither here nor there, since faith and obedience are certainly closely related. The point of the story, however, is usually taken to be quite different. Certainly, faith and obedience are expected, but what the story of the Akedah shows us, if anything, is that God does not require or demand the sacrifice of children, a practice that was common in surrounding cultures at the time, and is remarked on, repeatedly, with disapproval and even horror, in the Jewish scriptures. The story (and it is, after all, a story, a parable or a myth) is the first illustration we have of the idea that God deprecates the sacrifice of children (or human beings generally) as a religious obligation, and, in this light, should be looked upon as an early expression of humanism, not of the folly of faith.

    So far as the death of Alan Henning and others is concerned, to speak of it in the same context as the Akedah is a slander against Judaism. Speaking of Henning’s “untimely death” is another scandal. He was brutally, and ritually murdered. Yasmin Alibhai Brown’s apparent inability to see this speaks volumes about what she considers a watershed moment for Western Islam. It can only be a watershed moment if this kind of religious brutality is not only condemned, but the sacred text which upholds such mindless brutality is condemned along with it. So long as the text remains as it is, fundamentalist Muslims will continue to interpret it in these inhuman ways. This is the standing danger of the presence of Muslims in our midst, that their fundamentalists have a murderous text which upholds what they do as not only prescribed, but holy. No one can conceivably take this message from the Akedah in the Jewish scriptures.

  5. RJW says

    Yasmin Alibhai Brown is trying to construct a contemporary relevance from the primitive superstitions and mores of Bronze Age nomads, it’s an attempt at squaring the circle.
    “We must change. Or rather, those devout Muslims who have been taking up Wahhabi practices and others who feel only anger for the West must change.”

    Oh yes, they must! A first and necessary condition would be the admission by Muslims that ISIS and the other murderous Islamic organisations are in fact, imitating Mohammed’s depredations, so they’re faithful followers of their prophet, so far, very few seem prepared to do so.

  6. Friendly says

    @Eric #4,

    This is the standing danger of the presence of Muslims in our midst, that their fundamentalists have a murderous text which upholds what they do as not only prescribed, but holy. No one can conceivably take this message from the Akedah in the Jewish scriptures.

    The Quran is a “murderous text” but the Jewish scriptures are not? Fundamentalist Jews and Christians have “taken the message” from the Jewish scriptures that it is a holy duty to kill Sabbath-breakers, adulterers, homosexuals, “witches,” nonbelievers, and any number of other categories of people; they have used Torah to justify the homicide and genocide they’ve committed in the past and are using it to justify the homicide and genocide they’re committing today. Your defense of one set of scriptures so that you can paint another and its adherents as so much worse is both ridiculous and revealing.

  7. Eric MacDonald says

    Friendly, I am not denying “violence of God” traditions in either Jewish or Christians scriptures. These traditions are there, but they do not have the immediate compelling effect of the Qur’an. Over centuries of interpretation the Jewish scriptures and the Christian ones have lost the historical immediacy of the Qur’an, and for good reason. In neither the Jewish scriptures, not in the Christian ones, are the scriptures thought of as the uncreated word of God, but are recognised as historical creations. If they are inspired it is not (pace the fundamentalists) in their every word that this is so. They are sources, if you like, of inspiration, not laid down in cemented principles as to how life is to be lived. The violence of God traditions are thus filtered through contemporary cultural reception. There are horrific things in the Jewish scriptures as well as in Christian ones, and of course Jews and Christians are wise to recognise the human origin of these works, and the way that they reflect the historical times through which they passed. Failures to do this have been marked by acts of violence that are indefensible by humane standards.

    The difference between Christian and Jewish texts and Muslim ones is that the Qur’an is accepted as the uncreated word of God, and not the creation of human beings at all; and, as such, every word in them is to be applied rigorously according to the canons of interpretation applied to them, right now, today. This makes Muslim canonical texts much more dangerous than Christian and Jewish ones, though, admittedly, it is possible for Christians and Jews to interpret their scriptures in violence and inhumane ways. The history of Christian anti-Semitism is proof enough of that. But Islamic holy texts have immediate application, just as they stand, and that application is thought of, in Islam, as a word from God today. In this way, Muslim scriptures and another canonical texts (which are necessary for the correct interpretation of the Qur’an) are a far more immediate danger today that Christian and Jewish scriptures. Not only is this claim not ridiculous and revealing, as you petulantly claim; we see the evidence of this practically everywhere in the Muslim world, and we see its effects in the radicalisation of Muslim youth in our own backyard.

    Just a hint. Before you criticise someone you should at least make some effort to understand the basis upon which that person’s judgement has been made. This at least requires an elementary understanding of the fundamental principles at issue.

  8. Ed says

    Many conservative Protestants (though there are plenty of dissenters on this issue in their ranks) have a view of scriptural inspiration similar to Muslims. Different books, of course, but the same language of direct, literal verbal inspiration where God provided the exact words, not just the message.

    This is why many Bible translations have linguistic anomalies that make reading them awkward. Translating the words exactly as possible is more important than expressing the ideas coherently. At least contemporary ones tend to include helpful footnotes.

    On the other hand, there are also strict evangelicals who use paraphrase Bibles which err in the opposite direction and aren’t really translations in the scholarly sense at all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *