Hajj and the Role of Ritual Sacrifice

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Sacrifice: Religions and the Role of the Scapegoat. Read other perspectives here.

The concept of sacrifice implies a denial of the self. It's an act through which we relinquish something of value to us for the sake of something, or someone, else that we revere as more important or esteemed. Sacrifice entails struggle, otherwise, of what worth would it be? It is to battle against our innate, sometimes base, inclinations, and to veer toward another path — one more arduous, but perhaps, more fruitful in the end.

In the realm of religion, sacrifice takes on a more specific connotation: to offer an object, animal, or even a human to God in compliance with a religious stricture or command. In Islam, the concept of personal sacrifices of the soul, and the commandment of ritual sacrifice are intertwined in the story of the Prophet Abraham, peace be upon him. While the role of ritual sacrifice in some faiths may be obsolete, it is very much an integral part of the Muslim experience both in the physical and spiritual sense.

In the Quran, God relates the story of Abraham in multiple chapters. Abraham, even as a young boy, does not comprehend the polytheistic idol worship of his society, and does not shy away from confronting his elders, including his own father, regarding what he sees as an illogical and untenable practice. "He said, 'Do you worship that which you [yourselves] carve, While God created you and that which you do?'" (Chapter 37:95-96) For what is interpreted as blasphemous questioning by a brash, disruptive youth, Abraham then faced what could have been a sacrifice of his very life for the sake of his insistence on the oneness of God. "They said, 'Construct for him a furnace and throw him into the burning fire'" (Chapter 37:97). Abraham was then thrown into the burning fire, and as Muslims believe, God commanded the fire to be cool and peaceful on Abraham.

He had willingly gone into his first test of sacrifice, and God had saved him.

Although this may have been one of the first lessons of sacrifice from the story of Abraham, it certainly was not the last. The next segments in his story are retraced and commemorated every year when Muslims perform the fifth pillar of Islam, the pilgrimage, or hajj, to Makkah.

In his old age, Abraham prayed to God for a son who would be among the righteous, and God answered his call, granting him Ismail. Abraham then took his newborn child and wife Hajar to an uninhabited desert, now known as Makkah. He prayed, "Our Lord, I have settled some of my descendants in an uncultivated valley near Your sacred House, our Lord, that they may establish prayer. So make hearts among the people incline toward them and provide for them from the fruits that they might be grateful" (Chapter 14:37). Such an act on the part of Abraham may have seemed incomprehensible on the surface, but it would have implications for generations to come.

Hajar questioned this act, wondering how Abraham could sacrifice his wife and child, placing them in such an inhospitable environment; however, she was comforted when he assured her that truly God would never abandon them. After Abraham left them, Hajar frantically searched for water in the arid land, rushing between the two mountains of Safa and Marwa, hoping to find a source of water to quench their thirst. It was from this area that the well of Zamzam sprung, and continues to spring forth, providing water to all of the pilgrims who frequent the sacred ground, retracing her footsteps as they dash back and forth, seven times between the now weathered mountains of Safa and Marwa in Makkah.

Abraham and Hajar's sacrifice has become an integral part of the pilgrimage, not only commemorating her struggle and allowing us to reflect on its momentousness and significance spiritually, reminding us that trust in and sacrifice for the sake of God will ultimately be rewarded, but the fruits of her sacrifice, the water that gushes forth from the well of Zamzam, nourishes the pilgrims physically, providing them relief during a physically taxing pilgrimage.

Perhaps the most poignant instance in which the concept of literal sacrifice in terms of an offering to God arises in the story of Abraham is when he is commanded by God in a dream to sacrifice his son — the son he was granted so late in life, the son he prayed that God would make among the righteous, the son who was set to carry on his legacy and line of descent. And Ismail readily complied with the commandment of God.

And when they had both submitted and he put him down upon his forehead
We called to him, 'O Abraham
You have fulfilled the vision.' Indeed, We thus reward the doers of good.
Indeed, this was the clear trial.
And We ransomed him with a great sacrifice
And We left for him [favorable mention] among later generations:
'Peace upon Abraham.'
Indeed, We thus reward the doers of good
(Chapter 37:103-110).