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Quranic Storytelling in Dialogue (5)

Quranic Storytelling in Dialogue (5)
Abraham’s dialogue with his father

We move to Abraham’s (a.s.) dialogue with his father, who was an unbeliever1 like his people. In his work to the way of God, Abraham (a.s.) felt a priority to start calling on his father to embrace the faith, because his father’s remaining in the camp of unbelief could weaken his position, create problems that could impede his work, or bring about unexpected problems.

When it started, the dialogue was facing some problems for it was between father and son, in a society that attached a great value to the parents, so much so that their position verged on the sacred. It required the offspring to show unreserved submission to the will of the parents. As a result, Abraham (a.s.) was a little cautious. He was careful not use any inflammatory language, which might have been interpreted as injurious to his father’s person. Instead, the dialogue was high on the emotional, bordering on the entreating. You can tell that he was addressing a person who was very dear to his heart, and who was on the brink of falling into the abyss. The atmosphere was amicable:

(Also) mention in the Book (the story of) Abraham: He was a man of Truth, a prophet. Behold, he said to his father: “O my father! Why worship that which hears not and sees not, and can profit thee nothing? O my father! To me hath come knowledge which hath not reached thee: so follow me: I will guide thee to a way that is even and straight. O my father! Serve not Satan: for Satan is a rebel against (God) Most Gracious. O my father! I fear lest a Penalty afflict thee from (God) Most Gracious, so that thou become to Satan a friend.” (The father) replied: “Dost thou hate my gods, O Abraham? If thou forbear not, I will indeed stone thee: Now get away from me for a good long while!” Abraham said: “Peace be on thee: I will pray to my Lord for thy forgiveness: for He is to me Most Gracious. And I will turn away from you (all) and from those whom ye invoke besides God: I will call on my Lord: perhaps, by my prayer to my Lord, I shall be not unblessed.” (19: 41–48)

As can be read, Abraham tried to attribute the invitation to his father to embrace belief to the knowledge he had, of which his father had none. Thus, there was no social objection to the son calling his father to faith without encroaching on the position of parenthood. He had further reasons to engage his father in dialogue, in that his concern was for his father, should he continue maintaining his unyielding and misguided position, in which case he would earn God’s punishment.

His father’s response sprang from a feeling of heavy-handedness bestowed by a parent’s authority, which allowed the father to coerce his son to follow in his footsteps, threatening him with expulsion, should he not acquiesce. Thus, dialogue was non-existent. Instead, a command-and-obey style of relationship ruled supreme. This was the norm then, a relationship that was almost teetering on the master/slave one.

Nevertheless, Abraham (a.s.) did not relent and continued to maintain amicable ties with his father. He succeeded in reining in his feelings and blending them with his duty to deliver his father from the darkness he was in. Yet, when he saw no hope of his father mending his ways, despite his prayer for him to be guided aright, he declared that he would have nothing to do with his father, his own people, and the gods they worshipped, having discharged his duty towards them to the best of his ability.

Abraham’s prayer for his father to be forgiven his sins stemmed from his feeling that he might change his mind and go back to God. It had never crossed his mind that his relationship with his father would entitle the father to a special treatment. That is why he disavowed his father after he had exhausted all efforts in persuading him to join the camp of belief, and the fact that he was an arch-enemy of God.

In our work for the way of God, we can make use of this approach in countering the animosity of the people who relate to us in one way or the other. We can always let the atmosphere of kindness and love prevail in dialogue. This is capable of making the other party respond to the amiable climate, without giving in to our emotions to run the encounter, in which case we may unwittingly end up serving the interests of unbelief and misguidance. A good-natured style in such circumstances should not be taken to mean that it is a result of a spontaneous emotional need. Rather, it is part and parcel of a well-thought-out plan, whose characteristics are flexibility, understanding, and steadfastness.

In this light, it is desirable that we give this approach a boost in situations where firmness is called for. This is because some people might exploit the emotional side for something that does not serve the interests of the calling to the way of God, in the same way Abraham used the other approach. We should never lose sight of the fact that the overriding concern should be for keeping the dialogue guided by the wisdom with which God wants to permeate the work in His cause. In the end, we may feel the need to create the right conditions for the spiritual, in that parties to the dialogue should be reminded of God’s Grace and the activists should engage in supplication to win the other party over, by the example of humility, whispered prayer, and submission.

Abraham’s dialogue with his son

Ishmael (a.s.) was a grace from God bestowed on Abraham (a.s.) for a prayer he offered His Lord, thus: “O my Lord! Grant me a righteous (son)!’ So We gave him the good news of a boy ready to suffer and forbear” (37: 101–02). He lived alongside his father, sharing the father’s responsibilities and duties, accepting with him the covenant with God for them to build His House, thus:

Remember We made the House a place of assembly for men and a place of safety; and take ye the station of Abraham as a place of prayer; and We covenanted with Abraham and Ishmael, that they should sanctify My House for those who compass it round, or use it as a retreat, or bow, or prostrate themselves (therein in prayer). (2: 125)

And remember Abraham and Ishmael raised the foundations of the House (With this prayer): “Our Lord! Accept (this service) from us: For Thou art the All- Hearing, the All-Knowing. Our Lord! Make of us Muslims, bowing to Thy (Will), and of our progeny a people Muslim, bowing to Thy (will); and show us our place for the celebration of (due) rites; and turn unto us (in Mercy), for Thou art the Oft-Returning, Most Merciful. Our Lord! Send amongst them an Apostle of their own, who shall rehearse Thy Signs to them and instruct them in Scripture and Wisdom, and sanctify them: For Thou art the Exalted in Might, the Wise.” (2: 127–29)

Thus, it can be said that Ishmael was shoulder to shoulder with his father in his divine mission and his spiritual activity, in as much as he was shadowing him in his public life – a faithful and devoted son.

A manifest trial

There was a trial in the making to test both father and son. They were put in a position that would shake the innermost convictions and feelings of any human. Abraham (a.s.) had a dream in which he was ordered by God to slay his son, Ishmael; to prophets, dreams were a kind of divine revelation.

What was the reaction of Abraham, the prophet and father at the same time? He was facing a gigantic task, which was challenging his feelings, with a view to giving his prophetic role an extra dimension.

Did the two roles, those of father and of messenger, clash? Was there an internal struggle between the two personalities, after he had experienced tense moments as to which side of his personality he would favour – father or prophet? The personality of the prophet won.

The Holy Qur’an did not allude to this side, for almost certainly that perceived internal struggle did not take place. This could be attributed to the fact that although the personas of the prophets are one, yet they are multi-faceted, all leading to God’s love and pleasure. This was manifest in the personality of Abraham (a.s.): “Behold! His Lord said to him: ‘Bow (thy will to Me):’ He said: ‘I bow (my will) to the Lord and Cherisher of the Universe.” (2: 131)

There was nothing to it, apart from submitting all to God, in person, offspring, possessions etc. So, if it was God’s wish that he slew his son, then so be it. This was no different from acting upon any other command, which did not entail any emotional dimension.

The father approached the son with the news of the Divine ordinance and while in conversation, the father wished that his son would respond positively to the command. “He said: “O my son! I see in vision that I offer thee in sacrifice: Now see what is thy view!” (37: 102)

What was the reaction of his son? Did he ask to be given time to think things over? No, it was the same reaction as the father had showed to the Divine command. It was the will of God. So, let us welcome it with all submission, forbearance, and strong faith: “(The son) said: ‘O my father! Do as thou art commanded: thou will find me, if God so wills one practicing patience and constancy!” (37: 103)

There the mission ended for it was already resolved that the dream/revelation should not entail executing the command to the letter. The whole process should stop at the scene of starting the slaying. Thus, the Divine order came to Abraham (a.s.) to refrain from going on with it:

So, when they had both submitted their wills (to God), and he had laid him prostrate on his forehead (for sacrifice), We called out to him “O Abraham! Thou hast already fulfilled the vision!” – thus indeed do We reward those who do right. For this was obviously a trial – And We ransomed him with a momentous sacrifice: And We left (this blessing) for him among generations (to come) in later times: “Peace and salutation to Abraham!” Thus indeed do We reward those who do right.” (37: 104–10)

Unconditional submission

The importance of the short dialogue that took place between Abraham and his son Ishmael lies in the fact that it paints a picture of the frame of mind with which Abraham received the command of his Lord, and that with which Ishmael received his father’s. That is, the father should slay the son; the latter should offer himself to help his father carry out the Divine order.

The moral of this tale is that it portrays the calmness of prophetic noble task, when the prophets submit to God’s will. It is a striking example of the uniformity of position between the human-prophet and the human-believer in theory and practice. This proves that the prophets did not talk only theoretically about sacrifice in the way of God. Rather, they went forth to translate the theory into real life situations. Any description falls short of giving a complete and true picture for this case, apart from the Holy Qur’an, which has done just that in the following verse.

Diverse styles

God says: “And Abraham prayed for his father’s forgiveness only because of a promise he had made to him. But when it became clear to him that he was an enemy to God, he dissociated himself from him: for Abraham was most tenderhearted, forbearing” (9: 114)

It is noteworthy that this verse is indicative of a one-to-one dialogue style, i.e. between Abraham (a.s.) and his father. However, the style took a different turn when they were engaged in dialogue in the presence of others. The tempo would be raised or lowered according to the plan put in place. Here, in these verses, is an example of this:

Behold! He said to his father and his people, “What are these images, to which ye are (so assiduously) devoted?” They said, “We found our fathers worshipping them.” He said, “Indeed ye have been in manifest error – ye and your fathers.” They said, “Have you brought us the Truth, or are you one of those who jest?” He said, “Nay, your Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth, He Who created them (from nothing): and I am a witness to this (Truth). And by God, I have a plan for your idols – after ye go away and turn your backs.” (21: 52–57)