Why Sacrifice?

by Khurram Murad

Islam: A Path of Struggle

First let us briefly look at an important question. Why must Islam be so emphatically linked with the idea of struggle? What has the one to do with the other? Cannot a person become a good Muslim without involving himself in a struggle that necessarily requires sacrifices? The answer is: No. And for very obvious reasons.

Islam is not merely the confession of a faith which is made once in a lifetime. The faith is of cosmic dimensions. It requires a radical reorientation of entire life and the world. The confession is not merely verbal; it is an act of witnessing which must transform life into a living and continuing testimony of faith. You enter Islam by saying shahadah (bearing witness). But you can live in Islam only by constantly doing shahadah (al-Baqarah 2:143, al_hajj 22:28). Doing shahadah will bring you in ceaseless confrontation with false gods inside you, and with those outside you. It will also require a ceaseless striving to reshape self and society so as to attest to your witnessing.

Being Muslim thus requires becoming Muslim. Becoming Muslim, after the seed of Iman has been sown in the heart, is a two-fold process: to summon one's own self and to summon mankind, to live under the sovereignty of One God alone. Both are inextricably linked together, both are to be taken up simultaneously.

Summoning mankind is not a passive call. It is an active, dynamic process, a movement. It must wage Jihad with all available resources so that all false claimants to absolute rule are dethroned, oppression and corruption are over powered, and justice is established among mankind. That is why the Prophet, blessings and peace be on him, in the very early days of Makkan life, declared:

There were such people before you that a man would be seized and a pit would be dug for him in which he would be thrown, then a saw would be brought and placed over his head and he would be cut into two, and his flesh would be combed away from his bones by iron combs - still nothing would turn him away from his religion. By God, he will complete this mission until a rider will travel from San'a to Hadramawt and will have no fear but of God, and no worry but about a wolf that might harm his cattle (Bukhari).

The path of Islam cannot therefore be anything other than the path of struggle, and therefore sacrifice. Is not Islam, one might say, a gift of God? It surely is. Without His help and His enabling hand we can take no steps on the straight path (al-Sirat al-Mustaqim), the path of Islam. Yet only through our sincere intention and devoted striving can we deserve to receive this most precious gift, to retain it, to grow in it, to derive full benefit from it. The gift, no doubt, is given in His infinite mercy and kindness, but it is not unconditional If given whether desired or not and earned or not, it would have become cheap, valueless. That is why the Qur'an says that Allah "guides unto Himself him who turns unto Him" (al-Shura 42:13). Turning towards God requires both will and effort; it also entails turning away from all false gods besides God. It is a total change of direction, inner and outer. Progress, then, depends on striving: "Those who strive hard in Our way - surely We shall guide them onto Our paths" (al-Ankabut 29:68).

Struggle: The Indispensable Key

Such is the law of God, not only for Islam, but for all the priceless gifts our lives have been blessed with. Look at some of them: the eyes we see with, the ears we hear with, the hands and the feet we work with, the air we breathe and the water we drink, without which life cannot even exist. We have not made them, nor could we, even if we wanted. We get them without asking, we have no inherent claims upon them nor any inalienable right to possess them They are all gifts of God's grace. Yet to retain them and to derive full benefit from them we must put in our best efforts.

Not much comes to us in life without endeavour or struggle. We gain only what we earn by our strivings: "We have created man into (a life of) trial and pain" (al-Balad 90:4). "And that nought shall be accounted unto man but what he has striven for" (al-Najm 53:39). The soil is there, the water is there, the seed is there; but the soil will not turn seeds into crops unless we dig it, plough it, sow the seeds, water the plants, protect them and harvest the crop. Without sweat and toil, the gifts of God that abound all around us will not yield their full treasures to us. Indeed the richer the treasures desired, the greater the efforts required.

Islam and Sacrifice

Islam is not just one gift among many; it is the choicest gift of God (al-Maidah 5:3). Out of all the countless bounties and the blessings that Allah has given us to enable us to live our lives in this world, the greatest and the most important is that He has guided us to the true meaning and purpose in our lives. That purpose and that meaning is to live for Him, to strive to seek His Pleasure, and even to die in His way. Instead of living like animals - being born, eating and drinking, procreating and dying we live a meaningful existence. Life is thus lifted up from being a transient, fleeting moment in history, terminable at death, to an eternal event. Our existence is no more directed to merely coveting and acquiring the blessings and bounties that abound in this-world. Instead the way is open to turn this-world's possessions into everlasting benefits to be reaped in that-world, sometimes by taking and enjoying them, gratefully, sometimes by giving them up.

If ordinary things in this world cannot be obtained without effort, obtaining meaning and purpose in life, which is Islam, must surely require utmost endeavour. The nature and magnitude of struggle, and of sacrifice, must be commensurate with the nature and value of the goal we want to reach.

And what purpose in life could be more valuable, more compelling, more important, more urgent, than that of bringing the whole man - his inner personality, his environment, his society, the entire world - to the path of Allah. Without struggling hard, merely by wishing, desiring, professing, making claims and statements, how can we ever hope to reach the destination that we have set for ourselves? If one's daily bread cannot be earned without effort, will Allah give His greatest blessing - success in this life and success in the life to come - unless we prove that we deserve to receive it? Unless we demonstrate that our profession of faith is rooted in our hearts, that we are truthful in our claims of loyalty, that we are prepared to offer sacrifices required of us.

Says the Qur'an:

Do you think you should enter Paradise unless God establishes who among you have struggled hard and who are patient? (Al-Imran 3:142)

Do you think you should enter Paradise while there has not yet come upon you the like of those who passed away before you? Misery and hardship befell them (Al-Baqarah 2: 214)

Do the men think that on their [mere] saying 'We believe', they will be left to themselves, and will not be put to the test? We certainly put to the test those that were before them (Al-Ankabut 29:2-3)

Of course, this does not mean that our efforts and sacrifices can in any way match the gifts Allah gives to us; yet it is through our own labour that we get food from the earth; yet it is so priceless that the hard work put in by a farmer cannot be considered equivalent to the immense benefit that we derive. Similarly, whatever we are required to sacrifice in our struggle in the way of Allah is not measurable against the benefits that we shall personally derive, that the Muslim Ummah will collectively gain, that mankind as a whole will reap. Nevertheless we must prove, within our human limitations, that we are prepared not only to profess our faith in our cause, but also prepared to struggle and sacrifice what we really love for that which we declare to be dearest to us. That is why, in the Qur'an, Iman is almost invariably bracketed with righteous deeds (al-'amal al-salih) and with Hijrah and Jihad. Indeed only those believers are declared to be truthful in their claims to faith who are certain and unwavering, who struggle in Allah's way with their lives and possessions (al-Hujurat 49:15).

Struggle, as we briefly mentioned before, is undertaken at two levels. At the personal level, Iman requires that one bring his self under Allah and obey Him; that one must therefore love Allah more than everything else: "The (true) believers love God more than all else" (al-Baqarah 2:165). Put differently, Iman requires that nothing is too worthy, nothing is too valuable to sacrifice in order to earn Allah's pleasure.

But it is at the collective level that struggle, and hence sacrifices, are required in order to summon the entire world to live under One God. Most often the Qur'an denotes the struggle in this sense as Jihad. Iman demands dethroning all false gods, standing up to all forces of evil, oppression and corruption. Jihad is required to subdue all forces in rebellion against God. It therefore requires sacrifices of a vastly different order and nature than those required to subdue one's Nafs (self desires).

Sacrifice and Inner Resources

Sacrifices contribute to the success of our struggle in two ways. Firstly, they strengthen our inner spiritual and moral resources and develop qualities of character which are essential to our struggle at every level. Secondly, they develop and reinforce cohesion and discipline within a collectivism, giving it the strength and resources to conduct Jihad at the wider social level.

Every act of sacrifice nourishes and increases your Iman; for it transforms a verbal confession and a mental conviction into a living reality. It confirms, and thus increases, your love for Allah; for at every step you give up something for the sake of this love (al-Imran 3:172-3). It reinforces your loyalty and fidelity to Allah; for all other loyalties become secondary as they are sacrificed for the sake of this loyalty. In short, sacrifices bring you nearer to Allah. The process is mutually interactive: the stronger the faith, the greater the will and capacity to sacrifice; the greater the sacrifices, the more internalised and deeper the faith.

Sacrifices are essential for the development of all moral qualities, but especially for the development of patience, endurance, perseverance, fortitude, resolve and determination. These can be summed up in just one word: Sabr. Every sacrifice reinforces the quality of sabr, making it grow in quality and strength. Sabr, in turn, sustains and increases the capacity to sacrifice. Again, the process is dialectic. All promises of help from Allah, all assurances of success in this-world and rewards in the Hereafter, have been made conditional upon the attainment of Iman and Sabr (al-Imran 3:139,125 ; al-Anfal 8:46 ; al-A'raf 7:137 ; al-Zumar 39:10).

Sacrifice and Collective Discipline

Sabr is a very comprehensive virtue. One of its many aspects is discipline. Discipline is closely related to sacrifice; they are in fact interdependent. In its comprehensive sense inclusive of self-discipline, spiritual and moral discipline, organisational and social discipline - it cannot be attained unless you are prepared to sacrifice things you love. Nor can you continuously offer sacrifice of things to which you assign some value without developing a discipline within you, an inner discipline. Though disciplined, collective life, too, plays no less important a role in reinforcing the spirit of sacrifice. And sacrifice is equally essential for generating and sustaining such disciplined collective life. Let us briefly see why.

It is obvious that while walking on your personal way to God, you will need to attain to greater and greater heights of sacrifice and self-discipline to succeed in seeking His pleasure. But once you decide to come together with others to struggle together to bring the world under the lordship of its Creator, you stand in greater need of making sacrifices. Without them, neither your organized collective struggle can take a durable shape and achieve necessary strength, nor can you aspire to be successful in your mission. "God loves those who, fighting in His way, join ranks as if they are a wall of molten lead", says the Qur'an (al-Saff 61:4). What a beautiful and meaningful parable. Strong and solid, fused and welded, impregnable and without cracks and fissures, that is how members of a Muslim community, joined, welded together, strive in the way of Allah.

Now, how is a wall built? It is built of many single building blocks, each with its own individuality. How do the blocks 'join ranks' to turn into a solid, strong and impregnable wall? One block goes over another, one sits by the side of another, and so the wall goes up as you start cementing them, gaining in strength and height at each step. The blocks may look so similar, as do human beings, yet each has an inner individuality of its own. No block is required to sacrifice this individuality. Indeed the richness and strength is gained by virtue of so many individualities coming together.

But as you build the wall, if each block is adamant to go its own way, if it is not prepared to carry the load which will come upon it from the top or give support to the blocks below it, if a block which is going into a corner is not prepared to be chiselled so that it can fit in its place, a strong wall will never be built. Many bricks will have to go into the foundations below the ground, never to be noticed by anyone after the building is finished. Yet they will be bearing the whole load, and without their sacrifice the building will not rise even above the ground. Many blocks will have to be broken, so that they can fit into a uniform wall.

Without some sacrifices on the part of each block a solid wall will never come to exist.

Taken from "Sacrifice: the Making of a Muslim".

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