Abraham's Idols | Then and Now

The Wooden Idols

Prophet Abraham is perhaps one of the most well-known patriarchs in history. In the Quranic account, Abraham’s father is an idol-maker. One day, while the townspeople are at a festival, Abraham goes into the temple housing the city’s idols, and breaks all of them but one. Then, he hangs the axe he used around the neck of that single idol and waits until the townspeople return. When they get back, they are shocked and infuriated (of course). Who broke all the idols? What happened here? They immediately question Abraham – but Abraham says, don’t ask me. Ask that big one with the axe around its neck. He might be your culprit. 

all art on this post by Mahi (@mahimade on IG)

all art on this post by Mahi (@mahimade on IG)

The townspeople get angrier with Abraham, are you mocking us? These things can’t move. He couldn’t have broken the other idols! 

Abraham scoffs – if they are so powerless, why are you worshipping them? If they can’t even move or protect themselves, why do you ask them to protect you and provide for you?

The Fire

After a while, the people in Abraham’s town grow sick of him. He questions their way of life, rejects the traditions of their forefathers, and preaches about one, single Creator, disturbing the people’s stability. They complain to the king, and king Nimrod orders that Abraham should be thrown in a big fire and burned alive. 


A fire is built, a fire so big that some accounts claim that Abraham had to be catapulted into the fire because people couldn’t get close to it. Abraham is thrown into the fire, and Abraham’s Maker says, "O Fire! be thou cool, and (a means of) safety for Abraham!" 

So Abraham walks out of the fire, untouched, unburned, glowing. 


The Sacrifice

Abraham grows old – really old. He is gifted with children, after all this time. And then he has a dream, which he interprets to mean he needs to sacrifice one of his sons, like they did with lambs and goats in those ancient times. Right as he’s about to do it, he is commanded not to, again by his Maker. Why would an all-wise, infinitely just, and benevolent Maker, command a messenger to sacrifice his son? How does that make sense?

The Here, The Now

Abraham is the primordial human being in the universal surrender to his Creator. Or so it is said. What am I to do with such a man, and such a story – now, in 2018? And only a week or so before Eid al-Adha, the festival of the sacrifice.

I never fully grasped Abraham’s story. I probably still don’t. I guess that’s to be expected when the story is told by the Maker of Abraham, who is also the Maker of me, who is also the Maker of all that is before and after me. And me, just a tiny human being.

However, I did reach a much clearer understanding of Abraham’s story a couple of months ago. Abraham’s story is a reminder in three parts of the kind of idolatry we all engage in every day. His story is long, and his journey arduous, as a man, as a created being, and as a prophet. He questions what created him, and what is sustaining him. He doubts the idols of his father and of his neighbors – those seem all too easy now. 

Of course, I say, nobody believes statues carved and molded by human hands can actually provide protection and sustenance and happiness and whatever else people need. Of course, they can’t detect the shrines built in their names or the altars they are put on. This is the kind of idolatry that nobody engages in anymore. 

But Abraham’s story is timeless (as the Narrator of the story), and that’s the miracle of it. Because once I delve into the fire, I realize – I engage in that kind of idolatry all the damn time. The punishment of Abraham is to be burned alive. And nobody doubts that he will die. The fire is blazing hot and hungry. It will swallow Abraham up and he will die a painful death. The king and the townspeople, they trust that, they take pleasure in knowing what will happen, and how the whole punishment will play out. 

But Abraham’s Maker has other plans. Abraham’s Maker is also the Maker of the fire, and that Maker humiliates the king and the townspeople in the most subtle and strange way. The fire is commanded so, and does not (and cannot) burn Abraham. The fire has no choice but to be cool, but to be safety for Abraham. 

Where is the idol worship in that?

Believing that the fire is the source of its own existence, and its own heat, and its own burning, and the continuation of its properties… that’s a deeper level of idolatry than any of us care to explore. I had made fire into a little god in its own world, without realizing the absurdity of such a scenario, of such a belief. 

I mean, ask yourself: is fire even aware of its own existence to retain its own properties? Does fire have a sense of self? How can fire have power over itself, when its heat and light depend on its environment? 

Wouldn’t the fire have to be the maker of itself, and of Abraham, and of the air around him, and the earth beneath him, and the universe surrounding him, to be able to burn him – to be able to kill him? 

If yes, then my idolatry (shirk) is paramount. It’s so ingrained in causality and the material world that I don’t know if there is an easy way to get out of it. 

And what of the sacrificial son? How is that idolatry?

Abraham’s readiness for the sacrifice and the son’s acceptance of the sacrifice are both lessons to be learned and internalized. From the perspective of Abraham, I learn about the most intimate kind of idolatry. (From the perspective of his son, you can check out this view that really resonates with me). 

For Abraham, a father after all those years, the love he must feel for his child is obviously immense. How does he deal with having to kill the very thing he loves so dearly? In this scene, Abraham demonstrates (and I learn with him) that even those pure and wholesome feelings I have are not from me. I am not the source of my own love and care and patience and kindness. 

If I were, I would have them all the time. I would choose to never hurt anyone and never act out of anger or frustration. I would love people SO much that they wouldn’t know what to do. But I am not the source of my own love, just as Abraham is not the source of his own love. 

I am a channel through which the Beautiful Names of my Maker come through. I demonstrate love (Al-Wadud) and compassion (Ar-Rahman) and kindness (Al-Latif). And like Abraham, I strive. I am infinitely honored to manifest these Names, and I am always working so I don’t get comfortable and think they are mine. I have no way of producing my own kindness – but I am grateful that I am not under the illusion. And I am grateful that I get to be kind.

I told someone about this blogpost and they said, it’s like that mystic that surrendered so fully, he could walk on water. He realized that all the small and big things he took for gods were not, and well, what else does he need? 

I'll end with something Hafiz wrote, 

Understanding the physics of God, 
His indivisible Nature, 

Makes every universe and atom confess:

I am just a helpless puppet that cannot dance
Without the movement of His hand. 

With love,



February in Morocco

Another month has come and gone, and we will be back in Chicago before April starts. This month, though short, was full of new experiences and beautiful sights.

We came back from Spain, met our new professor for “Islamic Thought in the Maghreb” and started February on a spiritual note. That weekend, we went to Ifrane (also known the Switzerland of Morocco). It was snowy and cold but it reminded me of my childhood in Bursa and the soft snows of Uludag in the winter. There were storks everywhere and according to my mom, if you see storks before springtime, it means you will travel a lot that year! There were also monkeys in the forest and steep ski slopes, one of which we used for sledding. After a few hours in the snow, we ate a delicious tajeen at a women’s cooperative. There are many of these cooperatives all over Morocco whether they are selling argan oil, weaving carpets, or making tajeens. It’s nice to see women owned and managed businesses.   

tajeen smoke illuminated at Ifran

The day after we came back to Rabat, Leyla and I moved homestays. Our first host family was unorthodox, to say the least, and we weren’t really comfortable with our living situation. There were a lot of people in a small house, the food wasn’t great, and we didn’t feel valued as guests. However, not only is all that behind us, but also our new host family is as better as the former was bad, and our quality of life has increased exponentially.

The first excursion with our new professor was to Meknes. I caught some pretty shots of an old madrasa. Then, we visited another one of Leyla’s family friends in Kenitra. She picked us up from the train station and took us to a beauty salon, a taco place, and gave us a tour of the town. Then she made us an elaborate dinner and woke up super early the next day to drive us back to the train station. She and I clicked in a way that proves the story true: our souls knew each other before coming into these bodies, and that’s why sometimes, even if you just met somebody, you feel an immediate connection.

Our next excursion was to Ourika Valley and downtown Marrakesh. We heard gnawa music, watched the stars, and hiked for several hours while taking in the majesty of the mountains and reveling in the beauty of creation. We had tajeen for dinner and eggs for breakfast, and a new kind of cheese in a bowl of olive oil. I point this out because there doesn’t seem to be a big cheese culture in Morocco. The most popular cheese is the triangular cream cheeses. Similarly, there isn’t that big of a yogurt culture either, I haven’t seen plain yogurt sold anywhere, it’s not essential for the cuisine, and what’s readily available is the fruit flavored Dannons in corner stores. Sad!

Marrakesh was very crowded but also livelier than many of the other cities we visited. In the famous main square, there were more than 60 carts selling freshly pressed fruit juices (only 40 cents for orange juice), snake charmers, parrot and peacock photo stands, poets and performers, and little spreads with people displaying jewelry and soaps and spices. People get around in motorcycles and sometimes zoom past awfully close to you – but it’s all part of the experience. Either way, Leyla and I perfected our bargaining scheme in Marrakesh. We play a version of good cop/bad cop, where I am the stern cheapskate and Leyla is the sweet moderator. In this way, we say a price that is obviously too low, I act stubborn, and Leyla acts as if to convince me of the shopkeeper’s counteroffer. I yield when it’s a price Leyla and I previously agreed to, and everyone’s happy. (Take note if you are going to be studying abroad!)

In between Marrakesh and our next excursion, we had a bread-making activity with our program. We learned how to make msmmn and hrsha – which are staple breads for Moroccans. Our new host mom makes both of them in the morning for us and seeing how much effort it took made us appreciate her even more.

Before we started our next class with another professor on Post-Colonial Morocco, we went to the desert! It was my favorite part of study abroad and a true bonding experience for the cohort. It took around 11 hours to get to Merzouga, where our hostel was, but it was definitely worth it. After resting a little bit, we mounted our camels (YES!) and journeyed for an hour into the desert. We arrived at a glam campsite (equipped with electricity and modern toilets) and went through the practice of eating tajeen and listening to gnawa music (which happened again the next day at a Berber “House of Music”). Someone asked if the guide could give us a few minutes so we could get blankets and he said, “Few minutes? You can have my whole life! In America, you guys have watches, but here – we have time.” Berber culture that we have seen is amazing, accommodating, and proudly African (the latter is usually missing from Arab Moroccans.) After preparing… we went to stargaze!

When we first arrived in Morocco, during orientation, one of the program coordinators said that talking about religion is pretty easy here, but atheism? Atheism is bizarre for Moroccans. The concept of not having God is alien. And that’s how I felt lying on the sand, wrapped in a blanket, and gazing up at the stars. How could anyone be an atheist, if they lived this close to the stars? How could they look at the grandeur of the universe, touch the intricate balance of the earth, and be so in tune with creation and not believe that there must be an Orderer, a Balancer, a Creator? Of course they think it bizarre.

Last weekend, we went to Chefchaouen (the blue pearl), and then to Tangier. Chaouen is a small, quiet city, that is entirely blue. It used to have a predominantly Jewish population, but they have mostly left. In all of Morocco, numbers went from millions to now only five thousand.

After Chaouen, we left for Tangier – which used to be an international zone and is kind of a microcosmic Morocco. We saw the Caves of Hercules, the old medina, and also the only American historical landmark that is outside of the US. It’s US soil in the heart of Tangier, formerly a Legation, now a cultural center and museum. Fun (not so fun) fact: Morocco was the first country to recognize America as an independent nation. And while originally legitimized by a Muslim country, America now has waged several wars in the region, killed millions of Muslims, and won’t even let some of us in. Hmm… On a similar note, I am sad that I can’t hear the athan regularly while in Rabat, and I am sad that when we were in Chefchaouen we overheard a girl say “This song OMG! When I was in Jordan, they would play this [referring to the athan] all. the. time!” I am sad that our second professor (A Muslim man) got so much flak for things that our first professor had done without anybody complaining. Just some observations.

Despite the few lows, February was so much better than January, thank God. Leyla and I signed up for a 10K which happened on Sunday (our time: 73 minutes!), and we have been running almost every day, slowly building our stamina. Our gym is a women’s only gym and extremely affordable given all the amenities and services, like fun classes round the clock, a salon, and a hammam. But, more importantly, it has a supportive and lovely community of teachers and gym-goers, which is priceless. We have befriended all the instructors, the cleaning ladies, the hairdresser/manicurist, and all other helpful and sweet women (who have bought us soap, scrubbed our backs, dropped us off at home, and translated things into English to count a few of their acts of kindness) and we will miss them a lot.

Over this month, as much as I learned about Morocco, I learned new things about myself too. For example, I have been blessed with a good memory and sense of direction, and a body that is resilient and strong. I am grateful for having had time to exercise without stress and wander without limits. I am grateful for being able to read for pleasure, and I am grateful for poetry, and beauty, and Divine love. I am grateful that I grew closer to the friends I already had, and the new friends I made. I am grateful for the friends back in America who message me regularly, because I miss them, and I miss their smiles and their warmth and their presence in my life.

See you in spring Chicago, I miss you too.