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.
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?
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.
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.