By Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwi
This man, whom God Himself has praised in the Qur’an as His ¬khalil, is the exemplar of perfected determination to know God, to be fully in His presence. This determination is expressed in what we may call, figuratively, the opening of various curtains:
The cultural curtain
Seeing through the world of his father and his people generally, who are worshipers of natural phenomena (his challenging and breaking of the idols, and demonstration of their falsity);
The natural curtain
- Seeing through the scale and majesty of natural phenomena, which are impressive yet bounded within large conditions, like time and space, whereas the God that Ibrahim seeks is unbounded (his discontent with moon and stars and sun, “I love not those that set”);
- Seeing through the apparent orderliness or predictability of natural phenomena, whereas God’s will sustains or may halt or divert that orderliness (he cannot hope for a son, himself being in advanced old age and his wife past child-bearing, but they are granted one);
- Seeing through the transience and disappearance of natural phenomena, whereas all phenomena however dispersed into their fundamental constituent particles can be (and as God wills shall be) restituted, and their properties likewise restituted including the property of having life (the birds quartered, and re-assembled at God’s command);
The human curtain
- Seeing through the fear of what the world or other people may do to him on account of his faith in God (the rightness of that faith is demonstrated when the fire (literal fire, and the fire of the human rage against him) is rendered powerless to harm him);
- Seeing through the need to pray for God’s mercy on his father and to hope for God’s favour on His descendants, whereas God’s creation is a moral (not merely a natural) order, with a right and wrong to it, and justice during it and at the end of it. (Mercy that does not encompass justice, that treats good and bad the same, is a mercy that takes no account of how an individual life was lived and therefore does not value that life.)
- Seeing through the need to cling to the life God has given, because all human hopes and human effort (including the effort to glorify God and the need to add value to what God has given, through one’s works and children) are dependent on having life, and thereby giving full assent to the ending of that life so that God’s will is entirely accepted in the confidence that His will can only be good. (Letting go of one’s own life and hopes for it is relatively easy, compared to willing the end of another’s life, which entails willing that that person now has to his credit all that he ever can have – how make that decision? What parent could will an end of all opportunity for his child, especially one so long awaited and so deeply loved? Reflecting on this gives some measure of what God demanded of His khalil.)
Each of these efforts is an effort of self-transcendence within the Qur’anic narratives about him, in each of which Ibrahim `alayhi s-salam surrenders his own will in favour of God’s will. He is perfectly ready to hear and obey, without hesitation. God ennobled him with a certainty beyond the kind of certainty that is possessed while there is persuasion and proof, subject to persuasion and proof. His certainty is one that remains so firmly established that it permeates and functions in him, as blood permeates the body and the heart beats – i.e. without reasoned effort. This perfection of his person is expressed in the character of the man that inspires love, when we read about him.
- First, there is his individuality. He is a human person, with an inner life and an outer life; he stands over against God as an individual, outside of his community, who prays to Him and whose prayer is heard individually, and he stands likewise as the leader of a faith-community, umma or milla. His personal habits are tokens of his preferment, and they are followed within his faith-community..
- Secondly, there his tenderness of heart, often mentioned in the Qur’an, without the admonition that accompanies other such (compare Nuh and Musa, `alayhima as-salam). There are expressions of sorrow by Ibrahim, but no expressions of anger or rejoicing in victory. There is fear of God but not fearfulness, no uncertainty, that he may act contrarily to God’s will.
- Thirdly, there is his consciousness of his humanity, in his understanding both of his weakness and smallness compared to the majesty of creation and the majesty of God’s will (his fearfulness before his “guests” who do not eat), and of his otherness from God, his consciously not laying claim to the attributes of God (note his correction of the tyrant – who cannot make the sun rise from the west, etc.). It is a profound modesty and delicacy of temperament, found again in Muhammad, salla l-lahu `alayhi wa-sallam.
- Fourthly, there is his being a perfect believer, the ikhlas of whose faith is linked through the Qur’an and the centrality of the hajj with the perfected religion, the din of Islam.