October 5, 2015 By Shameer. KS

Islamic State and the Motif of Sacrifice

islamic state

Last year, there was a discussion on violence with reference to Denis Vilenueve’s then recent film Prisoners. One of the important points I wanted to bring home was that the director wants to emphasize our being beholden to the idea of violence as something ‘others’ are doing on us. I put this point, for easier elucidation, in the context of war on terror. What the United States and its handmaidens across the globe were doing was to conduct a “war”, which, ever since Iliad and Odyssey, has been understood as intrinsically just, against those powers which it categorized as savages mentally tethered to a savage, non-modern, medieval ideology.  One of the key characters in film justifies killing a deer, which an interlocutor understands as an expression of violence, as ‘a natural method of keeping deer population down.’ To speak against this rationale apparently betrays one’s commitment to vegetarianism. A few days ago, in India, Muhammad Akhlaq, a fifty year old man hailing from the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, was killed by a mob after a rumour that Akhlaq had eaten the meat of cow was spread in the village. The Hindutva vigilante groups that profess vegetarianism have never held human life as sacred, if their involvement in countless communal riots is any indication. What lies deep in the innumerable instances of violence that plague the world is the attempt to selectively justify one set of random killings as necessary and justifiable, while denigrating the other set as necessarily terroristic. This article is not at attempt to delve deep into the issue as an elaboration of the point I made in the above-cited film review. In the context of another film, Christian Alvart’s 2005 Antibodies (Antikörper), I want to take that point further by bringing another kindred factor, sacrifice, to the picture and to enlarge this discussion so as to mention the political phenomenon of Islamic State.


Relatives mourn the death of farmer Mohammad Akhlaq at his home in Bisara village on Wednesday. Villagers allegedly beat Akhlaq to death and severely injured his son upon hearing rumors that the family was eating beef. (Source: PTI Photo)

Relatives mourn the death of farmer Mohammad Akhlaq at his home in Bisara village on Wednesday. Villagers allegedly beat Akhlaq to death and severely injured his son upon hearing rumors that the family was eating beef. (Source: PTI Photo)

Sacrifice and violence

All religious cultures espouse a peculiar vision of sacrifice which keeps emulated and espoused in the religious traditions alongside the instances of violence in their history. I want to limit my analysis into Christianity and Islam, though the point is relevant to almost all religions, especially Hinduism, in which the indomitable claims about role of animal sacrifice and beef eating-going by the arguments of scholars like Wendy Doniger and Dwijendra Narayan Jha (author of the Myth of the Holy Cow)-are to be raised in the context of the lynching at Uttar Pradesh. The restriction of the idea of sacrifice to the two largest monotheistic faiths is justified by the presence of the figure of Abraham in the two versions of sacrifice.

The Christian version of Abrahamic sacrifice goes as per Genesis 22:

“Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied.  Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance.  He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together,  Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?” “Yes, my son?” Abraham replied. “The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together. When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram[a] caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.

The Islamic version of the Abrahamic sacrifice comes about in the chapter 100-107 of the Quran:

“My Lord, give me one of the righteous.’ Then We gave him the good tidings of a prudent boy; 37:100 and when he had reached the age of running with him, he said, ‘My son, I see in a dream that I shall sacrifice thee; consider, what thinkest thou?’ He said, ‘My father, do as thou art bidden; thou shalt find me, God willing, one of the steadfast.’ When they had surrendered, and he flung him upon his brow, We called unto him, ‘Abraham, 37:105 thou hast confirmed the vision; even so We recompense the good-doers. This is indeed the manifest trial.’ And We ransomed him with a mighty sacrifice, and left for him among the later folk ‘Peace be upon Abraham!”

The Quranic verses outlining Abrahamic sacrifice

The Quranic verses outlining Abrahamic sacrifice

There is much theological hairsplitting between Muslims and Christians about which version is correct. Because the Quran does not mention the name of the son meant for sacrifice, as does the Bible, and the Muslim tradition relies on the Prophetic Traditions (ahadith) to specify it, the debate goes on inconclusively. My idea is not to prove my belief in the second version in a theological manner but to compare the two versions in such a way as to look into how these versions influence the thought of Christendom and Islam on violence and sacrifice.

Sacrifice and Self

Here I would like to tease out one vital similarity and one vital difference in these two traditions. The similarity is that there is the idea of sacrifice as a metaphor. The sacrifice in the Christian tradition is a ‘test’ to know that “you fear God.” In the Quran, it is to know whether Abraham “confirms his dream” and proves that he is a do-gooder. That is why the sacrificial subjects in the two traditions are represented and replaced by sacrificial objects. So the ritual of sacrifice in the two traditions, especially in Islam, is meant for reenacting the idea of risking the self with a view to bolstering the commitment to the Self of all selves.

The vital difference in the two traditions is the attitude and mentality of the sacrificial subjects about to be sacrificed. Though both traditions underline Abraham’s nonchalance and commitment (by sacrificing only one son according to Christianity and, according to the Quran, by sacrificing the much beloved offspring generously granted at his old age), the Bible has it that Isaac was not aware about his being the sacrificial subject.“Father?” “Yes, my son?” Abraham replied. “The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” Here Abraham comes about as bringing his son under a false pretext (Not informing Isaac priorly that he is about to be offered). Or, if Abraham was aware beforehand, as some Christian theologians argue, that Isaac would ultimately be replaced by a lamb and he thereby partakes the divine knowledge of future (so he does not lie to Isaac); the idea makes a dent on our valorization of Abrahamic steadfastness, boldness and commitment. The problem has been resolved in the Quranic reprsentation of ‘Ishmael’. Abraham told him: “My son, I see in a dream that I shall sacrifice thee; consider, what thinkest thou?’ Ishmael said: ‘do as thou art bidden; thou shalt find me, God willing, one of the steadfast.” Here, by depicting both of them as not being privy to the Divine intention, in the Islamic tradition, the idea of sacrificing the self is not restricted to Abraham himself (who, in one reading of Christian tradition, does not sacrifice his self at all as he is privy to divine plan), but to Ishmael.

In the social memory of Muslims, this idea of risking the self for sake of the Self of all selves has always been either active or dormant. That may be the reason why Jesus’ loud cry in the Cross, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” (“My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?”) according to Bible (Matthew 27:46) appears as an alien concept to Islam. Tariq Ramadan brilliantly captures this difference:

“This tragic solitude of the human being facing the divine underlies the history of Western thought from Greek tragedy (with the central figure of the rebel Prometheus facing the Olympian gods) to existentialist and modern Christian interpretations as exemplified in the works of Soren Kierkegaard. The recurrence of the theme of the tragic trial of solitary faith in Western theology and philosophy has linked this reflection to questions of doubt, rebellion, guilt, and forgiveness and has thus naturally shaped the discourse on faith, trials, and mistakes.”

Sacrifice, Selfishness and Selflessness


Antikörper) is a German crime-drama-thriller directed by Christian Alvart.The feature film premiered on 7 July 2005.

In Antibodies, Polizist Schmitz (Norman Reedus)  a detective-turned farmer, is pretty sure that his son is behind the murder of a girl, one of the 14 crimes of which, a Hannibal-like sex pervert Gabriel Engel (André Hennicke) is accused. Before law ever takes its hand on his son, Schmitz takes him out under the pretext of a hunting outing. In the dramatic sequence of moves and countermoves reminiscent of Biblical events (whose significance is not hidden but played in the surface through the voiceover of the Genesis narrative), Schimitz finds himself in the brink of sacrificing his ‘Isaac’ when the angel appears in the form of the police chopper (his detective chap handing him the diary of Engel [is angel misspelt?] confessing that the girl, too, was the latter’s victim)

In what appears to be an ersatz mock-epic of the Biblical narrative, we see here the protagonist transforming to his son’s shoulder the angst out of his own sexual guilt (he once commits adultery and gets quickly expiated by the priest). Here sacrifice comes about as an expression of the protagonist’s selfishness, his own attempt to be seen as a sincere, well-mannered cop and to prove a case, a brilliant case of whodunnit, in the deceptively selfless manner. But the Bible stands by him just as its voiceover accompanies him and his son during the sacrificial moments. The deeply layered selfishness in the appearance of selflessness might be the result of one of prominent readings of Abraham’s tale.

IS, Sacrifice and Violence 

So hidden under the surface of selfless altruism (democracy, peacekeeping and reform) there is the selfish quest for plunder, torture and domination (the triad on which modern state has been hoisted) lying deep in the western military operations, whose ferocious avatar in the globalized era was the war on terror. What makes this idea of self different from the idea of self imagined by the Islamic State terror outfit is the Islamic idea of sacrifice. Amidst the apologetic reading about the outfit’s alienness from Islam, tehood and its penchant for demarcating sthe outfit’s philosophy about the sacrifice of self can be located in the history of Islam. For instance, the Kharijite movement has worked, after the heyday of the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs, in the realm of selflessness. It did not occupy a space to chart its own political course. Though it at times occupied a state, its preference for statelessness over statehood and its penchant for identifying humanity by the mark of belief (to sin was to leave oneself from the fold of belief) and commitment was another ersatz parody of Abrahamic event as per Islam. In short, while the colonial reenactment of sacrifice through its parody of violence captures the Isaac moment (for the selfish accruement of oil and other natural resources for the state that is already there), the IS’s reenactment of the same captures the Ishmael moment (for a state that has yet to become). That is the reason why the adamantly western picture of the outfit often lacks in clarity.

But what make these parodies ersatz as I argue? Can’t these be perfectly in the mold of sacrifices that these signify? In other words, as the critics and exponents of both the state violence and the violence of IS argue, can’t there be a selfless commitment to the altruistic ideal?

What separates sacrifice from violence is that, in both versions of Abrahamic sacrifice, sacrifice is a ritualistic metaphor which denotes a higher objective behind the token expression of a ritual (risking the self with a view to bolstering the commitment to the Self of all selves). Here violence is not perpetrated for its own sake- as a meaningless ritual of beheading; it is taken as sign of spiritual commitment and as a realistic alternative (al fitantu ashaddu min al katli (Corruption or mischievous torture is graver than war or war is just a tool for stopping fitna). There is in the Islamic juristic tradition a teleological reasoning for war. That is, war can only be justified only according to the maslahat (good  consequence) to which it leads. This pre-modern dictum is an anathema to both the modern state and the Islamic state whose authority they hardly respect. The maslahat can be read in the pessimism in the question Angels asked God before the act of human creation: ‘Will You place upon it (earth) one who causes corruption therein and sheds blood, while we declare Your praise and sanctify You?” [Quran 2:30].

P.S: While the debate on the outfit was going on in India, whistleblower Snowden’s argument that  the movement was formed in the womb of US foreign policy after yet another US-Israeli union was aired in the country. Geopolitical strategies are hardly represented in the western analyses of the outfit, merely because any take on the geo-politics might come about as being another conspiracy theory, to which the post Cold War world has anathema, as no documents about this have yet been declassified. In the thematic pattern I am using here, Snowden’s argument has a space. Here the Isaac moment of selfishness has absorbed the Ishamel moment of selflessness and vice versa. The result is, in both the orders, the prevalence of the Isaac moment. That is, empire is insidious.



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