Starting on Monday evening, at the very height of the Haj, Muslims around the world will observe Eid Al-adha, the Festival of the Sacrifice, a four-holiday that celebrates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son to God.
Millions will converge on holy sites in Medina and Mecca, and if the past is prologue, here in the West, we will see images and read accounts of the festival that suggest (at their most generous) its strangeness -- especially the sacrifice of a hundred million animals (each family consumes a third, shares a third with friends, and gives a third to the poor); the stoning of three great pillars (representing the devil); and a version of the sacrifice story in which Ishmael is the nearly sacrificed son.
What I see in Eid Al-adha is something else: a celebration with deep connections to both Christianity and Judaism. The deepest of those connections is the spectacle, past and present, of countless deeply devout people taking a sacred story into their own hands as if it were a clump of soft clay and remaking it in their own image.
At the root of the holiday is the story told in Genesis 22. There, God tests Abraham, commanding him to offer Isaac, the longed-for son of his and Sarah's old age, on a mountain in the land of Moriah. Abraham sets out, without saying a word, but at the very last moment God stops him. Abraham sacrifices a lamb instead.
By the time Muhammad received his revelation from God, Jews and Christians had been revising those nineteen lines for centuries, adding characters (starting with Satan), dialog (conversations between Satan and God, God and Abraham, Abraham and Isaac, even Isaac and Ishmael), thoughts (How in the world am I am going to get away with Isaac without telling Sarah where we are going?), motivations, and meanings (obedience, fear, love, and faith).
Mohammed and other Muslims followed suit. The Koran's Abraham, unlike the Bible's, dreams that God wants his son in sacrifice. When he wakes, he asks his son what he thinks. His son says: "If that's what God wants, lets do it."
But the Koran, like the Hebrew Scriptures and Gospels before it, was just the beginning. The Jews had midrash, the Christians commentaries. Muslims had Hadith, the authoritative record of the words of the Prophet. There you will find scores of different Islamic versions of the story, some of them clearly derived from Jewish tradition (Satan trying to stop Abraham from obeying God, thus the need to stone him), some from pre-Islamic Arabian traditions, and some from emerging Islamic traditions.
In one version, the idea of the sacrifice is Abraham's. He is so overjoyed by the news of the imminent arrival of a son that he promises to sacrifice him when he comes of age. In another, Isaac takes center stage, showing Abraham the God's way. In a third, Sarah's response to Abraham's report sounds like the punch line to a Jewish comedian's joke: "You would sacrifice my son and not tell me?"
The great Islamic innovation was to substitute Ishmael for Isaac as the nearly sacrificed son. In the Koran, the boy is not identified. Many early Islamic exegetes considered Isaac the victim, and they weren't embarrassed as some later exegetes may have been, to cite Israelite tales (Torah) and the Gospels as authorities. But in no time there was a debate: "Some people say that it was Ishmael," wrote al-Ya'qūbī (a Shiite historian and geographer in the third century of Islam), "because he was the one who settled in Mecca, while Isaac remained in Syria. Other people say that it was Isaac because Abraham sent him (Ishmael) and his mother out when Isaac was a young boy, and Ishmael was a grown man with children. There are many traditions about each view and people disagree about them."
That debate raged for centuries, but as time went on the Ishmael versions gained favor. It is no mystery why. In the Bible, God made his covenant with Abraham and confirmed it ("because you have done this") at Moriah. Ishmael, though banished, would be taken care of. He would be the father of many great nations, but the covenant was with Isaac and his children through the ages.
The early Christians started there, but they altered the definition of Abraham and Isaac's descendants, casting the Jews off as Abraham and Sarah had earlier cast off Hagar. They made Jesus and through him all Christians the beneficiaries of God's promise.
Ishmael was the genealogical link between Abraham and the Prophet, the progenitor of the Arab people. Is it any wonder that, as Islam took root in the Arabian peninsula and spread from there, many Muslims preferred the version of the near sacrifice that made Abraham's older son the son whose submission to God defined their faith and secured God's blessing? In favoring Ishmael, Muslims simply did what, for so many, comes naturally. They redirected the course of sacred history so that God's blessing ran their way.
Today there are still Muslims who insist it was Isaac, just as there are those who (like many Christians and Jews) insist that Scripture got history wrong: God would never have asked Abraham to kill his son. Our religious traditions are not singular or fixed. They are plural and fluid, the product of conversation, argument, difference, dissent, and change, however halting. What has been (animal sacrifice, holy war, the subordination of women) does not have to be today, or tomorrow). I think of God as a writer who can't stop revising.