Does The Quran say God told Abraham to
sacrifice his son?
Eid al-Adha (festival (of) the sacrifice) is an Islamic holiday
celebrated by many Muslims to commemorate the willingness of
Abraham to sacrifice his son as an act of obedience to God (due to
a dream he had). Whilst this is by far the most common
understanding of the incident (even among those who follow a Quran
based islam) there is some variance in terms of how it is
explained away. Some claim the vision was not from God (but from
the "devil"), some claim Abraham mistakenly took the vision
literally instead of as a metaphor (i.e. sacrifice his
preoccupation with his son), and some claim it was a test/trial
but God never intended for it to be actually carried out and
stopped it before it happened. The primary reason for trying to
explain it away is that it is seen as a problem that God ordered
an innocent/righteous child to be killed. As such, translations
frequently include interpolations and misrepresent the Arabic to
aid such an interpretation.
So, is there an understanding based on The Quran that could
provide a better fit? In my view yes.
I will present evidence that the more likely meaning of Abraham's
dream was to leave his son (i.e. separate from him). The following
is a simple/literal translation of the Arabic:
"My Lord, grant me from the righteous."
So We gave him good news of a compassionate child.
So when he reached the age of striving/working (with him), he
said: "Indeed I have seen in sleep/dream that I am sacrificing
you, so look what you see?" He said: "O my father, do what you
are commanded (you will)*find
me, if God willed, of the patient ones."
So when they both submitted and he (Abraham) brought** him (son) to*** the forehead (or side of
And We called him: "O Abraham,"
"Surely you have believed/confirmed the vision." Indeed like
thus We reward the righteous/good-doers.
Surely this (was) a clear trial.
And We ransomed/exchanged him with/for a mighty/great sacrifice.
And We left upon him in the later generations****
Peace be upon Abraham.
Like thus We reward the righteous/good-doers.
Surely he was of Our believing servants.
And we gave him good news of Isaac a prophet from the righteous.
is a prefixed particle (i.e. coming before the verb "find
me") indicating action in the future. The obvious problem
for the conventional understanding is how can one be of the
patient ones after having been sacrificed/killed?
**Arabic word "TaLLa" (root: Ta-Lam-Lam) also means
"to draw something to one's self" / "to lay oneself down upon
one's kin" as well as "lay/threw someone down" (which is the
conventional translation here). Interestingly this latter meaning
given in classical arabic dictionaries primarily implies
forcefully put down but that would not be the case here since they
both submitted, i.e. the son lay down willingly. This verb only
occurs once in Quran.
***Arabic "li" predominantly means "to/for" not
"upon" which is the conventional translation here.
****this phrase apparently means "upon him (i.e. his
story/remembrance) is left/preserved for the later generations".
Also occurs in 37:78, 119, 129.
Note the use of particles of emphasis/certainty throughout, e.g.
indeed/surely, and the use of "We".
To clarify, the action described by the verb TaLLa above
is one that could be displayed during a heartfelt moment, e.g.
when greeting a loved one or saying goodbye. Father and son
examples shown below:
Many are not aware that at some point in the story of Abraham in
Quran there was a family separation:
"...I have settled SOME of my progeny in an
uncultivated valley..." [14:37]" i.e. they are not all in
This is reinforced by the fact that Abraham and his sons
Ishmael/Isaac and Jacob (grandson?) are never mentioned being
together in one place. For example 2:125-128 mentions Abraham and
Ishmael only when working on 'al
bayt' (the shelter) and in 2:128 the dual form is used when
Abraham asks "...make us both (i.e. Abraham and Ishmael)
It is important to note
37:102 mentions the son reaching the age of striving/working
telling us he was able to fend for himself which only seems
relevant in an Abraham leaving scenario.
Note how key words are in the perfect/past tense, e.g. "submitted"
(aslama) and "confirmed" (saddaqta) implying Abraham
carried out the vision. Hence "...like thus We reward the
good-doers..." i.e. he actually did good not was about to do good
as some claim. Further, when Quran says "indeed We like thus
reward the good-doers" it is indicating this is an exemplar/model
for us but if this incident is understood conventionally then we
cant take it as an exemplar because no-one can replicate the
practice/lesson in this story, i.e. do something because you THINK
it is from God and you will be rewarded (even if it goes against
Quran's principles!). Is there any other comparable example to
this in The Quran? Not to my knowledge.
The conventional understanding claims that "the great/mighty
sacrifice" refers to a sacrificial animal that was
exchanged/ransomed for Abraham's son, which seems odd to me,
because one may ask why the sacrificial animal is described as
"great/mighty", especially in comparison to the slaughter of a
son. In the Abraham leaving scenario
the "great/mighty sacrifice" would refer to the great sacrifice
made by leaving his beloved son, making it a self-contained
It should be noted that the pronoun "hu" (i.e.
"...exchanged him...") in 37:107 is commonly taken to
refer to the son, however the flow of the context suggests it
refers to Abraham. In the sacrificial animal story the pronoun "hu"
must refer to the son otherwise it doesn't work. In the Abraham
leaving scenario it doesn't matter whom the pronoun refers to as
it will work either way (i.e. separating is a mighty/great
sacrifice for either Abraham or his son).
Elsewhere in Quran where the noun "trial" (balao)
is used, it is from God, not another (e.g. shaytan or iblis),
thus suggesting the dream/vision was from God.
No mention of a misinterpreted dream is found in Quran, and this
position requires us to believe that both Abraham and his son
misinterpreted it, which seems unlikely. Note that his son clearly
thought it was a command.
As such, your Lord has chosen you (Joseph), and He teaches you the
interpretation of narratives, and He completes His
blessings upon you and upon the descendants of Jacob, as He
completed it for your fathers before that, Abraham and Isaac.
Your Lord is Omniscient, Wise. [12:6]
Abraham was tested* by words from His Lord, which he
completed. He said, "I will make you a leader for the
people." he said, "Also from my progeny?" He said, "My pledge
will not encompass the wicked." [2:124]
*verb, same root
as the noun "trial/test" in 37:106. These two verses are the
only times it is used in the context of Abraham in Quran,
strongly suggesting a link.
Having said all of the above, it is not definitive that the dream
was from God (as it is not explicitly stated), but there is
certainly evidence implicating it was as outlined above. There is
one weakness in my view and that is the use of "dhib'hin/sacrifice"
(root: Dh-B-H) in 37:107.
a) to split something,
b) to slit someone's/something's throat
c) to strangle someone/something.
The reason for the weakness is that this root is used twice
in this story (once as a verb in "I am sacrificing you" in
37:102, and then as a noun "exchanged him with a great sacrifice"
in 37:107, and this word is always used to mean a literal
slaughter/sacrifice/kill in Quran. The first use in 37:102 can be
easily explained away as this is what he literally saw in his
dream, so to take the literal meaning in 37:102 makes sense, but
to take it literally in 37:107 is problematic because the "great
sacrifice" in 37:107 was not a literal slaughter/sacrifice/kill.
However, it should be noted that the noun form "dhib'bin"
in 37:107 is only used once in the entire Quran.
My view is that this is a play on words to emphasise the
significance/severity of this deed, i.e. Abraham was giving up his
son, never to see him again, thus it is as if his son was
sacrificed, lost to him forever. It is interesting to note the
core meaning of the root seems to be "to split something".
I have noted The Quran use play on words before but I never noted
down the instances for future reference. Some that come to mind
are Chapter 111, and the use of "cast"
in 20:70. If anyone knows of other possible examples please
let me know.
To end I would like readers to ponder over the following point.
Please note the interesting use of different words for 'the
sleep/dream' (al manam) in 37:102, and 'the vision' (al
ru'ya) in 37:105. Please re-read the verses above.
At first I thought this was unusual but my research of Quran has
often taught me that its use of language is precise and for a
reason so I decided to dig deeper and I was amazed at what I
found. The usage of 'al
manam' in Quran always indicates a literal dream meaning,
i.e. no interpretation required, but 'al
ru'ya' involves foretelling of a future event that requires
interpretation. Thus, Abraham saw in his dream/manam that
he was literally sacrificing his son in 37:102, but in 37:105 God
states he confirmed the vision/ru'ya (i.e. interpreted
dream). If Quran had said he confirmed his 'al manam' that
could have implied he was about to carry out what he literally
The Quranic evidence suggests that God tested Abraham with a dream
in which he saw himself literally sacrificing his son. However
both Abraham and his son correctly understood its
meaning/significance, and when Abraham confirmed the vision by
leaving his son he/they was rewarded. For those familiar with the
story of Abraham in Quran will know that he was dedicated to
spreading the message of God throughout his life and is considered
an imam (leader/exemplar) for the people.
Note: early Traditional Muslim scholars considered the sacrificial
son to be Isaac, but later changed their minds and think it was
Ishmael. The Quran does not specify who, it is left open it seems.
I am of the view it suggests it was Isaac, thus giving us a
self-contained story above. Note the good news in 37:112 is of
Isaac's prophethood, among the righteous, not of him being born.
And it could be argued 37:112 is an answer to the prayer of
Abraham in 37:100 in which he asks to be granted from the
righteous, thus completing this narrative of Abraham.
Peace be upon you.
follow up questions to test your understanding
should be noted that for those following a Quran based
islam, differing views on this incident has little impact on
our implementation of the deen/obligation. This article was
primarily written to put all my thoughts/notes in one place.
Focus on what unites, not divides. This work would not have
been possible without the many people who have contributed
to this topic, and without the resources now available to
anyone wishing to study The Quran in
detail. For these stepping stones I am indebted and truly
This work reflects my
personal understanding, as of 5th Aug 2019. Seeking knowledge
is a continual process and I will try to improve my
understanding of the signs within 'the reading' (al quran) and out with
it, unless The God wills otherwise. All information is correct to
the best of my knowledge only and thus should not be taken
as a fact. One should always seek knowledge and verify for
themselves when possible: 17:36, 20:114, 35:28, 49:6, 58:11.
do not follow what you have no knowledge of; surely the
hearing, the sight and the heart, all of these, shall be
questioned about that. [17:36]