Volume IX - The Unity of Religious Ideals
Abraham was the father of three great world religions. For it is from his descendants, who were called Ben Israel, that came Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Abraham was the first to bring the knowledge of mysticism from Egypt, where he was initiated in the most ancient esoteric order. And on his return the place he chose to establish as a world center was Mecca, to which people made pilgrimage. Not only in the age of Islam, but long before Muhammad was the sacred center of Mecca held in esteem by the pious.
In the ancient tradition the family of Jesus Christ is traced back to the family of Isaac, and Muhammad came from the family of Ishmael. The prophecies of Abraham were always living words, though various people have given different interpretations according to their own ideas. But to the mind of the seer these prophecies have a very deep meaning.
With Abraham's vast knowledge of esotericism, he was considered a great patriarch among his people. He was interested in everybody's troubles and difficulties. He was thrown into the midst of worldly responsibilities, to learn all that he could from them. And then to teach his knowledge and experience to those who looked to him for the bread of knowledge. No doubt some of the stories of ancient times strike our modern ears as somewhat childish. But it is the way they were told, and to what kind of people, that makes all the difference. In the first place there was a great scarcity of lettered people in those days; therefore the stories were told by the unlettered, who must certainly have improvised upon every legend and pictured it according to the understanding of their particular age. Nevertheless, truth is there, if we only know how to lift the veil.
Abraham's life makes him not only a prophet, but also a murshid. He was a mystic; he gave counsel to those who came to him in difficulty. He examined them, treated their minds and healed their souls according to their needs. The most remarkable thing one finds in Abraham is that, besides being a prophet and a mystic, he lived the life of an ordinary human being, at one with his fellow men in their times of pleasure or sorrow.
One story from the life of Abraham has been a subject of great argument in the East, and that is the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. It is not only a source of argument in the East, but it is also alarming to the Western mind. People can ask a thousand questions about the proper reason and justification for such an act, yet if we look from the ideal point of view no sacrifice for a beloved ideal can be too great. There are numberless souls whose dear ones, their beloved husbands or sons, have been sacrificed in this recent war. They could do nothing else; they had to surrender their will to the ideal of the nation, and offer this sacrifice for the national cause, without thinking for one moment that it was unusual.
During the time of Abraham there existed a group of thinkers who devoted their lives to the thought of God and to the search for the eternal truth. They spent their time in seclusion and contemplation, and they helped those who came to them to be guided on the spiritual path. It is their symbology that we find in the traditions of Abraham sacrificing his son for the love of God. For in Sufism human life is considered as a line with two ends: one end immortal, the other mortal; one end unlimited, the other limited; one end Allah, the other Banda; one end the father, the other the son.
As the child is sometimes loved by the father more than his own self, so the body is loved by the spirit more than it loves itself. This is why man always neglects the happiness of the spirit for bodily comforts and pleasures. The sacrifice of the son symbolized the complete crushing of the human ego, of the limited self, and that could only be done for a higher gain, such is the love of God. It is said that the son was taken away and that he was not killed after all, and in other scriptures we find that in the place of the son a ram was found and sacrificed, which means that the animal nature of the ego in man was crushed. And then it is said that from that moment both were blessed by God, which means that both the natural self and the spiritual self become blessed when this sacrifice is made. Sufis call this Fana, which means annihilation. Not understanding this, many have sacrificed animals for the love of God and have made feasts of this sacrifice; but the underlying meaning is the way of the Sufi, who progresses by self-control and arrives at the eternal goal.
When we think deeply about the problem of life, there is no path in the world, whether spiritual or material, which we can tread successfully without a sacrifice. Sometimes the sacrifice is great, and sometimes small; sometimes the sacrifice is made first, before achieving success, and sometimes afterwards. As sacrifice is necessary in life, it is made by everyone in some form or other, but when it is made willingly, it turns into a virtue. The greater the ideal, the greater the sacrifice it demands, and if one studies wisely the process of advancement through life in any direction, one finds that it is nothing but a continual sacrifice. And happiness comes from the understanding that this is the nature of life, and from not being hurt or troubled by it but knowing that it is by sacrifice, made until the end, that man attains to the desired goal.
The idea of sacrifice has always existed in some form
or other, in every religion. Sometimes it has been taught
as giving up one's possessions for the love of a higher
ideal, which means that when man claims to love his high
ideal and yet is not willing to give up something he possesses
for it, then there is doubt about his devotion. But sacrifice
of a possession is the first step; the next one is self-sacrifice,
which was the inner note of the religion of Jesus Christ.
Charity, generosity, even tolerance and forbearance, are
a kind of sacrifice, and every sacrifice in life, in whatever
form, means a step towards the goal of every soul.