What comes to mind when you hear or read the word “sacrifice”? What about “surrender”? Historically, the word sacrifice, from the Latin sacrificus, or “making sacred,” generally referred to an offering someone would give to a deity. In Islam, we believe the very practice itself goes back to the first human beings, as we have in the Qur’an the story of Adam’s two sons, one whose ritual sacrifice (qurbaana) was accepted and the other rejected (Qur’an 5:27). In recent times, the word “sacrifice” has taken on a more secular meaning in most places, such as the act of giving something up with the possibility of attaining something greater in value, or to avoid some type of loss. In a sense, the former meaning includes the latter, as a literal offering is an act of devotion in which something of value is given up for something greater in return (e.g., the pleasure of God, protection from harm, etc.).
In Arabic, the word referenced is usually nahr (sacrifice), such as Yawm al-Nahr (the Day of Sacrifice), which refers to the day of Eid al-Adha on which the hajj pilgrims offer a sacrifice as one of many ritual steps for hajj. This sacrifice is to commemorate the sacrifice of Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham), who was willing to sacrifice his own son at the command of Allah. The word nahr in the Qur’an is found in only one form in the entire Qur’an, and in the shortest surah, “so pray to your Lord and sacrifice” (Qur’an 108:2).
It’s reasonable to opine about this ayah that the greatest physical act of worship, prayer, is pointedly paired with another of the greatest acts of worship, the sacrificial offering that takes place as the hajj concludes. This offering to Allah is the sacrifice of an animal (qurbani) or the financial contribution to that. A good portion of the meat is distributed to the poor. The pairing of acts together in the Qur’an is undoubtedly intentional, and a cause for reflection. Add to that, in our reflection upon verse 108:2, another verse, 22:37, in which we are told “Neither their meat nor blood reaches Allah. Rather, it is your piety (taqwa) that reaches Him…”
In chess, one of the most popular board games in the world, players oftentimes sacrifice their own pieces in order to gain an advantage or to win the match altogether. In fact, it is not uncommon to sacrifice one’s most valuable piece, the queen, in order to win the entire match. In an educational setting, students sacrifice their time – precious as it is – in order to learn, attain certain grades, or for other benefits. In a work setting people sacrifice their time and other potential opportunities in life, in order to advance a business service or product, a nonprofit cause, or a humanitarian campaign, because they see value in it worth pursuing.
Likewise, in relationships, husbands and wives recognize that all healthy marriages come with sacrifice. People sacrifice in order to get married as well as to maintain a healthy marriage. Similarly, parents sacrifice a great deal of time, energy, money, and worldly goals in order to raise their children, because they see some benefit or value in it, such as a continuous charity (ṣadaqah jariyah) for every righteous child raised, or for love, or other similar benefits.
If you’re reading this article, you sacrificed some time in order to learn something, and you hopefully attained the value you sought. Ultimately, we believe as Muslims that we were created by Allah in order to worship Him, to know Him, to pass the tests of this life in order to become better versions of ourselves, and to experience the eternal reward of the afterlife. However, that exchange is not for a slight benefit, but instead it is seen as a lifestyle of sacrifice in exchange for Allah’s pleasure and the reward of Jannah. Allah SWT says, “Allah has purchased from the believers their lives and wealth in exchange for paradise …“ (Qur’an 9:111). Additionally, the concept of sacrifice and surrender in Islam is a comprehensive one, rather than picking and choosing whatever a person prefers of revelation and disobeying Allah with regards to the rest of revelation. “O you who believe, enter into submission in its entirety, and do not follow the devil’s footsteps; he is indeed a clear enemy to you” (Qur’an 2:208).
Surrender and Sacrifice for the Sake of Allah
Linked to the act of sacrifice is the experience of surrendering oneself to Allah SWT. Surrender in general refers to giving up control of a matter, but in this case we Muslims are not surrendering in the sense of fatalism or giving up our efforts, as a sort of resignation. To surrender, in the Islamic theological and psychological context, is to give one’s psychological, emotional, and physical self to the reality that Allah has informed us about. One of the more obvious benefits in surrendering oneself to Allah is experiencing sweetness of devotion in this life, with clear purpose, psychological fulfillment, and guidance throughout one’s life. For the believer, remembrance of Allah leads to tranquility of the heart [“indeed, in the remembrance of Allah do the hearts find comfort” (Qur’an 13:28)]. To surrender to Allah’s decree comes with greater contentment, resilience in times of hardship, and perseverance in facing obstacles and challenges. The act of surrendering oneself to Allah is, in one facet, a form of sacrifice, and it is all encompassing in the believer’s life rather than being compartmentalized or isolated to one area of life. Thus, the believer says, “Indeed my prayers, my worship, my life, and my death are all for Allah, Lord of the Worlds” (Qur’an 6:162).
Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) experienced some of the greatest challenges amongst all human beings in history, and while idol-worship was common-place in his time, he found the way to surrender and sacrifice for the sake of Allah while calling people to follow his example for their own salvation. He was seen as intolerant, wrong, backwards, and he was threatened with harm, yet he stood firm in his faith, surrendering emotionally and physically to Allah’s decree, and Allah SWT saved him and revealed those incidents to us in the final, preserved revelation to be recited until the end of times. Today, there are many people who worship their desires, money, power, and fame, and their notion of tolerance in liberalism in fact is intolerant towards those who believe that desires are not equated with identity, human pleasure is not all good, and that God is to be prioritized over one’s instant gratification. The challenges and pressures from such groups or movements should not discourage the believer from sacrificing their concerns about peoples’ acceptance and pleasure over the truth, and that Allah’s pleasure is eternally rewarding.
In Islam, we believe that the truth is always greater than our desires. Desires may be true or false, good or evil in their consequences, but the truth of life is always good for us, and rejecting it is always harmful for human beings. Within Islam, true love of God is to sacrifice one’s desires when they are out of alignment with truth, goodness, and that which is right. Doing this is for the sake of Allah, and to choose Allah over oneself every time.
As a result of controlling one’s desires, Allah SWT promises a lasting destination where you never have to worry about ill desires again, ill thoughts, temptations or trials, pain or hardship, never having limitations on what you might ask for. Allah tells us this about the people of paradise: “They will have whatever they desire, and with Us is more” (Qur’an 50:35).
There are many Muslims, alive or deceased, who were living in darkness, loss, and confusion until they learned about the truth and embraced it. Many of them tasted the sweetness of eman as a powerful light contrasted with the extreme darkness they were engulfed in before. The Prophet (s) said, “Whoever has three traits within himself will find the sweetness of faith: one who loves Allah and His Messenger more than anything else, one who loves a servant only for the sake of Allah, and one who hates to turn back to unbelief after Allah has saved him, just as he hates to be thrown into the fire” (Bukhari).
You say you want Allah’s pleasure — what are you willing to sacrifice for it? You say you want Jannah —what are you willing to sacrifice for it? You say you want contentment of the heart, tranquility, and peace — are you willing to surrender fully to Allah in order to experience it?