Prophet Ibrahim: Five Observations for Today's World

Truth (photo: iStock by Getty Images)

Highlights: The article discusses five observations on Prophet Ibrahim's dialogue with his polytheistic father, as mentioned in the Quran:

  1. Rationality versus irrationality: Ibrahim engages in a conversation with his father, using logic and reason to persuade him to believe in the existence of one God. He emphasizes the complementarity of revelation and reason in guiding individuals towards their earthly purpose.
    Kindness versus antagonism: Despite his father's resistance, Ibrahim approaches the dialogue with kindness, compassion, and respect. He addresses his father affectionately, hoping to convey the truth and inspire optimism by invoking the concept of God's infinite mercy.
  2. Freedom and guidance: Ibrahim offers to guide his father to the right path, highlighting the balance between human free will and divine guidance in Islam. While God is the ultimate guide, individuals must choose to believe and be guided, and they will be rewarded or punished based on their choices and actions.
  3. Falsehood's conflict with truth: The article reflects on the perpetual conflict between falsehood and truth, illustrated through encounters between prophets and their adversaries throughout history. Falsehood operates under darkness, while truth brings light and guidance, rendering falsehood weak and vulnerable.
  4. Contemporary challenges to Islam: The article mentions that proponents of materialism, liberalism, hedonism, moral relativism, atheism, and agnosticism often respond to the truth of Islam with disdain, mockery, and double standards. The author suggests that these world views offer confusion and false hopes, similar to the challenges faced by the prophets in their times.
  5. Overall, the article highlights the importance of rationality, kindness, freedom, and guidance in the context of Ibrahim's dialogue with his father and the ongoing conflict between truth and falsehood.

The following are five observations on Prophet Ibrahim’s dialogue with his polytheistic father. The dialogue is featured in Surah Maryam of the Quran (Quran 19:41-48). Brief references to it are also made in Surah al-An’am:74, Surah al-Tawbah:114, and Surah al-Mumtahanah:4. The father’s name was Azar (al-An’am, 74) or Tarih.

Rationality versus Irrationality

While conversing with his father, Ibrahim resorts to logic and reason. The father did not believe in One God, so invoking Heaven and the revelation was of no use. The father’s intelligence was Ibrahim’s best chance. The revelation and reason do not contradict, nor challenge, each other. Rather, they complement one another in enlightening and guiding man to the fulfillment of his honorable earthly purpose.

Ibrahim knew that there is nothing more sensible and more consistent than the truth, while at the same time, there is nothing more illogical and inconsistent than falsehood. The truth, presented by the revelation and guarded by reason, is irresistible. Falsehood, which not only defies logic but also the natural order of things, stands no chance against such force. It does not even come close. That is an obvious reality for whoever has eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts (intelligence) to understand: “Could there be any doubt about the existence of God who has created the heavens and the earth?” (Quran 14:10).

Ibrahim thus says to his father that it is incomprehensible that he took idols as gods, which could not hear, nor see, nor bring a benefit. Ibrahim as a prophet and a man of truth – yet his son – was right there with him calling him to see, comprehend and embrace the truth, and to follow a way that was sensible, even, and straight. Ibrahim also asked him to reject crookedness, deceit, and blind following, for they were the sources of all evil. The father needed urgent help and a sense of direction. Ibrahim was there for him. Almighty God was there for both of them.

Ibrahim wanted his father to be free and make free and reasonable choices. Indeed, if a person’s senses are liberated and enlightened, in no way could he ever worship dead matter in lieu of the Most Gracious God, nor could he follow his own or somebody else’s fancies instead of the heavenly guidance revealed by the Creator of the universe.

However, Ibrahim’s father did not heed the counsel. He was so blinded by pagan arrogance and the worship of brute force and matter that he persisted in bartering truth for falsehood, rationality for irrationality, and reason for inflated and misguided emotions. His intelligence was paralyzed and malfunctioning, making his choices unsound and faulty. In that manner, the father was the devil incarnate. Ibrahim thus warned him that a painful chastisement may afflict him and that he may become to Satan a friend and an ally.

The myopic father was able to see in Ibrahim just a person who wanted him to desist from his old ways, without understanding why. He did not even try to understand why. Consumed by spiritual insecurity and antagonism, the father constructed a veil of mistrust and miscommunication between him and his son. They were not on the same wavelength.

The father could simply reply to all the emphatic advice and justifications of his son: “Do you reject (hate) my gods?” (Quran 19:46). He did not say more, for he was not in a position to conjure anything sensible in the face of the intensity and profundity of the heavenly counsels of Ibrahim. His best shot was to stubbornly and insolently remain quiet, and whenever necessary, to say as little as possible. The more he spoke, the more he could reveal his weaknesses and the impotence of his standpoint.

The father was capable of seeing only himself and the world of his selfish interests. He was neither ready nor willing, to be elevated to a higher vantage point whence he could see things differently and make more appropriate judgments. He was forever trapped in the lowliness of matter and self-regard. In such a state, reason and logic are unwelcome companions.

It is an established principle – as a small digression - that falsehood can operate only under the veils of darkness, obscurity, uncertainty, perversity, and irrationality. That is why the truth, which is synonymous with light and guidance, is its fiercest enemy. The mere presence of the truth unsettles falsehood and renders it weak and vulnerable. No wonder that in its perennial conflict with the truth, falsehood’s preferred strategy is to keep the truth at bay and, by any means necessary, try to undermine it – dim its light and influence – from a distance and deceptively.

Facing the truth under conditions that are balanced and fair is always set to be disastrous for falsehood. Whenever the two are brought face to face and are pitted fairly and squarely against each other, there is to be only one outcome.

The truth is falsehood’s antithesis. As such, it is ordained to seek out and incapacitate it. Its mission is twofold: to establish and manifest itself, and to abolish falsehood and all sorts of vanity, bringing them all to naught.

In this respect, one can additionally remember the meetings between Prophet Ibrahim and Nimrud, Prophet Musa, and Pharaoh, Prophet ‘Isa and his Jewish and Roman adversaries, all prophets and their rebellious peoples, and also between Prophet Muhammad and his contemporaries. One should bear in mind what they all offered and eventually contributed to the well-being of the world, and what their legacies today are. Those meetings – and confrontations – signified encounters between good and evil, sense and senselessness, reason and folly, as well as light and darkness.

One can likewise reflect on the ways the truth of Islam is dealt with nowadays by the proponents of materialism, liberalism, hedonism, moral relativism, atheism, and agnosticism as the latest wide-ranging and fairly sophisticated expressions of falsehood. The most that those deceptive worldviews and ideologies can offer to the world are confusion, uncertainty, ambiguity, insecurity, greed, self-delusion, and false hopes – just as their predecessors did centuries and millennia ago. They all speak the same language, albeit with different accents and dialects.

Against the truth of Islam, things are usually done covertly, hypocritically, and deviously. Islam as the truth is unwelcome. It is a nemesis that simply does not go away. Just like before, the responses to Islam stand for mixtures of disdain, mockery, double standards, vested interests, and physical force. Unquestionably, every age has its own Nimrud, Pharaoh, Samiriyy, Haman, Qarun, Pontius Pilate, Abu Lahab, and Abu Jahal.

Kindness Versus Antagonism

In the course of his dialogue with his father, Ibrahim displays the utmost kindness and care. He does so because, firstly, he was naturally “a forbearing, compassionate and tender-hearted person” (Quran 11:75); secondly, as a devout son, he was dutiful to his father and wished him well under all circumstances; and thirdly, as a prophet and a caller to the right path, he invited his father to the truth’s ways wisely and with beautiful preaching, arguing with him in ways that were best and most courteous.

Ibrahim uses four times the idiom “ya abati”, which means “O my father”. The idiom is the most loving and affectionate way by which a son can address his father. It is a sign of maximum respect, compassion, and love.

Moreover, when Ibrahim refers to the two most distressing scenarios to which his father was getting ever close: worshipping Satan by following in his footsteps (Quran 19:44), and being afflicted by a chastisement from God (Quran 19:45), Ibrahim refers to God as Most Gracious (al-Rahman). He does so because he wants to embed in his father’s heart a sense of optimism and hope, for God (al-Rahman) showers all of His creation with endless mercy and blessings without discrepancy.

With al-Rahman, every sincere repentance is appreciated and welcomed, every sinner can return, every wrong can be fixed, and every aspiration can be fulfilled. The presence of al-Rahman and a life with Him negates every sense of hopelessness, anxiety, sorrow, and dejection. Al-Rahman invites and heals lost souls.

The choice of the al-Rahman word was meant as well to have a positive psychological impact on the father. Its mere sound and profound meanings were to mitigate the negativities entailed in the two mentioned scenarios. Hence, in both instances, the word al-Rahman is placed next to the word al-Shaytan (Satan), which when pronounced sounds the same. Al-Rahman thus easily neutralises al-shaytan, both in sound and effect.

In addition, the universality and absolute character of God’s mercy and blessings for His creation effortlessly overshadow the relativity of non-belief, disobedience, and polytheism. The former is the rule, the latter a set of exceptions. The former, furthermore, is supreme and unconditional, the latter just a collection of social, cultural, and personal constructs.

The message emphasised thereby is that paths to God and His infinite mercy and benevolence are always open and beckoning. Ibrahim’s father was invited too.

However, all this was met with added antagonism and enmity on the part of Ibrahim’s father. The sentiment extended beyond the boundaries of the truth itself, also encompassing Ibrahim as its spokesperson.

This explains why the father could not summon up his courage to address Ibrahim as “O my son”, reciprocating Ibrahim’s repetitive “O my father”. Instead, he simply calls him “O Ibrahim” (Quran 19:46). So saturated with hate and bitterness was his entire being that he could not even pretend. Courage and virtue are not intended to be compatible with falsehood. They repel each other.

The father’s reaction was as irrational as the motives that led him to it. He rumbled, contrasting with Ibrahim’s placid, gentle, and persuasive tone: “If you do not desist, I will surely stone you, so now get away from me for a good long while” (Quran 19:46).

Having heard this, Ibrahim seems to have lost all hopes of his father returning to the realm of the truth. He nevertheless stayed faithful to his principles, never betraying them in the slightest even when under the most challenging of conditions. Thus, while departing from his father, as rancorously commanded, Ibrahim still had nothing but kind and generous words for him: “Peace be upon you. I will ask forgiveness for you from my Lord. Indeed, He is ever gracious to me” (Quran 19:47).

It is obvious that to falsehood, both the truth and its people are enemies. To the truth, on the contrary, only falsehood is the enemy. Its people are victims. They are intended to be freed and rescued.

In contrast, falsehood aims to rescue itself. Since it cannot offer anything substantial as an alternative to the truth, falsehood’s main task revolves around suppressing and enchaining the truth as much and as long as possible. The more the voices of the truth are restrained, the more room falsehood is afforded to spread its mischievous ways.

Freedom and Guidance

The dialogue between Ibrahim and his father encapsulates the essence of the concepts of freedom and guidance in Islam. It does so remarkably in just a few words. At one point, Ibrahim tells his father: “Follow me, I will guide you to a right path” (Quran 19:43).

In Islam, guidance is in the Hand of God. He guides whomever He wills and leads astray whomever He wills. Muslims regularly pray to God to guide them to the right path.

At the same time, however, the Qur’an on more than one occasion explicitly affirms that man has free will and so, chooses to believe and be guided, and chooses to disbelieve and not to be guided. On the Day of Judgment, people will be rewarded and punished solely based on what they have done freely and willingly in this world.

This means that God as the Absolute Creator and Master of the universe knows everything and acts wisely and justly. Nothing escapes His infinite knowledge, will, and power. Accordingly, He knows what man freely chooses and willingly does. He thus guides only those who want and deserve to be guided and leads astray only those who want and deserve to be sent astray.

Man chooses what to do, while God accepts, endorses, facilitates, and rewards for the choices made and deeds performed. Man’s life is a subtle blend and interplay of personal freedom and divine providence. As a sign of His unbounded Sovereignty, God reiterates that although free, man is subjected to His Will and Authority. If He so wills, God can always overrule man’s freedom, choices, and intended actions. He does what He wants, while man does what he relatively wants within a prescribed scope, as well as a framework, of selections and prospects.

Moreover, that God is the only one who guides means that man cannot be guided – or cannot guide himself - except through and by the prophets and the heavenly messages revealed to them. Without them, man will remain forever short of getting to the bottom of myriads of existential secrets and mysteries. In the absence of divine help, the intellect and senses of man are verified inept to guide him to all truth. They are good merely as far as they go. Nonetheless, they possess enough capacity to lead - or “guide” - man to the threshold of recognizing and accepting revelation as the supreme source of guidance and truth.

Man’s efforts to rival the revelation and Heaven are destined to fall flat. This ultimately means that there is no guidance but the guidance of God, and if He does not guide, nobody else can. All other alternatives are insufficient.

Praying for guidance means expressing readiness and resolve to enhance the relationship with God as the source and legitimacy of all guidance. It means acknowledging God as the Creator, Master, and Self-sufficient, and acknowledging man as no more than a creation, servant, and needy. It likewise means the registration of willingness, productivity, patience, and steadfastness in adhering to the path of righteousness, while fully capitalising on the boons of free will and sound reason as the two greatest heavenly gifts to man.

Thus, when Ibrahim asked his father to follow him, he meant that he should reason and willingly select the right path, which nevertheless can be determined only by God. Then, in the light of Ibrahim’s teachings in his capacity as a prophet of God, he should embark on doing everything that was expected from a follower of that path.

That way, the father would have set himself on a course to God’s pleasure, blessings, and approval. He at once would have guided himself and would have been guided. That is, he would have chosen the revealed guidance for himself, Ibrahim as a prophet would have symbolised an instrument of his guidance, and God would have accepted, endorsed, aided, and rewarded his choices and deeds. Depending on which aspect of the equation one considered, it would be correct to say that the father guided himself, or that Ibrahim guided him (as it is in fact stated in the verse in question (Quran 19:43)), or that God guided him.

The Importance of the Revealed Knowledge

Ibrahim furthermore says to his father: “O my father, indeed there has come to me of knowledge that which has not come to you” (Quran 19:43).

Here Ibrahim clearly distinguishes between conventional and revealed knowledge. His father possessed (some of) the former and he possessed (some of) the latter. Ibrahim’s message is that conventional forms of knowledge (contemporarily expressed as intuition, empiricism, and rationalism) are provisionally valid. However, they are neither complete nor absolute.

Topping the hierarchy of sources and types of knowledge is the revelation. It aims to enlighten, guide and optimise the other forms of knowledge. It is both absolute and infallible. It is everything conventional knowledge is not.

Conventional knowledge needs the revealed knowledge for its inspiration, direction, guardianship, and authentication. The revealed knowledge, on the other hand, needs conventional knowledge for its proper contextualization, procedural operation and implementation.

The two are interlocked in a reciprocal relationship. They need one another if man were to realise the noble goals of his existence. Conventional knowledge without its revealed counterpart is partial, misleading, precarious, and anticlimactic, whereas the revealed knowledge alone is dormant, concealed, unexpressed, and even suppressed.

It should be observed that Ibrahim does not call his father ignorant, thus giving some credit to the character of conventional knowledge. He also does so out of courtesy and compassion. Ibrahim says to his father that what he had was not enough to attain salvation in both worlds. He needed more, which Ibrahim had.

This in equal measure shows that knowledge (a combination of the revealed and conventional types) is pivotal in man’s perennial quest for authentic success and happiness. Without knowledge, such becomes impossible. Ignorance, either actual or disguised by erroneous and inadequate knowledge, is man’s and his life’s archenemy. It is owing to this that in Ibrahim’s entire discourse, worship, knowledge, and guidance are rendered inseparable (Quran 19:42-3). They are triplets.

Ibrahim also says that knowledge “has come” both to him and his father. It means that no knowledge can be acquired, or learned, in the ontological sense of the word. All knowledge belongs to God who alone is Omniscient. Accordingly, all knowledge originates only from Him, as angels had declared in the context of the creation of Adam:  “We have no knowledge except what You have taught us. Indeed, You alone are All-knowing and All-wise” (Quran 2:32).

Thus, technically, the whole of knowledge comes from God as a sign of His care, love, mercy, and generosity for man as His vicegerent on earth. Every dimension of knowledge denotes a fragment of the divine treasure that has been deliberately uncovered and presented to man. It follows that humbleness, appreciation, insight, and integrity ought always to be associated with the orb of knowledge and its people. Those who truly know are good and morally upright, those who do not know are not.

The Truth and Blind Following

One of the main lessons that can be extracted from Ibrahim’s dialogue with his father is that the purpose of man’s life is to seek, find, embrace, actualize, and live the truth. Everything else is secondary and should be subjected to the interests of the former. For example, a person learns, works, plays, builds a career, etc., but he should not get engrossed in those pursuits for their own sake, nor because they are ends in themselves. Rather, he should undertake them for the sake of accomplishing his ultimate existential purpose, seeing them as sheer means for achieving higher and more consequential ends.

In doing so, a person should be ready to sacrifice whatever it takes, including his comfort zone, personal preferences, society, culture, and even family. Nothing should be held bigger and more important than Almighty God and His truth. While doing so, moreover, a person’s best allies will be the revelation, sound reason, broad-mindedness, a clear conscience, determination, and persistence. His worst enemies will be blind following, deadening formalism, myopia, troubled conscience, irrationality, heedlessness, and prejudice.

That means that a person should follow the truth (be a Muslim) only because of his own free will, conscious choice, investigation, study, scrutiny, etc., and not just because he was born as a Muslim, or was told and “trained” to be one, or because of certain social, historical, cultural and national norms. Being a Muslim should be his self-identification and raison d’etre. It should be the pinnacle of his existential quest and mission.

Similarly, nonbelievers, skeptics, and polytheists should do the same. Every person ought to be the architect of his spiritual destiny. As part of da’wah (promoting the message of Islam and inviting people to it), they all should be frankly asked if they are what they are exclusively because of their own rational and free choices, and because of their probes and studies, or because of something else connected to cultural, social, and peer pressures, or to prevalent and often arcane personal as well as social routines and traditions.

The followers of the truth should favor this method because it only strengthens the case of the truth, and weakens, yet completely invalidates, the case of falsehood. There is nothing that upsets falsehood and its people better than a luminous mind, common sense, intrinsic human nature, and absolute honesty. Falsehood subsists solely due to the lack of those.

While Ibrahim epitomised all the positive traits and energy, his father was the polar opposite. Hence, Ibrahim became an everlasting exemplar for posterity as to how to live and succeed. His father became an example, too, but with regard to how not to live and how not to fail.

It is no surprise that the Qur’an testifies that God took Ibrahim as an intimate friend (Quran 4: 125) and that he was “an ummah (nation, leader and role model), obedient unto God, a man of pure faith and no idolater” (Quran 16:120).

The father is designated as “an enemy to Allah” (Quran 9:114). He never changed, as a result of which Ibrahim, in the end, disowned him.


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