Abraham’s Dilemma is the conjunction of three jointly inconsistent propositions: (i) God’s commands are never morally wrong, (ii) God has commanded Abraham to kill his innocent son, and (iii) killing innocent people is morally wrong. Drawing on an overlooked point from the Qur’an regarding the content of the command as well as a conceptual analysis of intentional action, this paper proposes a novel solution to the dilemma by discarding proposition (ii) in a new way. Current approaches to rejecting proposition (ii) tend to appeal to epistemic failure on the side of Abraham. In my approach, which draws on the so-called accordion effect in intentional action, God’s command is interpreted in such a way that God has not commanded Abraham to kill his son nor has Abraham tried to do so, although the challenging and difficult nature of the test and thus Abraham’s status as the ‘father of faith’ are retained.
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Unlike Genesis 22, where the son is stated to be Isaac, in the Islamic tradition, the son is usually considered to be Ishmael. In this paper, I shall use ‘Abraham’s son’ instead of Isaac or Ishmael to remain neutral on this.
However, in standard translations, this is usually rendered inattentively as sacrifice, slaughtering, slaying, or killing. There are many possible practices with the neck or throat, some of which lead to death. Zibh is one of them. Nahr, which is also mentioned in Qur’an 108: 2, is inserting a bar in the neck of the camel (to sacrifice it). Strangling and beating the neck severely seem to be other lethal practices with the neck. As I shall argue in the next section, these are all methods which lead causally to death and, as such, are various ways to kill somebody or something (in ordinary situations), not killing itself.
For a recent version of this strategy, see Bishop (2007: pp. 170–173).
It is sometimes acknowledged that God has commanded Abraham to kill his innocent son but it is claimed that the divine intervention was expected because of God’s promise to bless Abraham’s offspring which would be impossible if the sacrifice was successful (Nørager 2008: p. 84); but this promise is of no help in solving the dilemma because a deity that can issue such a horrible command could easily break his promises too. Abraham’s belief in the resurrection of the dead is also alluded to for showing that God could resurrect his son even after his death (Hebrews 11: 17ff). This is then employed to reject proposition (iii); killing innocent people is not morally wrong if they are raised after their death. I do not find this solution plausible. To understand why, suppose that God commands Abraham to lie to somebody for no reason. Abraham abides by this command but he hopes that God will inform that person about the truth. Does this hope, or God’s actual informing that person about the truth, make the wrongness of that command go away? Of course not. The command to lie somebody for no reason or to kill an innocent person is wrong in itself irrespective of whether or not it is complied with or successfully carried out.
Here an objection might come to mind. From the perspective of a human being, is not it immoral to risk the life of an innocent person based on mere faith in certain properties of God? As I will discuss in the next section, I think for ordinary people the answer to this question should be an emphatic yes. But for Abraham, who is sure about the received divine command, the alleged risk is inseparable from the badness or weakness of God.
This fact also explains why Abraham, who in Testaments and the Qur’an is sometimes depicted as argumentative (Qur’an 11: 74–76, Genesis 18: 22–25), is so reticent in this case. This is not because of his total passive obedience—Do it! And say nothing. It is because of his active obedience—Do it! And be careful! Your test concerns how you comprehend your Lord’s command.
Just think about many other possible ways that the story could unfold. For example, Abraham could die before doing the command, or his son could die naturally on the way. In these two possible cases, Abraham would be still successful in passing the test. Who knows, perhaps Abraham kept asking God silently to bring about his death along the way. Moreover, they could fail to make their way to the determined place, and God could tell Abraham that He has read his heart and his faithful and resolute intention to obey His command would suffice.
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I am grateful to the participants at the Sharif Philosophy Association Meeting in 2016 at Sharif University of Technology (SUT), Tehran, Iran, for their insightful comments. I would also like to thank Ebrahim Azadegan, Hamid Masoudi, and two anonymous referees for Sophia for their insightful comments on an earlier version of this paper.
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Kazemi, A. Causal Relations and Abraham’s Dilemma: a Qur’anic Perspective. SOPHIA (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11841-020-00813-5
- Abraham’s Dilemma
- Divine command
- Accordion effect