Islam and Kierkegaard: Abraham and Sacrifice of the Son

I’ve been teaching Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling recently in Istanbul. One advantage of teaching that text in a Muslim country, is that everyone is familiar with the story of Abraham and Isaac.

For those who don’t know it, for Jews and Christians, it is the story in Genesis 22 of Abraham commanded to kill his son Isaac by God. Abraham takes Isaac to the place of Sacrifice, but God relieves him of the sacrifice by revealing a sheep for a substitute sacrifice. Sura 37 of the Koran refers to Abraham/Ibrahim nearly sacrificing his son, which is often interpreted by Muslims as referring to Ishmael rather than Isaac/Isak; and it refers to a great sacrifice rather than a specfic animal but it is always understood as a goat or sheep.

In any case, the story is very familiar because one of the major Muslim festivals is the Sacrifice Festival, which started on the 20th December this year. The Sacrifice Festival includes the ritual sacrifice of sheep, goats, and bulls to commemorate İbrahim’s obedience and Allah’s offer of the sheep as substitute.

From Kierkegaard’s point of view the Koran story is significantly different from the version because Ibrahim tells his son of a vision of the sacrifice, and the son is willing to be sacrificed, so the trial is just as much of the son as the father. Kierkegaard emphasises Abraham no telling Isaac, as part of the emphasis on the silence appropriate to the absurd dialectic, the paradox of faith. The tragic hero may explain the problem, but not the Knight of faith.

Even if Kierkegaard had incorporated the Muslim account, I don’t think it would have been too much of a problem. Fear and Trembling includes an account of different possible stories to fill in the very sketchy original story. The possibility that the son is Ishmael not Isaac, and that the son knows of the sacrifice would not change the factors Kierkegaard discusses. It would still be a miraculous son of Abraham’s old age, and it could still be the case that Abraham did not tell his wife Sarah (mother of Isaac) of his servant Hagar (mother of Ishmael). Kierkegaard makes up the supposed silence of Abraham anyway, and if the silence was directed towards the mother that would fit with the various painful love stories Kierkegaard brings into Fear and Trembling in comparison with Abraham’s story.

Philosophical Myths: Kierkegaard never talked about the ‘leap of faith’

The Myth
A student presentation today in ‘Introduction to Philosophy’ brought up that persistent myth again. The myth that Kierkegaard used the phrase ‘leap of faith’. The phrase is often attributed to Kierkegaard but was never used by him.

Irrationality and Subjectivism
This is not just some purely accidental slip in the history of philosophy. There are reasons people can believe that Kierkegaard used this phrase. They are based on a misunderstanding of Kierkegaard’s philosophy. The misunderstanding is the belief that Kierkegaard was a subjectivist of an irrational kind who thought that beliefs can and should be adopted without reason, particularly the belief that a Christian God exists.

Fear and Trembling
Kierkegaard never held the view that reason should or could be subordinated to irrationality or that faith is a matter of an arbitrary decision. Part of the problem comes from the way that Kierkegaard’s most widely read book, Fear and Trembling, is understood.

Abraham’s Paradox
In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard refers to the story of Abraham and Isaac. That is the story that Abraham is commanded to kill his son Isaac, by God. Abraham is ready to obey God’s command, but at the moment Abraham raises his knife, a sheep appears as a substitute sacrifice. This has been understood as if Kierkegaard justifies anyone committing murder who claims to have heard a command from God. The point is that Abraham does not kill Isaac. The story is contrasted, by Kierkegaard, with the story of Agamemnon and Iphigenia in Euripides’ play Iphigenia in Tauris. Agamemnon does sacrifice his daughter so that he can sail to Anatolia and attack Troy. Abraham has a ‘teleological suspension of the ethical’. The ‘teleological suspension of the ethical’ is not permission to ignore ethics. It refers to the ‘dialectic of the absurd, ‘dialectic of paradox’, according to which Abraham must recognise both the following theses:
1. God is absolute, and is therefore above ethics.
2. God will always follow ethics.

From Subjective to Absolute via Anxiety
The context for this dialectical dilemma is not a motiveless subjectivist view of decisions. Kierkegaard does favour subjectivism over objectivism. It is important to follow the argument.

The argument is that objectivism is contradictory because it requires subjectivity to know what is outside itself, which objectivity must be.

The problem of relating subjectivity to something outside itself is dealt with inside subjectivity. Subjectivity can relate to something outside itself because subjectivity can only exist as what goes outside itself.

The argument starts by looking at subjectivity in a rather Humean way, that is subjectivity as a series of distinct moments in time which have different contents and are unconnected. Subjectivity seeing itself as a series of discrete moments and aware of the freedom which comes from its indeterminacy arrives at melancholy and anxiety. These come from awareness of the nothingness in subjectivity and fear of making a decision when free will exists on a premise of non-determinism which means that decisions lack motivation.

Melancholia exists over time, it is in melancholia that we can grasp ourself as existing over time. We grasp the absolute in subjectivity. That is the basis of God in Kierkegaard, not a motiveless leap of faith. Even in his more pious religious texts, Kierkegaard is coıncerned with how a relaiton with God the absolute rests on a relation of subjectivity with the absolute within itself, Love of the neighbour depends on love of the self.