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.