Ibrahim (‘as) vs. Nimrud: Religion (Monotheism) vs. Religion (Polytheism)

The belief in a Creator of the Universe is etched into the fabric of our existence, and its effect is only weakened by our attachments to this world and this desires of this earthly body. Attachment to this world can come in many different shapes and sizes, from material objects to accumulation of power and wealth.

Prophet Abraham (‘as) was chosen by Allah (swt) to stand up to the height of worldly attachment and polytheism, Nimrud, king of Babylon, and to spread the message of monotheism to his people. His encounter/debate with Nimrud was to deal an embarrassing blow to the argumentation adopted by the oppressive king, who let the power and ‘lordship’ get to his head and considered himself a god, worthy of worship. The primitive nature of the people worshipping Nimrod along with other ‘lesser’ deities, reflects their mental mapping of their societies’ structure onto the realm of universal management of natural phenomena. They believed in a Supreme Creator God, yet needed something tangible and near to represent intermediaries and intercessors between the worshipper and the Supreme God. Yet slowly, their ‘lesser’ gods replaced the idea of a Creator, and became the focal point of their requests and prayers.

These primitive lived in such ignorance and decadence, that they felt threatened by this ‘foreign’ religion that has come to challenge the status quo. Because the implications of Prophet Abraham’s message where far wider than merely the practice of polytheism, not just affecting the position of Nimrud as lord-king, but also the socio-economic interests of the priests and aristocracy. This new challenge had to be suppressed at any cost.

Imam Khomeini speaking in 1983, during one of his sermons in a message to the pilgrims of Hajj:

‘No idols are worse or more dangerous than the oppressors which have been present throughout the course of history, from Adam to Ibrahim and to Muhammad, upon whom be peace, to eternity when the last idol-breaker shall issue the monotheistic cry from the Ka’aba. Are not the present superpowers big idols, which have forced the world to obey and worship them? They impose themselves upon the world through force and deceit. The great Ka’aba is the only place for breaking these idols. Ibrahim and Muhammad, upon whom be peace, raised the cry of monotheism from the Ka’aba, and their descendant the Mahdi will also do so in the world’s last days. Allah said to Ibrahim: "And proclaim the pilgrimage among men. They will come to thee on foot and [mounted] on every kind of camel, lean on account of journeys through deep and distant mountain highways" (al-Qur’an, 22:27). They are to be purified from all impurities, above all blasphemy as it is said in the Qur’an: "And an announcement from Allah and his Apostle, to the people (assembled) on the holy day of the great pilgrimage: that Allah and his Apostle dissolve (treaty) obligations with the pagans" (9:3).’

This is how Shariati introduces the story of Prophet Abraham (‘as) in his well known book ‘Hajj’ [1], that he wrote after going on the pilgrimage himself several times:

‘In the history of mankind, Ibrahim was the great rebel who opposed idolatry and established monotheism in this world. Although physically tired of sufferings, the prophet of responsibility and leadership had a sharp mind. His heart was full of love yet he carried an axe in his hand! Faith shined from the centre of kufr (rejecting God). A clear fountain of tawheed (monotheism), emerged from the sewage of polytheism!’ 

أَلَمْ تَرَ إِلَى الَّذِي حَاجَّ إِبْرَاهِيمَ فِي رَبِّهِ أَنْ آتَاهُ اللَّهُ الْمُلْكَ إِذْ قَالَ إِبْرَاهِيمُ رَبِّيَ الَّذِي يُحْيِي وَيُمِيتُ قَالَ أَنَا أُحْيِي وَأُمِيتُ قَالَ إِبْرَاهِيمُ فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ يَأْتِي بِالشَّمْسِ مِنَ الْمَشْرِقِ فَأْتِ بِهَا مِنَ الْمَغْرِبِ فَبُهِتَ الَّذِي كَفَرَ وَاللَّهُ لاَ يَهْدِي الْقَوْمَ الظَّالِمِينَ

‘Did you not see him who disputed with Ibrahim about his Lord, because Allah had given him the kingdom? When Ibrahim said: "My Lord is He Who gives life and cause to die", he said: "I give life and cause death." Ibrahim said: "So surely Allah brings the sun from the east, then bring it (you) from the west." Thus he who disbelieved was confounded; and Allah does not guide aright the unjust people.’ [2:258]

Allamah Tabataba’i in his exegesis of the verses 2:258-260 has this to say:

‘It was Ibrahim’s claim that his Lord is Allah, and no one else. Namrud said: "No! I am your Lord and the Lord of everyone else." Ibrahim argued: "My Lord is He Who gives life and causes to die." Namrud said: "I give life and cause death." He wanted to show that he held the power which Ibrahim attributed to his Lord; therefore, Ibrahim should submit to him, and worship him, neither Allah nor other lesser deities deserved to be worshipped. Note that he did not add "and" in his reply; he did not say, "and I give life…" Why? Because the conjunctive "and" would have meant that he shared this power with Allah; and he did not want to admit any such "partnership" he wanted to be worshipped as the most supreme Lord of the universe. And it was for this very reason that he did not say either, "and the gods give life …" He could not honestly refute the argument of Ibrahim; so he resorted to sophism, fallacy and deception. When Ibrahim mentioned life and death, he meant life and death as we find them in living things. His argument was that these living things could only be created by One who was the source of life. Lifeless nature cannot bestow life on others when it has no life itself. Nor can other living things give life to others, because their life is their existence and their death their extinction – and a thing cannot create or destroy its own self.

If Namrud had interpreted Ibrahim’s argument honestly, he could not have refuted it at all. But he resorted to deception, interpreting life and death with an allegorical meaning. "To give life" really means, for example, to create a living fetus; but it may be used equally correctly (but in metaphorical way) if you rescue someone from an extremely dangerous situation. Likewise, "to cause to die" really means the act of God by which a soul departs from a body; but metaphorically it may be used for murder, etc. Taking advantage of this metaphorical usage, Namrud ordered two prisoners to be brought before him; one he ordered to be killed and the other was set free. It was at this stage that he uttered the words, "I give life and cause death." The courtiers were taken in by this ruse and accepted the "truth" of the argument. Ibrahim was not in a position to unmask the fallacy of this reply; he saw how Namrud has duped the audience with his deception and how blindly they agreed to his sophism. Nobody would have agreed with Ibrahim even if he had tried to expose that fallacy. Therefore, he switched to another clearer argument which his obstinate opponent could not twist in any way, and said: "So surely Allah brings the sun from the east; then bring it (you) from the west."

Ibrahim (a.s.) selected for his proof the authority of giving life and causing death, because nature, having no life or sense itself, cannot give life to any thing; and more evidently, it cannot be supposed to give life to animals and humans as it is accompanied by sense and perception. And the same is the case with death. Such a clear and indisputable proof failed to convince the people of Namrud. Their intellectual degradation and mental confusion had sunken far lower than the level which Ibrahim (a.s.) had credited them with. They thought that the life and death referred to included the metaphorical meaning of freeing from prison and killing. Thus, Namrud claimed, and they vouched that he gave life and caused death.

This talk shows how low the level of intellectual development was in that time, as far as abstract and non-material ideas were concerned. Do not be misled by their advanced civilization, signs of which are found in the archaeological remains of the Babylonia of the Chaldeans and the Egypt of the Pharaohs. Material advancement is one thing, and progress in abstract and non­material ideas is something else. We see the same phenomenon in this world of ours which has made a fantastic advancement in the material field, and has sunk so terribly low in morality, ethics and spiritual knowledge.’



[1] ‘Hajj’, by Dr. Ali Shariati.


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