Talk is cheap, and it’s never cheaper than during election season. Not even the most sacred words escape devaluation. But in one brief speech on the final night of the Democratic National Convention last week, the word “sacrifice” could not possibly have been worth more.
With his wife Ghazala at his side, Khizr Khan, the bereaved father of fallen Army Capt. Humayun Khan—who died serving in Iraq in 2004—identified his family as patriotic Muslim Americans. Addressing Donald Trump directly, Khan said that his son had sacrificed his life for the country that Trump proposes to keep Muslims out of.
“You,” Khan said, “have sacrificed nothing and no one.”
When I heard those words, my mind went right to Scripture—to God and Abraham in the Bible and the Quran, to the near sacrifice at the heart of Khan’s Islamic faith.
For countless Muslims, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, and his son’s willingness to be sacrificed, is the highest symbol and model of every Muslim’s submission to God. (In the Quran, it is not clear which son, Isaac or Ishmael; today, most Muslims believe it was Ishmael.) During the Festival of the Sacrifice, which comes at the height of the Haj, tens of millions of Muslims re-enact Abraham’s sacrifice with a sacrifice of their own (a sheep, goat, camel, or cow). They eat a third, share a third with relatives and neighbors, and give another third to the poor.
Countless Jews see the Akedah, the command to Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, in precisely the same way. Orthodox Jews read Genesis 22 every morning. All observant Jews read it on Rosh Hashanah. We ask God to remember Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah, praying that he will credit some of their merit to our account. Christians also read Genesis 22 several times a year, including Easter Vigil. They see it as the prefiguration of an even greater sacrifice to come.
The story has generated a vast sea of interpretation, a significant portion of which rejects the idea that God cherishes the sacrifice of children or anyone else. The prophet Micah insisted that God wants people to act right, love mercy, and walk humbly—not to sacrifice their children. Nonetheless, the idea of sacrifice and the ideal of sacrifice are everywhere.
Which raises the question: What kind of Jew, Christian, or Muslim sacrifices nothing?
Khan did not go there. His speech was thoroughly secular. He told of his family’s coming to the U.S. from Pakistan in search of democracy and opportunity, amplifying a small portion of the President Obama’s speech from the previous evening, when he spoke of his grandparents, who, he said, did not like bullies, braggarts, or cheats. They valued “honesty and hard work, kindness, courtesy, humility, responsibility” and knew that their values were not limited to people of one race or place. “They knew these values were exactly what drew immigrants here, and they believed that the children of those immigrants were just as American as their own, whether they wore a cowboy hat or a yarmulke, a baseball cap or a hijab,” Obama said.
The Khans were those immigrants, and they found what they were looking for. Their middle son, Humayun, dreamed of becoming a military lawyer, joined the ROTC at the University of Virginia and enlisted shortly afterward. As he was about to leave for Iraq, his father asked him how he felt about fighting in a Muslim country. “Look,” Humayun said to his father, “that’s not my concern and that’s not my pay grade. My responsibility is to make sure my unit is safe.” He died approaching a suspicious vehicle after he ordered his men to stay away.
Pulling a copy of the Constitution out of his suit jacket pocket, Khan asked Trump if he had ever read it, or visited Arlington Cemetery. Khan said that Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims is not just bad policy, but that’s it’s unconstitutional, a violation of both religious liberty and equal protection under the law.
Khan did not question Trump’s place in the Abrahamic tradition or his faith—not on the convention stage nor in any of the newspaper or television interviews afterward. Not after Trump asked if Hillary Clinton had written his speech. Not after he wondered if Ghazala Khan was muzzled by Sharia law. (She says she can’t even walk into a room in which there is a photograph of her son, let alone tell her story to a gathering of tens of thousands.) Not after Trump insisted that he, too, had sacrificed, working “very hard,” creating “thousands of jobs,” and building “great structures.” Ghazala Khan has noted Trump’s ignorance of Islam, but she and her husband have spoken mostly of his lack of understanding and empathy, his disregard for the law, and his instinct to deport and block, deride and divide, fan fear and hatred.
I am in awe of the Khans’ respect for the Constitution, their fervent belief in the best in our character and history, and their unimaginably tested faith. Wherever it comes from, I am also in awe of their restraint. They have refrained from saying explicitly what their evocation of Scripture so clearly implies: that Trump is not a moral actor, that he stands outside what is most precious in our shared religious traditions.