Storytelling is one of the major approaches used by the Qur'an to convey God's message. Since the Quran is meant for all ages until the Day of Judgment, the stories referenced in the Qur'an will continue to apply no matter how lifestyles change. Here we will focus on a very important story that brings together many different concepts: the story of the sons of Prophet Adam (peace be upon him), Abel and Cain.
God tells the story of Abel and Cain in Sura al-Maa'ida (5:27-31).
Both Abel and Cain attempted to offer a sacrifice to God. Abel owned livestock, while Cain owned crops. Abel chose one of his best sheep and sacrificed it to God. Meanwhile, Cain chose his worst and spoiled crops and offered them to God. Each brought his sacrifice to a mountain. The sign of acceptance of the sacrifice was that a fire would come and burn it. The fire indeed came, ate up Abel's offering, and left Cain's. This made Cain envious of his brother, and he vowed to kill him. Narrations talk about how Satan was the one to teach Cain how to kill Abel. Cain took two stones and struck the head of Abel until he died. Cain did not know what to do with the body until God send along two crows. Cain observed as the two crows fought, and one killed the other. The living crow then buried the body of the dead crow. Cain imitated the crows and buried the body of his brother Abel. (Bihar al-Anwar)
Acceptance of our Deeds
The above story sheds light on various topics, three of which will be discussed: acceptance of our deeds, envy, and sources of knowledge.
Many Muslims abide by the teachings of Islam. However, just carrying out an act of worship does not mean that God will accept it. Not every prayer is accepted, and not every fast is valid. There is a set of conditions for each act of worship that needs to be fulfilled for God to accept that act. For example, a prayer without ablution is not accepted, even if all other conditions are fulfilled.
Through the story of Abel and Cain, God has given a measuring stick for acceptance of deeds. The reference point that differentiates the accepted deeds from the rejected ones is none other than Taqwa. The Qur'an says, "Indeed, God only accepts from those who are conscious of God." (5:27) The Arabic form of the verse uses the words innama, which helps communicate absolute restriction. That is, God-consciousness is the only attribute that can lead to acceptance of deeds, and without it, no deed can be accepted.
In the context of Abel and Cain's story, God-consciousness was shown in the choices each made for his sacrifice. Abel chose the best of his sheep. He chose the sheep that he depended on more. He chose the sheep that mattered to him more. On the other hands, Cain chose the crops that were spoiled. He chose the crops that he would not be using anyway. He chose the crops that he would eventually get rid of.
Abel's choice is a reflection of the level of understanding and God-consciousness that exists within him. Sacrificing his best sheep demonstrates that Abel had complete submission to God, and that all that he has was for God. How many of us today are willing to give away our new clothes in the way of God?
Looking at the life of Ahlul Bayt (peace be upon them), we find similar examples. Lady Fatima (peace be upon her) gave out her wedding dress on her first day of marriage. When the Prophet asked, she quoted the following verse, "Never will you attain the good [reward] until you spend [in the way of Allah] from that which you love." (3:92)
This is just an example of spending something materialistic, but of course, the Ahlul Bayt gave their own lives and more in the way of God, and that can only be achieved with a high level of God-consciousness.
The lack of God-consciousness was the major downfall of Cain, but it did not stop there. When good is absent, evil takes over. When Cain saw that his sacrifice was rejected, he became envious of his brother.
This is unfortunately a big problem today. Many of us today are envious of those who are successful. We are envious of those who have money. If we would be satisfied with what we have and wish that God gives us like others and better, then envy would not exist. However, the danger lies in wishing that other people lose what they have. That is envy, and it can lead to almost anything.
In the case of Cain, it led him to actually kill his brother. It is important to notice that Cain admitted the presence of God when he offered a sacrifice. He also knew that Abel was his brother. Did any of that restrain him from killing? No! That's how dangerous envy can be!
Sources of Knowledge
The journey of education is a never-ending one. The importance of acquiring knowledge is highly emphasized in Islam. A common pitfall in acquiring knowledge is bias towards the source of information. Many of us avoid listening to certain figures because we have a personal grudge against them. Others avoid reading a book because the author is someone we do not like.
In the story of Abel and Cain, we see that Cain learned the act of burial from a crow. This shows that learning is never restricted to certain figures, but even an animal can become a teacher at any moment.
Of course, in order to avoid clutter and all the misinformation we face, we need to be able to filter out good from bad. This is where the role of reason (Aql) becomes important. This can get tricky. However, if we seek the knowledge from God, the Prophet, and Ahlul Bayt through our righteous scholars, then we know it is from a pure source.
The story of Abel and Cain teaches us many things. It shows us where the position of Taqwa lies in the heart of a true believer. It shows that envy will lead to heinous acts. And importantly, it shows the importance of acquiring correct knowledge from any source. So let us engage in self-reflection, and if we find that we are falling behind in any of these three areas, we should start fixing ourselves immediately. Knowing where we stand is the first step, and only then we can proceed in the path towards God.