With the dawn of Aidiladha, it’s time to contemplate on the meaning of sacrifice as Muslims all over celebrate one of the holiest events in the Muslim calendar. Aidiladha or commonly known as ‘Hari Raya Haji’ or ‘Hari Raya Qurban’ commemorates the willingness of the Prophet Abraham (PBUH) to sacrifice his son at God’s request.

The theme of sacrifice has often been explored in literature, and such narratives have often brought on the powerful message that altruism can often inspire people to become better versions of themselves.

After all, life sometimes tells us differently. Modern society is built on the assumption that people are fundamentally selfish. Classic economics adopts a model that basically tells us people are primarily driven by material self-interest. Political science assumes that people are driven to maximise their power. These myopic world views of selfishness and individualism aren’t all that we’re made of.

In real life, the push of selfishness is often matched by the pull of empathy and altruism. And thankfully, there are a wide range of stories and narratives out there to remind us that empathy, sacrifice and love are still very much timeless virtues that remain the best part of humanity.


Charles Dickens

A political prisoner for 18 years, Doctor Manette is finally released and reunited with his daughter, Lucie, who’s pursued by two ardent suitors, the aristocratic Frenchman named Darnay and an English lawyer, Carton. Dicken’s taut, atmospheric novel initially appeared as weekly instalments back in 1859.

Dickens considered his novel, A Tale Of Two Cities “…the best story I have ever written.” Interweaving one family’s intensely personal drama with the terror and chaos of the French Revolution, it’s an epic story of love, sacrifice and redemption amidst horrific violence and world changing events.

Its insights remain relevant: "Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious licence and oppression ever again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind".


Jodi Picoult

This bittersweet and poignant story is about 13-year-old Anna who is average in every way except for the circumstances of her life. She’s no stranger to sacrifice. Anna is a genetically-engineered baby, designed to be a genetic match for her sister, Kate, who has acute leukaemia.

She has had things taken away from her, her whole life. Her umbilical cord blood as soon as she was born; at the age of five she gave donor lymphocytes which involved drawing blood from the crooks of her arms; a month later she gave more lymphocytes; when she was six she donated granulocytes... the list goes on. When she faces pressure to donate her kidney, she decides to sue her parents for the right to her body.

Though the main plot is Anna's lawsuit herself, we’re given an insight into a family which has been wrecked by cancer and the results of it. My Sister's Keeper is about sisterhood, choices and the sacrifices we all have to make in life.


Kyung-sook Shin

Please Look After Mom by the South Korean writer Kyung-sook Shin opens with a family in disarray. Travelling from their home in the Korean countryside to visit their now-grown children in Seoul, an ageing couple find themselves separated from each other in a busy subway station: “Mom and Father rushed toward the subway that had just arrived. Father got on, and when he looked behind him, Mom wasn’t there… Mom was pulled away from Father in the crowd, and the subway left as she tried to get her bearings.”

Time passes by but still no sign of “Mom”. Her elderly husband and adult children are not only frantic with worry, but assailed with guilt and regret – fumbling “…in confusion, as if they had all injured a part of their brains.” Are you punishing me? each privately wonders. As memories of the missing woman pile atop one another, the facts of Park So-nyo’s (the missing mother) story emerge: a woman struggling against poverty, keeping four hungry mouths fed, managing a pesky in-law, suffering infidelity and preserving traditions.

The award-winning novel explores the loss, self-recrimination, and in some cases, self-discovery caused by the mother's disappearance. The novel also considers themes related to the self-sacrifice of mothers in general (and in Korea in particular), as well as the relationship between memories of the past and realities of the present.


O Henry

First published as a book way back in 1906, The Gift of the Magi is a story that reinforces the value of selfless giving.

The plot revolves around a young couple, Della and Jim who live a simple life in their tiny flat. One Christmas they decide to buy a special gift for each other. Hard times have hit the Dillingham Young family. Earning only $20 per week, Jim and his wife Della can barely make ends meet and certainly can’t afford to buy each other expensive gifts for Christmas. Despite this, they each want to find the perfect gift to show their love.

So Della sells her beautiful knee-length hair to buy a watch-chain for Jim’s prized pocket watch. At the same time, Jim sells his prized watch to buy a set of hair combs for Della! In a beautiful tragedy, each sacrifices something the other treasures in order to earn the money to purchase a gift. The author refers to them as “two foolish children” for doing so, but also describes them as wise, for they understood the value of selfless love and putting someone else’s needs ahead of their own.