Abraham in the Qur'an and the Bible


1. Ishmael: The Sacrificial Son in Islam.

It is most unlikely that a Christian will be able to speak to Muslims directly of Isaac as the son whom God called on Abraham to sacrifice without some reaction from them. Virtually every Muslim will interject that it was Ishmael and that the attempted sacrifice took place at Mina a few miles north-east of Mecca. It is universally believed in the Muslim world today that when Abraham had a vision in which he saw himself sacrificing his son, that son was Ishmael, the son of his slave-woman Hagar. The whole story of Abraham and the sacrifice appears in just one passage in the Qur'an and we shall quote it in full. It begins with Abraham speaking:

The argument from this passage that it was Ishmael (Ismail in Arabic) and not Isaac (Ishaq) rests principally on two premises, both of which are mentioned in this commentary on the passage which appears in a footnote in one of the very earliest English translations of the Qur'an:

The first argument is that, as Ishmael was born before Isaac, Isaac could not be the son spoken of since God is recorded as commanding Abraham to sacrifice his "only son" (Genesis 22.2, 22.12), and this could only have been Ishmael at a time before Isaac was born as the latter could never have been called Abraham's only son. The positive identification of the son as "your only son Isaac" in Genesis 22.2 is summarily brushed aside as a supposed Jewish corruption of the original command. The Muslim argument is typically set out in this comment:

The Bible shows quite plainly, however, that Hagar (Hajira in Islam), the mother of Ishmael, never was the wife of Abraham but only his slave-woman. It was only because Sarah herself could not bear children that she "took Hagar the Egyptian, her maid, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife" (Genesis 16.3). The expression clearly means that she gave Hagar to her husband to cohabit with him and not as a second wife as Muslims often claim the verse implies. Rather, in all that is said before and after this text, Hagar is regarded as nothing more than the mistress of Sarah. "Go into my maid", Sarah urged (Genesis 16.2). When Hagar conceived and looked in contempt upon Sarah, Abraham responded, "Behold, your maid is in your power; do to her as you please" (Genesis 16.6). When Hagar was in the wilderness and an angel appeared to her, he called her "Hager, maid of Sarai" (Genesis 16.7) and told her "Return to your mistress and submit to her" (Genesis 16.9).

A Muslim tradition confirms that Hagar was only a servant in Abraham's household whom Sarah gave to him solely to bear him a son:

Quite clearly Hagar never was regarded as the wife of Abraham but only as the maid of his wife Sarah. Thus it was quite proper for God to speak of Isaac as Abraham's only son, namely his only legitimate son of his wife Sarah, more particularly as Ishmael had many years parted from him (Genesis 21.14) with his mother Hagar.

It is ironic to find Muslims endeavouring to fault the plain Biblical declaration that the son to be sacrificed was Isaac in the light of the very important fact that the Qur'an does not say which son was to be sacrificed. Every Muslim reader of the Qur'an will search in vain for the name of Ishmael in the passage quoted (Surah 37.100-113) where the story of the sacrifice is told. No Muslim can sincerely make a dogmatic statement that it was Ishmael in the light of the Qur'an's complete silence on the actual identity of the son. The Jewish Scriptures make it quite plain that it was Isaac. God said to Abraham:

In the same way the Christian Scriptures also positively identify the son whom Abraham was commanded to sacrifice as Isaac. The following two passages prove the point:

In all these passages it is quite plainly stated that Abraham offered up Isaac on the altar, yet in the only passage in the Qur'an where the sacrifice is covered, there is no mention of the identity of the son. Thus there is a double testimony in the Bible, both from the Jewish and Christian Scriptures that the son to be sacrificed was Isaac, whereas there is no such testimony in the Qur'an that it was Ishmael. This led to wide disagreement among the early Muslim commentators as to the identity of the son. Although for purposes of expediency today the Muslim world unanimously acknowledges Ishmael as the sacrificial son, there was much dispute in the early days of Islam on the subject with many renowned commentators accepting that it was Isaac. A Muslim writer candidly admits:

No such disagreement has ever existed in Judaism and Christianity. It is universally believed without dissent that it was Isaac. It is only in Islamic history that one finds confusion regarding the identity of the son who was commanded to be sacrificed. The omission of the name of the son in the Qur'an is a strange anomaly if it was supposed to be Ishmael. If Allah is the author of the Qur'an as Muslims claim, surely he must have known that it was emphatically taught in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures and universally believed that it was Isaac. Surely he would have corrected the error with an equally emphatic statement in the Qur'an that it was Ishmael. In the light of the prevailing belief that it was Isaac, the vagueness in the Qur'an regarding the identity of the son is inexplicable if it was Ishmael. After all, Ishmael is named directly as Allah's helper in the building of the Ka'aba in the Qur'an (Surah 2.127). Is not the omission of his name in Surah 37 all the more significant, especially as the Surah covers a number of the stories of the prophets who are all mentioned by name?

Of even further significance is the complete absence of any mention of Hagar in the Qur'an, even of the slightest allusion to her. One writer states:

In actual fact, the Qur'an has no reference to her whatsoever, let alone by name. In this section we shall shortly see that the Qur'an speaks plainly of Isaac's mother as the wife of Abraham, the only wife of the prophet to whom there is any reference. Is not the complete silence in the Qur'an about Hagar, the mother of Ishmael, a testimony to the fact that Sarah alone was the wife of Abraham and that Hagar was merely her mistress? The Muslim argument that Ishmael was the sacrificial son quite clearly has no solid evidence to substantiate it. The plain statements in the Bible that it was Isaac must obviously be preferred to the Qur'an's nebulous and at times confusing treatment of the identity of the son whom Abraham was commanded to sacrifice.

The second argument is that the story of the proposed sacrifice precedes the statement, "And we gave him the good news of Isaac - a prophet, - one of the Righteous. We blessed him and Isaac" (Surah 37.112-113). It is argued that the preceding narrative must therefore refer to another son of Abraham, obviously Ishmael. On the other hand the very mention of Isaac at this crucial point by name throws all the more confusion on the section that precedes it. It is hard to believe that it refers to Ishmael when Isaac is promptly mentioned twice by name in the very next verses that follow it. In fact there are remarkable similarities between the passage on the command to sacrifice and the mention of Isaac by name in the following verses.

Firstly we read that the son to be sacrificed was promised to Abraham: Fabash-sharnaahu bighulaamin haliim - We announced to him an upright boy (Surah 37.101); and we read further that Isaac was specifically promised to him by name: Fabash-sharnuahu bi-Ishaaq - We announced to him Isaac (Surah 37.112). Nowhere in the Qur'an is it ever similarly stated that Ishmael was promised to Abraham.

Secondly there is a clear symmetry between these words: Falammaa aslamaa - when they had both submitted (Surah 37.103), and Wa baaraknaa alayhi wa alaa Ishaaq - And we blessed him and Isaac (Surah 37.113). As Abraham and Isaac had both fully submitted themselves to God's will that the one should sacrifice the other, it was only reasonable that God's blessing should come upon them both.

It is significant that there is no word in the text, such as thumma ("then"), between the story of the sacrifice and the mention of Isaac to distinguish the two or give them a different time period. The Muslim argument that Ishmael must have been the sacrificial son because the story of the sacrifice precedes the mention of Isaac is shown to be highly vulnerable upon closer analysis. Certainly the complete omission of Ishmael's name in the passage considerably undermines the dogmatic contemporary Muslim claim that he was the son who was commanded to be sacrificed.

2. The Promise of a Son to Abraham in the Qur'an.

Earlier in this chapter we quoted Surah 11.71 which states that God gave to Abraham's wife glad tidings of Isaac, and after him, of Jacob. As the son is specifically named as Isaac there can be little doubt as to the identity of his mother. Yusuf Ali has no difficulty identifying her as Sarah (The Holy Qur'an, p. 533), and Muhammad Asad likewise, in his commentary' names the wife spoken of as Sarah (The Holy Qur'an, p. 326). The whole text reads, in Arabic, Wamra'atuhuu qua 'imatun fadhahikat, fabash-sharnaahaa bi-Ishaaq - And his wife was standing there and laughed, but we announced to her Isaac (Surah 11.71). The word for wife in this text, imra'ah, is in the singular. Now if Hagar had also been one of Abraham's wives, surely the text would have said "one of his wives", or it would positively have identified her as "his wife Sarah". When it purely speaks of Abraham's wife in the singular, however, without any form of identification, it is quite clearly implied that Abraham had only one wife and that his wife was Sarah.

When the promise of Isaac came to Abraham and Sarah, Ishmael had already been born, and the mention of Sarah at this point as Abraham's only wife is a clear testimony that Hagar was not one of his wives. We also note once again that there is no mention of Hagar in the Qur'an whatsoever, a strange omission if she also was a wife of Abraham. In fact no one reading through the Qur'an without reference to any other work could possibly guess that there was another woman in Abraham's life. The only such woman mentioned is described as the single wife of Abraham and she is expressly described as the mother of Isaac. If, therefore, Sarah is mentioned in the Qur'an alone as the wife of Abraham and is also so described in the Bible, can there be any further objection to the description of Isaac as "your only son" in Genesis 22.2 when the command comes to Abraham to sacrifice him? If Sarah is the only legitimate wife of Abraham, is it not perfectly in order to describe her son Isaac as Abraham's only son as well?

This matter begs further scrutiny. We must bear in mind that a promise was made to Abraham that he would bear a son through his wife. In the Bible the promise comes directly by the Word of God to Abraham (Genesis 17.19), whereas in the Qur'an it comes through the heavenly messengers who have come to destroy the people of Lot (Surah 11.70). In both cases, however, it is the express promise of God that a son would be born to Abraham and that the son would be Isaac. In Surah 15. 53 the narrative is repeated and the promise of a son again appears, though this time Isaac is not mentioned by name. The same goes for Surah 51.28-29 where once again the promise of a son to Abraham's only wife (again imra 'ah in the singular) is repeated. Once again Yusuf Ali, in a footnote, takes it to be Sarah (The Holy Qur'an, p. 1424). Finally, as we have seen, the promise of a son to Abraham appears again at the introduction of the story of the sacrifice (Surah 37.101) and a little lower down the promised son is again specifically named Isaac (Surah 37.112). There can be no doubt that Isaac is the only son promised to Abraham in the Qur'an and he must therefore be identified as the intended sacrificial son.

As Sarah alone is mentioned in the Qur'an and as the single wife of Abraham, it is surely too hard to believe that God would announce to him the birth of a ghulamin halimin, a righteous boy (Surah 37.101), by an illegitimate union with a slave woman, especially as no mention whatsoever of this woman appears in the Qur'an. The only son promised to Abraham in the Qur'an is Isaac and, as Surah 37.102 makes it quite plain that it was this very same promised son who was to be sacrificed, the only reasonable conclusion we can draw is that the Qur'an takes no issue with the Bible on the specific identification of the sacrificial son as Isaac. It is only the popular sentiment of the Muslims that it was Ishmael and that for obvious reasons. We have shown just how the promise of a son to Abraham was inextricably linked to the subsequent command to sacrifice him and how Abraham, through a deliberate consideration of all that was involved against the background of God's unchanging faithfulness, foresaw the coming of the Son of God into the world together with his sacrificial death and subsequent resurrection.

The Arab nation to this day proudly claims to be Ishmael's race, Abraham's descendants according to the flesh, followers of Ishmael's physical offspring Muhammad. May God grant us so to witness to them that many may yet become Abraham's true descendants according to the promise, spiritual offspring of his son Isaac who was born of the Spirit and through whom alone God made his covenant (Genesis 17.21). May they thus become followers of the true Son of Abraham, Jesus Christ, whom God has set forth as the one and only true Saviour of all men, and whom Isaac prefigured. "Now we, brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise ... we are not children of the slave but of the free woman" (Galatians 4. 28, 31).

3. Isaac: The True Child of the Promise.

Many writers have concluded from the passage in the Qur'an outlining the command to sacrifice (Surah 37.100-113) that the son spoken of can only be Isaac. A well-known student of Islam declares that "from the text there would seem little doubt but that Isaac was intended" (Hughes, A Dictionary of Islam, p. 216), and another says that Abraham "is granted a son and is ready to sacrifice him as in the biblical story, and this child is to all appearance Isaac, the righteous son wonderfully born to him" (Stanton, The Teaching of the Qur'an, p. 46). As pointed out already, a number of the earliest Muslim traditions likewise duly make Isaac the sacrificial son.

Although the great scholar al-Baidawi is recorded in Islamic history as one of those preferring Ishmael, he states in his commentary (tafsir) on the story of Joseph in the Qur'an (Surah 12), while commenting on the passage which says that God will perfect his favour on Joseph "even as he perfected it to thy fathers Abraham and Isaac aforetime!" (Surah 12.6), that God thus perfected it on Abraham by taking him as a 'friend' (khalil) and by delivering him from the fire (Surah 37.97-98), and that he perfected it on Isaac by delivering him from the Sacrifice and by ransoming him with a great victim (Gatje, The Qur'an and its Exegesis, p. 107). Thus even the great commentator al-Baidawi taught quite explicitly that the intended son was Isaac.

When God originally promised a son to Abraham, that son was Isaac. Abraham acted foolishly in taking his slave-woman and in bearing a son, Ishmael, through her. Nothing could frustrate the purposes of God, however, and in due course God renewed the promise, stating specifically that the son would be born of his wife Sarah. When Abraham pleaded that Ishmael might find favour before him, God deliberately refused as he had not been conceived according to the promise but only according to the flesh. God said to Abraham:

Isaac was thus the true child of the promise. One often finds in Muslim writings a reference to the passage above in which Ishmael is yet promised a blessing, that he would multiply, and that he would become a great nation. Invariably this promise is taken to be a hint of the coming of Muhammad and the greatness of Islam but, in every case, the succeeding words, but I will establish my covenant with Isaac, are subtly omitted (so Tabari, The Book of Religion and Empire, p. 78). This qualifying clause shows plainly that Ishmael was only promised earthly blessings in this world as long as it shall last, but that God's eternal covenant would be fulfilled through Isaac. No, said God to Abraham when the latter pleaded for Ishmael. God purposed to fulfil his word through Isaac for it was to be Abraham's greater son, Jesus Christ, who was to come through Isaac's line, that would bring the fulness of God's salvation into the world, and not Muhammad, descended from the son of Abraham's slave-woman, Ishmael. All of God's eternal favours, therefore, every one of them, were to come through Isaac's line and it is therefore not surprising to find that virtually all the prophets came from his offspring until, finally, the Son of God himself came to fulfil God's promises to Abraham.

It is well known that the long line of prophets referred to in the Qur'an were mostly descended from Isaac and not from Ishmael, and the reason is not far to seek, for Isaac, according to both Bible and Qur'an, was the 'Son of Promise', a 'Gift' from God. Ishmael, on the other hand, as we learn from the Tourat, was the son of the bond-maid Hagar and is, consequently, nowhere in the Qur'an spoken of as a 'Gift' from God. (Goldsack, Christ in Islam, p. 4).

There is yet another text in the Qur'an which testifies to the preference of God for Isaac and his offspring as the medium of his coming salvation rather than Ishmael's line. It is most significant to find the Qur'an once again taking no issue with the Bible and we read:

Yusuf Ali's translation is not strictly correct. The text says that God placed the Nubuwwah and the Kitaab, the Prophethood and the Scripture, into Isaac's line, and in another place the Qur'an says that al-Nubuwwah, the Prophethood, was expressly given to the Children of Israel (Surah 45.16). As Goldsack goes on to say:

The Qur'an's own teaching to a large extent underlines the superiority of Isaac over Ishmael and God's choice of his line for the fulfilment of his eternal promises. This leads perforce to the conclusion that it was Isaac who was commanded to be sacrificed as a sign of the coming sacrifice of Abraham's greater son, Jesus Christ, who would thereby open the doors of God's salvation to the world. As Isaac was preferred over Ishmael, so till the end of time Jesus Christ must be preferred over Muhammad.

The Qur'anic passage covering the command to Abraham to sacrifice his son remains enigmatic to any genuine analysis of its contents. The son to be sacrificed is not named, yet Isaac is promptly named twice in the immediately succeeding verses. What really is behind the somewhat vague and unspecific nature of this passage? One writer has a very interesting perspective on it. He begins by asking:

He goes on to say that Muhammad may well have been aware that Ishmael is an "utterly insignificant figure, an unworthy son" of Abraham in the Jewish Scriptures. He may thus have wished to suggest that the intended sacrificial son was Ishmael and so placed the narrative before his mention of Isaac by name, leaving the impression that another son was intended. Yet, probably being aware further that Isaac is specifically stated to be the intended son in both the Jewish and the Christian Scriptures, Muhammad was careful to avoid naming the son in the Qur'an and left the whole matter purposefully ambiguous. Torrey adds:

There appears to be much food for thought in this argument and it perhaps explains the ambiguity in the Qur'an regarding the identity of the son who was to be sacrificed. In any event the somewhat confusing and vague treatment of the subject in the Qur'an compares most unfavourably with the express and clear statements in the Bible that it was Isaac, and the many evidences we have considered show that this is, in fact, the only reasonable conclusion one can draw. Not only so, but if Isaac is overlooked as the intended son, the whole character of the event as a type and symbol of the coming work of God's own Son is missed completely and, with it, the hope of eternal life.

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