Abraham's marriage to his sister Sarah

Sam Shamoun

Osama Abdallah has taken exception with the biblical teaching that Abraham married his half sister Sarah. We even hesitate to address this point since no matter what we say Osama will simply resort to his mantra syndrome and post the same argument a half dozen times without ever actually refuting anything. Be that as it may, we will proceed to address the point not so much for Osama, but for the readers in general.

Here are the specific passages in question where Abraham claimed that Sarah was his sister in order to protect his life:

"Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sar'ai his wife, 'I know that you are a woman beautiful to behold; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, "This is his wife"; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.' When Abram entered Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh's house. And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, he-asses, menservants, maidservants, she-asses, and camels. But the LORD afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sar'ai, Abram's wife. So Pharaoh called Abram, and said, 'What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, "She is my sister," so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife, take her, and be gone.' And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had." Genesis 12:10-20

"From there Abraham journeyed toward the territory of the Negeb, and dwelt between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar. And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, 'She is my sister.' And Abim'elech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. But God came to Abim'elech in a dream by night, and said to him, 'Behold, you are a dead man, because of the woman whom you have taken; for she is a man's wife.' Now Abim'elech had not approached her; so he said, "Lord, wilt thou slay an innocent people? Did he not himself say to me, "She is my sister"? And she herself said, "He is my brother." In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.' Then God said to him in the dream, 'Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me; therefore I did not let you touch her. Now then restore the man's wife; for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you, and all that are yours.' So Abim'elech rose early in the morning, and called all his servants, and told them all these things; and the men were very much afraid. Then Abim'elech called Abraham, and said to him, 'What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done.' And Abim'elech said to Abraham, 'What were you thinking of, that you did this thing?' Abraham said, 'I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife. Besides she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife. And when God caused me to wander from my father's house, I said to her, "This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, He is my brother."' Then Abim'elech took sheep and oxen, and male and female slaves, and gave them to Abraham, and restored Sarah his wife to him." Genesis 20:1-14

In light of the above we see clearly that Abraham wasn't lying when he said that Sarah was his sister. He lied by concealing the fact that she was also his wife, giving the misleading impression that she was only his sister.

Osama then tries to pit Scripture against Scripture by quoting Deuteronomy 27:22:

"‘Cursed be he who lies with his sister, whether the daughter of his father or the daughter of his mother.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’"

Osama wants to infer from Deuteronomy 27:22 that this verse abrogated the previous law, and that the Bible is full of errors and contradictions. Yet Osama realizes the answer to his imaginary dilemma since he tries to address the argument that Moses' instructions came centuries after Abraham which means that the latter could not be held accountable to laws which were not given during his time. After all, Osama's position would also imply that Abraham had to observe Sabbath, commemorate Passover, go up to the tabernacle three times a year for the three main festivals, need the high priest to atone for his sins etc. In essence, what this means is that the Patriarchs cannot be held accountable for practices and customs which God did not forbid until centuries later. Nothing that Osama says begins to even remotely refute this position. Be that as it may, we are pretty certain that he will resort to his mantra condition and try to desperately refute these claims but to no avail.

Osama's misinterpretation of the Holy Bible reveals a deeper issue. I rarely read a Muslim who knows how to interpret the Bible. One big and frequent misstep is their failure to take this sacred text in its historical context. Thus, Osama thought that Deuteronomy applied to Abraham's life even though this legal document comes much later. Perhaps Muslim interpreters view the Bible as composed in the same short time span as the Quran--but even here we must often differentiate the Meccan from the Medinan suras. The Bible was produced over a period of 1,400 hundred years, the Quran about 22 years, and seventh-century Arabia did not change much in those short years, if at all.

Muslims too often take a verse in any passage and assert that it applies across the board, universally. For example, if Genesis and the legal aspects of the Torah establish circumcision, then it is binding on Christians today, so say the misinterpreters. But this rips the Bible out from its historical contexts and the progress of revelations from the Old to the New Testaments, as I write in this article, yet another reply to a Muslim misinterpretation of the Bible. This exegesis is simplistic and uninformed. We must never transfer every verse from the Old Testament to the era of the New Testament, without rhyme or reason. Doing this correctly requires great care and knowledge of both texts.

In fact, this requires great care and knowledge even if we remain in the Old Testament. Abraham knew nothing about Deuteronomy, but Osama applies it to him anyway, in flagrant disregard for the Patriarch's historical context and Moses' historical context.

It is now time to turn the tables on Osama. In the so-called sound narrations of al-Bukhari we are told that:

Narrated Abu Huraira:
Abraham did not tell a lie except on three occasions. Twice for the Sake of Allah when he said, "I am sick," and he said, "(I have not done this but) the big idol has done it." The (third was) that while Abraham and Sarah (his wife) were going (on a journey) they passed by (the territory of) a tyrant. Someone said to the tyrant, "This man (i.e. Abraham) is accompanied by a very charming lady." So, he sent for Abraham and asked him about Sarah saying, "Who is this lady?" Abraham said, "She is my sister." Abraham went to Sarah and said, "O Sarah! There are no believers on the surface of the earth except you and I. This man asked me about you and I have told him that you are my sister, so don't contradict my statement." The tyrant then called Sarah and when she went to him, he tried to take hold of her with his hand, but (his hand got stiff and) he was confounded. He asked Sarah. "Pray to Allah for me, and I shall not harm you." So Sarah asked Allah to cure him and he got cured. He tried to take hold of her for the second time, but (his hand got as stiff as or stiffer than before and) was more confounded. He again requested Sarah, "Pray to Allah for me, and I will not harm you." Sarah asked Allah again and he became all right. He then called one of his guards (who had brought her) and said, "You have not brought me a human being but have brought me a devil." The tyrant then gave Hajar as a girl-servant to Sarah. Sarah came back (to Abraham) while he was praying. Abraham, gesturing with his hand, asked, "What has happened?" She replied, "Allah has spoiled the evil plot of the infidel (or immoral person) and gave me Hajar for service." (Abu Huraira then addressed his listeners saying, "That (Hajar) was your mother, O Bani Ma-is-Sama (i.e. the Arabs, the descendants of Ishmael, Hajar's son)." (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 55, Number 578)

Narrated Abu Huraira:
The Prophet said, "The Prophet Abraham emigrated with Sarah and entered a village where there was a king or a tyrant. (The king) was told that Abraham had entered (the village) accompanied by a woman who was one of the most charming women. So, the king sent for Abraham and asked, 'O Abraham! Who is this lady accompanying you?' Abraham replied, 'She is my sister (i.e. in religion).' Then Abraham returned to her and said, 'Do not contradict my statement, for I have informed them that you are my sister. By Allah, there are no true believers on this land except you and I.' Then Abraham sent her to the king. When the king got to her, she got up and performed ablution, prayed and said, 'O Allah! If I have believed in You and Your Apostle, and have saved my private parts from everybody except my husband, then please do not let this pagan overpower me.' On that the king fell in a mood of agitation and started moving his legs. Seeing the condition of the king, Sarah said, 'O Allah! If he should die, the people will say that I have killed him.' The king regained his power, and proceeded towards her but she got up again and performed ablution, prayed and said, 'O Allah! If I have believed in You and Your Apostle and have kept my private parts safe from all except my husband, then please do not let this pagan overpower me.' The king again fell in a mood of agitation and started moving his legs. On seeing that state of the king, Sarah said, 'O Allah! If he should die, the people will say that I have killed him.' The king got either two or three attacks, and after recovering from the last attack he said, 'By Allah! You have sent a satan to me. Take her to Abraham and give her Ajar.' So she came back to Abraham and said, 'Allah humiliated the pagan and gave us a slavegirl for service." (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 34, Number 420)

Note how these narrations have Muhammad giving his approval to the biblical stories, specifically the story found in Genesis 12 (not that his opinion means anything to us since he wasn't a true prophet). In other words, these early Muslim sources had no problem in asserting that Muhammad believed that Abraham's claim that Sarah was his sister was true, and that Abraham did lie about his relationship with Sarah in order to save his life. It seems that Osama knows better than his prophet (which is quite possible since Muhammad could have been mistaken since he wasn't inspired by God to speak without error).

The translator inserts words in parentheses to give the impression that Sarah was Abraham's sister in religion, which makes no sense in light of Abraham's situation. For Abraham to have told Pharaoh that Sarah was a sister in his religion wouldn't lead the tyrant to the conclusion that she wasn't his wife, since you can be married to a sister believer (one who is a spiritual sister because of a shared faith). Yet despite the fact that the words in parentheses are not part of the original text, as can be seen by comparing this with a different English translation of Al-Bukhari:

2104. It is related that Abu Hurayra said that the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, "Ibrahim, peace be upon him, emigrated with Sarah and he entered a town in which there was a certain king or tyrant. The king was told that Ibrahim had come with a woman who was one of the most beautiful of women. He sent a message to him asking, 'Ibrahim, who is this woman with you?' He answered, 'MY SISTER.' Then Ibrahim returned to her and said, 'Do not contradict what I have said. I have told them that YOU ARE MY SISTER. By Allah, there are no believers on the earth except me and you.' Ibrahim sent her to the king. He went to her and she got up and did wudu' and prayed and said, 'O Allah, I believe in You and Your Messenger and I have protected my private parts from everyone but my husband. Do not give the unbeliever power over me.' He began to make snorting noises and his legs started thrashing about." ... (Aisha Bewley, The Sahih Collection of al-Bukhari, Chapter 37. Book of Sales, C: Buying a slave from someone with whom you are at war and then giving him away and freeing him; source; capital and underline emphasis ours)

Nonetheless by inserting them into the narration the translator has inadvertently demonstrated that Abraham's statement regarding Sarah being his sister wasn't a lie. After all, being a fellow believer Sarah was indeed Abraham's sister in the true faith. Rather, Abraham lied by concealing the fact that she was also his wife.

Yet the Quran prohibits incestual relations:

Forbidden unto you are your mothers, and your daughters, and your sisters, and your father's sisters, and your mother's sisters, and your brother's daughters and your sister's daughters, and your foster-mothers, and your foster-sisters, and your mothers-in-law, and your step-daughters who are under your protection (born) of your women unto whom ye have gone in - but if ye have not gone in unto them, then it is no sin for you (to marry their daughters) - and the wives of your sons who (spring) from your own loins. And (it is forbidden unto you) that ye should have two sisters together, except what hath already happened (of that nature) in the past. Lo! Allah is ever Forgiving, Merciful. S. 4:23 Pickthall

Thus, the Quran has incriminated Abraham for committing illegal sexual intercourse for marrying his sister, which would be zina, thereby bringing the Patrirach under God's wrath:

And approach not fornication (alzzina); surely it is an indecency, and evil as a way. S. 17:32 Arberry

And those who invoke not any other ilah (god) along with Allah, nor kill such life as Allah has forbidden, except for just cause, nor commit illegal sexual intercourse and whoever does this shall receive the punishment. S. 25:68 Hilali-Khan

In so doing, the Quran is essentially saying that Abraham was cursed for engaging in forbidden sexual relations, and yet all who curse Abraham will themselves be cursed:

"Now the LORD said to Abram, 'Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.'" Genesis 12:1-3

This means that the Quran is an accursed book! Now watch Osama try to evade these points by attacking the authenticity and credibility of his own Islamic sources, specifically Sahih al-Bukhari, something he has become infamous for doing.

Even though he may escape this argument by simply taking the easy way of discrediting Bukhari, he won't be able to do it with our next point. The Quran says that all mankind descended from one set of parents:

O people! be careful of (your duty to) your Lord, Who created you from a single being and created its mate of the same (kind) and spread from these two, many men and women; and be careful of (your duty to) Allah, by Whom you demand one of another (your rights), and (to) the ties of relationship; surely Allah ever watches over you. S. 4:1 Shakir

It is He who created you out of one living soul, and made of him his spouse that he might rest in her. Then, when he covered her, she bore a light burden and passed by with it; but when it became heavy they cried to God their Lord, 'If Thou givest us a righteous son, we indeed shall be of the thankful.' S. 7:189 Arberry

What the above implies is that at the beginning of human civilization people were marrying their siblings in order to propagate the human race. This is precisely why the Quran calls mankind the children of Adam:

Indeed, WE have honoured the children of Adam, and WE carry them by land and sea, and provide them with good things and have exalted them far above many of those whom WE have created. S. 17:70 Sher Ali

Thus, not only was Abraham married to his sister according to the Islamic sources, but the Quran also implies that Adam had been marrying his sons to his daughters.

Yet Muhammad condemned such relations in his book!

In his conclusion Osama writes:

As proven again and again in my articles, the Bible's narrations' simply can not be trusted, because they had been clearly created by men who were not appointed by GOD Almighty.  There are ample errors and contradictions in the Bible, and they can not be ignored.

If you're going to consider words as the True Living Words of GOD Almighty, then you must at least have the very basic proofs that they indeed came from the Almighty.  But taking men's words and appoint them to GOD is a grave error and sin that you would commit against GOD Almighty.

Far from proving that the Holy Bible is corrupt (the fact of the matter is that Osama fails time and time again to discredit the Holy Bible), Osama has simply incriminated his false prophet and book. Osama's distorted logic would prove that the Quran is not just an accursed book from Satan, but Islam is based on sources which are full of contradictions, errors and abrogations. In light of this, we wonder why Osama still remains a Muslim when his arguments and methodology conclusively prove that Muhammad was a false prophet and very inconsistent, and that both the Quran and Islamic source materials are accursed being full of gross errors and immorality.

To most people, common sense is sufficient to know that nobody is going to be condemned for breaking laws that were only instituted after their lifetime. It really takes very special people like Osama Abdallah to engineer problems like the one discussed above. In fact, it is a general principle in civilized countries that new laws become effective from the time of their ratification onwards and people don't become punishable later for deeds they have done before there was a law against them.

Muhammad, however, lived much later than Moses and broke many of the laws that God had given earlier. That is a genuine problem. The article, Muhammad and the Mosaic Law, discusses some of those laws that were ignored, changed or broken by Muhammad.


I want to thank James Arlandson for the contribution of several suggestions and formulations found in this paper.

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