Abraham and the Child of Sacrifice - Isaac or Ishmael?

Sam Shamoun


Jews, Christians and Muslims agree; Abraham, the friend of God, is an example of pure and unconditional righteousness and faith. The love that Abraham displayed towards God is clearly seen in Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his only beloved son. All three religions do not dispute this fact. Where they do disagree on, however, is the identity of the sacrificial child. The Bible states that this child was Isaac:

"After these things God tested Abraham, and said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here am I.’ He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you’." (Genesis 22:1-2, R.S.V.).

"By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son ..." (Hebrews 11:17, R.S.V.).

"Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered up his son Isaac upon the altar?" (James 2:21, R.S.V.).

Muslims on the other hand feel that Ishmael was the one offered up by Abraham. They believe that the Holy Bible supports this by its declaration that Abraham offered his only son (see above verses). Ishmael was Abraham's only son for over 13 years, which would make it impossible for Isaac to be the chld of sacrifice. (Cf. Genesis 16:16, 21:5).

Muslims believe that scribes later corrupted the original reading from Ishmael to Isaac.

Since this idea stems from the Muslim misunderstanding of the phrase "only son", it becomes necessary to explain what this phrase exactly means in relation to Isaac. A careful reading of the Holy Bible shows that the phrase is used to affirm Isaac's unique status, a status based on the following:

It is for these reasons that Isaac is called Abraham's only son since God himself reckoned him as the child of promise and blessings, an honor never bestowed upon Ishmael.

Even more amazing is the fact that the Quran never mentions the name of the sacrificial child; amazing indeed considering how overzealous some Muslims have been in their attempts to prove that Ishmael, not Isaac, was that son:

"He said: ‘I will go to my Lord! He will surely guide me! O my Lord! Grant me a righteous (son)!’ So we gave him the good news of a boy ready to suffer and forbear.

"Then, when (the son) reached (the age of) (serious) work with him, He said: ‘O my son! I see in a vision that I offer thee in sacrifice: Now see what is thy view!’ (The son) said: ‘O my Father! Do as thou art commanded: Thou will find me, if God so wills one practicing patience and constancy!’

"So when they had both submitted their wills (to God), and he had laid him prostrate on his forehead (for sacrifice), we called out to him, ‘O Abraham! Thou hast already fulfilled thy vision’ - thus indeed do we reward those who do right. For this was obviously a trial - And we ransomed him with a momentous sacrifice ..." (Surah 37:99-106).

The ambiguity of the text has left many Islamic scholars guessing as to whether the child was Isaac or Ishmael. Yusuf Ali makes a note of this in his commentary:

"This (i.e. the child promised to Abraham and later commanded to be sacrificed) was in the fertile land of Syria and Palestine. The boy thus born, was, according to Muslim tradition (which however is not unanimous on this point), the first-born son of Abraham, viz Ishmael ..." (1: p. 1204, f. 4096).

Muhammad H. Haykal, in his classic biography The Life of Muhammad, wrote:

Who Was the Sacrificial Son?
Historians of this period disagree on the matter of Ibrahim's sacrifice of Isma'il. Did the event take place before the birth of Ishaq or thereafter? Did it take place in Palestine or in the Hijaz? Jewish historians insist that the sacrificial son was Ishaq, not Isma'il. This is not the place to analyze this issue. In his book Qisas al Anbiyd', Shaykh `Abd al Wahhab al Najjar concluded that the sacrificial son was Isma'il. His evidence was drawn from the Qur'an itself where the sacrificial son is described as being Ibrahim's unique son, which could only be Isma'il, and only as long as Ishaq was not yet born ... For with the birth of Ishaq, Ibrahim would have no "unique" son but two, Isma'il and Ishaq. But to accede to this evidence implies that the sacrifice should have taken place in Palestine ... This would equally be true in case the sacrificial son was Ishaq, for the latter remained with his mother Sarah in Palestine and never left for the Hijaz. On the other hand, the report which makes the sacrifice take place on the mountain of Mina near Makkah identifies the sacrificial son as Isma'il. The Qur'an did not mention the name of the sacrificial son, and hence Muslim historians disagree in this regard. (trans. Isma'il Raji al-Faruqi [Islamic Book Trust Kuala Lumpur/American Trust Publishers, 1976], pp. 24-25; cf. online edition; underline emphasis ours)

One modern North American Muslim scholar, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf of the Zaytuna Institute, candidly admits that:

... This was the child that Abraham was given, and there is a difference of opinion about who that child was. The majority of the later scholars say it was Ismail, many of the early scholars said it was Ishaq. It should not be a point of contention for the believers, it's not the point of the story. Both are valid opinions. (Shaykh Yusuf, There is No Calamity if there is Certainty; audio source)

This is not the first time that Shaykh Yusuf has made this admission. He has basically stated this same view on other occasions such as in his series titled The Life of the Prophet Muhammad.

Al-Tabari, considered to be one of the premiere Islamic historians, lists the divergent views held amongst the Muslim umma (community) in regard to this very issue:

"The earliest sages of our Prophet's nation disagree about which of Abraham's two sons it was that he was commanded to sacrifice. Some say it was Isaac, while others say it was Ishmael. Both views are supported by statements related on the authority of the Messenger of God. If both groups of statements were equally sound, then - since they both came from the Prophet - only the Quran could serve as proof that the account naming Isaac is clearly the more truthful of the two." (2: p. 82).

Instead of listing both sides of the argument, our paper will therefore focus on those who said it was Isaac. All the following quotations are found in al-Tabari (2: pp. 82-86) [italics our emphasis]:

The account naming Isaac comes down to us through Abu Kurayb - Zayd b. al-Hubab - al-Hasan b. Dinar - 'Ali b. Zayd b. Jud'an - al-Hasan - al-Ahnaf b. Qays - al-'Abbas b. 'Abd al-Muttalib - THE PROPHET in a conversation in which he said, "Then we ransomed him with a tremendous victim." And he also said, "HE IS ISAAC."

According to Abu Kurayb - Ibn Yaman-Mubarak - al-Hasan-al-Ahnaf b. Qays-al - 'Abbas b. 'Abd al-Muttalib: The quote, "Then We ransomed him with a tremendous victim," refers to Isaac.

According to al-Husayn b. Yazid al-Tahhan - Ibn Idris - Dawud b. Abi Hind - 'Ikrimah - Ibn 'Abbas: The one whom Abraham was ordered to sacrifice was Isaac.

According to Ya'qub - Ibn 'Ulayyah - Dawud - 'Ikrimah - Ibn 'Abbas: The victim was Isaac.

According to Ibn al-Muthanna - Muhammad b. Ja'far - Shu'bah - Abu Ishaq - Abu al-Ahwas: A certain man boasted to Ibn Mas'ud, "I am so-and-so son of so-and-so, son of the noble elders." And 'Abdallah said,"This is Joseph b. Jacob, son of Isaac the victim of God, son of Abraham the Friend of God."

According Ibn Humayd - Ibrahi, b. al-Mukhtar - Muhammad b. Ishaq - 'Abd al-Rahman b. Abi Bakr - al-Zyhri - al-'Ala' b. Jariyah al-Thaqafi - Abu Hurayrah - Ka'b: When God said, "Then We ransomed him with a tremendous victim," He was speaking of Abraham's son Isaac.

According to Ibn Humayd - Salamah - Muhammad b. Ishaq - 'Abdallah b. Abi Bakr - Muhammad b. Muslim al-Zuri - Abu Sufyan b. al-'Ala' b. Jariyah al-Thaqafi, the confederate of Banu Zuhrah - Abu Hurayrah - Ka'b al-Ahbar: The son whom Abraham was commanded to sacrifice was Isaac.

According to Yunus - Ibn Wahb - Yunus - Ibn Shihab - 'Amr b. Abi Sufyan b. Usayd b. Jariyah al-Thaqafi: Ka'b said to Abu Hurayrah, "Should I tell you about Isaac, the son of the prophet Abraham? Abu Hurayrah said, "Certainly." So Ka'b gave the following account:

"When Abraham was told to sacrifice Isaac, Satan said ‘By God! If I cannot deceive the people of Abraham with this, I shall never be able to do it.’ So when Abraham went out with Isaac to sacrifice him, Satan visited Abraham's wife, Sarah, in the shape of a man whom Abraham's people knew, and asked her, ‘Where is Abraham going so early with Isaac?’ She said, ‘He went off early on some errand.’ Satan said, ‘No, by God! That is not the reason he left so early.’ Sarah asked, ‘Then what is the reason?’ He said, ‘He took him out early to sacrifice him.’ Sarah said, ‘There is no truth to that, he would not ... sacrifice his own son.’ Satan said, ‘By God it is true.’ Sarah said, ‘And why would he sacrifice him?’ He replied, ‘He claims that his Lord ordered him to do it.’ Sarah said, ‘If his Lord ordered him to do that, it is best that he obey.’ Then Satan left Sarah and went to Isaac, who was walking with his father, and said, ‘Where is your father taking you so early?’ Isaac answered, ‘He is taking me on some errand of his.’ Satan said, ‘No, by God, he is not taking you out on an errand. He is taking you out early to sacrifice you.’ Isaac said, ‘My father would not sacrifice me.’ Satan told him, ‘Certainly he would.’ Isaac asked, ‘Why?’ Satan told him, ‘He claims that his Lord ordered him to do it.’ Isaac answered, ‘By God! If the Lord told my father to do that, he should certainly obey him.’ So Satan left him and went on to Abraham, saying, ‘Why are you taking your son out early?’ Abraham said, ‘I am taking him on an errand.’ Satan answered, ‘By God, you took him out early only to sacrifice him.’ Abraham asked, ‘Why would I do that?’ Satan said, ‘You claim that your Lord ordered you to do it.’ Abraham said, ‘By God, if my Lord orders me to do that, I will surely do it.’ When Abraham took Isaac to sacrifice him, God stayed his hand and ransomed him with a ‘tremendous victim.’ Abraham said to Isaac, ‘Arise, my little son, for God has released you.’ And God said to Isaac, ‘I will grant you any prayer you choose to make now.’ Isaac said, ‘My God! I pray to you that I be granted this, that you grant entry into Paradise to any worshipper, past or present, who encounters you and does not make anything a partner with you’."

According to 'Amr b. Ali - Abu 'Asim - Sufyan - Zayd b. Aslam - 'Abdallah b. 'Ubayd b. 'Umayr - his father: Moses said, "O Lord! Why are you addressed as ‘O God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?’" God answered, "Abraham never considered anything at all equal to Me, but put Me above all things; Isaac was generous to Me in the matter of the sacrifice and in other matters; and as for Jacob, the more tribulations I inflicted upon him the more good thoughts he thought about me."

According to Ibn Bashshar - Mu'ammal - Sufyan - Zayd b. Aslam - 'Abdallah b. 'Ubayd b. 'Umayr - his father: Moses asked God, "O Lord! Why did you give Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob what you gave them?" And God's answer was the same (as that given above).

According to Abu Kurayb - Ibn Yaman - Isra'il - Jabir - Ibn Sabit: He was Isaac.

According to Kurayb - Ibn Yaman - Sufyan - Abu Sinan al-Shaybani - Ibn Abi al-Hudhayl: The victim was Isaac.

According to Abu Kurayb - Sufyan b. 'Uqbah - Hmaza al-Zayyat - Abu Ishaq - Abu Maysarah: Joseph told the king to his face, "You wish to eat with me when I, by God, am Joseph son of Jacob the prophet of God, son of Isaac the victim of God, son of Abraham the friend of God."

According to Abu Kurayb - Waki' - Sufyan - Abu Sinan - Ibn Abi al-Hudhayl: Joseph said to the king... The same (rest of the) account is roughly the same.

According to Musa b. Harun - 'Amr b. Hammad - Asbat - al-Suddi - Abu Malik and Abu Salih - Ibn 'Abbas and Murrah al-Hamdani - Ibn Mas'ud and some of the companions of the Prophet: Abraham was instructed in a dream to "carry out your promise that if God granted you a son by Sarah you would sacrifice him."

According to Ya'qub - Husahym - Zakariya' and Shu'bah - Abu Ishaq - Masruq: When God said, "The We ransomed him with a tremendous victim," that was Isaac.

Finally, Tabari himself:

"As for the above-mentioned proof from the Quran that it really was Isaac, it is God's word which informs us about the prayer of His friend Abraham when he left his people to migrate to Syria with Sarah. Abraham prayed, ‘I am going to my Lord who will guide me. My Lord! Grant me a righteous child.’ This was before he knew Hagar, who was to be the mother of Ishmael. After mentioning this prayer, God goes on to describe the prayer and mentions that he foretold to Abraham that he would have a gentle son. God also mentions Abraham's vision of himself sacrificing that son when he was old enough to walk with him. The Book does not mention any tidings of a male child given to Abraham except in the instance where it refers to Isaac, in which God said, ‘And his wife, standing by laughed when we gave her tidings of Isaac, and after Isaac, Jacob’, and ‘Then he became fearful of them’. They said. ‘Fear not!’ and gave him tidings of a wise son. Then his wife approached, moaning, and smote her face, and cried, ‘A barren old woman’. Thus, wherever the Quran mentions God giving tidings of the birth of a son to Abraham, it refers to Sarah (and thus to Isaac) and the same must be true of God's words ‘So we gave him tidings of a gentle son’, as it is true of all such references in the Quran." (Ibid., p. 89).

In another volume, al-Tabari states:

... That ram remained in custody with God until He let it go AS ISAAC'S RANSOM ... (The History of Al-Tabari: General Introduction and From the Creation to the Flood, translated by Franz Rosenthal [State University of New York Press (SUNY), Albany, 1989], Volume 1, p. 310; capital emphasis ours)

In Musnad Ahmad, Number 2658, we are told:

The messenger of God said that Gabriel took Abraham to Jamra al-Aqabah (the upper Jamrah, the pillar or place for stoning) and then Satan appeared to him. Then he stoned Satan with seven stones so he fainted him to faint. Then he came to the middle Jamrah, and Satan again appeared to him. He again stoned him with seven stones causing Satan to faint. He then came to the lower Jamrah, and Satan again appeared to him. Again he stoned Satan, causing him to faint once again. Now when Abraham wanted to slaughter his son Isaac, he said his father, "Father, tie me so I don’t get afraid and my blood splash all over you when you slaughter me." So he took him and he tied him up, and then he took the knife. And when he wanted to slay him a voice called from behind him, "O Abraham, the vision has been fulfilled."

We have provided a rough translation of the Arabic text, which we post here for those interested in reading it for themselves:

حدثنا ‏ ‏يونس ‏ ‏أخبرنا ‏ ‏حماد ‏ ‏عن ‏ ‏عطاء بن السائب ‏ ‏عن ‏ ‏سعيد بن جبير ‏ ‏عن ‏ ‏ابن عباس ‏
‏أن رسول الله ‏ ‏صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏ ‏قال ‏ ‏إن ‏ ‏جبريل ‏ ‏ذهب ‏ ‏بإبراهيم ‏ ‏إلى ‏ ‏جمرة العقبة ‏ ‏فعرض له الشيطان فرماه بسبع حصيات ‏ ‏فساخ ‏ ‏ثم أتى ‏ ‏الجمرة الوسطى ‏ ‏فعرض له الشيطان فرماه بسبع حصيات ‏ ‏فساخ ‏ ‏ثم أتى ‏ ‏الجمرة القصوى ‏ ‏فعرض له الشيطان فرماه بسبع حصيات ‏ ‏فساخ ‏ ‏فلما أراد ‏ ‏إبراهيم ‏ ‏أن يذبح ابنه ‏ ‏إسحاق ‏ ‏قال لأبيه يا ‏ ‏أبت أوثقني لا أضطرب فينتضح عليك ‏ ‏من دمي إذا ذبحتني فشده فلما أخذ ‏ ‏الشفرة ‏ ‏فأراد أن يذبحه نودي من خلفه ‏
‏أن يا ‏ ‏إبراهيم ‏ ‏قد صدقت الرؤيا ‏

The Tafsir attributed to Ibn Abbas states regarding S. 37:102:

(And when (his son) was old enough to walk with him) when his son was old enough to strive for Allah and obey Him; it is also said that this means: when his son was old enough to walk with him in the mountains, ((Abraham) said) to his son Ishmael; and it is also said: to his son Isaac: (O my dear son, I have seen in a dream that I must sacrifice thee) I am commanded in a dream vision to sacrifice you. (So look, what thinkest thou) what do you say? (He said: O my father! Do that which thou art commanded) of sacrificing me. (Allah willing, thou shalt find me of the steadfast) in the face of this sacrifice. (Tanwr al-Miqbs min Tafsr Ibn 'Abbs; source; bold and underline emphasis ours)

And the two Jalals write in reference to S. 37:107:

Then We ransomed him, the one whom he had been commanded to sacrifice, namely, Ishmael or Isaac - two different opinions - with a mighty sacrifice, [a mighty] ram from Paradise, the same one that Abel had offered as sacrifice: Gabriel, peace be upon him, brought it and the lord Abraham sacrificed it as he cried, Allāhu akbar, 'God is Great'. (Tafsir al-Jalalayn; source; bold and underline emphasis ours)

According to Muslim writer al-Massoudy, Ibn Abbas and Akrama debated each other over the identity of the son:

"Akrama asked: ‘Who was supposed to have been slain?’

Abdallah answered: ‘Ishmael!’

‘Why?’ asked Akrama.

Ben Abbas answered: ‘Because how can God pass the good news of Isaac's birth to Abraham, then order that he be killed?’

‘I can bring you proof from the Koran that Isaac was supposed to have been slain’. Said Akrama, ‘Thus will thy Lord prefer thee and teach thee the interpretation of events, and perfect His grace upon thee and upon the household of Jacob as He perfected it upon thy fathers, Abraham and Isaac. Lo! Thy Lord is All-Knowing and All-Wise’. (Joseph 6).

‘God's blessing to Abraham was by choosing him, and saving him’, said Akrama, ‘and to Isaac by redeeming him from slaying’." (3: pp. 52-53).

Also,

As the Kur'an verse above quoted does not state which son was to have been sacrificed, many Muslim theologians refer the intended sacrifice to Isma`il ... But it may be said that the oldest tradition - al-Tha`labi expressly emphasises the ashab and tabi`un, i.e. the Companions of the Prophet and their successors from `Umar b. al-Khattab to Ka`b al-Ahbar - did not differ from the Bible on this question. (Gibb and Kramers, A Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam, p. 175)

In Mishkat Al-Masabih, Book 14, chapter 4, section 3, we are told:

Muhammad b. al-Muntashir told of a man who vowed to sacrifice himself if God rescued him from his enemy. He consulted Ibn 'Abbas who told him to consult Masruq, and when he consulted him he replied, "Do not sacrifice yourself, for if you are a believer you will kill a believing soul, and if you are an infidel you will hasten to hell; but buy a ram and sacrifice it for the poor, FOR ISAAC WAS BETTER THAN YOU AND HE WAS RANSOMED WITH A RAM." He told Ibn 'Abbas and he replied, "This is the decision I wanted to give you." Razin transmitted it. (Mishkat Al-Masabih English Translation With Explanatory Notes by Dr. James Robson, Volume I [Sh. Muhammad Ahsraf Publishers, Booksellers & Exporters, Lahore-Pakistan, Reprint 1990], p. 733; bold and capital emphasis ours)

The translator has a footnote which reads:

3. This agrees with the story in the Old Testament which says that Abraham was preparing to sacrifice Isaac, whereas the usual Muslim version is that it was Ishmael.

Qadi 'Iyad Ibn Musa al-Yahsubi, in his Kitab Ash-shifa bi ta'rif huquq al-Mustafa (Healing by the recognition of the Rights of the Chosen One), wrote:

It is said that when Ibrahim was thrown into the fire and tested, he was sixteen years old. When Ishaq was tested by the sacrifice, he was seven years old. When Ibrahim sought proof in the star, the moon and the sun, he was fifteen months old. (Muhammad Messenger of Allah: Ash-shifa of Qadi 'Iyad, translated by Aisha Abdarrahman Bewley [Madinah Press, Inverness Scotland, U.K. 1991; third reprint, paperback], p. 53; bold emphasis ours)

The great Muslim commentator al-Baidawi also believed that the child of sacrifice was Isaac. In his comments on S. 12:46, al-Baidawi states:

As He perfected it formerly on thy fathers: by appointing them as messengers. Some say (that God perfected his blessing) on Abraham by taking him as a ‘friend’ (khalil) and by saving him from the fire (into which the unbelievers had cast him), and (he perfected it) on Isaac by delivering him from the sacrifice and by ransoming him with a great victim (for the sacrifice) ... (Helmut Gtje, The Qur'an and Its Exegesis [Oneworld Publications, Oxford 1996], p. 107; bold italic emphasis ours)

We conclude this section of citations by quoting the work of Reuven Firestone, an author that has spent considerable time analyzing the Islamic reference works regarding this particular issue, as well as other topics related to Abraham, Ishmael and the Arabs:

Most reports treating the Sacrifice directly or indirectly relate to the issue of who was the intended victim, and the intensity of interest in this matter is reflected in the great amount of space devoted to it. Exegetes cite traditions supporting both Isaac and Ishmael, and many even cite full lists of the early traditionists, such as Ibn ‘Abbas, Sa‘id b. Jubayr, al-Suddi, Mujahid, al-Hasan al-Basri, and ‘Ali, are cited in support of both, with some reports giving their opinion that it was Isaac and others claiming that it was Ishmael. When all the traditions are collated we find a surprisingly close count. One hundred thirty authoritative statements consider Isaac to be the intended victim; one hundred thirty consider it to have been Ishmael. (Firestone, Journeys in Holy Lands: The Evolution of the Abraham-Ishmael Legends in Islamic Exegesis [State University of New York Press (SUNY), Albany 1990], Chapter 16: Isaac or Ishmael?, p. 135; underline emphasis ours)

… Ibn Kathir also believes the intended sacrifice to be Ishmael, but gives al-Suhayli’s unique argument in support of Isaac just the same. Al-Suhayli is arguing against the pro-Ishmael view that because God had already promised Isaac his son Jacob and would not contradict His own revelation, Isaac could not have been intended. His argument is based on grammatical analysis. Says al-Suhayli:

AND WE GAVE HER THE GOOD NEWS OF ISAAC (Q.11:71) is a complete sentence. The words: AND AFTER ISAAC, JACOB is a different sentence which is not part of the first. It is impossible in Arabic to make a single sentence [out of these two] without a preposition. It is not possible, for example, to say "I passed by Zayd, and after him, ‘Amr" without [using the preposition "by" a second time in the second phrase] "and after him by ‘Amr". The words AND AFTER ISAAC, JACOB is in the accusative case with the unstressed meaning [that it is the complete sentence] "We gave to Isaac Jacob."

According to the argument, the revelation could have occurred at two different times if it were made up of two separate sentences. The first revelation would have occurred before the command to sacrifice Isaac; the second afterwards, therefore solving the problem of contradictory revelations. He adds to the argument with evidence from Q.37:102: WHEN HE REACHED THE AGE OF RUNNING WITH HIM. "Ishmael could not have been with him, for he was very little when he was with his mother in the Meccan mountains. How could he have reached the age of running with him?" According to this view, Abraham brought Hagar and Ishmael to Mecca and left them there, never to return. Their only experience together was therefore when Ishmael was too young to be at "the age of running with him." Ibn Kathir counters al-Suhayli’s argument with the tradition about Buraq: "Abraham often rode upon Buraq to Mecca, coming suddenly to his son and then returning. God knows best!" (P. 138)

The preoccupation with determining the identity of Abraham’s intended victim is expressed in the use of narrative traditions within the sources… Five recurring traditions and one citation of evidence are found in the sources. Three are cited in support of each candidate.

All three narrative traditions supporting Isaac occur in similar form. Their testimony lies in the formulaic citation of Abraham Isaac and Jacob, where Isaac’s connection with the Sacrifice is explicitly pointed out. One tradition found six times among the sources portrays Joseph giving his genealogy to a king identified in one tradition as Egyptian. He uses the honorific title, dhabih Allah ("the Intended Sacrifice of God") when referring to his grandfather Isaac. The story is brief and consistent, with four renditions given on the authority of Abu Maysara and two on the authority of Ibn Abi Hudhayl: "Joseph told the king to his face: ‘Do you wish to eat with me, for by God, I am Joseph, son of Jacob the Prophet of God, son of Isaac the Intended Sacrifice of God, son of Abraham the Friend of God.’"

A second narrative has God telling Moses that Isaac was given exceptional merits for submitting fully to the Sacrifice. This tradition occurs seven times with great consistency and is attributed to a family chain of authorities connected to ‘Ubayd b. ‘Umayr:

Moses said: "O Lord, why will you be called, ‘O God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?’" God replied: "Abraham never considered anything equal to me but always chose Me above all things. Isaac was generous to Me in the Sacrifice and was most generous in other things. As for Jacob, the more I put him through trials, the better he thought of Me." … The third narrative is found four times among sources and is attributed to Abu al-Ahwas: "A certain man boasted before Ibn Mas‘ud saying: ‘I am so-and-so son of so-and-so son of noble shaykhs. ‘Abdallah [Ibn Mas‘ud] said: ‘That is Joseph son of Jacob, son of Isaac the Intended Sacrifice of God, son of Abraham the Friend of God.’" (Pp. 140-141)

Unlike the Isaac traditions, the two traditions and series of citations supporting Ishmael are quite different from one another in form and style, although they all have the appearance of Islamic (as opposed to pre-Islamic) legends. The popular comment about the horns of the ram hanging inside the Ka‘ba tends not to be credited only to early traditionists, and there appears to be no reference to horns hanging in the Ka‘ba in pre-Islamic accounts… (P. 143; underline emphasis ours)

Al-Qummi cites a tradition attributed to Abu ‘Abdallah in which the Sacrifice takes place in Mina within the context of Abraham’s first Pilgrimage. The sacrificial victim, however, is to be Isaac, who had made the Pilgrimage with his mother, Sarah… Al-Tha‘labi follows al-Tabari closely and gives nearly the same traditions. These include a report of al-Sha‘bi that is nearly identical to that of al-Jaba’i quoted by al-Tabari, in which Isaac "was sacrificed" about two miles from Jerusalem at the age of seven years. Al-Tha‘labi also provides the al-Suddi tradition found in al-Tabari that has Abraham attempting to sacrifice Isaac in Syria in compliance with his vow. Like al-Tabari, al-Tha‘labi cites the Ibn Ishaq tradition in which Abraham visits Ishmael on Buraq and attempts his sacrifice near Mecca. He also cites the Ibn ‘Abbas traditions that place the location of the Sacrifice in Mina, some clearly within the context of Abraham’s first Pilgrimage, while others are more vague… Al-Kisa’i’s setting is a mountain in Syria and Ka‘b al-Athir his authority. After receiving his vision in a dream at Jerusalem, Abraham sets out to sacrifice Isaac, who is seven years old.

Ibn al-Athir also understands the location to be about two miles from Jerusalem and the intended victim to be Isaac. The act was a result of Abraham’s vow when he prayed to God to grant him a pious son (Q.37:100). But he also gives the opposing view that Ishmael was the intended victim at Mecca and cites a few traditions specifying the location in that area… (Pp. 145-146)

Our pool of sources provides a great variety of suppositions regarding the chronology and location of the Sacrifice. The most often repeated and presumably earliest coherent account assumes the Sacrifice to have taken place in Syria and Isaac to have been the victim. According to this report, Abraham asks God for a pious son and is given the divine announcement of Isaac’s birth when the angels visit on their way to destroy the people of Lot. Upon hearing the miraculous news he vows to offer his son as a sacrifice in thanks to God. He takes his son Isaac and proceeds to carry out the Sacrifice while they are both in Syria. (P. 147; underline emphasis ours)

The nature of the Islamic traditions regarding the Sacrifice suggests that those locating the act in Syria and assuming Isaac to have been the intended victim WERE THE EARLIEST. Early Muslims naturally turned to Biblicists for information regarding legends found both in the Qur’an and the Bible, and the traditions they learned that followed the biblical orientation of the Sacrifice in Syria clearly derived from a Biblicist milieu. The pre-Islamic association of Abraham with Mecca, however, naturally encouraged the growth of counter traditions positing the location of the Sacrifice in the sacred Islamic center. The fact that many traditions treating the first Abrahamic Pilgrimage exclude any mention of the Sacrifice lends credence to the view that the connection between the Abrahamic Sacrifice and the pre-Islamic pilgrimage sacrifice was a late (Islamic) development… (P. 149; capital and underline emphasis ours)

We know that the Syria-Isaac exegesis would have been available, at least among Arabian Biblicists, DURING THE SIXTH AND SEVENTH CENTURIES. The Mecca-Ishmael exegesis was probably A LATER DEVELOPMENT, when the figure of Ishmael was more firmly established as the progenitor of the northern Arabs. The question that must now be raised is why the OLDER Syria-Isaac exegesis came to be essentially replaced by the Mecca-Ishmael view. The most likely answer is that according to an Islamic world view by the ninth and tenth century, C.E., the Syria-Isaac exegesis had two major weaknesses. First, it was a nearly perfect parallel to the biblical version. This trait would have provided it with great authority in the first century of Islam when the new Arab Muslims were searching for information that would shed light on the difficult passages of the Qur’an. But as Islam preferred to rely on its own authoritative sources at the intellectual height of the Abbasid Caliphate, and as the genealogical connection with Abraham, Ishmael, and the northern Arabs became more firmly established, the Isaac legend was deemed increasingly suspect until it was eventually rejected.

The second weakness of the Syria-Isaac exegesis lies in the fact that it has absolutely no relation to the holy city of Mecca nor to the Pilgrimage. The opposing exegesis of the Ishmael-Mecca school served not only to explain difficult passages of the Qur’an, but also to provide an acceptable origin for some of the important ritual acts of the Islamic Pilgrimage. The lapidation and the sacrifice of the Pilgrimage, both holdovers from a pagan pre-Islamic past, WERE RE-INTERPRETED through the narrative exegesis of the Sacrifice legend to derive from the pure and pristine monotheism of Abraham… (Pp. 150-151; capital and underline emphasis ours)

The differing views held amongst the Muslims as to the identity of the child only proves that the Bible is truly authoritative and reliable since what the Quran does not clarify, the Bible corrects and addresses, leaving no guesswork for scholars to work through.

Further, the Bible's superiority is once again demonstrated by virtue of the fact that it even mentions the site where these events took place, Mt. Moriah, the future site of the Solomonic Temple (cf. Gen. 22:2; 2 Chron. 3:1); whereas with the Quran we are not given even the slightest hint as to where this sacrifice was to take place. This has also caused controversy and confusion amongst Muslim scholars as they desperately try to figure this problem out.

Yusuf Ali notes:

"Where did this vision occur? The Muslim view is that it was in or near Mecca. Some would identify it with the Valley of Mina, six miles north of Mecca, where a commemoration sacrifice is annually celebrated as a rite of the Hajj on the tenth of Zul-Hijja, the Id of sacrifice, in memory of this sacrifice of Abraham and Ishmael ...; Others say that the original place of sacrifice was near the hill of Marwa ...; which is associated with the infancy of Ishmael."

"At what stage in Abraham's history did this occur? ... It was obviously after his arrival in the Land of Canaan and after Ishmael had given up years of discretion. Was it before or after the building of the Kabah ...? There are no data on which this question can be answered. But we may suppose it was before that event, and that event may itself have been commemorative." (1: p. 1204, footnotes 4098, 4099).

As Ali states, there is no data, especially from the pre-Islamic period or archaeology, which confirms the fact that either Abraham or Ishmael were ever in Mecca, let alone support the notion that Abraham instituted the rites of the pilgrimage. The late Egyptian Professor, Dr. Taha Husayn, considered one of the foremost authorities on Arabic literature, acknowledges this when commenting on the story of Abraham and Ishmael building the Kabah:

"The case for this episode is very obvious because it is of recent date and came into vogue just before the rise of Islam. Islam exploited it for religious reasons." (quoted in Mizan al-Islam by Anwar al-Jundi, p. 170). [italics ours, quoted as found in Behind the Veil, (4: p. 184).]

Noted Christian Apologist, John Gilchrist states:

"Secular history knows of only one form of pre-Islamic veneration of the Ka'aba and that is the Idolatry of the pagan Arabs. There is no corroborative evidence whatsoever for the Qur'an's claim that the Ka'aba was initially a house of monotheistic worship. Instead there certainly is evidence as far back as history can trace the origins and worship of the Ka'aba that it was thoroughly pagan and idolatrous in content and emphasis ... the Ka'aba was purely a shrine of thriving pagan idolatry." (6: p. 16).

Therefore, it is purely wishful thinking for Muslims to use the rites of the Hajj as proof that Abraham offered up Ishmael at Mecca near the Kabah, since pre-Islamic history indicates that these rites were nothing more than pagan customs adopted by Muhammad into Islam. Further, as was noted, Islamic scholarship strongly disagrees and much confusion still exists over the identity of the son, with some arguing for Isaac and others for Ishmael.

The lack of uniformity of opinion and the ambiguity of the Quran in regard to this issue helps to solidify the Biblical narrative as vastly superior and more trustworthy.

Finally, the Quran gives no clear reason why God would test Abraham in this fashion, and yet the Bible does. Abraham and Isaac were shadows of what was to eventually come nearly two thousand years later on the same mountain site where Isaac was offered.

Just as Abraham displayed unconditional love for God in his willingness to sacrifice his one and only son, God also gave up his only beloved Son on the cross of Calvary to prove to the world that He is the true source of unconditional, infinite love. Whereas God withheld the hand of Abraham from completing the sacrifice, He did not withhold his own hand from sacrificing his only Son, going to the extremes in displaying his love for mankind, an extreme that even Abraham did not cross.

Interestingly when Abraham was leading Isaac to the mountainside, Isaac asked his father where the Lamb was that was to be sacrificed, to which Abraham replied, "God will provide himself the Lamb for a burnt offering, my son." (cf. Gen. 22:7,8)

Yet instead of finding a Lamb, a ram was given. (cf. Gen. 22:13) This is primarily due to the fact that the Lamb of God was to arrive two thousand years later:

"The next day he (John) saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’ ... ‘Behold the Lamb of God’." (John 1:29,36).

Here was the Lamb of God sent to atone for the sin of the world. This is the awesome ransom that the Quran alludes to: Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word of the Father, offering himself as a ransom of infinite value, covering the debt of sin from beginning to end and throughout eternity.

Tabari notes that the Islamic practice of animal sacrifice done in commemoration of Abraham and his son, "wards off an evil death, so sacrifice, O servants of God!" (2: p. 96).

How much more, then, will Christ's sacrifice atone for mankind's wickedness seeing that man's worth is far greater in the eyes of God than animals. Because Christ is the Eternal Word animal sacrifices are no longer needed, since Christ's atonement is sufficient for all time:

"When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from the acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance - now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant." (Hebrews 9:11-15).

"But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God." (Hebrews 10:12).

Thus, Abraham and Isaac were shadows of the things that were to come, pointing to the Father and Son's willingness to sacrifice themselves in the greatest display of love the world has ever seen; the Father's willingness in sacrificing his eternal love, with the Son giving up his own life on behalf of fallen humanity:

"For God commendeth his love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us." (Romans 5:8 R.S.V.).

"... For God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins." (1 John 4:8b-10 R.S.V.).

This is indeed the greatest love story the world has ever known:

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16 R.S.V.).


  1. A. Yusuf Ali, The Holy Quran, Translation and Commentary
  2. Al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, Vol. II, Prophets and Patriarchs (trans. William M. Brenner), State University of New York Press, Albany 1987
  3. Brother Mike, Islam in the Balance, online edition
  4. N.N., Behind the Veil
  5. John Gilchrist, The Christian Witness to the Muslim, Vol. II
  6. John Gilchrist, The Temple, The Ka'aba, and the Christ


Articles by Sam Shamoun
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