Isaac or Ishmael?: rectifying the differences between the Qur’an and the Bible
Surah 37:94–120: “…he said, ‘How can you worship things you carve with your own hands, when it is God who has created you and all your handiwork?’ They said, ‘Build a pyre and throw him into the blazing fire.’ They wanted to harm him, but We humiliated them. He said, ‘I will go to my Lord: He is sure to guide me. Lord grant me a righteous son. So We gave him the good news that he would have a forbearing son. When the boy was old enough to work with his father, Abraham said, ‘I have seen myself sacrificing you in a vision. What do you think?’ He said, ‘Father do as you are commanded and, God willing, you will find me steadfast.’ When they had both submitted to God, and he had laid his son down on the side of his face, We called out to him, ‘Abraham, you have fulfilled the vision.’ This is how We reward those who do good — -it was a test — We ransomed his son with a momentous sacrifice: ‘Peace be upon Abraham!” This is how We reward those who do good: truly he was one of Our faithful servants.”
The differing stories of Abraham being commanded by Allah to sacrifice his son has been a point of contention between Christians and Muslims with each religion having determined the other religion’s accounts are incorrect. The Muslims claim that the Jews admitted they changed the story in the Torah so the Hebrew son by Sarah would be of the most importance, while the Christians arrogantly claim that clearly that the Qur’an’s account of Ishmael being sacrificed is false. However, it must be understood that both Books are the revealed or inspired Word of Allah, so there is a reason the account in the Qur’an is different. The Qur’an shouldn’t only be read literally, and oftentimes when it refers to an existing story or an account in the Old Testament or Gospels, the Qur’an must be exegeted with the biblical account for clearer meaning. The Qur’an as the Book revealed after the Bible, states it confirms what came before it, but unfortunately is frequently read and studied with the false perception the Bible’s accounts are incorrect. The Qur’an is replete with metaphor and allegory which when one is able to understand the symbolism as it relates to the biblical story then the true meaning is revealed which fills in or completes the biblical story. The Books were meant by Allah to be woven together with threads of historical context, as well as the flowing beautiful poetic symbolism which reveals the incredible depths of Allah’s ocean of meanings. You must dive down to find Allah’s hidden treasure, and only a few will ever discover its riches because one must revere and love both sacred scriptures.
The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) taught in his last sermon near Mount Arafat that, “All those who listen to me shall pass on my words to others and those to others again; and it may be that the last ones understand my words better than those who listen to me directly. Be my witness, O God, that I have conveyed your message to your people.” The Qur’an was directly revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) by the archangel Gabriel, who oftentimes self refers as “We” in the revelation. This means Allah and the angels, and alternatively Allah refers to Himself in the Qur’an as “I” or “My.” Imagine the millions of atoms which make up your body, then imagine Allah’s intellect encompassing an unimaginable number of atoms, and each single atom having its own intelligence. Hence, the depth of the Qur’an is almost beyond human comprehension and is comprised of patterns and meanings that have not been revealed yet, and will only be revealed according to Allah’s timing. The early Sufis came closest to the understanding of the Qur’anic symbols, but this is still a significantly small portion of what has been revealed in this unique Book to date. This is why the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) stated in his last sermon that the “last ones” may comprehend his words better than those who were listening directly to his recitations and teachings.
Abraham sacrifices Ishmael for the benefit of Isaac. After these verses in the Bible, is the story of Allah commanding Abraham to sacrifice his “son, your only son, whom you love” (22:2), and when Abraham complies an angel stops him whereupon Allah states, “you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” (22:12) Earlier in the story, Hagar runs away from Sarah because of Sarah’s ill treatment of Hagar (Hagar had grown prideful because of her pregnancy with Abraham), and an angel finds Hagar near a spring in the wilderness and tells her Allah wishes her to return to the authority of Sarah as Allah intends to “greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be too many to count” (16:10). Since Abraham sent Hagar with his first born son out to the wilderness with just bread and water, there is inference here that Allah is ordering Isaac’s sacrifice because of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Ishmael to death in the wilderness as a clear expression of Abraham’s complete trust in Allah’s plan. The Qur’an states this was a clear test for Abraham. Genesis 21:9–19 gives the account of Sarah relaying to Abraham after the birth of Isaac that Ishmael had become mocking (most likely out of jealousy) so she wanted Abraham to “get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with Isaac” (verse 10).” Abraham becomes distressed, but Allah tells him not to worry because Ishmael will also be made into a nation. Therefore, Abraham gives Hagar bread and water and sends her and Ishmael away where they subsequently wander in the Desert of Beersheba. However, this account of Hagar and Ishmael, and the sacrifice of Isaac surrounds (before and after) the story of Abraham arguing with the Philistine King Abimelech over water rights. They resolve their differences by Abraham digging a well, and offering Abimelech seven ewe lambs as an oath or promise that Abraham and his people would always have access to this well. Beyond this site is the Negev desert or the wilderness of Beersheba with very little water, so this particular location was extremely important. Abraham then names the place Beersheba as the Hebrew root shabha’, “to swear” also has the meaning of “seven.” Beersheba is extremely important in our spiritual history as the theophanies that occurred there not only involved Hagar, but later Isaac, Jacob and Elijah. Abraham then plants a tamarisk tree to commemorate the oath. Yet in the Old Testament account of Hagar and Ishmael, the wilderness is called Beersheba which hadn’t been named until the following account which is introduced as, “And it came to pass at that time…”
When the water was gone, Hagar lays Ishmael under a bush for shade, and then went a “bowshot” away because she couldn’t watch her son die. However, a “bowshot” indicates even though Hagar couldn’t see or hear her son as he lay under the bush, he most likely could still see her. In the verses, it is mentioned twice that Hagar is sitting “opposite” Ishmael, or in other words, not behind him, but in front of him facing him. She begins sobbing, whereupon an angel calls to her from heaven and asks her why she is upset and tells her not to be afraid as Allah has heard her son crying. It is significant Allah responds to her son’s crying out and not to Hagar’s sobbing. If Ishmael could see Hagar, he was most likely crying out, “help me!” How is it that Hagar had forgotten what the angel told her when she was pregnant by the spring regarding Ishmael having so many descendants they would be difficult to count? Earlier Hagar had a significant experience with an angel near a spring, but still doesn’t ask Allah for help when stranded without water for herself or her son. So the angel tells Hagar Allah has heard her son’s plea for help as a reminder to call on the Lord in times of need. Furthermore, in the first instance, she calls Allah the One who sees, but in the second, it is Allah as the One who hears. Interestingly, Abraham is told to build the altar to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah, with the Hebrew Mōrīyyāh possibly meaning, “seen by Yahweh.” Mount Moriah is in Jerusalem where the Islamic Dome of the Rock is presently located.
She is then told to lift her son up and to take hold of his hand as Allah is going to “make him into a great nation.” At that moment, her eyes are opened and she suddenly “sees” a well of water which saves their lives. “God was with the boy, and he grew…”(v.20) This is also used in reference to Isaac in Genesis 21:22. Ishmael is saved from certain death by a well of water in the wilderness symbolizing the water of truth and knowledge which will arise later from the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) out of the wilderness of polytheism. In both accounts of Hagar going into the wilderness is Allah responding when Hagar is near life giving water. Additionally, the bread Hagar was given for herself and their son is a symbol of the solid food of spiritual maturity, which again is representative of the spiritual food which will be revealed in the Qur’an and delivered by the Prophet Muhammad(SAW). It is interesting to note in the story of Abraham and Abimelech a tree is planted and a well dug, while in the story of Hagar and Ishmael, Ishmael is laid under a bush, and Allah opens Hagar’s eyes to see a well. The well dug by Abraham was meant to permanently be used by the Hebrews as the blessing of life before and after leaving the wilderness area. Therefore, the city of Beersheba is on the dividing line between fertile land and a desert which is certainly representative of the land of the Hebrews, and the wilderness area of the Arabs. The well of truth and knowledge is in between these two religions (Judaism and Islam), from which both are to thereof drink.
The Qur’an’s account begins with a group of polytheists threatening to throw Abraham in the “pyre” because of his frustration with their ridiculous worship of carved images. But Abraham is saved, and the polytheists are humiliated. Allah’s Purpose is always achieved — Ishamael is saved from death, and it is the important spiritual descendant of Ishmael, the Prophet Muhammad (SAW), who attempts to save the polytheists from death in hellfire, but when they continue to disbelieve are humiliated when they come before the Almighty. Abraham then asks Allah for a righteous son, but Allah provides a forbearing son, or one who is patient and restrained, as is evidenced by the very character of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) who underwent mocking, stones being thrown at him, and many other humiliating acts, but who still didn’t respond with anger. Remember, the pre-Islamic tribes were known for their acts of retribution to the extreme, and yet Allah raises a Prophet directly from these Arabian tribes whose very nature and refinement by Allah sets the perfect example for those who follow him (SAW). Abraham is then told to sacrifice his son, and due to Abraham’s submission in obeying Allah, his son is saved. This is the “ransom” mentioned in the Qur’an’s verses — the ransom is the willingness of Abraham to trust in Allah’s purpose even if it meant death for both of his sons. Abraham and Sarah waited years and years to have children and had given up hope when they reached the age when childbirth was no longer possible, and yet Abraham was still willing in his submission to Allah’s Will to sacrifice both of the lives of his sons. In this way, he demonstrated Allah came first before his beloved sons. The Qur’an’s account of Ishmael is layered with the story of Isaac in the Bible with the purpose of revealing the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). Imagine each story being layered together in translucent layers— first Ishmael, then Isaac, and last the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). The pattern of ransoming by a willing sacrifice did not just arise from the Torah, but was later revealed by the Prophet Jesus (SAW) as well, who out of submission willingly gave up his life for Allah’s purpose thereby saving his soul. By submitting to Allah to sacrifice self will are our souls then saved — this is the ransom or payment to Allah for eternal life. However, Isaac and not Ishmael was blessed with the covenant, but the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) by Ishmael was given the final fulfillment of an existing covenant through the Messiah. Indeed, both Isaac and Ishmael are promised to be great nations with numerous descendants. Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael out to the desert or wilderness according to Allah’s Purpose which was a willing sacrifice by Abraham out of submission. It is only later when Abraham is told to sacrifice his “only son.” The inference is that according to Abraham, Ishmael was believed to be no longer alive as this story in the Bible comes after the account of Hagar and Ishmael. So, we have two stories of sons being offered to Allah as sacrifices by Abraham with the addition of Ishmael being shown not to be the lesser of the two sons in Abraham’s heart or within Allah’s intent. One biblical commentary asks, “What does it mean for God to speak such promises to outsiders and so commit the divine self to this unchosen community? What might such divine commitments mean to the descendants of Isaac and their relationship to the descendants of Ishmael? Where might the ‘chosen people’ look for the fulfillment of God’s promises? Is this fulfillment ongoing through the centuries into our own time? Might it be found among the present-day descendants of Hagar and Ishmael — that is, traditionally, the Arab people?” (1)
The People of the Book must understand that both ancestry lines of Abraham were Allah’s Purpose and intent. Both sons were ransomed, both sons were promised to be great nations, and Allah was with both sons as they grew. Hence, there is no discrepancy between the two accounts in the Bible and the Qur’an, but a completion of the line of Abraham coming to fulfillment within the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). Alhamdullilah!