Did Abraham(as) offer his son Ishmael(as) or Isaac(as) for sacrifice?

From the Archives – From The Review of Religions, August 1938 Edition

God blessed the House of Israel with His special blessings and favours. This exceptional treatment of God made the Israelites think that, of all men, they were God’s elect and favourites. The misconception was carried too far and they began to scornfully ridicule their cousins, the Ishmaelites, and treat them with disdain and contempt. They indulged in blasphemous talk like this:

‘Sons are we of God and His beloved’ (Qur’an).

But the Almighty Allah has no relation whatsoever, with any individual or community. When the Israelites perpetually set at naught the express commandments of God and the explicit behests and injunctions of His prophets, when the ordinances of Law were held in total disregard, when the solemn covenants they had established with the Creator were deliberately and insolently broken and God’s messengers were constantly held up to scorn, scouted and persecuted, the dreadful wrath of heaven descended upon them.

John(as) was born to Zechariah at a time when old age had rendered him and his wife unfit for procreation. Jesus(as) was not born of an Israelite father. The birth of Jesus(as) without the agency of a human father constituted a definite and clear warning for the Jews that their spiritual doom was sealed and that they could only stave off the impending calamity by promptly abjuring their evil practices and treading the paths of virtue and rectitude. But the long deferred curse had already descended on them. They were not destined to profit by that timely admonition. They had become steeped deep in sin and the cup of their iniquities had become full to the brim.

The warning was thrown to the winds and after a long interval of thousands of years, Abraham(as)’s prayeri, which he had addressed to God when he along with his beloved son Ishmael(as) was raising the foundations of the Holy Temple at Makkah (Ch.2:Vs.128-130), was at last granted and prophethood was transferred from the House of Isaac to that of Ishmael. This change, however, was bitterly resented by the Israelites and they carried this resentment so far that they refused to accept that great Prophet – Muhammad(saw) – whom God raised for their Deliverance and Redemption, in spite of the many clear prophecies about him found in their own revealed scriptures, some of which we give below.

Prophecies of the Bible about the Holy Prophet(saw)’s Advent

1. ‘And he said, the Lord came from Sinai and rose up from Seir unto them; he shined forth from mount Paran, and he came with ten thousands of saints: from his right hand went a fiery law for them.’ (Deut. 33:2)

2. ‘God came from Teman, and the Holy One from mount Paran. Selah. His glory covered the heavens and the earth was full of his praise. (Habakuk, 3:3)

3. ‘And the Lord said unto me, they have well spoken that which they have spoken. I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him. (Deut. 18:17,18)

4. ‘And he saw a chariot with a couple of horsemen, a chariot, of asses and a chariot of camels; and he hearkened diligently with much heed. (Isaiah, 21:7)

5. Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the scriptures, the stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes? Therefore say I unto you, the kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof. And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder. (Matthew, 21:42-44)

6. And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter that he may abide with you forever. (John, 14:16)

7. I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of Truth is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come. (John, 16: 12,13)

This antipathy was not confined to the person of the Holy Prophet(saw), but was also extended to Hadhrat Ishmael(saw), his great grandfather, so much so that some of the verses of the Bible which were understood to indicate the superiority of Ishmael(saw) over his younger brother Isaac(saw) were tampered with and changed in the latter’s favour. But there remains yet sufficient material in the Bible that clearly established at least Ishmael(saw)’s one marked precedent over Isaac(saw), viz: Abraham(saw) offered him for sacrifice in obedience to God’s commandment and not Isaac. The religious scriptures and sacred literature of the Israelites and the Muslims differ on the point. The Holy Qur’an and the authentic sayings of this Holy Prophet(saw) declare in unmistakeable, unequivocal and unambiguous terms that God required Ishmael(saw) to be offered for sacrifice but according to the Bible it was Isaac(saw) who was offered for the same purpose. The Bible says:

‘And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. And he said, take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest and, get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.’ (Genesis, 22:1,2)

‘And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham and he said, here am I. And he said, lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.…And the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time. And said, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thy only son.’ (Genesis, 22:11,12,15,16)

These verses bring out two very important facts:

1.   That Abraham was required to give his only and dear son for the burnt offering and;

2.   That of all things in the world, an only son is the dearest thing in the eyes of an aged father. As God’s lovers cherish a greater and deeper affection for His person than for anything else in the world, they are required to sacrifice their dearest thing on the altar of their love for God and Abraham being a sincere and true lover of God, was asked to give his only son in His way.

Either the phrase ‘only son’ should have been deleted and supplanted by another suitable phrase for answering the object in view or the Israelite holy Fathers should not have taken the trouble of putting the word ‘Isaac’ in the place of the word ‘Ishmael’ and should better have left the text intact. A person even of a very low understanding knows that the phrase ‘only son’ is always used (and can never be otherwise used) for that son who is the one and solitary son of his parents, and from the Bible we gather that Ishmael(as) was 14 years older than Isaac(as) (Abraham(as) was 86 when Ismael(as) was born and 100 when Isaac(as) was born).

‘And Abraham was fourscore and six years old, when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram.’ (Genesis, 16:16)

‘And Abraham was an hundred years old, when his son Isaac was born unto him.’ (Genesis, 21:5)

According to these verses Ishmael(as) was for at least 14 years ‘the only son’ of his parents. Now Isaac(as) can be taken to be the only son of Abraham(as) in that case only when Ishmael(as) is proved to have been dead before his birth or if Ishmael(as) was not Abraham(as)’s son. The Israelites, have in vain, tried to prove that having been born of Hagar, a handmaid of Sarah, he cannot legitimately claim to be the lawful son of Abraham(as). But it is hard to reconcile this assumption with historical facts.

Hagar, we are certain, belonged to the royal family of Egypt. Even if we accept that she was a handmaid of Sarah, the fact can prove to be of no avail to the Israelites because the ground on which they base their contentions that Ishmael(as) was not the lawful son of Abraham(as), viz he was born of a slave-girl of Abraham(as), brands the birth of the whole line of Israel with illegality, because their grandfather, Joseph(as), was sold as a slave in the slave-market of Egypt and remained in that capacity for many years and the Israelites themselves served for many years as slaves in the land of Egypt. Are they, in the face of such naked and authentic historical facts, in a position to sneer at the posterity of Ishmael(as) for that reason?

Moreover, is there a single verse of the whole Bible depriving Ishmael(as) of his right to be the lawful son of Abraham(as) for having been born of Hagar? If no such verse is to be found in the Bible, then how can Isaac(as), with propriety usurp his elder brother’s rights and claim precedence over him when the same epithets and the same expressions have been used for them both in the Bible. Time and again Ishmael(as) has been called Abraham(as)’s son in the Bible in the same way as Isaac(as) is called his son. Moreover , to Ishmael(as)’s credit, we find it recorded in the Bible that before Ishmael(as)’s birth to Abraham(as) the latter was called Abram (father of the height), but after his birth, his (Abraham’s) name was changed from Abram into Abraham (Father of nations). So how could that son who was understood to be equal to many sons and who could be substituted for many nations, be deprived of his right of being the lawful son of his father? If Ishmael(as), as the Israelite’s think, was not Abraham(as)’s lawful son then nobody in the world is the lawful son of his father. We give below some of the verses of the Bible in which Ishmael(as) has been called Abraham(as)’s son just as Isaac(as) has been called his son.

1.   And Hagar bare Abram a son: and Abram called his son’s name, which Hagar bare, Ishmael….And Abram was fourscore and six years old, when Hagar bare Ishmael to Abram. (Genesis, 16: 15,16)

Exactly the same expressions have been used for Isaac(as):

‘And Abraham called the name of his son that was born unto him, whom Sarah bore to him, Isaac. And Abraham was a hundred years old, when his son Isaac was born unto him.’ (Genesis, 21:3,5)

Is it understandable that when the Bible should call Ishmael(as) Abraham(as)’s son, he could not for that reason claim to be the lawful son of his father, but when the same words and the same expressions without the least alteration may be used for his Isaac(as), he should readily become so and should, in addition be regarded as having inherited all the blessings and favours which God bestowed upon his father. This is indeed an unfair decision.

2.   And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, which she had born unto Abraham, mocking. Wherefore she said unto Abraham, Cast out this bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac. And the thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight because of his son. (Genesis, 21: 9,11)

These verses show that Sarah hated Ishmael(as) and his mother Hagar. It was therefore only natural that the children of Sarah should have inherited from their mother that hatred for Ishmael(as) and his family.

3.   ‘And Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all that were born in his house, and all that were bought with his money….’ (Genesis, 17: 23)

4.   ‘And Ishmael his son was 13 years old, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. ‘ (Genesis, 17: 25)

5.   Now, these are the generations of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s handmaid, bare unto Abraham.’ (Genesis, 25:12)

In all these verses Ishmael(as) has been called Abraham(as)’s son.

Biblical Prophecies about Ishmael(as)

An objection rises here, which seems to invalidate Ishmael(as)’s claim as Abraham(as)’s legal son. The objection seems to be very confusing and perplexing. But a close and careful stuffy of the first chapter of the Bible dispels all doubt and misgivings engendered by it. The objection is this: it is true that in the Bible Ishmael(as) has been called Abraham(as)’s son, but the epithet serves no other purpose than to signify that Ishmael(as) came forth of Abraham(as)’s loins; otherwise all the promises that God had given to Abraham(as) about his progeny were to be fulfilled in Isaac(as)’s person who was born of his legally wedded wife. Therefore Abraham(as), regarding him as his real spiritual heir, Abraham(as) loved him most and hence the phrase ‘only son’ in the Bible applies to Isaac(as) and not to Ishmael(as), as St Paul writes in one of his letters to Galatians, 4:22,23:

‘For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh [i.e. in a natural way]; but he of the free woman was by promise [i.e. through supernatural strength].’

But Paul’s assertion is entirely baseless and unwarranted and is the result of his implacable and irresistible aversion for Ishmael(as) inherited perhaps from Sarah as described in the Bible, and to which contention the Bible lends no support.  The Bible speaks in definite and emphatic terms that Ishmael(as) was not born after the flesh, as Paul and other Israelites are prone to think, but his birth took place in complete accordance with the promises that God had given to Abraham(as) before Ishmael(as)’s birth and in response to his long and continuous supplications:

1.   And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation. (Genesis,17:20)

2.   ‘And Abram said, Lord God, what wilt thou give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus? And Abram said, Behold to me thou hast given no seed: and lo, one born in my house is mine heir. And, behold, the word of the Lord came unto him, saying, This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir. And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, so shall thy seed be. (Genesis, 15:2-5)

3.   ‘And the angel of the Lord said unto her, (Hagar) I will multiply they seed exceedingly that it shall not be numbered for multitude. And the angel of the Lord said unto her, Behold, thou art with child, and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael, because the Lord hath heard thy affliction.’  (Genesis, 16:10,11)

4.   ‘And God heard the voice of the lad (Ishmael) and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her, What aileth thee, Hagar? Fear not; for God had heard the voice of the lad where he is. Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him in thine hand, for I will make him a great nation: And God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water; and she went and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink. And God was with the lad; and he grew, and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer.’ (Genesis, 21: 17-20)

5.   ‘And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant, therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations. This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised.’ (Genesis, 17: 9-10)

We simply wish to draw the attention of our readers to the plain prophecies and promises that the verses quoted above embody and they are that:

1.   Ishmael was born according to the promises of God given to Abraham(as) before the birth of Ishmael(as) and as a result of Abraham(as)’s continuous praying.

2.   God had blessed Ishmael(as) and had honoured him.

3.   God had promised to make Ishmael(as) fruitful and multiply him exceedingly.

4.   Ishmael(as) was to inherit Abraham(as).

5.   Hagar had received glad tidings from God that a son would be born to her who would be called Ishmael(as). So not only did Ishmael(as)’s birth take place according to the promise of God, but his name was also revealed.

6.   God heard Hagar’s affliction and comforted her. These verses constitute and ample evidence of the fact that Hagar enjoyed perpetual communion with God and revelations also used to come to her and that she was God’s favourite and his beloved and not a mere handmaid of Sarah as the Israelites show her to be.

7.   Hagar was commanded by God to take care of Ishmael(as). This unusual kindness of God towards Ishmael(as) at a time when he was actually in the jaws of death brings home to us the fact that Hagar’s son was something more than a mere handmaid’s son.

8.   God was with Ishmael.

9.   God had made a covenant with Abraham(as) and his seed that every man-child among them should be circumcised. Ishmael(as) was also included in this covenant as he was circumcised when 13 years old. Does it not look impudent to assume in the face of such definite and unequivocal promises and prophecies that Ishmael(as) was only born after the flesh and therefore he could not claim to be Abraham(as)’s spiritual heir. We do not know to what we should attribute the above wholly baseless assertion of Paul. Was it due to an ignorance of the sacred text or did he deliberately intend to bring Ishmael(as)’s name into discredit and to lower him in the estimation of the world. After this clear exposition of the text it scarcely needs further proof to show Paul’s statement to be ill-based.

Construction of the word Ishmael

The second cogent argument to prove the point under discussion is this that the word Ismail(as) (Ishmael) is composed of two separate words samia and eil, the former means ‘he heard’ and the latter means ‘God’. The two words combined together mean ‘God heard’. So the very construction of the name of Hadhrat Ismail(as) signifies that Abraham(as) had addressed incessant imploring and entreaties to God to bless him with a son, and that God had granted his supplication and a son was born to him whom he named Ishmael(as). The Bible bears out this fact:

‘And Abram said, Behold to me thou hast given no seed: and, lo, one born in my house is mine heir. And behold, the word of the Lord came unto him, saying, this shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir.’ (Genesis, 15:3,4)

Now it is a well-known fact that a son who is born to old parents at a time when all their hope of any issue has vanished, and whose birth takes place after long and uninterrupted supplications and in consonance with promises signifying his spiritual elevation, and at whose hand many and great spiritual transformations are decreed to be wrought and who is the first born son of his parents, nothing in the world can be conceived to be dearer to the heart of an aged father than such a son, and Ishmael(as) was such a son – the light of his old father’s eyes. It stands to reason, and the Bible also lends countenance to it, that of all the things that which is best and dearest to a man is he expected and desired to offer in the way of God. To Abraham(as), his only son Ishmael(as) was the dearest thing in the world. So, God required of him to offer Ishmael(as) for the burnt offering as a token of his gratefulness for the great boon God had bestowed upon him by giving him such an illustrious son in such an advanced age. The Bible supports this too:

And she (Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel) was in bitterness of soul, and prayed unto the Lord, and wept sore. And she vowed a vow and said, O Lord of hosts, if Thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of Thine handmaid, and remember me, and not forget Thine handmaid, but wilt give unto Thine handmaid a man-child, then I will give him unto the Lord all the days of his life, and there shall no razor come upon his head.’ (I Samuel, 10, 11)

Third Argument

For the third argument to prove that Ishmael(as) was offered for sacrifice, we approach the Bible and find therein that according to the old law only the first born issues of men and animals were offered for sacrifice, because the first born child was considered preferable to all other children. The following verses of the Bible uphold this assumption:

‘And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering. But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.’ (Genesis, 4: 3-5)

‘And Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Sanctify unto me all the firstborn, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast: it is mine.’ (Exodus, 13: 1,2)

‘If a man has two wives, one beloved, and another hated and they have born him children, both the beloved and the hated; and if the first born son be hers that was hated: then it shall be, when he maketh his son to inherit that which he hath, that he may not make the son of the beloved first born before the son of the hated, which is indeed the first born. But he shall acknowledge the son of the hated for the first born by giving him a double portion of all that he hath: for he is the beginning of his strength; the right of the first born is his.’ (Deut. 21:15-17)

‘Reuben, thou art my first born, my might, and the beginning of my strength the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power.’ (Genesis, 49:3)

‘And Jacob said, Sell me this day thy birthright. And Esau said, Behold, I am at the point to die: and what profitt shall this birthright do to me?’ (Genesis, 25: 31,32)

‘…Israel is my son, even my first born.’ (Exodus, 4:22)

Two very significant inferences are quite apparent from the verses quoted above: (1) that Ishmael(as) was offered for sacrifice because was the first born of Abraham(as) and (2) that Ishmael(as) can, with all fairness and legitimacy, claim precedence over Isaac(as) because he was the first born of Abraham(as).

Commemoration of the Great Sacrifice

The fourth argument to establish the validity of claim is this. Despite the fact that there is no ambiguity, no equivocation in the words of the Bible that Abraham(as) was commanded by God to offer Isaac(as) for the burnt offering (Genesis), we find absolutely no reminiscence of that great sacrifice among the Israelites. On the other hand, the Holy Qur’an claims that Ishmael(as) was offered to undergo the renowned immolation, but unlike among the Israelites God has made pilgrimage to the Holy Temple of God (i.e. the Holy Ka’aba in Makkah) one of the fundamental principles of Islam, the observance of which is obligatory on every Muslim who possesses the means to do so, has thus kept alive forever the means to do so, and has thus kept alive forever the blessed memory of the holy pair (Ishmael and Hagar) which is celebrated every year at Makkah in all seriousness and solemnity. The Muslims sacrifice cows and goats on the tenth day of the month Al-Hajj, which brings back to their minds the preparedness of Abraham(as) to offer his son Ishmael(as) for sacrifice and Hagar’s self-abnegation, to which the Holy Qur’an alludes in the words (And we ransomed him with a costly victim). Moreover the word Labbaik, which the pilgrims very frequently make use of during the ceremony of pilgrimage, is an Arabic form of the Hebrew word spoken by Abraham(as) of which the English translation to be found in the Bible is ‘Here I am’. According to the Israelite Law the person who used to devote to the service of the temple of God had to circum-ambulate it. The seven runs between the hillocks, Safa and Marwa, are enjoined upon the pilgrims to keep alive the memory of Hagar’s running between these two hillocks in search of water when little Ishmael(as) was suffering from the pangs of extreme thirst. So this highly commendable act of Hagar and Ishmael(as) have obtained an honourable mention in the Holy Qur’an, which the ravages of time, and the wasting effect of rolling years can never obliterate, and which will, until eternity, remain a standing monument over their immortal names.

It does not, therefore, behove a true Israelite to refuse to accept a proven fact because it involves Ishmael(as)’s superiority over Isaac(as), or because it clashes with his much desired and long cherished, though feebly founded belief, and demolishes it. When it has been brought home to the Israelites from their own sacred literature that Ishmael(as) was Abraham(as)’s lawful son, his first born and his only son, that his birth took place in perfect harmony with prophecies told beforehand, that Abraham(as) loved him most and that equal and similar promises and prophecies to those about Isaac(as) were given to Abraham(as) about his spiritual elevation and the grandeur of his posterity, and lastly, that no trace of that great sacrifice is left among the Israelites, while the descendants of Ishmael(as) celebrate it regularly every year, is it compatible with honesty and fairness to reject the established fact that Abraham(as) offered Ishmael(as) for sacrifice and not Isaac(as).

i.  And raise up among them our Lord a messenger from among themselves, who may read to them thy signs and teach them the Book and Wisdom and may purify them; verily Thou are the Mighty, the Wise. (Ch.2:V.128)


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  • Glad to be an Ahmadi!!!,just heard the full story about prophet Ismail(as)and Isaac(as)..Infact ,I’m really excited with the story…Jazakumullahu khairan..