THE PROPHET I have thought about most in my life, after the Seal, is Ismâʿîl.
I remember when it began. My father told me as a boy the meaning of his name—God Hears!—and how Ismâʿîl was the answer to the prayer for a righteous heir by his prophet-father Ibrahim.
The story captivated me: The longing of the paradigm man of faith, elderly and godly, for a child. And not just a child, but a son, one who would be truly with him: A helping friend for this Friend of God; a serving companion for a lonely man single-handedly establishing the rites and stations and nations of Heavenly belief on the most ancient tracts of earth.
Here was a son, Abraham, who clearly loved his own father dearly. But Truth itself (by which we Muslims mean divinely revealed knowledge and everything in creation that seamlessly confirms it) banished Abraham from that affection forever. So the son, whose hopelessly lost, statue-maker father slips his desperately reaching grip into the abyss, then departs on a journey back to his Lord—Indeed, I am migrating to my Lord (Sûrat Al-ʿAnkabût, 29:26)—and prays ardently for something that is, for us, most instructive: My Lord! Grant me a child who shall be of the righteous (Sûrat Al-Ṣâfât, 37:99).
Abraham is a youth when he first makes this appeal. And God grants it. Yet He grows old in the faithful service of his Lord with no son (and no doubt)—until one day, after he has utterly proven his steadfastness of faith in the sole and only God, the divine answer to his prayer arrives, from his Egyptian wife, Hajar, one of the most remarkable women in the history of humanity, whose very steps Allah would forever preserve in the Hajj-Pilgrimage. Son becomes father. Allah gives him glad tidings of a most forbearing boy (Sûrat Al-Ṣâfât, 37:101).
Ghulâmin ḥalîm! A forbearing boy! A clement boy! A patient boy! A forgiving boy! A merciful boy! How well that phrase captures Ismâʿîl’s defining character, his life, and his model legacy for sons for all time.
And that is what I want to look at here. Ibrahim is the archetypal father, father of prophets, no less. But Ismâʿîl—he is forever the son exemplar, and enshrined as such in the Celestial Book until the last woman shall bear a boy of earth.
Never have I thought of Ismâʿîl, or mentioned his affirming proclamation-of-a-name, but that I feel a shout of praise spike up in me. Al- ḥamdulillâh that we Muslims descend spiritually from him: Hunter, horseman, desert-dweller, promise-keeper, conservationist, messenger, enjoiner of ṣalâh and zakâh. Thus to his Lord, he was ever pleasing (Sûrat Maryam, 19:54-55). Note also, my fellow sons of Islam, that the line of prophethood runs most direct from Abraham to Ismâʿîll to Muhammad ﷺ.
Indeed, the people most worthy of [tracing their faith back to] Abraham are surely those who follow him [in willing submission to God alone]—and [foremost among them is] this Prophet, [Muhammad] and [all] those who believe [in his message]. And God [alone] is the Patron of the believers. (Sûrat Âl ʿImrân, 3:68)
Every Son a Sacrifice
We live in times that tell us sons and daughters are the same. Neither has a gender-specific code to follow for the God that made them; nor a particularly masculine or feminine obligation to the wombs that bore them; nor a womanly duty of reverent obedience to the loins that sprung and support them (a duty transferred from father to husband); nor a manly one of lifelong service and sustenance (first to one’s father and then to all his charges).
Yet the Qur’an highlights a quality in Ismâʿîl that starkly belies all this. The entire meaning, tense and sense, of what it takes to be a son, ever pleasing to God, is compressed into the phrase always ready upon the lips of Ismâʿîl for his father. Do as God commands you.
I am to sacrifice you my dearest son.
Do as God commands you.
I am to build the prime House of God in the desert.
Do as God commands you.
You are to help me in my task.
Do as God commands you.
Divorce that wife.
Do as God commands you.
Retain this wife.
Do as God commands you.
Ever is Ismâʿîl disposed to exhort his father to fulfill the heavy commandments of Allah upon him, and to carry that weight with him as much as he is able. We behold Ismâʿîl in the Quran at all times standing by, mentally, emotionally, spiritually prepared to obey and be ever at the godly service of his father’s commandments.
More than any of Ismâʿîl’s other qualities, these two traits—of exhorting his father to carry out the commands of God, and being, not merely inclined, but set to work with him to pass his divine tests and realize his earthly tasks—define Ismâʿîl…as a believing man? Yes, but quintessentially, as the perfect son. I am not suggesting that these tandem qualities should create the mold that we strive to form our own sons within, or that upon this fulcrum they become the balance in which we measure them as sons (or ourselves). I am insisting upon it.
I am well aware that the first structure that shall take shape in our modern minds when we gauge ourselves against Ismâʿîl is an argument: Ismâʿîl’s father was a prophet, and prophets should be served and obeyed. My father is just an ordinary man with no special claim of knowledge to demand prophetic service and obedience from me. Therefore, I am not obliged to live up to Ismâʿîl’s standard as a son.
My answer: Beware you your logic, son, and woe to modern man’s sanctifying of the syllogism: For it was just such linear “reasoning” that bent Iblis into Satan, disgraced of God and enemy of man, bringing him eternal damnation in Hellfire. He said: I am better than him! You created me out of fire, and you created him out of mud (Sûrat Ṣâd, 38:76).
The Father Within Us
It is true that our Muslim fathers are common men not prophets. But it is truer still that they hold a station exalted by God over us. They are our progenitors, whose flesh we borrow. They are our providers from the provision of God. They are our first imams showing us our ancient religious rites, the guides who raise us up as children and train us as boys into believing men, and our primary teachers from whom we first learn that wondrous word that mocks down worldly walls for us and unlocks the gates of an Everlasting Garden: Lâ ilâha illa’Llâh. There is no god but God.
Therefore has Allah elevated our fathers to that station of “goodness,” directly beneath Him and lofty above us: Now, behold! We took the covenant of the children of Israel, [commanding them]: You shall worship none but God. And to your parents you shall be good… (Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:83).
And again, the Oneness of God, then directly goodness to parents: You shall worship God alone. And you shall not associate anything with Him therein. And to your parents you shall be good… (Sûrat Al-Nisâ’, 4:36).
And thrice repeated: Say to them: Come! I will recite what your Lord has, in fact, forbidden to you: That you shall not associate anything [as a god] with Him. And to your parents you shall be good… (Sûrat Al-Anʿâm, 6:151).
And what is this “good” by which we are bound so tightly for life to our parents? “Dutifulness” and “virtue” are its other names. Lokman, the Wise (who some say is Aesop, the ancient African slave-teacher by way of fables) knew this in his timeless admonition to his son, recorded and delivered to us in the Quran by the Universal Witness: Moreover, [God has said]: We have charged each human being with [dutifulness and goodness toward] one’s parents…, which is to engender in man lifelong gratitude, divine and parental, in that order. So give thanks to Me and to your parents (Sûrat Luqmân, 31:14).
Nor should you be misled by the brackets inserted about “dutifulness” in the meaning rendered for the previous verse, for that is the explanation of the “divine charge” spelled out for the unknowing of the ages by the great sages of the Quran, who understand that the Quran is its own first commentator.
So here is its proof. Virtue and obedience toward parents, along with gentle respect in speech and behavior, are prime prophetic characters, and the prophets are our paradigms: Of John, Jesus’ cousin, Allah says: For he was ever God-fearing, and then directly, and virtuous toward his parents. Thus he was neither insolent nor disobedient (Sûrat Maryam, 19:13-14).
This is no doctrine of dutifulness by the letter, hearts on hold for the Law, souls desolate of passion. It is Heaven’s call to us to be, above all, human, with all the bursting emotional baggage our bodies are burdened to freight, along with the noblesse oblige and restraint that flows from our transcendent human state:
For your Lord has decreed [for one and all]: You shall not worship other than Him. And to [your] parents, you shall be good. Should either one of them, or both of them, reach old age in your care, then you shall not say to either of them [even so much as]: Fie! Nor shall you rebuke them. Rather, say to both of them a gracious word, [in loving kindness]. (Sûrat Al-Isrâ’, 17:23)
So tell me, son, what hard heart can fail to be moved, its sensibilities battered by the starkly humbling truth of one of the most beautiful metaphors and tender reminders in all the Quran: Moreover, lower for them the wing of humility, out of mercy, and say [in supplication for them]: My Lord! Have mercy upon them both—even as they have raised me up as a little one (Sûrat Al-Isrâ’, 17:24).
In All Things, Balance
Yet never is the Truth or justice to be compromised, even for parents. Allah has reminded us all: To Me is the ultimate destiny (Sûrat Luqmân, 31:14)—and commanded us to stay vigilant: But if ever they strive in order to compel you to associate gods with Me—[or command you to anything] about which you have no [sure] knowledge [from God]—then do not obey them (Sûrat Luqmân, 31:15).
Even still, never are parents to be repudiated: Yet [still] keep company with both of them in this world, in accordance with what is right. But follow the path of one who turns to Me in penitence.… (Sûrat Luqmân, 31:15).
It is this higher dutifulness to which Abraham is responding when, at a moment of truth, his father disowns him and cruelly casts him out, despite Abraham’s deeply emotional appeal to him to abandon false deities, and the sure doom that they bring, and to follow him, instead, in the guided worship of God alone.
His gentle words in the face of the harshness of his father are not only instructive, but utterly exemplary for the millions of sons now among us who have “lost” their fathers and families for the sake of God alone. Note the perfect balance in Ibrahim’s solicitous kindness and good will toward his resolutely disbelieving father, on one hand, but his own unshakable determination to cast down idols, follow faithfully the path of God’s Oneness, and, despite his catastrophic worldly loss in exile, his expectation of joy out on the open road to his Lord, on the other.
Abraham said: Peace be with you! I shall ask my Lord to forgive you. Indeed, He has been ever gracious to me. Yet I shall withdraw from you and all that you call upon [in worship] apart from God. And [with pure heart] shall I call upon my Lord alone. Thus may it be that in calling upon my Lord I shall never be unhappy. (Sûrat Maryam, 19:47-48)
Which brings us back to our own story, of fathers and sons: This is the natural salsala, or chain, of authority in the world between generations, father to son. If either one is unbelieving, it must be severed, in terms of its authorities, and reestablished by the believer. And once reestablished, it must never be broken. For when it is broken and flies apart, the grip of the disbelievers and hypocrites replaces it and squeezes us with the fingers of duress, cruelty, and suppression until we surrender our ‘original state of human freedom’ (barâ’at al-a ṣliyyah), our native station of ‘stewardship’ in the earth (khilâfah), our fundamentally ‘fair, upright stature’ in which God created us (a ḥsan al-taqwîm). The results of this rupture in the natural inheritance from father to son are as calamitous as they are certain: Slavery to mere men, corruption of society and the earth, and reduction to immorality, vulgarity, and unmanliness.
So dire an outcome! Yet it is a blatantly accurate (and proliferating) characterization of the existence suffered by sons the world over in our own time. It has grown out of this insidious, unnatural paradigm that has replaced the godly state of father and son in the company of one another, working together, transferring age-old human experience, wisdom, and knowledge one to another in the light of divine guidance. In its stead spreads the shadow prototype of the plutocratic power elite (al-mutrafîha) as absolute patriarch, Leviathan, over every man.
This is the corrupted ideal the purveyors of image and “education” have surrounded us by, immersed us in, logo-typed and branded us over and over again with. It is presented as the epitome of the new “independent” man who so admirably stands alone, beholden to no one, believing in nothing, bound to no moral code beyond the desires of his lower self or the impulse that moves him from one moment to the next.
Or it is enshrined in unnatural, manmade laws by those enmantled in the supreme robes of the state, who systematically disestablish fathers as the human cornerstones of society, push out from legal principle the precedence of the prophets, and create new “paterfamilias” for us out of opaque oligarchies.
This ideal claims freedom as its cause. But greed and plunder of a “linkless,” divided humanity, separated from its religious rites, its prophetic and cultural traditions (including its native languages), the strength of extended family, and intra- and inter-communal integration are its real objectives.
Fracture the father-son relationship and you have split man from the prime handhold that secures belief, morality, and justice in society. Detach man from willing submission to the will of God alone and attach him to the material comforts and luxuries, and legitimize them as the proper “rights” and aspirations of life, and you have cut the perennial human values of dignity and bravery from him, the very things that make an honorable life possible.
The twin sentiments of love of the world and hating the Hereafter rush into the cavernous emptiness left in the vacuous human heart. The result is to drain a man of the gallantry it takes to live as a free human being. The effect is to reverse his sense of virtue, upend his rectitude, and topple his will to uprightness.
With this inversion, you have thus reduced earthly man to asfal al-sâfilîn, the lowest of the low, and cut him from his true and only purpose in life, and the only thing that truly keeps him free: His knowing obligation that he is obliged to worship none but God alone and nothing and no one else.
Covenants to Keep
Ismâʿîl world as the answer to his father’s prayer. And, oh my, how those answers gush when it comes to Ismâʿîl.
His father carries him and his nursing mother on an unspoken journey back to the beginning, the center, the origin; back along the great spice and frankincense trade routes—from Jerusalem through the orchards and fields of blessed Palestine, amid the mountain passes of Trans-Jordan, into the high Arabian desert—until they descend into an utterly barren valley—fruitless, plantless, waterless—down from the earth’s oldest worn hillocks that surround it (or that used to until they bulldozed them for buildings!). The valley of Bakkah, the Valley of Tears, of the early Arabs, Makkah, as time wore on, the Paran of the Bible.
Ibrahim set his wife and nursing son down on a specific spot near a place where the earth rose to a mound in the valley, a short distance from two nearby hillocks. He set down alongside them two days provision and water. Then, in a most unlikely act, he turns, without a word, and walks away, leaving them in a lifeless place of scorched earth beneath the sun that torched it. It is the world as it truly is.
How many a book to be written from this silence! How many a truth discerned from this starkest scene in the Arabian Desert! Picture it: A wife settled wordless in a barren world; a helpless child at her breast; a man departing silently to his destiny—each one at the command of their Lord. Each one left to face the truest mortal reality: Allah alone is our company. Allah alone feeds and quenches. Allah alone guides. Allah alone is Power over all things.
This picture captures every one of us in all the signature poses of our lives. And the words—“Allah alone”—begin an endless list.…
Yet it is sons and Ismâʿîl that call us here. He cries out from the depths of human fitrah, natural being, a call in the wilderness that no man can answer, not a mother running to and fro between the hilltops in search of sustenance for her son; not a father who would fend to the death for wife and child, but for the command of his Lord. Yet there is a truth that Ibrahim knew that we must learn again: There is not a thing upon the earth, in its skies, or beneath its surfaces that can suffice even the least of us. But, oh, for a father’s supplication for his son!
As he moved silently between heaven and earth, away from his loved ones through the wasteland of this life, and when he was out of sight of wife and son, Abraham turned and faced the foundations of the unraised Kaʿbah, the mound near where he had set down Ismâʿîl. Then he raised his open hands to heaven and called out to its Creator—the Only—the only One who succors, the only One who provides, the only One who answers:
Our Lord! I have placed some of my offspring to dwell in a valley that is infertile near Your Sacred House, our Lord, [as You have commanded], so that they may [duly] establish the Prayer [on earth]. So make the hearts of the people incline toward them; and provide for them from [the varied] fruits [of the earth], so that they may give thanks [to You alone].
Our Lord! Indeed, You know all that we conceal and all that we reveal—for not a [single] thing is ever concealed from God in the earth, nor in the heaven. (Sûrat Ibrahim, 14:37-38)
Indeed. Allah knew all along the endless stream He had concealed beneath the very earth where Ismâʿîl lay. Now, He was about to reveal it. At once, a bodiless voice called out to the woman running frantically between the two nearby hillocks, named Al-Ṣafâ and Al-Marwâ. She had been in search of the attentions of God that she had assured her departing husband would not suffer her and her parched son to be lost.
How right she was!
It was her seventh desperate leg running between the hillocks, and she had reached the top of Al-Marwâ, before and to the left of Ismâʿîl, after trotting through its valley. They were words spoken at the command of God by the Arch-Angel Gabriel (Jibrîl). She saw nothing, but petitioned the voice. Suddenly, she reeled around and beheld Jibrîl astride the earth in the valley next to Isma‘il. With an angelic heel or wing, he struck the ground, and at once the blessing of all created life spurted for him from the sacred well of Zamzam. The water burst forth from the ground and exploded in torrents that coursed to the right and to the left of the earth mound, where one day this very boy would cause the Kaʿbah to stand. Ismâʿîl’s mother ran to the flowing gift, the gift of life, dropped down on her knees, and energetically began damming the earth around it to channel it into her water skin.
May Allah have mercy on Umm Ismâʿîl, said the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. Had she let Zamzam flow freely, seeking not to enclose it, or had she but scooped its flow into her water skin, Zamzam would have been a flowing stream upon the [face of] earth.
She drank of its mineral-rich water and nursed her thirsting son. “Fear not neglect,” the angel heartened her, confirming her in her words to her departing husband. And he pointed to the nearby earth mound: “For here is the House of Allah to be built by this boy and his father—and never does Allah neglect his people.”
And never has a truer word been spoken.
Umm Ismâʿîl loved human society.
And there, out of the blue, was the nomadic tribe of Jurhum from afar observing water birds encircling what they new well as the most barren of valleys. And there, at the miraculous spring, some of them sought settlement, by the will of Allah, and the permission of Hajar, Ismâʿîl’s mother, near the well of Zamzam—upon the covenant terms she wisely and graciously set: Its holy waters would be possessed by no man. Like this original language of the desert, and the people whose austere experience sculpted and adorned it, they would forever flow free.
And there Ismâʿîl learned to speak a pristine idiom, the mother language of the Semitic tongues. And there he married from the Jurhum, twice, living humbly under a free stretch of sky, asking the provision or permission of no man, bow-hunting the desert for sparse and spare game meats from God to supplement crystalline water from the aquifer of God, their only two sources of sustenance—a lean and bitter life for the first wife, a sweet and abundant one for the second.
An old man came inquiring of the first when Ismâʿîl was away hunting, and of her misery, hardship, and destitution she duly informed him. “My salutations convey to your husband on his return,” said the old man as he departed, “and bid him change the threshold of his home.”
Something moved in Ismâʿîl’s heart when he entered his home, and he sought answer from his wife. She described to him the inquisitive, aged visitor and his admonition. “Such is my father, and you are the threshold of my home. He has commanded I divorce you.”
Again, the elderly man visited when Ismâʿîl was hunting, and again came upon Ismâʿîl’s wife, the one he married after divorcing the first. And again, the aged man inquired after their life. “We have been given of everything in abundance and are prosperous,” and, spontaneously, she thanked Allah. The old man asked about the food they eat and what they drink. “Meat!” she exclaimed, and “water!” with grateful delight.
“O Allah! Bless their meat and water,” he prayed, and these two food sources were miraculously blessed with sufficiency for the people of that place, for alone they make a deficient diet. Said the Prophet ﷺ: “At the time, they had no grain. And had they had it, he would have invoked Allah’s blessing upon it, as well. For one sustained by these two foods alone, his health and disposition shall suffer, unless he lives in Makkah,” another divine response to the prayer of the father.
The old man then told the woman: “My salutations convey to your husband on his return, and bid him keep firm the threshold of his home.” Upon Ismâʿîl’s return, she described to him the aged visitor and his admonition, praising his benevolent look and his kind character. “Such is my father, and you are the threshold of my home. He has commanded that I keep you.”
Blessed happiness should be held fast at the door of every home.
In manhood, these same qualities of patient obedience garlanded Ismâʿîl above all the desert dwellers. His matchless virtues of austerity, simplicity, humility, piety, courage, and, above all, freedom from men, and absolute tawakkul, reliance on God alone, endeared him to the Jurhum and made him the paragon of the Arabs. It was, in fact, this native disposition to trust in God implicitly that formed the foundations of Ismâʿîl’s goodness, seemingly coming to him with his mother’s Zamzam-fed milk.
For even as a boy, when Ismâʿîl had attained the age of assisting his father in good works, he evinces this quality. It was after Allah had saved Ibrahim from the fire into which his people had thrown him, to punish him for belying their idols, that Ibrahim expressed to God his ardent desire for a righteous son, following his exile from his father and people. Allah answered Ibrahim’s prayer, as we have mentioned, but would now test that desire, as well as the righteousness of the son he granted him.
Allah gives Ibrahim a true vision in his dreams: He is to sacrifice Ismâʿîl. It soon becomes unmistakable that it is a commandment from Allah. When Ibrahim confides it to his son, Ismâʿîl’s response is word-for-word perfect, setting the standard for believing sons for all time: O my dear father! Do what you are commanded by God. You shall find me, if God so wills, one of the patient (Sûrat Al-Ṣâfât, 37:102).
We can dispense with superficial objections—Am I to go along with whatever wild ideas my father has?—and parse Ismâʿîl’s words more finely. First, his address to his father remains supremely mannered—O my dear father!—a perfected expression of esteem, filled with love, couched in gentleness, an affirmation of the unbroken connection between them and the natural hierarchy of his father’s ascendancy over him.
Then, Ismâʿîl, who has been asked by his father to consider the vision himself and advise his father, speaks an irreproachable admonition: Do what you are commanded by God. His words take the form of a polite but forceful command to his father, and he centers his commandment on obedience—not to personal interpretation, emotion, or whim, but—to meticulous adherence to the specific and certain instructions from God.
His words are chosen carefully, so as not to place either himself or his father in the position of authority or at the center of concern, but to preserve the supremacy and the rule of the All-Knowing, while reminding that man’s earthly mandate is to be clear about the actual commandments of God and to be scrupulous in following God’s explicit will. Moreover, Ismâʿîl’s well-chosen words at once remind of true faith and its consequences before the Judge of man. At the same time, they attest to the unswerving faith of the one uttering them, Ismâʿîl himself, who shall himself be the sacrifice. His words speak to his contentment with the decree and outcome determined by God.
This last point is important. For Ismâʿîl’s closing sentence in particular unambiguously states that he is mindfully cognizant of what is being asked of him. And it seems intended to make clear to his father that (a) he is ever with him as his helper unto God and fulfilling his duty toward his Lord—even to the extent of returning to God, in the behalf of his father, the loan of life itself that God has given them both in Ismâʿîl, and that (b) Ismâʿîl has chosen for himself the path of patience with the commands of God, at whatever personal worldly cost.
His final declaration, moreover, echoes the constant self-check of humility that is the hallmark of this religion of submission and the genuine believers in it. It is a prayer, an endearing entreaty, wherein we hear with quavering heart the great solicitation of a truly great soul and son asking of his Lord to give him the strength, the blessing, the guidance, the conviction that it will take to quite literally lay his life down for the sake of fulfilling the command of God, all the while hoping for acceptance, asking to be made worthy of bringing his merely human will into harmony with the perfect will of the divine.
Could there be any left who doubt how irrevocably pleasing was Ismâʿîl to his Lord? I cannot resist citing the Quran’s rich and stirring narrative of this defining moment for Heavenly religion on earth, when all the cosmos stood in breathless witness to the native capacity of the human creature to transcend his earthly composition, exemplified at this instant in both father and son.
So at last, when they had willingly submitted themselves [to the will of God], and he had laid him down [for sacrifice, his son’s head turned away] upon his temple, We then called out to him: O Abraham! Truly, you have confirmed the [truth revealed in your] vision. [And] thus do We reward those who excel in [doing] good.
Indeed, this was most surely a manifest test [for father and son]. But We [spared his son and] ransomed him with a sacrifice of a magnificent offering. Moreover, We perpetuated for him [his good name] among the later generations: Peace [forever] be upon Abraham!
Thus do We reward those who excel in [doing] good. For, indeed, he was [one] of Our [true] believing servants [whom We saved]. Moreover, We gave him glad tidings of [the birth of another son,] Isaac, [who would be] a prophet [and] one of the righteous.” (Sûrat Al-Ṣâfât, 37:103-112)
The Jews, and the Christians after them, have transposed this story, inserting Is ḥâq (Isaac) in Ismâʿîl’s place. But it is clear from the context of the Quran, and from the Prophet ﷺ, that Ismâʿîl is the unrivaled son of sacrifice.
First, Allah commanded Ibrahim to sacrifice the forbearing boy, ghulamin ḥalîm, that Allah had given him the glad tidings of in response to Ibrahim’s supplication that occurred directly after his departure from home and migration to Allah. So it stands to reason that this would be Ibrahim’s first born, which is Ismâʿîl, from Hajar.
Allah, moreover, seamlessly connects in the Quran His divine answer to that prayer with the account of the son to be sacrificed. Also, the title “forbearing,” or “ ḥalîm,” is itself a linguistic corroboration that the boy would notably restrain himself to the obedience of Allah in an unusual way, that is, that he would withhold himself from rejecting his father’s vision to sacrifice him for the sake of God.
In addition, Abraham was to sacrifice his only son, and that could only be Ismâʿîl, who precedes Is ḥâq in birth by many years. For the annunciation of Sara’s conception of Is ḥâq does not occur until the angel-messengers come to destroy the towns of Sodom, the people of Ibrahim’s nephew, Lot.
In fact, the Qur’anic context itself makes it clear that the conception of Is ḥâq (and, from Is ḥâq, Yaʿqûb, Jacob) comes as part of the great reward Allah grants to Ibrahim for his unparalleled demonstration of willing obedience to Allah’s momentous commandment that he sacrifice his son.
So Is ḥâq cannot be both the son of sacrifice and the son conceived in advanced old age as a reward for his father’s willingness to sacrifice an existing son. In this light, the progeny of Is ḥâq and Yaʿqûb are direct recipients of the trust, righteousness, and forbearance of our father Ismâʿîl —a blessing and exemplar the Quran records the Children of Yaʿqûb willingly confessing, even if their subsequent progeny do not.
Or were you witnesses when death approached Jacob? Behold! He said to his children: What will you worship after me? They said: We shall worship your God alone and the God of your fathers—Abraham, and Ishmael, and Isaac—the One [and only] God. Thus are we muslims, in willing submission to Him alone. (Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:133)
The Rites of Our Fathers
It is from fathers that nations are raised, which we learn from the Quran’s statement about Ibrahim. As for Abraham, he was [in himself] a nation….(Sûrat Al-Na ḥl, 16:120). But this comes not without righteous sons who help them fulfill their godly visions, as we have seen. Yet, perhaps the most important thing sons do is uplift fathers to help them take up their rightful stations in the service of God so that they may keep their divine covenants with Him and bring them to tangible fruition for people.
Nor is this done by mere moral support. It is accomplished with sons who roll up their sleeves and work with their fathers. And what they help them do is build up the foundations of the various good works of God laid down on the earth by their righteous fathers before them. This is the key link to the blessed continuity, the proliferation of the righteous, inter-generational authority we spoke of earlier. For in this way, godliness is established in the earth. Truth dislocates falsehood. Goodness spreads among men.
Having said this, I will add that ‘goodness’ goes by some very specific names in Islam, including divine law, common civility, neighborliness, freedom of worship, regulated alms, free selling and the total banning of all interest schemes (because it is always a force for oppression), and social justice.
But let me borrow just a reading-minute more to better define ‘social justice’ because it is often uttered but left to whim and wahm (imagination).
Social justice, broadly, is five institutions in a society:
- It is the right to family as the basic governing unit, achieved by way of the institutionalization of marriage as the moral means to physical love between men and women, and free physical love between men and women as the legitimating means to family.
- It is the ironclad inviolability of individual privacy, the religious sanctity of personal property, and the sacred duties of neighborliness.
- It is making sacrosanct the person, the possessions, and the dignity of the widow, the orphan, the alien, the traveler, and the prisoner of war.
- It is worldly justice dispensed to human beings by human beings as understood by human beings based upon the universal rules revealed by God for all human beings, be their condition gentle or mean.
- It is the proliferation of the ethics of individual valor, collective mercy, universal security, common benefit, general ease, local craft and personal farming productivity, all tempered by standards of moderation, conservation, prevention, and faithfulness—principles, in the just society, that get practiced even when one is away from human eyes, laboring unseen.
This is the underlying meaning of Ibrahim and Ismâʿîl’s prayer as they raised the Kaʿbah, the first House of God on earth, upon its ancient foundations:
Our Lord! And send forth among [our descendants] a messenger from their own [midst] who shall recite to them Your verses, and teach them the [revealed] Book and the [way of prophetic] wisdom, and purify them. Indeed, it is You, You [alone] who are the Overpowering [One], the All-Wise. (Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:129)
And it is why Allah says in the very next verse: Now, who but one who fools himself could be averse to the sacred way of Abraham? (Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:130). For it was for the purpose of establishing the entire continuum of truth in the world, including its social justice, that Ibrahim was sent with this way of willing submission to the will of the Lord of All the Worlds.
And it was thus that Abraham enjoined his children with this [sincere devotion to God], as did Jacob, [saying]: O my children! Indeed, God has chosen for you the religion [of purity]. So take care not to die except as muslims, in willing submission to God [alone] (Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:132).
Note that the Quran uses the word ‘muslim’ here in its Arabic linguistic sense of man’s free will submission of his will to the Divine will, without which there can be no justice of any kind on earth.
The Moral Imperative of the Life of Ismâ’îl
This begins to explain to us why Ismâʿîl very clearly took this admonition from his father so fully to heart. He must have loved his father with a depth that few of us can now relate to between a father and son. (What a loss for us and the world!)
But more than love him, Ismâʿîl believed in his father, and saw in obedience to him obedience to God and a prime moral moment: For briefly opened to him, of all the people of the earth across time, was this unique chance to effect a sea change to achieve that goodness we have just been speaking of: A roadmap to universal peace, inclusive of social justice, that could culminate and come into being at some stage in the history of humanity, not as a utopia, but as a working human paradigm of balance between life on earth and life in eternity, the spiritual and the material, the clay and the spirit, striving and repose, clash and convergence for the future generations of the world.
I am not talking about his submitting himself to his father’s human sacrifice, from which Allah ransomed him. This, I believe, was divine preparation for something far greater, a civilizational fiat for the building of the civilization of faith. I am talking about the building of the Kaʿbah. This is the prime moral moment that Ismâʿîl glimpsed.
This lesson of sons helping fathers to create concrete works by which people can be guided, helped, edified, or otherwise served for the sake of God is the fundamental moral of the story of Ibrahim and Ismâʿîl. It is, in fact, the very life-mission of Ismâʿîl. His dutiful sonship, and establishing for all time the standard of what it means to be a son to a believing father, is the message of his messengership, the point of his prophethood. Ismâʿîl is there to teach us how to become and raise up righteous sons and build a just society.
Yet the Quranic depiction of Ismâʿîl does not leave this lesson there as a static exhortation to sons. It brings us to a much deeper, more fruitful, and exponentially more dynamic strategy. Its purpose is to harness the value-laden godly assets of knowledge, insight, energy, and experience that have been accruing in the community and parlay them into structures, systems, policies, and mores that will give believers and the Religion of God a worldly advantage in guiding humanity to God, to prosperous purpose, and to felicity in this life and the next.
This harvest of human wisdom is necessary—and, mind you, the only way—to save people from the wicked designs of the ungodly, whose ideologies, in fact, uphold nothing more than false deities (>âghû ṭ). These may be concepts or outright idols. But their function is one: To mislead people from the straight way, systematically strip them of their God-given rights, and gradually exert a coercive control over them until it becomes impossible for them to break free, until the price of truth becomes too costly to publicly invoke, until divine knowledge is blacked out of their experience, the religious rites wiped from their history and memory, and self-correction ceases to be an option.
And just as the reality of these ungodly ideas and icons is one, so too is the aim of the labyrinthine paths to futility, distraction, and immorality they are used to lay before us: To extract from peoples and societies their individual human worth and translate that into material gain for a rare and removed, privileged and impervious power elite.
What, then, is this so-crucial dynamic that the story of Ismâʿîl illustrates for us? It shows us exactly how sons who come to the age of strength and facility are to make fully meaningful the life of their religious fathers, who have likely entered the phase of physical decline and decreasing ability, but who have, nonetheless, grown into ripe and valuable spiritual maturity.
That is to say, the sons of religiously devoted fathers—fathers who have clearly spent their youth and their health, their lives and their wealth trying to walk and work in the path of God, with all the trial and tribulation that this inevitably means (and the heavy toll it unavoidably takes on them)—their sons are burdened with a very concrete task: They are to assist their fathers in institutionalizing the wisdom of religion and faith that their fathers have come to through the years of their lives spent in continued worship, bent in its practice, garnered through practical communal religious experience, and reaped in life-long reflection on that worship, practice, and communal experience. This, this, is one of the greatest lessons of the Quran’s highly controlled and strategic deployment of the account of Ibrahim and Ismâʿîl for us, God’s blessings and peace be upon them both.
For elderly Abraham, he is charged by God with building the seminal Kaʿbah in the very same “barren valley” where he placed Ismâʿîl and his mother all those years ago. And Ismâʿîl is duty-bound to use his prime manhood to assist him. The point was never about conflict between our mother Sara and our mother Hajar, may Allah be pleased with both, the tangential, minor subplot that so much has been made of in Jewish and Christian lore. Rather, it was about Allah (as ever it is) planting a pure seed of the pristine faith for the latter generations at the earthly origin, the human center, the first House of God on earth, founded by none other than Adam, the first father of man.
It was about the divine plan to raise up prophethood for the entire world at the second House of God established on earth at Jerusalem, also by Adam, and also revived by Ibrahim. It was about running that illustrious line of prophethood to its furthest ends, whatever they might be—but also to have in waiting, preserved, away from the developing, citied, economic and political world of empire and civilization, there in the desert valley of Hajar and Ismâʿîl, a sealed alternative, primal religion preserved to germinate into full fruition complete, should the world with its tendency to disfigure, blight the Jerusalem message.
And, come what may, it was about giving latter-day, post-prophetic man when he was ready, on the cusp of modernity, his fair claim to access the universal religion of God. For this was the religion that was going to reunite him with his global human family and prophetic heritage, vest him individually with the equivalent of priesthood, unchain him from the altar, unfurl the entire earth before his feet as sanctuary of worship, and put the vault of the open sky overhead as his dome, teach him his primal religious rites, place in his own mouth the surely preserved liturgy of God, wrap him collectively, that is, communally, in the mantle of messengership, sending him from every nation to all the nations of the world; and then be the portable, primordial, vehicle of transcendence that would carry man, like Abraham, his immediate spiritual forefather, back to the Ancient House, the Kaʿbah, in a greater migration back to his singular Lord, and to the Garden from which he fell into the world.
That is what the story of Ibrahim and Ismâʿîl is really about, as well as the underlying example of Ismâʿîl in his task of realizing his father’s mission. Ismâʿîl’s example is about the continued survival, success, thriving, and victory of the Religion of God in the world, but even more so of harnessing his father’s knowledge, wisdom, experience, and vision and perpetuating the waymarks of the true Religion and bringing forth an institution that would bring about the magnificent triumph (fawz al-‘a·îm) of you and me in the Hereafter; namely, positioning ourselves in life to receive the grace of God after death and admission into His forgiveness, pardon, mercy in His Garden of Paradise.
What a brilliant strategy had Ismâʿîl! What insight! What a tremendous demonstration of tawwakul, trust in God, but trust, also, in the faith, the vision, the mission of his aged father. The success of Islam, from seemingly out of nowhere, rests on the decision of Ismâʿîl to accept his role as son to Ibrahim. The beneficiaries of his selflessness, sacrifice, insight, and guidance have literally been in the billions.
Behold, the surpassing brilliance, the unrivaled illumination, the layered communication of something of the meaning of the Quran, in this light—the light of Ismâʿîl grasping the moment, the import, of what it meant to be a son of his father.
Now, behold! Abraham’s Lord tested him with [arduous] commandments, and he fulfilled [all of] them. So [God] said [to him]: Indeed, I shall make you an exemplar for all people. [Abraham] implored [the favor of his Lord]: And also my descendants. [God] said: [The promise of] My covenant shall not extend to the wrongdoers [among them who are godless in heart].
So behold! We made the [Sacred] House [in Makkah] a [spiritual] resort and [place of] security for all [believing] people. So take up the [marked] Station of Abraham [there,] as a place of Prayer.
Moreover, We covenanted with Abraham and Ishmael: [You shall] purify My House for all those who shall circumambulate [it in worship; and for all those who shall] retreat [there; and for all those who shall both] bow, and bow [their faces] down to the ground, [in Prayer there]. (Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:124-25)
Ismâʿîl could have said: I’m not cleaning this place. It is barren and almost uninhabited. He could have shunned the heavy lifting of the construction work with his father, saying, again: No one’s here but us to benefit from this. He could have said: You left me out here with my mother by ourselves, attending more to your other family. He could have said a thousand and one things that you and I have said to our fathers and that our sons say to us.
But Ismâʿîl grasped the value of his father, the value of the move to raise the foundations of this building, this House of God. He grasped the strategic importance of it in the divine scheme of things, even though he likely would never see in his lifetime its fruition, the promised numbers of worshippers, its central importance in the world—even though he undoubtedly understood the difficulty in reaching the Arabs with this message and the unlikelihood of their remaining on mission, true to the religion over time without the advent of a succession of prophets after him, which he must have known, must have seen, did not come to his immediate offspring and descendants.
We Sons of Now
We too live in difficult times. But would that we had, or more precisely our sons have, the broad understanding, the humility and depth, the inner fire to play and win, win for the sake of Islam and Allah, for the purpose of the people around us and who shall come after us, to understand what it means to be sons of believing fathers, in a believing Ummah, stretching back to Abraham and Ismâʿîl.
Yet the sons I see of most of our “religious” fathers—the men who for 30 or 40 years have been striving with this religion—they view their fathers as out of touch, failed in their life efforts to bring about a believing society. They see them (us) as singularly un-exemplary and unimpressive, scoffed at in politics and not taken seriously in society. They see them as culturally irrelevant.
And they fight them. They fight them in their ideas, their outlook, their manner of speech, their mode of dress and grooming, their irritating exhortation to the Quran and their incomprehensible call to the Sunnah. They fight them in their methods of life and livelihood, their supposed strictness of form, and, most of all, their sons blame them for their own shortcomings, what these sons have not become, because of experiences they say they couldn’t have, or because of the staunch opposition of their fathers to some their sons’ interests.
Rare is the response of Ismâʿîl on their tongues, his words utterly foreign to them: Do as you have been commanded. Do as you see is pleasing to God. I am with you. You will find me of the patient. I will help you achieve your life’s work. I will aid you as you did me when I was a boy. I will lift the heavy burdens for you. I will help you to your higher station for the sake of God. I will carry your stones for you, mix your mortar, cleanse with you this space to purify it for the sake of God and His sole worship. I will help bring your good vision for the sake of God to life.
It is this widespread repudiation in our community of our fathers by our sons that so deeply disturbs me. How much human worth and value and experience and understanding and piety and reflection is our community wasting in our elders? How much, in their headlong drive to institutionalize our community—like good apes looking out of the cage at what is around them in our “mainstream” societies and mimicking it, mindlessly copying it, abandoning all original thought from Islam’s primary sources, compromising our covenant for the sake of some fictitious social contract, forsaking our pledged mission of guiding humanity to the Oneness of God and the way of the Messenger for the sake of acceptable routine, happy with swelling the parade of others and becoming good props in their plays—how much are our sons squandering along alien avenues that will incalculably harm our community, make it even more vulnerable than it already is in search of the chimera of security in mere men?
And what shall be the community cost, the human price in the world and the future, when the bill comes due for our youth putting themselves out in the forefront because they think their youth knows better, is more hip, more modern, more enlightened, more aware?
Who will tell them that what they call “recognition” in the modern world—having voice in a politically corrupt system of bloodthirsty elitism, having a place at an economic table that thrives on war and whose main course is cannibalism, getting “imaged,” “sound-byted,” and “selfied” in a whoring mainstream media whose real mission is utter and feckless distraction from truth—who will tell them that this is a cheap sell out and the thing they are selling is themselves, their religion, and the human community to Hell? Who will tell them that their real striving is for capitulation, a free surrender of the free will of man to the benighted bent will of other, corrupted men?
In modern secular society, what “recognition” really means is being accepted by the culture of disbelief on condition of your agreement to keep your belief in One God separate from your public call to community. It means discarding your obligation to implement His mandate. It means silencing your own moral judgment instead of running from the furthest reaches of the city into its heart to uphold truth with your witness. It means looking on in fear and helplessness while the weak are oppressed, the poor are robbed, the law abiding are transgressed, and the defenseless are attacked—especially when all this is done in the righteous name of power.
It means buying into a system of participation, legislation, usury, and the pretense of judiciary process that we Muslims, more than any other people today, know beyond doubt is utterly corrupt. And we know this because we are now the world over its main excuse for its rape and pillage of man, earth, plant, and beast.
And for what? For a hollow promise of refuge? God is our refuge and the refuge of all creation. So what is this now, son, but dunya-ism, the religion of worldliness, the most popular faith of our horrifyingly blood-spattered times? What is it but life for this life’s sake, not for the sake of the Hereafter.
Oh, it is true, they will all claim belief in God. But once you proclaim that this life’s meaning lies only in our success after death, you are irrelevant. And sadly, what the sons of Islam these days in our community fear more than the camps, and the water boarding, and the proliferating drones, and the robber banks all hanging over our heads is to be viewed by mainstream, multinational, corporate-controlled society as “irrelevant.”
What we suffer from most as a community is a loss of hope between father and son, hope that sons have in the wisdom of their fathers, and fathers’ hope in the goodness of their sons. Above all what we have lost is hope in Allah, that it is Allah alone who attaches to people, places, and things real relevance, for it is Allah alone who determines the connections between all things and their true meaning.
This is what Ismâʿîl grasped in the service of his father, whose business was doing the bidding of Allah, whenever, wherever. And what could be more relevant? How well one sees and hears this in their sacred supplications as they build the House of God together. Listen:
Thus when Abraham and Ishmael raised the foundation of the [Sacred] House, [they prayed]: Our Lord! Accept this [deed] from us. Indeed, it is You, You [alone] who are the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing.
Our Lord! And make us both muslims, in willing submission to You [alone]. And [make] of our children a Community of muslims, in willing submission to You [alone]. And show us our [religious] rites [in Your worship], and grant us repentance. Indeed, it is You, You [alone] who are the All-Relenting, the Mercy-Giving.
Our Lord! And send forth among [our descendants] a messenger from their own [midst] who shall recite to them Your verses, and teach them the [revealed] Book and the [way of prophetic] wisdom, and purify them. Indeed, it is You, You [alone] who are the Overpowering [One], the All-Wise. (Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:127-29)
Sons of these fathers: Allah is merciful, for we are the recipients of these prayers…and we still have this ever-relevant Message.