ONE NEW TO observing Muslims might expect that Hajj, the Pilgrimage of Islam, would be focused on the notable events of the life of Islam’s prophet, Muhammad—perhaps his encounters with Angel Gabriel and his reception of revealed verses, perhaps his ascension to heaven, perhaps his bloodless conquest of Mecca, perhaps his rise from an orphan to statesman. Not so. The Hajj commemorates Abraham (Arabic Ibrahim) whose trust in God (“faith”) was tested and verified repeatedly. Abraham’s willingness to follow what he understood to be the requirements of his Lord, even to the extent of giving up the life of his only son—upon whose survival so much depended—was an extraordinary indicator of Abraham’s certainty in God’s goodness and complete control over all eventualities.
Centrality of Abraham to the History of Faith
Christians and Jews know the story of Abraham from the Hebrew Bible’s book of Genesis. Chapters 12-49 deal with Abraham and his descendants into the third generation. This narrative is central in recounting the “history” of God in relation to mankind, as are the eventful chapters of the Bible leading up to Abraham.
The Genesis accounts largely agree with—rarely do they contradict—the Quranic ones; for the most part, the seventh century Quranic verses supplement the much older Biblical narratives. A lengthy and connected narrative regarding Abraham and his family is found in the pages of Genesis. The additional Quran and Hadith material—we only scratch the surface here—fill in certain aspects missing in the Biblical record, generally with a differing focus and occasionally with correcting information.
The Bible opens revealing the work and intent of a Creator responsible for the origin of humans—in two biological genders—with joint reproductive capacity, through which they were enjoined to proliferate their presence and involvement on earth (Genesis 1:27-28). Before the advent of humankind, God had “generated” (Genesis 2:4), that is, made, formed and fashioned man’s place of residence and the various natural orders of physical and metaphysical structures supporting life—according to a blueprint brought into being at His command (Gen. 1:1-25; 2:4-18).
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The origin of a mate for Man (Adam) is described as being closely linked with a ‘rib’ divinely taken from his body, rather than from the elements of the earth—as had been the procedure with the creation of previous creatures. Woman (Eve) is presented as satisfying Adam’s need for a helper-partner, such that the pair would become ‘one flesh’ with each other in marriage (Gen 2:18-24).
According to both the Quran (2:31-33) and the Bible (Genesis 2:19-20), Adam was called upon by God to say the names of the other creatures coming before him. When it came to his wife, Adam called her Eve (‘living’) as the “mother of all living” (Gen 3:20)—indicating a common parentage thereafter for humanity. When Eve became pregnant with Cain, she acknowledged the generative force operating within her body, that it was the power of “the LORD” (Gen 4:1). Among the sons and daughters (Gen 5:4) generated by Adam, the names of only three sons are recorded in the Bible.
Genealogies were important to the Hebrew narrative (Genesis chapters 4-5), which recorded the names and generations of successive offspring—though typically they were limited to the males leading up, in an unbroken chain, to the next memorably righteous person—those who ‘found favor with God’ and who ‘walked with God.’:
- Adam’s son and grandson: Seth and Enosh
To Seth also a son was born, and he named him Enosh. At that time people began to invoke the name of the LORD. (Bible, Genesis 4:26)
- Enoch, 7th generation after Adam through Seth
Enoch walked with God after the birth of Methuselah three hundred years, and had other sons and daughters.. Thus all the days of Enoch were three hundred sixty-five years. Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him. (Bible, Genesis 5:22, 24)
- Noah, 10th generation after Adam through Seth
But Noah found favor in the sight of the LORD. …. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God. Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. … all flesh had corrupted its ways … God said to Noah, … Make yourself an ark … I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life… But I will establish my covenant with you … Noah…did all that God commanded him. (Bible, Genesis 6:8-11)
Seven generations are listed for Adam’s first son, Cain; none for Abel, the second son, who fell victim to the first murder; and the line of Seth, the third son, leads us to Noah. After Noah, his progeny continued, through three sons: Shem, Ham and Japheth.
In the days of Noah a cataclysmic geological event, causing a Flood—extended effectively for a whole year (Gen 7:6, 11-12; 8:13-14) and devastated mankind with the exception of Noah and three sons, together with their four respective wives (Genesis 8:16). They survived in a kind of boat, whose design God had taught them. In thanksgiving once back on dry land, [i] Noah built an altar to God and offered multiple animal sacrifices (Gen 8:20), after the manner of his time.
The generations of mankind—from Adam and Eve, through their third son Seth—would continue through Noah’s three sons (Gen 10:1) and their wives; these families would proliferate and spread out across the earth (Gen 10:32). After the Flood there was a covenant established by God with Noah, his family and descendants: In addition to the vegetation earlier given mankind for food (Gen 1:29-30; 2:9), now the flesh of animals was allowed for man to eat (Gen 9:2-3). But flesh with its lifeblood still in it was forbidden (Gen 9:4). Similarly, the taking of human life (‘bloodshed’) was a serious offense and one would have to reckon with God for this sin (Gen 9:5). Again, humans were enjoined to reproduce, to populate and manage the earth.
Mankind learned lessons along the way: the seductive craftiness of mankind’s Adversary—able to take the guise even of a serpent (Gen 3:1, 13-15); the dangers of anger leading to murder (Gen 4:3-8); the liability of drunkenness and the need for modesty in clothing the body (Gen 9:23; 2:25); consequences of human hubris (Gen 11:1-9). On the positive side is the lesson that God is pleased with humans for their righteous behavior (Gen 6:9).
Abraham’s Story in the Bible
As the generations succeeded one another and scattered out geographically, the tenth generation after Noah, through his elder son Shem, saw the birth of Abram [later called Abraham] (Arabic, Ibrâhîm), far east of Palestine in Ur of the Chaldeans, [ii] somewhere within the Fertile Crescent area not so distant from the place in eastern Turkey [iii] where Noah’s Ark had rested after the Flood.
In those days, Terah determined to pick up and migrate westward with his two sons, Abram and Nahor, together with his grandson Lot (Arabic Lut), and his daughter-in-law, Sarai (Sarah), who was wife of Abraham. Terah settled in Haran, [iv] (Turkey) where he lived out his days, rather than continue to his destination of Canaan [v] in Philistia [vi] (Gen 11:31). The LORD, however, spoke to Abraham and instructed him to push on to the land of the Canaanites (Gen 12:1-10), promising Abraham that his offspring would eventually take control of this territory, now inhabited by dangerous peoples.
To commemorate God’s appearance to him at Shechem, [vii] Abram built there an altar of worship to his LORD; he erected another place of worship to God in the hill country (Gen 12:8) in transit to the Negev, [viii] where he found famine conditions and pressed on to Egypt. There Abraham became rich in livestock, slaves, silver and gold before returning north to Canaan, at the behest of his LORD, and settling in Hebron[ix] —where he erected another altar to his LORD and lived there peacefully. At this stage in his life Abraham was building memorial “altars” to mark places where he had spiritually connected with his Lord. Later on he would build a temple, or house of worship, in a place safe for settlement.
By this time, Lot had separated from his uncle Abraham—due to the need of each for extensive grazing lands. Then Lot found himself among warring tribes and became a prisoner of war, together with his people and with his possessions taken as war booty. Thereupon Abraham and Abraham’s allies went in pursuit; regained control of Lot, his people, and their goods; and made alliances with the rulers of the area (Genesis chapters 13-14).
Later, another vision came to Abraham (Gen 15) assuring him of security and protection. Now, at that time Abraham was elderly and his wife remained barren, a pitiable situation for a rich man of his status. In response to Abraham’s desire for a biological son to inherit from him, the vision of God promised not only a son but a universal blessing to come to mankind through an uncountable number of Abraham’s descendants.
As usual with the Quran (Koran), the Biblical stories are assumed—since they were already known to the seventh century Jews and Christians who lived or traveled along the trade route of the Hijaz, the western coastal lowlands of the Arabian Peninsula. The Quran reminds its audience concerning the experiences of Bani Isra’il (Children of Israel), correcting the record where needed, confirming further instructive incidents and re-orienting mankind to their ultimate guidance.
Abraham and Arabia
It is remarkable that the Biblical texts have not been seen as suggesting that Abraham ever ventured into the Arabian Peninsula—although Islamic sources tell us that the Ka’ba structure in Mecca is rebuilt on a site where Abraham had constructed a place of worship to God. The Hebrew Bible does not deny but, in effect, does play down Abraham’s fathering of Ishmael after he had taken Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian servant, as a type of second wife—in keeping with the practice of the times.
In fact this union was at Sarah’s prompting, with the intention that Hagar (Arabic Hajar) could give Abraham the son which Sarah apparently could never have. The Hebrew Bible does record Abraham’s love for his first son, whose mother was Hagar; it registers God’s promise to Abraham that Ishmael, too, would be blessed and proliferate on the earth (Gen 17:20). This was in addition to the initial promise, not yet fulfilled, that Sarah would [later] bear Abraham’s second son, and that his “seed” would proliferate and be the source of blessing for all peoples (Gen 17:1-7, 19).
Biblical scholars recognize that their texts have been constructed from multiple sources, spanning multiple centuries, and are composed of independent pericopes (text units) to cover the same event. The Documentary Hypothesis [x] explains how these separate source pericopes—covering events across millenia—need not be ordered in chronological order, nor is a complete account of events necessarily remembered as important enough to write it down in full.
Similarly, the Quran is composed of revelation segments sent down to Prophet Muhammad (over a period of 23 years) at various periods of his mission, first from Makka (Mecca), then from Madinah (Medina), and addressing various particular circumstances (“occasions of revelation”). It is well-known that the Quran does not present its pericopes in anything like the order in which these verses were received; rather the linkage from one piece of text to another is governed by a metaphysical and pedagogical logic intertwined with literary features calculated to remind or to press home a point. The Bible, too, may depart from a chronological order if needed to convey the overall purpose of the work.
It is a surprise for Jews and Christians that much of the story of Abraham (and perhaps of Moses?) could have taken place in the Hijaz, rather than in today’s Palestine, and, in fact, this alternative geography is actually suggested by a study of place names as they have been registered in the Hebrew Bible. Many of such ancient names are not confirmed either by archaeological finds in Palestine, nor by currently existing place names there, nor by the lay of the land. The late Kamal Salabi, [xi] a Christian Arab scholar (American University of Beirut), has noted that Biblical names are often not to be found in modern-day Palestine, and those name matches which are attached to Palestinian locations may exhibit a clear disparity in physical distances between or among them, in utter disregard to what is portrayed in the Biblical text.
Professor Salabi’s investigation into geographical names in the Arabian Hijaz and Asir, though not exhaustive in his 1985 write-up, [xii] does find much better matches there in names and geographical relationship than they do in Philistia. If today’s Ka’ba is located in the same place where Abraham actually relocated Hagar and Ishmael, then what is the Bible reader to think? Did the party of Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael reach there after a major journey from Hebron in Palestine? Or did Hagar simply put Ishmael on her back and set off (on foot?) on her own with nothing more than a ‘skin’ (bottle) of water to wander in the “wilderness of Beersheba” (Genesis 21:9-21)? Or, possibly their removal far away to the Hijaz came at a later date?
The same question is to be posed about the geographical location of “the Land of Moriah” (Gen 22:2) —where Abraham traveled with his “only son” in submission to what he understood as the voice of God calling him. It was there that Abraham was asked to yield up the life of the son through whom was promised a myriad of descendants. Or concerning the location of Tur/ Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Law from God—after an extended period of journeying in the wilderness (Exodus 15:22–40:38), upon their escape from oppression in Egypt. Again, the case is made by Prof. Salabi for the western coast and highlands of the Arabian Peninsula as the location for the early history of the Hebrew prophets. [xiii]
As an Arab, Muhammad is ethnically descended from Abraham through Ishmael (Arabic Isma’îl), his first-born son. As a Jew, Jesus is ethnically a descendant of Abraham through Isaac (Arabic Is-hâq), the second of Abraham’s sons, then through Isaac’s second son Jacob (Arabic, Ya’kûb) —also called ‘Israel’—and later in his lineage through Aaron, the brother of Moses and Miriam [xiv]—when calculated on his mother’s side. [xv] More on this later.
Abraham’s Supreme Test – the Quranic Text
The rituals of Hajj (Islamic Pilgrimage) are ancient, and its practices are known to us thanks to Prophet Muhammad’s instructions to his Companions, and passed on through them. One of the rituals of Hajj remembers Abraham’s willing preparation for the slaughter of his only son—for sacrifice to God—in a culture where nothing could be more valuable to a man than his family, especially his first son. So, let us now look at the accounts of this event, first the Quranic one:
[Abraham] said: I am leaving [my people] to [the path of] my Lord. He shall, most surely, guide me. [He prayed:] My Lord! Grant me [a child who shall be] of the righteous. Thereafter, We gave him glad tidings of a most forbearing boy. So when he had attained to [an age of] striving with him [in good works, Abraham] said: O my dear son! I have seen in a dream that I am to sacrifice you. So consider [this, and tell me] what you think. He said: O my dear father! Do what you are commanded [by God]. You will find me, if God so wills, among those who are patient. 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 latter 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. Thus did We bestow [abundant] blessings upon him and upon Isaac. So of their descendants are those who excel in [doing] good—and those who clearly wrong their own souls. [Quran, Surat Al-Saffat, 37:99-113]
A ram appeared at the moment when God told Abraham that he had already fulfilled the requirements of the visionary command. The substituted animal is then slaughtered and offered as a burnt offering by Abraham and Ishmael—instead of the son himself being the sacrifice (Genesis 22:12-13). This substitute slaughter of the ram is commemorated in the final Hajj rite of slaughtering an animal and providing its meat to feed those in need. Today the Hajj meat is canned and supplied to needy recipients in other lands.
Keep in mind that Abraham’s first-born son, Ishmael, was progenitor of the Arab people, ancestor to Prophet Muhammad. Muhammad’s people knew Abraham and Ishmael as part of their genealogical history. The heavenly revelations given to Muhammad would serve to restore to his people their ancestral heritage and to lead them back to their illustrious roots. They were now being honored with a prophetic successor to Moses and Jesus—through another descendant of Abraham, a man from among their own people.
This in turn would inform them that they had a legacy far more praiseworthy than competing amongst themselves to lionize their family names in deeds of courage and prowess displayed in raids of plunder as their way of life. As has been the case with any group that accepts a new prophet, their people fear spurning the old idols and power structure, the familiar ways of their ancestors. Abraham was truthful and courageous enough to ‘think for himself,’ or to ‘think outside the box,’ as we would say today—accepting the challenge of trusting the guidance of the only God who is, regardless of what one’s own religious and cultural heritage might have been.
Such a test of ultimate and complete trust in God, even in the face of seeming to reject normal human reason and expectation, is given to those who are ready for it—after previously having passed a series of incrementally larger tests, as had Abraham.
Abraham’s Supreme Test – the Biblical Text
Now the account from the Hebrew Bible concerning Abraham’s Test:
Some time later God tested Abraham; he called to him, “Abraham!” And Abraham answered, “Yes, here I am!” “Take your son,” God said, “your only son, Isaac, whom you love so much, and go to the land of Moriah. There on a mountain that I will show you, offer him as a sacrifice to me.” Early the next morning Abraham cut some wood for the sacrifice, loaded his donkey, and took Isaac and two servants with him. They started out for the place that God had told him about. On the third day Abraham saw the place in the distance. Then he said to the servants, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will go over there and worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham made Isaac carry the wood for sacrifice, and he himself carried a knife and live coals for starting the fire. As they walked along together, Isaac spoke up, “Father!” He answered, “Yes, my son?” Isaac asked, “I see that you have the coals and the wood, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” Abraham answered, “God himself will provide one.” And the two of them walked on together. When they came to the place which God had told him about, Abraham built an altar and arranged the wood on it. He tied up his son and placed him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he picked up the knife to kill him. But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, “Abraham, Abraham!” He answered, “Yes, here I am.” “Don’t hurt the boy or do anything to him,” he said. “Now I know that you have obedient reverence for God, because you have not kept back your only son from him.” Abraham looked around and saw a ram caught in a bush by its horns. He went and got it and offered it as a burnt offering instead of his son. Abraham named that place “The LORD Provides.” The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time, “I make a vow by my own name—the LORD is speaking—that I will richly bless you. Because you did this and did not keep back your only son from me, I promise that I will give you as many descendants as there are stars in the sky or grains of sand along the seashore. You descendants will conquer their enemies. All the nations will ask me to bless them as I have blessed your descendants—all because you obeyed my command.” Abraham went back to his servants, and they went together to Beersheba, where Abraham settled. (Bible, Genesis 22:1-19)
The Genesis verses portray Abraham with the same readiness to obey the guidance of God as does the Quranic reminder and review of the event, as quoted above. However, the Biblical account suggests that Abraham did not openly admit to his son what he was intending to do with him, even tying him up and positioning him on top of the kindling, ready for igniting, without explanation. Did Abraham consciously foresee at this point in the narrative that God would provide such a way out? Was Abraham overwhelmed in dumbfounded amazement at how this drama ended—ratcheting up his trust in God?
Much of the Abraham narrative mentions Beersheva, a desert wilderness area (Gen 21:12, 21:31; 22:19). It was the place to which Abraham returned after the supreme test was concluded: Abraham went back to his servants, and they went together to Beersheva, where Abraham settled (Genesis 22:19). We ask again, where had Abraham and his Son of Sacrifice been located during that event? Was it at the Temple Mount site in Jerusalem, as Jewish tradition has it, from where they afterwards traveled south to Beersheva?
Or did the sacrifice event take place much further south in the valley of Mecca, far from the eyes of Sarah? The subsequent Biblical text records the following: The descendants of Ismael lived in the territory between Havilah and Shur, [xvi] to the east of Egypt on the way to Assyria. They lived apart from the other descendants of Abraham (Gen 25:18). It also notes: Abraham married another woman, whose name was Keturah. She bore him… Abraham left everything he owned to Isaac; but while he was still alive, he gave presents to the sons his other wives had borne him. Then he sent these sons to the land of the East, away from his son Isaac (Gen 25:1-6).
A further issue of interest—outside the acquaintance of the average Jew, Christian and Muslim—is this: Who was the “Son of Sacrifice”?
Based on the Quranic text, the Muslim would say, Clearly he was Ishmael—since a few verses after the vision-sacrifice in the Quran’s account (37:99-109), the glad tidings of another son was announced to Abraham (an elderly man), mentioning Isaac by name (37:112-113)—a reward for doing right and being a believing servant (37:110-111). However, note that Ishmael is not mentioned by name in the Vision-Sacrifice text of the Quran (37:99-111); thus some Islamic commentators have left open the possibility that the Son of Sacrifice could possibly have been Abraham’s second son Isaac, the son of Sarah.
Based on the Biblical text, the Jew would say, Clearly, he was Isaac—as his name appears five times within the narrative (Gen 22, verses 2, 3, 6, 7, and 7 again). And in fact, no Muslim or Christian denies the Biblical claim that God made with Abraham a covenant linked to Isaac. The Quran liberally and unreservedly celebrates Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, etc., as well as their ancestor Abraham, recognizing them all as fully prophets of God, righteous men and examples for mankind. So the virtue of Isaac is not in question for Muslims.
Yet, one cannot help but observe some curious data within the Biblical Vision-Sacrifice passage (Genesis 22). The son is referred to as ‘the boy’ (verses 5, 12), ‘your son’ (vs. 2), ‘his son’ (vs. 9), ‘him’ (vs. 2, 10, 12) or ‘whom’ (vs. 2) in a normal way and apart from identifying the son by name. But the emphatic phrase ‘your only son’ occurs three times (verses 2, 12, 16). Surely something has been added to the text of this Biblical narrative:
- Either: ‘Isaac’ has been added five times to replace instances of ‘he’ or ‘him’—which pronouns could originally have referred to Ishmael. This could have been done so as to over-ride a possible misunderstanding concerning the identity of the one described as ‘your only son.’ If so, a contradiction has been introduced into the account, as we will explain.
- Or: ‘your only son’ has been added to indicate that Isaac was to be considered Abraham’s only son, meaning that Ishmael was not to be considered a legitimate son. In this scenario, ‘Isaac’ was originally part of the text and a flawed claim is being asserted regarding Ishmael as being a fake ‘son’!
One of the two corruption options must be the case, since there is a contradiction in attributing “your only son” to Isaac. Even if one were to argue that Hagar was a fake ‘wife’ of Abraham, how can one argue that Ishmael was a fake ‘son’! Does DNA ‘lie’? More to the point, does God lie?! (See below.) Yes, Isaac was Sarah’s ‘only son,’ but the angel of God is speaking to Abraham when he refers to ‘your only son.’
Would there have been a motive for disparaging Ishmael on the part of the last redactor of the Genesis text? We do know that Sarah was jealous of Hagar:
Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham… So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, ” … As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” (Bible, Genesis 21:9-13)
Now, it is quite clear from the overall Genesis document that Ishmael was born first to Abraham (and Hagar) 14 years before the birth of Isaac to Abraham (and Sarah); Abraham was 86 years old at the birth of Ishmael (Genesis 16:15) and 100 years old at the birth of Isaac (Genesis 21:5) So then, if Abraham’s second son, Isaac, were properly to be called Abraham’s ‘only son,’ how is it that Abraham’s first son, Ishmael, does not count as a son? It is Ishmael that was Abraham’s only son for 14 years before the birth of Isaac! The Genesis account acknowledges Abraham’s fatherhood of Ishmael and Ishmael’s sonship to Abraham (Gen 21:11-13), even though Sarah does get her way,
God said to Abraham, “Don’t be worried about the boy and about your slave Hagar. Do whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that you will have the descendants I have promised. I will also give many children to the son of the slave girl, so that they will become a nation. He too is your son.” (Bible, Genesis 21:12-13)
It is highly unlikely that the standing Hebrew text could have been corrupted much later by hostile hands who wanted to claim the limelight for Ishmael—right “under the nose” of Hebrew scholars who were descended from Isaac! Rather, I suspect, it was ‘Isaac’ that was added to retro-identify the Son of Sacrifice as Sarah’s son, the one in the genealogical line of the Jewish people.
The crisis portrayed in the Vision-Sacrifice text (Genesis 22) is that the elderly Abraham has only one son at that point in time; that first son is clearly Ishmael. Now, God had promised Abraham that He would greatly bless mankind through Abraham’s progeny, most notably the Biblical prophets. [xvii] At that time there was no second son, meaning Isaac. Thus—in the mind of the aged Abraham at that time and under those circumstances—to kill his one and only son would be tantamount to eliminating the possibility of the progeny needed to bring about God’s promise to him. In the end, realistically, would Sarah’s barrenness be reversed—even after she became more and more elderly?! Not a likely finale to the drama. But God had promised and Abraham left it to Him to fulfill His purposes…
Now suppose that God’s angel had not stayed Abraham’s raised knife and that Abraham had followed through on sacrificing his one and only son Ishmael? Recall that God did provide a son to Sarah 14 years later—meaning that the promised son and the Jewish people would still have come into being. And if the Son of Sacrifice were Isaac, the second son, and if that second son—either was or was not slaughtered by Abraham—then Abraham would still have had his first son alive, through whom Abraham’s lineage could survive. Either way, Abraham’s trust in God’s Promise for progeny still would have been vindicated.
So why might Abraham’s supreme test need to have taken place, at all, with Abraham’s only son Ishmael —before Isaac was even born? I am not aware of any revealed hints in Genesis 22 or in Quran 37, but consider this one: Human child sacrifice was practiced by peoples in the area of that time. Perhaps there is more to the Vision-Sacrifice story than has been retained in Genesis 22. Recall the prohibition against bloodshed against other humans (Gen 9:5) in general. Perhaps this was a lesson for Abraham that human life was not to be taken in sacrifice—regardless of whether or not that child was Abraham’s Son of Promise or any other child of any other parent.
It is true that the Genesis text has placed the Birth-of-Isaac pericope (21:1-7) ahead of the Hagar-and-Ishmael-Sent-Away pericope (21:8-21) —both then followed by the Vision-Sacrifice pericope (22:1-19). One thus has the sense that both sons are alive at the time of the Supreme Test of Abraham. But are these ordered chronologically or is their order scrambled so as to downplay an embarrassment concerning Ishmael [on the part of later redactors of the text] and to assert Sarah’s rights over Hagar?
Regardless of the position taken by the reader: The bottom line is that Abraham listened to the visionary command of God and trusted God to fulfill His promise, in spite of the disastrous cause-effect outcome normally to be expected if Abraham were to end up killing his only son in obedience to the vision. The Islamic Hajj celebrates the certainty of Abraham in the goodness and trustworthiness of his LORD.
Notes from The Road to Mecca
The pilgrim approaching Makkah (Mecca) is about to reach the spiritual summit of his quest, entering the ‘holy’ place for a certain period of time, the place set apart for special nearness to God. Once having entered this restricted space, he is prohibited from doing harm to any creature along the way, whether killing an animal for food or even an insect. His focus fixed solely upon his submission to the God who guided the ‘Friend of God’ (Al-Khalil), he progresses from one site to another in his pilgrim rites, avoiding undue attention to his outward himself, forbidden even from cutting his fingernails or trimming his hair—until after he has completed the walk with his Lord.
The pilgrim co-experiences the stages of his Journey together with fellows on the earthly path—all wearing the same plain and humble clothing, all intent on pleasing the Lord to whom they will eventually return to give account—and seeking the best of rewards in the next life. At one stage in the Hajj ritual, the pilgrim stands, in prayer and supplication, for a time before his LORD in awe, as if on the Day of Judgment. The other Hajj practices replicate something from the epic stories of Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael, as mentioned either in the Quran or in the Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad.
Eighty-five years ago, a European convert to Islam crossed the Arabian desert by dromedary on a 23-day trek with his faithful beduin companion, in the solitude of ‘swimming light.’ We close our ruminations on Hajj quoting excerpts from his ensuing account: [xviii]
Abraham and his heavenly ram [symbolized for the desert Arab in the Milky Way of the night time sky]: such images come easily to one’s mind in this country. It is remarkable how vivid the memory of that ancient patriarch is among the Arabs—far more vivid than among Christians in the West who, after all, base their religious imagery in the first instance on the Old Testament; or even among the Jews, to whom the Old Testament is the beginning and the end of God’s word to man. The spiritual presence of Abraham is always felt in Arabia, as in the whole Muslim world, not only in the frequency with which his name (in its Arabic form Ibrahim) is given to Muslim children, but also in the ever-recurring remembrance, both in the Koran and in the Muslims’ daily prayers, of the patriarch’s role as the first conscious preacher of God’s Oneness: which also explains the great importance given by Islam to the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, which since earliest times has been intimately connected with the story of Abraham. He was not—as so many Westerners mistakenly assume—brought into the orbit of Arab thought by Muhammad in an attempt, as it were, to “borrow” elements of religious lore from Judaism: for it is historically established that Abraham’s personality was well known to the Arabs long before the birth of Islam. All references to the patriarch in the Koran itself are so worded as to leave no doubt that he had been living in the foreground of the Arabian mind ages before Muhammad’s time: his name and the outline of his life are always mentioned without any preliminaries or explanations—as something, that is, with which even the earliest listeners to the Koran must have been thoroughly familiar. Indeed, already in pre-Islamic times Abraham had an outstanding place in the genealogies of the Arabs as progenitor, through Ishmael (Ismail), Hagar’s son, of the “northern” Arab group which today comprises more than half of the entire Arabian nation, and to which Muhammad’s own tribe, the Quraysh, belonged.
Only the beginning of the story of Ishmael and his mother is mentioned in the Old Testament, for its later development does not bear directly on the destinies of the Hebrew nation, to which the Old Testament is mainly devoted; but pre-Islamic Arab tradition has much more to say on the subject.
According to this tradition, Hagar and Ishmael were abandoned by Abraham at the place where Mecca stands today—which, on the face of it, is by no means improbable if one remembers that to a camel-riding nomad a journey of thirty days or more was and is nothing out of the ordinary. At any rate, Arab tradition says that it was to this valley that Abraham brought Hagar and their child—to this gorge between rocky hills, naked and barren under the Arabian sun, swept by flaming desert winds and avoided even by birds of prey. Even today, when the valley of Mecca is filled with houses and streets and people of many tongues and races, the desert solitude cries out from the dead slopes around it, and over the crowds of pilgrims who prostrate themselves before the Ka’ba hover the ghosts of those long-past millenniums in which silence, unbroken and devoid of all life, hung over the empty valley.
It was a proper setting for the despair of that Egyptian bond-woman who had borne a son to her master and thus had become the object of so much hatred on the part of her master’s wife that she and her son Ishmael had to be cast away. The patriarch must have been grieved indeed when he did this to placate his implacable wife; but one should remember that he, who was so close to God, was convinced that His mercy was without limit. We are told in the Book of Genesis that God had thus comforted him: “Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the child and because of thy bondwoman. . . . Of her son will I make a nation because he is of thy seed.” And so Abraham forsook the weeping woman and the child in the valley, leaving with them a water skin and a skin filled with dates; and went away northward through Midian to the land of Canaan.
A solitary sarha tree stood in the valley. In its shadow sat Hagar with the child on her lap. Around her there was nothing but swimming, waving heat, glaring light on sand and rocky slopes. How good was the shadow of the tree. . .. But the silence, this horrible silence without the breath of any living thing! As the day was slowly passing Hagar thought: If only something living would come here, a bird, an animal, yes—even a beast of prey: what a joy it would be! But nothing came except the night, comforting like all desert nights, a cooling vault of darkness and stars that softened the bitterness of her despair. Hagar felt new courage. She fed her child some dates and both drank from the water skin.
The night passed, and another day, and another night. But when the third day came with fiery breath, there was no more water in the skin, and despair outgrew all strength, and hope became like a broken vessel. And when the child cried in vain, with an ever-weaker voice, for water, Hagar cried out to the Lord; but He did not show Himself. And Hagar, distraught by the suffering of her dying child, ran to and fro with uplifted hands through the valley, always over the same stretch between two low hills: and it is in remembrance of her despair that the pilgrims who now come to Mecca run seven times between these two hillocks, crying out, as she once cried, “O Thou Bountiful, Thou Full of Grace! Who shall have mercy on us unless Thou hast mercy!”
And then came the answer: behold, a stream of water gushed forth and began to flow over the sand. Hagar shouted with joy and pressed the child’s face into the precious liquid so that he might drink; and she drank with him, calling out imploringly between her gasps, “Zummi, zummi!” which is a word without meaning, merely imitating the sound of the water as it welled up from the earth, as if to say, “Gush forth, gust forth!” Lest it run out and lose itself in the ground, Hagar heaped a little wall of sand around the spring: whereupon it ceased to flow and became a well, which henceforth came to be known as the Well of Zemzem and exists to this day.
The two were now saved from thirst, and the dates lasted them a little longer. After a few days a group of beduins, who with their families and chattels had abandoned their homelands in South Arabia and were seeking new pastures, happened to pass by the mouth of the valley. When they saw flocks of birds circling over it, they concluded that there must be water. Some of their men rode into the valley to explore it and found a lonely woman with a child sitting by the rim of an abundant well. Peacefully disposed as they were, the tribesmen asked Hagar’s permission to settle in her valley. This she granted, with the condition that the well of Zemzem forever remain the property of Ishmael and his descendants.
As for Abraham, tradition says he returned to the valley after some time and found Hagar and their son alive, as he had been promised by God. From then on he visited them often, and saw Ishmael grow to manhood and marry a girl from the South Arabian tribe. Years later the patriarch was commanded in a dream to build next to the Well of Zemzem a temple to his Lord; and thereupon, helped by his son, he built the prototype of the sanctuary which stands in Mecca to this day and is known as the Ka’ba. As they were cutting the stones for what was to become the first temple ever raised to the worship of the One God, Abraham turned his face toward heaven and exclaimed, “Labbayk, Allahuma, labbayk!” —”For Thee am I ready, O God, for Thee am I ready!”: and that is why on their pilgrimage to Mecca—the pilgrimage to the first temple of the One God—Muslims raise the cry, “Labbayk, Allahumma, Labbayk!” when they approach the Holy City.
. . . .
It is part of the hajj to walk seven times around the Ka’ba: not just to show respect to the central sanctuary of Islam but to recall to oneself the basic demand of Islamic life. The Ka’ba is a symbol of God’s Oneness; and the pilgrim’s bodily movement around it is a symbolic expression of human activity, implying that not only our thoughts and feelings—all that is comprised in the term “inner life”—but also our outward, active life, our doings and practical endeavors, must have God as their center.
And I, too, moved slowly forward and became part of the circular flow around the Ka’ba. . .. I walked on and on, the minutes passed, all that had been small and bitter in my heart began to leave my heart, I became part of a circular stream—oh, was this the meaning of what we were doing: to become aware that one is a part of a movement in an orbit? Was this, perhaps, all confusion’s end? And the minutes dissolved, and time itself stood still, and this was the center of the universe. . ..
[i] Possibly in the Armenian highlands:
The third son of Terah had been named Haran; Haran was father of Lot and had died in Ur of the Chaldeans before Terah took the remaining family and migrated toward Palestine.
[xii] Kamal Suleiman Salabi, The Bible Came from Arabia, 1985, Macmillan. Out of print book suitable for serious comparative-historical linguistic research. The author’s other titles are more available and recommended.
[xiii] Kamal Suleiman Salabi, Secrets of the Bible People, 1988, Interlink Books/Saqi Books, Great Britain.
[xiv] The Hebrew name Miriam is equivalent to the Arabic name Maryam. The English form of the name Maryam is Mary; Mary is the English name used for the mother of Jesus, as well as for several other women important in the Jesus narratives of the New Testament—suggesting close family ties.
Note that in the English Bible, the sister of Moses and Aaron is called Miriam, while the mother of Jesus is Mary.
[xv] Surprisingly, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke each give a genealogy for Jesus, both through Joseph, the betrothed of Mary and later her husband. Why would the New Testament lineage of Jesus not be registered through Mary, his actual blood parent (as in the Quran)? Instead, Jesus’ lineage was figured in the texts of Matthew and Luke through the line of Joseph, Jesus’ step-father, not his biological father—if one accepts the narrative of the Gospel of Matthew that Joseph had no marital relations with Mary until after the birth of Jesus (1:25). This in fact is Christian teaching.
Looking at the Biblical genealogical evidence, we find the following.
Joseph’s line of descent:
Abraham – Isaac – Jacob – Judah … David …Joseph
Abraham – Isaac – Jacob – Levi … Aaron … Mary.
The Quranic evidence strengthens the above summary and fills in the Biblical stories.
According to the New Testament narratives concerning Mary the mother of Jesus: There was an elderly woman Elizabeth who belonged to a priestly (Levitical) family, as did her husband, Zechariah, also advanced in years. Both were “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord” (Gospel of Luke 1:5-7, 18). Like Abraham, Zechariah had supplicated God to give him a righteous son, and Angel Gabriel came to him announcing the pregnancy of his wife Elizabeth with their son John (Luke 1:13). Their son of old age, John (Arabic, Yahya), would be a prophet to lead his people Bani Israel back to their Lord and would serve to prepare the way for his cousin Jesus (Arabic, ‘Isa) (Luke 1:14-17; 67-80). The young girl Mary was a relative of the elderly Elizabeth (Luke 1:36).
According to the Quran (3:37), Mary (Arabic, Maryam) in her youth was entrusted to the foster care of Zechariah, and spent her time in the sanctuary (of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem), where heavenly provision was always found with her. No doubt Mary would have been entrusted to the care of a trustworthy family member, a fellow Levite, charged with administering the affairs of the Temple, a descendant of ‘Imrân (the Biblical Amram).
It was apparently this extraordinary situation regarding Mary that prompted Zechariah to call upon God for a son (Quran, 3:37-38) even though he and his wife were both beyond child-bearing age (Quran 3:40).
That Mary’s father was named ‘Imran (Quran, Surat Al ‘Imran, 3:35), is not as important as the fact that the Biblical figure (Hebrew Amram = Arabic, ‘Imrân) was her ancestor, in that Amram was the father of Moses, Aaron and Miriam (Bible, Exodus 6:16, 18). This means that Mary’s Levitical [priestly] tribal lineage—as a descendant of Aaron—allowed her to be the ward of Zechariah, who could look after her when he came to the Temple for his priestly duties. Furthermore, Mary’s relative Elizabeth—Zechariah’s wife and herself the daughter of a priestly family—would share with Mary a most unlikely and amazing birth event.
Most likely Mary had been named after the illustrious Biblical Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, and possibly after a grandmother or other more recent ‘Miriam/Maryam.’ The names ‘Imran/Amram, and Miriam/Mary would have been commonly used within the priestly families. The Biblical text calls the ancient Miriam a ‘prophet’ (Bible, Exodus 15:20) and suggests her leadership status along with her siblings Moses and Aaron, as indicated (Bible, Numbers 12:1-16) when she and Aaron are punished for their offense against their brother.
The above relationships are spelled out in more detail in my Appendix which appears in the following book:
Ahmad Zaki Hammad, MARY The Chosen Woman, The Mother of Jesus in the Quran: An Interlinear Commentary on Surat Maryam (Quran: Interpretation in context), 2000, Quranic Literacy Institute, pp. 91-96.
[xvi] location of Havilah and Shur
[xvii] Prophet Muhammad, too, was from the family of Abraham, on the Ishmaelite branch, and a successor to Moses and many other Hebrew prophets, including the reformer-prophet Jesus.
Indeed, God has chosen Adam and Noah, and the Family of Abraham, and the Family of ‘Imran above the people of all the world. They are descendants, one of another… [Quran, Surat Al ‘Imran, 3:33]
[xviii] Muhammad Asad, The Road to Mecca, 1954, Simon and Schuster, New York, pp. 377-380; 394-395.