Did Ibrahim (PBUH) sacrifice Ishmael or Isaac?

Most of my friends, when we discussed the sacrifice of the Prophet  Ibrahim’s (PBUH) son, have insisted that the son who was (almost) sacrificed was Hazrat Ishmael (also known as Ismail) – the elder son of the prophet Ibrahim (PBUH) by Hagar, and not Isaac, the younger son by Sarah.  Therefore, I was so surprised when I read the passage about this in the Qur’an.  When I showed it to these same friends they were also very surprised.  So what does it say?  In Sign 3 of Ibrahim I looked at this important event, and I quote the passage in full at From the Books: Sign 3 of Ibrahim.  I repeat the specific ayah again here

Then, when (the son) reached (the age of) (serious) work with him, he said: “O my son! I see in vision that I offer thee in sacrifice: Now see what is thy view!” (The son) said: “O my father! Do as thou art commanded: thou will find me, if Allah so wills one practicing Patience and Constancy!  (Al-Saffat 37:102)

You can see that the name of the son is not mentioned in this passage about the sacrifice of the son of Ibrahim (PBUH).  So the issue becomes confusing.  When something is confusing it is best to do a more thorough search and study.  If you search through the entire Qur’an for when prophet Ishmael (or Isma’il) is mentioned you will see his name occurs 12 times.  In two of these times he is the only one named along with Ibrahim his father (2:125, 2:127).  Five of these times he is mentioned with Ibrahim and with his brother Isaac (3:84, 4,163, 2:133, 2:136, 2:140).  The remaining five passages mentions him without his father Ibrahim, but rather he is in a list with other prophets (6:86, 14:39, 19:54, 21:85, 38:48).  In the two times he is mentioned alone with his father Ibrahim (PBUH) you can see that it is talking about other events on prayer – not sacrifice.

Remember We made the House a place of assembly for men and a place of safety; and take ye the station of Abraham as a place of prayer; and We covenanted with Abraham and Isma’il, that they should sanctify My House for those who compass it round, or use it as a retreat, or bow, or prostrate themselves (therein in prayer). (The Cow:125)

And remember Abraham and Isma’il raised the foundations of the House (With this prayer): “Our Lord! Accept (this service) from us: For Thou art the All-Hearing, the All-knowing. (The Cow: 127)

Therefore the Qur’an never specifies that it was Ishmael that was tested by sacrifice, it just says ‘the son’. So why is it believed that it was Ishmael who was tested by sacrifice?

Commentary on the Sacrifice of the Son of Ibrahim

Yusuf Ali (whose translation of the Qur’an is the one I am using) is a respected commentator of the Qur’an as well as a translator.  His commentary footnotes are available at http://al-quran.info

These footnotes on the passage of the sacrifice (from al-Saffat which we used in Sign 3 of Ibrahim) you will find the following two footnotes on the son being sacrificed.

 4071  This was in the fertile land of Syria and Palestine. The boy thus born was, according to Muslim tradition, the first-born son of Abraham, viz., Ismail. The name itself is from the root Sami’a, to hear, because God had heard Abraham’s prayer (verse 100). Abraham’s age when Ismail was born was 86 (Gen. 16:16).

4076 Our version may be compared with the Jewish-Christian version of the present Old Testament. The Jewish tradition, in order to glorify the younger branch of the family, descended from Isaac, ancestor of the Jews, as against the elder branch, descended from Isma’il, ancestor of the Arabs, refers this sacrifice to Isaac (Gen. 22:1-18). Now Isaac was born when Abraham was 100 years old (Gen. 21:5), while Isma’il was born to Abraham when Abraham was 86 years old (Gen. 16:16). Isma’il was therefore 14 years older than Isaac. During his first 14 years Isma’il was the only son of Abraham; at no time was Isaac the only son of Abraham. Yet, in speaking of the sacrifice, the Old Testament says (Gen. 22:2): ‘And He said, Take now thy son, thine only son Issac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah : and offer him there for a burnt offering…”

Yusuf Ali’s only reason for the view that it is Ishmael and not Isaac being sacrificed is ‘Muslim tradition’.  He makes no reference to holy scripture.  In his second footnote he argues that since the Taurat says ‘take your son, your only son…(Genesis 22:2) and Ishmael was 14 years older, then only Ishmael could be offered for sacrifice as an ‘only son’.  But he is ignoring the fact that just previously, in Genesis 21, Ibrahim (PBUH) sent Ishmael and Hagar away due to the tensions in the family.  Thus, in Genesis 22 Isaac is actually his ‘only son’ since Ishmael had been banished.  This is covered in more detail in my post on this.

Ibrahim’s son sacrificed: Testimony of the Taurat

So the Qur’an does not specify which son, but the Taurat is very clear.  As you can see in the Books that the passage in Genesis 22 mentions Isaac by name six different times (in 22:2, 3, 6, 7 (2 times), 9).

The Taurat supported by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)

That the Taurat as we have it today was supported by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is very clear from haddiths.  My post on this mentions several haddith, one of which states that

Narrated Abdullah Ibn Umar: ..A group of Jews came and invited the Apostle of Allah (PBUH) to Quff. …  They said: ‘AbulQasim, one of our men has committed fornication with a woman; so pronounce judgment upon them’. They placed a cushion for the Apostle of Allah (PBUH) who sat on it and said: “Bring the Torah”. It was then brought. He then withdrew the cushion from beneath him and placed the Torah on it saying: “I believed in thee and in Him Who revealed thee.”  Sunan Abu Dawud Book 38, No. 4434:

The Taurat supported by the Prophet Isa al Masih (PBUH)

The prophet Isa al-Masih (PBUH) also supported the Taurat as it is today as we saw in my post on how he affirmed that the first books were the most important for us.  One quote from him in that article says that

18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law (i.e. Taurat) until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:18-19)

The Warning: Never Tradition over Taurat

So it would not be wise to lightly dismiss the Books of Moses (Musa) for the sake of any tradition.  In fact, the Prophet Isa al-Masih heavily criticized the Jews of his day precisely because they put their ‘traditions’ ahead of the Law.  We see that in his disputes with the Jewish leaders that he says to them:

Jesus (i.e. Isa) replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! (Matthew 15:3-7)

The warning by the prophet is very clear to never nullify the Message for the sake of ‘tradition’.

The Testimony of Today’s Taurat supported by Dead Sea Scrolls

The following diagram shows that the dates of the earliest existing manuscripts of the Taurat, (which is one of the main principles used in textual criticism – the science of determining the reliability of a book – see my post on it here), the Dead Sea Scrolls date to 200 B.C.  This means that the Taurat that both the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the Prophet Isa al Masih (PBUH) were referring to is exactly the same as we use today.

This is the value for us all to go back to the Books.  Then we can build a foundation from knowing what the Prophets have said rather than remaining confused in speculations

The Bible through time

Manuscripts of Today’s Bible – from long ago

Sign 1 of Ibrahim: Blessing

Ibrahim! He is also known as Abraham and Abram (PBUH).  All three monotheistic religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam view him as model to follow. Arabs and Jews today trace their physical ancestry from him through his sons Ishmael and Isaac. He is also important in the line of the prophets because the later prophets build on him.  So we will look at the sign of Ibraham (PBUH) in several parts. Click here to read his first sign in the Qur’an and in the Taurat.

We see in the ayat from the Qur’an that Ibrahim (PBUH) was to have ‘tribes’ of people coming from him. These people were then to have a ‘great Kingdom’. But a man must have at least one son before he can have ‘Tribes’ of people, and he must also have a place before these people can have a ‘Great Kingdom’.

Promise to Ibrahim (PBUH)

The passage from the Taurat (Genesis 12:1-7) shows how Allah was going to unfold this double fulfillment of ‘tribes’ and a ‘Great Kingdom’ coming from Ibrahim (PBUH). Allah gave him a promise that was a foundation for the future. Let us review it further in detail. We see that Allah says to Ibrahim:

“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.


Greatness of Ibrahim

Many people today where I live wonder if there is a God and how one can know if He really revealed himself through the Taurat.  Here before us is a promise, parts of which we can verify.  The end of this revelation records that Allah directly promised to Ibrahim (PBUH) that ‘I will make your name great‘.  We sit in the 21st century and the name of Ibrahim/Abraham/Abram is one of the most globally recognized names in history.  This promise has literally and historically come true.  The earliest copy of the Taurat that exists today is from the Dead Sea Scrolls which date to 200-100 B.C.  This means that this promise has, at the very least, been in writing since that time.  At that time the person and name of Ibrahim was not well-known – only to the minority of Jews who followed the Taurat.  But today his name is great, so we can verify a fulfillment that has only come about after it was written down, not before.

This part of the promise to Ibrahim has definitely happened, as should be obvious even to unbelievers, and this gives us even greater confidence to understand the remaining part of this promise of Allah to Ibrahim.  Let’s continue to study it.

Blessing to us

Again, we can see the promise of a ‘great nation’ from Ibrahim and a ‘blessing’ to Ibrahim. But there is something else as well, the blessing is not only for Ibrahim because it says that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (i.e. through Ibrahim). This should make you and I sit up and take notice. Because you and I are part of ‘all peoples on earth’ – no matter what our religion, ethnic background, where we live, our social status, or what language we speak. This promise is for everybody alive today.  This is a promise for you.  Though our different religions, ethnic backgrounds and languages often divide people and cause conflict, this is a promise that looks to overcome these things that usually divide us. How? When? What kind of blessing? This was not clearly revealed at this point, but this Sign birthed a promise that is for you and me through Ibrahim (PBUH).  Since we know that one part of this promise has come true, we can have confidence that this other part that applies to us will also have a clear and literal fulfillment – we just need to find the key to unlock it.

We can notice that when Ibrahim received this promise he obeyed Allah and…

“So Abram left as the LORD had told him” (v. 4)

Map of Ibrahim’s journey

How long was this journey to the Promised Land? The map here shows his journey. He lived originally in Ur (Southern Iraq today) and moved to Haran (Northern Iraq). Ibrahim (PBUH) then journeyed to what was called Canaan in his day. You can see that this was a long journey. He would have traveled on camel, horse or donkey so it would have taken many months. Ibrahim left his family, his comfortable life (Mesopotamia at this time was the center of civilization), his security and all that was familiar to travel to a land that was foreign to him. And this, the Taurat tells us, when he was 75 years old!

Animal sacrifices like previous Prophets

The Taurat also tells us that when Ibrahim (PBUH) arrived in Canaan safely:

“So he built an altar there to the LORD “ (v. 7)

An altar would be where, like Qabil and Noah before him, he offered blood sacrifices of animals to Allah. We see that this is a pattern of how the prophets worshiped Allah.

Ibrahim (PBUH) had risked so much so late in his life to travel to this new land. But in so doing he submitted himself to the Promise of Allah to both be blessed and to be a blessing to all Peoples. And that is why he is so important to us. We continue with the Sign 2 of Ibrahim next.