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

Manuscript copies of Taurat through time
Manuscript copies of Taurat through time

Sign 2 of Ibrahim: Right-ness

What is it we all need from Allah? There are several answers to that question, but the Sign of Adam reminds us that our first and greatest need is righteousness. There we found Words addressed directly to us (The children of Adam).

O you Children of Adam! We have bestowed raiment upon you to cover your shame, as well as to be an adornment to you. But the raiment of righteousness – that is the best. Such are among the signs of Allah, that they may receive admonition. (Surat 7:26)

So what is ‘righteousness’? The Taurat (in Deuteronomy 32:4) tells us about Allah that

I will proclaim the name of the Lord.
Oh, praise the greatness of our God!
He is the Rock, his works are perfect,
and all his ways are just.
A faithful God who does no wrong,
upright and just is he.

This is the picture of the Righteousness of Allah given in the Taurat. Righteousness means that one is perfect; that all (not just some or most but all) one’s ways are just, that one does no (not even a little) wrong; that one is upright. This is righteousness and this is how the Taurat describes Allah. But why do we need righteousness? We jump ahead to a passage in the Zabur to give the answer. In Psalm 15 (written by Dawood) we read:

Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent?
Who may live on your holy mountain?

The one whose walk is blameless,
who does what is righteous,
who speaks the truth from their heart;
whose tongue utters no slander,
who does no wrong to a neighbor,
and casts no slur on others;
who despises a vile person
but honors those who fear the Lord;
who keeps an oath even when it hurts,
and does not change their mind;
who lends money to the poor without interest;
who does not accept a bribe against the innocent…

When it is asked who may live on Allah’s ‘Holy Mountain’, that is another way of asking who may be with Allah in Paradise. And we can see from the answer that the one who is blameless and ‘righteous’ (v2) – that person can enter Paradise to be with Allah. This is why we need righteousness. Righteousness is required to be with Allah since He is perfect.

Now consider the second sign of Ibrahim (PBUH). Click here to open the passage from the Books. We see in the reading from the Taurat and Qur’an that Ibraham (PBUH) followed ‘his Way’ (Surat 37:83) and in so doing he obtained ‘righteousness’ (Genesis 15:6) – the very thing that the Sign of Adam told us we need. So the important question for us is: How did he get it?

Often I think that I get righteousness in one of two ways. In the first way (in my thinking) I get righteousness by believing in or acknowledging the existence of Allah. I ‘believe’ in Allah. And in support of this thinking, didn’t Ibrahim (PBUH) ‘believe the LORD’ in Genesis 15:6? But with more reflection I realized that this did not mean he only believed in the existence of one God. No Allah had given him a firm promise – that he would receive a son. And it was that promise that Ibrahim (PBUH) had to choose whether to believe or not. Think about it further, the devil (also known as Shaytan or Iblis) believes in the existence of Allah – and he certainly does not have righteousness. So simply believing in the existence of Allah is not what ‘the Way’ is about. That is not enough.

The second way I often think I can get righteousness is that I merit it or earn it from Allah by the good and religious things I do. Doing more good things than bad things, prayers, fasts, or doing a certain kind or amount of religious work allows me to deserve, earn or merit righteousness. But notice that is not what the Taurat says at all.

Abram believed the LORD, and he [i.e. Allah] credited it to him [i.e. Ibrahim] as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)

Ibrahim did not ‘earn’ righteousness; it was ‘credited’ to him. So what is the difference? Well, if something is ‘earned’ you worked for it – you deserve it. It is like receiving wages for the work you do. But when something is credited to you, it is given to you. It is not earned or merited.

Ibrahim (PBUH) was a man who believed deeply in the existence of one Allah. And he was a man of prayer, devotion, and helping people (like helping and praying for his nephew Lut/Lot). It is not that we are to discard these things.  But ‘the Way’ described of Ibrahim here is so simple that we can almost miss it. The Taurat tells us that Ibrahim (PBUH) was given righteousness because he believed in a Promise given to him by Allah. This overturns the common understandings that we have about obtaining righteousness either by thinking that belief in Allah’s existence is enough, or by doing enough good and religious activities (prayers, fastings etc.) that I can earn or merit righteousness. This is not the way that Ibrahim took. He simply chose to believe the promise.

Now choosing to believe in this promise of a son was perhaps simple but it definitely was not easy.  Ibrahim (PBUH) could easily have disregarded the promise by reasoning that if Allah really had the desire as well as the power to grant him a son then He should have done so by now. Because at this point in his life, Ibrahim and Sarai (his wife) were old – well past the age of getting children. In the first Sign of Ibrahim that he was already 75 years old when he left his home country and went to Canaan. At that time Allah had promised him that he would get a ‘great nation’. And many years have passed since then so Ibrahim and his wife Sarai are now old indeed and have already waited a long time. And they still do not even have one child – and certainly not a ‘nation’. “Why has not Allah already given us a son if he could have done so”?, he would have wondered. In other words, he believed the promise of a coming son even though he probably had unanswered questions about the promise. He believed the promise because he trusted Allah who gave the promise – even though he did not understand everything about the promise. And to believe in that promise (a son coming past the age of child-bearing) would require believing that Allah would do a miracle for him and his wife.

Believing the promise would also demand active waiting. His whole life was, in a sense, interrupted while he was living in tents in the Promised Land of Canaan waiting (still many years) for the coming of the promised son. It would have been much easier to disregard the promise and return home to civilization in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) that he had left many years earlier where his brother and family still lived. So Ibrahim had to live with the difficulties of continuing to believe the promise – each and every day – for the many years while he waited for the promise to be given. His trust in the promise was so great that it took priority over normal goals for life – comfort and well-being. In a real sense, living in anticipation of the promise meant dying to normal goals of life. Believing the promise showed both his trust in and love for Allah.

Thus ‘believing’ the promise went far beyond just mental agreement to it. Ibrahim had to stake his life, reputation, safety, actions in the present and hopes for the future on this promise. Because he believed he actively and obediently waited.

This Sign is how Ibrahim (PBUH) believed the promise from Allah of a son, and in so doing he was also given, or credited, righteousness. In a real sense Ibrahim submitted himself to this promise. He could have chosen not to believe and returned back to the land he came from (modern-day Iraq). And he could have disregarded the promise while still believing in the existence of Allah and still continuing in his prayers,fastings, and helping other people. But then he would have only maintained his religion but not been credited ‘righteousness’. And as the Qur’an tells all us children of Adam – “the raiment of righteousness – that is the best”. This was the Way of Ibrahim.

We have learned much. Righteousness, the very thing we need for Paradise is not earned but credited to us.  And it is credited to us by trusting the Promise of Allah.  But who then pays for righteousness? We continue with Sign 3.