Did Ibrahim (PBUH) sacrifice Ishmael or Isaac?

When we discuss the sacrifice of the Prophet  Ibrahim’s (PBUH) son, my friends insist that the son almost sacrificed was Hazrat Ishmael (or Ismail) – the elder son of Ibrahim (PBUH) by Hagar – not Isaac, the younger son by Sarah.  Therefore, I was surprised when I read about this in the Qur’an.  When I show it to my friends they are also surprised.  In Sign 3 of Ibrahim I looked at this important event, and the passage is quoted in full here.  So what does it say?  The specific ayah is repeated again.

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)

The name of the son is not mentioned in this passage about the sacrifice of the son of Ibrahim (PBUH).  In such a situation 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.

  • 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  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)

The Holy 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 offered?

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 is available at http://al-quran.info

The commentary on the passage of the sacrifice has 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).

Yusuf Ali’s only reason here is ‘Muslim tradition’.

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…”

In this footnote he argues that since the Taurat says ‘take your son, your only son…(Genesis 22:2) and Ishmael was 14 years older, therefore only Ishmael could be offered for sacrifice as an ‘only son’.  But he forgets that just previously, in Genesis 21, Ibrahim (PBUH) had sent Ishmael and Hagar away.  Thus, in Genesis 22 Isaac is actually his ‘only son’ since Ishmael had been banished.  See more detail on this here.

Ibrahim’s son sacrificed: Testimony of the Taurat

So the Qur’an does not specify which son, but the Taurat is very clear.  You can see that the Taurat 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 affirmed the Taurat as we saw in here.  One teaching 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

It would not be wise to dismiss the Taurat of Musa for the sake of any tradition.  In fact, the Prophet Isa al-Masih (PBUH) criticized the religious leaders of his day precisely because they put their ‘traditions’ ahead of the Law, as we see here:

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

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

The following diagram shows that the earliest manuscripts of the Taurat, the Dead Sea Scrolls, date to 200 B.C (more on this here).  This means that the Taurat which the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the Prophet Isa al Masih (PBUH) referred to is exactly the same as is used today.

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

Returning back to what the Prophets have revealed clarifies this question for us.

Sign 3 of Ibrahim: Sacrifice

The great prophet Ibrahim (PBUH) had been promised a son in the previous Sign. And Allah had kept his promise. In fact the Taurat continues the account of Ibrahim (PBUH) to describe how he got two sons. In Genesis 16 the Taurat tells how he got his son Ishmael with Hagar and then later Genesis 21 tells how he got his son Isaac with Sarai about 14 years later. Unfortunately for his household, this resulted in a great rivalry between the two women, Hagar and Sarai, and ended with Ibrahim sending Hagar and her son away. You can read here how this happened and how Allah blessed Hagar and Ishmael in another way.

The sacrifice of the Prophet Ibrahim: Basis for Eid al-adha

So with only one son left in his household Ibrahim (PBUH) encounters his greatest test but it is one that opens for us a greater understanding of the Straight Way. Please read the account from Taurat and Qur’an concerning the test of the sacrifice of his son here.  This story from the Books is the reason why the Eid al-adha is celebrated.  But this is not just a historical event.  It is more.

We can see from the account in the Books that this is a test for Ibrahim (PBUH), but it is more than just that. Since Ibrahim is a prophet this test is also a sign for us, so we could learn more about God’s care for us. In what way is this a sign? Please note the name that Ibrahim gave to the place where his son was to be sacrificed. This part of the Taurat is shown here so you can read it directly.

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place ‘The LORD Will Provide’. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.” (Genesis 22:13-14)

Allah had provided a ram so that his son would not have to be sacrificed.  But notice the name that Ibrahim (‘Abraham’ in the Taurat) gave to that place. He named it ‘The LORD will provide’. Is that name in the past tense, present tense or future tense? It is clearly in the future tense. And to be even more clear the comment which follows (which Musa – PBUH – inserted when he compiled this account into the Taurat about 500 years later) it repeats “…it will be provided”. Again this is in the future tense and looking to the future. Most people think that Ibrahim is referring to the ram (a male sheep) which was caught in the thicket and was sacrificed in place of his son. But when Ibrahim names the place the ram is already dead, sacrificed and burnt. If Ibrahim is thinking of the ram – already dead, sacrificed and burnt – he would have named it ‘The LORD has provided’, i.e. in the past tense. And Musa (pbuh), if he was thinking of the ram that took the place of Ibrahim’s son would have commented ‘And to this day it is said “On the mountain of the LORD it was provided”’. But both Ibrahim and Musa clearly give it a name in future tense and therefore are not thinking of the already dead and sacrificed ram.

So what are they thinking about then? If we look for a clue we see that the place where Allah told Ibrahim to go at the beginning of this Sign was:

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” (v.2)

This happened in ‘Moriah’. And where is that? Though it was a wilderness area in Ibrahim’s day (2000 BC), a thousand years later (1000 BC) the famous King Dawood (David) established the city of Jerusalem there, and his son Suleiman (Solomon) built the Temple there. We read in the Zabur about this that:

Then Solomon (Suleiman) began to build the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the LORD had appeared to his father David (Dawood) 2Chronicles 3:1

In other words, ‘Mount Moriah’ in the time of Ibrahim (and later Musa) was an isolated mountain top in the wilderness but 1000 years later with Dawood and Suleiman it became Jerusalem (Al Quds), the central and capital city of the Israelites where they built the Temple to the LORD. And to this very day it is a holy place for the Jewish people.

Isa al Masih and the sacrifice on Mount Moriah

And here we find a direct connection to Isa al Masih (PBUH) and the Injil. We see this connection when we know about one of the titles of Isa. Isa had many titles given to him. Perhaps the most well-known is the title ‘Masih’ (which is also ‘Christ’). But there is another title given to him that is very important. We see this in the Injil when the prophet Yahya (John the Baptist in the Injil) says:

The next day John (i.e. Yahya) saw Jesus (i.e. Isa) coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. This is the one I meant when I said ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me’”. (John 1:29-30)

An important, but lesser known title of Isa (PBUH), given to him by Yahya was ‘The Lamb of God”. Now consider the end of Isa’s life. Where was he arrested and sentenced for execution?  It was in Jerusalem (which as we saw is the same as ‘Mount Moriah’). It is very clear stated during his arrest that:

When he [Pilate] learned that Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at the time.’ (Luke 23:7)

In other words, the arrest, trial and sentencing of Isa happened in Jerusalem (= Mount Moriah).

Back to Ibrahim. Why did he name that place in the future tense ‘The LORD will provide’? He was a prophet and knew that something would be ‘provided’ there. When he is tested, the son of Ibrahim is saved from death at the last moment because a lamb dies in his place. Two thousand years later, Isa is called ‘Lamb of God’ and is arrested and sentenced to death on the same spot!

Jerusalem Timeline
Timeline of events at Jerusalem / Mt Moriah

The Sacrifice ransomed Ibrahim: from death

Is this important to us? I note how this sign of Ibrahim ends. In ayah 107 from the Qur’an it says of Ibrahim (PBUH) that

And We ransomed him with a momentous sacrifice

What does it mean to be ‘ransomed’?  To pay a ransom is to make a payment for someone who is held as a prisoner to set the prisoner free.  For Ibrahim (PBUH) to be ‘ransomed’ means that he was a prisoner of something (Yes even a great prophet!).  What was he a prisoner of?  The scene with his son tells us.  He was a prisoner of death.  Even though he was a prophet, death held him as a prisoner.  We saw from the Sign of Adam that Allah had made Adam and his Children (everyone – including the prophets) mortal – they were now prisoners of death.  But somehow in this drama of the sacrificed lamb Ibrahim (PBUH) was ‘ransomed’ from this.  If you review the sequence of signs (Adam, Cain&Abel, Noah, Ibrahim 1) thus far you will see that animal sacrifice was almost always practiced by the prophets.  They knew something about this that maybe escapes us.  And we can see that because this act also points forward into the future to Isa ‘the Lamb of God’ that it has something to do with him.

The Sacrifice: A Blessing for us

And the sacrifice of the lamb on Mount Moriah is important for us as well.  At the end of the exchange Allah declares to Ibrahim that

“…and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed because you have obeyed me” (Genesis 22:18)

If you belong to one of the ‘nations on earth’ (and you do!) this has to concern you because the promise is that you then can get a ‘blessing’ from Allah himself! Is that not worthwhile?! How does this connection of Ibrahim’s story with Isa make a blessing to us? And why? We note that Ibrahim (PBUH) was ‘ransomed’ and this is a clue for us, but apart from that the answer is not readily apparent here so we will continue with the Signs of Musa (he has two) and they will clarify these questions for us.

But here I just want to point out that the word ‘offspring’ here is in the singular. It is not ‘offsprings’ as in many descendants or peoples. The promise of a blessing was through an ‘offspring’ from Ibrahim in the singular – singular as in a ‘he’, not through many people or a group of people as in ‘they’.  The Passover Sign of Musa will now help us understand further.