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.

From Taurat: What is the account of the prophet Ishmael (PBUH)?

There is a lot of confusion about what happened to Ishmael. The Taurat, written 3500 years ago by the prophet Musa (PBUH), helps clarify this for us. Allah had promised Ibrahim (PBUH) that he would bless him and make his descendants as many as the sand on the seashore (see here). Ibrahim (PBUH) finally obtained two sons by his two wives, but a rivalry between them forced him to send Hagar and Ishmael away. This rivalry occurred in two stages. The first stage occurred after the birth of Ishmael and before the birth of Isaac. Here is what the Taurat says about this rivalry and how Allah protected Hagar, appeared to her and gave His blessing to Ishmael (PBUH).

Hagar and Ishmael – Genesis 16

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; 2 so she said to Abram, “The LORD has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”

Abram agreed to what Sarai said. 3 So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. 4 He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.

When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. 5 Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the LORD judge between you and me.”

6 “Your slave is in your hands, ” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.

7 The angel of the LORD found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. 8 And he said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”

“I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered.

9 Then the angel of the LORD told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” 10 The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”

11 The angel of the LORD also said to her: “You are now pregnant and you will give birth to a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the LORD has heard of your misery. 12 He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers. ”

13 She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me, ” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” 14 That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.

15 So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.

We see that Hagar was a prophetess since she spoke with the LORD.  He that told her the name of her son was to be Ishmael and gave her a promise that Ishmael would become ‘too numerous to count’. So with this encounter and promise she returned to her mistress and the rivalry paused.

The Rivalry Grows

But when Isaac was born to Sarai 14 years later the rivalry started again. We read in the Taurat how this happened.

Genesis 21:8-21

8 The child [i.e. Isaac] grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. 9 But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, 10 and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”

11 The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. 12 But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. 13 I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.”

14 Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the Desert of Beersheba.

15 When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob.

17 God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. 18 Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation. ”

19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.

20 God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. 21 While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.

We see that Sarah (her name had been changed from Sarai) could not live in the same household with Hagar and demanded that she be sent away. Though Ibrahim (PBUH) was reluctant, Allah promised that he would bless Hagar and Ishmael (PBUH). Indeed He spoke to her again, opened her eyes to see water in the desert and promised that Ishmael (PBUH) would become a ‘great nation’.

The Taurat continues showing how this nation started in its development. We read about Ishmael (PBUH) at the time of the death of Ibrahim (PBUH).

Death of Ibrahim Genesis 25:8-18

8 Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people. 9 His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah near Mamre, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, 10 the field Abraham had bought from the Hittites. There Abraham was buried with his wife Sarah. 11 After Abraham’s death, God blessed his son Isaac, who then lived near Beer Lahai Roi.

Ishmael’s Sons

12 This is the account of the family line of Abraham’s son Ishmael, whom Sarah’s slave, Hagar the Egyptian, bore to Abraham.

13 These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, listed in the order of their birth: Nebaioth the firstborn of Ishmael, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, 14 Mishma, Dumah, Massa, 15 Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish and Kedemah. 16 These were the sons of Ishmael, and these are the names of the twelve tribal rulers according to their settlements and camps. 17 Ishmael lived a hundred and thirty-seven years. He breathed his last and died, and he was gathered to his people. 18 His descendants settled in the area from Havilah to Shur, near the eastern border of Egypt, as you go toward Ashur. And they lived in hostility toward all the tribes related to them.

Ishmael lived a very long time indeed and that his sons became 12 tribal rulers. Allah had blessed him as He had promised.  Arabs to this day trace their ancestry to Ibrahim through Ishmael.