Short Answer: It was most likely Ishmael. Though some scholars have argued it was Isaac, the majority agree that it had to have been Abraham’s eldest son, Ishmael.
Thank you for contacting About Islam with your question. Dr. Shabir Ally addresses this question in the video below.
Aisha Khaja: Dr. Shabir, the question today is: would you be able to explain why Christians and Muslims differ as to what son of Abraham was ordered to sacrifice.
Why do Christians believe it was Isaac, and what proof do they have and vice versa for Muslims and Ismail?
Dr. Shabir Ally: Yeah, so in the Christian Bible, which—and we’re dealing with a section which happens to be the Jewish Bible as well, in the book of Genesis in chapter 22, God says to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and offer him as a burnt offering, as a sacrifice.”
And so, Abraham took this boy.
Now where it says “your son”, “your only son”, some Muslim commentators have looked at this–for example, ibn Kathir in his Tafseer of the Quran–and he said that, OK, he pointed out the obvious: that by the time Isaac was born, Abraham now had two sons.
And the only time he had one son is when he had the only son, Ishmael. Ishmael being the older of these two brothers.
So, if God is saying to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son”, it wouldn’t have been Isaac, it would have been Ishmael.
So, he thinks that the name must, somehow, have been switched from Ishmael to Isaac.
Aisha Khaja: In the Bible?
Dr. Shabir Ally: In that passage, yes.
The Muslim Tradition
Moreover, when we look at Islamic tradition, it is commonly believed that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is a descendant of Ishmael; so through a descendant of Abraham, but through his son Ishmael.
And the Ishmaelites are then generally known to be the Arabs.
And among Arabs, there is the annual sacrifice commemorating the sacrifice. That is thought to be the sacrifice of Ishmael, their forefather… the forefather of the Arabs.
So, that similar sacrifice does not seem to have been commemorated among the Israelites, who are the descendants of Isaac, although, they have other sacrifices, but not this particular one.
So, all of these together have led Muslims to think that Ishmael was the son to be sacrificed.
But having said this, it is curious that many of the classical commentators on the Quran–like Tabari’s Tafseer and so on–they have actually said that it was Isaac.
Or they–sometimes they give both opinions, but in the final analysis, they give some preference for Isaac as the one.
But ibn Katheer and others who come later would argue that they were just simply following the news that they receive from their Jewish and Christian informers about this.
Whereas, Imam Suyuti has said that the previous scholar had a good explanation about this, showing that from the Quranic text itself it should be clear that the son to be offered in sacrifice was actually Ishmael, though the Quran does not actually state it.
Aisha Khaja: Specifically state, by name?
Dr. Shabir Ally: But if we put two and two together in the Quran, this seems to be a reasonable conclusion that it was actually Ishmael and not Isaac.
I hope this helps answer your question. Please keep in touch.
(From Ask About Islam’s archives)