For centuries, the received wisdom filtered down to us through the existing books of the Old Testament is that God promised that Abraham (peace be upon him) would be the father of a great nation and that nation would be generated through his son, Isaac (peace be upon him).
His ‘other son,’ Ishmael (peace be upon him), is dismissed as of no importance.
Or is he of no importance?
This, in fact, isn’t quite what the Bible tells us.
Abraham (peace be upon him) had two sons: Ishmael and Isaac, also known as Israel. There is, without doubt, in the existing version of the Bible, an undisguised bias in favor of the Israelite branch of the family and there are clear attempts to confuse the issue and to belittle the Ishmaelite branch.
This is unquestionably because the ones writing the versions of the Old Testament we have today were of the Israelites. Isn’t it the case that history is often written down by the victors?
Throughout history, as the Israelites became more and more supreme in the land, they tried to brand their Ishmaelite cousins as barbaric and outside the scope of God’s promise. In the story of Prophet Joseph (peace be upon him), Joseph is taken by “a wandering band of Ishmaelites.”
However, the evidence shows a clear indication that God’s promise was to both sons and to both branches of Abraham’s family.
Abraham (peace be upon him), who was an old man and whose wife Sarah was barren and too old to bear children, is given a promise, even before any child was born to him. (Genesis 12:2-3)
Remember, this promise was given even before any children are born.
In the course of time, we are told that Sarah gave Abraham a handmaid to be his wife, in the hope that she would bear a child to Abraham. (Genesis 16:3)
Abraham’s second wife, Hagar, did bear him a son, his first-born, who was named Ishmael (peace be upon him), which means “God hears.” God had heard Abraham’s plea for a son, and for fourteen years Ishmael was Abraham’s only child. After Ishmael had been born, and before his brother Isaac was born, God repeated His promise to bless the families of the earth through Abraham’s descendants. (Genesis 17:4)
In the fullness of time, Sarah (his first wife) did bear Abraham another child, his second son, who was named Isaac. (Genesis 21:5)
God’s Promise to Abraham Fulfilled through both His Sons
It is quite possible, and a matter readily accepted by many Biblical scholars, that the writers of the Book of Genesis inserted statements to favor their own clan. It is true that we do read “But My Covenant will I establish with Isaac.” (Genesis 17:2) and “For in Isaac shall thy seed be called.” (Genesis 21:12). But there is enough other evidence to show that the promise is made to both sons.
Indeed, why should there be only one child as the heir of the Divine promise? Why could it not be both sons? We might also ask what kind of Divine justice punishes an innocent child? God tells Hagar:
“The angel of the LORD also said to her, “I will so greatly multiply your descendants that they cannot be numbered for multitude.” (Genesis 16:10)
It is clear in the Bible account that out of jealousy for Hagar and her son, and in order to protect the rights of her own son, Sarah asked Abraham to cast Hagar and Ishmael away (Genesis 21:10).
There are differences between what the Quran and the Bible say about the emigration of Ishmael and his mother to the wilderness. The Bible says they were forced to do so because of jealousy. In the Bible, Hagar and Ishmael are cast aside to Beersheba. The Quran says they moved to Makkah in order to fulfill the Divine Will.
In speaking of this, Abraham (peace be upon him) says:
Our Lord! I have made some of my offspring to dwell in a valley without cultivation by thy sacred house; in order, O Lord, that they may establish prayer: so fill the hearts of some among men with love towards them, and feed them, and feed them with fruits: so that they may give thanks. (Quran 14:37)
Muslims believe that it was, of course, on this very spot that the sacred Ka’bah, the first house on earth built in worship of Allah, was rediscovered and rebuilt by Abraham and Ishmael (peace be upon them) and it is to this same place that millions of Muslims travel every year to perform the Hajj.
This episode really reveals Abraham and his wife and son as people of deep faith. Hagar accepts that Allah has instructed Abraham to bring her to this place with her baby son. Later on, the young Ishmael is ready to accept his own sacrifice at the hand of his father as part of God’s Will.
And it is in this barren place, with nothing but sand in all directions, that Abraham (peace be upon him) responds to the Call of Allah to call all mankind to make the Pilgrimage:
And proclaim the pilgrimage among men: they will come to thee on foot and (mounted) on every camel, lean (on account of journeys) through deep and distant mountain highways. (Quran 22:27)
The Bible account has Abraham cast aside his wife and first-born son because of the jealousy of his first wife. In the Quran the episode shows Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael participating together in an action of deep faith and trust in God.
There are other discrepancies. In the Muslim tradition, Ishmael (peace be upon him) was a baby when Abraham went with his family to Makkah.
In the Bible, Hagar is said to have carried the baby on her back and cast him down under a bush when she ran looking for water for her thirsty child. The Bible also says that Ishmael was fourteen years old at the time, which doesn’t make sense: a woman wouldn’t carry a fourteen-year old on her back or hide him under a bush.
In all of this, the Bible is a little confusing. In Genesis it says:
“But God said to Abraham, “Be not displeased because of the lad and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your descendants be named”. (Genesis 21:12)
But in the very next verse it also says:
“And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.” (Genesis 21:13)
Finally, a few verses later, the promise is once again confirmed upon Ishmael (who again cannot be a boy of fourteen):
“Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him fast with your hand; for I will make him a great nation”. (Genesis 21:18)
The fact is that according to God’s plan both sons are to be blessed and from each will spring “a great nation.”
So in his old age, God’s promise to Abraham had been doubly fulfilled. Through Abraham’s second son, Isaac, came the Israelite prophets, including Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Solomon and Jesus (peace be upon them all). This fulfillment of God’s promise through the Israelite branch is made abundantly clear in the Bible.
Although hardly mentioned, because it didn’t fit in with the Israelite view of its own history and destiny, God’s promise is also fulfilled through the Ishmaelite branch.
From the descendants of Ishmael came the last great Prophet of monotheism, Muhammad (peace be upon him), whose followers now make up nearly one fifth of the world’s population and who, every year in their millions, travel to make the Pilgrimage to that same place where Abraham (peace be upon him), Hagar and Ishmael (peace be upon him) once traveled.
Although the Israelite branch has chosen through history to ignore the claims of the first-born son, Ishmael (peace be upon him), claiming that he was not legitimate and therefore had no rights, it is clear from the Bible alone that Hagar was Abraham’s wife. Remember the verse:
“So, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her maid, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife.” (Genesis 16:3)
If she was not his full wife, what kind of a wife was she? The Bible calls her his wife. This makes Ishmael his son, the son of Abraham and his wife.
Putting aside any bias, this shows that there is a clear connection between Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad (peace be upon them all).
Next time we will see how Abraham (peace be upon him) and his son Ishmael (peace be upon him) were called to rebuild the Ka’bah, now visited by millions.