Did God test both of Prophet Abraham’s sons?

For almost 14 centuries Jews, Christians and Muslims have read each others holy scriptures from an adversarial rather than a complementary perspective. Since all monotheistic scriptures come from the one and only God, I believe monotheists should view other monotheistic scriptures as potentially enriching our understanding of our own scripture.

But in the middle ages almost all readers thought of revelation as a zero sum only one winner competitive sport like tennis or soccer, rather than a multiple win non-competitive sport like mountain climbing.

Instead of understanding differing texts as complementary, almost all religious thinkers made them contradictory and declared the other religion’s sacred text to be false. If religion is to promote peace in our pluralistic world we must reject the ‘zero sum game’ ideology and develop the pluralistic teachings that already exist within our sacred scriptures.

In a zero sum game, any value or true spiritual insight I grant to another scripture somehow diminishes my own. This was the result of the widespread use of scripture for missionary and polemical purposes. The situation has not improved much in modern times. In the last two centuries university academics have written many studies of comparative religion which academics claim are objective and not distorted by their religious beliefs.

Unfortunately, academics who treat other religions academically usually do not believe that other scriptures are actually Divinely inspired. Indeed, many academics do not believe that even their own scriptures are Divinely inspired. They use the same kinds of explanation to understand religion that they would use to explain all secular history and literature.

My perspective is that prophets of Monotheism and Monotheistic Holy Scriptures can not oppose one another because they all are inspired by one God. A well known Hadith says:”Prophets are paternal brothers (sons of one father by different co-wives). Their mothers (mother tongue, motherland. and religious community-Umma comes from Um-mother) are different; but their religion (from the one God) is one.” (Bukhari Vol. 4: Book 55 #651 and Muslim Book 30: #5834-6).

All of these differences produce different rituals and legal systems, but as the sage of Konya, Jalal al-Din al-Rumi says, “Ritual prayer might differ in every religion, but belief never changes.” (Fihi Mafih 49)

Monotheistic religions differ because the circumstances of each nation receiving them differ. But where Scriptures differ they cannot basically contradict each other, rather they must cast additional light on each other in some way. My belief is based on an important Hadith of Prophet Muhammad.

A disciple of Prophet Muhammad named Abu Huraira relates, “The people of the Book used to read the Torah in Hebrew and then explain it in Arabic to the Muslims. Allah’s Apostle said (to the Muslims). “Do not believe the people of the Book, nor disbelieve them, but say, ‘We believe in Allah, and whatever is revealed to us, and whatever is revealed to you.’ ”

Following Prophet Muhammad’s teaching I neither believe nor disbelieve the Qur’an. If I believed in the Qur’an I would become a member of the Muslim ummah (community). But I cannot disbelieve in the Qur’an because I believe that Muhammad was an authentic prophet of Monotheism; and I respect the Qur’an as a kindred revelation, to a kindred people, in a kindred language.

In fact, the people, the language and the theology are closer to my own people, language and theology than that of any other on earth.

Thus, I follow what the Qur’an itself teaches. “For every community We have appointed a whole system of worship which they are to observe. So do not let them draw you into disputes concerning this matter.” (22:67) Thus, I do not dispute the Muslim claim that when God tested Prophet Abraham and his son; the son was Prophet Ishmael. And I also believe that when God tested Prophet Abraham and his son; the son was Prophet Issac.

For example, the great Muslim commentator al-Tabarī, and the Biblically inspired traditions found in his Tafsīr are central to the argument that Isaac was the intended sacrifice, not Ishmael. The debate over who the intended sacrifice was centers on these verses in the Qur’an (37.100 – 112): “… Lord grant me a righteous son,” so We gave him the good news (bashsharnāhu) that he would have a forbearing [trustful] boy. When the boy was old enough to work with his father, Abraham said,“ My son, I have seen myself sacrificing you in a dream. What do you think?”

He said “Father, do as you are commanded and, God willing, you will find me among the [trusting] patient.” When they had both submitted to God, and he had laid his son down on the side of his face, We called out to him,…

These verses do not explicitly name the son who was the intended sacrifice, constantly referring to a “boy” and a “son.” God grants Abraham a “forbearing boy” and Abraham asks his “son” what he [Abraham] should do regarding his dream. Only at the end of test does a name appear: “We gave Abraham the good news of Isaac –  a prophet and a righteous man” (Qur’an 37.112). But was Isaac the same “boy” as the one referred to in the previous narrative?

Al-Tabarī argues that the intended sacrifice was Isaac because every Qur’anic announcement of Isaac begins with words of glad tidings (bashsharn). Qur’an 11.71, for instance, states: “And We gave her [Sarah] glad tidings (bashsharnāhā) of Isaac, and after Isaac, Jacob.”

The sacrifice narrative, Qur’an 37.100 similarly reads, “And We gave him [Abraham] glad tidings (bashsharnāhu) of a forbearing [trusting] boy.” Since the same word for glad tidings (bashsharahu) is used in both verses, they must refer to the same boy.

Al-Tabarī also refutes the claim of those who contend that Ishmael was the intended sacrifice by using the recurring tradition that when Prophet Muhammad conquered Mecca, the horns of the sacrificial goat were hanging from the Kaʿba. If the horns were in Mecca, it strengthens the argument for Ishmael, since he grew up in Mecca; but Isaac, was raised in the Land of Israel and the test would have occurred there if Isaac was the intended sacrifice.

Al-Tabarī contends that “there is no reason to exclude the possibility” that the horns were transported from Syria to Mecca. For al-Tabari, the horn tradition maybe authentic, but it does not disqualify the Qur’anic evidence that Isaac was the intended sacrifice. Indeed in his History, al-Tabarī again discusses who was the intended sacrifice; and notes that there are Hadith relayed from Prophet Muhammad that state both opinions; and in fact al-Tabari lists several pro-Isaac and pro-Ishmael traditions in both his Tafsīr and his History.

Yet al-Tabari fails to draw the simple conclusion that the two locations of the horns hints that both of Prophet Abraham’s sons were the subjects of Allah’s test. Indeed, the Qur’an informs us that: “If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (God’s plan is) to test you in what He has given you: so compete in all virtues as in a race. The goal of you all is to (please) Allah, who will show you on judgment day) the truth of the matters in which you dispute.” (Qur’an 5:48)

Since the testing of different religious communities is God’s will, why would God not test both of the two sons of Prophet Abraham, who is the fountain of the three major Abrahamic religions?

Since Ishmael was Abraham’s first born, he likely was the first brother to be part of Abraham’s two son test. The Torah hints at this when it states: God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love…” (Genesis 22:2).

The Rabbis noted that God did not simply say ‘take your son X’; so the Rabbis expanded this monologue into a dialogue. God: Take your son! Abraham: Which son, I have two. God: Your only son! Abraham: Each son is the only son of his mother. God: Whom you love! Abraham: I love both of them.

Only then does God say ‘Isaac!’. The dialogue explains repetitious wording of God’s commandment; and hints that Prophet Abraham had already been tested once before.

Hagar’s encounter with God is a singular event because: “She called the name of the Lord, who spoke to her, ‘You are a God of seeing’; for she said, ‘Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?’” (Genesis 16:13). Thus, Hagar’s response to her painful experience is to name God; in an astonishing act undertaken by no other person in the Hebrew Bible Hagar names God: ’You are El-roi [“A God who sees me”],”

Rabbi Reuven Firestone posits that “the most interesting rendition of the birth of Ishmael is found in Ibn Kāthir,” who gives us a lengthy story, which includes his (Ibn Kāthir’s) own explanatory notes.

For example, “The People of the Book [Jews, Christians] say: Abraham requested sound progeny from God, and God gave him good news about having descendants. After Abraham had been in the Holy Land for twenty years, Sarah said to Abraham, “God has forbidden me from having a child. Go in unto my maidservant; perhaps God will provide you with a son through her.”

“When she gave her to him, he had sexual relations with her and she became pregnant. When she became pregnant her soul was exalted and she became proud and arrogant to her mistress, so Sarah became jealous of her. Sarah complained to Abraham, who said to her, “Do with her as you desire.” Hagar was frightened and fled. She stopped at a spring.

“An angel said to her, “Do not fear, for God will do good for this boy that you are carrying.” He commanded to her that she return and announced to her that she would give birth to a boy whom she would name Ishmael. He would be a wild man. His hand would be over everyone, and the hand of everyone would be against him. His brethren would rule over all the lands. Then she thanked God.”

Ibn Kathir then adds that, “This prophecy is appropriate for Prophet Muhammad’s offspring, for he was the one through whom the Arabs ruled. They ruled all of the lands throughout the east and west. God bestowed upon them useful knowledge and virtuous acts which were not given to any of the people before them. This is because of the honor of their messenger above all of the other messengers, the blessing of his mission, the good fortune of his revelation, the perfection of that which he brought, and the universality of his mission to the people of the earth.” (Reuven Firestone, Journeys in Holy Lands: The Evolution of the Abraham-Ishmael Legends in Islamic Exegesis, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990)

Genesis Rabbah includes statements by Rabbi Judah the Prince arguing that Hagar returned to Abraham after the death of Sarah. They married and she was renamed Keturah. Another midrash even states that it was Isaac who went to Hagar and convinced her to come back home to Abraham. When Abraham died, he was buried in Hebron next to Sarah by his two reconciled sons; and Hagar went to live with her son Ishmael in Makkah where she was buried.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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