There is an ancient Jewish oral Torah tradition, written down in the second century CE that states: “Abraham was tried by 10 tests; and withstood them all. This teaches how beloved Abraham was by God.” (Mishnah Avot 5:3) This is one of the reasons that the many challenges in Abraham’s life are so important for the spiritual development of Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
There are several different lists of which, of the many challenges Abraham overcame, made up his ten tests; but all of them end with the greatest test of them all: the binding of Issac in the Jewish tradition; and the willingness to offer Ishmael in the Islamic tradition.
Indeed, to this very day the narrative of Issac’s binding is read annually in synagogues throughout the world on the Jewish New Year of Rosh Ha-Shanah; and the same almost sacrificial offering of Ishmael is commemorated annually throughout the Muslim world on the Islamic feast of Eid al-Adha.
According to Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (1135-1205), a great legal scholar of Jewish law, as well as the personal physician of Sultan Saladin of Egypt, Abraham shared his trials equally with Sarah or Isaac on one hand; as well as with Hagar or Ishmael on the other hand.
Rabbi Moses ben Maimon states that Sarah shared the first three trials with Abraham. The fourth trial of warfare was for Abraham alone. The fifth and eighth trial Abraham shared with Hagar/Hajar. The sixth trial Abraham shared with his son Ishmael who was 13 years old when he was circumcised. (Genesis 17:24)
The seventh trial Abraham shared with Sarah and the ninth trial Abraham shared with Hajar and Ishmael.
Thus, Abraham shared four trials with Sarah, two and 1/2 trials with Hajar, and one and 1/2 with Ishmael. The tenth and final trial was two fold: once with Ismael the eldest son of Hajar; and once with Issac the eldest son of Sarah, Abraham’s first wife. This equal sharing of trials is why I think that Abraham’s final test involved both of his sons; Ishmael and Isaac.
The Qur’an states: “Indeed, Abraham was a [model] leader, devoutly obedient to Allah, inclining toward truth; he was not of those who associate others with Allah. [He was] grateful for His favors. Allah chose him and guided him to a straight path. We gave him good in this world, and indeed, in the Hereafter he will be among the righteous. Then We revealed to you [Muhammad], to follow the religion of Abraham, inclining toward truth; he [Abraham] was not of those who associate [anyone] with Allah.” (Qur’an 16:120-123)
According to Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, the first trial for Abraham was becoming an immigrant, when God said to him “Get yourself out of your land etc.” (Genesis 12:1-5) Even for a married man, breaking with one’s father and one’s own birthplace to leave for a distant land is always a difficult process.
The Qur’an relates Abraham’s first trial; as being when he challenged his father by breaking an idol that Abraham’s father had made. (Qur’an 21:51-71) The Jewish tradition also relates this narrative, but in the Oral Torah of Midrash.
The second trial was the ‘famine in the land’ of Canaan once they arrived there. (Genesis 12:10) This was the place in which God’s promise would be fulfilled “I will make you a great nation” (12:2) but that would not happen in a land of starvation. That is the sense of the challenge of “There was a famine in the land.”
The third trial was when Sarah was seized and taken into the Pharaoh’s harem. (Genesis 12:14-15) Because of Sarah’s great virtue and her lofty prophetic abilities she was freed; but Abraham was deeply pained all the time Sarah was in Pharaoh’s clutches.
The fourth trial was Abraham’s battle with the four kings (Genesis 14:5-15) Even a successful war is traumatic for a good kind hearted religious soul.
The fifth trial was taking Hagar the Egyptian as a wife after he despaired of having a child with Sarah. (Genesis 16:1-4).
The sixth trial was the circumcision God commanded him to do at a very advanced age. “Abraham was 99 years old when he circumcised the flesh of his foreskin and his son Ishmael was 13 years old when he was circumcised”. (Genesis 17:24)
Abraham felt the pain that Ishmael suffered from the circumcision even more than he did his own pain because Ishmael showed his submission to God’s will with great and silent devotion.
The seventh trial was the violence of the King of Gerar against Abraham and Sarah by taking Sarah away (Genesis 20:2). The second trauma of separation from a beloved wife is even more painful than the first.
The eighth trial was the banishing of Hagar, Abraham’s Egyptian wife, who had given Abraham his first child. (Genesis 21:9-21)
The ninth trial was experiencing distance from his son Ishmael. God may have said to him, “Do not be distressed over the boy” (Genesis 21:12), but Scripture had already informed us how hard it was for him to do this: “This matter distressed Abraham greatly” (21:11). Nevertheless, Abraham kept God’s command and banished Hajar and Ishmael.
Hajar and her son Ishmael traveled south from Israel and settled in an arid place near the ruins of an ancient temple. The Qur’an states that Abraham prayed for them, “I have settled some of my family in a barren valley near your Sacred House…” (Qur’an 14:37)
This resulted in a blessing for the descendants of Ishmael because in later years, Ishmael helped his father reconstruct the ruins of this ancient temple of God, the Kaaba, in Makka. (Qur’an 2:125-127, 14:35-37, 22:26)
A Hadith in Bukhari (Volume 4, Book 55, Number 583) describes it thus: “Abraham brought Ishmael’s mother and her son Ishmael while she was suckling him, to a place near the Kaaba under a tree on the spot of Zam-zam, at the highest place in the mosque.
“During those days there was nobody in Makka, nor was there any water. So he made them sit over there and placed near them a leather bag containing some dates, and a small water-skin containing some water, and set out homeward. Ishmael’s mother followed him saying, “O Abraham! Where are you going, leaving us in this valley where there is no person whose company we may enjoy, nor is there anything (to enjoy)?” She repeated that to him many times, but he did not look back at her.
“Then she asked him, “Has God ordered you to do so?” He said, “Yes.” She said, “Then God will not neglect us,” and returned while Abraham proceeded onwards. On reaching Thaniya where they could not see him, Abraham faced the Kaaba, and raising both hands, invoked God with the following prayer”:
“O our Lord! I have made some of my offspring dwell in a valley without cultivation, by Your Sacred House (Kaba at Mecca) in order, O our Lord, that they may offer prayer perfectly. Fill the hearts of people with love towards them, and provide them with fruits, so that they may give thanks” (Qur’an 14:37).
The tenth and final trial was the double test of the almost sacrificed Ishmael, and the binding of Isaac. The Qur’an relates: “My Lord, grant me [a child] from among the righteous.” So We gave him good tidings of a forbearing boy. And when he reached with him [the age of] exertion, he said, “O my son, indeed I have seen in a dream that I [must] sacrifice you, so see what you think.” He said, “O my father, do as you are commanded. You will find me, if Allah wills, of the steadfast.”
“And when they had both submitted and he put him down upon his forehead, We called to him, “O Abraham, you have fulfilled the vision.” Indeed, We thus reward the doers of good. Indeed, this was the clear trial. And We ransomed him with a great sacrifice, And We left for him [favorable mention] among later generations: “Peace upon Abraham.”
“Indeed, thus We reward the doers of good. Indeed, he was of Our believing servants. And We gave him good tidings of Isaac, a prophet from among the righteous. And We blessed him and Isaac. But among their descendants is [both] the doer of good and the clearly unjust to himself. (Qur’an 37:101-113)
The Qur’an does not tell us the name of the child to be offered to God by his father Abraham. But we must realize that with only the one exception of warfare, Abraham shared nine of the ten trials with another member of his own family.
Thus, because Abraham shared equally four trials with the Sarah/Isaac lineage, and four with the Hajar/Ishmael lineage [two and 1/2 trials with Hajar, one and 1/2 with Ishmael], God’s final, and most powerful test for Abraham was two fold: once with Ismael the first born son of Hajar; and once with Issac the first born son of Sarah, Abraham’s first wife.
People who defame the Qur’an because it does not name Abraham’s offering; and people who defame the Bible because it does name Isaac as Abraham’s offering, are themselves totally wrong, because the final test for Abraham was two fold. The Qur’an names neither son because it is God’s test for monotheistic mankind: to see which religious people are open-minded and inclusive; and which religious people are closed-minded and exclusive.