Abraham/Ibrahim, Ishmael/Ismail and Isaac/Ishaq

In both Bible and Qur’an, Abraham is an important figure. Via his first-born son Ishmael on one side and his son Isaac on the other, he is believed to be the patriarch of both Arabs and Israelites. The New Testament gives this kinship a symbolic meaning, as determined by faith rather than parentage.

In both books, Abraham breaks with the past and carves out new paths. In the Bible, he leaves his father and his people behind to make a covenant with God, in which the land of Canaan is promised to his progeny, on condition of good behavior. Thus, the Bible relates how God becomes the only God of this one people.

The Qur’an also refers briefly to the land promised to the children of Israel with whom God had a covenant. But the concept of the Promised Land usually refers to the Paradise Gardens promised to all righteous people. This higher level of abstraction is also maintained in the story of Abraham. It is not so much about the relation of God to a specific people, as to a monotheism that is in principle valid for all humankind.

In the Qur’an Ibrahim frees himself of false gods, realizing that what others adored – the sun, the moon, etc. – are only aspects of creation. God, the creator, is far superior to all that He created. Thus, monotheism is declared generally valid for all peoples in opposition to the polytheism of their (and Ibrahim’s) forefathers. His destruction of idols angers Abraham’s people; they throw him into a fire. But God saves him by making the fire cold. Abraham then leaves his father and his people to find his own way. The ban on carving and worshipping idols, emphasized in the story of Ibrahim is also important in the Bible, but is addressed primarily within the context of the story of Moses.

Both books relate the dramatic events involving the two sons of Abraham. According to the Bible, Ishmael, his first-born, was conceived by the Egyptian slave, Hagar, at the request of Sarah, Abraham’s barren wife. The Biblical story is one of prejudice, exile and suffering. Twice, Hagar is forced to leave Abraham’s tent and flee into the desert. Twice, God and his angels lend a helping hand. Thus, Hagar discovers a well ‘Zamzam’ just before Ishmail dies of thirst.

The few words that the Qur’an devotes to Ishmail are very positive. He is mentioned in one breath with the great prophets. The story of Hagar is told summarily, without naming Hagar. The meaning of the phrase from 14 Abraham, 37, “I have made some of my offspring to dwell by Your Sacred House,” becomes clear against the backdrop of the tradition (Hadith) that Abraham did not simply send Hagar and Ishmael into the desert – as in the Biblical story – but took them to the ruins of the Ka’aba, the holy house built by Adam in Mecca. In that wild and arid place, Hagar runs back and forth seven times between two mountains, the as-Safa and al-Marwa, in her desperate search for water for her son. This running back and forth in honor of Hagar forms part of the ritual of the Hajj to Mecca; pilgrims still drink from the well (ZamZam) that eventually saved Hagar and Ishmael.

The Qur’an also praises Abraham’s second son Isaac. Both Bible and Qur’an give descriptions of the announcement of his birth by angelic messengers and the miracle of a child born from elderly parents

The Bible story of Abraham being withheld by an angel from sacrificing his son Isaac is also mentioned in the Qur’an, but according to Islamic tradition, the intended victim is Ishmael. There are subtle distinctions between the two versions of the story. Unlike the Biblical Abraham, Ibrahim does not receive a command from God, but has a dream in which he sees himself sacrificing his son. Perhaps because Ishmael was older at the time, his father discusses the intended sacrifice with his son, which the Biblical Abraham does not. Noteworthy is the willingness of Ishmael to cooperate in the sacrifice.

Ishmael, who is not mentioned by name in the story of the sacrifice, is explicitly mentioned in the story about (re)building the Ka’aba. He helps his father prepare the holy place for the feast of the sacrifice, in commemoration of the saving of Abraham’s son, a feast still celebrated.
According to the Bible, the two brothers meet once again at their father’s funeral. Isaac receives God’s blessing after the death of Abraham; Ishmael does not. Isaac’s wife Rebekah later gives birth to Jacob, who, in turn, fathers Joseph.

The Biblical story of Jacob and the ladder and his fight with the angel are not included in the Qur’an and, therefore, are not included in this anthology. The Qur’an only briefly mentions Jacob who, together with his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham, is held in high regard. They introduce the obligations of Salat (prayer) and Zakat (charity) and know of the heavenly reward for those who do good.

In the Qur’an, surah 14 is named Ibrahim. In the Bible, his story is found in Genesis, with brief references to him elsewhere. Halfway through the story, names change, from Abram to Abraham and Sarai to Sarah, for reasons explained in the Bible.

“We live in a globalized world in which the Children of Abraham increasingly live side by side in Muslim countries and in Europe and America.” John L. Esposito


 Sharing the Prophets

 Intermezzo  by Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp

  Abraham is the first and Jonah is the last prophet in this anthology.  In my view a prophet is a person who sharply analyses his society, critically pointing to major faults and showing a way out.  He refuses to say what people want to hear, listening to a whisper in his own heart, the truth, the word of God. This makes him unpopular with public opinion and the powers that be. As Jesus said, and Muhammad experienced,  no prophet is accepted in his own country. Being a prophet requires enormous courage. Prophets are human beings. They experience fear. Prophets like Moses were reluctant to take on their task. Jonah flatly refused.

  An interesting difference between the prophets in the Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an is that whereas in the Qur’an prophets are moral examples,  Hebrew prophets often have complex human traits. Jonah was angry that God had liberated  the people without his help. Job was furious about the grave misfortunes he had suffered. Moses was so mad with rage about his people dancing around the golden calf that he smashed the tablets with God’s commandments. In the Qur’an these human frailties  are much less clear. The  prophets seem to be somewhat polished, compared with the Hebrew counterparts. There Moses carefully puts down the tablets before he starts scolding his people.

  There is a lot to say in favor of prophets who control their temper as an example for mankind. However I personally feel more in touch with the imperfect prophets of the Hebrew Bible.  There humanity is shown in all its nakedness. I am satisfied that if God loves even imperfect people, such as the great prophets, granting them significant tasks, he will surely love even me, with my irritable moods and all my other frailties.

  The Hebrew Bible also speaks of female prophets, notably Miriam, whose very name means ‘lady prophet’. She saved her baby brother Moses and accompanied Moses and Aaron, as the whisper of love, keeping her moody brother Moses on the right track until she died in the desert. It was at that very spot that water appeared for the thirsty Israelites. Therefore modern Jews honor Miriam as the prophetess of the life bringing water. Interestingly, Mary the mother of Jesus is scolded by her family in the Qur’an as ‘the sister of Aaron’. Perhaps in a symbolic sense she was a female prophet of whispering love, like her predecessor Miriam.  


Abraham, God’s friend

“Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. James, 2:23

…Abraham My friend. Isaiah 41:8

…know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham. Galatians 3: 6-7

Moses: ban on carved images

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them.” Exodus 20:4-5

“Take careful heed to yourselves… lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure: the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth or the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, or the likeness of any fish that is in the water beneath the earth. And take heed, lest you lift your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, you feel driven to worship them and serve them…” Deuteronomy 4:15-19

“Take heed to yourselves, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God which He made with you, and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of anything which the LORD your God has forbidden you. For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.” Deuteronomy 4: 23

“Take heed to yourself, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land where you are going, lest it be a snare in your midst. But you shall destroy their altars, break their sacred pillars, and cut down their wooden images.” Exodus 34: 12-13

The covenant

… the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am Almighty God; walk before Me and be blameless. Then Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying: “…My covenant is with you…No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham1; for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you.”
This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised;

So Abraham took Ishmael his son…and …every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very same day, as God had said to him.

Genesis 17:1-5,7, 9-11,23-26

The Promised Land

Now the LORD had said to Abram:
“Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great…” Genesis 12:1-2

“Also, I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.” Genesis 17:8

“Lift your eyes now and look from the place where you are—northward, southward, eastward, and westward; for all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever. And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if a man could number the dust of the earth, then your descendants also could be numbered.” Genesis 13:14-16

Ishmael born of a slave girl

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. And she had an Egyptian maidservant whose name was Hagar. So Sarai said to Abram, “See now, the LORD has restrained me from bearing children. Please, go in to my maid; perhaps I shall obtain children by her.”

And Abram heeded the voice of Sarai. Then Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar, her maid, the Egyptian, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife…And when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress became despised in her eyes.

And when Sarai dealt harshly with her, she fled from her presence.
Now the Angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, by the spring on the way to Shur. And He said, “Hagar, Sarai’s maid, where have you come from, and where are you going?”
She said, “I am fleeing from the presence of my mistress Sarai.”
The Angel of the LORD said to her, “Return to your mistress…I will multiply your descendants exceedingly, so that they shall not be counted for multitude. Behold, you are with child, and you shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, because the LORD has heard your affliction. He shall be a wild man; his hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand against him.” Genesis 16: 1-4, 6-7, 9-12

The birth of Isaac

(Abram ed.) …lifted his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing by him; and when he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the ground, and said…,

“Please let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. And I will bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh your hearts.”

So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quickly, make ready three measures of fine meal; knead it and make cakes.”

And He (God or one of the men ed.) said, “…Sarah your wife shall have a son.”

Now Abraham and Sarah were old, well advanced in age; and Sarah had passed the age of childbearing. Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying,

“After I have grown old, shall I have pleasure, my Lord being old also?”

And the LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I surely bear a child, since I am old?’” Is anything too hard for the LORD?

But Sarah denied it, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid.
And He said, “No, but you did laugh!” Genesis 18:2-6,10-15

And the LORD visited Sarah as He had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as He had spoken.

For Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him.

And Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him—whom Sarah bore to him—Isaac. Genesis 21:1-3

Isaac nearly sacrificed
God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham! Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and offer him… as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”
So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took…with him…Isaac his son; and he split the wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him.

So Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife, and the two of them went together.

But Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, “My father! Look, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”
And Abraham said, “My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering.”

Then they came to the place of which God had told him. And Abraham built an altar there and placed the wood in order; and he bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. And Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.

But the Angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham! Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.”

Then Abraham lifted his eyes and looked, and there behind him was a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up for a burnt offering instead of his son.

Genesis 22:1-3, 6-13

Isaac blessed with a son: Jacob

Then Abraham… died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people. And his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah … And it came to pass, after the death of Abraham, that God blessed his son Isaac. Genesis 25:8-11

Isaac… took Rebekah as wife… Isaac pleaded with the LORD for his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD granted his plea, and Rebekah his wife conceived.

And the first came out red. He was like a hairy garment all over; so they called his name Esau. Afterward his brother came out, and his hand took hold of Esau’s heel; so his name was called Jacob. Genesis 25: 19-21, 24-26

1 In Hebrew the word Abraham sounds like the word for ‘Father of many Nations’.


Ibrahim the righteous

For Allah took Abraham for a friend. 4 The Women, 125
And who turns away from the religion of Abraham but such as debase their souls with folly? Him We chose and rendered pure in this world: And he will be in the Hereafter in the ranks of the Righteous. 2 The Heifer, 130

Ibrahim: destruction of idols
Lo! Abraham said to his father Azar: “Do you take idols for gods? For I see you and your people in manifest error.”

So also did We show Abraham the power and the laws of the heavens and the earth, that he might (with understanding) have certitude. When the night covered him over, he saw a star and he said: “This is my Lord.” But when it set, he said: “I do not love those that set.” When he saw the moon rising in splendor, he said: “This is my Lord.” But when the moon set, he said: “Unless my Lord guide me, I shall surely be among those who go astray.” When he saw the sun rising in splendor, he said: “This is my Lord; this is the greatest (of all).”

But when the sun set, he said: “O my people! I am indeed free from your (guilt) of giving partners to Allah. For me, I have set my face, firmly and truly, towards Him Who created the heavens and the earth, and never shall I give partners to Allah.” His people disputed with him…

6 The Cattle, 74-80
Behold! he said to his father and his people: “What are these images, to which you are (so assiduously) devoted?” They said: “We found our fathers worshipping them.” He said: “Indeed you have been in manifest error – you and your fathers.”

21 The Prophets, 52-54
… your Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth, He Who created them (from nothing): and I am a witness to this (truth).

And by Allah, I have a plan for your idols — after you go away and turn your backs.” So he broke them to pieces, (all) but the biggest of them…21 The Prophets, 56-58

The cool fire

They said: “Who has done this to our gods? He must indeed be some man of impiety!” 21 The Prophets, 59

They said: “Are you the one that did this with our gods, O Abraham?” He said: “Nay, this was done by — this is their biggest one! Ask them, if they can speak intelligently!” So they turned to themselves and said… “You know full well that these (idols) do not speak!” (Abraham) said: “Do you then worship, besides Allah, things that can neither be of any good to you nor do you harm? Fie upon you, and upon the things that you worship besides Allah. Have you no sense?” They said: “Burn him and protect your gods, If you do (anything at all)!” We said: “O Fire! You be cool, and (a means of) safety for Abraham!” Then they sought a strategem against him: but We made them the ones that lost most!

21 The Prophets, 62-70

The Land of Promise

O Children of Israel! call to mind the (special) favor which I bestowed upon you, and fulfill your Covenant with Me as I fulfill My Covenant with you, and fear none but Me. 2 The Heifer,40

And We said thereafter to the Children of Israel , ”Dwell securely in the land (of promise)”:

17 The Children of Israel,104

The parable of the Garden which the righteous are promised – beneath it flow rivers: perpetual is the enjoyment thereof and the shade therein: such is the End of the Righteous; 13 The Thunder 35

Allah has promised to Believers, men and women, Gardens under which rivers flow…Gardens of everlasting bliss. 9 Repentance 72

Ishmael, the firstborn son

(Ibrahim said: ed.) “O my Lord! Grant me a righteous (son)!” So We gave him the good news of a boy (Ishmael ed.) ready to suffer and forbear. 37 Those Ranged in Ranks, 100-101
Also mention in the Book (the story of) Ishmael: He was (strictly) true to what he promised, and he was a Messenger (and) a prophet… (a man) of constancy and patience;

We admitted them to Our Mercy: for they were of the righteous ones.

19 Mary, 54; 21 The Prophets, 85-86
And commemorate Ishmael… (He ed.) was of the company of the good.

38 Saad, 48
You say: “We believe in…the revelation given to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac… and that given to Moses and Jesus…” 2 The Heifer, 136
“O our Lord! I (Ibrahim ed.) have made some of my offspring (Ishmael and his mother Hagar ed.) to dwell in a valley without cultivation, by Your Sacred House; in order, O our Lord, that they may establish regular Prayer: so fill the hearts of some among men with love towards them, and feed them with fruits: so that they may give thanks.”14 Ibrahim, 37
Behold! (the mountains ed.) Safa and Marwa are among the Symbols of Allah. So if those who visit the House (the Ka’aba ed.) in the Season or at other times, should compass them round, it is no sin in them. And if any one obeys his own impulse to Good–- be sure that Allah is He Who recognizes and knows.

2 The Heifer, 158

Allah’s messengers visit Ibrahim
There came Our Messengers to Abraham with glad tidings. They said: “Peace!”

He answered: “Peace!” and hastened to entertain them with a roasted calf. But when he saw their hands did not go toward the (meal), he felt some mistrust of them, and conceived a fear of them.

They said: “Fear not: We have been sent… (by Allah ed.) ”

And his wife was standing (there), and she laughed: but We gave her glad tidings of Isaac…

She said: “Alas for me! shall I bear a child, seeing I am an old woman, and my husband here is an old man? That would indeed be a wonderful thing!”

They said: “Do you wonder at Allah’s decree? The grace of Allah and His blessings on you, O you people of the house! For He is indeed worthy of all praise, full of all glory!” 11 Hud, 69-73
“Peace and salutation to Abraham!” Thus indeed do We reward those who do right. For he was one of Our believing Servants. And We gave him the good news of Isaac – a Prophet- one of the Righteous. We blessed him and Isaac: but of their progeny are (some) that do right, and (some) that obviously do wrong, to their own souls. 37 The Saffat, 109-113
“Praise be to Allah, Who has granted to me in old age Ishmael and Isaac: for truly my Lord is He, the Hearer of prayer! 14 Ibrahim, 39
And commemorate Our Servants Abraham, Isaac… possessors of Power and Vision. Verily We chose them for a special (purpose) – proclaiming the Message of the Hereafter. They were, in Our sight, truly, of the company of the Elect and the Good. And commemorate Ishmael… each of them was of the company of the Good. 38 Saad, 45-48

The near offering of Ishmael
Then, when (the son) (Ishmael ed.) reached (the age of) (serious) work with him (Abraham ed.), he said: “O my son! I see in vision that I offer you in sacrifice: Now see what is your view!” (The son) said: “O my father! Do as you are commanded: you will find me, if Allah so wills, one practicing patience and constancy!” So when they had both submitted their wills (to Allah), and he had laid him prostrate on his forehead (for sacrifice), We called out to him: “O Abraham! You have already fulfilled the vision!” – thus indeed do We reward those who do right. For this was obviously a trial. And We left (this blessing) for him among generations (to come) in later times: “Peace and salutation to Abraham!”

37 The Saffat, 102-109
And remember Abraham and Ishma’il raised the foundations of the House (the Ka’aba ed.) (with this prayer): “Our Lord! Accept (this service) from us: For You are the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing. Our Lord! make of us Muslims, bowing to Your (Will), and of our progeny a People Muslim, bowing to Your (Will); and show us our places for the celebration of (due) rites; and turn to us (in Mercy); for You are the Oft-Returning, Most Merciful.”

2 The Heifer, 127-128
Remember We made the House (the Ka’aba ed.) a place of assembly for men and a place of safety… a place of prayer; and We covenanted with Abraham and Ishma’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).

2 The Heifer, 125
Allah made the Ka’ba, the Sacred House, an asylum of security for men, as also the Sacred Months, the animals for offerings, and the garlands that mark them…

5 The Table Spread, 97

Ishaq, Yaqoub, Allah’s servants
And We bestowed on him (Abraham ed.) Isaac and, as an additional gift, (a grandson), Jacob, and We made righteous men of every one (of them). And We made them leaders, guiding (men) by Our Command, and We sent them inspiration to do good deeds, to establish regular prayers (Salat ed.), and to practice regular charity (Zakat ed.); and they constantly served Us (and Us only). 21 The Prophets, 72-73

And commemorate Our servants Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, possessors of Power and Vision. Verily We chose them for a special (purpose) – proclaiming the Message of the Hereafter. Gardens of Eternity, whose doors will (ever) be open to them. 38 Saad, 45-46, 50

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