Da’wah Dimensions- Who was the Sacrificial Child? Isaac or Ishmael?
With excerpts from Stories of the Prophets for the Modern Age – Volume One
By SHAYKH FAHEEM of the Islāmic Lifestyle Solutions 9th Zhul Hijjah 1441 / 31st July 2020
Looking back at our youthful days, many will agree that the story of Prophet Abraham and his son Prophet Ishmael (upon them both be peace) was an amazing story of selfless sacrifice for the sheer pleasure of God. That being stated, it is unfortunate to know that whilst the majority of Muslims passionately propagate the narrative, when asked (by a Christian, or a Jew, or even an atheist who wishes to exhibit the prevalence of ignorance within the Muslim community), by inquring, “If Muslims say that Ishmael was the sacrificial child, then why does the Qur’ān not state so?” and majority of the time Muslims are left speechless by their inability to present proof for something they ought to have known since childhood.
Thus, the exposition will aim to ask “Who was the sacrificial child? Isaac? Or Ishmael?” and in order to objectively respond to that question, we shall probe into the subject from both the Biblical and Qur’ānic narrative in order answer the question, but to also ensure that Muslims are never placed in that precarious predicament again.
This particular subject has been the cause of controversy for centuries, and even in the modern age, it continues to ignite the flames of a fiery dispute between Muslims and the Judo-Christian quarters.
The problems are two-fold.
Firstly, the Judeo-Christian view on the matter affirms that the sacrificial son was Prophet Isaac , and not Prophet Ishmael (upon them both be peace). This unwavering stance projects the notion that Prophet Abraham’s (upon them both be peace)second son, Prophet Isaac (upon them both be peace) is to be revered as the forbearing son, and not Prophet Ishmael (peace be upon him). Subsequently, the long-term result of such a notion gives rise to the modern-day Zionist rhetoric in support of the displacement, humiliation, torture, and killing of the Palestinians, who are hailed as descendants of Prophet Abraham’s g ‘other’ son, merely because their forefather (Ishmael) was not even selected by God Almighty. This particular view gives way to the State of Israel’s malfeasant policies which go against basic human rights.
Secondly, for Muslims, the subject is one which many prefer to sweep under the carpet as we must admittedly clarify that the Qur’ān did not specify the sacrificial child by name. This I believe, is once again not without wisdom and will be clarified in our elucidation on the subject from the Islāmic perspective. Whatever the divine reasons are for shrouding the subject with a cloud of mystery, intellectual probing into the subject from the Qur’ānic perspective grants one the ability to deduce the answer, but we must affirm in the end, that Allāh knows best.
Before discussing the projected Islāmic viewpoint on the matter, we must commence by analyzing some of the inconsistencies located in the Judeo-Christian view, from their own source material. We further clarify that our juxtaposing of the two views is merely to form a scholarly perspective to deduce the requisite answers, and not for the purposes of ridicule, nor a means to inflict salt upon an age-old wound.
The bible confirms that Ishmael (peace be upon him) was the first son of Abraham (peace be upon him), but this is not without contradiction and will be discussed in the next section. There is also a sense of ‘favouritism’ inclining towards Isaac u. Whilst these inclinations are assumptive on the parts of the translators and commentators of the Bible, the actual text makes no such claim, though a particular verse in the book of Genesis paints a negative portrait on the part of Ishmael (peace be upon him)
It seems as though this preference stems from a dispute regarding the blessed mothers of Ishmael (upon them both be peace) and Isaac (upon them both be peace). The view opines that Sarah, the mother of Isaac (peace be upon him) was the legal wife of Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him), whilst Hagar (Hājrah was merely functioning as a concubine. For this to be regarded as a probability, the accusation upon Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him) is horrendous as it would imply that he – the patriarch of prophets – was committing adultery. If that was the case, then where is God’s reprimand of Abraham (peace be upon him) for such a heinous violation of his command? There is neither such reprimand in the Bible, nor in the Qur’ān. Contrary to the views of the Biblical scholars, the Bible seems to rank Hagar as a legal companion of Abraham g as it declared,
“And Sarai, Abram’s wife, took her slave-girl, Hagar, the Egyptian, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife” 
If our Christian readers do believe that the Bible is the word of God, why do they accept the word ‘wife’ in the current literal sense when it is used to address Sarah, but when the same word is used to address Hagar, assumptive means are utilized to interpret the word as being ‘free from any legal binding to the institute of a spouse’. This forgettery on a personage such as Hagar is astonishing indeed.
The other reason for this ‘sidelining’ Ishmael g to the back pages of historical recognition is quite possibly due to the following Biblical view,
“The angel of the LORD also said to her: “You are now pregnant and you will give birth to a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the LORD has heard of your misery. He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.”
Ishmael (peace be upon him)has been likened to a ‘wild donkey’ here. Hence those who believe that the Bible is indeed the word of God opine that Ishmael g does not deserve the veneration Muslims afford to him. Retrospectively, a study of the subject of the sacrificial child reveals that the God of the Bible acknowledged Ishmael (peace be upon him) as the ‘son’ of Abraham(peace be upon him).
“And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is thy seed”
If the ‘covenant’ with Abraham (peace be upon him) was to extend to his ‘seed’, and the God of the Bible acknowledges Ishmael g as the offspring of Abraham (peace be upon him), why then to the adherents to the Biblical text renege on the ‘word’ of God? Furthermore, why would God initially acknowledge Ishmael (peace be upon him)as the seed of Abraham (peace be upon him), and thereafter proceed to take a covenant with Abraham g by means of circumcision, (which evidently was undertaken by Ishmael (peace be upon him) as well according to the Bible), and proceed to declare circumcision as an ‘everlasting covenant’ with them, but then, suddenly, for no apparent reason, call one of the undertakers of this ‘everlasting’ covenant, a ‘wild donkey of a man’? That is a massive contradiction, which, if not understood as sheer adulteration of the Biblical text, will result in acknowledging that the Bible is at loggerheads with its own philosophy.
Any objective scholar will acknowledge that the Qur’ān did not directly disclose the name of the sacrificial child. I believe, that this may have been to induce the rational process on the subject.
The possible reason that many of the latter-day scholars have remained tight-lipped on the subject may be due to the number of erudite companions and followers who held the view that Isaac (peace be upon him) was the sacrificial child. Whilst that may be true, there is a greater amount of opposing views from other erudite companions stating that the sacrificial child was indeed Ishmael (upon them both be peace). When contradictory reports of this nature become problematic, then methodology demands that we return to the Qur’ān for guidance on the matter. However, prior to producing our stance from the Qur’ān, -accompanied by the rational faculty-, we must first identify the Biblical viewpoint on the sacrifice and the sacrificial child.
In the topic of the covenant of Abraham (peace be upon him), the Biblical position of circumcision as a sign of the covenant states that the very day in which Prophet Abraham(peace be upon him)was commanded to maintain that covenant, Prophet Ishmael (peace be upon him)was already thirteen years old, and he too practiced circumcision. The following verse of the Bible declares otherwise,
“He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”
If Isaac (peace be upon him)was the ‘only’ son of Abraham (peace be upon him), why was he not mentioned in the covenant? Why was Ishmael (peace be upon him) mentioned in the covenant instead? Especially if he was a ‘wild donkey’ of a man? Surely, God Almighty would not include a man the likes of a wild donkey and leave out the ‘good’ son in a divine covenant of this sort?
Ishmael (upon them both be peace) was mentioned because he was the elder son of Abraham (upon them both be peace), and Isaac (upon them both be peace) was not even born at this point. So it is logical why God did not include Isaac u in that covenant. Another verse in the Bible indicating that Isaac (upon them both be peace) as the only son was at the point of the sacrifice when a voice from the heavens spoke to Abraham (upon them both be peace)
“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
Once more, the emphasis is that Isaac (peace be upon him) was, at this point, the only son of Abraham(upon them both be peace). However, if we are to establish a timeline from the Biblical text via the established age of Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him), it becomes clear that for Isaac (upon them both be peace) to have been the ‘only’ son, results in either acknowledging that the Bible is erroneous on its account of the age of Abraham(upon them both be peace), or that it is erroneous on its account of Isaac (peace be upon him)being the only son? Another possibility is that the Bible has been altered? Whatever the view, this chasm of confusion cannot be ignored, nor can it be left for ‘interpretation’ as it is quite clear contradictory. The Bible clarifies the age of Abraham (peace be upon him)and Ishmael (peace be upon him)at the time of the covenant,
Meaning, that at the time of the covenant, Abraham (peace be upon him) was ninety-nine years old. At that moment in time, Ishmael(peace be upon him)was thirteen years old. However, another verse says otherwise,
And I will bless her, and give thee a son also of her: yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be of her.Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee!And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him.
A few points of discussion emerge from the aforementioned text;
Firstly, the text stipulates that when Prophet Abraham(peace be upon him) was one hundred years old, he was given the glad tiding of the birth of Isaac (peace be upon him). However, the previously cited text from the Bible explained that when Abraham (peace be upon him) was ninety-nine years old, Ishmael was already thirteen years old. Taking into cognizance that the above was merely a glad tiding, and that Sarah g still had to endure the duration of labour, we can approximate on this biblical timeline that Ishmael(peace be upon him) was at least fourteen years old when his brother Isaac (peace be upon him)was born.If that is true, then the above-cited verse which states, “…and give thee a son also of her…” further corroborates by the word ‘also’ that Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him)already had a son (Ishmael ). Thus, how Isaac u was the ‘only’ son is greatly contradictory.
Secondly, by Abraham’s (peace be upon him) statement, “And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee!”, we notice this prayer of his for Ishmael g in the sequence of the verses that it is placed prior to the foretelling of the birth of Isaac (peace be upon him). Hence it proves that when this glad tiding of the birth of Isaac g was foretold, that Prophet Abraham g immediately supplicated to the well-being of his first son. This information is common knowledge even amongst bible scholars as the following excerpt claims,
“O that Ishmael might live before thee! – Abraham, finding that the covenant was to be established in another branch of his family, felt solicitous for his son Ishmael, whom he considered as necessarily excluded; on which God delivers that most remarkable prophecy which follows in Genesis 17:20, and which contains an answer to the prayer and wish of Abraham: And as for Ishmael I have heard thee; so that the object of Abraham’s prayer was, that his son Ishmael might be the head of a prosperous and potent people”
The exegete explains that once Abraham (peace be upon him) realized that the covenant was about to be extended to ‘another’ branch of his family, he became concerned for Ishmael g and prayed for him. This is a clear confirmation that Ishmael g was already born at the time of the glad tiding for the birth Isaac (peace be upon him).
Thirdly, the verse in Genesis 22:2 which states, “…“Take your son, your only son Isaac…” causes a world of a problem because to be an ‘only’ son means to be the first son. We have established from the Bible that Isaac g was not the first son. The first son to the house of Abraham g was Ishmael g some thirteen years earlier. How then is Isaac g the ‘only’ son in the subject of the sacrifice? Could it be that, by work of ingenious sophistry, that the name Ishmael g was substituted here by Isaac g to shift all recognition to Isaac g alone? Nonetheless, some bible authorities tend to ‘interpret’ the word ‘only’ here by stating that the allusion is ‘Take your son, your only promised son’. By this, they imply that Isaac’s g birth was foretold, and the establishment of the covenant with him acts as a ‘promise’ from God. Yet again, more inconsistencies as the birth of Ishmael g was also ‘foretold’,
“And the angel of the LORD said unto her, Behold, thou art with child and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael; because the LORD hath heard thy affliction…”
Contemplatively, the name ‘Ishmael’ derived from Hebrew means, ‘God Hears’ or ‘God Answers’. Hence when Abraham g supplicated for a child, and his prayer was answered, he named that child Ishmael meaning that ‘God answers (my prayer)’. Hence we conclude that Isaac g could not have been the ‘only’ or the ‘only promised’ child.
The Qur’ān and the Sacrificial Child
Now that we have presented the Biblical view coupled with the man challenges arising from its contradictor stance on the matter, we progress to analyze the subject from the Qur’ānic perspective.
Proof 1- After analyzing the many flaws in the biblical view, which names the sacrificial child as Isaac (peace be upon him), we progress now to probe the Qur’ānic view on the matter. Insofar as the Qur’ānic viewpoint is concerned, we have clarified that the Qur’ān did not name the sacrificial child overtly, but Qur’ānic methodology proves its covert mention. Whilst the Biblical text may have stated ‘…Take your only son…’ without mentioning any name, because the word ‘only’ would automatically refer to the eldest child, who we have proven is not Isaac u but Ishmael (peace be upon him). By adding or emphasizing ‘Isaac’ to the text, the Bible has added a list of questions and contradictions which, to this day have not been justified by way of scholarship.
Nonetheless, the Qur’ān explains that Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him) pleaded with his Lord for a son, and his prayers were eventually answered during old age, with an intelligent son.
رَبِّ هَبْ لِي مِنَ الصَّالِحِينَ فَبَشَّرْنَاهُ بِغُلَامٍ حَلِيمٍ فَلَمَّا بَلَغَ مَعَهُ السَّعْيَ قَالَ يَا بُنَيَّ إِنِّي أَرَىٰ فِي الْمَنَامِ أَنِّي أَذْبَحُكَ فَانظُرْ مَاذَا تَرَىٰ ۚ قَالَ يَا أَبَتِ افْعَلْ مَا تُؤْمَرُ ۖ سَتَجِدُنِي إِن شَاءَ اللَّـهُ مِنَ الصَّابِرِينَ فَلَمَّا أَسْلَمَا وَتَلَّهُ لِلْجَبِينِ وَنَادَيْنَاهُ أَن يَا إِبْرَاهِيمُ قَدْ صَدَّقْتَ الرُّؤْيَا ۚ إِنَّا كَذَٰلِكَ نَجْزِي الْمُحْسِنِينَ
“My Lord! Give me a meritorious child.We therefore gave him the glad tidings of an intelligent son. And when he became capable of working with him, Ibrāhīm said, “O my son, I dreamt that I am sacrificing you – therefore now consider what is your opinion”; he said, “O my father! Do what you are commanded! Allāh willing, you will soon find me patiently enduring! Then (remember) when they both submitted to Allāh’s command, and Ibrāhīm lay his son facing downwards. (The knife did not hurt Ismail)And We called out to him, “O Ibrahīm!“You have indeed made the dream come true”; and this is how We reward the virtuous.”
The Qur’ānic description on the character of the sacrificial child was declared by the word ‘Halīm’ which finds its trilateral roots of ‘Hilm’ relating to patience, tolerance, and forbearance. This is further substantiated as the verses to follow the initial description confirm that when Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him) discussed his dream with this unnamed son, the response from the boy was that he would be ‘patient’ (Minas Sābirīn) with the decision of the said command to his father.
Whilst there is no clarification on the name of the boy, I believe that one of the reasons for this enigmatic approach of the subject in the Qur’ān, was to induce rational inquiry. In my first book, ‘The History and Compilation of the Qur’ān’, we explained the significance of having a sound methodology. Amongst the numerous ways in which the Qur’ān may be understood, one such way is known as ‘Tafsīrul Qur’ān bil Qur’ān’ (commentary of the Qur’ān by the Qur’ān itself) or, as elucidated with contemporary language by the late Dr.Fazlur Rahman Ansari 6 as the ‘System of Meaning’. This approach employs various methods of arriving at a sound conclusion and implores that the student of the Qur’ān never studies a verse or series of verses in isolation. Rather, they must be approached comprehensively from the Qur’ānic account. An application of this system demands that since the Qur’ān discussed only the characteristics of this unnamed sacrificial child, the and seeing as though two candidates viz. Ishmael g and Isaac g are both mentioned in the Qur’ān, that we search for the same qualities in their description to gain some much-needed perspective on the matter.
Regarding character traits of Prophet Isaac (peace be upon him) the Qur’ān states,
وَبَشَّرْنَاهُ بِإِسْحَاقَ نَبِيًّا مِّنَ الصَّالِحِينَ
“And We gave him the glad tidings of Isaac, a Herald of the Hidden, from among those who deserve Our proximity.”
Here, the Qur’ān mentions that Prophet Isaac (peace be upon him) was amongst the righteous, and rightfully so, as the global Muslim population reveres him and all the other prophets with the utmost respect. Nonetheless, the quality, of patience for forbearance was not exhibited as a description of him. We must affirm that we do not reject the quality of patience on the part of Prophet Isaac (peace be upon him), as Muslims believe that every prophet practiced patience in the wake of tribulations. Our point of reference in this regard though is to establish the Qur’ānic identification of the sacrificial child from the description located in the Qur’ān.
Regarding character traits of Prophet Ishmael g, the Qur’ān states,
وَإِسْمَاعِيلَ وَإِدْرِيسَ وَذَا الْكِفْلِ ۖ كُلٌّ مِّنَ الصَّابِرِينَ
“And remember Ismāil, and Idrīs, and Zul-Kifl; they were all patiently enduring.
Here, the Qur’ān mentions that Prophet Ishmael (peace be upon him), -amongst other distinguished men of God-, was a ‘patient’ man. The word utilized in the above verse to describe this quality is not merely the same word, but also grammatically identical to the description which the boy himself attested to by saying that he would be ‘Minas Sābirīn’ (amongst those who practice patience). Subsequently, the Qur’ānic description of this forbearing boy has not been supported by the other verses of the Qur’ān in favour of Prophet Isaac (peace be upon him), but in favour of Prophet Ishmael (peace be upon him).
Proof 2 – One of the most significant proofs from the Qur’ān negating the view that Prophet Isaac (upon them both be peace) was the sacrificial child, is located in the following verse.
وَامْرَأَتُهُ قَائِمَةٌ فَضَحِكَتْ فَبَشَّرْنَاهَا بِإِسْحَاقَ وَمِن وَرَاءِ إِسْحَاقَ يَعْقُوبَ
“And his wife was standing by and she started laughing, so We gave her glad tidings regarding Ishaq, and following Ishaq, regarding Yaqub.”
The above verse was in reference to the glad-tiding of the birth of Prophet Isaac (upon them both be peace) to Sarah . One can only imagine the elation she must have experienced knowing that she would finally bear a child for Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him). Her patience in this matter was such, that God Almighty sent an angel to as a bearer of good news stating that she would conceive a boy. Furthermore, the boy himself would not endure the same distress as his parents, but that he would father a son of his own, Prophet Jacob g.
Contemplatively, analysis of the sacrifice reveals that the entire objective was to ‘test’ Abraham (peace be upon him). This test came in the form of a most illogical premise, which demanded that he sacrifice his child, which, God Almighty gifted him with by answering his prayers after pleading for decades. With this in mind, the abovementioned Qur’ānic verse proves that the sacrificial child could not have been Prophet Isaac g because the very glad-tiding which prophesized his birth, also clarified that he would have a son of his own.
Why would Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him)be commanded to ‘sacrifice’ Isaac (peace be upon him) if he was already conscious of the fact that the child would bear a son? Would this not defeat the purpose of the entire ‘test’? Indeed it would, and consequently, it would further stand to prove that Abraham (peace be upon him) was not a very knowledgeable man. Hence the sacrificial child must have been Ismaīl (upon them both be peace)as there is no such glad-tiding located for him in the Qur’ān.
In fact, the bible itself predicates the exact notion of Prophet Isaac’s (upon them both be peace) descendants,
“But God said, “No, but Sarah your wife will bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; and I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.”
Once more, rational inquiry deduces that if Prophet Isaac’s (upon them both be peace)birth was foretold as being so successful that he too would father children, then the command to sacrifice him as a means to test his father’s resolve, is nullified by this prophecy. It woud therefore be illogical for him to be the sacrificial child.
Proof 3 – We have reiterated in all our works that the Qur’ān is not to be read like any ordinary book. There are prerequisite sciences that are mandatory to penetrate the in-depth meanings located therein. One such principle demands that a verse of study be subject to the verses preceding it (Siyāq), as well as the verses which follow (Sibāq). This ensures that an isolated verse is never incoherent from the series of verses that exhibit some form of association.
With this in mind, let us recapitulate the Qur’ānic account on the story of the sacrificial child which stated,
O my Lord! Grant me a righteous (son)!” So We gave him the good news of a boy of a forbearing boy. Then, when (the son) reached (the age of) (serious) work with him, he said: “O my son! I see in vision that I offer thee in sacrifice: Now see what is thy view!” (The son) said: “O my father! Do as thou art commanded: thou will find me, if Allāh so wills one practicing Patience and Constancy!” So when they had both submitted their wills (to Allāh), and he had laid him prostrate on his forehead (for sacrifice), We called out to him “O Abraham! “ Thou hast already fulfilled the vision!” – thus indeed do We reward those who do right. For this was obviously a trial-And We ransomed him with a momentous sacrifice: And We left (this blessing) for him among generations (to come) in later times:“ 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 among the righteous.
According to the verses, Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him)pleaded with his Lord for a child. He was gifted with a ‘patient’ son. Thereafter, when the child had grown to the age of maturity, Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him) was commanded to sacrifice him. The boy submitted that he would exercise patience in this matter and support the command given to his father. As Abraham (upon them both be peace) carried out his Lord’s command and was about to sacrifice his child, he was informed that he had already fulfilled his dream and that there was no need to sacrifice his child.
After discussing the story of the undisclosed sacrificial child, and who had already reached a level of maturity to submit to the command of the Lord of Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him), only after all of this, the Qur’ān introduces the subject of the birth of Prophet Isaac (peace be upon him). Why would the Qur’ān mention the entire story of a young boy nearing the age of maturity, thereafter expressing his enthusiasm to fulfill the command of God, and afterwards, in the very next verse, progress to discuss this same boy’s birth? This is illogical and inconsistent with the Qur’ānic manner of delivery. Hence it solidifies the stance that the unnamed boy had to have been Prophet Ishmael (peace be upon him), who was the elder brother of Prophet Isaac (peace be upon him)Therefore the latter (Prophet Isaac ) was mentioned after the incident of the former (Prophet Ishmael , who was already a young lad when the birth of his little brother was disclosed to his parents.
For corroboratory evidence from the hadīth literature as well as Islāmic history in general, see ‘Stories of the Prophets for the Modern Age – Volume One’.
Conclusion – The above Qur’ānic information stands as significant evidence that the sacrificial child had to have been Prophet Ishmael(peace be upon him). The evidence from the opposing view has proven to be inconsistent and is therefore ineligible to accept their stance, whereas the Qur’ānic stance on the matter is clear and free from contradiction. Matters of this nature must be well understood by Muslims in these testing times. In the end, Allāh knows best!
 Genesis 16:3
 Genesis 16:11-12
 Genesis 21:13
 For more information, eee Stories of the Prophets for the Modern Age – Volume One – The Story of Abraham the Dichotomy of Faith and Reason, published 2017 by the Islāmic Lifestyle Solutions.
 Genesis 22:2
 Genesis 22:12
 Genesis 17:23-25
 Genesis 17:16-19
“The Adam Clarke Commentary”. Genesis 17:18
 Sūrah As-Sāffāt, 37:100-105
Sūrah As-Sāffāt, 37:112
 Sūrah Al-Ambiyā 21:85
 Sūrah Hūd 11:71
 Genesis 17:19
Sūrah As-Sāffāt 37:100-111