Reply to a Christian Critic

Ishmael was Abraham’s heir

by Dr. Zahid Aziz

The Light & Islamic Review (US), July/August 1992 Issue (Vol. 69, No. 4, pp. 12–13)

Note: Our veteran worker Mr. Majeed Ali recently received a letter from an ardent advocate of Christianity, raising objections regarding several points mentioned in Islamic literature which Mr. Ali distributes. I was asked to reply to the letter, and given below is the part of the reply dealing with the question whether Ishmael was Abraham’s spiritual heir and the son he was ordered to sacrifice.

Christians are certainly in no position to discuss this matter since they have discarded the covenant of God with Abraham given in Genesis as follows:

“This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised.… So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male… shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” (Genesis 17:10–14)

So, the Christians have violated Abraham’s covenant, which was meant to be everlasting, and are therefore not his people at all, and have no right to discuss who was, or was not, his heir.

Your objection: The sacrifice story in chapter 37 of the Quran does not mention the name of the son, and there is no word in the text which distinguishes between that story, in verses 101–107, and the subsequent mention of Isaac in verses 112–113.

Answer: The order of the events described makes it abundantly clear that it was Ishmael who is meant in the sacrifice episode. Verse 101 says:

“So We gave him (Abraham) the good news of a forbearing son.”

Immediately following this is the incident of the sacrifice:

“When he became of age to work with him, he said: O my son I have seen in a dream that I should sacrifice thee…” (The Holy Quran, 37:102)

The sacrifice story is concluded in verses 37:107–111:

“And We ransomed him with a great sacrifice. And We granted him among the later generations (the salutation), peace be to Abraham.…”

And it is after this, in verse 112, that the news of Isaac’s birth is given:

“And We gave him the good news of Isaac, a prophet, a righteous one.”

It is patently obvious that the son whose news is given in verse 101 (and whose sacrifice is related in verses 102 onwards) is the one before Isaac, i.e., Ishmael.

It was only the descendants of Ishmael, i.e., the Arabs, who kept up the memory of this sacrifice, in the annual pilgrimage to Makka.

Your objection: “29:27 says that prophethood and the scripture are only to be found in Isaac’s and Jacob’s line with the Children of Israel”.

Answer: This verse says about Abraham:

“And We granted him Isaac and Jacob, and ordained prophethood and the Book among his seed”.

His seed includes Ishmael and his progeny. In several places in the Quran, Ishmael is clearly described as a prophet. See 2:136; 3:83; 4:163; 6:87; 19:54–55; 21:85; and 38:48. In almost all these places, or near them, Isaac is mentioned as well in the same words. Therefore, Ishmael was a prophet in the same way as Isaac was.

In some of the above and also other verses, Ishmael is mentioned before Isaac. It says: “Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac” in 2:133, 136, 140; 3:83; and 4:163, and: “Praise be to Allah, Who has given me, in old age, Ishmael and Isaac” in 14:39.

Your objection: “Why did Allah not clarify the matter by adding that from Ishmael’s seed too there would one day rise a prophet!”

Answer: This is clearly stated in the account given in 2:124–129.

“We enjoined Abraham and Ishmael, saying: Purify My House… and when Abraham and Ishmael raised the foundations of the House, praying: Our Lord, accept from us, … Our Lord, and make us both submissive to Thee (or Muslims) and from our offspring a nation submissive to Thee… Our Lord, and raise up in them (i.e., our offspring) a messenger from among them who shall recite to them Thy messages and shall teach them the Book and the wisdom, and shall purify them.”

There is no mention whatsoever of Isaac here. I need not comment further.

You then mention an ancient custom according to which the maidservant, having borne the master a child, could be turned from wife again into a servant, and the child disinherited, if the first wife became able to bear children. Was this a just custom, and do you approve of it? Could a man (Abraham) to whom God said:

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great” (Genesis 12:2),

perpetrate such an act of injustice? And remember that it was God Himself Who caused Sarah, at her advanced age, to be able to bear a child (Genesis 17:16). Therefore, if your view is accepted, it means that the God of the Bible first allowed Abraham to take Hagar as wife and give birth to a promised son (Genesis 16:11), and the same God then miraculously caused Sarah to have a son as well, fully knowing that Hagar would now be reduced back to servitude and the innocent child Ishmael would be disinherited! Is this your concept of God?

(I believe that this kind of abominable practice was indulged in by the Christian slave owners of the southern states of the U.S.A. The master would have sexual relations with his slave-girls, and still treat them and their offspring as slaves. I suppose that this lustful exploitation can be justified on the basis of the interpretation you have given to the Biblical story of Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael.)

To revert to the subject, if Ishmael was “disinherited”, why did God say to Abraham:

“As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and multiply him exceedingly… I will make him a great nation” (Genesis 17:20),


“And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring” (Genesis 21:13)?

Finally, you mention that rules can be set aside in special cases with divine approval, and allege that in Islam too there are certain laws such as the limit of the number of wives which did not apply to the Holy Prophet [Muhammad (pbuh)]. In the Holy Prophet’s case, he was only allowed to retain the wives he had already married before the limit of four was revealed; not that he could go on marrying over this limit after it had been imposed. This permission was given because of the special position his wives hold in the religion of Islam, so that their status would not be reduced (which would be the effect of divorce). But what you assert happened in the case of Hagar and Ishmael had the opposite effect, i.e., it reduced their status! You mention the case of Jacob as an example of divine approval to set aside the normal rule of inheritance. But Jacob, according to the Bible, used blackmail to buy the birth-right from Esau (Genesis 25:29–34), and deception and falsehood to get the blessing from Isaac (Genesis, ch. 27). Isaac said to Esau:

“Your brother came with guile, and he has taken away your blessing” (Genesis 27:35).

Are you proud of prophethood passing only to Jacob’s line, which according to the Bible was acquired by telling lies? And what kind of concept of God does the Bible present, as one who (Allah forbid) bestows prophethood on the basis of deception and falsehood?