Abraham and the Child of Sacrifice - Isaac or Ishmael?


Jews, Christians and Muslims agree; Abraham, the friend of God, is an example of pure and unconditional righteousness and faith. The love that Abraham displayed towards God is clearly seen in Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only beloved son. All three religions do not dispute this fact. Where they do disagree on, however, is the identity of the sacrificial child. The Bible states that that child was Isaac:

“After these things God tested Abraham, and said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here am I.’ 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 upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you’.”(Genesis 22:1-2, R.S.V.).

“By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son…” (Hebrews 11:17, R.S.V.).

“Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered up his son Isaac upon the altar?” (James 2:21, R.S.V.).

Muslims on the other hand feel that Ishmael was the one offered up by Abraham. This fact, they believe, is presumed by the Bible’s declaration that Abraham offered his only son (see verses). It is therefore argued that this could not be Isaac, since Isaac was never an only child seeing that Ishmael was born fourteen years prior to him. (Cf. Genesis 16:16, 21:5).

Thus, Muslims believe that scribes later corrupted the original reading from Ishmael to Isaac.

This idea stems from the Muslim misunderstanding of the phrase, “Only son”, in reference to Isaac, since the title is used to affirm Isaac’s unique status, a status based on the following:

l Isaac was the only promised child of Abraham, a fact which the Quran agrees with (cf. Genesis      17:15-21; S. 11:69-73, 37:112-113, 51:24-30).

Ishmael was never a promised child.

l Isaac was conceived miraculously to Sarah when the latter was old and barren, with the Quran likewise agreeing (cf. Genesis 17:15-17, 18:9-15, 21:1-7; S. 11:69-73, 51:24-30).

Ishmael was conceived in the normal process of sexual reproduction.

l God promised that it would be Isaac’s descendants who would inherit the land given to Abraham. (Genesis 13:14-18, 15:18-21, 28:13-14).

 Ishmael had no part in the inheritance and promise given to Isaac through Abraham.

It is for these reasons that Isaac is called Abraham’s only son since God himself reckoned him as the child of promise and blessings, an honor never bestowed upon Ishmael.

Even more amazing is the fact that the Quran never mentions the name of the sacrificial child; amazing indeed considering how overzealous some Muslims have been in their attempts to prove that Ishmael, not Isaac, was that son:

“He said: ‘I will go to my Lord! He will surely guide me! O my Lord! Grant me a righteous (son)!’ So we gave him the good news of a boy ready to suffer and forbear.

“Then, when (the son) reached (the age of) (serious) work with him, He said: ‘O my son! I see in a 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 God so wills one practicing patience and constancy!’

“So when they had both submitted their wills (to God), and he had laid him prostrate on his forehead (for sacrifice), we called out to him, ‘O Abraham! Thou hast already fulfilled thy vision’- thus indeed do we reward those who do right.

“For this was obviously a trial-And we ransomed him with a momentous sacrifice…”

(S. 37:99-106).

The ambiguity of the text has left many Islamic scholars guessing as to whether the child was

Isaac or Ishmael. Yusef Ali makes a note of this in his commentary:

“This (the sacrifice) was in the fertile land of Syria and Palestine. The boy thus born, was, according to Muslim tradition (which however is not unanimous on this point), the first-born son of Abraham, viz Ishmael…” (1: p. 1204, f. 4096).

Al-Tabari, considered to be one of the premiere Islamic historians, lists the divergent views held amongst the Muslim umma (community) in regards to this very issue:

The earliest sages of our Prophet’s nation disagree about which of Abraham’s two sons it was that he was commanded to sacrifice. Some say it was Isaac, while others say it was Ishmael. Both views are supported by statements related on the authority of the Messenger of God. If both groups of statements were equally sound, then- since they both came from the Prophet- only the Quran could serve as proof that the account naming Isaac is clearly the more truthful of the two.” (2: p. 32).

Instead of listing both sides of the argument, our paper will focus primarily on those who said

it was Isaac:

Al-Tabari gives several chains of transmitters, with some going back to Muhammad’s companions, i.e. Ibn Masud. Due to the fact that some of these lists are quite extensive, we will only mention the main source of the tradition in order to save time and space.

According to Abdul al-Mutallib, Muhammad in a conversation said,

“ ’Then we ransomed him with a tremendous victim.’ And he also said, ‘He is Isaac’.”

(Ibid. p. 82-83).

“A certain man boasted to Ibn Masud, ‘I am so-and-so son of so-and-so, son of the noble elders.’ And Abdullah said, ‘This is Joseph b. Jacob, son of Isaac the victim of God, son of Abraham the friend of God’.” (Ibid. p.84).

According to Abu Hurayrah:

“When Abraham was told to sacrifice Isaac, Satan said ‘By God! If I cannot deceive the people of Abraham with this, I shall never be able to do it.’ So when Abraham went out with Isaac to sacrifice him, Satan visited Abraham’s wife, Sarah, in the shape of a man whom Abraham’s people knew, and asked her, ‘Where is Abraham going so early with Isaac?’ She said, ‘He went off early on some errand.’ Satan said, ‘No, by God! That is not the reason he left so early.’ Sarah asked, ‘Then what is the reason?’ He said, ‘He took him out early to sacrifice him.’ Sarah said, ‘There is no truth to that, he would not…sacrifice his own son.’

Satan said, ‘By God it is true.’

“Sarah said, ‘And why would he sacrifice him?’ He replied, ‘He claims that his Lord ordered him to do it.’ Sarah said, ‘If his Lord ordered him to do that, it is best that he obey.’ Then Satan left Sarah and went to Isaac, who was walking with his father, and said, ‘Where is your father taking you so early?’ Isaac answered, ‘He is taking me on some errand of his.’ Satan said, ‘No, by God, he is not taking you out on an errand. He is taking you out early to sacrifice you.’ Isaac said, ‘My father would not sacrifice me.’ Satan told him, ‘Certainly he would.’ Isaac asked, ‘Why?’ Satan told him, ‘He claims that his Lord ordered him to do it.’ Isaac answered, ‘By God! If the Lord told my father to do that, he should certainly obey him.’

“So Satan left him and went on to Abraham, saying, ‘Why are you taking your son out early?’ Abraham said, ‘I am taking him on an errand.’ Satan answered, ‘By God, you took him out early only to sacrifice him.’ Abraham asked, ‘Why would I do that?’ Satan said, ‘You claim that your Lord ordered you to do it.’ Abraham said, ‘By God, if my Lord orders me to do that, I will surely do it.’ When Abraham took Isaac to sacrifice him, God stayed his hand and ransomed him with a ‘tremendous victim.’

“Abraham said to Isaac, ‘Arise, my little son, for God has released you.’ And God said to Isaac,

‘I will grant you any prayer you choose to make now.’ Isaac said, ‘My God! I pray to you that I be granted this, that you grant entry into Paradise to any worshipper, past or present, who encounters you and does not make anything a partner with you’.” (Ibid, p. 84-85).

According to Ubayd b. Umayr’s father:

“Moses said, ‘O Lord! Why are you addressed as “O God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?” ‘God answered, ‘Abraham never considered anything at all equal to Me, but put Me above all things; Isaac was generous to Me in the matter of the sacrifice and in other matters; and as for Jacob, the more tribulations I inflicted upon him the more good thoughts he thought about Me’.”

(Ibid, p. 85).

According to Abu Maysarah:

“Joseph told the king to his face, ‘You wish to eat with me when I, by God, am Joseph, son of Jacob the prophet of God, son of Isaac the victim of God, son of Abraham the friend of God’.” (Ibid, p.86).

According to Ibn Masud and some of Muhammad’s companions:

“Abraham was instructed in a dream to ‘carry out your promise that if God granted you a son by Sarah you would sacrifice him.” (Ibid.).

Finally, Tabari himself:

As for the above-mentioned proof from the Quran that it really was Isaac, it is God’s word which informs us about the prayer of His friend Abraham when he left his people to migrate to Syria with Sarah. Abraham prayed, ‘I am going to my Lord who will guide me. My Lord! Grant me a righteous child.’ This was before he knew Hagar, who was to be the mother of Ishmael. After mentioning this prayer, God goes on to describe the prayer and mentions that he foretold to Abraham that he would have a gentle son. God also mentions Abraham’s vision of himself sacrificing that son when he was old enough to walk with him. The Book does not mention any tidings of a male child given to Abraham except in the instance where it refers to Isaac, in which God said, ‘And his wife, standing by laughed when we gave her tidings of Isaac, and after Isaac, Jacob’, and ‘Then he became fearful of them’. They said. ‘Fear not!’ and gave him tidings of a wise son. Then his wife approached, moaning, and smote her face, and cried, ‘A barren old woman’. Thus, wherever the Quran mentions God giving tidings of the birth of a son to Abraham, it refers to Sarah (and thus to Isaac) and the same must be true of God’s words ‘So we gave him tidings of a gentle son’, as it is true of all such references in the Quran.” (Ibid. p.89).

According to Muslim writer al-Massoudy, Ibn Abbas and Akrama debated each other over the identity of the son:

“Akrama asked: ‘Who was supposed to have been slain?’

Abdallah answered: ‘Ishmael!’

Akrama asked:            ‘Why?’

Ben Abbas answered: ‘Because how can God pass the good news of Isaac’s birth to

Abraham,  then order that he be killed?’                                         

‘I can bring you proof from the Koran that Isaac was supposed to have been slain’. Said


‘Thus will thy Lord prefer thee and teach thee the interpretation of events, and perfect His grace upon thee and upon the household of Jacob as He perfected it upon thy fathers, Abraham and Isaac. Lo! Thy Lord is All-Knowing and All-Wise’. (Joseph 6).

“‘God’s blessing to Abraham was by choosing him, and saving him’, said Akrama, ‘and to Isaac by redeeming him from slaying’.” (3: p.p.52-53).

Another historian, al-Tha'labi, affirms that Muhammad’s companions, i.e., Umar, Abu Bakr etc., agreed with the Bible that Isaac, not Ishmael, was the sacrificial son. (4: p.153 ).

The differing views held amongst the Muslims as to the identity of the child only proves that the Bible is truly authoritative and reliable since what the Quran does not clarify, the Bible corrects and addresses, leaving no guesswork for scholars to work through.

Further, the Bible’s superiority is once again demonstrated by virtue of the fact that it even mentions the site where these events took place, Mt. Moriah, the future site of the Solomonic Temple; whereas with the Quran we are not given even the slightest hint as to where this sacrifice was to take place. This has also caused controversy and confusion amongst Muslim scholars as they desperately try to figure this problem out.

Yusef Ali notes:

“Where did this vision occur? The Muslim view is that it was in or near Mecca. Some would identify it with the Valley of Mina, six miles north of Mecca, where a commemoration sacrifice is annually celebrated as a rite of the Hajj on the tenth of Zul-Hijja, the Id of sacrifice, in memory of this sacrifice of Abraham and Ishmael… Others say that the original place of sacrifice was near the hill of Marwa… which is associated with the infancy of Ishmael.”

“At what stage in Abraham’s history did this occur?…It was obviously after his arrival in the Land of Canaan and after Ishmael had given up years of discretion. Was it before or after the building of the Kabah…? There are no data on which this question can be answered. But we may suppose it was before that event, and that event may itself have been commemorative.” (1: p. 1204, f.f. 4098, 4099).

As Ali states, there is no data, especially from the pre-Islamic period or archaeology, which confirms the fact that either Abraham or Ishmael were ever in Mecca, let alone support the notion that Abraham instituted the rites of the pilgrimage. The late Egyptian Professor, Dr.

Taha Husayn, considered one of the foremost authorities on Arabic literature, acknowledges this:

“The case for this episode (i.e., Abraham and Ishmael building the Kabah) is very obvious because it is of recent date and came into vogue just before the rise of Islam. Islam exploited it for religious reasons.” (5: p. 184). 

Noted Christian Apologist, John Gilchrist states:

“Secular history knows of only one form of pre-Islamic veneration of the Ka'aba and that is the idolatry of the pagan Arabs. There is no corroborative evidence whatsoever for the Qur’an’s claim that the Ka'aba was initially a house of monotheistic worship. Instead there certainly is evidence as far back as history can trace the origins and worship of the Ka'aba that it was thoroughly pagan and idolatrous in content and emphasis… the Ka'aba was purely a shrine of thriving pagan idolatry.” (6: p.16).         

Therefore, it is purely wishful thinking for Muslims to use the rites of the Hajj as proof that Abraham offered up Ishmael at Mecca near the Kabah, since pre-Islamic history indicates that these rites were nothing more than pagan customs adopted by Muhammad into Islam. Further, as was noted, Islamic scholarship strongly disagrees and much confusion still exists over the identity of the son, with some arguing for Isaac and others for Ishmael.

The lack of uniformity of opinion and the ambiguity of the Quran in regards to this issue helps to solidify the Biblical narrative as vastly superior and more trustworthy.

Finally, the Quran gives no clear reason why God would test Abraham in this fashion, and yet the Bible does. Abraham and Isaac were shadows of what was to eventually come nearly two thousand years later on the same mountain site where Isaac was offered.

Just as Abraham displayed unconditional love for God in his willingness to sacrifice his one and only son, God also gave up his only beloved Son on the cross of cavalry to prove to the world that He is the true source of unconditional, infinite love. Whereas God withheld the hand of Abraham from completing the sacrifice, He did not withhold his own hand from sacrificing his only Son, going to the extremes in displaying his love for mankind, an extreme that even Abraham did not cross.

Interestingly when Abraham was leading Isaac to the mountainside, Isaac asked his father where the Lamb was that was to be sacrificed, to which Abraham replied, “God will provide himself the Lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” (cf. Gen. 22:8,13)

Yet instead of finding a Lamb, a ram was given instead.

This is primarily due to the fact that the Lamb of God was to arrive two thousand years later:

“The next day he (John) saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’…‘Behold the Lamb of God’.” (John 1:29,36).

Here was the Lamb of God sent to atone for the sin of the world. This is the awesome ransom that the Quran alludes to; Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word of the Father, offering himself as a ransom of infinite value, covering the debt of sin from beginning to end and throughout eternity.

Tabari notes that the Islamic practice of animal sacrifice done in commemoration of Abraham and his son, “wards off an evil death, so sacrifice, O servants of God!” (2: p. 96).

How much more, then, will Christ’s sacrifice atone for mankind’s wickedness seeing that man’s worth is far greater in the eyes of God than animals. Because Christ is the Eternal Word animal sacrifices are no longer needed, since Christ’s atonement is sufficient for all time:

“When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from the acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.” (Hebrews. 9:11-15).

“But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God.” (Hebrews 10:12).

Thus, Abraham and Isaac were shadows of the things that were to come, pointing to the Father and Son’s willingness to sacrifice themselves in the greatest display of love the world has ever seen; the Father’s willingness in sacrificing his eternal love, with the Son giving up his own life on behalf of fallen humanity:

“For God commendeth his love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8 R.S.V.).          

“…For God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:8b-10 R.S.V.).

This is indeed the greatest love story the world has ever known:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16 R.S.V.).

1.A. Yusef Ali- The Holy Quran, Translation and Commentary

2.Al-Tabari- The History of al-Tabari, vol. II, Prophets and Patriarchs (trans. William M. Brenner)

3. Brother Mike- Islam in the Balance

4.Behind the Veil- Unmasking Islam

5.John Gilchrist- The Christian Witness to the Muslim, vol. II

6.John Gilchrist- The Temple, The Ka'aba, and the Christ

©2003 Faith Defenders