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Ishmael And The Arabs

Genesis 16:1-10; Hebrews 11:11
23rd Feb 2004

A number of scholars, looking at the international conflicts between Jew and Arab, Christian and Muslim, have turned to Abraham, hoping to find some points of mutual understanding that could lead to possible interracial reconciliation. Their search has been in vain. Jews and Muslims, who control the source material, cannot agree on the source material they hold in common.

Abraham lived about 2000 BC in what we now call Iraq. He shifted into what we now call Iran, and later lived in what we now call Israel. Arabs are descended physically from Abraham’s first-born son, Ishmael. Jews are descended physically from Abraham’s second-born son, Isaac. Christians who grew up on the Old Testament teaching look back to Abraham spiritually as the father of all three monotheistic faiths — we all believe in only one God, the supreme Almighty.

What do Arab Muslims believe about father Abraham and his first-born son, Ishmael? To understand that we need to look beyond the Jewish sources to the Muslim accounts in the Koran, the Islamic Holy Book. This was written about 1700 years after the Jewish Torah (the earliest books of the Old Testament.) Muslims believe Allah, the Muslim name for God, through the Angel Gabriel, inspired the account that was written by Muhammad. It has much in common with the Jewish scriptures and some say a disaffected Jew aided Muhammad in writing the story. Christians do not believe the Koran account. Both accounts agree that Abraham was responsible for stressing the uniqueness of God, the one God. Moses and Jesus are regarded as prophets. But Muhammad is the last and supreme prophet.


God promised Abraham land and descendants. The stirring first words of Genesis 12 are often referred to as the Call: 12:1–3 “The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

Abraham would appear ill suited to the job. To make a nation, one must have an heir, and he is a childless 75-year-old whose wife Sarah is past menopause. He and Sarah set off into the desert and come to Canaan. As they travel, God elaborates on his offer. Abraham’s children will be as numerous as grains of dust on the earth and stars in the sky. They will spend 400 years as slaves but ultimately possess the land from the Nile to the Euphrates. The pact is sealed in a mysterious ceremony in a dream, during which the Lord puts Himself formally under oath and requires from Abraham the sign of the Covenant on his body, initiating the Jewish and Muslim custom of circumcision of boys. He is now committed to “keep the way of the Lord to do righteousness and justice.”

Many Jews (and some conservative Christians) believe it granted the Jewish people alone the right to the Holy Land. That belief fuels much of the Israeli settler movement and plays an ever greater role in Israel’s hostility toward Palestinian nationalists.

The Israelis say: “Our connection to the land goes back to our first ancestor Abraham. Arabs have no right to the land of Israel,” This argument infuriates Palestinian Muslims-especially since the Koran claims that Abraham was not a Jew but Islam’s first believer. The Muslims say: “The people who supported Abraham believed in one God and only one God, and that was the Muslims. Only the Muslims.” Christians say Abraham found God’s grace outside Jewish law because of his faith, and consequently Christianity, which is based upon faith and grace, replaces Judaism. That has caused a great deal of anti-Semitism.

Abraham’s domestic life was a soap opera. Convinced she would have no children, wife Sarah offers him her young Egyptian slave Hagar to produce an heir. 12:1–3 It works. The 86-year-old fathers a boy, Ishmael. The story about Abram and Hagar is later used as a warning about taking wives from other races. To the Jews the story of Hagar and Ishmael is divine warning about interracial marriage. This became important to later generations of Israelites. Even though Ishmael was born to Hagar, God insists that Sarah herself will conceive, and in a wonder confirming Abraham’s faith, she bears his second son, Isaac. Jealous of Hagar’s and Ishmael’s competing claims on her husband and his legacy, Sarah persuades Abraham to send them out into the desert. God saves them and promises Hagar that Ishmael will sire a great nation through 12 sons. These sons are today regarded as the founders of the twelve tribes that grew out of Arabia — and hence the Muslim community as we know it spread across the Middle East.


No faith is as self-consciously monotheistic as Islam, and it embraces Abraham fully. Muslims regard him as one of the four most important prophets. So pure is his submission to the One God that Muhammad later says his own message is but a restoration of Abraham’s faith. The Koran includes scenes from Abraham’s childhood in which he chides his father for believing in idols. He survives, Daniel-like, in a fiery furnace to which he is condemned for his faithfulness to Allah.

The biggest difference lies in the Koran’s version of Abraham’s ultimate test, the offering of his son to God. Muslims believe it was Ishmael their father, not Isaac, the Jews father, that Abraham takes up Mt Moriah. In the Koran, Abraham tells his son of God’s command, and the boy replies, “O my father! Do that which thou art commanded. Allah willing, thou shalt find me of the steadfast.” The Koran adds, “They had both surrendered,” using the verb whose noun form is the word “Islam.” The Old Testament says it was Isaac that was taken up the mountain, but the Koran does not specify which son God tells Abraham to sacrifice. Muslim interpreters a generation after Muhammad concluded that the prophet was descended from the slave woman Hagar’s boy, Ishmael, their fore-father. Later scholars determined that Ishmael was also the son who went under the knife. The decision effectively completed the Jewish disenfranchisement. Not only was the Jewish claim rejected, but their forefather Isaac, lost his role in the great drama of surrender of Mt Moriah. So the faith stories have different heroes.

Things went down hill from there. Jews took steps to cement Abraham’s Jewish identity. Their teaching describes Abraham following The Law of Moses even though Moses lived 700 years later, and speaking Hebrew even though the language did not exist at Abraham’s time. The Jews severely downgraded Ishmael. Initially Jewish parents named their boys after Abraham’s Arab son, but that ended as they lived under Muslim rule. By the 11th century they described Ishmael as a “thief whom everybody hates,” an insult that is still taught in many Jewish religious schools. Muslims by the 13th century struck back by claiming the Jews had “dishonestly and slanderously” introduced Isaac into the Old Testament story: “They forced this understanding because Isaac is their father, while Ishmael is the father of the Arabs.” Muslims repeat that today.

Jews teach Ishmael was a bully and Isaac was a persecuted younger brother. That belief persists. Says an Israeli settler: “The Muslims are very aggressive, like Ishmael, and the Jews are very passive, like Isaac, who nearly allows himself to be killed without talking back. That’s why they are killing us, because we don’t fight back.” The Muslims say that any Jewish claims based in Genesis are “pure lies, aimed at achieving political gains, at imposing the sovereignty of Israeli occupation on the holy places.”

As in any war, the first casualty is truth. Christians who have grown up only hearing the Jewish side of the debate should be open to hearing the Muslim side. This does raise for us however, our understanding of the inspiration and authority of the Old Testament.


Ishmael was born at Mamre, when Abraham was eighty-six years of age, eleven years after his arrival in Canaan Genesis 16:3; 21:5 At 3 years he was circumcised Genesis 17:25 in accordance with the Divine command received by Abraham: “Every male among you shall be circumcised” Gene-sis 17:10 This means Ishmael was party to the Covenant into which God had entered with Abraham. Ishmael would also inherit the Promised Land. He was certainly made to understand how much his father loved him and how deeply he was concerned about his spiritual welfare. Abraham considered Ishmael as his seed. His error was made clear to him when God promised him the birth of another son by Sarah.

That seemed incredible, Abraham being 100 years of age and Sarah 90. And yet, how could he disbelieve the word of God? His cherished belief about Ishmael, his doubts regarding the possibility of Sarah’s motherhood, and the first faint glimmer of the real meaning of God’s promise, all these thoughts found their expression in the fervid wish to God: “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!” Genesis 17:18 Abraham came to understand God would favour Isaac. When Isaac was weaned, Ishmael was about 16 years of age. The weaning was made an occasion for great celebration. But it seems the pleasure of the day was marred by the objectionable behavior of Ishmael. “And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian … mocking” Genesis 21:9 Her jealous motherly love made her react. Sarah objected to the bringing up her son with this older boy and urged Abraham to send Ishmael and his mother away from Abraham’s tents.

So both Hagar and Ishmael were banished from the tents of Abraham with only some bread and a bottle of water. The two walked in the wilderness of Beersheba. The water was soon spent, and with it went all hope and energy. The boy, being faint with thirst and tired out by his constant walking in the fierce heat of the sun, seemed to be dying. His mother laid him in the shade. She lay down at a distance and expected the death of her son and herself. But God cared for them. For the second time Hagar had a marvelous experience. “God heard the voice of the lad” and comforted the unhappy mother. He renewed His promise regarding her son, and then He showed her the location of a nearby well. The lad’s life was saved and, growing up, he became in time an archer. He lived in the wilderness and was married by his mother to an Egyptian wife. Genesis 21:21

When Abraham’s died the two brothers met after being long separated. Isaac with his hundreds of household slaves, and Ishmael with his troops of wild retainers and half-savage allies, gathered before the cave of Machpelah, to pay the last duties to the ‘father of the faithful.’ Ishmael had 12 sons regarded as the founders of the 12 Arabian tribes. The character of Ishmael is vividly depicted in the Jewish account: “He shall be as a wild ass among men; his hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand against him.” Genesis 16:12. The nomads of the desert are today jealous of their independence, rejoicing in their wealth from oil, and still facing off the descendants of Abraham’s son Isaac. How we need again to discover the grace of God who loves us all.


  • The Expositor's Bible Commentary. F E Gaebelein Ed 1981.
  • TIME Sept 22 2002. "The Legacy of Abraham." David Van Biema.
  • William Baur, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.
Wesley Mission, Sydney.