To God we belong and to God we return – Surah Al-Baqarah 2:156
This week, Muslims all over the world celebrate Eid al-Adha or Qurbani Aid – the festival of sacrifice – to commemorate Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son upon Allah’s command. This festival also marks the end of Hajj. According to Muslims’ account, Allah spared Ishmael upon seeing Abraham’s devotion and commanded him to sacrifice a ram instead.
The animal sacrificed for Eid al-Adha is cut in thirds, one third is donated to those less fortunate, one third offered to friends, and one third eaten in a celebratory dinner with family. Muslims who could afford to give symbolizes their willingness to give up upon Allah’s command through this animal sacrifice.
While the Islamic teaching says that Ibrahim (Abraham) was commanded by God to sacrifice Ishmael, Christians believe that Isaac was the one to be sacrificed. Among philosophers and theologians in the modern times, the rhetoric of the discourse was not on who was supposed to be sacrificed, but leaned towards principled and ethical questions. Soren Kierkeegard, for example, purported that ethical standards did not apply to divine command.
Immanuel Kant, on the other hand, questioned on how can one know whether the command came from God in the first place: “There are certain cases in which man can be convinced that it cannot be God whose voice he thinks he hears; when the voice command him to do what is apposed to the moral law, though the phenomenon seem to him ever so majestic and surpassing the whole of nature, he must count that as deception.”
The debate among Muslims and Christians on this matter, “Ishmael versus Isaac” and others has been going on for centuries as Muslims perceive the Bible is corrupted, and many Christians believe the Quran is not infallible. If “corrupted” is defined as “not perfect,” many biblical scholars agree that the Bible is divinely inspired, infallible, but written by human, and therefore is not perfect. But this does not mean that everything in the Bible is imperfect. Some are perfect. The relative comparison of the perfect and uncreated Quran according to Muslims is the perfect and uncreated Jesus Christ – the Word of God – according to the Christians, but not to the Bible.
According to some biblical scholars, the information such as the age of Sarah, Ibrahim and Ishmael that are written in Genesis 16 and 17, should not be interpreted at their face values. Similar example is the command to the Israelites to completely wipe-out other tribes such as the Canaanites, Moabites, Hittites, and Amorites. How can any rational human mind accept genocide as God’s will? Kant and Kierkegaard will be on the same page on this. Genocide is morally wrong. Therefore, reading biblical scriptures as a historical account where data are assumed perfectly accurate is futile. And, any debate centers on this hermeneutic approach can also be also futile.
What does the Bible say about Ibrahim’s family?
Is there anything that can be learned for one’s spiritual growth or personal development from this narrative: a father surrendering his beloved son?
According to the Torah, Ishmael was the son of Hagar and Ibrahim. He was born before Isaac, the son of Sarah and Ibrahim (Genesis 16). Hagar the Egyptian was the servant maid of Sarah.Thus according to the commonly accepted Ancient Near Eastern custom, Ishmael was “presumed” loved less and had an inferior position in the family structure.
In the Ancient Near Eastern patriarch tradition, losing a son from a legitimate wife is a big lost in a family’s heir. The opening chapter of the book of Matthew on the genealogy of Jesus Christ will be problematic without Isaac. Some felt that Isaac was loved more by Ibrahim and to sacrifice him, the legitimate son, symbolized the act of “dedicating the best or what we love the most to God.” Many Christians know by heart Genesis 19:21 that says, “But my covenant I will establish with Isaac…,” the great covenant promised for the descendent of Isaac, the ancestor of Jesus.
Does God promise to bless Ishmael descendent?
Abu Muhammad Abdul Malik ibn Hashim the Gramarian, in the book ‘Sirat Rasul Allah – The Life of the Prophet of God’ by Ibn Ishaq’s (767 AD/150) quoted the geneology of Prophet Muhammad that descends to Ishmael and to Adam. The acknowledgment of Ishmael as Abraham descendents led Christians to call Muslims as “cousins.” From the biblical texts, this is literally inaccurate as the Bible indicates that Ishmael was Isaac’s step brother, and not his cousin. In many cultures, cousins are treated well in every extended family, but often step siblings are treated partially. And so was Sarah’s initial treatment to Hagar who was pregnant.
Back to Genesis, none of the scriptures in the Torah points that Ibrahim loves Ishmael lesser than Isaac. Sarah was really the domineering voice in this triangle relationship, and Abraham made no attempt to defend Hagar. When Sarah asked Abraham to cast out Hagar, the matter was hurting Abraham as Ishmael too was his son (Genesis 21:11). But he allowed Sarah to do whatever she pleased. Acknowledging his agony, God promised him, “Yet I will also make a nation of the son of the maid servant, because he is your seed.”
Genesis 16 and 17 give another variation of narrative, speaking of the same crisis, and affirming the same promise for Hagar: Genesis 16:10 “I will multiply your descendents exceedingly, so that they will not be counted for multitude.” Later, the verse says in 17:20 that, “And as for Ishmael, I have heard you” indicate that Ibrahim’s hope for something good for Ishmael too was known by God. And the verse continues, “Behold, I have blessed him, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall beget twelve princes and I will make him a great nation.”
Muslims pause from work to worship Allah
The plentiful offspring of “Ishmael”: 1.5 billion global Ummat
The narrative on Abrahim and Ishmael’s relationship gets more fascinating when Ishmael became the first male child circumcised right after the “Sign of Covenant” or the “Covenant of Circumcision” was promised to Ibrahim. In this chapter, the Covenant of Circumcision says, Genesis 17:6-7, “I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings come from you. And I will establish My covenant between me and you and your descendents after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and descendants after you.”
What is important to note here is that, these verses indicate that God according to the scriptures was gracious towards both, Ishmael and Isaac.
How do the Genesis 16, 17 and 21 relate to Eid al-Adha?
And when Hagar fled from Sarah who dealt with her harshly after she conceived, she found a spring of water in the wilderness on the way to Suhur.
Again, we have a variation between Muslims and Christians’ account. Muslims believe that Hagar was at the spring with Ishmael, and the Bible says that she was still conceiving Ishmael.
The well of zamzam
But, what is common?
The internal chronology of the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament suggests that Abraham lived around 2100 B.C.E. The exodus from Egypt was estimated to happen around 1250 B.C.E. At least around 3500 to 4100 years have passed since Hagar cried by the water spring, what becomes the well of zamzam according to the Muslims’ tradition. And each year, millions of Muslims who do their hajj drink from this well. Many brought back gallons of zamzam spring water for their family members in remembrance of Hagar and Ishmael.
For Christians, this is a testimony of God’s promise to bless and multiply “Ibrahim’s descendents” ever since the Covenant of Circumcision was promised.
Some religious scholars rebut on the exact location of the well. And I am not writing to convince you if Ishmael or Isaac was to be sacrificed; or it was Hagar and Ishmael that were at the spring water; or the current location of the well of zamzam is the exact spring water that Hagar drank from.
What I hope you and I can perhaps learn is that, for thousands of years, mankind has always fight, often over ambiguity of definitions or facts, and then reconcile. The cycle continues. Many died for trying to prove that they have the right “facts” and be willing to kill one another for these “facts.”
And yet, we are still here!
But when mankind, like Hagar, cried, oppressed and lost in the wilderness, God has always been merciful to “give us water.” That is what common. The water comes from God, and we receive this Providence not because we are of Ishmael or of Isaac tribe; Gentiles or Jewish; Muslims or Christians; believers or non-believers. It is simply because God in His mercy and His compassion gives.
(This is my reflection, and you are most welcome to share yours. Thanks)
Video Clip – Animal Market in Kashgar