Sons of Sacrifice: A Study of Christian-Islamic Polemics

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From their births Ishmael and Isaac entered the world under very different biblical tones, the start of the division between their descendants. Ishmael, as an angel of the Lord declared over him, would be “a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.”[1] He and his lineage are foretold as a nation of warriors and of princes, one with which God blessed multiplication. But quickly in the Genesis narrative Ishmael is overshadowed. His half-brother Isaac, borne by the matriarch Sarah (Sarai), not the maidservant Hagar, belongs to the superior, everlasting covenant between his father and his God. Already Isaac is founded in glory and the expectation of this child is higher. What’s worth more: fathering twelve princes or fathering a nation rivaling the stars in number? Certainly these brothers will have their own branches of the Abrahamic family tree, but only one is scripturally thought of as greater.

The differences between Ishmael and Isaac begin a division larger than these characters, one as large as the religious and historical differences between Europe (the West) and the Middle East, between Christianity and Islam. The choice of Abraham’s sacrificial child epitomizes this divide in tradition, Christianity looking toward Isaac as the beloved son and Islam seeing Ishmael. Vice versa, the character of the son not chosen appears differently among the two traditions as well. Nevertheless, the biblical account frames the brothers in enmity, as if prophesizing the tension between Ishmael’s progeny, the Muslim world, and Christians – the “spiritual descendants” of Isaac – according to John V. Tolan, professor of history at the University of Nantes in France.[2] Thus, this paper will serve to compare the Christian and Islamic perspectives regarding Ishmael and Isaac from Genesis and the Qur’an, with other textual evidence provided. Analyzing the differences will help in learning why Western and Arabian culture traditionally choose one as to the other, and how the split concerning the intended son leads to Christian-Islamic polemics.

Section I: A Caveat for Study

In touching upon the Christian perspective, Judaism is observed as background into understanding the Christian approach of the sacrifice of Abraham. For example, references are made of the Midrash, Jewish rabbinic commentary and interpretation of Hebrew Scripture. Under the logic that Jewish thought precedes and influences Christian thought, Judaism serves as a helpful insight to Christianity. There are distinctions to draw between the two religions and thus this paper will remain its focus upon what is Christian to visit its relationship with Islam. Lastly, similar to Christianity linking to Judaism in its foundations, in the same way Europe links to Israel and Jerusalem (likewise Europeans to the Hebrews) in purposes of identity and finding ground to relate to Middle Eastern culture. The use of “Middle Eastern” and “Arabian” here are tied, while “Hebrew” will be linked to “European” although it is geographically Middle Eastern.

Section II: Differences Rooted in Abraham’s House

Both Christianity and Islam ground their historicity, their religious legitimacy, in the fatherhood of Abraham. As Yvonne Sherwood describes it, “Each comes after Abraham but traces itself back to Abraham, the autodidact with monotheism welling up inside him.”[3] Though for the Christian the central figure is Jesus, even Abraham remains fundamental to Christ’s authority: the genealogies in Matthew and Luke claim him to be a forefather of the Son of God. And while Christ is regarded in doctrine as the better fulfillment of Abraham (Hebrews 7) and having come before him in creation (John 8:58), the language is relational and dependent upon Abraham’s fatherhood. Islam establishes itself as the first and last religion, having begun in Abraham (Ibrahim) and culminating in the revelations of Muhammad. The prophet “repeats and affirms some of the actions of Ibrahim but takes the center of the new religion elsewhere, both chronologically and geographically.”[4] (The latter modifier, ‘geographically’, will be explored further later on and is significant in the two religions’ differences.) Christianity and Islam are alike in this sense, having reconstructed the foundations of Abraham toward their narratives of the Truth.[5] It is no wonder, then, the two religions disagree upon the particularity of the chosen child in order to contextualize accordingly to their respective cultural and historical identities. In a similar way as with Abraham, both Islam and Christianity reconstruct the son for their purposes.

Binding and then Unbinding: Choosing Which Son is Beloved

Just as Abraham, on the mountaintop, bound his son only to unbind him afterward, either religious tradition conversely unbinds one son in exchange for the other. Christianity, and implicitly Judaism, place Isaac among the firewood while releasing Ishmael, and Islam trades Isaac for Ishmael. There is a reconstruction of the narrative to name the son, even in the Judeo-Christian form. Though the narrator of Genesis 22 names the beloved son as Isaac, neither Abraham nor God (or God via his messengers) do so – in fact, no other character scarcely mentioned does, not even the unnamed mother of the boy. In all places where the narrator is not directly speaking, the story ambiguously refers to the child without specific address. Notably, the Genesis Rabbah Midrash comically interprets God’s equivocal and “incomplete” command:

God: Take your son.
Abraham: I have two sons.
God: Your only one.
Abraham: This one is the only son to his mother,
and this one is the only son to his mother.
God: The one you love.
Abraham: I love them both.
God: Isaac.[6]

The Judeo-Christian perspective does name the son on its terms, whether the Scriptural authenticity is reliable or contested. God’s command was recorded without a clear distinction and the author closed the question “by pronouncing what alone is unique and proper to Isaac, what alone can affirm the primacy of Isaac: his name.”[7] Sherwood supports this case, saying the Genesis Rabbah differentiates the “only” and the “not-only”, i.e. Isaac and Ishmael respectively, for the Jew and inherently the Christian. Provocative still is the mirroring interpretation in Islam, supposedly influenced by the Midrash. An early source attributed to Uthman Ibn Hadir (d. 249/823) tells: “Abraham said to his Lord, ‘Which of my two sons am I to sacrifice?’ And his Lord revealed, ‘The one most loved by you.’”[8]

It should go without mentioning that the Qur’an doesn’t name the son on a more literal basis – that is, nowhere is he called to be the chosen one. Problematic for Islam at the time of its historical foundations was the identity of the intended son. According to Dr. Shai Har-El of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, “early Muslim exegetes disagreed as to whether the son, unnamed in the Qur’an, is Isaac or Ishmael.”[9] Islamic commentary literature was locked in debate before the ninth or tenth century, with each school presenting various proofs, much of which argued for Isaac just as much as Ishmael.[10] Yet toward the tenth century debate settled and scholars had chosen Ishmael, identifying him as the Dhabih (the ‘sacrificed’) and as the ancestor of the Arabs. Most compelling toward the general argument in favor of Ishmael is reading the Qur’an in a chronological context. (Literarily, the narrative of the Qur’an is not sequential; rather, the purpose of the text is for education and recitation.) The Dhabih narrative arrives before the birth of Isaac,[11] and with Abrahamic tradition consistent in naming Ishmael as the firstborn, logic proceeds to tell that the Qur’anic attempted sacrifice is of Ishmael. Ultimately, in both traditions the text is unclear, and thus its adherents are left to determine which son is beloved and which isn’t a concern.

While the Christian tradition ties Isaac at his hands, Islam undoes the rope at his feet, replacing the son of Sarah with the son of Hagar. A popular story holds, according to Sherwood under the work of Islamicists Norman Calder and Reuven Firestone, a Jewish scholar who had converted to Islam confessed that his former religion had always known the intended sacrifice was Ishmael. The confession continued: “The Jews had deliberately changed the story because they ‘envied the Arab community because their father was the one commanded to be sacrificed, and because he was the one who was ascribed for merit for his steadfastness’ and had falsely inserted Isaac into the text in order to redirect the flow of divine blessing and merit toward the Jews.”[12] Not only do the Christian and Islamic worldviews construct for themselves an identity arguably grounded in a son of Abraham as they do in Abraham himself, at the same time each reconstructs the other’s identity in regards to its own spiritual welfare. Likewise, a similar enmity developed, both by Jews and Christians for their Muslim Arab neighbors. A finding in the Babylonian Talmud identifies Ishmael as Arab under a negative light:

“Let a little water be brought; wash your feet” (Gen. 18:4). R. Yannai son of R. Ishmael said, “They [the three traveling men] said to him, ‘Do you suspect us of being Arabs who worship the dust on their feet? Ishmael has already come from you.”[13]

And Galatians 4 certainly juxtaposes Christians “of the promise,” descendants of Isaac, against their persecutors, Arabs according to the flesh of the son-not-to-be-named, born of the “slave woman.” This is undoubtedly founded upon Genesis 16’s prophecy, of which the Spanish bishop Pedro Pascual of the thirteenth and fourteenth century expands:

“These people [Arabians] have always persecuted and made war against the legitimate sons, descendants of Abraham, who are called the people of Israel, and to this day they have not ceased. And in this way the prophecy that was made to their ancestor Ishmael is fulfilled: that he would be cruel, and a thief, and that his hands would be against all men, and the hands of all against him, and they will pitch tents against their brothers; and the Hebrew text says that he would be velut onager, which means a wild ass [in the Latin].[14]

Section III: Civilizational and Locational Disparities

Geography plays a fascinating phenomenon in understanding the Ishmael-is-to-Islam, Isaac-is-to-Christianity divide. The parallels in type of civilization and location between the two brothers and their ascribed religious houses are worthy to explore in order to understand why Western and Arabian culture fundamentally differ regarding the chosen son. Recall Genesis 16, wherein an angel of the Lord describes Ishmael to his mother Hagar as a pere’ ‘adam, a “wild donkey of a man.”[15] According to Carol Bakhos, interpreting the Hebrew here reveals no negative connotation and is thus open to the reader: Ishmael is either “free-roaming,” as “uncouth and unconventional” as a donkey would be, or he is “unshackled” and “unrestricted by geography”.[16] Ishmael is a wanderer from the beginning, evicted from his father’s house by the contempt of Sarah. Isaac, in Genesis, remains in the household and inherits the covenant promising “all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession.”[17] No finality is made of Ishmael’s lot of twelve princes; it can only be assumed a temporal blessing, lesser than this eternal covenant.

Furthermore, “the notion that ‘his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against his’ does depict tension between sedentary and nomadic tribes in the Near East, but this tension need not be understood as negative… ‘It presupposes the sedentary and Bedouin desert tribes living side by side.’”[18] (These sedentary and nomadic groups Bakhos mentions are the Hebrews descended from Isaac and the Arabs from Ishmael, respectively.) Unto Bakhos’ claim, I would argue she doesn’t give any evidence as to why this depiction is not negative and the language “side by side” doesn’t necessarily equate to peaceful relations between Ishmael and Isaac’s people, or rather between Arabs and Hebrews. Christians can be applied in this sense under the sedentary group, seeing as to how they frame Isaac and thus the Hebrew people as their “spiritual” descendants. Commentaries, as we have seen, surrounding the centuries of Islam’s foundations and far preceding it, are certainly negatively charged.

Locational Identity: Europe and the Middle East as to Jerusalem and Mecca

The early centuries of Islam are geographically dimensional to the Ishmael-Isaac debate, divided between the territories of Jerusalem and the further south to the Hijaz, specifically surrounding Mecca. Sherwood claims the general assumption of scholars has been to judge between an Isaac-and-Syria (Syria being to the north) tradition versus an Ishmael-and-Mecca one.[19] Bruce Chilton’s work adds insight, detailing that up to 130 medieval Muslim interpreters identified the son as Isaac while 133 claimed Ishmael;[20] unsurprisingly, these two groups concentrate for the most part toward the north, near Jerusalem, and south surrounding Mecca. As Ishmael increasingly and without question became the Dhabih, as we have reviewed, the Islamic site of the story had almost completely consolidated to the Hijaz, according to Sherwood. An identity formed for Arabs as descendants of Ishmael and Hebrews of Isaac.

The leap for the Christian in claiming progeny with the Hebrews is not too far mentally. Recall basic world history: much of Israel was under Hellenization at the beginning of the first millennia and though a Greco-Roman presence diminished toward the end of it, much of Christianity is rooted in two ideologies: Platonism, of the Western world, and Judaism, of the East. This close identification of the Christian or Christian European, specifically, with the son of Sarah was developing through those ages until solidifying with an opposition in the Ishmael-Arab identity. (It is worthy to note, while the “Christian supersessionist understanding of itself as the true Israel” persisted, it “probably was not an immediate factor” for Israel to be preoccupied with theologically or culturally.)[21] In this way, the geographic proximity of Jerusalem to nearby Christian Europe and of Mecca to the greater Muslim Arab world plays a significant role in understanding the divide between the two religions and understanding the dissemination of this “son-claim” for validity and identity.

Section IV: From Brother Rivalry to Religious Polemics

Discussing the textual and socio-historical basis for reviewing the enmity between the sons of Ishmael and of Isaac would prove nothing without example. Already we have reviewed some written hostilities from behind the curtains of Christianity and Islam toward one another in history and which persist and influence the Arab and Western worlds today. One can explore any moment in the infamous Crusades against Islamic society or visit the Turkish advancement on the Holy Roman Empire in the sixteenth century for further historical case studies. Yet today still polemics arise from the differences established between Ishmael and Isaac.

In Abraham’s Curse: Child Sacrifice in the Legacies of the West, Chilton argues there is a “primordial reflex that has never died”[22] concerning martyrdom and sacrifice. There is something inherent in human nature, for Chilton, to give one’s own life or, at times, the life of one’s children in order to show devotion and preserve faith. All three Abrahamic religions traditionally promote imitation of the Genesis 22 sacrifice, whether explicitly or metaphorically of one’s own material or emotion, yet not so today:

“Jewish and Christian theologians typically play down the image of the martyr in their religions, a denial belied by the continuing power of the call to martyrdom in political as well as religious settings in the West. The gambit of denial has proven even more transparent in the case of Islam. Any number of liberal scholars insist, with some justification, that the Qur’an teaches moderation, but the simple fact is that the popular Muslim counterpart of the Aqedah today galvanizes believers to commit violent acts under the name of martyrdom.”[23]

The need to gloriously sacrifice, in itself a violent act whether or not the intention behind it is malicious (inflicting terror on the other) or selfless (inflicting terror on oneself for the other), is embedded then in Christianity and Islam.

To exemplify this in Islam, Chilton references a “vivid sermon” of which he doesn’t name the speaker.  In it, the preacher references the moment of the patriarchal sacrifice in the Qur’an as an example for all adherents to emulate. He forges a link between Ishmael and a true believer-as-martyr through the As-Saaffat (or Al Suffat, according to Chilton), the portion of the Qur’anic sacrifice in Sura 37, calling for true martyrs to abolish and attack whatever stands between them and Allah,[24] whether that be materiality, family (as with Abraham), or perhaps an enemy as Chilton unravels. The preacher urges any listening to take militant action on behalf of Allah and sacrifice that which obstructs faith:

“Whoever or whatever keeps you behind in order to remain with her, him, or it! Brothers and sisters, these are the signs of our Isma’ils. Let us search for them in ourselves and let us slaughter them to move towards Allah (Glorified be He) and to remove the real knife from the throat of oppressed Muslims all over the world, particularly in Palestine, Chechnya, Iraq, and Kashmir.”[25]

While it would serve the reader and Chilton’s credibility for him to name this source within the text, this sermon and general call to Islam is exemplary of the sacrificial ideal in its extreme. Rhetoric such as this is not Islam, certainly, yet neither is it uncommon, unfortunately. This appeal to martyrdom is rooted in the Arab identity settled in Ishmael, settled in Abraham as the pure beginning offering validity to the religion’s claims, and in the example Ishmael and his father put forth on the mount (and the same can be said vice versa for Christianity with Isaac).

Later on, Chilton argues that while Islam may appear more extremist, Christianity and its Western interpreters of Islam are just as hostile; indeed, the percent of fundamentalism within the religion[26] is less than the Christian counterpart in America. Western media “routinely reports on Islam as a reactionary and puritanical religion”[27] and due to its dominance and echo-chamber effect on itself, Westerners and Christianity in general are more prone to perceive Islam and its members in this negative light. Though “Muslim militancy is a reality, those who mistake it for Islam as a whole will never understand the challenges that commonly confront nations and religions around the world.”

Addressing the Extremists of Abraham’s House

Looking back to the ambiguous narrative of Genesis and the omission of the name in the Qur’an, these two truths alone show that the son’s identity is not as important as the moral and educational lessons to glean from the story. According to Qisas al-Anbiya (or “Stories of the Prophets,” a type of exegesis of the Qur’an and a part of Islamic literature), Prophet Muhammad famously stated, “I am the son of two sacrifices.”[28] Dr. Har-El suggests that the prophet’s making of the night journey from ‘Isra (the site of the Qur’anic sacrifice) and the Sacred Mosque in Mecca to the Farthest Mosque on Mount Moriah, outside Jerusalem, connects the diverging stories of the sacrifice and offers reconciliation between the sons of Ishmael and of Isaac. Thus, in a sense, perhaps both Christians and Muslims can realize commonality. Instead of viewing themselves as “sons” of an ancestry and tradition, relating to one another based upon their differences, they can appear as brothers under a similar house, different in character yet intertwined in Abraham’s story.

Section V: Concluding Remarks

In no way does this paper offer a bridge between these two worlds, although the commonalities are out there and the hope is in remembering the polemical relations between Christianity and Islam are widespread, only a small portion fuels the tension. What can be said, and what may offer understanding toward this enmity to better relations, is of the particular history in the Ishmael-Isaac divide and its influence in traditional thinking that carries over today. A remarkable insight is gained at understanding Christian-Islamic polemics when visiting the foundations socially and culturally perceived to be grounded in either son. This “son-claim” is certainly not the only factor contributing toward hostile relations, nor has this paper explored this particular factor in its entirety.

Perhaps, as Dr. Har-El suggests of Prophet Muhammad bridging the gap through his night journey, Christians and Muslims may too bridge the gap. However one might interpret Ishmael and Isaac’s relationship biblically, when it came time to bury their father in Genesis 25, the two did so together. Now can be the time to bury the metaphorical father of these two religions and ways of life: the superiority rooted in an identity with Abraham that subjects the other to one’s own system.


[1] Gen. 16:11-12 (NIV). Biblical references will be in ESV, unless otherwise noted.
[2] John V. Tolan, Sons of Ishmael: Muslims through European Eyes in the Middle Ages (2008), pp. 140-3.
[3] Yvonne Sherwood, Binding-Unbinding: Divided Responses of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to the “Sacrifice” of Abraham’s Beloved Son (2004), p. 829.
[4] Ibid. Emphasis added mine.
[5] This idea is drawn from Sherwood and additionally from Rabbi Dr. Shai Har-El’s Where Islam and Judaism Join Together: A Perspective on Reconciliation (2014), which connects commonalities and divergences between Hebrews and Arabs. The chapters “The Gate of Ancestry” and “The Gate of Morality” both concern the Ishmael-Isaac debate and are a good read.
[6] Sherwood, Binding-Unbinding, p. 827. From Genesis Rabbah 55.7 ( cf. B. Sanhedrin 89b), dating to c. 400-450 C.E. Though proceeding the foundation of Christianity, the theme of ambiguity in God’s command predates the religion and surely influenced Christian contemporaries as it had in Islam (see last paragraph, this page).
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid. See seventh footnote of Sherwood’s.
[9] Shai Har-El, Where Islam and Judaism Join Together (2014), pp. 107-8.
[10] Ibid., pp. 108-9, and Bruce Chilton, Abraham’s Curse: Child Sacrifice in the Legacies of the West (2008), pp. 154-5.
[11] I do not claim to be knowledgeable of the Qur’an but wish to credit Elijah Plymesser of Brandeis University and the academic, peer-reviewed journal, Kulna, for students of the Middle East. See bibliography for reference.
[12] Ibid., pp. 830-31.
[13] Carol Bakhos, Ishmael on the Border (2006), p. 70. From BT. Baba Mesi’a 86b. Emphasis added mine.
[14] Tolan, Sons of Ishmael, pp. 142-3. Emphasis not mine.
[15] Bakhos, Ishmael on the Border, p. 16.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Gen. 17:8.
[18] Bakhos, Ishmael on the Border, pp. 16-7.
[19] Sherwood, Binding-Unbinding, p. 830.
[20] Chilton, Abraham’s Curse, p. 155.
[21] Bakhos, Ishmael on the Border, p. 3.
[22] Chilton, Abraham’s Curse, p. 146.
[23] Ibid., p. 143. Aqedah is Hebrew meaning “the binding,” referring to the sacrifice of Ishmael-Isaac. It is synonymous in this sense to the Arabic Dhabih previously mentioned.
[24] Ibid., pp. 144-6.
[25] Ibid., p. 146.
[26] Muslim militants account for only between 10 and 15 percent of the faithful. See Chilton, p. 146.
[27] Ibid., p. 147.
[28] Har-El, Where Islam and Judaism Join Together, pp. 111-2.

Works Cited

Bakhos, Carol. Ishmael on the Border: Rabbinic Portrayals of the First Arab, State University of New York Press, 2006. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/lib/unc/detail.action?docID=3407617.
Chilton, Bruce. “Ibrahim’s Sacrificial Vision.” Abraham’s Curse: Child Sacrifice in the Legacies of the Wes, Doubleday Broadway Publishing, 2008, pp. 143–170.
ERASMUS. “Abraham’s Story Shows the Similarities and the Differences between Faiths.” The Economist, 8 Sept. 2017, http://www.economist.com/blogs/erasmus/2017/09/studies-contrast.
Har-El, Shai. “The Gate of Ancestry: Abraham and Ishmael—a Scriptural Reconstruction,” and “The Gate of Morality: The Sacrifice of Isaac/Ishmael—Some Forgotten Lessons.” Where Islam and Judaism Join Together: A Perspective on Reconciliation, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, pp. 87-124.
Plymesser, Elijah. “Conflicting Narratives: A Comparative Analysis of Ishmael in the Bible and Quran.” Kulna: For All of Us, Brandeis University, 2 May 2011, kulna.wordpress.com/2010/03/29/conflicting-narrativesa-comparative-analysis-of-ishmael-in-the-bible-and-quran/.
Sherwood, Yvonne. “Binding-Unbinding: Divided Responses of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to the ‘Sacrifice’ of Abraham’s Beloved Son.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, vol. 72, no. 4, 2004, pp. 821–861.
Tolan, John V. “Walls of Hatred and Contempt: The Anti-Muslim Polemics of Pedro Pascual.” Sons of Ishmael: Muslims through European Eyes in the Middle Ages, University Press of Florida, 2008, pp. 133-146.

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