Let us recap what we have learned previously.
The Bible says that when Abraham was 86 years old, he got a son whom he named Ishmael. When he was 100 years old, he got a son whom he named Isaac. Then the Bible says that God had commanded Abraham to slaughter his son. This command appears in the book of Genesis, Chapter 22, verse 2.
The problem is that this verse says “your only son, Isaac.” If the Bible only says “your son, Isaac,” without mentioning the phrase “your only son,” then there will be no confusion. We know it was Isaac.
Likewise, if the Bible mentions “your only son” without saying Isaac, there will also be no problem. Here we know it was Ishmael, because Ishmael was the only son Abraham had before Isaac was born.
But by calling “your only son, Isaac,” this has caused confusion. The reason is because Isaac was not the only son. He was the second son, the younger brother of Ishmael.
So, how do People of the Book and their Bible commentators handle this obvious contradiction?
To understand their views, we may employ the following analogy.
Let’s say there were a king and a queen. This royal couple had been married for so many years but were not blessed with any offspring. The queen knew that the king really wanted to have a son to be an heir to his throne. But she was barren and by then was already too old to bear a child.
This queen had a bondmaid, a slave girl. One day, she told her husband the king to take the slave girl as his wife so that the king can still have a son to inherit his kingdom. The king then married the slave girl and a son was born to him.
About 14 years later, when the king was already 100 years old and the queen was 90 years old, the queen miraculously got pregnant and gave birth to the royal son. Now the king had two sons: one royal, the other commoner. Since the king at last had a royal son, it is only natural that his throne will be inherited by his royal son, not the son born to a commoner, irrespective whether the royal son is the younger one.
In the above analogy, the king is Abraham, the queen is Sarah, the slave girl is Hagar, the commoner son is Ishmael and the royal son is Isaac.
That, in short, is the position held by the People of the Book. The phrase “your only son” does not refer to number. It refers to status. To them, only Isaac has the rightful claim to be the heir to Abraham, as Isaac was born to a “royal queen” while Ishmael was born to a commoner.
As for their views about the position and the status of Ishmael, these may be divided into two categories: moderate and extreme views.
The first category considers Ishmael to be the legitimate son of Prophet Abraham. Abraham also loved him dearly. They consider Hagar to be Abraham’s legitimate wife, based on the book of Genesis, chapter 16, verses 1-4, which clearly says that Abraham took Hagar as his wife before sleeping with her. But they rank the status of Ishmael to be much lower than Isaac, since Ishmael’s mother, Hagar, used to be a slave girl before Abraham took him as second wife.
The second category, that is the extreme view, ranges from those who say that Ishmael was a bastard, to those who consider Ishmael as a persona non grata, a non-entity. To them, at best Ishmael was nothing more than a son of a slave woman; at worst, Ishmael was an illegitimate child. To them, Abraham never took Hagar to be his wife. The term “wife” as per Genesis, chapter 16, verses 1-4, simply means that Abraham took her as his sexual partner. To them, at best Hagar was nothing more than a surrogate mother.
The views in the second category were almost non-existent before the birth of Prophet Muhammad. These extreme views gain popularity only after the birth of Islam. The reason for extreme views gaining acceptance is not difficult to fathom.
As for the Jews, they have been waiting for the Seal of the Prophet which has been prophesied in their Holy Book. When Muhammad declared himself to be that prophesied prophet, or the Last Brick in the House of Prophethood, this they cannot accept. This is because they were hoping the Last Brick to be from the Jews. But Muhammad was an Arab, the descendant of Ishmael. The rivalry they feel about Islam has led the hardliners among them to start painting negative pictures about Ishmael. They deride and ridicule Ishmael to discredit Islam.
As for the Christians, they consider Muhammad to be the impostor (pretender/con man) who copied some of the Biblical teachings but modified the rest to suit his purpose. Furthermore, as Muhammad came from Ishmael while Jesus Christ came from Isaac, the rivalry they feel about Islam also led them to belittle Ishmael.
Why do People of the Book develop extreme views about Ishmael? The answer is that this is their natural reaction to Muhammad and to Islam. Prophet Muhammad, either through Quran or his hadith, has exposed the transgressions (excesses/wrong doings) of the Jews, as well as the heretic/deviant teachings of the Christians. Naturally the Jews are not happy being called the people inclined to transgression, and the Christians are not happy being called the people who went astray. It is for this reason that the most extreme among them react with the most extreme views.
In any case, the significance of the story of Isaac and Ishmael in the Biblical perspective is that it brings a new dimension in the story of Prophethood. This heir to the throne concept, or the royalty and the commoner narrative, is used by the People of the Book, especially the Jews, to justify their claim about themselves being the Chosen People.
If we read history, from ancient to modern history, we would probably not encounter any nation or race whose history is as checkered and as turbulent as the history of the Jewish people. The history of the Jewish people may be termed as the history of one conflict after another, since ancient to modern times.
The origin for all these tumultuous and troublesome conflicts can be traced to the story of Isaac and Ishmael, especially on their interpretation of the sacrifice story. Believing that they are the Chosen People, the Jews look down on others. As it is human nature to reciprocate kindness with kindness, or cruelty with cruelty, the non-Jews or the gentiles return the favor. Throughout the history, therefore, we see that everywhere they go, the Jews are not well liked by others.
Most of us are aware of the term anti-Semitism, which is generally equated with anti-Jews. During World War II, we heard of the story whereby millions of the Jews were sent to the concentration camps and millions of them died. For many decades already, we are witnessing the Jewish-Palestinian conflict, with no apparent solution within sight.
Furthermore, if we read the seerah of our Prophet Muhammad SAW, we know that soon after our Prophet migrated to Madinah, he encountered one conflict after another with the Jewish communities who lived in Madinah and in Khaybar (north to Madinah).
Of course neither Isaac nor Ishmael had anything to do with this attitude. Both were among the great prophets. Ishmael and Isaac got along well with one another. As they lived further apart from one another—Ishmael in Makkah and Isaac in Canaan (now Israel)—they met only occasionally. But the Bible said that their relationship was cordial. When their father Abraham died, both of them buried him in Hebron, a town where Abraham spent most of his old age.
The story of the Jews started with Prophet Jacob. He had a checkered life. His life was filled with intrigues and turmoil. As he was the ancestor of the Jews, it is interesting to observe how the Jewish history resembles his.
These we shall cover in our subsequent installments, inshaAllah.