Isaac or Ishmael?

Author: Abdus Sattar Ghawri
Reviewer: Biju Abdul Qadir
Publisher: Al-Mawrid Institute of Islamic Sciences, Lahore


For a book that was intended to be an appendix to another larger work, namely Paran prophecy of the Bible regarding the Prophet of Islam, the writer’s contention that Isaac or Ishmael? has instead become an attempt to solve a long addressed problem on the principles of objective research is, indeed, something of a humble understatement. Few Muslim scholars in the recent past have addressed the question of the identity of the actual son of the Prophet Abraham with such vigour and tenacity as has been done by Abdus Sattar Ghawri in his Isaac or Ishmael? What makes Ghawri’s work of particular relevance is his almost total, albeit deliberate, reliance on the Bible and the works of Biblical scholars to prove his point. Indeed, and as the author himself whole-heartedly admits, the question that he addresses in his book had been ‘settled once forever’ by the celebrated South Asian Muslim scholar, Imam Hamid al-Din Farahi in his masterly Arabic work, al-Ray al-Sahih fi man huwa al-dhabih, which was later translated into English (Who was offered for sacrifice?) by Nadir Aqeel Ansari while its Urdu version was produced by Amin Ahsan Islahi in 1975. Muslim scholarship on the subject that was based primarily on Muslim sources had, thus, probably effected a culmination with Farahi’s work in the first quarter of the twentieth century. However, genuine Muslim scholarship on the same subject, based on Judeo-Christian sources, was not as forthcoming. It is, perhaps, into this genre of academic work on the topic that Isaac or Ishmael? categorically falls, and in which it has become something of a pioneering effort.


To say, today, that the work of an artist has an innate tendency to grow on him as he progresses with it, is to say something that is generally accepted as a matter of fact. Indeed, true art – and any effort worth its time can be rendered to the sublimities of a quintessential art form – presupposes an evolution of purpose within the artist in his work. True scholarship, too, is not beyond the pale of such artistic renditions. That much, at least, is in evidence as one reads through the path of discovery which Ghawri charts out for us in the progression, indeed, the evolution, of themes that center around the moot question: was it Isaac or Ishmael who was taken for the sacrifice by Abraham? Doubtless, in this evolution of themes around the central point, there has been a broadening of the very scope of the book itself. Thus, it covers, and addresses a whole host of different, yet intimately related, incidents and issues that must necessarily be of the greatest interest to the genuine scholar, Muslim and non Muslim alike. Amongst others, it covers the relevant themes of the site of Makkah according to the Bible, pilgrimage to Makkah as described in the Bible, the site of Al-Marwah in the Bible, King David’s visit and pilgrimage to Makkah and of his later yearning to be there, the offering of sacrifices at Makkah as mentioned in the Book of Isaiah, the well of Zamzam and a brief, yet significant, outline of the history of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.


The Judeo-Christian viewpoint on the subject has consistently been one which asserts that it was Isaac, and not Ishmael, who was taken for the sacrifice by the Patriarch Abraham. Strangely enough, however, and as Ghawri points out in his introduction, while the Bible has recorded the story of the sacrifice in a fairly detailed manner, the name of the only son of Abraham as Isaac has been mentioned but once in the whole of the narrative. Granted the strength of the contention over this issue down the centuries, it can hardly be any advantage, whatsoever, for the Judeo- Christian camp, that the only son of Abraham offered for the sacrifice has been referred to as Isaac but once in the whole of the Biblical narrative. On the other hand, Ghawri also states that a majority of the Muslim scholars affirm that it was Ishmael, and not Isaac, who was taken for sacrifice. Interestingly, this implies that there is a minority of Muslim scholars who, apart from the traditional writings of the Muslims, are, at best, unsure of the exact facts of history: of the identity of the son of Abraham who was offered for the sacrifice. In the main, such a minority opinion amongst Muslims must necessarily owe itself to the fact that while the Qur’an describes God’s command to Abraham and of Abraham’s willing submission in taking his obedient son for the sacrifice, it does not, by itself, reveal the exact identity of the son concerned.


However, to go by the Biblical version of the identity of the son as being Isaac, would be to trust in the fleeting opinion of a redactor who penned down his wishful thinking, as presumably being part of the Divine word, a full one thousand years after the incident of the sacrifice. Evidently, serious historians would hardly take such naïve, or even pious, assumptions as genuine facts of history, particularly when the only instance in which the identity of the son is mentioned appears almost totally out of context, and in a manner which provides genuine grounds for suspicion. This, then, has been the methodology adopted by Ghawri throughout his presentation of the problem – a problem about which one observer noted very pertinently: ‘Lying at the root of centuries old Judeo-Muslim differences, this controversy is all that the Judeo-Muslim relations stand for.’


Ghawri’s has been an effort to, among other things, present a logical appreciation of the statements, factual or otherwise, that appear in the Bible. In thus providing a logical context for the narratives in the Bible, and with his own sure-footed understanding of history and data handling, his has been a thorough study of the subject which owes its authentication not to Muslim scholarship, but to the opinions and considered judgements of some of the greatest names in modern Biblical scholarship within the Judeo-Christian world. It is in this connection that reference must be made to the remarkable number of books and authorities which the learned author has consulted in the making of this ground-breaking research. Indeed, the extensive footnotes to which the attention of the reader is constantly invited in almost every page of the book constitutes a significant, if not a major, part of the work itself. In fact, the footnotes and annotations form a parallel world that operates on the reader’s understanding in tandem with the main body of the book. The end result, of course, has been an overwhelming body of evidence in favour of Ishmael having been the son who was offered for the sacrifice: a conclusion made even more relevant by the fact that it was derived almost in its entirety from the Bible, and from the works of renowned scholars of the Bible.


Of especial consideration, with regard to Ghawri’s approach, must certainly be his eye for detail and his ability to go directly to the point; to the heart of the matter, as it were. While this approach has necessitated a seeming repetition of relevant aspects throughout the course of the study, when read in conjunction with the immediate context of the author’s arguments, however, these repetitions almost never end in the dry monotony that would be otherwise expected of them. Contrariwise, they result in a further consolidation of the strength of the argument. One instance wherein the author’s ability to go directly to the substance of the argument is seen quite early on in the work. A classical stance of the modern Judeo-Christian world with regard to the identity of the son taken for the sacrifice has been that while Ishmael was, indeed, the first born of Abraham, he need not be considered as such owing to his ‘low’ birth through Hagar, a mere bondservant of Abraham. As such, it must be Isaac, born through Sarah, the ‘real’ wife of Abraham, who needs to be considered as the first-born and the only son of Abraham. In a manner that amply illustrates the way in which he demolishes all such false, egotistic pretensions of the Judeo-Christian world, Ghawri quite simply brings the attention of the reader to the following passage from Deuteronomy:


“If a man have two wives, one beloved, and another hated, and they have born children, both the beloved and the hated; and if the first born son be her’s that was hated: then it shall be, when he maketh his son to inherit that which he hath, that he may not make the son of the beloved first born before the son of the hated, which is indeed the first-born: But he shall acknowledge the son of the hated for the first-born, by giving him a double portion of all that he hath: for he is the beginning of his strength; the right of the first born is his.” (Deuteronomy xxi: 15-17, KJV, p.181)


It would not be too much to say that Ghawri has merely allowed facts, and aberrations, from the Bible to speak for themselves. The rest of the matter should be easily settled by the common sense and intellectual logic of the impartial seeker after truth. The author’s committed labours lend credence to the fact that scriptural aberrations or corruptions, far from hiding the facts, actually leave, in their wake, a string of clues and trails which the real historian, working with the advantage of hindsight, can sift and reassemble to reconstruct a semblance of what might, indeed, be the real Truth.


The sections appended to the book as Appendix I, II and III (titled respectively as Beersheba: the ‘Well of seven’ or the ‘Well of Zamzam,’ The text of the Bible and some types of corruptions in it, and A Brief Account of the History of the Temple of Solomon) might very well have formed integral portions of the book, which, technicalities apart, they actually do. This is very much owing to the fact that they supplement the arguments in the core sections of the book, and the book would have been all the poorer for their absence from it. A useful index and a complete table of bibliographical references (which include 25 versions of the Bible, 39 commentaries on the Bible, 53 encyclopedias and 16 other Biblical studies, all by Christian scholars) must further place the work of Ghawri amongst the top-most references on the subject today. Indeed, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that Isaac or Ishmael? has substantially altered the way in which the academic world must view the answer to the age-old question that it poses.


A fellow of the prestigious Al-Mawrid Institute of Islamic Sciences, Lahore, Ghawri is the author of a number of articles on the Biblical text that has special reference to the prophecies heralding the advent of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). He has also lectured extensively on the subject. This robust experience in treating the subject at hand is fairly visible in Ghawri’s Isaac or Ishmael?  If the results of his honest labours are accepted in a spirit of impartiality and good-will within the community of Jews and Christians, it goes without saying that it will help in clearing the international atmosphere between the Muslims and the Judeo-Christian world so much vitiated by misunderstanding and hostility begotten of centuries of ignorance and mistrust. To this end has surely been the author’s motivation, and in this end-result, most certainly lies, his higher reward. His highest reward, of course, must, like all other sincere efforts in the Islamic cause, find its expression in the presence of his Maker, the Changer of Hearts, the Lord of all Creation.

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