Ishmael and Isaac: An Essay on the Divergent Moral Economies of the Quran and the Torah By M. Shahid Alam


The Torah and the Qur’an offer different conceptions of individual autonomy. Thesedifferences are best illustrated by the manner in which the two scriptures deal with theepisode of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son. In the Torah, Abraham neither informs nor consults with Isaac about the sacrifice. In the Qur’an, Abraham seeks and receivesIshmael’s consent before proceeding with the near-sacrifice.

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“My son, I have seen myself sacrificing you in a dream. Consider, then, what would be your view.” Qur’an 37: 102 [1]

In their accounts of Abraham’s near-sacrifice, the Torah and Qur’an differ in several specifics that are not merely incidental.[2] Instead, they may be read as pointers to the divergent moral economies[3] of the two central sacred texts of Judaism and Islam. This essay will focus on these two scriptures alone not the rabbinic commentaries or the Qur’anic exegeses that seek to interpret or embellish the narrative about the near-sacrifice.[4]

The narratives of the near-sacrifice in these scriptures share the same basic plot. God commands Abraham, his righteous servant, to sacrifice his son. Abraham submits to the command, but God stays his hand just as he lays his knife on his son’s neck. Abraham passes the test of faith even as God spares his son, and God rewards him for his obedience.

The Torah is not reticent in setting out genealogies or halachic rulings, but, important as Abraham’s trial is to its moral economy, it devotes a little less than one chapter in the Genesis -some nineteen verses -to this defining moment in the life of Abraham. In its retelling of this episode, the Qur’an outdoes the Torah in brevity: it completes its account of Ishmael’s near­ sacrifice in only eight contiguous verses.[5] In these examples of scriptural reticence, there is obscurity, mystery and bafflement, leading, in turn, to unending attempts by exegetes to supply the ‘gaps’ in the narrative concerning what might have gone on between God and His human and angelic interlocutors- Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Sarah, Hagar, the angels, and others -between the human interlocutors, or inside their heads.

Both scriptures are clear that the near-sacrifice episode is a test of faith. The Torah affirms this at the outset, as if to prepare the reader for the radical demand that follows. “Sometime afterward,” according to Genesis, “God put Abraham to the test.”[6] The Qur’an says much the same at the end of its narrative: “… it was a test to prove [their true characters].”[7] Yet there is a difference about who is being tested. In the Torah God is testing Abraham, not Isaac. The Qur’an does not specify who is being put to the test. Was it Abraham, Ishmael or both? A reading of the Qur’anic narrative, however, makes it clear that God is testing not only Abraham but,  equally,  this concerns his son.

The Qur’an does not name the son in the near-sacrifice episode, whereas the Torah does so explicitly. As a result, early Muslim exegetes were divided in their opinion about the identity of the son involved in the near-sacrifice episode, but over time they settled in favor of Ishmael. Settling this dispute, however, is not necessary to the thesis of this essay. We compare the manner in which the Torah and Qur’an develop this episode, but this comparison­ for the purposes of this essay -does not depend on whether Ishmael or Isaac was the intended victim of the near-sacrifice.

Nevertheless, this essay proceeds on the premise that the intended victim in the near-sacrifice episode is Isaac in the Torah and Ishmael in the Qur’an. Three reasons for proceeding in this manner may be adduced. First, this serves convenience: it avoids the circumlocutions that we would have to employ otherwise, such as ‘the son intended for sacrifice in the Bible’ and ‘the son intended for sacrifice in the Qur’an.’ This position also shows respect for what has been for several centuries the nearly unanimous position in Muslim scholarship on the identity of the intended victim in the Qur’an. Finally, we also believe that the Qur’anic evidence points strongly towards Ishmael as the sacrifice.

The grounds for this last claim are quite straightforward. The Qur’an’s narrative of the near-sacrifice begins with a prayer from Abraham, “Lord, grant me a righteous son.“[8] If the son in question were Isaac, this would mean that Abraham’s first-born son, Ishmael, was not righteous. Since this is not a position that the Qur’an supports[9] we have to conclude that Ishmael was the son of the intended sacrifice. As if this were not enough, the Qur’an corroborates this. The verses that describe the near-sacrifice of Abraham’s son begin with a bushra (good news). In response to Abraham’s prayer for “a righteous son,” God “gave him the good news that he would have a patient son.”[10] Immediately, following the account of the near-sacrifice, God gives Abraham a second bushra of a son that He identifies as Isaac. “We gave Abraham the good news of Isaac prophet and a righteous man...”[11] Since there is a temporal succession from the first to the second bushra, it seems unlikely that the reference in both cases is to Isaac. Ibn Kathir,  a leading exegete from the fourteenth century, also concludes that the first bushra must refer to Ishmael.[12]

George Sale, an early translator of the Qur’an into English knew that this was one of the arguments Muslims advanced for their claim that Abraham offered Ishmael for sacrifice; the “promise of Isaac’s birth is mentioned lower, as subsequent in time to this transaction.”[13] Two recent Western scholars of comparative religion also take the same position: “Although the son is unnamed in the Qur’an,” write Fasching and deChant, “the text clearly suggests it was Ishmael (not Isaac) whom Abraham was called upon to sacrifice.”[14]

The Near-Sacrifice Episode

The focus of this essay is on the part that Abraham’s son plays in the narratives of the near-sacrifice in the Torah and the Qur’an. In what capacity does he enter this high and intense drama in the two scriptures? Is he endowed with some measure of autonomy in this episode or is he only a  human substitute for a sacrificial animal? Do God, His angels or Abraham inform Isaac/Ishmael of the fate that has been decided for him? Does Abraham seek his son’s consent in his own sacrifice? It would appear that the Torah and the Qur’an provide different answers to these questions.

The Account in the Torah

It is clear from the text of Genesis 22 that God has set up the near-sacrifice because He wants to “put Abraham to the test.”[15] What is this a test of? Although the Torah does not spell it out, the test opposes a prophet’s submission to God against his love for his son, his “favored son, whom you love.”[16] Inherent in God’s command to Abraham are other tensions. God’s command contradicts His promise. Isaac is no ordinary child; he is the son of promise, “for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you.”[17] God’s specific command to kill his child also violates His interdiction against murder.

Did these tensions cause Abraham to have doubts about God’s intent in thus testing him Would God allow him to carry out the sacrifice? The narrative itself gives no indication of these doubts even though Abraham is on the road for three days before he lays Isaac on the altar: and on he is alone with his son on the third day. On the contrary, he appears to be all obedience. He sets out “early next morning”[18] after receiving the command; he splits “the wood for the burnt offering, saddles his ass, and takes along for his journey to Moriah two of his servants in addition to his son.”

At no point during these preparations, however, or the three days that Abraham is on the road, does he initiate a conversation with Isaac. God has spoken to Abraham about the sacrifice, but He or his angels do not share this command with Isaac. Not even Abraham shares with his son the terrible fate that has been ordained for him.

This perplexes Isaac. In all likelihood, he knew from the outset – as Abraham “split the wood for the burnt offering”[19] – that they were preparing to make a burnt offering. And he may also have noticed the absence of a sacrificial animal; and possibly, this may have set him wondering.[20] On the third day of the journey, Abraham placed the wood for the burnt offering on Isaac and carried the firestone and the knife himself, but there is still the sight of the sacrificial animal. Isaac had held his silence for so long but now he asks his father, “Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”[21] Still unwilling to share the fate that he is preparing for his son, Abraham falls back on concealment, “God will see to the sheep for his burnt offering, my son.”[22] Certainly, this answer opens itself to several interpretations. It is unlikely, however, that Isaac would have suspected that his father was speaking falsely? Why would his father who loved him offer him as a burnt offering?

Did Abraham know how this matter would end? Did he not entertain the hope that God, having tested his faith, would stop him from carrying out the sacrifice? God had answered his prayer for a son when he was old and his wife was long past her childbearing years: now, as that son approached manhood, would God take him away? It is conceivable, then, that Abraham’s submission

to God’s command was alloyed by these hopes and reservations? On the other hand, if it was his faith in God’s mercy that persuaded Abraham to go along with His command to sacrifice his son, this could not be a test of his faith. In the event, it could only be playacting, collusion between God and Abraham, to establish that human sacrifices were not necessary. Surely, this is simplistic. A simple divine edict against human sacrifice might be more effective -clear and categorical.

In the end, Abraham could not conceal the sacrifice from his son. Upon reaching the mountain appointed for the burnt offering, Abraham “built an altar there; he laid out the wood; he bound his son Isaac; he laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.”[23] If Abraham had “bound” his son, was this because the lad had resisted? One rabbinic commentary from the sixth-seventh century explains that Isaac had insisted that his father bind him, “lest I kick and your sacrifice be rendered useless.” Another commentator writes that the binding was Isaac’s work.[24] These rabbinic commentaries look too much like attempts to change aspects of near-sacrifice narrative that later writers may have found unpalatable.[25] In any case, these re-writings cannot be relevant to this essay which compares accounts of this episode contained in the Torah and the Qur’an.

Isaac’s failure to protest the sacrifice troubled many people. Martin Luther, the leader of the Christian Reformation, imagines Isaac protesting his sacrifice. “God gave me to my mother through a miracle,” he might have told his father. “How then will it be possible for the promise to be fulfilled if I have been killed. Nevertheless, let us first confer about this matter and talk it over.”[26] Martin Luther admonishes Moses for editing out some such exchange between Isaac and Abraham from the Genesis.

Abraham’s concealment of the intended sacrifice from Isaac has also troubled several rabbinic commentators of the Torah. Given Isaac’s age a-t the time of the intended sacrifice  (estimated to be thirty-seven), they argue that it is unlikely that Abraham could have concealed the sacrifice or used force against him.[27] While concealment and the use of force may appear implausible, this cannot be used to ignore the evidence from the text of the Torah.

Abraham refuses to take his son into confidence when he asks him pointedly about the missing lamb. In addition, he conceals the intended sacrifice from the two servants who accompanied him during the first two days of his journey to Moriah. He leaves them behind with the following words, “You stay here with the ass. The boy and I will go up there; we will worship and we will return to you.”[28] At the time, Abraham did not know that he was going to return with the boy.

In summing up, it does not appear that the narrative of the near-sacrifice in the Torah views Isaac a person endowed with autonomy. Several elements in this narrative support this view. At no point do God, His angels or Abraham take Isaac into confidence about the sacrifice, much less seek his consent. Indeed, Abraham prevaricates even when Isaac appears to be looking for an answer. On the third day, when Abraham leaves the ass behind and loads the wood for the burnt offering on Isaac, this image is suggestive of a sacrificial animal burdened with the wood for its own immolation. The binding of Isaac also indicates the absence of Isaac’s consent in the sacrifice. Finally, at no point does Genesis 22 suggest that God is also testing Isaac. In the end, after holding back Abraham from completing the sacrifice, God commends and directly blesses him and him alone. Isaac does not become a part of the sacrifice except indirectly, and it would appear unwillingly, as the victim of the sacrifice.

The Account in the Qur’an

Although the Qur’an presents its account of the near-sacrifice in the fewest brush strokes, it is significant that this briefest of narratives opens with Abraham taking his son into confidence about his dream. “My son,” Abraham says, “I have seen myself sacrificing you in a dream.“[29]

In other words, the Qur’anic account is clearly different at the outset. In the Torah, Abraham does not discuss God’s command with his son. During the three days that they are on the road, heading for the sacrificial site, Abraham does not speak to his son, and, when his son questions him about the absence of the sacrificial animal, he offers an evasive if not misleading answer. The Qur\inic account begins with Abraham taking his son into confidence, telling him the content of his troubling dream vision. Abraham and his young son -who is to be sacrificed- enter the Qur’anic narrative together,  with the former sharing with him what he believes is God’s command to sacrifice him, revealed in a dream. In this narrative, Abraham and Ishmael are co-equals or near co-equals. It is true that God has spoken to Abraham but he then shares this with his son. Not only that – as we will soon see- Abraham seeks and receives his son’s consent to his own sacrifice.

In the Torah, God is shown speaking ‘directly’ to Abraham, asking him to offer his son as a “burnt offering.”[30] In the Qur’an, the communication from God comes through a dream: it is cloaked in ambiguity. One Islamic tradition, reported by al-Tabari, plays upon this ambiguity. Iblis tries to undermine Abraham’s resolve, telling him that his dream is from Satan. Abraham recognizes Iblis, and tells him that his dream most certainly is from God. Iblis then speaks to Ishmael, telling him that his father, following God’s command, was going to sacrifice him. Iblis tells the same to Hagar, Ishmael’s mother. Neither is troubled by this revelation: they insist that since the dream is from God, Abraham must do what he is told.[31]

Abraham is convinced that his dream is from God: and he must act upon it. Not to follow the dream, to prevaricate, to delay, once he is convinced of the divine provenance of his dream, would show a weakness of faith. Should he not then do what Abraham appears to do in the Torah, and sacrifice his son against his will? In informing Ishmael of his dream, he incurs the risk – however small that risk may have been -of disobeying God. There is a chance that Ishmael might decide that the dream is not from God or, believing it is from God, he might yet refuse to become a sacrificial victim.

Yet, the Qur’anic Abraham does take this risk. He will not sacrifice his son against his will, even if he is acting in obedience to God’s command. After he has shared his dream his son, Abraham directs his momentous question at Ishmael, ???????? ?????? ??????. This has been variously translated: by A. J. Arberry as, “Consider, what thinkest thou?;” by Muhammad Pickthall as, “So look, what thinkest thou?;” by Majid Fakhry as, “See what you think?”; by N.J. Dawood, as “Tell me what you think?”; by Abdul Haleem as, “What do you think?”[32]It is worth noting that Abraham prefaces his question with an appeal to Ishmael to reflect: Consider/See/Tell me. The question then follows: “what  thinkest thou?” This is not a leading question. On the contrary, Abraham frames his question in a manner that leaves Ishmael free to give or refuse his consent to the sacrifice. Ishmael is free to express bewilderment, reject the sacrifice, or submit to it. Abraham has decided that he cannot act unilaterally because the command concerns Ishmael no less -and, arguably, even more – than it concerns him. Therefore, he invites his son to consider: to judge for himself whether his father’s dream is from God, and, decide what they­ father and son -should make of the dream, how they should respond to it.

This interpretation is supported by the manner in which the Qur’an introduces the near-sacrifice episode: “When the boy is old enough to work with his father, Abraham said, My son …“[33] To this author, the construction of this sentence suggests that God’s command had come to Abraham some years before when Ishmael was perhaps still a child. However, he had waited for the child to become a boy/youth old enough to work with his father. He could not have asked for Ishmael’s consent when he was yet a child; and because he wanted his consent he waited for him to grow up, to work with him, spend time with him, and get to know him. Only then could Ishmael give his informed consent.

Abraham’s decision to take his son into confidence, to share with him God’s command, and then empower him to make the final choice: each of these decisions is momentous considering that Ishmael had just become a boy. In thus consulting with Ishmael, Abraham was taking a great risk. What would he do if Ishmael rejects his father’s dream interpretation or refuses to become a sacrificial object? What would God do in the event? If Ishmael rejects the sacrifice and he is sacrificed forcibly, Abraham’s sacrifice will be tantamount to the murder of a son.

In more ways than one, Ishmael faces the harder task. Since God has not spoken to him about testing Abraham’s faith, he has to decide about the dream’s provenance based only on what he knows of his father. He is convinced that his father’s dream is from God: as a son, he has known his father to be God-conscious, a righteous servant of God, whose life has been directed by God since he turned away from idol worship in his youth, and who, therefore, would surely know if his dream was not from God. Convinced that his father’s dream is from God, Ishmael tells him, “My father, do as you are commanded...” As a Muslim, as one who would submit to God, Ishmael knows that his father must overcome his love for him and do what God has commanded him to do.

On several occasions, the Qur’an warns men and women not to turn away from life’s main task- orienting their lives towards  God – because of their worldly attachments. “Your wealth and your children are only a test for you,” the Qur’an warns the believers.[34] For Abraham, this test takes the form of a stark choice: he has to sacrifice his son or disobey God’s command; he has to break one divine command -the law against murder -in order to submit to another edict. Caught between two divine commands, Abraham seeks an exit from this dilemma by seeking his son’s consent to the near-sacrifice. In giving his consent, Ishmael accepts the divine provenance of his father’s dream, thereby acknowledging that God’s command to Abraham is directed equally at him, since he is the object of the sacrifice.

Abraham prepares to sacrifice his son only after “they had both submitted to God.”[35] Father and son, equally, make the sacrifice. Abraham has not only passed the test of his faith in God, he has passed the test without violating his son’s autonomy. In Ishmael’s consent, moreover, Abraham makes the discovery that God has heard his prayer –“Lord, grant me a righteous son.” Ishmael has grown up to see God’s light reflected in his father’s piety.[36]

This father-son exchange illustrates an important Qur’anic principle. It concerns the autonomy and intrinsic worth of each individual, man and woman, who is God’s vicegerent on earth, possessed of intellect and free will, and, therefore, accountable only and only for his and her own actions.[37] Each man is an end, a microcosm, a world in itself, in a manner of speaking, who should not be coerced by another man to become a means to his ends.[38] If God has honored the children of Adam,[39] can any man or woman dishonor another man or woman by turning him (her) into an instrument for achieving his (her) own ends?

The Qur’anic account of Abraham and Ishmael testifies to its weighty nature. Abraham does not make the life and death decision for Ishmael even though he is barely an adult; it is Ishmael’s right to make this momentous decision for himself. Arguably, Abraham could have chosen to ignore Ishmael’s wishes because he was following an order from God: what could be more important than submitting to God’s command? But he decides otherwise, suggesting that one person cannot sacrifice another’s autonomy even when he (she) believes he is following orders from God.

Upholding the same principle, God does not ask His prophets and messengers to launch a social project that is not based on the consent of the persons they seek to save and improve. “There is no compulsion in religion,” the Qur’an says emphatically.[40] Prophets – including Muhammad – are sent to warn unbelievers, to invite them to submit to God, to employ every means of persuasion to do so, but never to change their beliefs at the point of the sword. “Turn away from those who join other gods with Him,” God instructs Muhammad. “If it had been God’s will, they would not have done so, but We have not made you their guardian, nor are you their keeper.“[41]

Comparing the Two Narratives

The contrasts in the treatment of Abraham’s son in the Qur’an and the Torah are quite striking. In a variety of ways, the Qur’anic Abraham is careful to include Ishmael in the execution of God’s command (or what appears so to him) to sacrifice his son. In the Torah, Abraham uses concealment to exclude Isaac from knowledge of the fate that awaits him. As a result -and the ‘binding’ of Isaac would also indicate this -Isaac does not participate willingly in his own sacrifice.

Why is Isaac denied autonomy in the execution of the near-sacrifice episode? Is that because Abraham cannot be sure of fulfilling God’s command unless he violates Isaac’s autonomy? Or is it the case that the Torah grants Abraham, in his capacity as a father, proprietary rights over his offspring? Could it be that the Jewish Bible generally does not recognize the moral autonomy of one’s offspring no matter what their age?

In an essay on the ethics of the near-sacrifice episode, Ronald Green writes that the Jewish Bible does not grant moral autonomy to offspring in relations with the father.[42] “Traditionally,” he writes, biblical and rabbinic writers “conceive young children in a legal sense as the possession of the parent, or in more intimate terms as a physical-emotional  part  of the parent’s person.” Thus, divine threats of destruction against wrong-doers in the Jewish Bible nearly always include their children and sometimes target them specifically.[43] The innocence or guilt of children is not at issue; it is as if the suffering of children is “merely an extension and intensification of the chastisement” that will be directed at their parents or rulers. “In short,” Green concludes, “there are very good reasons for assuming that the Biblical and Jewish mind did not always presume Kierkegaard’s perceived moral distance between father and son.”

The patriarch Isaac too exercises the same power to dispose of the affairs of his sons without consulting their wishes or rights. When blessing Jacob, Isaac gives him lordship over his brothers: “Be master over your brothers,/ And let your mother’s sons bow to you.”[44] Further, instead of answering Essau’s repeated pleas for some blessing to compensate for the one stolen from him, Isaac tells Essau: “But I have made him [Isaac] master over you: I have given him all his brothers for servants….”[45] When Essau pleads again, Isaac answers: “… by thy sword shalt thou live, and shalt serve thy brother.” Fortunately, Essau may hope to gain his liberty some day: for, says, Jacob, “it shall come to pass when thou shalt have the dominion, thou shalt break his yoke from off thy neck.”[46]

The same absence of individual autonomy may be observed in the Jewish Bible’s apportionment of divine curses and blessings: both are transferable to descendents. Thus, God visits “the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generation,” and He shows kindness “to the thousandth generation.”[47] It would appear, however, that the promises of kindness are directly nearly always towards Israel, a people blessed by God’s covenant. This transferability of blessings and curses is repeated on several occasions in the Torah.[48]

God’s punishment for the Israelites extends to the fourth generation, but no farther. On other occasions, He is less well disposed. Consider the curses He places on Eve, Adam and Ham. In Genesis,[49] God tells Eve, “I will make most severe your pangs in childbearing; In pain shall you bear children.” To Adam He says, “…cursed be the ground because of you; By toil shall you eat of it, all the days of your life.”[50] The curses on Adam and Eve are not for them alone but for all their progeny and forever. In the aftermath of the Deluge, Noah places Canaan- son of Ham- under an eternal curse: not for his sin but for his father’s. Ham had provoked Noah’s ire by drawing his brothers’

attention to him, as he lay naked after a night of drunkenness. On discovering what Ham “had done to him,” Noah curses Ham’s son, “Cursed be Canaan; the lowest of slaves, shall he be to his brothers.”[51] Arguably, Noah has God’s sanction behind his curse, but the Torah does not bring God into the making of this curse. The casting of curses -of several different kinds – by Biblical heroes is commonplace in the Torah.[52]

The notion that sins reach beyond a sinner to afflict his descendants is embraced by several Jewish commentators. In order to save his life when he was entering Egypt, Abraham passes off his wife as his sister, thus exposing her to sexual predation by Egyptian officials. An eminent Rabbi of the thirteenth century, Ramban (1194-1274), accuses Abraham of lying instead of placing his trust in God; and it was this lie that brought down upon the Hebrews their long and painful exile in Egypt.[53] God punishes several generations of Hebrews for the sin of Abraham, their progenitor, just as he had punished humankind for Adam’s sin.

One generation of Israelites may also lay claim to the good deeds of their ancestors. Thus, during the services of Rosh Hashanah, following rabbinical interpretations of Genesis, the congregants supplicate God to remember Abraham’s unconditional submission to His will, and, on this account, suppress His anger against them. One such line reads, “Remember today the binding of Isaac with mercy unto his seed.”[54]

A softening of the principal of transferability of sins and merits may be seen in the later books of the Jewish Bible. Some commentators claim to see evidence for this shift in Deuteronomy:[55] “Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents: a person shall be put to death only for his own crime.” As the editors of the Jewish Study Bible also acknowledge, this command “applies specifically to civil and criminal law.”[56]

In Jeremiah,[57] God speaks of a time that is coming when He will make a new dispensation with the House of Israel and the House of Judah: “In those days [that is, under this new covenant] they shall no longer say, ‘Parents have eaten sour grapes and children’s teeth are blunted. But everyone shall die for his own sins: whosoever eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be blunted.” In Ezekiel[58] again, God promises that the sins of father shall not again be visited upon the sons. “Consider,” He says, “all lives are mine; the life of the parent and the life of the child are both Mine. The person who sins, only he shall die.”

The principle of individual accountability is also absent in the Jewish Bible’s attitude towards bastards and handicaps. According to Deuteronomy,[59] “No one misbegotten [bastard] shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord; none of his descendents, even in the tenth generation, shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord.” The same punishment applies to any man whose sexual organs have been crushed or cut off.[60] Similarly, Leviticus[61] forbids persons with bodily defects of any kind – a long list of these defects is included -from serving as a priest: since such persons are believed to profane the temple’s sacred character.


Although brief, the narratives of the near-sacrifice episode in the Torah and the Qur’an reveal important differences in the manner in which the two scriptures conceive of individual autonomy, in relations between individuals and between individuals and God.

In the Torah, Abraham does not take Isaac into confidence; much less consult him, as he goes about executing God’s command to sacrifice his son. On the contrary, the Qur’anic narrative treats Abraham and Ishmael as near co-equals. Not only does Abraham share with his son his dream of sacrificing him, but seeks his opinion and even consent. He asks Ishmael, “Consider, then, what would be your view?” It is a momentous question: and of broad scope. Is Abraham asking Ishmael about his interpretation of the dream: what is the dream of telling his father and him? Is the dream from God, as his father most likely believes? In that event, what would Ishmael do; would he offer himself to be sacrificed in obedience to his father’s wishes? In the only exchange between father and son, in the Torah, it is Isaac who asks Abraham to explain the absence of a lamb, but even though prompted, Abraham refuses to take his son into confidence. In the Qur’an, it is Abraham who initiates the conversation with his son to share his quandary and he appears to be asking his son for help. In short, the near-sacrifice in the Torah occurs without the consent of the son; whereas the Qur’an gives the son the choice to give or withhold his consent, yet despite this latitude, the son chooses to submit to what father and son believe is the correct interpretation of Abraham’s dream.

These differences are but one instance -albeit a pivotal one -in the way that the Torah and the Qur’an position the individual in their moral economies. The Qur’an views the individual (including sons and daughters in relation to their parents) as endowed with reasoning, understanding and free will, and, therefore, free to chart his or her life, to reject or embrace God’s guidance. As a result, each individual -except for children, the mentally insane, and persons in a state of sleep -is fully accountable only for his or her actions. Repeatedly and emphatically, the Qur’an enunciates this principle.[62] In the Torah, the line between individual, collective and inter-generational responsibility gets blurred. An individual may inherit rewards or punishments for the actions of his ancestors; and conversely, God passes on the sins and merits of one individual to his descendents. This principle is central to the Jewish Bible since upon it is based the doctrine of God’s election of the Jewish people.

Complementing the transferability of sins and merit to one’s descendents is the absence of a meaningful afterlife in the Jewish scripture. As Reuven Firestone puts it succinctly, “The notion of an afterlife is simply not a theme of the Hebrew Bible.”[63] In the absence of an afterlife, the Jewish Bible could endow individual actions with deep consequences only by passing on their consequences to multiple generations of descendents. Alternatively, the Judaic focus on life in this world- therefore, the transferability of sins and merit – obviates the need for accountability in the afterlife to motivate people to stay on track. On the other hand, the Qur’an’s moral economy is founded on the division between life in this world (dunya) followed by the hereafter (akhirah). Dunya is transitory and akhirah is everlasting; moreover, God tests man in dunya and gives him his just deserts in akhirah. As a result, an individual may be punished or rewarded for his actions in this life and -by some accounts, in perpetuity – in the afterlife. One person, however, is never punished or rewarded for the actions of another. Nor can a person pass on the rewards and the punishments for his actions to another person or take upon himself the punishment for the sins of another person. The Qur’an defines an individual very sharply: he is both free and fully and exclusively accountable for his own actions.


[1]. For translations from the Qur’an, I rely upon M. A. S. Abdel Haleem, The Qur’an: A New Translation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010). In this case, however, I have modified Haleem’s translation. He translates ???????? ?????? ?????? as “What do you think?” We think this is inadequate, and we replace this with: “Consider, then, what would be your view»: This is from Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’an (Gibraltar: Dar al-Andalus, 1980).

[2]. In an essay published in this Journal, Ayaz Afsar compares the accounts of the near-sacrifice in the Torah and the Qur’an for differences in their narrative styles as well as subject matter. In particular, he examines the divergent viewpoints of the two scriptures on the chosenness of the Jews and the salvation history of mankind. Ayaz Afsar, “A Comparative Study of the Intended Sacrifice of Isaac/Ishmael in the Bible and the Qur’an,” Islamic Studies 46: 4 (2007), 483-498.

[3]. We take the moral economy to include those verities- metaphysical and moral- in any system of thought that define the autonomy which an individual enjoys in his/her relations with others individuals, groups, and with respect to God. Autonomy defines both an individual’s rights over his/her actions, his/her responsibility and accountability for these actions now and in the future {including the hereafter), and the connections between the present and future (including the hereafter) states of his existence and the cumulative record of his/her actions.

[4]. We are referring to the commentaries available in the Midrashim and See, footnote no. 13.

[5]. On this subject, Titus Burckhardt (1908-1984), the great European Sufi of the twentieth century, writes: “…the Biblical stories which the Koran re-tells, are presented in an unexpected, abbreviated and dry manner that seems strange to the They are deprived of their epic character and are inserted as didactic examples of an infinitely various praise of God.” He then adds, “It is only when one considers individual Koranic verses and begins to be aware of their many levels of meaning, that one can assess the powerful spiritual effect which this book has been able to exert and realize why it has become the daily nourishment of thousands of contemplatively inclined people.” Titus Burckhardt, Fez: City of Islam (Cambridge, UK: Islamic Texts Society, 1992), 117.

[6]. Genesis 22: 2.

[7]. Qur’an 37: 106. For translations from the Tanakh, this essay uses, Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., The Jewish Study Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[8]. Qur’an 37: 100.

[9]. Qur’an 19: 54-55.

[10]. Qur’an 37: 101.

[11]. Qur’an 37: 112; Qur’an 37: 100-102.

[12]. Norman Calder, “Tafsir from Tabari to Ibn Kathir: Problems in the Description of a Genre, illustrated with Reference to the Story of Abraham,” in G. R. Hawting and Abdul-Kader A. Shareef, eds., Approaches to the Qur’an (London: Routledge, 1993): 123-24.

[13]. George Sale, The Koran, Commonly Called the Al·Coran of Mohammed (London: Thomas Tegg, 1825), 2: 313.

[14]. Darrell Fasching and Dell deChant, Comparative Religious Ethics: A Narrative Approach (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), 239.

[15]. Genesis 22: 1. All the quotations from the Torah in this section, unless otherwise stated, are from Genesis, 22 and taken from Berlin and Brettler, The Jewish Study Bible.

[16]. Genesis 22: 2.

[17]. Genesis 21: 12.

[18]. Genesis 22: 3.

[19]. Ibid.

[20]. How young is Isaac? Genesis 22 itself gives little indication of Isaac’s It refers to him as a “lad” (na’ar) but this applies equally to a child and a young man. Nevertheless, he could not have been a mere child since Abraham on the third day “took the wood for the burnt offering and put it on his son Isaac.” Since this had to be a substantial amount of wood, it suggests that Isaac was a young man. Some rabbinic commentaries take him to be thirty-seven years of age. Ronald M. Green, “Abraham, Isaac, and the Jewish Tradition: An Ethical Reappraisal,” Journal of Religious Ethics 10: 1(1982), 9.

[21]. Genesis 22: 7.

[22]. Genesis 22: 8.

[23]. Genesis 22: 9.

[24]. Florentino Garcia Martinee, “The Sacrifice of Isaac in 4Q225,” in Edward Noort and Eibert Tigchelaar, The Sacrifice of Isaac (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2002), 53.

[25]. McNamara writes, “On some occasions the Targum clearly rewrites the Biblical text through what are known as “converse translations,” which say the opposite  of  what  the  text  says.” Martin McNamara, Targum and the New Testament: Collected Essays (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011), 256.

[26]. Eric W. Fritsch, The Wit of Martin Luther (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006), 52.

[27]. Green, “Abraham, Isaac, and the Jewish Tradition.”

[28]. Genesis 22: 5.

[29]. Qur’an 37: 102.

[30]. Genesis does not explain the manner in which God conveyed this command to Abraham: Was it an auditory command or was it conveyed in a dream or Moses Maimonides writes that this command came to him “in a dream or vision…” Omri Boehm, The Binding of Isaac: A Religious Model of Obedience (New York: T & T Clark International, 2007), 81.

[31]. Muhammad bin Jarir al-Tabari, Tarikh al-Umam wa’ l-Muluk (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al­ ‘llmiyyah, 1407AH), 1: 165; Andrew Rippin and Jan Knappert, eds. And trans., Textual Sources for the Study of/slam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 64-65.

[32]. The Koran Interpreted, A. J. Arberry (New York: Touchstone, 1996/1955); The Glorious Qur’an, trans. Mohammad M. Pickthall (Des Plaines, IL: Library of Islam, 1994}; The Qur’an, trans. Majid Fakhry (Reading, UK: Garnet Publishing, 1997); The Koran, trans. N.J. Dawood (London: Penguin Books, 1990).

[33]. Qur’an 37: 102.

[34]. Qur’an 64: 15. Also see, Qur’an 8: 28, “Be aware that your possessions  and your children are only a test, and that there is a tremendous reward with God.”

[35]. Qur’an 37: 103.

[36]. 1n Islamic tradition, Ishmael is offered as an exemplar of filial devotion. ‘Allamah Muhammad Iqbal commemorates Ishmael’s filial devotion in this couplet from Wings of Gabriel (Bal·i ]ibrl Yih faizan-i na ar tha ya kih maktab ki karamat thi Sikha’e kis ne Isma’il ko Adab-i farzandi (Was this a gift of insight or a miracle of the schools? Who had made Ishmael so deft at filial devotion?)

[37]. Qur’an 53: 38-39.

[38]. “Insan” is the Arabic word for human beings as such:  it  1s an inclusive term that simultaneously includes man, woman and child.

[39]. Qur’an 17: 70.

[40]. Qur’an 2: 256.

[41]. Qur’an 6: 106-7.

[42]. Green, “Abraham, Isaac, and the Jewish Tradition,” 7-8.

[43]. One notable exception to this may be observed when Abraham rebukes God for wanting to destroy the entire population of Sodom and Gomorrah. He asks, “Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?” {Genesis 18: 23)

[44]. Genesis 27: 29.

[45]. Genesis 27: 37.

[46]. Genesis 27: 40.

[47]. Exodus 20: 5-6. See, also Exodus 34: 6-7 and Deuteronomy 5: 9.

[48]. Exodus 34: 6-8, Numbers 14: 18-19 and Deuteronomy 5: 9.

[49]. Genesis 3: 16.

[50]. Genesis 3: 17.

[51]. Genesis 9: It may be worth noting the connection between the land -Canaan -that God would promise to Abraham later in Genesis 17: 7, and Canaan and his descendents who are cursed by Noah for their father’s sin.

[52]. Edward Conrad, “Curse,” in Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D Conrad, eds., TheOxford Companion to the Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) 144-45; Tony  W.  Cartledge, Vows in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East (Sheffield: JSOT Press,  1992); and Herbert Brichto, The Problem of ‘Curse’ in the Hebrew Bible (Philadelphia: Society of Biblical Literature, 1963).

[53]. Ramban is the Hebrew acronym for Rabbi Moshe ben Berlin and Brettler,  The Jewish Study Bible, 3; and Yair Zakovitch, “Disgrace: The Lies of the Patriarch,” Social Research75: 4 (2008), 1038.

[54]. Carol Delaney, Abraham on Trial: The Social Legacy of Biblical Myth (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 117.

[55]. Deuteronomy 24: 16.

[56]. Berlin and Brettler, The Jewish Study Bible, This command is cited in 2 Kings 14: 6.

[57]. Jeremiah 1: 29-30.

[58]. Ezekiel18: 3-4.

[59]. Deuteronomy 23: 3.

[60]. Deuteronomy 23: 2.

[61]. Leviticus 21: 17-23.

[62]. God says, “We offered the Trust to the heavens, the earth, and the mountains, yet they refused to undertake it and were afraid of it; mankind undertook it- they have always been very inept and rash.” (Qur’an 33: 72) The Trust offered to man may be interpreted as a reason, intellect, free will and moral responsibility.  At the same time, the Qur’an speaks of a time -perhaps at the origin of creation – “when your Lord took the offspring from the loins of the Children of Adam and made them bear witness about themselves. He said, ‘Am I not your Lord?’ and they replied, ‘Yes, we bear witness.”  (Qur’an 7: 172) Given all this, man’s life is a test: and his actions alone determine his life. “God created death and life to test you and reveal which of you does best.” (Qur’an 67: 2) The Qur’an speaks repeatedly of the man being tested – he is tested by his wealth, his children, by good fortune and by adversities.  As a result, man is accountable for all his actions – and for his actions alone. All of this explains why Abraham in the  Qur’an could not keep Ishmael in the dark about his dream, much less sacrifice him against his will. Ishmael had to use his reason to decide what the dream meant and choose whether to submit to God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice him.

[63]. Reuven Firestone, Who are the Chosen People: The Meaning of Chosenness in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths, 2008}, 117. “The Torah offers no hope for an extended or meaningful afterlife. Throughout most of the Hebrew Bible the dead go down into Sheol, where there is no presence of God and no goodness to life.” Jerry L. Sumney, The Bible: An Introduction (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), 214.


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