Ishmael (Hebrew: יִשְׁמָעֵאל, Yišmaʿel, Arabic: إسماعيل, Ismā'īl; "God will hear") was Abraham's eldest son, born by his wife's handmaiden Hagar. In Islamic tradition, he was the ancestor of the prophet Muhammad and the son whom Abraham offered as a sacrifice to God.
In the Book of Genesis, Ishmael was the first of Abraham's household to undergo the rite of circumcision. Later, Ishmael and his mother were banished to the wilderness at God's command after Abraham's primary wife came to view Ishmael as a threat to her own son, Isaac. Suffering from lack of food and water, Ishmael almost died there but was dramatically rescued by God. He went on to become the ancestor of the biblical Ishmaelites. He returned to join Isaac in burying Abraham and later permitted his daughter to marry Isaac's son Esau.
Judaism has generally viewed Ishmael as wicked in youth but repentant in adulthood. Islamic tradition ascribes a larger role to Ishmael, viewing him as a prophet, and the son of sacrifice. Both Jewish and Islamic traditions consider Ishmael as the ancestor of the Arabs. Many people today regard the Arab-Israeli conflict to have its roots in the ancient conflict between Ishmael and Isaac, or more precisely, between their mothers Hagar and Sarah.
Ishmael in the Bible
Birth and childhood
In the Hebrew Bible, Ishmael's life is described in the Book of Genesis beginning in chapter 16. Abraham's wife Sarah, being barren, gave Abraham her slave, Hagar, to act as a surrogate mother and second wife. However, when Hagar became pregnant, she despised Sarah, who retaliated by abusing her. Hagar fled into the wilderness, where an angel appeared to her and commanded her to return and submit to Sarah, promising that her descendants would be "too numerous to count." The angel also prophesied concerning the birth of Ishmael:
- You are now with child
- and you will have a son.
- You shall name him Ishmael,
- for the Lord has heard of your misery.
- He will be a wild donkey of a man;
- his hand will be against everyone
- and everyone's hand against him,
- and he will live in hostility
- toward all his brothers" (Genesis 16:10-12).
Hagar returned to Abraham's house, and in due course Ishmael was born. Little is said of Ishmael's childhood, but when he was 13 years old, Abraham received God's news that Sarah—at the age of 90—would bear him a son of her own. Finding the idea preposterous, Abraham wished only that Ishmael be blessed:
Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, "Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?" And Abraham said to God, "If only Ishmael might live under your blessing" (Gen. 17:17-18).
"Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year" (Genesis 17:19-21).
Abraham initiated the tradition of circumcision immediately afterward, with himself and Ishmael being the first to undergo the rite.
Ishmael in exile
Sarah indeed became pregnant with Abraham's son, Isaac. Then at a festival in honor of Isaac's weaning, Ishmael behaved in a way that Sarah found threatening to Isaac. She demanded that Abraham expel both Ishmael and his mother. (Genesis 21:8-10) Abraham resisted Sarah's demand, but God commanded him to listen to Sarah, promising that Ishmael would be protected:
The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. But God said to him, "Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring" (Genesis 21:11-13)
Ishmael, now a teenager, was thus forced to leave his home and go with Hagar into the wilderness near Beersheba. Soon, their supplies ran out, and Ishmael grew weak to the point of death.
Unable to bear watching her son die of thirst, Hagar left him under a bush and walked "a bow-shot away." The boy's pathetic cries, however, were heard by God. Then a voice from heaven said to his mother: "What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation." Suddenly, a spring of fresh water appeared before Hagar's eyes, and thus both she and her son were saved (Genesis 21:15-19).
Ishmael and Hagar settled in the area known as Paran, northeastern part of the Sinai peninsula. Ishmael became an expert in archery. Later, his mother found an Egyptian woman to be his wife.
The descendants of Ishmael are listed in Genesis 25. As predicted, he became the father of 12 sons, named Nebaioth, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah. Each of Ishmael's sons was a tribal chief and settled everywhere from Havilah to Shur, that is, from the Persian Gulf to the border of Egypt. Ishmael also had a daughter whose name is given as both Mahalath or Bashemath. (Genesis 28:9, 36:3)
The banishment of Ishmael was apparently not absolute nor permanent. He is reported to have returned to Canaan to attend the burial of Abraham at the Cave of Machpelah some 70 years or more after his exile.(Gen. 25:9) Later, Ishmael allowed Mahalath (Bashemath) to marry his nephew Esau, who, seeking to please his own father Isaac, had sought a bride from a member Abraham's kin. (Genesis 28:9)
In biblical tradition, the Ishmaelites were a clan of traveling merchants. In the story of Jacob's son Joseph, a group of traveling Ishmaelites buy Joseph from his brothers as a slave and then sell him in Egypt. They are described as quite wealthy: "Their camels were loaded with spices, balm and myrrh, and they were on their way to take them down to Egypt."
The Ishmaelites make only two additional biblical appearance. Judges 8:24 speaks of Ishmaelites living in Midian who were defeated by Gideon and whose golden earrings were melted down to make Gideon's golden ephod. Psalm 83:4-7 identifies the Ishmaelites as one of Israel's mortal enemies:
- "Come," they say, "let us destroy them as a nation,
- that the name of Israel be remembered no more."
- With one mind they plot together;
- they form an alliance against you—
- the tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites,
- of Moab and the Hagrites,
- Gebal, Ammon and Amalek,
- Philistia, with the people of Tyre.
Jewish and Christian tradition
Judaism has generally viewed Ishmael as wicked in youth though repentant in later life. His behavior against the toddler Isaac is specified as more than merely mocking, but directly threatening Isaac's life. In one tradition, Ishmael lured Isaac to the fields where he cast arrows at him, in order to get rid of him (Gen. R. 53). It was for this reason Sarah insisted on Ishmael and his mother being sent away. The ancient rabbi Simeon ben Yohai, stated that Ishmael refused to accept that Isaac would be Abraham's chief heir, maintaining that he (Ishmael) should receive two-thirds of the inheritance (Pirke R. El. 30, and so on). Another rabbinical legend tells the story of how Ishmael claimed to be better than Isaac on account of having willingly allowed himself to be circumcised (Sanh. 89b; Gen. R. 56:8). Another tradition holds that Abraham visted Ishmael in Paran, and in Abraham's old age, Ishmael came to live with his father again in Canaan. Ishmael is also mentioned in the Book of Jasher, which states (chapter 25) that the sons of Ishmael were "twelve princes according to their nations."
Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise.
Both Jewish and Christian tradition held that Ishmael was the ancestor of the Arabic peoples. Saint Jerome stated that in his time they called the districts of Arabia by the names of the Ishmaelite tribes mentioned in the Bible. Modern scholars, however, tend to see the Arabs as more diverse in ethnic background, viewing their Ishmaelite origin as more legendary than historical.
Ishmael in Islam
(Note: In respect for our Islamic readers, no images will be displayed in this section.)
In Islam, Ishmael is known as the first-born son of Abraham (Ibrahim in Arabic), and is also an appointed prophet of God. Islamic tradition holds that Ishmael, not Isaac, was the son whom Abraham offered to God as a human sacrifice. Ishmael is also the ancestor of the prophet Muhammad and the Arab people generally.
Ishmael in the Qur'an
Ishmael (Isma'il) is a highly regarded prophet in the Qur'an. It mentions him together with other prophets such as Elisha, Jonah and Lot, who are considered righteous, good or chosen (6:86 and 38:48). The Qur'an further states:
We have sent thee inspiration, as We sent it to Noah and the Messengers after him: We sent inspiration to Abraham, Isma'il, Isaac, Jacob and the Tribes, to Jesus, Job, Jonah, Aaron, and Solomon, and to David We gave the Psalms. 4:163).
Isma'il enjoined upon his people worship and almsgiving, and was acceptable in the sight of his Lord (19:55).
Ishmael in Islamic tradition
The story of Isma'il and Hagar (Hajar in Arabic) plays an important role in Islamic tradition. Each year during the Hajj (the ritual pilgrimage) in Mecca, pilgrims reenact Hajar’s desperate search for water for her infant son, running seven times between two hills and drawing water from the well of Zam Zam, said to have sprung miraculously from the dry earth at the baby Ishmael’s feet.
The actual name of the son whom Abraham was supposed to sacrifice to God is not mentioned in the Qur'an. However the belief that this son was Isma'il is now well established. When Isma'il had grown enough to walk alongside him, Abraham dreamed that God ordered him to sacrifice his only son (Isaac not being born yet) with his own hand.
Abraham knew that the dream was, in fact, a revelation from God and not a satanic whisper; so, he prepared himself, with a heart overflowing with faith, to carry out the command of God. He went to see his son and told him, "I saw in a dream that I sacrificed you for the sake of God. Think about it and tell me your opinion on the matter." His son replied without hesitation or anxiety, "O father, fulfill what God has commanded. By His will, you will find me among the patient."
When Abraham took up the knife to slay him, Isma'il said:
Dear father, tie my hands and feet tightly with a piece of rope so that I don't move them as I am dying, because I am afraid that I would lessen my reward. Keep your clothes away from me so that my blood doesn't splatter on you; if my mother sees that, she may not be able to tolerate it. Sharpen the knife well and sever my head at once so that I can tolerate it better, because dying is difficult.
Abraham replied, "Dear son, you are a good assistant in fulfilling the command of God." He put the knife to his son's throat and, with all his strength, tried to cut; but by God's will, the knife didn't cut and didn't harm his son. Abraham received a revelation from God: "O Abraham, truly you have done your duty, fulfilled the meaning of your dream and shown your submissiveness and devotion." God then sent the angel Gabriel with a ram, which Abraham sacrificed instead of his son.
Later, Ishmael became friendly with the Jorham tribe and married a chaste woman of that people. Hajar died in that same land after a few years. Isma'il was deeply affected by the death of his devoted mother and became very distressed and sad. Abraham continued to go there to visit him; and this consoled Ishmael somewhat.
Descent from Ishmael
Muhammad is considered to be one of the many descendants of Ishmael. Although the Qur'an itself does not have any genealogies, the oldest extant biography of Muhammad, compiled 770-775 by Mohammed Ibn Ishak, and edited by Abu Muhammad Abd el Malik Ibn Hisham, opens:
This book contains the life of the Apostle of God: Muhammad was the son of Abd Allah, son of Abd-ul-Muttalib, son of Hashim, son of Abdu Manaf, son of Qusay, son of Kilab, son of Hakeem, son of Kaab, son of Luayy, son of Ghalib, son of Fihr, son of Malik, son of Qays, son of Kinanah, son of Khuzaymah, son of Mudrikah, son of Ilyas, son of Mudhar, son of Nizar, son of Maad, son of Adnan, son of Udd, son of Muqawwam, son of Nakhour, son of Tahir, son of Yarub, son of Yashyub, son of Nabit, son of Ismail (Ishmael), son of Ibrahim, the Friend of God, son of Tarikh, son of Nakhour, son of Sarukh, son of Rau, son of Falih, son of Hud, son of Salih, son of Arphakhshad, son of Sham, son of Nuh, son of Lamekh, son of Matushalakh, son of Akhanukh—who, as is believed, was the prophet Idris, the first prophet, and the first who wrote with the reed—son of Aded, son of Mahlaleel, son of Kaynan, son of Anoush, son of Shays, son of Adam, to whom may God be gracious! 
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Bakhos, Carol. Ishmael on the Border: Rabbinic Portrayals of the First Arab. State University of New York Press, 2006. ISBN 9780791467596.
- Heap, Norman. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: Servants and Prophets of God.'. Family History Pubns, 1999. ISBN 9780945905028.
- Kaltner, John. Ishmael Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Quran for Bible Readers. Michael Glazier Books, 1999. ISBN 9780814658826.
All links retrieved March 6, 2018.
- The Jewish Encyclopedia: Ishmael. www.jewishencyclopedia.com.
- 'The 12 Tribes of Ishmael'. www.nabataea.net.
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