Can Islam Be Traced Back to Ishmael?

Painting of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac.
... Images

According to tradition, the Arabs are descended from the biblical characters Abraham and Hagar, through their son Ishmael, while the Jews are descended from Abraham and Sarah, through their son Isaac. Islam is related to Ishmael through several factors, including the belief that the Prophet Muhammad is a direct descendant of Ishmael. This claim has been contested, but according to the Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, Muhammad's lineage can be traced back to Ismael.

1 The Story of Abraham and His Family

Afghans prepare a ram for Eid al-Adha.
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The Bible and the Quran state that Abraham was unable to have a child with his wife, Sarah. She told him to take her servant Hagar as a second wife, and Ishmael was duly born to Abraham and Hagar. When Sarah then conceived and bore Isaac, she became jealous of Hagar and Ishmael, and told Abraham to take them into the desert. According to Muslim beliefs, Allah told Abraham to take Hagar and their son to Mecca. Muslims also believe that it was Ishmael, not Isaac, who God told Abraham to sacrifice, and this event is commemorated on one of Islam's most holy days, Eid al-Adha.

2 Building the Kaaba

Muslim pilgrims at the Kaaba in Mecca.
... Abid Katib/Getty Images News/Getty Images

In Islam, the story of Abraham and Ishmael says that, when Abraham took Hagar and Ishmael to the desert at Mecca, Abraham and Ishmael built the first house of worship, the Kaaba, for Allah. The Kaaba is a cube-shaped building with a mosque built around it. The tradition is to circle the Kaaba seven times while praying. It is one of the five pillars of Islam for every Muslim who can to make hajj-- or pilgrimage--to Mecca, and pray at the Kaaba.

3 Hagar and the Water

Another part of the story that traditionally marks Mecca as a holy place is that, when Ishmael was thirsty in the desert, Hagar asked Abraham if Allah had commanded him to bring Hagar and Ishmael to the desert. When Abraham answered that it was God's order, Hagar knew she and her son would find water. She went seven times between the hills, and Allah caused a spring to come up from the ground to quench Ishmael's thirst. Mecca became known for its sweet water -- a premium commodity in the Arabian desert -- and the spring is considered a source of holy water.

4 Can Islam Be Traced to Ishmael?

According to Muslim beliefs, then, Islam can be traced back to Ishmael, both through Muhammad's forbears as well as through the story of Ishmael, Hagar and Abraham in the desert. However, due to the nature of both religion and early history, sources do not necessarily provide reliable scholarly evidence.

Sara Powell began her writing career at the "Washington Report for Middle East Affairs" in 2000 while working on a Ph.D. in Middle East History at Georgetown University. She has also written and edited for San Francisco based bilingual newspaper "El Tecolote" and various online sites.