What Does Islam Teach About Ishmael?

Abraham had two sons: the older was Ishmael, the younger, Isaac.
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Ishmael, referred to as Ismail in Arabic and the Quran, was the older of Abraham's two sons, born by Abraham's servant, Hagar. Within the Abrahamic religions, Christians and Jews revere Isaac, the younger son, while in Islam, Ishmael is revered by the Quran and Islamic tradition and remains one of the religion's key prophets and historical figures.

1 Isaac or Ishmael?

A traditional theological debate among Muslim and Jewish (and Christian) doctrines involves Abraham and his sons: which son did God want Abraham to sacrifice? The Hebrew Bible maintains it was Isaac; the Quran holds it was actually Ishmael. The debate is ongoing, and each version has impacted Islam and Judaism in significant ways: While Ishmael remains a cornerstone figure within Islam, Isaac is Judaism's second patriarch, after his father Abraham.

2 Ishmael in the Quran

Ishmael is mentioned several times throughout the Quran, and it is through the Islamic holy scripture that he is invoked as a messenger, prophet and one preferred by God: "And mention in the Book, Ishmael. Indeed, he was true to his promise, and was a messenger and a prophet" (Quran 19:54), and "And Ishmael and Elisha and Jonah and Lot -- and all [of them] We preferred over the worlds" (6:86). The Quran upholds the Muslim belief that Ishmael was Abraham's ultimate heir, not Isaac.

3 Genealogical Roots

Ishmael is not only revered as a holy prophet within Islam, but Muslims also trace their religious roots and in some cases, their very ethnicity (although this is debated), back to Ishmael. Muslims believe that the genealogical roots of the Prophet Muhammad, the most important religious figure within Islam, traces back to Ishmael (and hence to Abraham), although some modern historians have disputed this. According to (and only to) tradition, Arabs are said to be descendants of Qahtan and Adnan, who were in turn the descendants of Ishmael.

4 Ishmael as Prophet

Ishmael is also an important prophet within Islam. Islamic tradition states that Ishmael, Abraham and Hagar were sent on a journey over 4,000 years ago to Mecca (in present-day Saudi Arabia). The Quran states that it was in Mecca that Abraham received a message from God to "purify My House for those who perform Tawaf and those who stand [in prayer]" (Quran 22:26). Abraham and Ishmael were then instructed by God to build and raise the Kabah, which today is Islam's most sacred shrine and a central component of the religion's five pillars. Muslims are expected to make at least one pilgrimage to the Kabah during their lifetime.

Jason Cristiano Ramon holds a doctorate in political science and a master's degree in philosophy. He has taught political science in China.