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Abraham and Islam

Abraham and the Binding of Ishmael
Abraham and the Binding of Ishmael

Muslims understand Islam to be the religion of Abraham. The biblical figure of Abraham is mentioned by name in the Qur’an 69 times—more than any other person except for Moses (137 times). Muslim interpreters of the Qur’an provide additional details linking the passages in the Qur’an to the stories of Abraham known from the Bible and from Jewish and Christian interpretation.

The Qur’an is familiar with some of the biblical stories about Abraham, including his journey to the promised land (Qur’an 21:71-73), the annunciation of Isaac (Qur’an 11:69-74, Qur’an 15:51-56, Qur’an 51:24-30), God’s command for Abraham to sacrifice his son (Qur’an 37:99-113), the sacrifice of the birds (Qur’an 2:260), and Abraham’s interaction with Lot and the angels (Qur’an 11:74-83, Qur’an 29:28-35, Qur’an 51:31-37).

In the Qur’an, God calls upon people to “follow the religion of Abraham” (Qur’an 3:95). Abraham is the “model” of obedience to God (Qur’an 16:120) and the “friend of God,” and no one can be “better in religion” (Qur’an 4:125) than those who follow him.

The Bible begins the narrative of Abraham’s life with his call by God in Gen 12, but the Qur’an begins earlier, with the story of Abraham smashing the idols of his father. A number of close parallels exist between Jewish versions of this story (found in rabbinic literature) and the details provided by Muslim interpreters, including Abraham’s discovery of monotheism (Qur’an 6:74-87, Qur’an 41:37), his scheme to disprove idolatry (Qur’an 19:41-50, Qur’an 21:51-70), and his escape from the fiery furnace into which he was cast as punishment by the Babylonian king Nimrod (Qur’an 37:83-99, Qur’an 29:16-27).

Abraham is credited with establishing both the sanctuary in Mecca known as the Kaaba and the practice of Islamic pilgrimage (Haj) to that site (Qur’an 22:26-27, Qur’an 3:96-97, Qur’an 2:125-129). Apparently drawing from early Jewish scriptural interpretations known as Targumim, Muslim interpreters linked the building of the sanctuary in Mecca with the account in Gen 21 of digging a well in Beersheba—the place where, according to the Targumim, Abraham also built a shrine.

The Qur’an does not identify the name of the son whom Abraham is commanded to sacrifice (see Gen 22), and the earliest Muslim interpreters were divided over whether it was Isaac or Ishmael. In the context of the larger narrative linking Abraham with Mecca, later Muslim traditions clearly identify the son to be sacrificed as Ishmael, the ancestor of the prophet Muhammad. Muslim interpreters also differ from the biblical account in making explicit that Abraham attempted to sacrifice his son, trying a number of times to slit his son’s throat.

Some scholars have seen a parallel between Abraham’s ten tests in the Qur’an and the ten trials of Abraham in the Jewish Pirqe de Rabbi Eliezer. Qur’an 2:124 (and see Qur’an 53:37) refers to God’s tests of Abraham with the “words” (or “commands”) usually understood as being ten in number. Both Muslim and Jewish accounts may be part of a tradition that links Abraham with the twelve trials of Hercules.

Qur’an 53:36-37 and Qur’an 87:18-19 refer to the “scriptures of Abraham,” perhaps a reference to well-known postbiblical books attributed to Abraham, such as the Testament of Abraham. References in the Qur’an to these pseudepigrapha—familiar to both Jews and early Christians—illustrate one of the many ways that the figure of Abraham transcends confessional boundaries and confounds any attempt to limit the term “biblical” to the Bible alone.

  • Brannon Wheeler

    Brannon Wheeler is the founding director of the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author and editor of nine books in Islamic Studies and the history of religions, including Mecca and Eden: Ritual, Relics and Territory in Islam (University of Chicago Press, 2006), Prophets in the Quran: An Introduction to the Quran and Muslim Exegesis (Continuum, 2002), and Moses in the Quran and Islamic Exegesis (Routledge, 2009).