Abraham and Islam by Brannon Wheeler

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, "Abraham and Islam", n.p. [cited 1 Oct 2022]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/people/related-articles/abraham-and-islam


Brannon Wheeler

Brannon Wheeler
Professor, United States Naval Academy

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).

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

Worship of a diety or cultural value not associated with the one, true, God.

People who study a text from historical, literary, theological and other angles.

A building in Mecca, Saudi Arabia that is one of the most sacred sites in Islam. A pilgrimage to the Kaaba, at least once in a lifetime, is mandatory for all Muslims who are able to go.

A city in present-day Saudi Arabia that is a holy destination for Muslim pilgrims.

A religious system characterized by belief in the existence of a single deity.

(Also: Mohammed) The 7th century C.E. Arab prophet and founder of Islam.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

a journey, usually with religious significance

Of or related to history after the writing of the canonical Bible; can also mean transcending a culture that focuses on the Bible.

The land that Yahweh promised to Abraham in Genesis, also called Canaan.

Works that claim to be written by authors that scholars have determined did not write them.

The sacred scriptures of Islam, written by the prophet Mohammed.

Related to the rabbis, who became the religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. Rabbinic traditions were initially oral but were written down in the Mishnah, the Talmud, and various other collections.

a site with religious significance

Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible; at first done orally and simultaneously with oral readings of the Bible in Hebrew, the Targums were written down over the course of the first few centuries C.E. There are a number of Targums, some of which are more literal translations of the Hebrew Bible and some of which include significant expansions and digressions not found in the biblical text.

Gen 21

The Birth of Isaac
1The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised.2Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old a ... View more

Gen 22

The Command to Sacrifice Isaac
1After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”2He said, “Take your son, your only s ... View more

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