Ar: Isma'il.
Heb: Yishma'el (), meaning "God hears" or "God will hear." The Bible says: "You shall name him Ishmael, for the LORD has heard of your misery." (
Genesis 16:11). The Arabic name, however, doesn't seem to bear out this meaning.

Ishmael was the first son of Abraham and his mother was Hagar, the maid servant of Sarah, Abraham's wife. Sarah was unable to conceive for many years and Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham to produce a son. As a result, Hagar began to taunt Sarah. Ishmael also mocked Isaac (Genesis 21:9) and in the end Hagar and Ishmael had to leave and settle in the Desert of Paran.

Descendents of Ishmael

According to the Bible, Ishmael had twelve sons, and this agrees with Muslim traditions. In fact, the names of sons given in the Bible agrees with Muslim tradition or other Arabic terms.

orderBiblical Nameibn Hisham's
related Arabic
1NebaiothNabitNabat, Nabayas
6DumahDimmaDumatu 'l-Jandal

The descendents as a whole are called Ishmaelites in the Bible. The descendents of Nebaioth are the Nabateans, and they flourished in northern Arabia, first establishing their capital in Petra in the 4th century B.C. which was captured by the Romans in 106 B.C. They then moved to Damascus. The Dead Sea Scrolls contains Nabatean documents from the later period. The Qadar is an important tribe that al-Badawi applied the term to the Jews. At the time of Isaiah, the two chief Arabian tribes are the descendents of Neboaith and Kedar.

The expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael

The account of this incident is given in many traditions, but Sahih Bukhari forms the foundation of these accounts:
Tradition 1
Narrated Ibn Abbas:

When Abraham had differences with his wife, (because of her jealousy of Hajar, Ishmael's mother), he took Ishmael and his mother and went away. They had a water-skin with them containing some water, Ishmael's mother used to drink water from the water-skin so that her milk would increase for her child. When Abraham reached Mecca, he made her sit under a tree and afterwards returned home. Ishmael's mother followed him, and when they reached Kada', she called him from behind, 'O Abraham! To whom are you leaving us?' He replied, '(I am leaving you) to Allah's (Care).' She said, 'I am satisfied to be with Allah.' She returned to her place and started drinking water from the water-skin, and her milk increased for her child. When the water had all been used up, she said to herself, 'I'd better go and look so that I may see somebody.' She ascended the Safa mountain and looked, hoping to see somebody, but in vain. When she came down to the valley, she ran till she reached the Marwa mountain. She ran to and fro (between the two mountains) many times. They she said to herself, 'I'd better go and see the state of the child,' she went and found it in a state of one on the point of dying. She could not endure to watch it dying and said (to herself), 'If I go and look, I may find somebody.' She went and ascended the Safa mountain and looked for a long while but could not find anybody. Thus she completed seven rounds (of running) between Safa and Marwa. Again she said (to herself), 'I'd better go back and see the state of the child.' But suddenly she heard a voice, and she said to that strange voice, 'Help us if you can offer any help.' Lo! It was Gabriel (who had made the voice). Gabriel hit the earth with his heel like this (Ibn 'Abbas hit the earth with his heel to Illustrate it), and so the water gushed out. Ishmael's mother was astonished and started digging. (Abu Al-Qasim) (i.e. the Prophet) said, "If she had left the water, (flow naturally without her intervention), it would have been flowing on the surface of the earth.") Ishmael's mother started drinking from the water and her milk increased for her child. Afterwards some people of the tribe of Jurhum, while passing through the bottom of the valley, saw some birds, and that astonished them, and they said, 'Birds can only be found at a place where there is water.' They sent a messenger who searched the place and found the water, and returned to inform them about it. Then they all went to her and said, 'O Ishmael's mother! Will you allow us to be with you (or dwell with you)?' (And thus they stayed there.) Later on her boy reached the age of puberty and married a lady from them. Then an idea occurred to Abraham which he disclosed to his wife (Sarah), 'I want to call on my dependents I left (at Mecca).' When he went there, he greeted (Ishmael's wife) and said, 'Where is Ishmael?' She replied, 'He has gone out hunting.' Abraham said (to her), 'When he comes, tell him to change the threshold of his gate.' When he came, she told him the same whereupon Ishmael said to her, 'You are the threshold, so go to your family (i.e. you are divorced).' Again Abraham thought of visiting his dependents whom he had left (at Mecca), and he told his wife (Sarah) of his intentions. Abraham came to Ishmael's house and asked. "Where is Ishmael?" Ishmael's wife replied, "He has gone out hunting," and added, "Will you stay (for some time) and have something to eat and drink?' Abraham asked, 'What is your food and what is your drink?' She replied, 'Our food is meat and our drink is water.' He said, 'O Allah! Bless their meals and their drink." Abu Al-Qa-sim (i.e. Prophet) said, "Because of Abraham's invocation there are blessings (in Mecca)." Once more Abraham thought of visiting his family he had left (at Mecca), so he told his wife (Sarah) of his decision. He went and found Ishmael behind the Zam-zam well, mending his arrows. He said, "O Ishmael, Your Lord has ordered me to build a house for Him." Ishmael said, "Obey (the order of) your Lord." Abraham said, "Allah has also ordered me that you should help me therein." Ishmael said, "Then I will do." So, both of them rose and Abraham started building (the Ka'ba) while Ishmael went on handing him the stones, and both of them were saying, "O our Lord! Accept (this service) from us, Verily, You are the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing." (2.127). When the building became high and the old man (i.e. Abraham) could no longer lift the stones (to such a high position), he stood over the stone of Al-Maqam and Ishmael carried on handing him the stones, and both of them were saying, 'O our Lord! Accept (this service) from us, Verily You are All-Hearing, All-Knowing." (2.127) (Sahih Bukhari 4.584)

Tradition 2
Narrated Ibn Abbas:

The first lady to use a girdle was the mother of Ishmael. She used a girdle so that she might hide her tracks from Sarah. Abraham brought her and her son Ishmael while she was suckling him, to a place near the Ka'ba under a tree on the spot of Zam-zam, at the highest place in the mosque. During those days there was nobody in Mecca, nor was there any water So he made them sit over there and placed near them a leather bag containing some dates, and a small water-skin containing some water, and set out homeward. Ishmael's mother followed him saying, "O Abraham! Where are you going, leaving us in this valley where there is no person whose company we may enjoy, nor is there anything (to enjoy)?" She repeated that to him many times, but he did not look back at her Then she asked him, "Has Allah ordered you to do so?" He said, "Yes." She said, "Then He will not neglect us," and returned while Abraham proceeded onwards, and on reaching the Thaniya where they could not see him, he faced the Ka'ba, and raising both hands, invoked Allah saying the following prayers:

'O our Lord! I have made some of my offspring dwell in a valley without cultivation, by Your Sacred House (Kaba at Mecca) in order, O our Lord, that they may offer prayer perfectly. So fill some hearts among men with love towards them, and (O Allah) provide them with fruits, so that they may give thanks.' (14.37) Ishmael's mother went on suckling Ishmael and drinking from the water (she had).

When the water in the water-skin had all been used up, she became thirsty and her child also became thirsty. She started looking at him (i.e. Ishmael) tossing in agony; She left him, for she could not endure looking at him, and found that the mountain of Safa was the nearest mountain to her on that land. She stood on it and started looking at the valley keenly so that she might see somebody, but she could not see anybody. Then she descended from Safa and when she reached the valley, she tucked up her robe and ran in the valley like a person in distress and trouble, till she crossed the valley and reached the Marwa mountain where she stood and started looking, expecting to see somebody, but she could not see anybody. She repeated that (running between Safa and Marwa) seven times."

The Prophet said, "This is the source of the tradition of the walking of people between them (i.e. Safa and Marwa). When she reached the Marwa (for the last time) she heard a voice and she asked herself to be quiet and listened attentively. She heard the voice again and said, 'O, (whoever you may be)! You have made me hear your voice; have you got something to help me?" And behold! She saw an angel at the place of Zam-zam, digging the earth with his heel (or his wing), till water flowed from that place. She started to make something like a basin around it, using her hand in this way, and started filling her water-skin with water with her hands, and the water was flowing out after she had scooped some of it."

The Prophet added, "May Allah bestow Mercy on Ishmael's mother! Had she let the Zam-zam (flow without trying to control it) (or had she not scooped from that water) (to fill her water-skin), Zam-zam would have been a stream flowing on the surface of the earth." The Prophet further added, "Then she drank (water) and suckled her child. The angel said to her, 'Don't be afraid of being neglected, for this is the House of Allah which will be built by this boy and his father, and Allah never neglects His people.' The House (i.e. Kaba) at that time was on a high place resembling a hillock, and when torrents came, they flowed to its right and left. She lived in that way till some people from the tribe of Jurhum or a family from Jurhum passed by her and her child, as they (i.e. the Jurhum people) were coming through the way of Kada'. They landed in the lower part of Mecca where they saw a bird that had the habit of flying around water and not leaving it. They said, 'This bird must be flying around water, though we know that there is no water in this valley.' They sent one or two messengers who discovered the source of water, and returned to inform them of the water. So, they all came (towards the water)." The Prophet added, "Ishmael's mother was sitting near the water. They asked her, 'Do you allow us to stay with you?" She replied, 'Yes, but you will have no right to possess the water.' They agreed to that." The Prophet further said, "Ishmael's mother was pleased with the whole situation as she used to love to enjoy the company of the people. So, they settled there, and later on they sent for their families who came and settled with them so that some families became permanent residents there. The child (i.e. Ishmael) grew up and learnt Arabic from them and (his virtues) caused them to love and admire him as he grew up, and when he reached the age of puberty they made him marry a woman from amongst them.

After Ishmael's mother had died, Abraham came after Ishmael's marriage in order to see his family that he had left before, but he did not find Ishmael there. When he asked Ishmael's wife about him, she replied, 'He has gone in search of our livelihood.' Then he asked her about their way of living and their condition, and she replied, 'We are living in misery; we are living in hardship and destitution,' complaining to him. He said, 'When your husband returns, convey my salutation to him and tell him to change the threshold of the gate (of his house).' When Ishmael came, he seemed to have felt something unusual, so he asked his wife, 'Has anyone visited you?' She replied, 'Yes, an old man of so-and-so description came and asked me about you and I informed him, and he asked about our state of living, and I told him that we were living in a hardship and poverty.' On that Ishmael said, 'Did he advise you anything?' She replied, 'Yes, he told me to convey his salutation to you and to tell you to change the threshold of your gate.' Ishmael said, 'It was my father, and he has ordered me to divorce you. Go back to your family.' So, Ishmael divorced her and married another woman from amongst them (i.e. Jurhum).

Then Abraham stayed away from them for a period as long as Allah wished and called on them again but did not find Ishmael. So he came to Ishmael's wife and asked her about Ishmael. She said, 'He has gone in search of our livelihood.' Abraham asked her, 'How are you getting on?' asking her about their sustenance and living. She replied, 'We are prosperous and well-off (i.e. we have everything in abundance).' Then she thanked Allah' Abraham said, 'What kind of food do you eat?' She said. 'Meat.' He said, 'What do you drink?' She said, 'Water." He said, "O Allah! Bless their meat and water." The Prophet added, "At that time they did not have grain, and if they had grain, he would have also invoked Allah to bless it." The Prophet added, "If somebody has only these two things as his sustenance, his health and disposition will be badly affected, unless he lives in Mecca." The Prophet added," Then Abraham said Ishmael's wife, "When your husband comes, give my regards to him and tell him that he should keep firm the threshold of his gate.' When Ishmael came back, he asked his wife, 'Did anyone call on you?' She replied, 'Yes, a good-looking old man came to me,' so she praised him and added. 'He asked about you, and I informed him, and he asked about our livelihood and I told him that we were in a good condition.' Ishmael asked her, 'Did he give you any piece of advice?' She said, 'Yes, he told me to give his regards to you and ordered that you should keep firm the threshold of your gate.' On that Ishmael said, 'It was my father, and you are the threshold (of the gate). He has ordered me to keep you with me.'

Then Abraham stayed away from them for a period as long as Allah wished, and called on them afterwards. He saw Ishmael under a tree near Zamzam, sharpening his arrows. When he saw Abraham, he rose up to welcome him (and they greeted each other as a father does with his son or a son does with his father). Abraham said, 'O Ishmael! Allah has given me an order.' Ishmael said, 'Do what your Lord has ordered you to do.' Abraham asked, 'Will you help me?' Ishmael said, 'I will help you.' Abraham said, Allah has ordered me to build a house here,' pointing to a hillock higher than the land surrounding it." The Prophet added, "Then they raised the foundations of the House (i.e. the Ka'ba). Ishmael brought the stones and Abraham was building, and when the walls became high, Ishmael brought this stone and put it for Abraham who stood over it and carried on building, while Ishmael was handing him the stones, and both of them were saying, 'O our Lord! Accept (this service) from us, Verily, You are the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing.' The Prophet added, "Then both of them went on building and going round the Ka'ba saying: O our Lord ! Accept (this service) from us, Verily, You are the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing." (2.127) (Sahih Bukhari 4.583)

The Biblical account is given in Genesis 21:9-21.

Hagar's legal status in Abraham's household.

Is Ishmael the ancestor of the Arabs?

Muslims believed that Ishmael is the ancestor of the Arabs. This, however, is not true, but wishful thinking that is refuted by Muslim traditions for two reasons:

This means that the notion that Ishmael is the progenitor of the Arabs is erroneous. At most, Ishmael can only be called an Arabicized immigrant. That also means that not all modern day Arabs are descendents of Abraham.

Further details can be found in the articles Ishmael is not the Father of Muhammad and Are the Arabs Descendants of Ishmael?

Did Ishmael settle in Mecca?

Hughes' quotes Syud Ahmad Khan on these accounts:
Notwithstanding the perfect coincidences of the facts taken from the Scriptures with those from the Koran, as above shown, there are nevertheless, three very important questions that suggest themselves respecting Ishmael's settlement.

"First. Where did Abraham leave Ishamel and his mother after expelling them from his home?

Secondly. Where did Ishmael and Hagar settle after their wanderings in the desert?

Thirdly. Was it in the very sport where they had rested for the first time, or in some other place?

"The Koran mentions nothing on this subject; but there are some local traditions, and also a few Hadeeses, which treat of it; the latter, however, by reason of their not possessing sufficient authority, and from their not being traced to the Prophet, are as little to be relied on as the former. The local traditions being deemed unworthy of credit, from their mixing up together occurrences that had happened on various and different occasions, we do not think it necessary to dwell on the first question more than has been done the Scriptures themselves, which say that `He (Abraham) sent her (Hagar) away; and she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba.'

"As for the two remaining questions, although the language of Scripture is not very clear - since, in one place it say, `And he (Ishmael) grew, and dwell in the wilderness, and became an archer' (Gen xxi.20), and in another, `He (Ishmael) dwelt in the wilderness of Paran' (Gen xxi.21), passages which would certainly lead us to infer that Ishmael had changed the place of his abode; yet as no Christian commentator represents him as having removed from one place to another, and as, moreover, neither the religious nor the local traditions of the Mohammedans in any traditions confirm the above, it may be safely asserted that Ishmael and his mother did not change the place where they dwelt, and that by the word `wilderness' above the sacred writer meant the wilderness of Paran, where Ishmael is said to have settled.

"Oriental geographers mentioned three palces as known by the appelations of Paran. First, that wilderness wherein the city of Mecca now stands, and the mountains in its vicinity; secondly, those mountains and a village which are situated in Eastern Egypt, or Arabia Petraea; and thirdly, a district in the province of Samarcand." (Hughes' Dictionary of Islam, p. 219)

Was Ishmael the Sacrifice?

The Qur'an does not explicitly state which son of Abraham was supposed to be sacrificed in the famous episode of Abraham sacrificing his son. Today most Muslims, whether Sunnis or Shi`ites, believe that it was Ishmael, in contrast to the Biblical record that it was Isaac. However, many early Muslim commentators believed and stated clearly that the child of sacrifice is Isaac. They base their conclusions on many hadith from the companions of Muhammad themselves.

There is, however, one tradition that seemingly was given primacy over all others to come to the current Muslim conviction: "Umar b. Abd-Al-Aizi asked a Jew converted to Islam about the difference of opinion and he answered: ``The 'dhabhi' is Ismail; the Jews know this also, but they are jealous of you, they say it was Issac.''" (Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam, p.175)

This hadith is obviously incorrect, since none of the Jewish sources - Bible, Talmud or Targums - mention any other sacrifice except Isaac, which is evidenced by the Dead Sea Scrolls as well. It is significant also that the Muslims were not able to verify this through the Torah available at that time.

This view is also not supported by the Qur'an by considering the passages Surah 37:99-107, Surah 51:24-25,28-30 and Surah 37:109-113. See the article, The Child of Sacrifice for more in-depth discussion.

On the other hand, Al-Thalibi expressively states that the Ashab (companions) and Tabiun (successors of the companions), from Umar b. Al-Khattab to Kab Al-Ahbar, believe that the person sacrificed was Isaac (Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam, p.175). The two commentators al-Kamalan say that Ibn `Umar, Ibn Abbas, Hasan, Abdullah ibn Ahmad say that it was Isaac (see Hughes' Dictionary of Islam, p. 219).

Thus, it is clear that even early Muslims of high authorithy were not agreed on who was actually sacrificed. The further away from the earliest days, the more it became the common view that it was Ishmael.

However, both of the above quoted two traditions from Sahih Bukhari are giving the story of Abraham and Ishmael, spanning the time Ishmael and his mother are sent away while Ishmael is still an infant who is suckled until he has become a grown man, and been married (twice). Only after all this, Abraham personally meets Ishmael again and builds the Kaaba together with him. No mention at all is made of the sacrifice. This omission would be inexplicable if the child of sacrifice had been Ishmael. This is strong evidence that Muhammad (and Ibn Abbas) did not associate Ishmael with the sacrifice of Abraham's son, but Isaac. On the other hand, Tabari also relates a direct statement by Muhammad that the child of sacrifice is Isaac.*

Contrary to usual Muslim beliefs, Khalifites believe that God never ordered Abraham to kill his son. They argue that it was only a dream, but that Abraham thought that he should carry it out.*

Muslims often point to Genesis 22:1-2 where God called Abraham to sacrifice his only son as evidence that Ishmael must be the son to be sacrificed, not Isaac. Sura 21:76 provides an interesting angle to look at this.

Hughes says:

The author of the Shi`ah work, the Hayatu 'l-Qulub (Merrick's ed. p. 28) says: "On a certain occasion when this illustrous father (Abraham) was performing the rites of the pilgrimage at the Mecca, Abraham said to his beloved child, `I dreamed that I must sacrifice you; now consider what is to be done with reference to such an admonition.' Ishmael replied, `Do as you shall be commanded by God. Verify your dream. You will find me endure patiently.' But when Abraham was about to sacrifice Ishmael, the Most High God made a black and white sheep his substitute, a sheep which had been pasturing forty years in Paradise, and was created by the direct power of God for this event. Now every sheep offered on Mount Mina, until the Day of Judgment is a substitute, or a commemoration of the substitute for Ishmael." (Hughes' Dictionary of Islam, p. 219).
In contrast to the Bible which said that the sacrifice is at Mount Moriah, Muslims say that it is at Mount Mina near Mecca.
Sir William Muir says (Life of Mahomet, new ed. p. xvii): "By a summary adjustment, the story of Palestine became the story of the Hejaz. The precints of the Ka`aba were hallowed as the icons of Hagar's distress, and the sacred well Zamzwm as the source of her relief. The pilgrims hasted to and fro between Safa and Marwa in memory of her hurried steps in search of water. It was Abraham and Ishmael who built the (Meccan) temple, place it the black stone, and established for all mankind the pilgrimage to Arafat. In imitation of him it was that stones were flung by pilgrims at Satan; and sacrifices were offered at Mina in remembrance of the vicarious sacrifice of Abraham instead of his son. And this, although the indigenous rites may have been little if at all altered, by the adoption of the Abrahamic legends, they come to be viewed in a totally different light, and to be connected in the Arab imagination with something of the sanctity of Abraham, the Friend of God. The gulf between the gross idolatry of Arabia and the pure theism of the Jews was bridged over. Upon this common ground Mahomet took his stand, and proclaimed to his people a new and spiritual system, in ascents to which all Arabia could respond. The rites of the Kaaba were retained, but stripped of him of every idolatrous tendency; and they still hang a strange unmeaning shroud, around the living theism of Islam. (Hughes' Dictionary of Islam, pp. 219-220).

Biblical prophecy concerning Ishmael

The Bible's prophecy of Ishmael and his descendents:
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. (Genesis 17:20)

The angel of the LORD also said to her: "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 16:11-12)

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