Ishmael and Islam

Ishmael and Islam

Genesis 16 ; 11 - 12 reads, 'The angel of the Lord also said to Hagar: “You are now pregnant and you will give birth to 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.”

These words were of course written centuries before Jesus. What is astonishing and frightening is that they have come exactly true in our own time. In Islam, Ishmael is regarded as a prophet and an ancestor of Muhammad. Many Islamic scholars support the Jewish and Christian view that Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael away at God's command, in accordance with Sarah's proclamation, "this boy will not be an heir with my son Isaac" (Genesis 21:10-12). But there are different Islamic versions of the story, some of which include a prophecy about Ishmael's birth. One account states that an angel tells the pregnant Hagar to name her child Ishmael and prophesies, "His hand would be over everyone, and the hand of everyone would be against him. His brethren would rule over all the lands." thus for Muslims foretelling Muhammad's leadership. Note the subtle deviation from the Genesis narrative which does not have the words 'His brethren would rule over all the lands'.

The Muslim narrative then departs entirely from the Genesis story and tradition. Islamic tradition says Abraham was ordered by God to take Hagar and Ishmael to Mecca, and later Abraham returned to Mecca to build the Kaaba. The Kaaba or Cube is a building at the centre of Islam's most sacred mosque. It is considered the "House of Allah". Wherever they are in the world, Muslims are expected to face the Kaaba when praying. In many of these accounts, something like a wind or spirit sent by God, or the angel Gabriel guided Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael to the location of the Kaaba, at which point Abraham built it and afterwards, left the other two there. Generally, it is said that Hagar asked Abraham who he is entrusting herself and Ishmael to as he leaves them. He answers that he is entrusting them to God, to which Hagar then makes a reply that shows her faith, stating that she believes God will guide them.

There are many versions of the construction of the Kaaba that differ in fairly significant ways, although all have Abraham build or cleanse the Kaaba and then immediately after, or at an unknown time, God calls Abraham to establish the Hajj, or pilgrimage. These narratives differ in when these events occurred, if and how there was supernatural involvement, the inclusion or omission of the Black Stone, and whether Ishmael assisted his father.

The Black Stone is the eastern cornerstone of the Kaaba. It is revered by Muslims as an Islamic relic which, according to Muslim tradition, dates back to the time of Adam and Eve. According to Islamic tradition, it was set intact into the Kaaba's wall by the Muhammad in the year 605 A.D., five years before his first revelation. Since then it has been broken into a number of fragments and is now cemented into a silver frame in the side of the Kaaba. Its physical appearance is that of a fragmented dark rock, polished smooth by the hands of pilgrims. Islamic tradition holds that it fell from the heaven as a guide for Adam and Eve to build an altar, although it has often been described as a meteorite, a hypothesis which is now uncertain. Muslim pilgrims circle the Kaaba as a part of the ritual during the hajj and many try to stop and kiss the Black Stone, emulating the kiss that Islamic tradition records that it received from Muhammad.

Roman Catholic pilgrims to Rome visit St Peter’s Basilica and kiss the feet of his statue there. Visitors and tourists kiss the Blarney Stone in Ireland. Members for the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland do not kiss the great statue of John Knox in the quadrant of New College on the Mound in Edinburgh as they pass by.
Of those who say Ishmael took part in the construction, most describe Abraham visiting Ishmael a third time in Mecca, during which they raise the Kaaba. Some versions say Abraham has Ishmael look for a final stone, but Abraham does not accept the one he brings back. Instead an angel has brought the Black Stone, which Abraham puts into place. Ishmael is left at the Kaaba, in charge of its care and to teach others about the Hajj. The starting of the Hajj has many versions, and scholars believe this reflects the late association of Abraham with the Hajj after Islam had developed to help remove its connection to early pagan rituals.

Muslim tradition continues. At some point, often believed to be after Hagar's death, Ishmael marries a woman from the Jurhum, the tribe who settled in the area around Zamzam. Abraham visits Ishmael in Mecca and when he arrives at his home, Ishmael is not there. Instead Ishmael's wife greets Abraham, but she is not welcoming or generous to him. Abraham instructs her to tell Ishmael some version of the statement that he is not pleased with or to change "the threshold of his door." When Ishmael returns home and his wife tells him this, he knows it is from his father and taking the advice, divorces the woman. He then marries another woman from Jurhum. Abraham once again visits and is met by Ishmael's second wife, as Ishmael is out. This wife is very kind and provides food for him. Abraham instructs her to tell Ishmael some version of the statement that he is pleased with "the threshold of his door." When Ishmael arrives and his wife repeats Abraham's statement, Ishmael knows it is from his father and keeps his wife.

According to Islamic tradition as Islam became more powerful, some Jewish teaching about Ishmael was modified so that he was portrayed more negatively in order to challenge the Islamic view that Ishmael, and thus the Muslims, were the favoured descendents of Abraham. This became the genealogy according to Jewish sources and the Bible, in contrast to the genealogy of Arabs according to Muslims.

The development of Islam created pressure for Muslims to be different to Judaism and Christianity, and accordingly Ishmael's lineage to Arabs was stressed. Muhammad's ancestry was said to lead back to Ishmael, joining "original biblical ancestry of Abraham with a distinctively Arab stock,  and connecting Muhammad with Mecca and the Kaaba.  

Muslims made up these traditions about Ishmael and much else without any respect for Jewish history. Christians trying to show from the Old Testament that Jesus was the Messiah referred to actual verses which could be interpreted to be prophecies pointing to Jesus. One of the most obvious is from Isaiah 9. 'For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.' This has actually happened in the establishment of Christianity in the world for Christianity is an eternal not a political kingdom and is made up of the personal devotion of women, men and children to Jesus.

From the beginnings of Islam the uncompromising nature of the Genesis prophecy about Ishmael has come true. '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'. Violence is at the heart of Islam. It is not at the heart of Christianity. Mohammad could not get anywhere by just preaching so he used military force and Islam has risen throughout the centuries by force and violence. But Islam is rent within itself by force and violence also and it has been since its earliest years. Muslims fight and kill one another as much and sometimes more than they fight and kill non-Muslims. There is the basic irreconcilable distinction between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Mohammad died without having appointed a successor leading to a massive split. Sunnis believe Mohammad’s trusted friend and advisor Abu Bakr was the first rightful leader of Muslims or “caliph”, while Shias believe that Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law Ali was chosen by Allah to hold the title. This 1400 year old argument continues with merciless violence on both sides.

That is what is happening today. '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.' Pakistan was formed in 1947 when Muslims wanted to have their own Islamic state separate from India. How many of Pakistan’s Heads of State have been assassinated over the decades since? Actually 32. Ali Khan the first President lasted only four years in office. Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in 2007 and her father Zulfikar was also assassinated. Assassination is a legitimate means within Islam. Even the word has Islamic roots referring to those who took drugs and murdered Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land and thus started The Crusades.

There is no meeting place, no haven, no tent of peace in Islam. It will rend the world as long as it exists. The extremities visible in the Hamas' incursion into Israel are part of a long story, reminding everyone of the essential nature of Islam. Cries of 'God is great' have echoed around the world. The murder of Jewish children is held to be a victory for Allah.

Only Christianity offers the vision of a better way and all we can do is to hope and pray that in time the example of Jesus Christ the Prince of Peace will overcome. It is Christian people, politicians, diplomats and humanitarians who are trying to bring an end to chaos. It is a thankless task. We are not even wanted or valued. Politicians have made far-reaching strategic errors of judgement and action reducing our moral authority to zero. But Christianity tells us to love our fellow human beings for Christ’s sake. We feel a burden to do so. We have our own self-interest to be sure and Britain was once an exploiting global empire. Our own society is no longer righteous. But the Way of Christ is the only hope for all. We can find consolation and peace continuing enjoyment of life in the Risen Saviour of the world.

Robert Anderson 2017

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