From Ishmael to Mohammad
The Sixteenth Sunday After Trinity
From Ishmael to Mohammad
In Thomas Aquinas’ day, the 13th century, Islam was widely acknowledged as a Christian heresy. The celebrated theologian found that Mohammad, the prophet of Islam, “perverts almost all the testimonies of the Old and New Testaments by making them into fabrications of his own, as can be seen by anyone who examines his law.”
Aquinas gives Mohammad backhanded credit for a measure of wisdom, citing the “shrewd decision on his part to forbid his followers to read the Old and New Testaments, lest these books convict him of falsity. It is thus clear that those who place any faith in his words believe foolishly.”
But what was once in plain view is now veiled. We live in the age of diversity, which is an Indian word meaning “anybody but those old white Protestant guys.” Everyone, we are told, is worthy of our respect – no matter how corrupt his ideas.
And so we turn a deaf ear to the wisdom of the ages.
Not long ago, I spoke with a man who runs a crisis pregnancy center in Tulsa. He said he has recently seen clients from Iraq and Syria, refugees from the violence the Islamic State is perpetrating in their countries. Nothing new there.
The Mesopotamian birthplace of Islam is the land of the razzias, the raids desert nomads staged against settlements and caravans in their territories. This was Mohammad’s world, a tumult of violence and plunder and intimidation. It is the Petri dish in which jihad – holy war – was conceived.
When we grasp that Islam is a perversion of Judaism and Christianity we expose the roots of the conflict that began in Mohammad’s time, the seventh century, and continues to loose torrents of blood in our own. Genesis will explain our world today – in this case in the story of Ishmael and Isaac — if we will only listen.
In the Quran, Mohammad honors Ishmael as “an apostle and a prophet,” commendable in that “He used to enjoin on his people Prayer and Charity, and he was most acceptable in the sight of his Lord” (19:54-55). Ishmael is mentioned elsewhere in the Quran among the prophets.
The Quran absorbs the Genesis account of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son — but does not name the son. From early days, Islamic interpreters have installed Ishmael in that role. His significance in the faith comes into sharper focus in the great feast that culminates the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, Id al-Adha.
Each pilgrim offers an animal victim in remembrance of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to God. In the Bible, of course, the son in question is identified explicitly as Isaac (Genesis 22:2). God has promised Abraham descendants as numerous as the grains of sand on the seashore and now has commanded him to offer up his only legitimate heir.
The patriarch, advanced in years, proves his faithfulness by his obedient spirit, after which God provides a goat as a substitute for the son. In the Id al-Adha, the son in view is Ishmael, whom Abraham fathered by the Egyptian slave Hagar. Muslims around the world join the pilgrims in this ritual, celebrating in their homes.
Ishmael is the key that unlocks the conundrum that is Mohammad, who did a remarkable thing. How could anyone begin with the religion of the Prince of Peace and end with that of the father of jihad?
In the Genesis account, not only Abraham but also his wife Sarah are already of a ripe old age when Yahweh informs them of His promise of innumerable descendants. In fact, Sarah laughs. As the years roll by, she remains barren and both despair of having a son.
Finally, at Sarah’s urging, Abraham knows her maid Hagar. After she conceives, she does not conceal her contempt for Sarah, who is suffering under the great disgrace of her failure to bear an heir. Sarah abuses her in return and Hagar flees into the desert.
An angel seeks her out and orders her to return and submit to Sarah. She complies and bears a son, Ishmael: “He shall be a wild man; his hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand against him. And he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren” (Genesis 16:12).
Sarah continues in her barren state as Ishmael grows up in Abraham’s household, under his instruction and presumed to be his heir. Thirteen years after Ishmael’s birth, when Abraham is 99 and Sarah 90, God promises that Sarah will give birth to a son.
This time, Abraham laughs — and asks God for his favor upon Ishmael. God declares that Sarah’s son shall be the heir in the line of the covenant promise, but agrees to bless Ishmael and make him father of 12 princes and of “a great nation.” The sign of the covenant will be circumcision.
Before Isaac is born, Abraham circumcises both himself and the 13-year-old Ishmael, who becomes by the divinely appointed sign as well as by birth a member of the family of Abraham. But if he is not in the line of succession, where and how does he belong?
In the years between the two births, Hagar grows prideful in the belief that her son will be the heir and again expresses contempt for Sarah. After Isaac’s birth, a vengeful Sarah demands that Abraham send Hagar and her son away. Abraham balks, but God orders him to comply.
Mother and son disappear into the Wilderness of Beersheba. When their provisions run out Hagar prepares for them to die, but an angel opens her vision to a well and they survive. Ishmael grows up in the Wilderness of Paran in Arabia and becomes a skilled archer.
He appears once more, joining Isaac in burying their father, and then drops out of the Genesis story after it names his 12 sons and places them in the desert south of Canaan and east of Egypt (25:18)
Tradition tells us his mother found an Egyptian wife for him and regards their sons as tribal princes. The extracanonical Book of Jubilees identifies the Ishmaelites as the Arab peoples occupying Arab lands. Muslim, Jewish and Christian sources all hold the Arabs to be Ishmael’s descendents.
The literature of pre-Islamic Arabia contains references to Ishmael as the father of the Arabs and a monotheist. The tradition and literature of Islam add elements to the story of Abraham and Hagar. Abraham takes Hagar and Ishmael into the desert and turns to abandon them. Hagar asks whether he is acting on God’s instructions.
He does not answer on the first two occasions but when she asks a third time he says simply, “Yes.” Hagar takes this reply as an omen that God will save her and the boy. Early Islamic scholars drew family trees that placed Ishmael as the father of the Northern Arabs and in the line of Mohammad through the patriarch Adnan.
Many Muslim scholars take the “Servant” and “Elect One” who “will bring forth justice to the Gentiles” of Isaiah 42:1 to be Mohammad, descendant of Ishmael. Christians, of course, identify Him as Christ. Is the Elect One, then, the Prince of Peace or the father of jihad?
From a Christian perspective the answer is not in dispute, but the embellished Ishmael story throws light on both who Muslims believe the final Messenger of God to be and on Mohammad’s character.
This narrative that originates in the Hebrew Scriptures and has been so thoroughly incorporated into Muslim tradition speaks of a people’s yearning to be numbered with Jews and Christians among the family of Abraham.
We can hardly take issue to this point; by natural descent, Arabs are Abraham’s descendants equally with Jews and Christians.
The difficulty arises in making Ishmael heir to the covenant promises. As the Old Testament makes plain, the Seed of the woman proceeds through Isaac (Genesis 21:12), not his half-brother.
We should pause here to reflect on a fact that must forestall Christian arrogance. Yahweh’s choice of Isaac over Ishmael is rooted in His sovereign will and not in a more exalted character. It appears the choice involves Abraham’s faithfulness in returning to trust in God after his unfaithfulness in taking Hagar.
In the very next generation, God will favor Jacob over his twin brother Esau even though their biographies show Jacob to be no nobler. God renames Jacob “Israel,” denoting his headship over the covenant people.
Nor does Ishmael’s illegitimate birth appear to be an issue. Jacob’s son Judah will fall for the ruse of Tamar and mistake her for a prostitute.
Yet the book of Revelation identifies Christ as “the lion of the tribe of Judah” (5:5), in the line of his forefather’s sinful union with Tamar. God chooses as He will. His people respond in faith.
Of Ishmael, some Bible translations render not “wild man” but “wild donkey of a man.” He is foreordained to a violent disposition. His circumstances could only have leavened it with bitterness. He was equally a son of Abraham with Isaac and the older of the two, a status normally commanding preference.
He lived as a son of the household until age 13 or 14 and his father’s pleas to God on his behalf bear witness of Abraham’s deep affection for him. It seems safe to assume Hagar, traumatized by her abuse at Sarah’s hand, would have related to her son the episode of her first eviction while she was pregnant with him.
Abraham did nothing that time to intercede for her against Sarah’s wrath. Hagar was in a state of turmoil, perhaps agony, as she carried Ishmael inside her. After her return and his birth they enjoyed more than a decade of relative tranquility and Ishmael knew the love of both parents.
When Sarah became pregnant, his world turned upside down. On the day his half-brother was weaned, Ishmael and his mother departed his father’s house, forced out onto a forbidding terrain with scant prospect of reaching his mother’s family in Egypt and scarcely any of survival.
In his place, most would have carried within them an anger burning a hole in search of a way out. The angel’s declaration of his turbulent character appears prophetic.
Mohammad is Ishmael’s heir. Whether by genealogy or tradition or both, Mohammad looms as the recipient par excellence of the legacy of Ishmael. As Paul was a Pharisee of the Pharisees, Mohammad is an Ishmaelite of the Ishmaelites.
While we have little record of Ishmael and his sons, the 12 tribal chieftains and their descendants lived as rivals and enemies of other nations and warred among themselves. By Mohammad’s time, as the unending razzias demonstrate, nothing had changed in this regard. He set his sandal down in the Arabia Ishmael had occupied.
He was Ishmael’s heir in another way as well. Mohammad absorbed the committed monotheism Ishmael inherited from Abraham. Despite the fact that most of the Arabs among whom he lived were polytheists, Mohammad looked back to his first Arab father.
At the same time he bowed down before the God of Abraham. A line materialized before him in the Arabian sands. He bore the distinction of membership in the family of Abraham, that “friend of God” (James 2:23), and dwelt at the same time in the thrall of an independent and unyielding character passed down from Ishmael.
Could he remain faithful to the heritage of both illustrious forefathers? Could he represent both Abraham, who offered God abject submission in faith, and Ishmael, who was celebrated for his mercurial and rebellious nature?
His Quran tells the tale of the spirit of Ishmael ascendant. In it, the divinity of Jesus, the prophet of peace, flies out the window. Muslims will continue to venerate Isa the Messiah but will not worship him.
The Quran will link Mohammad to Allah repeatedly and bind up obedience to the final prophet with submission to the one who enlightened him.
Mohammad will receive revelations matching or drawing on Bible passages that serve his purposes but not those that counter them.
As Aquinas observed, his followers must be kept from the Bible, which ends, “For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book. He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming quickly.’ Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:18-20)
Mohammad tried early on to persuade Jews and Christians of his prophetic calling and office. When they rejected him, he loosed his inner Ishmael. He banished two local Jewish tribes from the area, massacred the men of another and enslaved the women and children.
He imposed on Christians the status of dhimmis, an underclass without the rights of Muslims. Dhimmitude was the program by which non-Muslim communities would be brought into submission under condition they forfeit ownership of their land and pay tribute. Those who refused were forced to flee or were murdered.
The revelation the prophet received confirmed the righteousness of the practice. The Quran lays out in more than 50 passages the obligations and conditions of jihad. A sampling: Mohammad’s followers must fight even if they despised fighting because “perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. And Allah knows, while you know not” (2:216). Warfare is their route to divine favor.
In fighting and even in dying are honor and reward: “So let those fight in the cause of Allah who sell the life of this world for the Hereafter. And he who fights in the cause of Allah and is killed or achieves victory — We will bestow upon him a great reward” (4:74).
Beloved, both Christianity and Islam are triumphalist ideologies. Like them, we say that in the end we win. The difference is in the methods. The jihadis of the Islamic State, descendants of Ishmael through Mohammad, are killing our brothers and sisters in Iraq and Syria and elsewhere today.
They claim justification in the revelation Mohammad received from on high. The purpose of this revelation was to instruct Allah’s elect in taking possession of his world for his glory and their reward.
Christ’s self-understanding is more complex. He, too, is the agent by whom divine sovereignty of the creation would be fulfilled. More than a pipeline for a deposit of information, however, He has come to make God manifest and to deliver His redemption.
Neither of these is possible without the Incarnation, God taking on flesh. And without each of them there is no possibility of reconciliation, only domination.
The Son’s trust in the Father’s pledge to deliver the elect through His self-offering on the cross wins the completion of God’s design to fill the creation with Abraham’s offspring, now defined as those who follow in the patriarch’s faith. Without our Lord’s sacrifice the true line of Abraham would be snuffed out, the covenant community eternally empty of worshippers.
As the knife hovered over Isaac, God stayed the hand of Abraham and provided a ram as a substitute. But God would not spare His own Son, the descendent of Isaac.
We who follow the Prince of Peace will not shrink from defending ourselves but we know we will win no lasting victory with the weapons of the kingdom of man. Our shield is faith and our sword is the word of God. These are our weapons, given us by the Prince of Peace. We will wage our battle with them and we will claim the victory that endures into eternity. Amen.Posted on: September 11, 2016Ed Fowler