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Ishmael ( ; ; ; , ) is a figure in the Hebrew Bible, and Qur'an. Jews, Christians and Muslims believe Ishmael is Abraham's eldest son and first born. Ishmael is born of Sarah's handmaiden Hagar ( ). Although born of Hagar, according to Mesopotamian law, Ishmael was credited as Sarah's son; a legal heir through marriage. ( ) According to the Genesis account, he died at the age of 137 ( ).

Islamic traditions consider Ishmael as the ancestor of northern Arab people, while Jewish traditions are split between those who consider Ishmael their ancestor and those, like Maimonides, who believe that the northern Arabs are descended from the sons of Keturah, whom Abraham married after Sarah's death.

Judaism has generally viewed Ishmael as wicked though repentant. Judaism maintains that Isaac (the father of the Jewish people) rather than Ishmael was the true heir of Abraham. The New Testament contains few references to Ishmael. In some Christian biblical interpretations, Ishmael is used to symbolize the older—now rejected—Judaic tradition; Isaac symbolizes the new tradition of Christianity. Islamic tradition, however, has a very positive view of Ishmael, giving him a larger and more significant role. The Qur'an views him as an Islamic prophet. According to the contextual interpretation of some early Islamic theologians (whose view prevailed later), Ishmael was the actual son that Abraham was called on to sacrifice, as opposed to Isaac.

Etymology and meaning

Cognates of Hebrew Yishma'el existed in various ancient Semitic cultures. For example, it is known that the name was used in early Babylonian and in Minæan. It is translated literally as "God has hearkened", suggesting that "a child so named was regarded as the fulfillment of a divine promise."

Hebrew Bible

See also: Account of Isaac in the Hebrew Bible

Chapters 16–25 of the Book of Genesis contain the stories of Ishmael. Historians and academics in the fields of linguistics and source criticism believe that the stories of Ishmael belong to the three strata of J, or Yahwist source, the P, or Priestly source, and the E, or Elohist source (See Documentary hypothesis). For example, The narration in is of J type and the narration in is of E type.

According to the Bible, Sarah (Abraham's wife) was childless, yet desired a son. She offers her maidservant Hagar to Abraham as a surrogate. Customs of the time dictated that, although Hagar was the birth mother, any child conceived would belong to Sarah and Abraham.

Hagar became pregnant and was proud of herself, which resulted in harsh treatment of her by Sarah. Hagar fled and ran into the wilderness, where an angel appeared to her by a spring of water. The angel of the Lord told her to return, adding that God would increase her descendants through a son whose name would be Ishmael. The angel told Hagar that Ishmael would become "a wild donkey of a man" and would be in constant struggle with others.

So Hagar returned to Abraham's house, and had a son whom she named Ishmael. Abraham was 86 years old when Ishmael was born. Abraham, obeying God's commandment, circumcised Ishmael, this occurred when Ishmael was thirteen. That year, Abraham's wife Sarah became pregnant with his second son, Isaac. One day Sarah was angered by seeing Ishmael mocking or playing with Isaac (the Hebrew word is ambiguous), and she asked Abraham to expel him and his mother, saying: "Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac." Ishmael was very dear to Abraham. He initially refused to do as Sarah asked. He finally gave in to his wife's request when God told him that He would take care of Ishmael, since he was a descendant of Abraham. Abraham provided Hagar and her child with bread and a bottle of water and sent her into the desert of Paran. Hagar, with her son, wandered in the wilderness and ran out of water. When they were reduced to great distress, an angel appeared and showed Hagar a spring of water saying "What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation."

They lived in the wilderness of Paran, where Hagar's son became an expert in archery. His mother married him to an Egyptian woman. According to the Bible, Ishmael had 12 sons who became twelve tribal chiefs. The twelve sons of Ishmael, were named Nebaioth, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah (See ) Ishmael's sons settled everywhere from Havilah to Shur, i.e. from Assyria to the border of Egypt. Ishmael also had a daughter named Mahalath or Bashemath who married Esau. Ishmael also appears with Isaac at the burial of Abraham. Ishmael died at the age of 137.

Blessings Given to Ishmael

In the Bible Abraham was given separate blessings for his children found in , two blessings one for the descendants of his son Isaac found in , and the other for the descendants of Ishmael found in , , . Upon hearing the Lord's blessing for Isaac Abraham pleaded with the Lord that Ishmael also be given a blessing . The second covenant given to Ishmael the Lord promises:

  • To make his descendants one great nation , ,
  • That his descendants would live in hostility with all his brothers
  • That his descendants would live to the east of all his brothers Ishmael's brothers, other than Isaac, are found in . Among Abraham's other descendants are Medan (the father of the Medes) and Jokshan whose son was Dedan whose son was Asshurim (the father of the Assyrian people). An extra biblical book known as the book of Jubilees places the location and identity of the Ishmaelites as the Arab peoples residing in Arab territories. This is the current view for the majority of the Christian, Islamic and Jewish faiths, though according to Biblical accounts the Arab people traditionally have had long-standing alliances with the descendants of the Assyrians and the Medes. As well, the Arab populations in modernity represent many nations rather than one nation as specified biblically. Other references, such as the book of Jashar indicate that the Ishmaelites settled in Havilah which is located in Central India.

Jewish traditions

see also Isaac in Jewish traditions
Judaism has generally viewed Ishmael as wicked though repentant; he later comes to revere his brother Isaac.

In some Rabbinic traditions Ishmael is said to have had two wives; one of them named Aisha. This name corresponds to the Muslim tradition for the name of Muhammad's wife. This is understood as a metaphoric representation of the Muslim world (first Arabs and then Turks) with Ishmael. The Talmud also mentions God's regret over Ishmael.

The name of an important Second Century CE sage - Ishmael ben Elisha, known as "Rabbi Ishmael" (רבי ישמעאל), one of the Tannaimmarker - indicates that the Bibilical Ishmael enjoyed a positive image among Jews of the time.

New Testament

see also Hagar in the New Testament, Isaac in New Testament
According to the Genesis account, Ishmael and his mother were expelled at the instigation of Sarah, in order to make sure that Isaac would be Abraham's heir. In the book of Galatians, Paul uses the incident "to symbolize the relationship between Judaism, the older but now rejected tradition, and Christianity." (Gal 4:21-31) In Galatians 4:28-31, Hagar is associated with the Sinai covenant, while Sarah is associated with the covenant of grace (into which her son Isaac enters).


See also: Hagar in Islamic traditions

Ishmael ( Ismā'īl) is a prophet in Islam. The Qur'an considers him to be a son of Abraham. His name appears twelve times in the Qur'an mostly in lists with other prophets "as part of a litany of remembrances in which the pre-Islamic prophets are praised for their resolute steadfastness and obedience to God, often in the face of adversity."

Both Jewish and Islamic traditions consider Ishmael as the ancestor of the Arab people.

The Quran does not have any genealogies; the Arabs preserved their histories and genealogies by memory alone.
Picture of the Kaaba taken in 1880.
Islamic traditions hold that the Kaaba was rebuilt by Abraham and Ishmael.
Abraham and Ishmael are said to have built the foundations of the Kaabamarker ("They were raising the foundations of the Housemarker", ). Islamic traditions hold that the Kaaba was first built by the first man, Adam. Abraham and Ishmael rebuilt the Kaaba on the old foundations.

The Qur'an states that Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son. The son is not named in the Qur'an (see ) and in early Islam, there was a controversy over the son's identity . However the belief that the son was Ishmael prevailed, and this view is continued to be endorsed by Muslim scholars. The argument of those Muslims who believed in the Ishmael theory was that "the promise to Sarah of Isaac followed by Jacob ( ) excluded the possibility of a sacrifice of Isaac." The other party held that the son of sacrifice was Isaac since "God's perfecting his mercy on Abraham and Isaac (in ) referred to his making Abraham his friend and saving him from the burning bush and to his rescuing Isaac.".

According to Bruce Metzger and Michael Coogan, professors of Religious Studies, the circumcision of Muslims has its roots in the tradition that Ishmael was circumcised.

Bahá'í Faith

The Bahá'í writings state that it was Ishmael, and not Isaac, who was the son that Abraham almost sacrificed. However, the Bahá'í writings also state that the name is unimportant as either could be used: the importance is that both were symbols of sacrifice. According to Shoghi Effendi, there has also been another Ishmael, this one a prophet of Israelmarker, commonly known as Samuel.


  1. Fredrick E. Greenspahn, Encyclopedia of Religion, Ishmael, p.4551-4552
  2. "Maimonides' 'True Religion': For Jews or All Humanity?", Menachem Kellner, in Meorot 7:1 (2008) p.5, n.21
  3. William Montgomery Watt, Encyclopedia of Islam, Ishaq
  4. S. Nikaido(2001), p.1
  5. "Hagar." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
  6. Personalities biography of Abraham at Who2, LLC
  7. Jewish Encyclopedia, Ishmael
  8. Hagar, Jewish Encyclopedia
  9. Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)
  10. Columbia Encyclopedia, Ishmael
  11. Jewish Encyclopedia, Mahalath
  12. Yvonne Domhardt,"Ishmael, Ishmaelites", Brill's New Pauly
  13. Shalom Paul in The Oxford Dictionary of Jewish Religion, p.358
  14. God Regrets Four Things
  15. Encyclopedia of Christianity(Ed. John Bowden), Isaac
  16. Certain Western scholars have suggested that Muhammad was not aware of this connection in the early period of his preaching. Their argument is that in the early verses of the Qur'an, Ishmael appears in lists mentioning prophets like Jonah, Lot and Idris without any association with Abraham. (e.g. see , , ). Reuven Firestone in Encyclopedia of the Qur'an says that there is some evidence to the contrary of claim of those western scholars.
  17. The Qur'an generally lists Ishmael in the formula: “Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes” (e.g. see , ), sometimes as "Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac". In verse Ishmael is mentioned as “Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac” and in some other lists Ishmael's name is absent from the list :"Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" such as ; cf Ishmael, Encyclopedia of the Qur'an
  18. Ishmael, Encyclopedia of the Qur'an
  19. Azraqi, Akhbar Makkah, vol. 1, pp. 58-66
  20. Bruce M Metzger and Michael D Coogan (1993), pp. 329 (Under 'Ishmael').
  21. "Concerning the appearance of two Davids; there is a Tablet from 'Abdu'l-Bahá in which He says that just as there have been two Ishmaels, one the son of Abraham, and the other one of the Prophets of Israel, there have appeared two Davids, one the author of the Psalms and father of Solomon, and the other before Moses." (Shoghi Effendi, Dawn of a New Day, pp. 86-87)

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