The Patriarchs

Surah 37 (Al-Saffa/Those arranged in ranks): 102-103

101. We gave him (Abraham) glad tidings, the glad news of the birth of a forbearing son.

102. When his son was old enough to work with him, he said ‘My son, I have had a dream that I must sacrifice you. What do you think of this?’
He replied ‘Father, fulfil whatever you are commanded to do and you will find me patient, by the will of God’.

[Sarwar, 1981]


Abraham in the Torah

The story of Abraham is primarily told in Chapters 11 to 25 of the Book of Genesis. Originally called Abram, he was born in Ur of the Chaldees in Southern Mesopotamia. Genesis tells us that he set out for Canaan together with his father, Terah, his wife Sarai, and his nephew Lot, the four of them settling for a while at a midway point, Haran, where Terah died. On the eventual arrival of Abram, Sarah and Lot at Canaan, Abram made his home there with Sarah, whilst Lot retraced his steps east a little and settled in the Jordan Plain near the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Genesis describes four encounters between Abram and God (12.1-3  , 12.7 , 13.14-17 and chapter 15). In these God promised that Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the night sky, that they would form a great nation and that they would be granted the land ‘from the Wadi of Egypt to the Great River’ (traditionally considered to be the Euphrates). This covenant was symbolised by the changing of Abram’s name to Abraham and by the Lord’s command that henceforth each of his male descendants should be circumcised.


Since Abraham at this time had no children, Sarah suggested to him that in order to fulfil God’s promise, he should lie with her servant Hagar, and Abraham did this leading to Hagar bearing him his firstborn son, Ishmael. Subsequently, Abraham had a further encounter with God (17.1-22 ) and then a visit from three strangers, who come to be identified in the text as God and two angels (chapter 18). After the three had eaten a meal, God promised that Sarai, who would henceforth be called Sarah, too would bear Abraham a child. God then remained and continued to speak with Abraham, whilst the two angels walked away, and as they left God informed Abraham that they had gone to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for the wickedness that those people did. Abraham secured a promise from God that he would not destroy the cities if ten virtuous people could be found there, whilst the angels proceeded to the home of Lot, precipitating a sequence of events that led to God’s destruction of the two cities, described at 〈68.〉 below. In due course, Sarah bore Abraham his second son whom they called Isaac. After the birth of her own son, Sarah persuaded Abraham to send Hagar and her stepson Ishmael away.


In one of the Torah’s best known episodes (Genesis 22) God tested Abraham’s obedience by commanding him to sacrifice Isaac. Only after Abraham had demonstrated his willingness to make the sacrifice by building a pyre and binding up Isaac, did God order that Isaac be replaced as the sacrifice with an animal: a miraculously provided goat.


Further on, the Torah proceeds to describe Isaac as having two sons, Esau and Jacob, and Jacob as having twelve sons who would father the twelve tribes of Israel. It is a traditional understanding that the Arabs are descended from Ishmael.


Abraham in Ur, Hanifism

The Qur’an eight times describes Abraham as a ‘ḥanīf’, {2.135}, {3.67 & 95}, {4.125}, {6.79 & 161} and {16.120 & 123}, and presents this creed as a pure original monotheism, free from the later sectarianism and corruption of Judaism and Christianity.

{2.135} And they say: ‘Be Jews or Christians and you shall be rightly guided.’

Say: ‘Rather (ours is) the creed of Abraham, a ‘ḥanīf’, and he was not of the idolaters’


The Qur’an’s references to Abraham (Ibrahim) include accounts of him discovering monotheism by reflecting upon the movement of the stars, moon and sun {6.75-79}. It also provides several accounts of Abraham rebelling against his idolatrous father, Azar, and preaching monotheism to his people, {6.74 & 80-83}, {19.41-48}, {21.52-67}, {26.69-82}, {29.16-17 & 24-25}, {37.83-96}, {43.26-27} and {60.4}. It also, as noted above, ascribes to Abraham the announcement of holy scripture, {53.36-37} and {87.19}, although no details of this are given.


One passage, {21.52-67}, describes an occasion upon which Abraham smashed all of his people’s idols ‘save the largest of them‘. When he was later challenged over their destruction, apparently at some sort of trial (‘they said bring him before the eyes of the people that haply they may bear witness’, {21.61}) Abraham suggested to his accusers that they enquire of the surviving idol what had occurred. When they responded: ‘Certainly you know that these speak not’ this allows Abraham to make his point: ‘Do you worship, apart from God, that which benefits you not in the least nor harms you?’ Unimpressed, the people attempt to burn him for his insolence, but God intervened, turning the fire to coolness. Allusions to this story also appear at {29.24-25} and {37.91-96}.


None of these events appear in the Bible, but the account of Abraham destroying all save one of a group of idols and blaming the damage upon the one that he had spared appears in several rabbinic commentaries including the Genesis Rabbah (fourth and fifth centuries), in which Abraham even places a club in the hands of the idol he sought to ‘frame’.  In Genesis Rabbah the breaking of the idols takes place in Abram’s father’s idol shop and the subsequent trial takes place before a king, Nimrod. The tradition that Abraham’s father, Terah, had owned an idol shop appears in the Book of Jubilees (c.150 BC). In this, Abraham demonstrates the powerlessness of the idols in a more direct and deadly manner than the story ofthe smashing of the idols described in Genesis Rabbah and later in the Qur’an. He sets fire to the shop at night, burning to death his brother Haran, who rushed in to save the idols. In the later Apocalypse of Abraham (AD 70-150) , the fire at the icon shop had become the result of a divine thunderbolt, in which Terah himself (and possibly others) died. It is this version of the tale that offers the only feasible explanation for the inclusion of ‘the people of Abraham’ in two of the Qur’an’s lists of divinely punished peoples, {9.70} and {22.42-44}


The confrontation between Abraham and Nimrod in Genesis Rabbah is likely the episode that the Qur’an briefly refers to with:

{2.258} Hast thou not considered him who disputed with Abraham about his Lord because God had given him sovereignty. When Abraham said: ’My Lord gives life and causes death’, he said: ‘I give life and cause death’.


The figure of Abraham is a unifying figure for, what would become known as the Abrahamic religions. However, the story of his rejection of Ishmael in favour of Isaac also builds into the foundational story a division between Jew and Arab. The Qur’an’s proposal that Arabs had inherited from Abraham a creed of the ‘hanif’ (literally meaning ‘the heathen’ ) allows it to assert that its message conveys a pure monotheism that, in contrast to the long and complex history of Judaism, is unsullied by any details of its transmission from Ishmael to Muhammad. This was not an entirely new idea. The fifth century church historian Sozomen had noted in his Ecclesiastical History a tribe of Arabs:

… which took its origin and had its name from Ishmael, the son of Abraham; and the ancients called them Ishmaelites after their progenitor. As their mother Hagar was a slave, they afterwards, to conceal the opprobrium of their origin, assumed the name of Saracens, as if they were descended from Sara, the wife of Abraham. Such being their origin, they practice circumcision like the Jews, refrain from the use of pork, and observe many other Jewish rites and customs … Moses, who lived many centuries after Abraham, only legislated for those whom he led out of Egypt. The inhabitants of the neighbouring countries, being strongly addicted to superstition, probably soon corrupted the laws imposed upon them by their forefather Ishmael … Some of their tribe afterwards happening to come in contact with the Jews, gathered from them the facts of their true origin, returned to their kinsmen, and inclined to the Hebrew customs and laws. From that time on, until now, many of them regulate their lives according to the Jewish precepts.


The Qur’an’s appeal to this ancient shared lineage between the Arabs and the Jews in some passages may be read as an ecumenical appeal to harmony and unity of purpose between the two peoples but it also provided a theological basis upon which an Ishmaelite prophet such as Muhammad might emerge to assume the role of leader, prophet and lawgiver in relation to his people just as Moses had done for the Israelites centuries earlier. Crucially such a prophet might interpret the promise given by God to Abraham that his descendants would inherit the Holy Land 〈88.〉 as being capable of fulfilment by the Arabs seizing the land either in conjunction with, or in place of, their distant relatives, the Jews.


In {2.260} God performs a miracle of bringing to life four birds that Abraham had been first instructed to kill, dismember and place on different mountain tops.


Abraham and his sons in Canaan

The Qu’ran describes Abraham’s visitation by messengers, with the difference from Genesis that Abraham recognises his visitors as supernatural entities, due to the fact that, unlike in Genesis, they refuse the food that he offers to them, {11.69-76}, {15.51-61}, {29.31-35} and {51.24-34}.


In {14.39} the Qur’an refers to Ishmael and Isaac as being the sons of Abraham, which is in agreement with the Book of Genesis. And in Surah 12 both Jacob at {12.6} and his son Joseph at {12.38} refer to the orthodox lineal descent of Jacob from Abraham via Isaac.


However, on other occasions the Qur’an is deliberately ambiguous concerning the genealogy of the patriarchs and the incident of the testing of Abraham. The issue is complex and three areas of curiosity need to be set out separately.

1. On five different occasions: {6.84}, {11.71}, {29.27}, {19.49} and {21.72}, it refers to Isaac and Jacob – who in Genesis is Isaac’s son – as though they are both children born to Abraham and Sarah; {21.72} describing Jacob as an ‘added gift’ to Abraham. It may be argued that the ‘added gift’ is capable of being consistent with Jacob being Abraham’s grandchild, but that is not how the verses read, and if that were the case why should it be that the Qur’an nowhere mentions Esau as Jacob’s elder brother? Adding to the confusion over Abraham’s family tree, in {2.133} Jacob’s sons speak to their father on his deathbed in the course of which they refer to both Isaac and Ishmael, as being amongst Jacob’s, forefathers.

2. Although a brother of Jacob called Esau is nowhere mentioned in the Qur’an, a name remarkably similar to Esau does appear frequently: Isa, the name that the Qur’an gives to Jesus. Arabic speaking Christians refer to Jesus by the name Yasū , which is clearly an Arabised version of the Hebrew Yēšua, and many other biblical figures retain a name similarly Arabised, such as Yacoub, Yusuf, Younus and Ayub.

3. Unlike in Genesis, where Isaac is tricked by Abraham into ascending Mount Moriah with him, the sacrificial son in the Qur’an willingly agrees to accompany his father knowing his purpose. This is a tradition that is to be found in many pre-Islamic Jewish and Christian sources, including the homilies of Jacob of Serugh, where Isaac replies to his father’s declaration of his intent: ‘Perform your will: if the knife is sharpened against me I will not draw back; if the fire is kindled for me I will hold my ground. If the lamb is to go up bound, here are my hands, but if you are going to slaughter me unbound, I have no objection’ . But the two factors that make the Qur’an’s account of the episode,  {37.99-110}, of greatest interest is that it fails to specify which of his sons Abraham’s sons Abraham had prepared to sacrifice, nor that the sacrifice was aborted.

{37.103}  But when they had submitted and Abraham had lain (his son) on his forehead,

{37.104}  We called unto him: ‘O Abraham! Thou hast been true to the vision.‘

{37.105}  Thus indeed do We recompense the virtuous.

{37.106}  Truly this was the manifest trial.

{37.107}  Then We ransomed him with a great sacrifice.

Many Muslim scholars identify the obedient son as Abraham’s elder son Ishmael, but there is no good reason to assume that it was one son rather than the other.

There is clearly a subtext to the Qur’an’s reworking of this story, and since either we do not have all of the original verses or else the Qur’an was purposefully ambiguous, any attempt to make sense of these gaps and clues will involve a degree of speculation.


As has been referred to in 〈2.〉, {2.125-127} and {3.96-97} each describe Abraham, who in the former verses is assisted by Ishmael, erecting a structure that is described as the ‘sacred House’, and the ‘station’ , alternatively ‘standing place’, ‘of Abraham’, {3.97} The Qur’an associates Abraham’s structure with the Ka’aba at the Masjid al-Haram, which as observed, is traditionally understood by Muslims as being in Mecca. For the reasons set out in 〈2.〉 it is suggested that the Qur’an intended this place to be understood as the site of the Jewish Temple which was built over the believed site of the altar upon which Abraham had prepared to sacrifice Isaac. It may be noted that Muslims today commemorate the near-sacrifice by Abraham of his son, during the festival of Eid al Adha (‘feast of sacrifice’) that concludes the annual hajj pilgrimage, in which the slaughtering of animals plays a central role. The absence of any explanation in the Qur’an as to why Abraham might have made the epic trek from Canaan to Mecca to build a structure, where pilgrims might go to commemorate an event that had occurred in the place from whence he had come, has already been commented upon.


The Qur’an’s assertion that Ishmael helped his father ‘raising the foundations of the House’,  {2.127} , may reflect a homily of Jacob of Serugh wherein Isaac, as a precursor to Jesus, assisted Abraham to build the altar upon which he would be sacrificed:

When Isaac looked and saw what his father was doing,
he picked up stones to bring them to the building of the altar.


Isaac lent a hand to his old man with the building,
that he would not estrange the type by this construction. Who has [ever] seen a lamb building an altar for its slaughter,
or a sacrifice becoming a labourer on the day of its death?


The Qur’an’s reference to Ishmael raising the foundations of the House, may merely indicate the substitution of the ancestor of the Arabs for the ancestor of the Jews in the story of Abraham sealing his covenant with God. But if this was the purpose, there is no reason why it could not have been clearly stated in the text, and it leaves the suggestions that Jacob was Isaac’s brother, nor the application of Esau’s name to Jesus unexplained.


There is a more sinister possibility. In Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, David S. Powers draws attention to an ancient Jewish tradition that Abraham did, in fact sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah. A basis for this belief appears in the text of Genesis itself which has Abraham ascending Mount Moriah with Isaac (Genesis 22.6-8 ) but returning to where he had parted from his attendants alone (22.19 ). It is possible, even likely, from the text of Genesis that the staying of Abraham’s hand and late substitution of a goat in the place of Isaac, was an interpolation added to alter an original, more grisly, version of the story. If the Qur’an was deliberately worded to keep open the possibility that Abraham’s ‘great sacrifice’ of {37.107} might have been that of a son, then it could not have been the sacrifice of Ishmael for where would the Arabs have come from and could only have been of Isaac, if Abraham had had a third son, from whom the twelve tribes of Israel might have descended.


It is normal for Christians to see in the story of the binding of Isaac a prefiguring of the sacrifice by God of His own son, Jesus, upon the cross. The Qur’an author liked his prophets to emerge from their stories vindicated if not triumphant. He seems to have found no role for the crucifixion of Jesus. {4.157}, which is the Qur’an’s only reference to the crucifixion denies that the Jews had killed Jesus ‘though it appeared so unto them〈25.〉, and the traditional Islamic explanation of this verse is that one of Jesus’s disciples was crucified in his stead. It may well be, given the involvement of Ishmael in building the sacrificial altar, that the Qur’an, like the New Testament sees the story of the crucifixion prefigured in the story of Abraham, but with different outcomes and message: lost verses describing the sparing by God of His more exalted servant by the sacrifice of one less so.


Ishmael and Isaac do not appear independently of Abraham in any narrative account in the Qur’an, although their names appear in the litanies of past prophets (together at {2.136 & 140}, {3.84} and {4.163}, {19.49 & 54}, {21.72 & 85} and {38.45& 48}; Ishmael alone at {6.86}).


Jacob and his sons

Genesis 25 †  describes the birth to Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, of the twins Esau and Jacob. Although Esau was the elder of the two, Jacob persuaded his brother to surrender to him his birthright as the first born son in return for ‘a mess of pottage , and later tricked his father into giving him the blessing intended for his elder brother . As noted above Esau does not appear in the Qur’an as Jacob’s brother. Given the suggested redrawing of Abraham’s family tree, he would have been denied any significant role. For the application of the name, and possibly some attributes, of Esau to Jesus see 〈25.〉


Jacob would marry two sisters, Leah and Rachel, after having been required to perform fourteen years of labour for their father: a story that the Qur’an tells a variation of, but in relation to Moses, see 〈22.〉 Between them, Leah, Rachel and their two maid servants bore Jacob twelve sons who would become the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel. Chapters 35 to 46 of Genesis tell the well-known story of the elder brothers becoming  jealous of Jacob’s favouritism towards Joseph, of their selling him into slavery, of Joseph’s rise to prominence at Pharaoh’s court and of his testing of his brothers’ honesty when they came to Egypt seeking food during a famine.


In the Qur’an, the story of Joseph carries the distinction of being the only biblical story recounted in full in a dedicated surah, Surah 12. Other than for the presentation of Jacob as a son of Abraham rather than of Isaac, and of his appearance in lists of biblical prophets, Jacob features only in this surah, and in {3.93} where, under the name Israel, he is credited with introducing dietary laws ‘before the Torah was sent down’.


As with other stories the Quranic telling of Joseph contains deviations from the biblical text that can be traced to non-canonical Jewish and Christian sources. As this is the only such story to be told in an extended narrative, it is easier than usual to plot the influences that were blended to create the Quranic account.


  • Jacob warning Joseph not to tell his brothers of the dream in which he foresaw that God would make him dominant over them, {12.5},
  • Joseph’s brothers conspiring to kill him whilst they were still at home, {12.9},
  • Jacob’s disbelief of the story that Joseph had been killed by a wolf, {12.18}, and
  • Joseph’s Egyptian master, Potiphar’s disproving his wife’s account that she had been attacked by Joseph, by the physical evidence that Joseph’s tunic had been torn from behind, {12.28}:

all these variations appear in a collection of Syriac Christian homilies on the story of Joseph that had been incorrectly attributed to the fifth century Christian scholar, Narsai (now generally referred to as the Homilies of pseudo-Narsai)


  • Jacob’s becoming blind on hearing of the death of Joseph – ‘his eyes turned white with grief,’ {12.84}:

the Syriac History of Joseph attributed to Basil of Caesarea (330-379): ‘the light in his eyes grew dim’.


  • Potiphar’s wife’s eventual confession to Potiphar of having concocted the accusation against Joseph, {12.32}:

St Ephrem’s Commentary on Tatian’s Diatessaron, 260-263.


  • The unexplained advice from Jacob to his ten sons, as they set off for Egypt with Joseph’s full brother Benjamin, to ‘enter not by one gate, but enter by separate gates’, {12.67}:

Genesis Rabbah, where the advice is explained as a means of avoiding the attention of the Evil Eye .


As the Qur’an tells of the episode at Joseph’s master’s (ie Potiphar’s) house, it seems to lose its way and give parts of the story out of sequence. In particular, the mistress of the house makes her false accusation and is proved to be a liar in {12.25-26}, but a few verses later, in {12.30-32}, she is showing Joseph off to her friends and confiding in them her plot to have him thrown into prison.