What trials did Prophet Abraham and his family go through? How did they come out of them? What is the difference between the Qur’anic and biblical accounts of the story?
There are simple facts alone illustrate the remarkable bond linking Muhammad’s life to Abraham’s (peace be upon them). Yet it is the spiritual lineage that even more dearly reveals the exceptional nature of this bond.
The whole Abrahamic experience unveils the essential dimension of faith in the One. Abraham, who is already very old and has only recently been blessed with a child, must undergo the trial of separation and abandonment, which will take Hagar and their child, Ishmael, very close to death.
Doubt & Trust
His faith is trust in God: he hears God’s command-as does Hagar-and he answers it despite his suffering, never ceasing to invoke God and rely on Him.
Hagar questioned Abraham about the reasons for such behavior; finding it was God’s command, she willingly submitted to it. She asked, then trusted, then accepted, and by doing so she traced the steps of the profound ‘active acceptance’ of God’s will: to question with one’s mind, to understand with one’s intelligence, and to submit with one’s heart.
In the course of those trials, beyond his human grief and in fact through the very nature of that grief, Abraham develops a relationship with God based on faithfulness, reconciliation, peace, and trust. God tries him but is always speaking to him, inspiring him and strewing his path with signs that calm and reassure him.
Several years after this abandonment in the desert. Abraham was to experience another trial: God asked him to sacrifice his first-born son, Ishmael.
Abraham in the Qur’an
The Islamic tradition is that God asks Abraham to sacrifice Ishmael; in the Bible, the tradition is that Abraham is asked to sacrifice his second son, Isaac.
This is how the Qur’an recounts the story:
So We gave him (Abraham) the good news: the birth of a sweet-tempered son. Then, when (the son) was old enough to walk with him, he said: “0 my son! I have seen in a dream that I offer you in sacrifice. Now see what you think!” (The son) said: “0 my father! Do as you are commanded; you will find me, if God so wills, one of the steadfast” So when they had both submitted (to God), and he had laid him prostrate on his forehead, We called out to him: “0 Abraham! You have already fulfilled the dream!- thus indeed do We reward those who do right. For this was a clear trial.” And we ransomed him with a momentous sacrifice. And we left for him among generations (to come) in later times: peace and salutation to Abraham! (As-Saffat 37:101-109 )
The trial is a terrible one: for the sake of his love and faith in God, Abraham must sacrifice his son, despite his fatherly love. The trial of faith is here expressed in this tension between the two loves.
Abraham confides in Ishmael, and it is his own son, the object of sacrifice, whose comforting words to his father are like a confirming sign: “0 my father! Do as you are commanded; you will find me, if God so wills, one of the steadfast.”
As was the case a few years earlier with Hagar, Abraham finds in others signs that enable him to face the trial. Such signs, expressing the presence of the divine at the heart of the trial, have an essential role in the experience of faith and shape the mode of being with oneself and with God.
When God causes His messenger to undergo a terrible trial and at the same time associates that trial with signs of His presence and support (the confirming words of his wife or child, a vision, a dream, an inspiration, etc.), He educates Abraham in faith: Abraham doubts himself and his own strength and faith, but at the same time the signs prevent him from doubting God. This teaches Abraham humility and recognition of the Creator.
Then Abraham is tempted by deep doubt about himself, his faith, and the truth of what he hears and understands, the inspirations and confirmations of Hagar and Ishmael (whom he loves but sacrifices in the name of divine love) enable him not to doubt God, His presence, and His goodness. Doubt about self is thus allied to deep trust in God.
In the Bible
Indeed, trials of faith are never tragic in Islamic tradition, and in this sense, the Qur’an’s story of Abraham is basically different from me Bible’s when it comes to the experience of sacrifice. One can read in Genesis:
After these things God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” (God) said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” …
And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and me knife. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” (Isaac) said. “Behold me fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God Himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together. (Genesis, 22:1- 2 and 6-8)
Abraham must sacrifice his son, and here he experiences this trial in absolute solitude. To his son’s direct question, “Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham answers elliptically. He alone answers God’s call.
This difference between the two accounts may seem slight, yet it has essential consequences for the very perception of faith, for me trial of faith, and for human beings’ relation to God .
The article is an excerpt from Dr. Tariq Ramadan’s In the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons from the Life of Muhammad, Oxford University Press (2007).