Abraham Visits Ishmael and His Wives: Between Jewish and Islamic Tradition
Hagar and Ishmael Are Banished
The biblical account of Hagar and Ishmael is heartbreaking. When Abraham and Sarah fail to have a child together, Sarah offers her handmaid Hagar to her husband so he may have a son, saying, אוּלַי אִבָּנֶה מִמֶּנָּה “Perhaps I shall be built up through her” (Gen 16:2). But when Sarah herself finally gives birth to Isaac years later, she insists that Hagar and her son Ishmael be banished:
בראשית כא:י גָּרֵשׁ הָאָמָה הַזֹּאת וְאֶת בְּנָהּ כִּי לֹא יִירַשׁ בֶּן הָאָמָה הַזֹּאת עִם בְּנִי עִם יִצְחָק.
Gen 21:10 Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.
God tells Abraham to listen to Sarah, assuring him that Ishmael will also become a great nation, but that Abraham’s genealogical line will proceed through Isaac: כִּי בְיִצְחָק יִקָּרֵא לְךָ זָרַע, “it is through Isaac that your descendants will be called” (Gen 21:12). Hagar and Ishmael are immediately banished to the wilderness with few provisions. They wander and soon their supplies are exhausted. God responds to Ishmael’s cries and sends an angel of God to save them. The last two verses of the episode present an unsettling kind of closure, focusing on the life of Hagar and Ishmael away from Abraham:
בראשית כא:כ וַיְהִי אֱלֹהִים אֶת הַנַּעַר וַיִּגְדָּל וַיֵּשֶׁב בַּמִּדְבָּר וַיְהִי רֹבֶה קַשָּׁת. כא:כא וַיֵּשֶׁב בְּמִדְבַּר פָּארָן וַתִּקַּח לוֹ אִמּוֹ אִשָּׁה מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
Gen 21:20 God was with the boy and he grew up; he dwelt in the wilderness and became a bowman. 21:21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
This is that last we hear about Hagar.
A Troubling Account
The story of Hagar and Ishmael’s expulsion leaves us with an unpleasant feeling of incompleteness. Although God does back Sarah’s demand, we cannot help questioning the ethics of those responsible or worrying about the fate of those cast out. Nothing in the biblical text itself portrays mother and son so negatively as to justify such harsh treatment. Abraham is even described as loving Ishmael, since he grieves at Sarah’s insistence to banish them:
בראשית כא:יא וַיֵּרַע הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּעֵינֵי אַבְרָהָם עַל אוֹדֹת בְּנוֹ.
Gen 21:11 The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son.
Although we only hear about his feelings for Ishmael in this verse, the rabbis believe he loved Hagar as well, and read this into a later story.
Keturah: Abraham’s Reconciliation with Hagar?
In Genesis 25, after Sarah’s death (Gen 23) and Isaac’s marriage (Gen 24), Abraham takes another wife named Keturah, and we learn the names of their descendants, and how they were sent east, so as not to threaten Isaac’s inheritance (Gen. 25:1–6). The rabbis suggest that the wife he took after Sarah’s death, Keturah, is actually Hagar (Genesis Rabbah 61:4):
ויוסף אברהם ויקח אשה וגו' ר' יהודה אמר זו הגר, אמר ליה ר' נחמיה... והכת' ושמה קטורה, אמר ליה שקיטרה מצוות ומעשים טובים.
“Abraham took another wife” (Gen 25:1)—Rabbi Yehudah said: “That is Hagar.” R. Nehemiah said to him… “Does it not say ‘whose name was Keturah’?” [Rabbi Yehuda] responded: “she was fragrant (ק.ט.ר) with mitzvot and good deeds.”
In short, the rabbis understand Keturah as a nickname for Hagar, and imagine that Abraham and Hagar are reunited at the end of their lives. But what of Ishmael?
Ishmael Reconciled with Isaac
The verses announcing Abraham’s death strike an optimistic chord about the relationship between the brothers:
בראשית כה:ט וַיִּקְבְּרוּ אֹתוֹ יִצְחָק וְיִשְׁמָעֵאל בָּנָיו אֶל מְעָרַת הַמַּכְפֵּלָה...
Gen 25:9 His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah…
Later we are told that Isaac’s son Esau married Ishmael’s daughter (Gen 28:9, 36:3), further implying that relations were normalized between the brothers and their families. Finally, the text tells us the names of Ishmael’s descendants who dwelt in the wilderness near Egypt, and we learn that Ishmael lived to the age of 137 (Gen 25:12–18), both of which imply that Ishmael had a full and successful life. And yet, nowhere do we hear about any reconciliation between father and son.
Abraham Visits Ishmael: Jewish Version
Pirkey de’Rabbi Eliezer (PRE), generally dated to the 8th or early 9th century C.E., offers a fascinating addendum to the end of their biblical story. PRE introduces the story with (Higger ed.):
וַיֵּשֶׁב בְּמִדְבַּר פָּארָן, שלח ישמעאל ולקח לו אשה מבנות מואב ועָאִישָה שמה.
And he (Ishmael) dwelt in the wilderness of Paran” (Gen 21:21). Ishmael sent and took a wife from the daughters of Moab named ʿAʾishah.
ʿAʾishah is presented here as Moabite, though the name is Arabic, and was the name of one of Muhammad’s wives. The story then continues with Abraham’s encounter with this woman:
לאחר שלש שנים הלך אברהם לראות את ישמעאל בנו, ונשבע לשרה שלא ירד מעל הגמל במקום שישמעאל שרוי תמן, והגיע לשם בחצי היום, ומצא שם את אשתו של ישמעאל, אמר לה היכן הוא ישמעאל, אמרה לו הלך הוא ואמו להביא פירות ותמרים מן המדבר, אמר לה תני לי מעט לחם ומים כי עייפה נפשי מדרך המדבר, אמרה לו אין לי לחם ולא מים,
After three years, Abraham went to see Ishmael his son, having sworn to Sarah that he would not get off of his camel in the place where Ishmael lived. He arrived there at midday and found there the wife of Ishmael. He said to her, “Where is Ishmael?” She answered him, “He went with his mother to bring fruit and dates from the wilderness.” He said to her, “Give me a little bread and water, for I am terribly faint from the journey through the desert.” She said to him, “I have no bread and no water.”
The story begins with Abraham navigating the same tension familiar from Genesis 21: He is attached to his son, but Sarah is adamant that he maintain a clear distance. Upon his arrival, Abraham is disappointed with his daughter-in-law’s lack of hospitality, which clashes with one of Abraham’s core principles (see Genesis 18–19) and general norms of hospitality; it contrasts sharply with Rebekah’s treatment of Abraham’s servant in Gen 24:17–20.
ʿAʾishah’s lack of hospitality connects with her being Moabite, a group which, the Torah reports, also do not bring the Israelites “bread and water” when they were in need (Deut 23:4–5). Abraham leaves a hint for his son to divorce his wife:
אמר לה כשיבא ישמעאל הגידי לו את הדברים הללו וב"ן חכ"ם כחצ"י חכ"ם ואמרי לו זקן אחד מארץ כנען בא לראותך ואמר חלף מפתן ביתך שאינה [סף הבית אינה] טובה לך,
He said to her, “When Ishmael comes [home] tell him these words, ‘the son of a wise man is like half of a wise man,’ and tell him that an old man from the Land of Canaan came to see you, and he said, ‘Exchange the threshold of your house, for it is not good for you.’”
Ishmael takes the hint:
וכשבא ישמעאל מן המדבר הגידה לו את הדברים הללו, ובן חכם כחצי חכם, והבין ישמעאל ושלחה אמו ולקחה לו אשה מבית אביה וּפָטִימָה שמה.
When Ishmael came in from the wilderness, she told him those words, and “a son of a wise man is like half of a wise man,” and Ishmael understood. His mother then sent for a woman from her father’s house, and her name was Fatimah.
The claim that Hagar gets Ishmael a wife from Egypt is explicit in the Torah (Gen 21:21), but here this is his second wife, and Hagar specifically chooses someone from her hometown, because Abraham rejected the first wife and she ostensibly wants to ensure that the problem doesn’t arise again. Fatima was the name of Muhammad’s daughter.
The story continues with Abraham meeting the next wife:
ועוד אחר שלש שנים הלך אברהם לראות את ישמעאל בנו, ונשבע לשרה כפעם ראשונה שאינו יורד מן הגמל במקום שישמעאל שרוי שם, והגיע לשם בחצי היום ומצא שם אשתו של ישמעאל ואמר לה היכן הוא ישמעאל, אמרה לו הוא ואמו הלכו לרעות את הגמלים במדבר, אמר לה תני לי מעט לחם ומים כי עייפה נפשי מדרך המדבר, והוציאה לחם ומים ונתנה לו, עמד אברהם והיה מתפלל לפני הב"ה על בנו ונתמלא ביתו של ישמעאל מכל טוב ממין הברכות, וכשבא ישמעאל הגידה לו את הדבר וידע ישמעאל שעד עכשו רחמי אביו עליו שנ' (תהילים קג, יג) כְּרַחֵם אָב עַל בָּנִים.
After three years, Abraham again went to see his son Ishmael, having sworn to Sarah as on the first occasion that he would not get off his camel in the place where Ishmael lived. He arrived there at midday and found Ishmael’s wife there. He said to her, “Where is Ishmael?” She said to him, “He and his mother went to graze the camels in the wilderness.” He said to her, “Give me a little bread and water, for I am terribly faint from the journey through the desert.” She brought bread and water and gave them to him. Abraham arose and prayed to the Holy One, blessed be He for his son, and Ishmael’s house became filled with all good things of the various blessings. When Ishmael came [home], she told him what had occurred, and Ishmael knew that his father’s love and compassion for him remained, as it is said, “Like a father has compassion for his children” (Ps 103:13).
Unlike ʿAʾishah, Fatima is generous and kind, and Abraham leaves a hint to Ishmael that he approves of this match, and Ishmael takes this as a sign of his father’s continuing love for him, despite the separation enforced by Sarah. The midrash then ends with a postscript which is a version of the midrash quoted above:
לאחר מיתתה של שרה חזר אברהם ולקח את גרושתו, שנ' (בראשית כה, א) וַיֹּסֶף אַבְרָהָם וַיִּקַּח אִשָּׁה וּשְׁמָהּ קְטוּרָה, ומדקאמר ויוסף משמע שפעם ראשונה היתה אשתו ועוד לא הוסיף לבא עליה, ושמה קטורה שהיתה מקוטרת מכל מיני בשמים, ד"א קטורה שהיו נאים מעשיה כקטרת, ילדה לו ששה בנים וכלם נקראו על שמו של ישמעאל...
After the death of Sarah, Abraham returned and took his divorced wife, as it is said, “And Abraham again took a wife and her name is Keturah” (Gen 25:1). The reason it says “again” is because at first, she was his wife (=Hagar, as per Gen 16:3), but he did not continue to lay with her. Her name is Keturah because she was perfumed (ק.ט.ר) in all kinds of scents. Another explanation: She is called Keturah because her deeds were beautiful like incense. She gave birth to six sons for him, and all of them were named after Ishmael…
Thus, the PRE story is overwhelmingly positive about Hagar and Ishmael, presenting Sarah as the only impediment to this branch of the family remaining with Abraham. The reason for Abraham’s visit in the Jewish version seems clear: The terrible trauma of expulsion had to be resolved, and Abraham’s standing as patriarch of the Jewish people had to be rescued.
This is accomplished through Abraham’s blessings on Ishmael and his family and his restoration of Hagar’s status in the person of Keturah. Abraham remains steadfastly loyal to his first wife Sarah, yet he would not abandon his firstborn son, nor would he forsake his son’s mother Hagar, who after Sarah’s death became Abraham’s second wife.
Abraham Visits Ishmael: Muslim Version
In Islamic tradition, in a genre called “Stories of the Prophets” (qiṣaṣ al-anbiyā’), we find a version of the story of Abraham visiting Ishmael in the desert that is strikingly similar to the story found in PRE. Whereas the location for Ishmael’s encampment in the Jewish story, based on Gen. 21:21, is in a wilderness called Paran, the Islamic story sets Paran (Fārān in Arabic) in the location of Mecca, the place where the prophet Muhammad would be born many centuries later.
One collector of such stories was a brilliant historian and Qur’an commentator named Muḥammad ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (d. 923), who lived in Baghdad and was a contemporary of Saadia Gaon (d. 942), so the story is roughly contemporary with PRE.
The story begins with Hagar’s death (unbeknownst to Abraham and Sarah):
When Hagar died, Ishmael married a Jurhumite woman. Abraham asked Sarah’s permission to go and visit Hagar, and Sarah permitted it, but she made it conditional that he not settle down there. Abraham set out—Hagar had already died—to Ishmael's house. He said to Ishmael's wife, “Where is your husband?” She answered, “He is not here. He went hunting.” Ishmael would often leave the Sanctuary to go hunting. Abraham asked, “Do you have any accommodation? Do you have any food or drink?” She answered, “I have nothing, and there is no one with me.” Abraham said, “When your husband comes, give him greetings and tell him to change the threshold of his door.”
Again, Ishmael takes the hint:
Abraham left, and when Ishmael came back he found the scent of his father. So he said to his wife, “Did anyone come to you?” She answered, “An old man of such-and-such description came to me”—as though she were making light of him. Ishmael said, “What did he say to you?” She answered, “He told me, ‘Give your husband greetings and tell him to change the threshold of his door.’” So he divorced her and married another.
The story continues with Abraham’s second visit:
Abraham stayed in Syria (i.e., the Levant) as long as God willed, and then asked Sarah’s permission to visit Ishmael. She permitted him but made it conditional that he not settle down there. Abraham came to Ishmael’s door and said to his [new] wife, “Where is your husband?” She answered, “He went hunting but will return soon, God willing, so stay, and may God be merciful to you!” He asked her, “Do you have any accommodation?” She answered, “Yes.” He said, “Do you have bread or wheat or barley or dates?” She brought milk and meat, and he prayed for blessing on both of them.
Again, this second wife proves to be a kind and gracious woman, of whom Abraham approves.
Why Is Mecca So Dry?
The text then offers a side comment:
Had she brought bread or wheat or barley or dates on that day, [that place] would have been the most plentifully supplied on earth with wheat and barley and dates.
This comment is meant to explain why the holy city of Mecca seems so dry, and—aside from its one miraculous spring—so inhospitable. Ishmael’s wife brought Abraham the food that was typical of desert nomads, which he blessed. If she had brought agricultural products, then Abraham’s blessing would have ensured that Mecca be a green oasis rather than a desert outpost.
The Place of Abraham and the Kaʿba
Al-Ṭabarī’s version continues not with the Keturah/Hagar midrash—remember, Hagar was already deceased in this version—but with an anecdote absent in PRE:
She said, “Stay so that I may wash your head.” But he would not stay, so she brought him the maqām and placed it on his right side. He set his foot on it and the mark of his foot remained on it. She then washed the right side of his head. Then she moved the maqām to the left side and washed the left side.
The Arabic for “stay” also means “get down” or “descend.” So it also means “get down from your camel so I can wash your head” (which of course gets very hot and dry in the desert). She then brings the maqām ibrāhim, which functions as a kind of step-stool, so that he could stay on the camel. Notably, the camel does not appear in the Islamic version of the story—only in the Jewish version, and the same goes for the refusal to get down (the Islamic version just says that he won't dwell there), so this particular motif fits the Jewish version of the story better than the Islamic version, yet another hint of the very close textual relationship between the two.
This maqām, cognate with Hebrew maqôm, is a reference to the Muslim holy place, as we see in the Qur’an (2:125):
2:125 When We made The House (al-bayt) a refuge and safe for humankind [We said]: Take as your place of worship the Maqām Ibrāhīm. We covenanted with Abraham and Ishmael [saying]: Purify My house for those who circumambulate, are engaged [with it], and bow and prostrate themselves. So Abraham prayed: Lord, Make this area safe, and bestow its people with fruits—those among them who believe in God and the Last Day.
The story of Abraham’s visits to Ishmael in Mecca and his vow to Sarah not to stay, apparently interpreted here as something like stepping into the house, requires that Ishmael’s wife bring a step for him to stand on. This is an etiological origin story for the Maqām Ibrāhīm referenced here.
Today in Mecca in the sacred precinct of the Kaʿba, a small structure called Maqām Ibrāhīm houses a short stone pillar about the size of a tall stool, upon which can be seen two footprints that are considered those of Abraham from his visit to Ishmael.
At this point, this account returns to the familiar storyline:
He said to her, “When your husband comes home, give him greetings and say to him, ‘The threshold of your door has been put in order.’” When Ishmael came, he found the scent of his father and said to his wife, “Did someone come to you?” She answered, “Yes, an old man, the handsomest and best-smelling. He said to me such-and-such, and I answered such-and-such, and I washed his head, and this is the place of his feet on the maqām.” He asked, “What did he say to you?” She answered, “He said to me, ‘When your husband comes, give him greetings and tell him that the threshold of your door has been put in order.’” Ishmael said, “That was Abraham.”
The message of the legend would not be lost on Muslims, who traced the ancestry of Muhammad to Abraham via Ishmael and Hagar.
The Kaʿba and the Qur’an
The final part of the Islamic midrash turns to the building of the Kaʿba, after which Al-Ṭabarī records another tradition of what seems to be a third visit:
He came—that is, Abraham —and found Ishmael mending his arrows behind Zamzam and said to him, “O Ishmael! Your Lord has commanded me to build Him a House.” Ishmael replied, “Then obey your Lord and do what He commanded you to do.” Then Abraham said, “He has commanded that you assist me with it.” Ishmael responded, “Then I'll do it!” They began together, Abraham doing the building while Ishmael handed him the stones, and both of them saying, “O Lord! Accept this from us, for You are the Hearer, the Knower” (Q.2:127).
When the building had become tall and the old man was too weak to lift the stones so high, [Ishmael] came upon a stone that was the maqām Ibrāhīm. He began to give it to him, while both were saying, “Accept this from us, for You are the Hearer, the Knower” (Q.2:127).
When Abraham had finished building the House that God had commanded be built, God commanded that he proclaim the pilgrimage among humankind, saying to him, “And proclaim the pilgrimage unto humankind. They will come to you on foot and on every lean camel; they will come from every deep ravine” (Q.22:27).
According to this account, Abraham and Ishmael appear together in Arabia and raise up the foundations of the Kaʿba in Mecca, the most sacred site in the Muslim world. That structure is called “The House” in the Qur’an (al-bayt), a name reminiscent of the Jerusalem Temple (ha-bayit = later Hebrew beit hamiqdash). As a sort of prooftext, the story quotes the passage in the Qur’an which relates this (2:127).
Did Father and Son Meet?
The Jewish and Muslim stories differ in several respects. Unique to the Jewish story is Abraham’s reconciliation with Hagar; in the Islamic version, Hagar is already deceased before the visit ever takes place. The Islamic version is unique both in its etiology of the maqām Abraham in the Kaʿba, and the geography of the visit (Paran is in Arabia rather than just south of the Land of Israel), as well as in the very claim that Abraham and Ishmael met in person.
This last difference goes to the heart of the question of the story’s origin. Scholars have wondered which of these two versions could have been the original story. Some argued that the story’s primary purpose is to fill out and make sense of the puzzling and problematic biblical story, which would imply a Jewish origin. Others argue that it provides important missing details to the Quranic story.
The question hinges on whether the final personal reconciliation between father and son is an original part of the tale, cut by the Jewish version, or whether it is an addition, to make the story work with the Quranic account of father and son building the Kaʿba together. The question remains a matter of debate, but either way, the core story of Abraham’s visit found resonance in both Jewish and Islamic tradition.
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November 11, 2020
January 21, 2021
Prof. Rabbi Reuven Firestone is the Regenstein Professor in Medieval Judaism and Islam at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he earned his M.A. and his rabbinic ordination, while his Ph.D. in Arabic and Islamic studies is from New York University. Firestone is the author of Journeys in Holy Lands: The Evolution of the Abraham Ishmael Legends in Islamic Exegesis (SUNY, 1990), Jihad. The Origin of Holy War in Islam (Oxford, 1999), Children of Abraham: An Introduction to Judaism for Muslims (Ktav, 2001), Trialogue: Jews, Christians, Muslims in Dialogue: A Practical Handbook (Twenty-Third Publications, 2007), Who are the Real Chosen People? The Meaning of Chosenness in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Skylight Paths, 2008), An Introduction to Islam for Jews (JPS, 2008), Learned Ignorance: An Investigation into Humility in Interreligious Dialogue between Christians, Muslims and Jews (Oxford , 2011), Holy War in Judaism: The Fall and Rise of a Controversial Idea (Oxford, 2012).
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