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A rabbi and an imam: The story of Isaac and Ishmael can be a source of hope

A fresco painting on a Haft Tanan mausoleum wall in Shiraz, Iran, has this image of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Ishmael.
A fresco painting with image of Abraham to sacrifice his son, Ishmael (Islamic version) on a Haft Tanan museum wall in Shiraz.

Photo courtesy of Evgenia Kononova, via Wikimedia Commons

A fresco painting on a Haft Tanan mausoleum wall in Shiraz, Iran, has this image of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Ishmael.

(RNS) On Wednesday (Sept. 23) as Jews end their Yom Kippur fast, Muslims will begin the Eid al-Adha holiday. Imam Haytham Younis and Rabbi Alana Suskin met for coffee and then exchanged the following email dialogue about the two holidays’ convergence and the meaning of a shared story that lies at the intersection of both faiths.

The exchange was edited for length and clarity.

Suskin: It is a rare occurrence for Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) and Eid al-Adha (the Feast of the Sacrifice) to fall back-to-back, but seems appropriate somehow. Just a week ago, on Rosh Hashanah, we read the Torah portion relating the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son — the Jewish perspective of the same story that underlies Eid al-Adha. For Jews, this is the story of the sacrifice of Isaac at God’s command (stopped, of course, at the last moment, by an angel sent by God).

Imam Haytham Younis, 2012, Rockville, MD. Photo courtesy of AbdurRahman Younis

Imam Haytham Younis, 2012, Rockville, MD. Photo courtesy of AbdurRahman Younis

Younis: Yes. Eid al-Adha similarly commemorates the obedience of Abraham and his son to the command of God in fulfilling the sacrifice, as well as the observance of the pilgrimage to the House of God (the Kaaba) in Mecca, which, we believe, was established by Abraham. According to the Quran, the son involved in the sacrifice however, was Ishmael, not Isaac.

Suskin: For Jews, Abraham’s perfect awe for God, demonstrated by his willingness to sacrifice his son, established his legacy.

Younis: Indeed. Of the very few things on which Islam and Judaism differ, the disagreement as to who was the sacrificial son may seem very important. To Muslims, however, it is not as significant.  We recognize each of these two sons of Abraham. Since Muslims believe both Isaac and Ishmael were included in God’s covenant, whether the sacrifice took place with the one or the other makes small difference.

Rabbi Alana Suskin is Director of Strategic Communication at Americans for Peace Now and a board member of T'ruah, a Jewish human rights group. She is an educator, activist, and writer published in dozens of anthologies and journals, and a senior managing editor of Jewschool.com. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Alana Suskin

Rabbi Alana Suskin is director of strategic communications at Americans for Peace Now and a board member of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. She is an educator, activist, and writer published in dozens of anthologies and journals, and a senior managing editor of Jewschool.com. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Alana Suskin

Suskin: What you are describing is something most Jews probably don’t know. In Jewish commentaries, the focus is on Isaac. There is discussion, however, of the less-than-warm relationship between Sarah (the mother of Isaac) and Hagar (the mother of Ishmael). Some sages try to explain Sarah’s demand that Abraham expel Hagar and Ishmael by blaming Ishmael. Others are disturbed by Sarah’s action. Some suggest the pain Sarah felt when Isaac was taken to be sacrificed was a measure of the pain that Hagar felt at leaving Abraham’s household.

Younis: The Islamic tradition is quite different. According to our beliefs, Abraham took Hagar and Ishmael to the Wilderness of Paran solely out of obedience to the command of God. God’s purpose was to establish two related but separate nations, each blessed by prophecy. Just as Muslims are forbidden from making prejudicial distinctions between any of the prophets (never saying that Muhammad was greater than any of the prophets of Israel) so, too, Muslims do not perceive any superiority of Ishmael to Isaac. To us, they were always brothers at peace with each other.

Suskin: “Brothers at peace with each other” brings up something that I have thought about a lot. The story is not wholly one of conflict. The story of Isaac is also one of brotherhood. The Torah mentions that after the sacrifice, Isaac lives in a place called Beer Lachai Ro’i, where the Torah elsewhere suggests Hagar ended up. It can be inferred that Isaac went there to join her. That Isaac chose to make his home with the mother of Ishmael implies that the brothers bore each other no ill will. Indeed, according to the Torah, when the time comes to bury their father, they do so together.

Younis: That is interesting. In the Islamic narrative, there is no ill will between Isaac and Ishmael and no ill will between Sarah and Hagar, either. The resettlement is seen as a completion of God’s intent to establish two separate nations of believers.

Suskin: Perhaps one reason God insisted that Abraham tell Hagar to leave was to prevent future generations from being poisoned by the antagonistic relationship of their parents’ generation. Instead, Isaac and Ishmael were able to escape their mothers’ conflict and establish a new generation — two peoples — untouched by the strife of the previous one.

Younis: Throughout history, cooperation between the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael has been the norm. If there was or is a conflict between these relatives, peace is possible, due to their shared ancestry, history and culture. By extension, Muslims who share no ancestral connection to Abraham also feel related to the Jewish people because of their connection to the prophets of Israel.

Suskin: This shared ancestral connection, for me, speaks to my own sense of how Yom Kippur and Eid al-Adha connect. Commentaries link the sobbing sound of the shofar (the ram’s horn blown during the Jewish High Holy Days) to Sarah’s weeping when she heard that Abraham had taken Isaac up on the mountain to sacrifice him. Because the theme of Yom Kippur is repentance and forgiveness, this is a moment for us as Jews to take stock of the wrongs we do as a people. Hearing Sarah weep — and the echoes of Hagar’s weeping — should be a reminder to Jews of the terrible pain of a family torn asunder — pain that can only be healed by seeking reconciliation.

Younis: Yes. Our understanding is that God established us as two separate nations — each serving the same Creator. When Muslims turn to face the House of Abraham in Mecca it is in recognition of the covenant God made with Ishmael, and it does not denigrate the covenant God made with Israel. There are many people who make the claim that Islam is anti-Semitic. The truth is, the Quran lauds with great praise not only the prophets (of whom Moses is mentioned most often) but also their sincere followers (known in Islam as “ahl al Kitab” or the People of the Book). Perhaps the confusion comes from places where the Quran criticizes Jews, but that criticism is directed towards those who do not uphold the Torah. The Quran encourages the children of Israel to remain true to the law they received.

Suskin: And it is important to remind ourselves: The conflicts we see now are not religious conflicts, but political ones, and will need to be solved politically. These conflicts are not based in our religious traditions, both of which regard the relationship between Ishmael and Isaac with hope, and even love. The shared story of our two holidays can be a story of hope for peace between our peoples, in the Middle East and across the globe.

Younis:  Times of conflict notwithstanding, we, like you, await the coming of Messiah. When he comes, we are told, the conflicts we are now suffering will be resolved; there will be reconciliation and peace. Imagine the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael embracing with a full, hearty, loving embrace. That would be a fine reunion.

Rabbi Alana Suskin is director of strategic communications at Americans for Peace Now and a managing editor of Jewschool.com.

Imam Haytham Younis is an American Muslim of Syrian descent who studied Islam in Saudi Arabia and is an architect by profession.

YS/AMB END SUSKIN

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Haytham Younis

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  • Two relevant midrashic [rabbinic legends] insights from the Artscroll Rosh Hashanah Machzor [prayerbook]: (1) When God tells Abraham in Genesis 22:2 to “please take your son” to be sacrificed, Abraham told God that he had two sons. (2) One of the two “youths” that accompany Abraham and Isaac on the journey is Ishmael, who had come back for a visit. Ishmael is not completely absent from the Torah story.

  • This nightmare of a story (gave me nightmares as a child), mainly supports the view that the three major religions that have prevailed in the Western culture were/are a disaster (Anitole France) . Greek religion had developed into a philosophic attitude, and a playful comment on human passions and folly. The Abrahamic religions take themselves entirely too seriously, resulting in the Centuries old religious wars. Monotheism by its nature is arrogant and intolerant.
    Peace can only be acieved by men laughing at themselves and their own pretensions.
    “…But if cattle and horses and lions had hands
    or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do,
    horses like horses and cattle like cattle
    also would depict the gods’ shapes and make their bodies
    of such a sort as the form they themselves have.”

  • I wonder, as might a child wonder, why they don’t say to hell with their conflicts and differences, gratefully embrace each other as siblings and bring serious peace to the world.

  • It’s amazing that such a horrific story can be considered a good thing by any civilized person. A parent is asked to disembowl and butcher their child, and instead of refusing, as anyone with a bit of decency would do, they agree. Pure insanity. Look, we just had a similar situation wash up on the beach in Boston, and again, it’s due to religion (the murderer believed baby Bella was possessed by a demon). What kind of twisted belief would lead hundreds of millions of people to celebrate a horrific act like this? What kind of evil god would ask that of anyone, much less a parent? How can any sane person hold such hypocrisy in their mind – to celebrate these holidays (or even be a member of an Abrahamic faith), while somehow acting horrified at baby Bella’s fate?

  • GOD’S FIRST COMMANDMENT:

    “MAKE WAR FOREVER WITH YOUR NEIGHBORS”
    “1. I am making a covenant with you. “Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land” (EXODUS 34:15)

    JESUS agrees.
    “Did not Moses give you the law, and yet none of you keepeth the law” (John 7:19)

    We will never find peace by consulting religion.
    Peace will only be achieved by abandoning religions and agreeing to work together has human beings instead of submitting ourselves to divisive, tribalistic, primitive fictions.

  • It is not good to rewrite the Holy Scriptures to make them fit our own personal preferences. The son that was offered to God was ISAAC! This was God’s command. This was a foretelling of the Son that Abraham would eventualy conceive through his posterity through Sarah, that is Yeshua Ha Mashiach/Jesus Christ. In this story is the foreshadowing of the essence of our salvation. The core message of the Bible.. Now, God did NOT require the life of Abrahams only son (only promised son), but God did require the life of His only Son. Jesus/Yeshua gave His life in atonement for the sins of the rest of us. This is what is represented by this event. Abraham believed that God would raise his son back from the dead. God did not allow Isaac to be sacrificed. Yeshua was indeed sacrificed and became our sacrificial Lamb, who God then raised from the dead. Receive Him as Lord and Savior. Turn away from false teachings and understandings, turn away from sin. And follow the Lord. God bless

  • Mark,

    “It is not good to rewrite the Holy Scriptures to make them fit our own personal preferences.”

    HA! Are you talking about Jesus !!!???

    “Jesus found a young donkey and rode on it, to ensure his actions would happen as prophesied in scripture…” (John 12:14)

    If I order a steak at a restaurant and the waiter brings it to me
    he isn’t fulfilling scripture! He’s filling an order given to him!
    This stuff is for suckers.

  • The struggle, or should we call it dispute, in the middle east has nothing to do with Judaism or Islam. It is between Zionists ( who turned later to be ZioNazists ) and Palestinians who lived thousands of years (on this part of the middle east called Palestine ) in harmony whether they were Jews,Christians or Muslims until that time when Britain and Zionism got together. Britain promised to give the land it doesn’t posses to Zionists who don’t deserve it. It is a political dispute . Even Jews don’t approve establishing a Jewish state. The long lasting dispute,the occupation ,the daily oppression of the native Palestinians on their land that is being stolen to build settlement for strangers coming to live on land they don’t own. Racism and racial genocide , shooting to kill, administrative detention ,demolishing Plestinian’s homes and forcing them to move away from their villages,uprooting their olive trees or setting fire in their farms and plants. Killing Palestinian women and…

  • Hope and Peace? An ignorant or simply a delusional sentiment… from Ishmael came Mohammad which begat Islam which begat Sharia Law. Under Islam, the world has the choice of converting, paying the jizya, or getting one’s head chopped off.

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