Comparing Qur’anic and Biblical Depictions of Abraham
As many as 50 characters who appear in the Holy Bible also appear in the Holy Qur’an. This includes that of Abraham, Issac and Ismael as well. The Qur’an, having appeared seven centuries after the Holy Bible, believed by Muslims to be the more authoritative text. Consequently, there are many differences between the stories of these characters in the two texts, with followers and clerics divided on which account is the more truthful one. This paper will take up the historical character of Abraham (and his extended family) and identify how it is portrayed differently in the two religious scriptures in question. In particular, it will argue that the tone and moral stringency associated with the life of Abraham (and his family) comes across as less lenient in the Holy Bible when compared to that in Holy Qur’an.
There are similarities in the two accounts, in that messengers come to Abraham’s abode (on their way to destroying Sodom and Gomorrah) and promise him that by God’s mercy he and his wife will have a child. Upon hearing this, both Abraham and his wife Sarah are taken aback, for they think they are too old to have a child. In Genesis 18:12, Sarah notes “After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?”. Similarly, in Hud 11:17, translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, she says “Alas for me! Shall I bear a child, seeing I am an old woman, and my husband here is an old man? That would indeed be a wonderful thing!”. In both cases, angels answer back to her doubts and assure her that with God’s will she will soon be bearing a son.
Later in the Biblical narrative, God tries to test Abraham’s faithfulness toward him and orders him to sacrifice his son. Being the faithful follower that he is, Abraham does not hesitate before acting upon his orders. Satiated and impressed by Abraham’s faithfulness and devotion, God intervenes in the nick of time and asks him to stop the sacrifice of his son and instead offers a substitute sacrifice. But while the outline of this story is the same in the two holy texts, they also carry crucial differences. Firstly, in the Genesis, there is no ambiguity as to which of Abraham’s two sons God is referring to. It is quite clear that the person intended for sacrifice is Isaac. In the Holy Qur’an, on the other hand, there is no explicit mention of either son’s name, but there are strong hints that it is Ishmael. Qur’an also has it that this event happened previous to the birth of Isaac. In the Genesis, God communicates with Abraham directly, whereas in the Qur’an, he appears as a vision. In the Holy Qur’an, Abraham is stated to have told his son that he will be sacrificed. In the Bible, on the other hand, Abraham doesn’t explicitly mention this, but instead tells that “God will provide the sacrifice”. But what strengthens the thesis, (namely that the tone and moral dogma in the narrative of the life of Abraham is softer in the Qur’an than in the Bible) is the following interpretation of the Qur’anic narrative.
“Quran teaches us that God never advocates evil. See 7:28 and 16:90. It is Satan who advocates evil and vice (24:21). For a father to slaughter his son, is an evil act that cannot and is not from God. It can only come from Satan. The Quran never said that God told Abraham to kill (sacrifice) his son. Instead, the Quran teaches us that Abraham had a dream in which he saw himself slaughtering his son. Abraham believed the dream and thought that the dream was from God (The Quran never said the dream was from God). The choice of the wording in the Quran is crucial. No word was chosen by accident or out of control. Every word and expression was deliberately chosen by God.” (www.submission.org, 2011)
In the Holy Qur’an, consistent the the leniency thesis of this essay, Isaac is assigned the status of an Imam – someone who has mystical powers. Supporting evidence for the thesis can also be found in the divergent accounts of Abraham’s relation to his nephew Lot. For example, the Bible says that Lot is a homosexual and that his eccentric indulgences in Sodom and Gomorrah are condemnable acts. In the Qur’an on the other hand, Lot is described as a prophet of the same pedigree as his illustrious uncle Abraham. On the other hand, Bible does not deem him to be of that stature, as he was tormented perpetually by the improper sexual acts he witnessed in Sodom. The evidence for this could be gathered from Genesis (19:1-29).
Although, the two accounts do converge in that they state that Abraham prayed and pleaded to God to have mercy on his nephew, the similarities end there. For example, in the Bible, God promises to spare Sodom of its impending destruction, if only ten men of proper conduct could be found there. Upon failing to find these ten men, God goes on to initiate a spell of fiery rain of stones upon the cursed city. In the Qur’annic account, God orders Abraham to not plead for his nephew’s case, as events were already pre-ordained. The fate of Lot’s wife is told differently in the two Holy books. Passage 19:26 of the Genesis has it that upon disobeying God’s orders to not turn around to see the city’s destruction, Lot’s wife will be turned into a pillar of salt. On the other hand, this fate was anticipated by Lot, as he was informed by angels of the same prior to the event. Consistent with the thesis argued in this essay, the Bible says that an incestous relationship between Lot and his two daughters transpired after the loss of his wife. Passage (19:30-38) of Genesis depicts this event, whereby his two daughters lie beside their father so as to get impregnated by him and carry his seed. In the Qur’an, on the other hand, this occurance is conspicuous by its absence, underscoring the thesis that it underplays sexual digressions and deviations compared to the Holy Bible.
God Never Ordered Abraham to Sacrifice his Son, Islamic Scholarly Article, retrieved from
‘Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali. The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an. Amana Press 1991 (1st ed. 1946).
Robert Alter. The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary. W.W. Norton & Co., 2004.
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