Isaac and Ishmael were brothers

[Washington Window] Minarets were my steeples growing up, and the Adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, was my timekeeper.

In Saudi Arabia I awoke at Fajr, the pre-dawn call to prayer, and listened to its cadences merge with the call from nearby mosques – sometimes harmonious, sometimes discordant. At midday – Dhuhr – I heard it through the sounds of traffic, watched people stop to pray by the side of the road. I heard it in the afternoon, Asr, at sunset, Magrib, and at the end of the day, Isha.

When I later moved to Jerusalem, the call of the muezzin blended with the sounds of church bells and of the siren announcing Shabat, the start of the Jewish Sabbath.

These sounds, the sonic calling cards of the three monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – summoned the faithful to prayer and served as a reminder of the presence of God.

One God.

With a shared belief in one God, a common ancestor, Abraham – through his sons, Isaac and Ishmael – and intertwined narratives, these three faiths are members of the same spiritual family. This is what I learned in my Middle Eastern childhood; this is what I’ve tried to teach my son.

So imagine my surprise when I turned to the story of Abraham in the Children’s Bible his grandmother had given to him and read the story of Abraham and his “only son” Isaac.

No mention of Ishmael.

It’s not just Children’s Bibles that marginalize or ignore this story; the tale of Abraham’s second wife and first son. In our predominantly Judeo-Christian culture, there’s often a tendency to focus on the other side of the family – Sarah and Isaac, Abraham’s first wife and second son.

In our post-9/11 world, it’s more important than ever to understand how this family fits together; to acknowledge the legitimacy of both sons and to find in their story the seeds of reconciliation.

In the Jewish/Christian story, God promises Abraham descendents as numerous as the stars and Abraham’s wife, Sarah, who is barren, offers him Hagar, her Egyptian slave, as a concubine.

When Hagar becomes pregnant, the situation between the two women becomes intolerable. Hagar flees into the desert, where the angel of the Lord tells her to return, for she will give birth to a son, Ishmael, and he will father a great nation. God later tells Abraham that Sarah will give birth to a son, Isaac, with whom his covenant will be established.

After Sarah gives birth to Isaac, she banishes Hagar and Ishmael. They head for Egypt, and run out of water. As they are on the brink of death, God again speaks to Hagar, showing her a spring and telling her to take Ishmael by the hand, for he will father a great nation.

According to Islam, this encounter happened at Mecca, where later the prophet Mohammed, a descendant of Abraham through Ishmael, received the Koran as a divine revelation. The story of Hagar and Ishmael is reenacted each year during the hajj, the annual pilgrimage, when Muslims retrace the steps of Hagar’s frantic search for water for her son and drink from the spring revealed to her by God, known as the Zamzam well.

The Koran claims that Abraham later rebuilt the Kaaba – the holiest shrine in Islam, a building believed to have been originally constructed by Adam – near the site of the spring.

Five times a day, at the Adhan, faithful Muslims stop what they are doing and turn to face the Kaaba, Abraham’s house. In so doing they form a worldwide circle of religious unity, with the Kaaba as its center.

Signs of religious unity also exist in Judaism and Christianity – from symbols and traditions to the distinctive sounds of the call to prayer.

But what of unity among these three faiths of Abraham?

When the patriarch died at a ripe old age and was “gathered to his people,” his sons Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury him. (Genesis 25:7)

Death has a way of bringing families together; exposing our shared and sometimes complicated roots. Though their lives were set on an adversarial course, Isaac and Ishmael were brothers.

And as the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaches, we’d do well to remember that.

First appeared in Washington Window, Volume 80 , No. 5, September 2011 as

Isaac and Ishmael were brothers