The Legitimacy of Ishma’el as Abraham’s Heir

Was Ishma’el the illegitimate son of Abraham or was Jesus the illegitimate son?

by Ibn Anwar

This is a particularly teasing problem for Jews and Christians. They uphold that the true heir of Abraham was Isaac and for Christians that proposition bears an even greater significance as they trace the lineage of Jesus through Isaac in order to make legitimate their claim that Jesus is the true heir of Abraham and the fulfillment of God’s promise in Genesis 17. The only problem with that is the fact that Isaac was not the firstborn of Abraham. Rather, it was another son named Ishmael who was Abraham’s firstborn. And it is understood in Judaism and recognised in Christianity that a double portion of a father’s inheritance is given to his firstborn. The firstborn is typically designated the heir to the father’s household. This understanding is stipulated in Deuteronomy 21:17. The significance of Ishma’el’s status as the firstborn of Abraham is confirmed in the Deuteronomic passage:

“Suppose a man has two wives, but he loves one and not the other, and both have given him sons. And suppose the firstborn son is the son of the wife he does not love. When the man divides his inheritance, he may not give the larger inheritance to his younger son, the son of the wife he loves, as if he were the firstborn son.He must recognize the rights of his oldest son, the son of the wife he does not love, by giving him a double portion. He is the first son of his father’s virility, and the rights of the firstborn belong to him.” (Deuteronomy 21:15-17)

Commenting on the passage, the Stone Edition of the Chumash describes the right of the firstborn as “inviolable” even if the produce comes from the spouse that is disliked or hated:

“15-17. The firstborn’s inviolable right. The Torah teaches that a firstborn son may not be deprived of his rightful share in his father’s inheritance. By implication, this passage shows that parents must beware not to permit rights and relationships to be disrupted by the rivalries and even animosities that are not uncommon in family life.
Or HaChaim infers from the last phrase of verse 15 that the firstborn son will be born to the hated wife. This, he comments, is an instance of God’s compassion, for when he sees the plight of the neglected wife, He will give her the first offspring, just as Leah had children before her more favored sister Rachel. God supports the brokenhearted.” [1]

Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel says concerning Deuteronomy 21:15:

““All firsts are beloved by G‑d.” Just as there is the mitzvah that the first fruits are brought as an offering to G‑d (bikkurim), as is the first of the flock (bechor beheimah), so does G‑d have a special love for the firstborns, and they are given a double portion.” [2]

So how is it that Isaac is regarded as the rightful heir to Abraham when he was not even the firstborn? The traditional Jewish or Christian way of wriggling out of this particular conundrum is by accusing Ishmael of being the illegitimate son of Abraham while designating Isaac as his one and only legitimate son. The argument behind this accusation lies in the fact that Abraham’s first wife was Sarah while the mother of Ishma’el, Abraham’s second wife, was a bondwoman. Christians argue that Hagar was not even Abraham’s wife but was, in fact, just his mistress or concubine. Firstly, nowhere does the Bible designate Ishma’el the illegitimate son of Abraham. Rather, in the Biblical perspective, Ishma’el was rightly the son of Abraham. The Bible explicitly repudiates the claim that Hagar was not the legitimate wife of Abraham in Genesis 16:3 where it specifically says that Hagar was given to Abraham to be his ‘wife’. The following are several major translations of the Bible in which Genesis 16:3 clearly defines Hagar as Abraham’s wife:

New American Standard Bible
After Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Abram’s wife Sarai took Hagar the Egyptian, her maid, and gave her to her husband Abram as his wife.

King James Bible
And Sarai Abram’s wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife.

American King James Version
And Sarai Abram’s wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian, after Abram had dwelled ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife.

American Standard Version
And Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her handmaid, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to Abram her husband to be his wife.

Douay-Rheims Bible
She took Agar the Egyptian her handmaid, ten years after they first dwelt in the land of Chanaan, and gave her to her husband to wife.

Darby Bible Translation
And Sarai Abram’s wife took Hagar, the Egyptian, her maidservant, at the end of ten years that Abram had dwelt in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abram, as his wife.

English Revised Version
And Sarai Abram’s wife took Hagar the Egyptian, her handmaid, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to Abram her husband to be his wife.

Webster’s Bible Translation
And Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar her maid, the Egyptian, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife.

World English Bible
Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her handmaid, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to Abram her husband to be his wife.

Young’s Literal Translation
And Sarai, Abram’s wife, taketh Hagar the Egyptian, her handmaid, at the end of the tenth year of Abram’s dwelling in the land of Canaan, and giveth her to Abram her husband, to him for a wife,

But how do we square the above with Genesis 22:2 which says that Isaac is the את־בנך את־יחידך (only son) of Abraham? This text must be treated with caution because at no point in time was Isaac ever the “only son” of Abraham. As we know by now, Isaac was the second son of Abraham while Ishma’el was the legitimate first son of Abraham, the elder brother of Isaac. Only Ishma’el could have been described as the “only son” of Abraham as he was, in fact, for several years before the birth of Isaac, the only son of Abraham. The description given to Isaac in Genesis 22:2 as the one “whom you (Abraham) love” is completely irrelevant in light of Deuteronomy 21:15-17. As we have demonstrated earlier, even if the offspring, that is literally the firstborn, is produced by the less favoured (or even hated) spouse, that is no justified cause to deny the son his right as firstborn and heir to the father.

The key clue to Ishma’el’s rightful claim as Abraham’s legitimate firstborn and heir to his household is in the name ‘Ishma’el’! The name ‘Ishma’el’ in Hebrew means ‘God heard’ or ‘God answered’. What exactly did God answer in the person of Ishma’el? Genesis 15:2-3 informs us that Abraham was petitioning God for an heir and complaining to God that should he not have his own offspring to inherit, then Elie’zer of Damascus would be his heir:

“But Abram replied, “O Lord GOD, what can You give me, since I remain childless, and the heir of my house is Elie’zer of Damascus?” Abram continued, “Behold, You have given me no offspring, so a servant in my household will be my heir.”

In answer to Abraham’s fear that he would not be able to pass on his heritage to his own flesh and blood offspring, God assures him that he would, in fact, be given his own flesh and blood who will inherit from him and become his heir:

“Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.”” (Genesis 15:4)

God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 15:4 would make little sense if it is proposed that God did give him a son right after that promise in the person of Ishma’el but skips him as the son that was meant in the promise and looks on to the second son, Isaac, instead. Indeed, almost immediately after God made that promise to Abraham to give him his own son that he may be made his rightful heir, Ishma’el comes into the scene in the very next chapter:

“And the angel of the Lord said to her (Hagar), ‘Behold, you are with child, and shall bear a son; you shall call his name Ishma’el;” (Genesis 16:11)

From Genesis 16:11, a few things should be noted: the birth of Ishma’el, Abraham’s firstborn son, was so important that it had to be declared by the archangel Gabriel onto Hagar just as the birth of Jesus, important as it was, had to be declared by the same angel onto Mary, Jesus’ mother. As the birth of Ishma’el was announced by the archangel Gabriel, it must therefore be seen as a divine revelation. With that in mind, how can any sound mind disdain Ishma’el’s birth and uncouthly relegate it to the realm of the illegitimate? God takes the trouble to dispatch the archangel Gabriel to righteously declare the birth of an illegitimate son? And not only was Ishma’el’s birth announced by the archangel that was directly sent by God to do just that, the child’s very name was divinely revealed and chosen to be that of “Ishma’el.” A person has to suffer some serious eyesight malfunction to not see the connection between the divinely ordained name “Ishma’el” and the petition and complaint made by Abraham to God in Genesis 15:2-3. Ishma’el, whose name means ‘God heard,’ is without a doubt the answer that God gave Abraham, an answer that He promised to fulfill as we saw in Genesis 15:4. The fact of the matter becomes even clearer when one brings together Genesis 15:5 with Genesis 16:10. In sealing the promise to Abraham to award him with his own flesh and blood to become his heir, God said:

“He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars–if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” (Genesis 15:5)

And the unmistakable connection is seen in Genesis 16:10 where Gabriel reiterates God’s words in Genesis 15:5 to Hagar regarding her son, Abraham’s firstborn:

“The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”

But let us agree for a moment, just for the sake of argument, that Ishma’el was indeed a son out of wedlock– illegitimate and therefore unfitting heir to Abraham. If that were the case, then Christians must now submit to the illegitimacy of Jesus and abandon Christianity altogether. According to Matthew 1:3, Jesus is the direct descendant of illegitimate ancestors through Perez who was conceived out of wedlock through the incestrous consummation of Judah and Tamar, a highly licentious story that we read in Genesis 38. Since the lineage of Jesus according to Matthew is marred by illegitimacy, Jesus must therefore be discarded as the rightful heir to God and to Abraham and his alleged Davidic messiahship is cancelled due to David’s own illegitimate lineage back to Judah and Tamar. The biblical Jesus’ illegitimacy becomes even more evident in light of Deuteronomy 23:2:

“A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the Lord.” (Apologies for the word ‘bastard,’ but this is exactly the word used in the King James Bible for the Hebrew ממזר in the Deuteronomy text)

No, in Islam we do not identify Jesus as illegitimate in any shape or form just as we do not do so with either Ishma’el or Isaac. All the prophets of God are legitimate in their own right. But if the Christian argumentation in disclaiming Ishma’el as heir to Abraham’s throne bears any merit, then in logical implication, Jesus, coming from such a horrendously salacious lineage as per Matthean testimony in Matthew 1:3, should equally be discarded as a legitimate heir to the Abrahamic throne.

In their careless attempts to delegitimise Ishma’el as true heir to Abraham, Christians (and Jews) have inadvertently delegetimised Jesus as true heir to both Abraham and David.



One of the common objections Christians raise against the use of Deuteronomy 25:15-17, in which the significance of the firstborn is stipulated, is that the law was revealed centuries after the lives of Abraham and his two sons, therefore, in their thinking, the law regarding the firstborn is not applicable in the case of Ishma’el. If this contention bore any merit, then Christians must believe that their god is a fickle being who makes up contradictory laws and regulations at whim. Why would God institute a law of such importance as that of the birthright of the firstborn if He did not maintain that prior to its written institution in the written Torah? Are we to understand that just because the Torah was not yet written at a given point in time, those without recourse to that written Torah were free to commit transgressions against important edicts that were later enacted in the written Torah? Was Abraham free to commit all those things prohibited in the ten commandments because the Torah was not yet written in his time? If we were to follow the Christian apologists’ line of argumentation above, then we have no choice but to placate that Abraham was free to make idols, to lie, to commit adultery and to commit every other act of transgression against the precepts of the ten commandments. As a matter of fact, upon carefully reading the Torah, we must all agree that the normative value with regards to the treatment afforded to the firstborn was that he held the primary importance as heir to his father. The Torah teaches that the firstborn’s birthright is that of the father’s heir. This is seen no clearer than in the story of Jacob and his elder brother Esau, the firstborn of Isaac. This instructive story is found in Genesis 27 and if it happened, then it did so before the writing of the Torah. In the story, Jacob, who is the second son, at the behest of his mother, goes to great lengths to commit theft against both Isaac, his father, and Esau, his elder brother, who was Isaac’s firstborn. The theft was for the birthright of Esau as the firstborn. Although as Muslims, we cannot possibly agree with such an obscene caricature of the prophets of God (Jacob being one of God’s prophets in Islam), the story, nonetheless, serves as a great illustration as to the undeniable real significance and importance placed on the firstborn as heir to his father’s throne or household. In light of that biblical narrative, we must concur that the Deuteronomic law found in Deuteronomy 25:15-17 was simply a reflection of what was already an established norm in the “Torah-less” Abrahamic community. The Deuteronomic law is therefore fully applicable in the case of Ishma’el and Isaac and therefore, to deny Ishma’el special birthright as the firstborn of Abraham, which was undoubtedly God’s own divine plan, is to deny God’s decision and oppose Him. Let us not be of those that oppose God. Let us be of the Muslims, those that say, “we hear and we obey.”


[1] Scherman, N. (2000). The Chumash: The Torah, Haftaros and Five Megillos with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings. New York: Mesorah Publications, Ltd. p. 1047

[2] Shurpin, Y. (n.d.). Why (and How) Does the Firstborn Get a Double Inheritance?. Retrieved from

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6 Responses to “The Legitimacy of Ishma’el as Abraham’s Heir”

  1. Matt says:

    the firstborn of the cleaning lady does have favor with God. However, God has chosen the 90 year old women to give birth to the Righteous son (Quran 37:112). Genesis says Ishmael grew up, got married and left the home of Abraham. Genesis 22:1-2 Isaac grew up and he was the One & ONLY son at home choosen by God to be the intended sacrifice. Ishmael never was the intended sacrifice!!!

  2. Elizabeth says:

    The Law of the Torah was given almost 400 years after Ismael birth, and by no way it applies to Ismael. God do not contradict HIMSELF.

    The proof is that God allowed Ishmael to be expelled from Abraham house and did not have any inheritance, but Ismael got blessings from God.

    9But Sarah saw Ishmael—the son of Abraham and her Egyptian servant Hagar—making fun of her son, Isaac.b 10So she turned to Abraham and demanded, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son. He is not going to share the inheritance with my son, Isaac. I won’t have it!”

    11This upset Abraham very much because Ishmael was his son. 12But God told Abraham, “Do not be upset over the boy and your servant. Do whatever Sarah tells you, for Isaac is the son through whom your descendants will be counted. 13But I will also make a nation of the descendants of Hagar’s son because he is your son, too.”

    Isaac, got all the promises, the blessings and the inheritances from God:

    Genesis 25:5Abraham gave everything he owned to his son Isaac. 6But before he died, he gave gifts to the sons of his concubines and sent them off to a land in the east, away from Isaac.

    No, this reasoning is wrong. We cannot apply the TORAH to the case of Ismael, because the LAW was not yet delivered. This is the reason, Abraham married his half sister.

    1-Under the Torah, Abraham was obligated to provide inheritance to Ismael. But there was no TORAH.

    2-Same for Judah and his children out of wedlock with his former daughter in law. There was not Torah. No transgression.

    Romans 4:15 ********And where there is no law there is no transgression.*****
    Amen to that.

    • Ibn Anwar says:

      Your reply assumes the authenticity of the standard Mesoretic Torah text which is really quite a stretch in light of Jeremiah 8:8. Please refer to my article Of course, if Muslims treated the Torah as an authentic document divinely-ordained in its complete form, articles like this would not be authored. We would simply side with Jews and Christians that it was Isaac that was the chosen one. But because we believe and we know, backed by scholarly findings, that the Torah is replete with corruption and alteration, we critically assess the content and come with views that may not agree with yours. Yes, it is true that the Torah was not yet written during the times of those mentioned in the Torah but surely you are not suggesting that Abraham was allowed to commit all those forbidden in the ten commandments just because the ten commandments had yet to be revealed. As Arbabanel says, “All firsts are beloved by G‑d.” Just as there is the mitzvah that the first fruits are brought as an offering to G‑d (bikkurim), as is the first of the flock (bechor beheimah), so does G‑d have a special love for the firstborns, and they are given a double portion.”

      The Deuteronomic law that stipulates the importance of the firstborn was very much present even before the writing of the Torah. If you are at all familiar with the Torah, then you cannot deny the evident importance typically afforded to the firstborn. The primacy of the firstborn is undeniable in the stories contained within the Torah of those that lived before the Torah became a collection of five books written down. Take for example the infamous biblical theft of Jacob. Jacob had to go through all kinds of antics just so that he could steal the birthright of the firstborn, his elder brother, Esau. That story demonstrates just how important it was that the firstborn be given his birthright, i.e., as the primary heir to his father.

    • Syed Ahmed says:

      The whole comment just wasnt required given you made a statement that undermine your point. God doesn’t contradict himself. Ergo if this was what God intended why will God contradict himself by sending a Torah that will see the act of taking birthright as wrong??
      And also God blesses Ishmael. The announcing of the name of Ishmael to his mother is the first account of angels visit to a human in the Tanach. The name of God hears/heard is an explicit verbal recognition of Gods blessing.
      In any case, If we are to take God stipulated the rules in Torah about marriage and other things which Abraham didn’t have then clearly Ishmael isn’t illegitimate either. As no law that can be traced in Genisis eg the famous noachide law and others that can be derived from Genesis say Ismael is illegitimate. Nothing prohibits a second marriage in Abrahams time not even to a concubine or wife’s handmaid or what have you.

      Also according to an interesting belief christianity the scepter is the covenant that Israel has and Shiloh is Messiah. As the messiah ie Jesus came the scepter has departed from Judah. Hardly is it exclusive to Israel anymore.
      Genesis 49:10 The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.

    • Ibn Anwar says:

      Elizabeth, I have just added an addendum to the article in answer to your concerns. I hope it helps you understand the issue better.

  3. john says:

    when christians say ,

    “The Law of the Torah was given almost 400 years after Ismael birth”

    but hold on, doesn’t the SOURCE which writes the abrahamic story already aware of the torah law? notice how instead of using the name “yhwh,” the source has an ANGEL inform abraham , could this have something to do with the following verse:

    Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain


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