No one can underestimate the importance of Abraham to the three great monotheistic faiths of the world, but unlike Jews and Christians, Muslims claim their identity with Abraham through Hagar and Ishmael rather than through Sarah and Isaac. Muhammad sought to give legitimacy to Islam by identifying with Abraham and his other son, Ishmael. And this is the root of the alienation that exists between Christians and Muslims, both of whom claim to be the heirs of Abraham.
(Hagar is not mentioned by name in the Quran. But the Hadith, that is, the Traditions, correctly name her as the mother of Ishmael. In the pilgrim rites at Mecca, all Muslims re-enact Hagar's desperate search for water as they run between the hills of Safa and Marwa. The search is climaxed as they reach the well of Zamzam where they drink in memory of God's mercy to Hagar.) Ishmael is mentioned several times in the Quran and is powerfully memorialized in the rites connected with the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.
Taking a few steps back into the Bible and the story of Abraham, Isaac, Sara and Ishmael we know that Ishmael was the first-born. Its too long a story to go into, but the crux of the story was when Sara got pregnant Ishmael made fun of his little half-brother. That was too much for Sarah. She made an irrevocable decision: ". . . Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac" Hagar and Ishmael were provisioned and dismissed from service. Who can gage the depth of bitterness and resentment that must have filled the hearts of Hagar and Ishmael?
The source of the Lord's prophetic utterance (“He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone's hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers” (Gen. 16:12).) concerning the behavior of Ishmael is rooted in these events.
Is there any linkage between the characteristics of Ishmael and that of Islam, which has embraced him as one of their patriarchs? As strange as it may seem, there may be. History seems to bear this out.
Hostility can either focus either inwardly, causing psychosomatically induced illnesses or suicidal tendencies, or it will project itself outward on some designated hate object. It can be triggered to commit acts of violence, either against a person (homicide) or against a people (genocide or war).
Ishmael's hostility and propensity to violence were rooted in the sin of his own scoffing and jealous attitude towards his brother Isaac. Muslims today are those in whom this vicious cycle has not been broken. They have voluntarily chosen to identify with Ishmael and have, consciously or unconsciously, embraced the spirit of that ancient and bitter rivalry. The present-day animosity of Islam towards Jews and Christians, in this author's opinion, can be traced to the Islamic embrace of the spirit of Ishmael.
Ishmael was to be strong, wild and free; and we might add, he also would be difficult, holding his brothers in contempt, despising town life, loving his freedom to the point of not being able to get along with his own kin or anyone else. As one commentary puts it: "The Ishmaelites live in an incessant state of feud . . . with one another or with their neighbours.
Unfortunately, from Ishmael's line sprung a man, Muhammad (570-632), who initially founded Islam as a religion for the Arab people. Later he tried to universalize it and impose it on all mankind. In Islam, Jesus is reduced to a mere prophet; and by making himself equal to Jesus and ultimately superior to Him, Muhammad perpetuated the spirit of rivalry, not reconciliation. The roots of this present-day alienation go back to the tragedy of events that led to the breakup of Abraham's family. Islam became the venue for the aggrieved and alienated members of this family to redress the shame of that early expulsion from the tents of Abraham. Even more than that, Islam is committed to the attempt to dominate the world.
Muhammad was a true descendant of Ishmael. While trying desperately to tie into the genealogical tree of Biblical prophets, he fiercely maintained his independence as an "Arab prophet" with an "Arabic Qu’ran. He stoutly maintained that he was neither of the Jews nor the Christians but of the "Religion of Abraham". In taking this position, Muhammad, attempting to establish his own identity as a legitimate prophet, borrowed from the traditions of each, as well as separated himself from both. The final voice of God to the human race.
At first, Muhammad attempted to woo both Jews and Christians. When he was unsuccessful, as neither would subscribe to the idea of a pagan God, he not only turned away from them, but in the case of the Jews, after dispossessing two of the tribes, he banished them, and massacred all the men of a third tribe and made slaves of the women and children. In the case of the Christians, he also reduced them to second-class citizens (Dhimmis) and attempted to destroy the very heart of the Christian message. Having made himself odious to both Jews and Christians, Muhammad then took the step of enshrining violence forever among his followers by sanctifying vengeance (Q. 42:39) and fighting (Q. 2:216; 4:74; 9:5; 61:4). (There are more than fifty separate references in the Quran on the duties and conditions of Holy War).
In some mysterious way, it appears that the characteristics of Ishmael, as described in Genesis 16:12, have survived to this day in the lives of those who have so closely identified with him through the life of Muhammad and his teachings in the religion of Islam.
As much as we would like to see Judaism, Christianity and Islam as branches of one big happy "family of Abraham," it cannot be. The stumbling block is Jesus Christ, the "seed of Abraham." The issue between Islam and Christianity has to do with the way Muslims have departed from the Scriptures and denigrated Christ. In fact, they have gone far beyond doctrinal differences; they have set up a rival religion that seeks to supplant Christianity. Islam has taken an adamant stance against the very heart of the Gospel message, including denial of the deity of Christ, incarnation, atonement, the crucifixion and the question of God as Father, Son and Spirit.