Qur'an and Torah on Abraham's Ten Trials


There is an old Jewish proverb, written down in the second century that says “Abraham was tried by ten trials and withstood them all. This shows how beloved Abraham was by God.” (Mishnah Avot 5:3) Now, in this post election time of anxiety, Muslims and Jews especially need the inspiration of Abraham's faith and fortitude. 

Moses Maimonides, a leading twelfth century Egyptian Rabbi, explains the ten trials in his commentary to Mishnah Avot as follows:

The first was being made a migrant, when God said to him “Get yourself out of your land etc.” (Genesis 12:1-5) Leaving one’s own birthplace for a distant land is always a difficult process and the reception is frequently hostile.

The second was the 'famine in the land' of Canaan once he arrived there. (12:10) This was the place in which God's promise would be fulfilled “I will make you a great nation” (12:2) but that would not happen in a land of starvation. That is the sense of “There was a famine in the land.” 

The third trial was when Sarah was seized and taken into the Pharaoh's harem. (Genesis 12:14-15) Because of Sarah’s great virtue and her lofty prophetic abilities she was freed; but Abraham was deeply pained all the time Sarah was in the Pharaoh’s clutches.

The fourth: Abraham's battle with the four kings (Genesis 14:5-15) Even a successful war is traumatic to a good religious soul. 

The fifth was taking Hagar the Egyptian as a wife after he despaired of having a child with Sarah. (16:1-4). 

The sixth trial was the circumcision God commanded him to do at a very advanced age. “Abraham was 99 years old when he circumcised the flesh of his foreskin and his son Ishmael was 13 years old when he was circumcised. (Genesis 17:24) Abraham felt the pain that Ishmael suffered even more than he did his own pain because Ishmael showed his submission to God’s will with great devotion. Ishmael’s dedication is related to Muslims in the Qur’an.

The seventh: the violence of the King of Gerar against Abraham and Sarah by taking Sarah away (20:2). The second trauma of separation from a beloved wife is even more painful than the first. 

The eighth: the banishing of Hagar the Egyptian. Hagar had given Abraham a child. (21:9-21) 

The ninth trial was experiencing distance from his son Ishmael. God may have said to him, “Do not be distressed over the boy” (Gen. 21:12), but Scripture had already informed us how hard it was for him to do this: “This matter distressed Abraham greatly” (21:11). Nevertheless, Abraham kept God’s command and banished the two of them. 

Hajar/Hagar and her son Ishmael traveled south from Israel and settled in an arid place near the ruins of an ancient temple. Abraham prayed for them, "I have settled some of my family in a barren valley near your Sacred House..." (Qur'an 14: 37)

This resulted in a blessing for the descendants of Ishmael who, in later years, helped his father reconstruct the ruins of this ancient temple of God, the Ka’ba, in Makka. (Qur'an  2:125-127, 14:35-37, 22:26) 

A Hadith in Bukhari describes it thus: Abraham brought Ishmael’s mother and her son Ishmael while she was suckling him, to a place near the Ka’ba under a tree on the spot of Zam-zam, at the highest place in the mosque. 

During those days there was nobody in Makka, nor was there any water. So he made them sit over there and placed near them a leather bag containing some dates, and a small water-skin containing some water, and set out homeward. 

Ishmael’s mother followed him saying, “O Abraham! Where are you going, leaving us in this valley where there is no person whose company we may enjoy, nor is there anything (to enjoy)?” She repeated that to him many times, but he did not look back at her. 

Then she asked him, “Has God ordered you to do so?” He said, “Yes.” She said, “Then God will not neglect us,” and returned while Abraham proceeded onwards. On reaching Thaniya where they could not see him, Abraham faced the Ka’ba, and raising both hands, invoked God with the following prayer: 

“O our Lord! I have made some of my offspring dwell in a valley without cultivation, by Your Sacred House (Kaba at Mecca) in order, O our Lord, that they may offer prayer perfectly. Fill the hearts of people with love towards them, and provide them with fruits, so that they may give thanks” (Qur'an 14:37). 

Ishmael's mother went on suckling Ishmael and drinking from the water (she had).” (Bukhari Volume 4, Book 55, Number 583) 

The tenth and final trial was the binding of Isaac and the terrible discovery that while Abraham and Isaac were away, Sarah had died. Not being at Sarah’s side when she died caused Abraham anguish for the rest of his life.


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