After Abraham submitted to Sarah’s urging and sent away Hagar with her son Ishmael, the Torah provides only a few cursory details of Ishmael’s subsequent life and career.
One of the details that it chooses to mention is that “his mother took him a wife out of the land of Egypt.” This terse report might well provoke a few questions in the minds of readers who are accustomed to the laconic character of biblical narrative. This is especially true if one reads such texts through the lens of rabbinic midrash which often pays attention not only to what the words say, but also to what is omitted. Why, in particular, did mother Hagar have to be the one to seek a partner for Ishmael?
Evidently, some ancient readers reacted to the scriptural text by inferring that if Ishmael’s mother was finding him a wife now, he must previously have chosen a wife by himself, but the match did not pan out. If we accept that premise, then we can appreciate why Hagar then took on the task of finding a better mate for her son.
The necessary details were supplied in imaginative detail by the author of a “midrash” known as Pirḳei Rabbi Eliezer. According to that work, Ishmael initially sought a wife for himself, selecting for that purpose a lady from Moab. The Moabites, you might recall, were the inhospitable folk regarding whom the Israelites would later be commanded “they shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord... because they met you not with bread and with water in the way, when ye came forth out of Egypt.” And indeed, such was the ungenerous personality of Ishmael’s first spouse according to Pirḳei Rabbi Eliezer. When Abraham dropped in to visit his son—after assuring the resentful Sarah that he would not actually alight from his camel to set foot in his house—he arrived in the heat of the noonday sun, thirsty and famished from his travels; Ishmael was not home and the wife refused to feed him bread and water. Abraham left her a memo that she was to deliver to her husband on his return: an old man came to visit you from the land of Canaan, and he advised you to replace the threshold of your home. Ishmael understood the metaphoric hint and divorced the unworthy woman.
At this point it was time for Hagar to take matters into her own hands and find her son a more fitting partner. She chose a fellow Egyptian who was blessed with a more generous disposition than her predecessor. Later, when Abraham decided to pay another visit to his son, Daughter-in-Law #2 graciously offered him bread and water, which prompted the patriarch to invoke bountiful blessings upon their house.
And oh yes—we should note that Pirḳei Rabbi Eliezer’s account identifies Ishmael’s two wives by name: Aisha and Fatima. Both these names were shared with important personalities in the life of the prophet of Islam. Aisha was Muḥammad’s wife who supported him through his career and continued after her husband’s death to play a pivotal role in the establishment of the new religion. Fatimah was Muḥammad’s daughter and the wife of his cousin Ali who was later elected Caliph, the leader of the Muslim community.
Very similar tales about Ishmael’s wives were also current in the Islamic tradition. This raises some intriguing questions about the relationships between the Jewish and Muslim texts. The matter becomes more complicated when we take into account that the Muslims themselves held differing views regarding the relative merits of their Aisha and Fatima. The Sunnis were more favourably inclined toward Aisha who contributed to the consolidation of their institutions. Shi’ites for that very reason were suspicious of her, and bestowed their allegiance on Fatimah, wife of Ali whom they saw as the prophet’s legitimate successor and the progenitor of the subsequent Shi’ite Imams.
In light of this coincidence of names, there can be no doubt that the author of Pirḳe Rabbi Eliezer possessed some familiarity with Islamic traditions and that his version of the legend must stem from a relatively late date. It is not at all clear who is borrowing or adapting from whom, nor is it obvious what motives might underlie the respective traditions.
As outlined above, the Jewish version of the tale functions effectively as a filling-in of various gaps in the biblical narrative, and as a source of moral instruction regarding hospitality or the choosing of a virtuous wife. In the Muslim accounts the story took place in the vicinity of Mecca and both wives belonged to a local Arabian tribe, the Jarham. Hagar, who had died before these episodes, had no involvement in choosing these women. Most of the Muslim versions of the story present it as a kind of prelude to a central event in their sacred history, the founding of the Ka’aba in Mecca, their holiest shrine which the Qur’an ascribes to Abraham and Ishmael.
Interestingly, instead of speaking of bread and water, the proverbial biblical expressions of hospitality, as the refreshment that was offered or denied to Abraham, most of the Muslim versions refer to meat (the Arabic word for meat, laḥm is the same as the Hebrew word for bread). In fact, the authors stress that grain does not grow around Mecca, so it would be implausible to expect a host to offer bread to a guest.
Some of the Islamic legends also link this story to a well-known relic in Mecca known as “Abraham’s station,” a rock that is believed to bear the patriarch’s footprint. They tell how Abraham, bound by his pledge to Sarah not to step down from his camel when visiting Ishmael, asked his daughter-in-law to bring him a rock on which he could rest his foot while partaking of his meal. The legend has it that the imprint of his foot is miraculously still visible in the rock and can be viewed by pilgrims. In fact, the normative Muslim tradition traces the stone’s origin to a different episode, when Abraham stood on it in order to reach the upper levels during the construction of the Ka’aba, and the solid rock wondrously softened like clay beneath his feet.
Were it not for the names of the wives it probably would not have occurred to readers to connect the tale in Pirḳei Rabbi Eliezer to the religion of Islam. I would not be surprised if Aisha and Fatima were chosen simply because they were familiar “Ishmaelite"-sounding female names.
Nevertheless, scholars have tried to discern symptoms of interfaith polemics in those stories. For example, Ishmael’s failure to find himself a worthy mate was regarded as an implicit criticism; and any discrepancies between the versions can be (and has been) interpreted as an attempt to discredit the rival tradition.
All this seems to presuppose a stereotypical attitude of hostility between religions. This assumption, however, finds little support in the actual words of the stories, which seem more concerned with conveying their own narratives and values than in disparaging those of others.
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