The auspicious occassion of Eid al-Qurban (the Islamic festival of sacrifice) has just passed us this year. Every year we Muslims commemorate the sacrifice of our patriarch Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him). Islam is all about the spirit of sacrifice and dedication to Allah Most Holy and Exalted. Regrettably, the vast majority of Muslims today do not deeply reflect on the purpose of this commemoration and the philosophy of sacrifice that is so intrinsic to our Faith.
Due to this woeful negligence, the overwhelming majority of Muslims believe that the Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him) saw his son Ishmael (peace be upon him) in the vision and had prepared to sacrifice him. They are under the impression that this is the explicit Islamic position, and that the Torah or Hebrew Bible, which states that it was Isaac and not Ishmael, has been distorted by the Jewish rabbis and scribes. But nothing could be further from the truth!
The fact of the matter is that the Holy Quran does not explicitly state which of the two sons of Abraham was shown in the vision and prepared to be sacrificed for the sake of Allah. This belief has been passed down and inherited by Muslims generation to generation on the basis of Arab tradition, magnified by recent trends of pan-Arab nationalism and malice towards “Zionism”. There are also a few weak Hadith and narrations that are the basis for this claim.
However, based on my own research of the evidence, I come to the conclusion that the son who was to be sacrificed was Prophet Isaac (peace be upon him). First consider the fact that the very birth of Prophet Isaac was miraculous, as stated by the Holy Quran:
فَأَوْجَسَ مِنْهُمْ خِيفَةً قَالُوا لَا تَخَفْ وَبَشَّرُوهُ بِغُلَامٍ عَلِيمٍ ﴿٢٨﴾ فَأَقْبَلَتِ امْرَأَتُهُ فِي صَرَّةٍ فَصَكَّتْ وَجْهَهَا وَقَالَتْ عَجُوزٌ عَقِيمٌ ﴿٢٩﴾ قَالُوا كَذَٰلِكِ قَالَ رَبُّكِ إِنَّهُ هُوَ الْحَكِيمُ الْعَلِيمُ ﴿٣٠﴾
And he felt from them apprehension. They said, "Fear not," and gave him good tidings of a learned boy. (28) And his wife approached with a cry [of alarm] and struck her face and said, "[I am] a barren old woman!" (29) They said, "Thus has said your Lord; indeed, He is the Wise, the Knowing." (Surah 51:28-30)
وَامْرَأَتُهُ قَائِمَةٌ فَضَحِكَتْ فَبَشَّرْنَاهَا بِإِسْحَاقَ وَمِن وَرَاءِ إِسْحَاقَ يَعْقُوبَ ﴿٧١﴾ الَتْ يَا وَيْلَتَىٰ أَأَلِدُ وَأَنَا عَجُوزٌ وَهَـٰذَا بَعْلِي شَيْخًا إِنَّ هَـٰذَا لَشَيْءٌ عَجِيبٌ ﴿٧٢﴾ قَالُوا أَتَعْجَبِينَ مِنْ أَمْرِ اللَّـهِ رَحْمَتُ اللَّـهِ وَبَرَكَاتُهُ عَلَيْكُمْ أَهْلَ الْبَيْتِ إِنَّهُ حَمِيدٌ مَّجِيدٌ ﴿٧٣﴾
And his Wife was standing, and she smiled. Then We gave her good tidings of Isaac and after Isaac, Jacob. (71) She said, "Woe to me! Shall I give birth while I am an old woman and this, my husband, is an old man? Indeed, this is an amazing thing!" (72) They said, "Are you amazed at the decree of Allah? May the mercy of Allah and His blessings be upon you, people of the house. Indeed, He is Praiseworthy and Honorable." (Surah 11:71-73)
So the miraculous birth of Prophet Isaac (peace be upon him) when his parents, particularly his mother Sarah (peace be upon her) was well beyond the age of giving birth, demands special consideration. It is from human nature to cherish and love that which one has been granted in extraordinary circumstances. To be instructed to sacrifice Prophet Isaac would truly be the greater sacrifice since, unlike Prophet Ishmael, the former's birth was extraordinary and miraculous.
Now let us examine the evidence of the opposing side. Their strongest explicit evidence is the Hadith of Mu'awiya b. Abi Sufyan as reported in the Mustadrak of Imam al-Hakim:
ثنا عَبْدُ اللَّهِ بْنُ سَعِيدٍ الصُّنَابِحِيُّ ، قَالَ : حَضَرْنَا مَجْلِسَ مُعَاوِيَةَ بْنِ أَبِي سُفْيَانَ فَتَذَاكَرَ الْقَوْمُ إِسْمَاعِيلَ وَإِسْحَاقَ بْنَ إِبْرَاهِيمَ ، فَقَالَ بَعْضُهُمُ : الذَّبِيحُ إِسْمَاعِيلُ ، وَقَالَ بَعْضُهُمْ : بَلْ إِسْحَاقُ الذَّبِيحُ ، فَقَالَ مُعَاوِيَةُ : سَقَطْتُمْ عَلَى الْخَبِيرِ ، كُنَّا عِنْدَ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَآلِهِ وَسَلَّمَ ، فَأَتَاهُ الأَعْرَابِيُّ ، فَقَالَ : " يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ ، خَلَّفْتُ الْبِلادَ يَابِسَةً وَالْمَاءَ يَابِسًا هَلَكَ الْمَالُ وَضَاعَ الْعِيَالُ ، فَعُدْ عَلَيَّ بِمَا أَفَاءَ اللَّهُ عَلَيْكَ يَا ابْنَ الذَّبِيحَيْنِ ، فَتَبَسَّمَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَآلِهِ وَسَلَّمَ وَلَمْ يُنْكِرْ عَلَيْهِ " ، فَقُلْنَا : يَا أَمِيرَ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ ، وَمَا الذِّبِيحَانِ ؟ قَالَ : إِنَّ عَبْدَ الْمُطَّلِبِ لَمَّا أَمَرَ بِحَفْرِ زَمْزَمَ نَذَرَ لِلَّهِ إِنْ سَهَّلَ اللَّهُ أَمْرَهَا أَنْ يَنْحَرَ بَعْضَ وَلَدِهِ ، فَأَخْرَجَهُمْ ، فَأَسْهَمَ بَيْنَهُمْ ، فَخَرَجَ السَّهْمُ لِعَبْدِ اللَّهِ ، فَأَرَادَ ذَبْحَهُ ، فَمَنَعَهُ أَخْوَالُهُ مِنْ بَنِي مَخْزُومٍ ، وَقَالُوا : ارْضِ رَبَّكَ وَافِدِ ابْنَكَ ، قَالَ : فَفَدَاهُ بِمِائَةِ نَاقَةٍ ، قَالَ : فَهُوَ الذَّبِيحُ ، وَإِسْمَاعِيلُ الثَّانِي .
The purport of this Hadith is that in the presence of Mu'awiyah b. Abi Sufyan, the people were disputing about Ishmael and Isaac. Some said it was Ishmael who was to be sacrificed and others said it was Isaac. So Mu'awiya related a Hadith that a Bedouin came to the Prophet (peace be upon him) and addressed him as “O son of the two sacrificed ones”, referring to the Prophet's (peace be upon him) father, Abdullah, who was to be sacrificed by his grandfather Abdul Muttalib, and his ancestor Ishmael (peace be upon him).
However, this Hadith is weak and baseless, as the great Muhaddith, Imam Nasiruddin al-Albani has explained (See Silsilah Ahadith ad-Da'ifah #1677).
Contrary to this, there are narrations from the Prophet (Sallallahu alayhi wasallam) which prove that the one to be sacrificed was Isaac, as mentioned in the Hadith of Ibn Abbas as reported in the Musnad of Imam Ahmad:
فَلَمَّا أَرَادَ إِبْرَاهِيمُ أَنْ يَذْبَحَ ابْنَهُ إِسْحَاقَ
“When Abraham intended to sacrifice his son Isaac...”
Reference: Musnad Imam Ahmad; Hadith #2795, Isnaduhu Hasan
Furthermore, in his Tafsir, Imam Ibn Jarir al-Tabari has reported narrations from Abdul Muttalib (the Prophet's paternal grandfather), from Ibn Abbas, the great scholar of the Salaf, Ka'ab al-Ahbar, Masrooq, Ubaid b. Umair, Ibn Abi Hudhail, Ibn Sabit, and Abi Maysarah and others all expressing the opinion that the child to be sacrificed was Isaac not Ishmael.
Reference: Tafsir Ibn Jarir; v.19, p.580-581, 588-590, 592