Sarah stands at the tent entrance in Judeo-Christian and Muslim scripture. She is not centre stage, but we know her presence – we can hear her and see her, as she actively participates with Abraham in the vicissitudes of their response to God’s sending and God’s promise.
Whereas Hagar is only referred to indirectly in the Qur’an, Sarah is directly mentioned twice. Both accounts take us directly to the dramatic encounter with their three visitors, and Sarah’s surprise:
When she hears the visitors’ promise of a son to Abraham (Q al-Dhariyat 51:29):
Then his wife came forward with a loud voice: she smote her face and said: “A barren old woman!”
In a later chapter, the three visitors talk of the destruction of Lot’s community (Q Hud 11:71-2):
And his wife was standing and she laughed. But we gave her glad tidings of Ishaq, and after Ishaq, of Ya’qub. She said: “Woe to me! Shall I bear a child while I am an old woman, and here is my husband an old man? Verily, this is a strange thing!”
The focus is on her barrenness and age, and also Abraham’s age, as unlikely progenitors of the predicted son!
The Hadith recount Abraham’s description of her as his sister, so that she is taken by the local king. They are concerned with two issues – Abraham’s description of Sarah as his sister, and Sarah’s protection from the king’s advances. As it is impossible for a prophet of Islam to sin by marrying his sister and committing incest, Abu Huraira narrates this as one of the three times when Abraham lied. Here it was a lesser evil in order to avert a greater evil (harm coming to Abraham). As for Sarah, each time the wicked king approaches her, she prays and he is incapacitated, so she prays again and he is restored. After a couple of attempts, the king concludes that he’s been given a she-devil, and returns her to Abraham. (al-Bukhari, Book 34, Hadith 420: Book 55, Hadith 578.)
Later versions, particularly Qisas Ibn Kathir, focus more on Sarah’s extraordinary beauty, and recount that Abraham also has a hand in Sarah’s rescue from the king, whether praying from a distance, or presenting himself as a visiting physician to cure the king’s affliction, for the price of the woman (Stowasser 1994:45-6).
Muslim concerns echo some of the Jewish rabbinical discussions, which also highlight Sarah’s beauty, and debate Abraham’s account of her relationship with him. However Firestone concludes that while some Muslim commentators knew of Jewish discussions, “They worked with the problem in order to arrive at acceptable solutions that fit the particular religious needs and sensibilities of Islam;” so that “the answers proposed by Muslim exegetes represent new and uniquely Islamic formulations.” (1990: 70-71)
The Jewish Midrash names Sarah too as a prophet, and applies Proverbs 12:4 to her (‘A capable wife / woman of valour is a crown for her husband.’), so that Abraham is ennobled through her, rather than she through her husband. She is mistress of the house (Genesis 21:12), and angels protect her from Pharaoh’s advances.[i] While stopping short of naming her ‘prophet’, one modern Muslim writer deduces from the hadith that God’s answers to Sarah’s prayer for protection from the king show the direct relationship[ii] ‘between Sarah and her Creator-Sustainer.’ (Hassan 2006:151)
Other contemporary Muslim women’s literature draws inspiration from Sarah’s beauty, and her God-given release from Pharaoh. And it gives attention to the description of Sarah as first to believe in her husband’s mission, along with Lot, Abraham’s nephew. So Abraham and Sarah become linked with Muhammad and Khadijah, Muhammad’s first wife, supporter and follower, together with his nephew, Ali. (Stowasser 1994: 43, 46) Sarah, with Khadijah, is a model to present-day women of faith and loyalty to the prophet and his mission.
The Bible introduces Abram and Sarai together, as part of Terah’s family (Genesis 11:27-31). Immediately we notice, first, that Sarai’s parentage isn’t mentioned (unlike her sister-in-law, Milcah, described as the niece of her husband, Abram’s brother). Secondly, Sarai is barren. This immediately introduces a tension into the narrative, placed within a genealogy: and combined with God’s promise four verses later, to make Abram into a great nation, as he sends him to a new land (Genesis 12:1-3).
Our next information about Sarai is her beauty. Abram gives it as the reason for concealing their marriage relationship as they go into Egypt, so that he won’t be killed because of her, but rather “it may go well for me because of you and my life will be spared on account of you.” Sarai’s beauty must have been notable, for it is reported to Pharaoh by his officials, and he takes her into his household. In a surprising repeat of the same scenario later in the Negev, Abram (by then renamed as ‘Abraham’, together with ‘Sarah’) tells Abimelech who has taken Sarah, “She is indeed my sister, my father’s daughter, but not my mother’s daughter.” (Genesis 12:11-15; 20:12). Given that Abram’s brother Nahor had married his niece, such in-family unions may not have been unusual.
Abram’s concern for self-preservation trumps commitment to his wife (and to God’s promise), so Yahweh steps in. Pharaoh’s household gets sick, so Sarai is returned to Abram and the family (now wealthier) is expelled from Egypt (Genesis 12:16-13:2).
After another revelation from God and renewed promise of children (Genesis 15), barren, beautiful Sarai takes the initiative, suggesting Abram sleep with her servant to get children: and “Abram did what Sarai told him.” But it backfires on Sarai when the pregnant Hagar despises her. Sarai blames Abram for this inversion in mistress-slave relationships. Abram affirms Sarai’s authority – and so does Yahweh, in his appearance to the fleeing Hagar (Genesis 16:2, 6, 9).
It is after this that Yahweh names Sarah specifically as the mother of nations, despite Abraham’s laughter at the idea (Genesis 17:15-21). Then the three visitors arrive (the story picked up in the Qur’an). In typical nomadic hospitality, Abraham prepares a feast for them, from freshly-prepared veal and Sarah’s baked bread (with 22 litres of flour, it was more than a couple of loaves!). They ask where Sarah is – this imminent birth announcement is for her ears. Sarah’s response of laughter echoes her husband’s: and Yahweh affirms the promise again, challenging her laughter and her denial (Genesis 18:6-7; 9-15).
At the cusp of promise-fulfillment, Abraham’s ‘sister’-subterfuge puts it in jeopardy again, with the king of Gerar taking Sarah. This time the narrator emphasises that Abimilech doesn’t touch Sarah – the promised child has to belong to Abraham. Again Yahweh steps in, warning Abimilech of his danger: and Sarah is given back, untouched, and Abraham’s prayers restore the fertility of Abimilech’s household. Again, Abraham leaves wealthier than he was.
Genesis 21 opens with the tender culmination of God’s promise in Sarah’s fertility:
Yahweh visited Sarah as he said he would and did for Sarah what he had promised. So Sarah became pregnant and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the appointed time that God had told him.
Sarah’s (and Abraham’s) skeptical laughter is turned to joy, reflected in Isaac’s name. But the pun on his name continues, when Sarah sees Ishmael jesting at Isaac’s weaning feast, and demands his banishment with his mother. Abraham is reluctant, but God tells him to do as Sarah says, affirming His care for Ishmael. And this is the last we hear in Genesis of the strong-willed and beautiful Sarah, until her death at 127 years (Genesis 23): and the cave Abraham purchases to bury her is his only legally-possessed portion of the land promised to him.
How does the New Testament read Sarah? She is mentioned by implication if not name in Galatians 4 as ‘the free woman’, an allegory of the new Jerusalem whose children are not subject to the Law.
Hebrews 11:11 is a verse where it’s not clear if the subject is Abraham or Sarah: translators are divided. Some prefer to read it as a continuation of the discussion of Abraham’s faith, being given the ability to procreate when he was 100 years old. This reading may be supported by the focus in verse 12 on Abraham. However it ignores the fact that Abraham went on to have other sons, with no imputation of the miraculous attributed to their birth (Genesis 25:1ff). The other reading has: “by faith, even though Sarah herself was barren and too old, she received ability to conceive, because she regarded the one who had given the promise to be trustworthy.” Such a reading recognizes Sarah’s response to God’s promise to her, a response of faith beyond her earlier attempts to secure its fulfillment through Hagar.
The other reference comes in 1 Peter 3:6, where Sarah is an example of the wife who is subject to her husband, where the husbands are not won over by external beauty, but the lasting beauty of a genteel and tranquil spirit, modeled on “the holy women … who adorned themselves by being subject to their husbands, like Sarah who obeyed Abraham, calling him Lord.”
Sarah is perhaps an unexpected subject for this exhortation, as a woman who was known for her extraordinary beauty, and also strong-willed. Two of the occasions where she does what her husband tells her, land her in the possession of other men (Genesis 12:15, 20:2) – hardly a desired outcome. Three times we hear of Abraham doing what Sarah tells him with regard to Hagar (Genesis 16:1-6, 21:10-12), with God endorsing Abraham’s obedience (21:12). So what is Peter referring to here?
The encounter with the three visitors, when Sarah is up to her elbows in flour baking bread for them, is the one time in Genesis where Sarah names Abraham as ‘Lord’ (baal) (Genesis 18:12). Sarah is partly hidden in the tent, as the divine messenger tells her of God’s imminent promise fulfillment in her own flesh. Like Abraham in the previous chapter, Sarah faces the opportunity to move from skeptical laughter to faith that God can act (without needing Sarah’s intervention). Sarah has sought to bring about God’s promise, through Hagar – but not at the expense of her own primary relationship with Abraham. She survives Abraham’s imperilment of the promise, that sees her twice taken, with payment, by other men. Her obedience here is shown in the response of submission and faith to God’s promise to her and to Abraham together, where willing participation in obedience from both husband and wife to God constitutes the response of faith endorsed by Peter and lauded by the writer of Hebrews.
This goes beyond the support and loyalty of Sarah read as a model of Khadijah. It asks that both husband and wife together actively participate in and respond to the call of God to faith and obedience.
Firestone, Reuven. “The Problem of Sarah’s Identity in Islamic Exegetical Tradition.” The Muslim World LXXX, no. No. 2 (April 1990): 65–71.
Hassan, Riffat. “Islamic Hagar and Her Family.” In Hagar, Sarah, and Their Children, 149–67. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006. http://riffathassan.info/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Islamic_Hagar_and_Her_Family.pdf.
Stowasser, Barbara Freyer. Women in the Qurán, Traditions, and Interpretation. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
[ii] The idea of ‘relationship’ between unknowable Creator and his creation is not a traditional Muslim term: however it is gaining increasing currency, perhaps deriving from its use by Christians.