It’s an ongoing question in Christian circles how far back Genesis is to be taken as historical. Here I will briefly cover some points that weigh on the historicity of Abraham in particular.
First, there's the Hebrew account of Abraham from the Bible. Where the Hebrew accounts bear on Hebrew history, most of the record have been kept by the Hebrews (understandably enough). But the Hebrew records do also record things of interest to other surrounding nations, particularly Arabia. Some of these points are as follows:
- Abraham was son of Terah (son of Nahor, son of Serug, etc., Genesis 11);
- His firstborn son Ishmael was by his Egyptian maidservant Hagar (Genesis 16).
- While Ishmael was still very young; Abraham’s wife Sarai mistreated Hagar and she fled into the wilderness. Hagar was distressed; God (or an angel of God) showed her water. (Similar accounts in Genesis 16 while Hagar was pregnant with Ishmael and Genesis 21 after Ishmael was weaned have led people to speculate whether these are the same account recorded twice, or two different instances of seeking water in the wilderness.)
- When Abraham died, Isaac and Ishmael buried him beside Isaac’s mother Sarah (Genesis 25).
- Ishmael had 12 sons: Nebaioth, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jedur, Naphish, and Kedemah (Genesis 25).
Different camps of scholars give different dates for the Torah, but it is written at soonest several centuries after the events recorded for Abraham’s life. Is there anything to corroborate the Torah’s record? On this point the Arab traditions bear mentioning. According to the Arab traditions:
- Ibrahim was the son of Tarih (son of Nahur, son of Sarugh, etc.)
- Ibrahim’s son Ismail was born of a woman named Hagar, who was an Egyptian.
- Mecca was founded at the place where Ismail drank water shown to him by an angel of God when he was a small child accompanied by his mother. (This well is considered sacred to this day and is visited by Muslim pilgrims to Mecca.)
- Ismail had 12 sons: Nabit, Qaydhar, Adhbul, Mabsha, Misma, Mashi, Dimma, Adhr, Tayma, Yatur, Nabish, and Qaydhuma. The Arab tribes trace their descent from these sons of Ismail.
- Ismail was buried beside his mother Hagar in what is now Mecca.
- The Arabs recognize the same site in Israel as do the Hebrews as the final resting place of Ibrahim/Abraham.
Arab culture has historically depended heavily on oral tradition. The earliest written record for which I have an English translation is far after the date of the events: Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, from after the days of Mohammed. It preserves traditions of early Arab history and of the genealogy of Mohammed and of Arab tribes. It must be mentioned that this book was written millennia after Abraham; it claims, for this part of the record, to be reporting ancient traditions. The date gap should not be dismissed without consideration. Is there any reason to accept either record as authentic?
The foremost reason to accept the accounts would be the fact that they agree so largely with each other, especially when there is little reason to expect that these peoples would agree on anything unless they knew it to be true.
If someone were to argue that the Arabs borrowed from the Hebrews, it would mean that the genealogy-conscious Arab society forgot or replaced their own ancestry with an adopted Hebrew version of their ancestry. As unlikely as that seems, it would also raise the question of why they would have ancient burial sites of Ismail and Hagar in Mecca if they had not had their own traditions about Ismail and Hagar, and why they would “borrow” or even recognize the Hebrew records that Hagar was not buried with Abraham, which is less than flattering to their own culture. More historical dating and older records may become available as translation efforts continue, but for now it seems unlikely that the Arabs copied the Hebrews.
On the other hand, if someone were to argue that the Hebrews borrowed from the Arabs, the same types of issues can be raised as to why a genealogy-conscious culture would adopt someone else’s version of their ancestry. It also becomes difficult to explain why the Arabs recognize the tomb of Abraham and Sarah in the ancient homeland land of the Hebrews, as opposed to locating it in Arabia next to the burial places of Hagar and Ishmael. This is difficult to explain unless we consider the most obvious solution: that the tomb is authentic.
Is any of that conclusive? “Conclusive” is too strong a word for many peoples’ inclinations, especially with the translation work that remains to be done and the time gaps involved in the records. But the history of the people involved, the available records and traditions and historical sites, and the fact that two enemy cultures both agree so closely, all make more sense if the history is genuine.