My family gets into it again! My dad called up last week and said, "Hey, I've got a question for you. Whatever happened to Ishmael?"
Before we find out what happened to Ishmael, it might be best to learn who he is first.
Ishmael was the son of Abraham and Hagar. Although Abraham was married to Sarah, she had not been able to have children. In accordance with the custom of the day, Sarah gave her servant-girl Hagar to Abraham so that she could vicariously have a child (Genesis 16.2).
After Hagar conceived, Sarah became jealous. Sarah mistreated her and Hagar ran away. But God intervened and instructed her to return. Then God promised her son, Ishmael, would be the progenitor of a great multitude. Hagar returned to her mistress for a time.
At thirteen Ishmael was circumcised, as was Abraham, making the two co-heirs to the covenant of God. But when Isaac was born by Sarah, she sent Hagar and Ishmael away. Ishmael was about 16 years-old and Hagar believed they would both die in the desert but once again God intervenes and reminds Hagar of the promise that Ishmael shall be the father of a great nation (Genesis 21.18). Later, when Abraham dies, Ishmael returns to attend the funeral and we learn of the promise's fulfillment he and his twelve sons have settled east and north of Egypt, where modern Arabia is now located.
So whatever happened to him? According to the biblical account, he dies at the age of 137 and nothing else is heard of him other than the modern conjecture that he and his sons are the seed of Saudi Arabia.
But this story isn't complete. Outside of Christianity and Judaism is a third faith, numbering approximately 1 billion followers, who claim Abraham and his son Ishmael in their lineage and as their prophets. Islam, founded by Mohammed sometime after 610 CE, traces its roots to these men. Indeed, Mohammed's own lineage is traced through these two prophets. However, the story of Abraham and Ishmael is different from the biblical account.
According to Islamic faith and traditions, Abraham was tested by Allah (God) and told to sacrifice his son Ishmael. Abraham shared this revelation with his son and Ishmael consented to the sacrifice. As they made their way to carry out the deed, Allah intercedes and discloses that it would be better to share with the poor than to offer a son.
This story is the etiology of the contemporary sacrifices made each year at Mecca. Annually, the day before the feast of Ramadan, pilgrims to Mecca make sacrifices for distribution to the world's poor. Thousands of sheep, cattle, goats, and camels are sacrificed, butchered, and distributed to the needy in Mecca and worldwide following the example of Abraham and Ishmael and the charge of Allah.
So what happened to Ishmael? It depends on your faith traditions. But Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all agree, Ishmael was the founder of a great nation and a mighty people. And according to the Islamic faith he was the co-founder of a noble beneficent act that is practiced to this day.