Did Abraham Ever Lie?
No Prophet ever told a lie. Truthfulness was the most important and indispensable attribute and necessity of Prophethood. The Prophet Abraham, upon him be peace, was among of the five greatest Prophets. He cannot have told a single lie even. In his whole life spent in constant struggle with unbelief and polytheism, the Prophet Abraham, upon him be peace, spoke allusively on only three occasions. That is, in order to either shun the harassment of unbelievers or explain to them a religious truth more simply, he chose to divert the attention of his addressees to something else by indirect reference to the truth. Since, however, some scholars have misinterpreted those allusions to be lies, I feel it is necessary to clarify them:
1. When his people wanted him to accompany them to their religious celebration, he cast a glance at the stars and said that he was sick.
Abraham was not bodily sick, but the grief was preying on his mind and soul that he might be associated with the falsehoods of his people. It was impossible for him to worship idols; rather, he was determined to destroy them. So, in order to avoid participating in their ceremonies, he told them that he was sick and when they had left him, he struck their idols down and broke them.
In saying he was sick, Abraham certainly did not lie, for what he meant was that he was sick of their idols and idol-worship. It is because he was sick of the idols, truly, that as soon as they departed, he turned to the idols and broke them. The Qur’an praises him for this deed:
Surely among those who followed his (Noah’s) way was Abraham. Behold, he came unto his Lord with a pure, sound heart. Behold, he said to his father and to his people, ‘What is it that you worship? Is it a falsehood – gods other than God – that you desire? What then is your opinion of the Lord of the Worlds?’ Then he cast a glance at the stars, and he said, ‘I am indeed sick!’ So they turned away from him, and departed. Then he turned to their gods and said, ‘Will you not eat [of the offerings before you]? What is the matter with you that you speak not?’ Then he turned upon them, striking them with might (and breaking them). (al-Saffat, 37.83-93)
2. The second allusion of Abraham is mentioned in the following verses:
We bestowed on Abraham his rectitude before, and We were well acquainted with him. Behold! He said to his father and his people, ‘What are these images, to which you are (so assiduously) devoted in worship?’ They said, ‘We found our fathers worshipping them’. He said, ‘Indeed you have been in manifest deviation – you and your fathers.’ They said, ‘Have you brought us the truth, or are you one of those who jest?’ He said, ‘Nay, your Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth, He who created them. And I am a witness [to this truth]. By God, I have a plan for your idols after you go away and turn your backs.’ So he broke them to pieces, (all) but the biggest of them, that they might turn to it. They said, ‘Who has done this to our gods? He must indeed be some evil-doer!’ They said, ‘We have heard a youth talk of them: he is called Abraham.’ They said, ‘Then bring him before the eyes of the people, that they may bear witness.’ They said, ‘Are you the one who did this to our gods, O Abraham?’ He said, ‘Nay, he did it – this is their biggest one! Ask them, if they can speak!’ (al-Anbiya’, 21.51-63)
Some think that Abraham told a lie by saying, ‘Nay, he did it – this is their biggest one!’ The truth is that Abraham is using here a biting irony. What Abraham wanted was precisely that the people should understand that things that do not speak and can be of neither any good or harm to them were not to be worshipped. He succeeded, and his people, dumbfounded by his reasoning, could find no way out other than throwing him into the fire to protect their ‘gods’.
Abraham did not say that the idols had been broken by the biggest of them. Rather, in reply to their question, ‘Are you the one that did this to our gods, O Abraham?’, he said, ‘He did it’ and stopped – there is a significant stop in the reading of the verse – and then he continued: ‘This is their biggest one!’. Therefore, by the phrase, ‘He did it’, he alluded to the one who broke the idols, but diverted the attention of the people to the biggest one by continuing, ‘This is their biggest one!’
Once, God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, said to an old woman, The old will not enter Paradise.. When he saw that the old woman was distressed by his irony, he clarified: Because they will enter it as young people.16 This is, in one way, similar to what Abraham did for some important purpose, and it was not therefore a lie.
3. In a hadith, and also in the Bible, we read that Abraham, upon him be peace, wanted his wife, Sarah to say, if asked who she was, that she was his sister, not his wife.17 According to the Bible, Abraham did this because he would have been killed because of her. This too, is also not a lie, as the other allusions of Abraham mentioned above are not lies, in that, as declared in the Qur’an, all the believers are indeed brothers or sisters to each other.
In conclusion, Abraham, upon him be peace, never lied. If he had lied, he would certainly have been reproached by God, but there is not a single reference in the Qur’an to God having reproached him for lying. On the contrary, his allusions mentioned above are mentioned where he is praised in the Qur’an by God. For this reason, the Prophetic Tradition about those allusions should not be treated literally.
16. Ibn Kathir, Shama’il, 84–5.
17. Bukhari, “Anbiya’,” 8; Muslim, “Fada’il,” 154