Abraham: Unifier of Judaism, Christianity and Islam

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Abraham in a Filippino church

Abraham is perhaps the world’s most revered religious figure. He is regarded as the ancient patriarch of Islam, the first patriarch of Judaism and an ancestor of Jesus. He was the first man to preach the existence of only one God, and that is why he is revered so deeply by Jews, Christians and Muslims, which together make more than three billion people, more than half of all of humanity. [Sources: David Van Biema, Time, September 2002; Tad Szulc, National Geographic, December, 2001; Kenneth MacLeish, National Geographic, December 1966 ♪]

Abraham (known as Ibrahim to Muslims) was a tribal chief who God promised would be a "father of many nations" and whose children would inherit Canaan as "an everlasting promise." The Semitic tribes, of which both Jews and Arabs belong, believe they are descended from Abraham. Abraham is regarded as the Father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He and his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob are referred to as Patriarchs by Jews, Christians and Muslims. Ishmael, Abraham’s other son in the eyes of Muslims, is regarded as a Patriarch by Muslims.

Judeo-Christian and Muslim tradition holds that Abraham was the first person to believe that God is one. His descendants were called the Children of Israel, and the country they were promised the Land of Israel. Only much later, in the Hellenistic period (333–63 b.c.e.), were the Israelites called Jews. Abraham was not a pure monotheist. He never suggested that other gods didn’t exist. But he did abandon the other gods and devote himself to the God of the Bible. He is regarded as a revolutionary figure in that he worshiped one god and he chose to do so. [Source: Paul Mendes-Flohr Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2000s Encyclopedia.com]

Websites and Resources: Bible and Biblical History: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks ; Bible History Online bible-history.com ; Biblical Archaeology Society biblicalarchaeology.org ; Judaism Virtual Jewish Library jewishvirtuallibrary.org/index ; Judaism101 jewfaq.org ; torah.org torah.org ; Chabad,org chabad.org/library/bible ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu Christianity: BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Biblical Images: Bible in Pictures creationism.org/books ; Bible Blue Letter Images blueletterbible.org/images ; Biblical Images preceptaustin.org

Abraham, Uniter of Three Faiths

20120502-Testing_of_Abrahams Faith.jpg
Testing of Abraham's Faith
On how Abraham united three faiths, Peter Stanford, writer and journalist, wrote for the BBC: “Abraham is an extraordinary figure in that almost alone of the Biblical characters he unites, or has the potential to unite, the three great monotheistic religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. He's there in all of them - he's important in all of them. In the Christian mass Abraham is mentioned specifically; when Muslims pray five times a day, they mention Abraham in that connection; and when Jews look back in the Torah, particularly to the covenant they made with Yahweh that made them Yahweh's chosen people, that was done through Abraham. He's the father of all faiths. [Source: BBC |::|] “There's a great movement going on, and particularly in the wake of September the 11th in the States, where Christians, Jews and Muslims get together in 'Abraham Salons' to talk about Abraham. The idea is that in this world where we're terribly divided in faith, we will find a way forward through Abraham. There's hope that he will bring these warring religious factions together. It's a lovely idea, and I think there's a lot of mileage in it. Abraham does have that uniting role. |::|

“But I think the flip side of it, and unfortunately with religion there usually is a flip side, is that there are things about Abraham which emphasise the division of the different faiths. For instance, Judaism and Islam can't even agree which of Abraham's sons it was that he offered in sacrifice. And most significantly, if Abraham is put in a political context, the Torah says that it was Abraham who received the covenant from Yahweh on behalf of the Jewish people, it made them the Chosen People, that Jews will say 'Because of Abraham, Jerusalem and the Holy Land is ours - God has given it to us.' |::|

“But of course in Islam, it's Abraham who is the first person who surrenders to Allah - and the very word 'Islam' means 'surrender' - so he's an incredibly significant figure in Islam as well. From Islam's point of view, that surrender by Abraham, which again took place in that narrow disputed bit of land, means that Jerusalem and the Holy Land is for Islam. So despite Abraham being someone who can unite religions there are also elements that emphasise the divisions. |::|

Eliazear Segal, a professor of religion at the University of Calgary Alberta, wrote: “It is evident that all three of the great Western religions have laid claim to "Abraham our father." And the intricate web of relationships between these religions — including both conflicts and points of agreement and harmony — can be traced through the examination of their respective interpretations of Abraham's life.” [Source: Eliazear Segal: “Abraham, Our Father and Theirs,” University of Calgary]

Abraham, the Bible and Other Sacred Texts

Chapters 17 through 22 of Genesis in the Old Testament are focused around Abraham. In Chapter 17, Abraham makes his covenant with God and God makes him the father of nations. In Chapters 18 and 19, God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah despite Abraham's pleas not to after God is unable to find just 10 good men. In Chapter 22, Abraham offers to sacrifice his son Isaac to God.

Genesis does not credit Abraham directly with being the founder of monotheism. The scriptures do however highlight his faith and obedience to God. The monotheism connection was made later by religious scholars who point to scriptures in Joshua that said Abraham’s family all worshiped other gods and observed that everyone after Abraham worshipped only one, and thus Abraham must have been the first to worship only one god.

Abraham is mentioned in the Talmud, New Testament and the Koran. In the New Testament Paul wrote about “that faith of our father Abraham.” Abraham is mentioned 25 times in the Koran, which states: “We believe in God, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham,” and says: “Abraham was not a Jew nor yet a Christian; but he was true in Faith,...and he joined not gods with God.”

According to the BBC: “The story of Abraham and his descendants is found in the book of Genesis. We first meet him in Genesis chapter 11, although at this stage his name is Abram. There is very little biographical detail about him apart from the fact that he was a shepherd and came from Ur in Mesopotamia - modern day Iraq - after which he and his family moved, with his father Terah, to Haran. [Source: BBC |::|]

At the beginning of Genesis chapter 12, God asked Abram to leave his home and country and he makes Abram three promises: the promise of a relationship with God, numerous descendents and land.
I will make you a great nation
And I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
And you will be a blessing
I will bless those who bless you,
And whoever curses you I will curse;
And all the peoples of the earth
Will be blessed through you — Genesis 12:1-3

Christian Recognition of Abraham

Many Christians believe that Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac predicted the Resurrection. Jesus referred to Abraham but Paul, in Epistles, is credited with making him a central figure in Christianity, holding held him up as an example of the rewards of faith. Paul also argued that Abraham showed that it was not imperative to be Jewish to receive God’s grace because he predated Jewish law and was not technically a Jew himself. Some Christians went a step farther and argued that Abraham made the Jews obsolete and relegated them to a kind of subhuman status.

But Paul said covenant between God and the Jews was irrevocable and described Christianity as an olive branch grafted onto the tree of Judaism. One Biblical scholar told Time, “If the covenant between God and the children of Abraham dies the branch withers with the roots.”

Both Catholics and Protestants recognize the importance of Abraham. Roman Catholics pay homage to Abraham in mass: “Look with favor on these offering and accept them as once you accepted...the sacrifice of Abraham.” Protestants honor him in the children’s song: “Father Abraham had many sons. And I am one of them and so are you....”

Abraham In Judaism and Christianity

Abraham's tomb
Eliazear Segal, a professor of religion at the University of Calgary Alberta, wrote: “It is common for Jews to affectionately refer to the first Patriarch as Avraham Avinu, "Abraham our Father." But is Abraham so certainly "our father" alone? If we approach the figure of Abraham from the perspective of later Jewish exegesis, we note a number of additions to Abraham's biography that seem peculiar and unwarranted by the biblical text. A more careful examination of the circumstances reveals that some of these added details reflect some very heated controversies that preoccupied the Jewish commentators throug the generations in their contacts with competing religious outlooks. [Source: Eliazear Segal: “Abraham, Our Father and Theirs,” University of Calgary |+|]

“As an example, let us look at an oft-quoted rabbinic tradition to the effect that Our father Abraham observed the entire Torah before it was given to Israel, as it is written (Genesis 26:5) "Because that Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes and my laws" (Mishnah, end of Kiddushin). This claim, which was extended to apply to the other patriarchs as well, gave rise to all sorts of difficulties. |+|

“For example, in Genesis 18:7-8, we find Abraham hurrying to prepare a meal for his guests that consisted of "a calf tender and good...curd, and milk" — hardly an ideal menu for a kosher meal. Similarly, Jacob's marriage to two sisters should have been prohibited according to subsequent Torah legislation. It is possible to interpret the verse cited by the Mishnah in a limited way (as referring, for example, to the basic laws of humanity and justice embodied in the "seven precepts of the sons of Noah"). The Mishnah however insists on applying it to "the entire Torah." Why did the rabbis insist on making life so difficult for themselves with their sweeping statement?” |+|

Paul (Saul of Tarsus) — who lived at the end of the A.D. 1st century and was the leading ideologist of early Christianity — made considerable use of the model of Abraham to support his own belief that the observance of laws is not conducive to spiritual salvation. Eliazear Segal wrote: “As developed in the fourth chapter of his Epistle to the Romans, Paul points to Genesis 15:6: "And [Abraham] believed in the Lord and he counted it to him for righteousness." Did Abraham, Paul argues, not live before the receiving of the Torah? Since he did, he could not have observed its laws. Nevertheless, God deems him righteous! |+|

“In a typically "midrashic" exposition, Paul notes that the verse in question was placed before the account of Abraham's circumcision precisely in order to emphasize that circumcision (which for Paul represents the totality of ritual observance) is not a requirement for righteousness or salvation, which are earned through belief and trust in God. In view of such claims made by the early Church about Abraham, it is perfectly understandable that the rabbis would feel it essential to assert that he was a truly Jewish figure who had observed the precepts of the Torah even before they were made mandatory by the revelation at Mount Sinai.

Muslim Recognition of Abraham

Muslims portray Abraham as the first man to fully surrender himself to God and claim that Mohammed’s primary goal was to restore Abraham’s faith. Each of the five repetitions of the daily prayer ends with a tribute to Abraham. The Kaaba and many of the central rituals of the hajj are associated with him. Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son is commemorated in the second biggest Muslim holiday.

Muslims arguably have Abraham elevated Abraham to a higher status than Jews or Christians because their religion is so fervently monotheistic. Some Muslims go as far as claiming that Abraham and his god belong the Muslims alone. A religious adviser to Yasser Arafat told Time: “The people who supported Abraham believed in one God and only one God, and that was the Muslims. Only the Muslims.”

Muslim view of Abraham ready to sacrifice his son Ishmael

Muslims argue that Abraham’s heritage is based on faith not lineage. If the Jews did in fact have a Covenant with God, some of them argue, that promise was broken when they worshiped the golden calf in the Bible’s Exodus. They say that Islam is the true religion of Abraham. The Koran tells Muslims who are proselytized by Jews or Christians to respond: “Nay...[we follow] the religion of Abraham.” See the Muslim Take on Abraham Above.

Muslim View of Abraham

Abraham is called Ibrahim by Muslims. They see him as the father of the Arab people as well as the Jewish people through his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael (Isma'il in Arabic). Dr. Mona Siddiqui, a lecturer in Islamic Studies, wrote for the BBC: “Abraham is a very interesting figure because he is depicted in the Qur'an as somebody who, from a very early age, had problems trying to understand God and trying to discover God; being restless, knowing that perhaps the Pagan environment which he was in did not have the answers. That, ultimately, God was not the star or the sun or the wind or the moon - all these forces that he saw - God was in something else. And so from that perspective, Abraham is considered to be neither a Jewish person, nor a Christian person nor a Muslim, but somebody who is a hernif - somebody who essentially and intrinsically knows that there is really only one God. And he is praised for this essential and innate yearning to discover the unity of God. [Source: Dr. Mona Siddiqui, senior lecturer in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Glasgow University, BBC, April 9, 2009 |::|]

“There have been thousands of prophets and numbers of messengers but there are only four or five that have been designated a specific title according to Islam: Jesus is one, Moses is one and the Prophet Muhammad is one but also Abraham, who is known as a friend of God. Abraham had a specific allocation given to him by God, which is that from his progeny will be all the prophets and from them - for Muslims - comes Muhammad. But he does have a relationship with God: first of all he is baffled as to how he has a son at such a late stage through Hagar and then through Sarah. |::|

“The tradition of God testing Abraham's devotion to him by asking him to sacrifice Ishmael is the heart of the Abrahamic tradition and the Abrahamic stories. Abraham was the first Prophet who was asked for the ultimate sacrifice: "I want you to sacrifice your own flesh and blood for me". And he passed the test because he was prepared to do it, in his submission and devotion to God. |Many of the stories in the Qur'an that relate to Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael are about their flights from Sarah and also about Abraham trying to set up another dwelling, another place with Hagar and his son Ishmael. |::|

Muslims — the Children of Ismail; Jew and Christians — the Children of Isaac

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: Muslims see themselves, as well as Jews and Christians, as children of Abraham, belonging to different branches of the same religious family. The Koran and the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, both tell the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, Sarah's Egyptian servant. While Jews and Christians are held to be descended from Abraham and his wife, Sarah, through their son, Isaac, Muslims trace their religious roots to Abraham through Ismail (Ishmael), his firstborn son by Hagar. This connection to Abraham, Hagar, and Ismail is commemorated each year in the rituals of the pilgrimage to Mecca. [Source: John L. Esposito “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s, Encyclopedia.com]

According to both Hebrew and Muslim scripture, when, after many years, Sarah did not conceive a child, she urged Abraham to sleep with her maidservant Hagar so that he might have an heir. As a result of the union between Abraham and Hagar, a son, Ismail, was born. After Ismail's birth Sarah also became pregnant and gave birth to Isaac. Sarah then became jealous of Ismail, who as firstborn would be the prime inheritor and overshadow her own son, and she pressured Abraham to send Hagar and Ismail away. Abraham reluctantly let Hagar and his son go, because God promised that he would make Ismail the father of a great nation. Islamic sources say that Hagar and Ismail ended up in the vicinity of Mecca in Arabia, and both the Bible and the Koran say that they nearly died but were saved by a spring that miraculously gushed from the desert.

According to the BBC: “Much of what Islamic tradition is about - and even some of the rituals such as the Hajj - stem from the pre-Islamic era and are translated into Islamic rituals through Abraham. Hagar looked for water and ran between two hills, which is enacted in the Hajj ceremony as a symbolic gesture of what Hagar was doing - looking for water - and pilgrims do that. God says to Abraham, "I'd like you to build my house for me..." - that is a Kaaba - "...here on this mound of earth, in this sacred place and I'd like you to erect the walls and I want you to purify this place." Part of this purification is what we see today in the Kaaba. The Islamic tradition has restricted this purity ritual to Muslims only. However the second ambulation that pilgrims do in praise of God is actually a legacy left from pre-Islamic days when pilgrims also came to the Kaaba - not to worship the one God, but to worship idols. There are various things that are part of the Abrahamic story, culminating in the ultimate sacrifice which is carried out on the last day of Hajj. As a symbolic gesture, Muslims re-enact what Abraham was going to do with Ishmael by sacrificing a lamb or sheep.” [Source: Dr. Mona Siddiqui, senior lecturer in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Glasgow University, BBC, April 9, 2009]

Abraham in the Koran

Abraham's tomb
Eliazear Segal wrote: “Interestingly, the descriptions of Abraham's life as found in the Koran are strongly influenced by Jewish traditions. They incorporate many events not mentioned in the biblical accounts, such as Abraham's disputes with his idol-worshipping father and his conflict with the wicked king Nimrod who cast him into a fiery furnace. All this provides ample proof that Mohammed had Jewish teachers. The story of the akedah also found its way into the Koran (37:103), where the story conforms in most respects with the biblical version. Later Islamic tradition took it for granted that the sacrificed son was actually Ishmael, the ancestor of the Arabs. [Source: Eliazear Segal: “Abraham, Our Father and Theirs,” University of Calgary |+|]

“Yet another aspect of the complex inter-relationships between Judaism, Christianity and Islam is demonstrated by the following example. The covenant between God and Abraham, as described in Genesis 15, is accompanied by a queer ceremony of splitting the carcasses of various animals into pieces. Verse 11 relates, "And the birds of prey came down upon the carcases, and Abraham drove them away." A medieval Yemenite midrashic anthology, the Midrash Ha-Gadol, explains this as meaning that "when Abraham laid the halves of the pieces over against each other, they became alive and flew away," this being God's way of demonstrating to him the doctrine of Resurrection of the Dead. This detail is not mentioned, as far as I am aware, by any talmudic source, though it is alluded to in the Arabic translation of the great 10th Century scholar Rav Saadya Ga'on, who interpreted the Hebrew phrase vayashev otam Avram, normally rendered as "Abram drove [the birds] away," as "Abraham revived them." |+|

“The earliest attested version of the legend seems to be the following: And when Abraham said: "Lord show me how you will revive the dead," He said, "What, do you not yet believe?" Said he, "Yea, but that my heart may be quieted." He said, "Then take four birds, and take them close to yourself; then put a part of them on every mountain; then call them, and they will come to you in haste; and know that God is mighty, wise."|+|

“The source for this midrash? It is found in the Koran (2:260)! It would appear possible that later Jewish commentators were making free use of an Islamic tradition that provided corroboration for the Jewish belief in resurrection. The desire to find biblical support for the crucial doctrine of resurrection had long preoccupied the talmudic Rabbis, and Mohammed's exegesis offered a convenient proof-text. The interpretation sounded so "orthodox" that its true origin was eventually forgotten. The possibility should not however be discounted that Mohammed himself may have been citing an originally Jewish teaching which was not preserved in our own sources.” |+|

Conflicts Between Muslims and Jews Over Abraham

Scriptural battles between Muslims and Jews broken out over Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael. In the Talmud, Abraham is depicted as a Hebrew-speaking follower of Moses law and Ishmael is reduced to bit part in the story. Medieval Jewish scholars went a step further and called him a “thief? whom “everyone hated.” Muslim scholars responded by saying that Jews had “dishonestly and slanderously” introduced Isaac to the story.

Bruce Feiler, author of “Abraham: A Journey in the Heart of Three Faith”, wrote in this way Abraham became “as much of a force for fanaticism as he is for moderation.” Muslims and Jews “tossed out what they wanted to ignore, ginned up what they wanted to stress and ended up with a symbol of their uniqueness that looked more like a mirror image of their fantasies than a reflection of the original story.”

The Cave of the Patriarchs has seen more than its share of violence. Jewish militants have thrown acid on Muslim prayer rugs and Muslims have thrown stones at Jews as they entered the complex to pray. A major massacre took place there in 1994 that left 29 dead and 130 injured.

During the Hajj, Muslim pilgrims circling The Kabba said to have been cleansed of idols by Abraham

The Interfaith movements has tried since the 1800s to debunk these arguments and bring Muslims, Jews and Christians together with Abraham as a symbol of their unity. Politicians such as Anwar Sadat and Kofi Annan have evoked Abraham as a symbol of peace.

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons, Schnorr von Carolsfeld Bible in Bildern, 1860 except timeline Biblical research Society

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; Wikipedia, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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