Can we at least agree about Abraham?


Can we at least agree about Abraham?



APRIL 10 2011[1]


If we have Abraham, why do we need Moses, Jesus or Muhammad (and vice versa)? This question, suggested to me by Maimonides’ “Laws of Idolaters” chapter 1 and parallels, and by the discussion of Father Abraham in New Testament, weighs heavily on my attempts to teach students how to contrast approaches to the founding figures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This is especially so in my teaching career at the University of Wyoming, a predominantly undergraduate teaching environment. It is, moreover, one in which some of the students are religious, and many are not religious or not believers. Somewhat like the famous canard a generation ago about secular Israeli insistence on a traditional brand of Judaism despite their personal indifference to religion, in Wyoming, the religion in which they do not believe is a strong brand of evangelical Christianity, but one only inculcated in Sunday schools up to about the age of 10.[2] I suspect this background is more common that I once thought, and recognition of this approach ought to shape how we present “Abrahamic” comparisons.

Abraham would seem to unite the three religions—hence titles such as the title for this panel. But in reality, even though Abraham plays a key role in each of these traditions, the Abrahamic covenant was never enough for any of them. Discussions of shared narratives need to celebrate what is common. While it is true that finding comparisons between traditions is a fertile source for deepening our comprehension and understanding of each, and of their interactions,  we cannot do so without emphasizing how different approaches to the fundamental religious issues shape the way the shared narratives are retold.  This is especially so when teaching this material, as our students—and often we ourselves – often tend to focus on the shared material and de-emphasize the differences in context and significance attached to the material. My students easily understand how siblings can tell narratives with essentially the same details, yet the stories are remarkably different—yet they lose the ability to make these distinctions when confronted with, for example, parallel accounts of Abraham, Moses or Jesus. We need not merely to point out the commonalities, but to emphasize, over and over, the need to respect the basic diversity in these approaches.

My thanks to Laurie Baron for encouraging me to present a paper within this panel, and to Khaleel Muhammad, whose wisdom in comparing Muslim and Jewish material has been evident to me since he was a graduate student in Montreal. I should also note that some of my comments are adapted from a lecture offered on Hussein Day in New York City some years ago.

I should also note that my comments reflect my findings in teaching and to a certain extent in interfaith work. It might be of interest to study dialogues and interactions where the term Abrahamic is used with those in which it is not, to determine whether the use of the term makes any difference—but this is beyond my scope here.

This presentation reflects some of my thoughts about the tendency to talk about the Judaism, Christianity and Islam as “Abrahamic” faiths. I do not know when the term was first used in the context of interfaith dialogue, but it was popularized in the late 1970s by Ismail Raji al-Faruqi (d. 1986), especially as a result of the “Trialogue of the Abrahamic Faiths” he organized at the AAR Meeting in New York City in 1979. The focus on Abraham in “Abrahamic” makes sense, as each tradition shares a claim on him. But we need to remember that Abraham is not merely the ultimate paradigm of the Founder and Source of each tradition, but the claims are substantially different, and moreover, Abraham is clearly not enough for any of these traditions. After all, if we have Abraham, as I like to ask our students, why would we need Moses or Jesus or Muhammad?

Indeed, the story of Abraham is a good place to start; not only is he shared by Judaism, Christianity and Islam, we could easily add the “Ṣābi’ans”[3] and Druzes, Bahais, Mandeans, even Rastafarians. For Jews, Christians and Muslims, the account of his willingness to sacrifice his beloved son, promised by God, is a central theme. I think it may be significant that the “binding of Isaac” is called ‘Aqeda עקדה “binding” in Hebrew, the same root and nearly the same word as ‘aqīda عقيدة “belief”—indeed the kind of belief and faith which can be held by all men. The story of the ‘Aqedah is recounted by the Jews in the synagogues every year on Rosh Ha-Shanah, the “Jewish New Year,” the beginning of the Jewish month of Tishrei, in the fall, usually considered to be parallel to the Arab month of Muḥarram.[4] This is no doubt because Isaac was said to have been born in Tishrei, and the Aqeda to have occurred in Tishrei, but also because of the role that the memory of Abraham’s loyalty plays in the liturgy of the day. It also found a place in the daily recitations of Biblical passages found in the traditional prayer book as a prelude to the formal prayer, and thus was recited every day for generations by pious Jews.[5] Perhaps most important in our context, Rosh Ha-Shanah begins a ten-day period leading up to the tenth of Tishrei—the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Usually associated with the ‘Āshūrā’, Yom Kippur is, like the Shī‘ī observance of ‘Āshūrā’, closely tied to learning lessons from acts of faith and sanctification of the divine name: readiness to die or have your dearest ones die for the faith.

Of course the question most often asked in this context is not how Abraham fits into spiritual thinking of Jews, Christians or Muslims, but “Which son of Abraham was to be offered as a sacrifice? For Jews and Christians, the answer is simple: the Bible text says Isaac. For Muslims, however, the Qur’an does not specify which one; early Muslim historians and commentators, such as al-Ṭabarī, are convinced that Isaac is the better answer, although today most Muslims believe that it could only have been Ismā‘īl.[6] This is an important difference, and we must accept not merely that today’s participants in the Abrahamic dialogue may not be able to agree about the identity of the al-dhabīḥ “the one who was to have been slaughtered”—but ask why and how the Muslim community, well aware that its early scholars debated whether it was Isaac or Ismail for at least three centuries, came to agree almost uniformly on the opposite answer from that of Genesis.  I will not seek to resolve this difference here:  but urge us to respect difference.

I should add that, when I speak to Muslims, I often suggest that it may be instructive to examine two central questions about the response of Abraham’s son to his ordeal. What did he think about it, and what did he do as a result?

As for the first question—Was the son as prepared to be a martyr as was the father to offer him?—This is explicit in the Qur’an: Abraham tells the sacrificial son that he is to be sacrificed and the son tells Abraham “do as you are bidden” (37:102). As for the Biblical text, agreement goes unmentioned yet the Rabbis understand Isaac’s agreement as implicit. In Genesis 22:8-9, Isaac asks his father where the lamb for the sacrifice is; Abraham tells him that God will provide the lamb (Gen. 22:7-8), and it is understood by tradition that Isaac knew from this that he was to be the sacrifice. Then the Bible says “they went together” (Gen. 22:8, cf. 22:6)—the second time these words occur in the normally sparse Biblical discourse. This is understood by the commentators to indicate that Isaac knew and was at peace with God’s decree. The Aqedah is thus not only about Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice, but about Isaac’s acceptance, his readiness to die for what Jews call the sanctification of God’s name.[7] The loyalty of Abraham, and his readiness to do the divine will, and that of his son to be sacrificed, is indeed a shared motif in the three faiths.

But here too the second set of questions may be more important: What does one do after the Aqedah? Jewish tradition has several answers, as the Aqedah narrative is part of a longer, scriptural narrative of the Patriarchs. Reading scripture, sometimes with the help of Midrash, Jewish tradition asserts that Abraham’s son studied,[8] married,[9] prayed—indeed, introduced the Afternoon Prayer,[10] stayed in the Land promised to his father, and worked in the world, having children, digging wells, raising livestock, and even growing crops—an unusual profession among the Jewish Patriarchs; raising livestock was far more common. Moreover, Jewish tradition at least allows the question: Did Abraham really pass the test? Generally, the answer is yes, but it is sometimes observed that God never speaks to Abraham again after the conversation in which Abraham unquestioningly accepts the task of offering his son. This type of history was known to Christians through the New Testament, and to Muslims through Islamic historians—but how relevant is it? Far more important than the Arab historians, the Qur’an does not continue the narrative of Abraham and his son. Although the Qur’an refers to the asb­­āṭ the Tribes—the sons of Jacob and thus the tribes of Israel—it rarely portrays the stories familiar from Genesis as explaining how Israelites can trace their ancestry to patriarchs with Mesopotamian background who found themselves enslaved in Egypt. The Qur’an recounts the promise of the Asb­­āṭ always to be loyal to God—but the promise of Land, such an important part of the Patriarchal story in Genesis—is encountered in the Qur’an primarily in the account of Moses and the Israelites. Here, the promise of land to the Israelites is described as having been written—but not associated with Abraham. Instead, Abraham and Ismail are associated with the Ka’ba, and the rituals of Hajj and Id al-Adha are given an Abrahamic basis.

Other Stories of Abraham

Jewish tradition tells other stories of Abraham. One of the most popular—found not in the Bible but in the Midrash, is how he destroyed the idols of his father. The story is familiar from the Qur’an as well.[11] these stories play a role, interestingly, even in the Kitāb al-Filāḥa al-Nabaṭiyya, supposedly a translation of a pre-Islamic pagan work[12] and reflect a motif found in ancient Egyptian literature as well. But it is important to note that they work quite differently: in the Midrash, the story testifies to Abraham’s strong faith, and his ability to use rational argument. It may even be an argument against relying on miracles as Abraham’s brother follows Abraham’s lead into the fiery furnace – presumably without Abraham’s faith – and dies there. In the Qur’anic version, God guides Abraham every step of the way.

Abraham is the paradigm of loyal belief in God, the ancestor of a holy people, willing to follow Divine precepts no matter how severely tested. Should not his mission be enough? If there is room for Moses or Jesus or Muhammad, this means there is a problem of Abrahamic insufficiency.

For Maimonides, it is simple: Abraham represents the possibility of knowing God through rational thought. But a system based only on rational thought is not going to be successful for all in the long term. It did, however, prepare the people so that Moses could codify practices based on Divine revelation that would make it possible for the people to maintain belief in God. Maimonides’ argument is particularly striking: Abraham only makes sense if he comes to Divine belief totally without a living tradition of monotheism: it has to be freely developed by Man rather than imposed by God.

The Qur’an is pretty much the opposite: God explicitly leads Abraham through the steps necessary to challenge polytheistic veneration of natural features and forces. Moses is mentioned in the Qur’an many more times than Abraham; and although the Muslims introduced the idea of Abrahamic ancestry of the Arabs, a kinship basis for national identity is ultimately rejected in favor of a religious one. Yet it is Abraham who is mentioned, for example, in daily Muslim prayer, and not Moses; and the Pilgrimage recreates the experiences of Abraham as well as Muhammad. (And it might be suggested that the Pilgrimage—connected with Abraham’s precedent—became far more important in ritual recollection (the annual Hajj) than the Hijra, which might be considered a Mosaic model, an Exodus from Mecca, and, to the extent that early followers of Muhammad were known as muhajirin—those who had left Mecca.

Abraham’s faith was not enough, though. Ibn al-Kalbi explains that at first and people fell away from true belief until the Qur’an came.

My father [Muhammad al-Kalbī] and others told me—and I confirmed all of their traditions—that when Ishmael b. Abraham had inhabited Mecca and had had many children… Mecca became too small for them, and wars and enmity broke out amongst them. Some of them drove out others and they spread out among the land…. What brought them to worship idols and stones was that no one would depart from Mecca without carrying stones from the Ḥaram (sacred area), as a means of honoring the Ḥaram and love for Mecca. And when they alit (at their homes) they set it down and circumambulated around it as they had circumambulated the Ka‘ba, showing loyalty to it and love and devotion to the Ḥaram. They afterwards were still giving honor to the Ka‘ba and to Mecca, making pilgrimage and ‘umra (an abbreviated pilgrimage, lacking the visit to the Mountain of Mercy outside Mecca), according to the heritage of Abraham and Ishmael.

Then this brought them to worship what they had adored, and they forgot what the (stones) had been, and they replaced the religion of Abraham and Ishmael for something else. And so they worshipped idols, and had become like those nations who had come before, drawing forth the worship of the people of Noah, according to the heritage of what remained of them.” (Kitāb al-Aṣnām p. 6).

Maimonides’ explanation is more or less the same, at least in the stage of Adam to Abraham, in which the people began to praise the planets and stars as divine handiwork, then forgot monotheism and began to worship them as gods. But from Abraham onward, they found that the rationalist understanding was not enough—yet it was a necessary stage in preparing Abraham’s descendants to receive the Torah. Yet it was not enough: Moses was sent and crowned with the Torah, teaching divine laws and proper modality of worship.

The Qur’an offers other narratives about falling away: Jews and Christians received authentic Prophecy, but either changed it or cancelled it, or, rejected it, thus losing their identity: “tilka ummatun qad hallat” “This is a nation that has passed away.”  In any case, for Islam, the early revelations were confirmed by that given to Muhammad. The Qur’an hardly has the kind of rationalist discourse Maimonides offers: nevertheless, each verse is a sign (aya) attesting to its truth, and Muhammad is the seal of prophets. So, unlike Abraham, whose descendants did not keep up his revelation and faith, Muhammad’s revelation is clear, and protected from being changed or cancelled.

By the way, I believe it unlikely that Maimonides was unaware of the paradigms of both Ibn al-Kalbi and the Qur’an, and that his narrative in his “Laws of Idolators” can only be understood as a response to them.[13]

The Christian situation is more complex, in that as Christianity developed, the idea was that Abraham and all the prophets were but preparation for the coming of Christ. In the synoptic Gospels, Abraham symbolizes not the promise of land or total faith but the genealogical heritage of the Jewish people, and in several passages, as a kind of guardian in Heaven. Yet we find in Luke 16, Abraham is envisioned in heaven, telling someone enduring hardship there that Moses and the Prophets are a sufficient guide—here Abraham is portrayed as pointing to what Jews would call Torah, mitzvot u-masoret Torah, commandments and tradition.”[14]  Yet the passage also says that the doctrine of resurrection of the dead would not be able to teach them what Moses and the Prophets could not, and it implies that the Torah and Prophets were not enough.  Abraham foreshadows Jesus—but also, at least in some passages in the Gospels, Abraham also symbolizes the fact that Abrahamic genealogy and fidelity to Mosaic law are insufficient.   This is a reading of the New Testament itself; for Christian thought itself, Abraham’s readiness to offer sacrifice, even Isaac’s readiness to accept his fate, pales in comparison to Jesus’ self-sacrifice. Abraham and Isaac show unflinching loyalty to God (and get a reiteration of the promise of progeny, patrimony and blessing)—but it is only the latter that saves the world.

In thinking about Christianity’s difference from Judaism, it is too easy to focus on the questions put forth for example at the disputation of the Ramban, Rabbi Moses b. Nahman c. 1270,—and still asked today—about the person and timing of the Messiah. But we should be aware that there are other questions to be asked, and determining who is the Messiah and whether he has already come or not is not the only one. And is not particularly relevant to my questions about the role of Abraham and why Abraham is not sufficient.  Perhaps more important is to ask what the significance might be of the framing of the Messianic mission. A few years ago, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik framed the difference between Jewish and Christian attitudes not about the Messiah’s identity and timing, but about the possibility of performing God’s will: For Judaism, the Messiah will come when Jews do good—understood by traditional Jews as observing mitzvot: redemption results from the performance of God’s will. For Christianity, ultimately, redemption is a necessary prerequisite for the performance of God’s will. Abraham may have observed all the Torah (according to Jewish tradition) and taught about God, but the Torah—the source of mitzvot—was revealed through Moses. Abraham showed he was ready to sacrifice his son, but the redemptive sacrifice for Christians was that of Jesus. (There is also a very different approach here to the audience: the Torah is depicted as being revealed to the entire Israelite people at Sinai, whereas Abraham taught his family and those he may have met; Jesus’ redemptive sacrifice was witnessed by those who were at Golgotha and the resurrection by disciples and friends, not the entire people, but it is seen as being addressed to the entire world). Very different models—but in all of them, Abraham paved the way, modeled or foreshadowed the paths for salvation or redemption—but the process was completed by Moses or Jesus.

Abraham is a figure that unites monotheists, and it is easy to understand why these are called “Abrahamic traditions.” But Abraham is also a very problematic figure—one who is clearly superceded by Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. He is thus a superb icon for interfaith comparisons: seen by all as the start of the tradition, and by none as sufficient. Moreover, Abraham symbolizes very different things in each of these traditions—he is indeed honored in all, but we have seen many different ideas about why and how this is so. The different traditions honor the “one” Abraham, but are they really talking about “the same” Abraham. I pose the question this way—using a simplistic “one” vs. “same” dichotomy that I would normally find objectionably simplistic—to create a parallel regarding discourse about God. Muslims, Christians and Jews assert they are monotheists, that is, they assert they recognize the One God. Many in our society however, ask whether others recognize the “same” God, without considering that their assertion that there is One God renders the question meaningless. The question perhaps is better put as whether the others believe the same things about God. So too with Abraham. Although Abraham is usually considered to be the same Abraham—Jews, Christians and Muslims recognize the same Abraham, so to speak, they do not necessarily share the same values and conclusions when discussing him. Perhaps Abraham might not merely be a model for ways to redemption, but also provide an important model for discussing labels for theological differences about the very sameness and oneness of God.

Our students tend to harmonize disparate pieces of data, and collect information from different sources without realizing that apparent commonalities may reflect shared themes, but ultimately cannot be completely reconciled. Too often, they focus on black and white differences or similarities which represent a shared experience and shared narrative traditions. Like competing narratives of, say, a fight or breaking a window, told by competing siblings, the details necessarily similar, but the stories clearly have different “spin” and reflect different agendas. When judging sibling disagreements, it may be possible to create a most likely scenario. But in our case, it is likely that the stories have been told and retold so often that ultimately, whatever they may or may not tell us about the historical subject of the story is unclear and elusive, but the similarities and dissimilarities tell us volumes about those who chose to tell those stories and the values they want to transmit.

Our most important task, when teaching this material, is to model three sometimes-contradictory tasks.

  • To apply the best tools of analysis we can.
  • To point out the commonality of the traditions.
  • And, to help our students, disciples and, might I add the consumers of our research, to understand and truly respect the differences—not merely to point out how the stories in a tradition that is not our own differ from our tradition, but to do so in a spirit that nevertheless conveys both respect for what is different, and that it is different.

Seth Ward


[1] This essay was delivered at an invited conference session of the WJSA (Western Jewish Studies Association) in 2011. It was slightly edited, re-titled, and updated in 2016.

[2] This characterization is based on anecdotal reports such as “Well, my family went to church when I was young but we stopped going when I was in elementary school” or “I went to Sunday school only until I was about ten when I started soccer practice.”

[3] Nabatean Agriculture was widely known in medieval times in its Arabic translation, Al-Filāḥa al-Nabaṭiyya, recently edited and published in Arabic by Toufic Fahd, Damascus, 1993-1998, and various Arabic paraphrases, and considered to be associated with the Ṣabi’an religion. Assuming that at its core the Arabic versions in fact translated an earlier, Aramaic work, it provides evidence of a group of star-worshippers who told many stories about the Biblical Abraham in late antiquity and early Islamic times. The term Ṣabi’an is not without its problems. In the Arabic speaking Middle Ages, there were a number of opinions about who the “Sabi‘ans” were. Some considered this to be the name of the ancient polytheism at the basis of Egyptian, Greek and Mesopotamian idolatry. Others considered it to be a form of monotheism based on a scripture. The relationship between this group and the “Ḥanīf” religion—supposedly monotheism—has been subject to much debate.

[4] Muḥarram is often thought to have begun in the fall in an ancient Meccan calendar which kept pace with the sun, unlike the Islamic calendar, which does not. I explored some of the issues and suggested solutions in S. Ward: “Teach us to Number our days: The Elusive Epoch in Muslim, Jewish, and Christian Calendars.” Millennialism from the Hebrew Bible to the Present. (Studies in Jewish Civilization Vol. 12) L. Greenspoon and R.A. Simkins, ed. Creighton University Press, University of Nebraska Press, 2002. 63-90.

[5] See for example, P Birnbaum, Daily Prayer Book, New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1949, pp. 19-22.

[6] Al-Ṭabarī noted that both views had been supported by statements reported on the authority of Muhammad, but suggests that the Qur’ān itself proves that the better version of the account is the one which Isaac is offered by his father.  1:290ff.; the Qur’ānic proof: 1:300.  For discussions of these stories the views of other Islamic scholars, see see, e.g., the brief note note to 1:290, (Brinner, The History of Al-Ṭabarī II: Prophets and Patriarchs, Albany: SUNY Press , 1987, p. 82). See also R. Firestone, Journeys in Holy Lands, Albany: SUNY Press, 1990, 135-151, who notes that Ṭabarī’s choice has no following among contemporary Muslims. Khaleel Mohammed, Journal of culture and religion (Concordia University, Montreal), 13 (1999) 125-138.

[7] Genesis Rabbah 56:4, 8, and Rashi commentary on Gen. 22:8. Shalom Spiegel’s volume, The Last Trial: On the legends and lore of the command to Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, New York: Pantheion Books, 1967, is a study of many of the midrashic and poetic elaborations of this passage.

[8] Gen. Rabbah 56:11; Midrash Ha-Gadol on the verse, and numerous other places.

[9] Genesis 24:12-19.

[10] A reading of Gen. 24:63: Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 26b, Bereishit Rabba 60:14.

[11] Pesahim 118a; Qur’ān 6:74 and 21:51ff.

[12] See reference above, note 7.

[13] I also think he was aware of the Kuzari  by Judah HaLevi. HaLevi asserted that a tradition about God was transmitted from Adam to Abraham through individuals, in other words, Abraham knew about God via traditional teachings rather rational argument. I suspect but of course cannot prove that Maimonides’ use of Hebrew davar “thing” in the passage in “Laws of Idolators” can be seen as a response to HaLevi’s use of the Arabic al-amr al-ilahi “divine thing” (note that the classic Hebrew translation of HaLevi’s idea uses a different Hebrew word: Ha-Inyan ha-elohi; I am not aware of a translation as ha-davar ha-elohi.) My colleague Prof. Daniel Lasker has become well known for his discussions of the differences between HaLevi and Maimonides on these subjects, characterizing HaLevi’s approach to Judaism as inherited and transmitted as “Software” and Maimonides as ultimately based on personal rational exploration as “Hardware.”

[14] By Masoret, I am thinking here more broadly of the notion of Oral Tradition—the tradition handed down from Moses to Joshua to the Elders, etc. Avot 1:1.

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