26 Aug Abrahamic Dreaming: Is Abraham a Point of Unity for Islam, Christianity, and Judaism?
The expression “Abrahamic Religions” has become widely accepted in academic and popular conversations as a cover term for a genetically connected “family” of three religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In Religious Studies departments on campuses, the term has become the standard way to refer to the three monotheistic religions, in contrast, for example, to Indian religions or East Asian religions.
As Canadian academic Aaron Hughes (2012) has pointed out, this invocation of Abraham expresses a “wistful hope for coexistence” (Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History, 144). It conjures up a fantasy, which belongs alongside the ahistorical myth of an Andalusian utopia, in which the three religions live side-by-side in peaceful coexistence. The Abrahamic ideal offers a tempting escape from deep-seated fears over the clash of civilizations. It smooths the way to acceptance of profound spiritual shifts, an invitation for Europe to pivot away from a “Judeo-Christian” historical identity toward an “Abrahamic identity,” in which Islam is no longer viewed as something alien, but as indigenous to the West. It functions as a bridge to the Islamization of the West. It is because of fear that the use of the term “Abrahamic,” in reference to the three faiths, only really took off in the years which followed 9/11.
To speak of “Abrahamic Religions” has become especially popular among Jewish and Christian liberal progressives on the one hand, and Muslim apologists on the other. It supposes a unity or brotherhood, a family resemblance across the three faiths, grounded in a common origin, in shared genetic spiritual material, labelled “Abrahamic.” The claim is that Abraham is “shared” as a point of common origin by all three monotheistic religions, and naming him as their shared identity is meant to signal that these three faiths are linked together in some kind of theological continuity. But, is the construct of “Abrahamic religion” helpful, or quite the opposite, a bad idea, based in an imagined and unreal wishful thinking? Is the multi-faith, ecumenical Abraham really the same person found in the pages of the Bible?
Divergent Views Regarding Abraham
To be sure, Christianity and Judaism do have the Abraham of Genesis in common. This is the Abraham of covenant and promise, the “father of many,” and “patriarch” of Israel, but also a symbol of God’s benevolence to the nations. While no model of moral perfection, the Abraham of Genesis is nevertheless the prototype or forerunner of someone in intimate, personal, covenantal relationship with God, a state to which the Hebrew Scriptures testify on almost every page. While the overlap between Judaism and Christianity in their appreciation of Abraham—embodied in the Genesis account—is profound, there are important differences in how these two faiths understand him. Neither Judaism nor Christianity is content to read Abraham solely through the lens of Genesis.
For Christians, it is Paul who frames Abraham, casting him as someone justified by faith (Romans 4:22; Genesis 15:6). Paul’s Abraham might be considered as the prototype of a de-Judaized, Gentile Christian, liberated from the shackles of the rabbinical Law. While for Jews Abraham’s paternity is through literal descent, Christians consider themselves to be Abraham’s children “by faith,” following Paul who calls Abraham the “father of all who believe” (Romans 4:16). This involves a new lineage for Gentiles. On the other hand, Jews read Abraham through the Oral Traditions (the Talmud), which portray him as an idol-destroying monotheist and a forerunner of Torah observance.
Christianity and Judaism share the Abraham of covenant, the father of many, patriarch of the nation of Israel, and a blessing to the world through Israel, but despite the shared biblical narrative, Abraham stands as a divisive figure between the two biblical faiths. For the Jews, he is the very model of a Torah-observant Jew, but for Christians he is the man saved by faith, a figure who stands opposed to Jewish adherence to the Torah. Far from being a point of unity, Abraham is a bone of contention and point of division between Jews and Christians.
In the Quran, Abraham is the second most frequently mentioned biblical figure after Moses. Like other biblical references found in the Quran, this material appears to be derived from Jewish traditions circulating in oral form in the seventh century A.D., for there is little or no evidence that the human author of the Quran had a first-hand acquaintance with the Bible.
Unlike the Bible, the Quran normally does not have one specific section devoted to telling the story of individuals but instead prefers to treat them allusively, making multiple references, some of which are fragmentary.
There are allusions in the Quran to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, which mention Abraham (e.g. Sura 26:160ff), and to the visit of angels to establish a covenant (e.g. Sura 11:69-73). There are also extra-biblical legends, such as the Talmudic narratives of Abraham’s destruction of his father’s idols (Sura 21:58) and being thrown into a fiery furnace, a trial the Quranic Abraham survives (Sura 21:68-70).
Throughout these scattered references, Abraham is presented as a proto-typical messenger of Islam: a model monotheist. Strikingly, Abraham is also said to have been the one who called people by the name Muslims or “submitters” (Sura 22:78). In the same vein, the Quran asserts that Abraham taught the religion of Muhammad, which was the same as the religion of Moses, Noah, and Jesus (Sura 42:13), and just like Muhammad, Abraham is said to have had received scripture from Allah (Sura 87:16-19; 4:54; 19:41).
Instead of calling Abraham the “father of nations,” the Quran describes him as the imam or “leader” of nations (Sura 2:124), and from his line other “leaders” will come, namely Muhammad. Thus, instead of Abraham being a blessing to the nations, he is an ancestor of Muhammad by the line of Ishmael. He is wheeled in by the Quran to validate the claims of its prophet.
One of the more striking depictions of Abraham in the Quran comes in the later “Medinan” chapters, when Muhammad is waging war on non-believers. To justify enmity against former friends and relatives who have refused to toe the line of Muhammad’s message, Abraham is invoked as a model of hostility and hatred:
“There was a good example for you in Abraham, and those who were with him, when they said to their people, ‘Surely we are free of you and what you serve instead of God. We repudiate you, and between us and you enmity has shown itself, and hatred forever, until you believe in God alone.’” (Sura 60:4; see also Sura 9:114)
Another interesting aspect of Abraham in the Quran is the report that he and his son Ishmael built the Kaaba in Mecca and established it as a place of worship for Allah (Sura 2:125). Of course, as the English scholar Alfred Guillaume (1956), in his book entitled Islam, pointed out, “there is no historical evidence for the assertion that Abraham or Ishmael was ever in Mecca, and if there had been such a tradition it would have to be explained how all memory of the Old Semitic name Ishmael…came to be lost. The form in the Quran is taken either from Greek or Syriac sources” (61-62). The point Guillaume was making is that the form of the name “Ishmael” found in the Quran is borrowed from Greek and Syriac (from the biblical traditions). It is implausible that a tradition of the Kaaba being built by Abraham and Ishmael could have been passed down but preserved only in Greek and Syriac (i.e. Christian) traditions, while the name “Ishmael” was forgotten by the Arabs for centuries.
Depicting Islam as the True Abrahamic Religion
What is particularly interesting about the Quran is that the expression “the religion of Abraham” is emphasized repeatedly in its pages. What is this “religion of Abraham”? It all becomes very clear when the Quran commends the “religion of Abraham” to Jews and Christians, rebuking them for having rejected it: “Say: God has spoken the truth, so follow the creed of Abraham…” (Sura 3:95). So the “religion of Abraham,” according to the Quran, is none other than the message being brought by Muhammad (Sura 16:123).
Thus, according to the Quran, it is Islam, in contrast to Christianity and Judaism, which represents Abraham’s faith. It is the followers of Muhammad who have the “best claim” to Abraham: “Surely the people nearest to Abraham are those indeed who followed him, and this prophet [i.e. Muhammad], and those who believe. God is the ally of the believers” (Sura 3:68; see also 4:125). If you accept the premise that Islam is “Abrahamic,” then it follows from the claims of the Quran that the one authentic Abrahamic faith is Islam.
In the Quran, Christians and Jews are rebuked for commending their faith to the Arabs. Muslims, the Quran asserts, are following the religion of Abraham (Sura 2:135). Furthermore, the Quran claims that Abraham was “neither a Christian nor a Jew” (Sura 3:67). He was a Muslim.
Islamic Command to “Make No Distinction”
It is an article of faith in Islam that Muslims are commanded to “make no distinction” (Sura 2:136) between the messengers—i.e. they should accept Abraham just as they accept Muhammad. The flip side of this is that all who accept Abraham should also accept Islam: if you accept Abraham, you should also “make no distinction” and accept Muḥammad as the Messenger of God.
There is an inner logic to Muhammad’s repurposing of Abraham as “Ibrahim.” In the Quran, Muhammad consistently invokes messengers or prophets from the past to validate his own mission. Every time Muhammad is criticized, the Quran insists that this is just what happened to past messengers. In accordance with this logic, biblical figures get repurposed to fit whatever circumstances the messenger of the Quran finds himself in. When Muhammad is issuing warnings about an imminent destructive act of God, he cites the story of Abraham (Sura 11:76) as a model of forbearance, to strengthen the believers (Sura 11:115, 120) as they wait for the end to come. On the other hand, when Muhammad is pursuing violence and enmity against former friends and relatives, he co-opts Abraham for that too (Sura 60:4; 9:114). If hatred was good enough for Abraham, it is good enough for Muhammad and his followers.
Abraham, the Prototypical Muslim
From the Quran’s perspective, Abraham was the prototypical Muslim, used in the Quran as a stick to beat over the heads of Christians and Jews. In reports of disputes with the Jews of Medina, the Quran is essentially saying, “You quote the name Abraham to me, but Abraham was a Muslim, one of a long line of prophets. If you accept Abraham, you must accept me.”
According to the Quran, not only Abraham, but Moses and Jesus were also Muslim prophets. By this view, Islam is the true heritage of Jews and Christians, and Jews and Christians who convert to Islam are actually reverting to the faith of the patriarchs, coming back to the one true religion.
According to this perspective, the “religion of Abraham” is a kind of code for Islam’s precedence over all other religions. Islamic da’wa or mission to Christians and Jews involves calling them to the “religion of Abraham,” i.e. to Islam. Shamin A. Siddiqi, in his comments to Daniel Pipes, clearly states this position:
“Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad were all prophets of Islam. Islam is the common heritage of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim community of America, and establishing the Kingdom of God is the joint responsibility of all three Abrahamic faiths. Islam was the din (faith, way of life) of both Jews and Christians, who later lost it through human innovations. Now the Muslims want to remind their Jewish and Christian brothers and sisters of their original din. These are the facts of history.” (https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/reader-letters/islam-here/ paragraph 4).
This vision, clothed in harmonious-sounding language, is in fact of a sharia-compliant America, led by Muslims and created with the help of Jews and Christians. It is “Abrahamic” in the sense that it is Islam itself which is understood to be the common heritage of the three faiths.
Divisive Nature of the Term “Abrahamic Religion”
Today, the phrase “Abrahamic religion” has become a touchstone of interfaith dialogue and unity between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Ironically, this phrase is itself derived from the Quran, where it refers to Abraham as a Muslim prophet in opposition to Judaism and Christianity.
In reality, Abraham is an intensely divisive figure between Jews, Christians, and Muslims. For Christians, he is the apostle of salvation by faith alone, in opposition to Torah-observance. For Jews, he is the Torah-observant father of the Jewish nation, and a reminder of God’s irrevocable covenant with the Jews. For Muslims, he is the archetypical Muslim prophet, a prominent forerunner who validates Muhammad’s claims that Islam both predates and supersedes the biblical faiths.
The most important and influential advocate for the Abrahamic fantasy was a Lebanese Maronite priest, Youakim Moubarac, following in the footsteps of his teacher, Louis Massignon, who regarded Islam as a faith of genuine revelation—and Muhammad as a prophet—but in a more primitive stage than Christianity.
Moubarac devoted his 1951 doctoral dissertation, Abraham dans le Coran, to the topic of Abraham in Islam. He subsequently exerted a significant influence on Vatican II’s policy on Islam, which has shaped the current Catholic Catechism §841, in which Islam and Christianity are seen as united by adoration of the one God:
“The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.” (https://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p123a9p3.htm)
Moubarac had a vision of a political and spiritual reconciliation between faiths based upon a shared identity as followers of “Abrahamic faith.” However this vision was fundamentally flawed, because it leads to Islamization. A society based on the idea of the Quranic Abraham is a sharia state, which by virtue of the structure of Islamic law, is devoted to the decline of Christianity and Judaism.
The promotion of the “Abrahamic faith” as the touchstone of interfaith religious dialogue found its origins in a vision of a Middle Eastern utopia in which Christians, Muslims, and Jews would live side by side in unity, set in an Islamic frame.
The concept of “Abrahamic faiths” is a fallacy. Its contemporary influence was, tragically, born out of a century of Christian suffering in the Middle East and foisted upon the unsuspecting West. This construct is a theological Trojan horse designed to promote an Islamic worldview of relations between faiths. In reality Islam’s theology and whole worldview is not only different from, but opposed to biblical understandings.
This article first appeared in the November-December 2020 edition of Intercede Magazine.
Mark Durie is the founding director of the Institute for Spiritual Awareness, a Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Senior Research Fellow of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at the Melbourne School of Theology.
To support Mark’s writing and teaching work with the Institute for Spiritual Awareness, visit https://markdurie.com/give/