The Muslim Abraham
Issue 86 November 2011
Abraham is a central figure to three faiths, but the scriptural differences can cause deep divisions.Sarah Joseph examines how Abraham’s story can heal our fractured world.
He defied his father and his community; he had to flee for his life; he abandoned his family in the wilderness; he was prepared to kill his son. With such a background, Abraham would not appear to be a good role model. Yet, he is revered by billions of people over thousands of years, and his life is a testament to pure monotheism, great sacrifices and devotion to God. The Qur’an speaks of Abraham with great admiration: “And who could be of better faith than the one who surrenders utterly to God, and is a doer of good and follows the faith of Abraham, the upright one?” (4:125)
Abraham was born in a society steeped in the worship of idols. Early on in his life, he tried to persuade his father to reject this practice and submit himself to the One True God. But his father’s business centred on crafting idols of worship, and so he rebuked Abraham, “I shall most certainly cause thee to be stoned to death!” Abraham’s reply is a perfect lesson in gentleness and politeness, “Peace be upon you! I shall ask my Lord to forgive you: for, behold, He has always been kind to me.” (19:46-47)
Idol-worship was seen by Abraham as something self-degrading and enslaving. He saw no greatness and experienced no awe in the worship of statues that his father and other human beings crafted with their own hands. So he tried to free his community from this harmful practice. In the Qur’anic narrative, he sets a testing scenario for the people by destroying all their idols except the largest one. When the people remonstrated with him, Abraham mockingly told them to ask the big idol for answers. The people were confounded, but only momentarily, and soon they demanded his death: “Kill him… burn him.” (29:24). But God saved him by cooling the flames.
By this point, the young Abraham had defied his father, enraged his community, and derided their beliefs. He had challenged the centres of power and upset the status quo with his persistent reasoning and logic. He even won the public debate with Nimrod, the king. By doing so, he became a dangerous dissident. Though he had won the intellectual arguments against his father, his community, and his king, he had been unable to win their hearts, and they threatened him with death. So Abraham was forced to flee with his wife Sarah and nephew Lot.
But his trials and tribulations were not over. Having committed his life to God, he was tested still further. He was commanded to leave his wife Hagar and son Ishmael in the wilderness, and later to sacrifice Ishmael. On the sacrifice, it is written in Genesis that, “Sometime later, God tested Abraham... ‘Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac... Sacrifice him as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.’” (Genesis 22:1-2) In the Qur’an, however, it intimates that Ishmael is the one whom God had commanded for sacrifice. The argument about whether it was Isaac or Ishmael has become fundamental. For many people, religious belief is centred on this question. Leaving aside the dispute in identity, the fundamental lesson for us here is our willingness to give up that which is dearest and closest to us; whether we have the resolve and willpower necessary to achieve the higher spiritual goals.
The Qur’an praises Isaac, and his son Jacob, calling them “righteous men”, and explains how God “made them leaders who would guide in accordance with Our behest: for We inspired them to do good works, and to be constant in prayer, and to dispense charity: and Us alone did they worship.” (21:72-73) And Jacob’s son, Joseph, is also a prophet blessed by God.
The Qur’an reveres all the prophets, named and unnamed, and as such, it is an amazingly inclusive religious text. It even insists on equality, stating that “no distinction is to be made between them.” However, some factual differences with other religious texts are paramount to Muslim theology, as the following example of ‘informed consent’ shows. The Bible informs us that Isaac had no idea what his father was intending, “The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” (Genesis 22:7). In the Qur’anic version, Abraham asked his son’s opinion, and Ishmael was fully aware and readily submitted to his father’s obligation. “And when the child had become old enough to share in his father’s endeavours, the latter said: ‘O my dear son! I have seen in a dream that I should sacrifice you: consider, then, what would be your view!’ He answered: ‘O my father! Do as you are commanded: you will find me, if God so wills, among those who are patient in adversity!’” (37:102) Without Ishmael’s consent, to the Muslim mind Abraham’s submission to God is tantamount to human sacrifice; with Ismail’s consent it is a joint act of submission to God.
Of course, God requires no such sacrifice, consensual or otherwise. Abraham could keep his beloved son and more, for God promises Abraham a nation—an ummah. Much is made of God’s promise. Abraham was indeed concerned for his children and his descendants. Firstly, and primordially, our responsibility to the world begins with our responsibility to our children. But perhaps also because he had a sense of history, and knew that what he wanted to achieve could not be done within one generation. God however tells him, “My Covenant does not include the wrongdoers.” (2:124) Thus, affirming through Abraham’s story that it is deeds, not birthright that ultimately matter. Much also is made of the fact that according to the Bible God promises to Abraham a land. Thousands of years later, people are still fighting and killing one another because of those disputed claims. This should be an uncomfortable reality for anyone who claims to believe in Abraham’s message of honest and upright conduct.
But Abraham does not have to be a divisive figure. Regardless of who claims him, or makes claims on his lineage, he is a role model for all. As God says in the Qur’an, “I am going to make you a leader for all of mankind to follow.” (2:124) It is the message of Abraham that is consistent in all the scriptures, and over which we can unite.
Abraham taught belief in the One God, and urged the leading of an upright life. Abraham’s story, primordial and archetypal, much of which is re-enacted annually through the Hajj, shows us the common, ancient origin of our human roots. Those roots have grown to become different trees, but each is a manifestation of the same reality, namely worship of the One Creator who created us all; who created us into diverse nations and identities so that we can constructively engage with one another, and compete in the doing of good.
Abraham expressed an archetypal spirituality which is in harmony with our natural inclination towards good. The Qur’an describes how Abraham was “neither a Jew nor a Christian, but a hanif, a muslim. And he was not of the polytheists.” (3:67) Not being a Jew or a Christian is undisputed from a historical perspective as he pre-dates both, but how could he be a “muslim” as he predates that too, does he not? This is where we have to understand that “muslim” is not a noun introduced from the time of Muhammad; rather it is a way of being and thinking that has existed since the beginning of creation. It describes the one who surrenders himself to God, and thus all the prophets were in that sense muslims, for they all surrendered to God. As for Abraham being a hanif—an upright, righteous person—the word has at its root in the way of Abraham, to incline towards good, to turn away from wrong. Thus, a person without any taught religion would come to the way of the hanif if they were to ponder the revelation of the created world.
Through Abraham’s progeny, we are united by familial ties: Jews and Muslims are often described as cousins. The story of Abraham reminds us of the deep connection of our kinship. We have a shared human experience, and remembering Abraham’s story gives us the opportunity to remember our original spiritual and moral substance. Remembering his covenant with God gives us the opportunity to remember our own original covenant. When we were souls with God, He asked us, “Am I not your Lord?” And our souls affirmed, “Yes, we do so testify.” (7:172). We all have the same essential experience of being human. We will have different physical experiences—of wealth or poverty, of health or illness, of gender and race, but the essence of being human is the same.
We can argue about whom the covenant between God and Abraham is with, or we can fulfil our own covenant with God. We can disagree about whom God asked Abraham to sacrifice, or we can dedicate our own sacrifices to Him. We can dispute with each other about the nature of the tests Abraham faced, or we can face our own tests with fortitude, forbearance and patience. We can fight about our differences, or we can remember that we are united in the singular conviction that Abraham held—there is only one God worthy of worship, and we surrender ourselves to Him.
Abraham’s life was the exact opposite of idol worship. If he is to be relevant today, we have to ask what are the idols which we have crafted with our own hands, and which we take to be our gods. Indeed, have we turned our religions into our idols? For surely, it is not about whether we are Jew or Christian or Muslim, it is about whether we are righteous, upright people, and whether we are willing to surrender ourselves to God.