As the Hajj – the great annual pilgrimage to the holy city of Makkah – unfolds, a gigantic, majestic figure offers himself for reflection. Not just for Muslims but for other fellow monotheists, the Christians and the Jews. Ibrahim-Abraham is part of their shared, sacred heritage. Surely that is something to rejoice about. Friendship and harmony between believers in God is a duty. Despite being common to each faith, however, this Abraham-Ibrahim also poses some challenges because our Scriptures and traditions do not all understand him in the same way.
For Muslims, Abraham is first and foremost a Prophet but for Christians and Jews, he is not that but a Patriarch: the father and ancestor of the chosen people. (Not that he is always quite exemplary. For instance, in Genesis, he lies to his wife Sarah. What to make of that?) The Hajj refers to various tests and trials endured by Abraham and his family. For example, in chapter Al-Anbiyaa the Qur’an describes Abraham breaking idols into pieces. No such episode is mentioned in the Torah, the five Books of Moses, although rabbinical traditions agree with the Qur’an. The New Testament Letter to the Hebrews in a long chapter also alludes to Abraham’s vicissitudes, though not to any smashing of idols. Abraham is
The New Testament Letter to the Hebrews in a long chapter also alludes to Abraham’s vicissitudes, though not to any smashing of idols. Abraham is par excellence the father of faith. Note that Hebrews state that his sufferings were ‘for the sake of Christ’, the Messiah to come, something with which Muslims could hardly agree. Furthermore, the Book of Genesis understands Abraham’s family in a way not acceptable to Muslims. The Patriarch’s legitimate son is Isaac, whereas Ishmael, the ancestor of the Arabs, though not of all Muslims, is the slave woman Hagar’s son. St Paul in Galatians argues theologically from this fact, in a way not conducive to interfaith happiness. The two women for him stand for two antagonistic, opposing covenants.
Above all, in Islam the Prophet Abraham witnesses to tawhid, the absolute unity of the Godhead. Many Christians, by contrast, have interpreted the three men who appear to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre in Genesis, 18, as divine emissaries, angels, and as anticipations of… the Trinity! A doctrine which to Muslims and Jews is like a red rag to a bull. A bit discouraging?
Professor Jon Levenson of Harvard University attributes the intellectual popularity of the notion of ‘Abrahamic faiths’ to the French Orientalist scholar and priest Louis Massignon. A man of deep spirituality and yearnings, Massignon was obsessed with discovering the Christ of Christianity in Islam – a search bound to be fruitless, although his massive study of the mystic al-Hallaj remains of interest. Levenson, a Jew, does not pull any punches. For him, he seems to be saying, Abraham belongs primarily to Judaism. His genuine religious universality is therefore in doubt. Any attempts to exclusively appropriate the Patriarch by other monotheistic faiths are distortions of the true Abraham of the Jewish Torah. Hence they are illicit or misguided, he argues in his book, ‘Inheriting Abraham’.
Levenson is a bit unfair to Massignon. Whatever his motivations (clearly, he hoped eventually to usher Muslims into Christianity) he founded a mystical community of prayer and worship, the Badaliya, whose aim was to celebrate the points of similarity between Cross and Crescent. Abraham conceived as common patrimony of all the three faiths fitted into his scheme. Besides, all of Massignon’s statements about the Prophet Muhammad were profoundly positive. More, Massignon actually wrote that the divine inspiration suffusing the pages of the Bible is also present and active in the Qur’an. You can hardly imagine a more sympathetic approach by an orthodox Christian and priest.
Back to Abraham. One or Three? Jewish, Christian or Muslim? Which faith can properly claim him for itself? I submit that is the wrong question. When years ago I took part, along with Rabbi Wittenberg and various Imams, in the Ahl al-Ibrahim programme on al-Mustakillah Arab TV channel, I never tried to insinuate that the Abraham of the New Testament is the only and exclusively right portrait of the noble champion of faith. Instead, I was most interested in learning from my fellow speakers. Nor does it trouble me that the Abraham idol-breaker of the Qur’an is not exactly replicated in my Holy Scriptures. The point is that destroying idols is a meritorious task. Many Christian Saints have indeed done the same, such as St Boniface, who in Germany cut down an oak sacred to the pagan god Thor. Boniface is rightly honoured for that. Abraham, the friend of the One True God, would not have done less.
Back in 2010, I happily signed a ‘Resolution to Safeguard Our Common Values and Communities’, a document put forward by a gathering of scholars of the ‘Three Abrahamic Faiths’ who met at the Islamic Centre of England in Maida Vale. We were affirming our common religious grounds and solidarity against the injudicious initiative by an ignorant individual in the US who wanted to publicly burn copies of the Qur’an. Attacking so brutally the holy text of one of our faiths was an attack on us all, we declared.
So, perhaps, here is a possible, key meaning of Ibrahim-Abraham for sincere and devout monotheists, especially in this month of Dhu’l-Hijjah. In a society in which increasingly the idea of the Holy, its symbols and representatives are daily insulted and vilified, the goodly Patriarch, the friend of God, the father of faith, stands, as firm as a rock, as a model, a spiritual source of encouragement and strength. ‘Be friends!’ God’s friend is urging us.