A few days ago I ran into an acquaintance with whom I had a brief conversation about interfaith dialogue. In the course of our conversation he used the term “Abrahamic religions.” At other times I have also heard the phrase “the Abrahamic faiths” referring to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Having been involved in interfaith conversations myself, these phrases trigger in me a number of thoughts. I do not know the origin of their usage but their meaning is clear enough as they point to Judaism, Christianity and Islam being sibling religions, as it were. In Judaism, Christianity and in Islam, Abraham occupies a key position and so suggests a basic commonality between them.
This commonality is generally seen as something positive in as much as it holds the potential for interfaith respect at a minimum, and a feeling of religious brother-and sisterhood at best. It suggests the possibility, if not a mandate, for peaceful coexistence and cooperation in our common need to confront all kinds of dangers we humans face. Sadly enough, the opposite has been taking place as the three religions oppose, denigrate and fight each other.
Contrary to many folks’ expectations, the religions that claim common origins are precisely the ones that are in tension with each other. Islam, the youngest among the three, belittles and attacks both Christianity and Judaism in the Qur’an, its holy book, as religions who tampered with the original holy texts given to them by God Allah (Sura 3:81-56). There are Qur’anic texts that warn Muslims from having social relationships with practitioners of Judaism and Christianity… The New Testament, especially in its gospel of John, is stridently anti-Jewish… Judaism, in some of its holy scriptures ridicules other ancient Near Eastern religions as examples of gross superstitions. In the Hebrew Bible there is no criticism of either Christianity or of Islam for the simple reason that neither Christianity nor Islam existed prior to the 1st cent. CE, i.e., before Christianity and later Islam came into existence. However, in the post-biblical Jewish rabbinical literature we do find statements slanderous of Jesus and Christianity.
In this connection it is worth observing that no animosity exists between Judaism and, say Hinduism, whose respective sacred texts hold nothing in common. The same is true for Christianity and its relationship, say, to Confucianism. No animosity there either. So also Islam, to my knowledge, has no quarrel with Buddhism, etc. On the other hand, within Islam itself we find deadly animosity between the Shia and the Sunni movements, both of which claim Islam as their religious legacy and fight each other in the name of Allah.
Let me then restate here that it is precisely religions that claim common origins that are the ones that are in conflict with each other because their interpretations of these common origins vary from each other. The newer interpretations often segue into formation of sects and into new religions that claim to be correctives to previous expressions, take on new names and announce to the world ultimate truths only they hold. These latest revelations from divinity become ultimate authority trying to eclipse precedent expressions of faith by means of missionary teaching or worse, violent conflict.
How does the personage of Abraham relate to all this?
In Judaism, which is not a monolithic religion, Abraham is often claimed as its founder. I would rather vote for Moses and the Exodus from Egypt as the founding experience of Judaism. There are Jews who see in Abraham the founder of monotheism. He is one of the three patriarchs (with Isaac and Jacob) or eponymous ancestors of the religion. He is the role model of the person who obediently carries out God’s instructions. His obedience goes so far as being willing to sacrifice his own son Isaac to God. He lives according to God’s laws by faith before the Torah is given to Moses on Mount Sinai. He is the first to practice circumcision. It is to him and his progeny that God promises possession of what is commonly called the Holy Land. Because of Abraham’s merits, God grants to the people Israel and to its later expression, the Jewish people, his covenant or special relationship with him and so also the promised land. There are other promises too numerous to mention here.
In Christianity, which is not a monolithic religion either, Abraham is seen as the role model of human faith and obedience to God. In that sense he is the prefiguration par excellence of Jesus, the Christ. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac is proleptic of God’s subsequent willingness to give His son Jesus as a sacrifice for the redemption of humankind. And Isaac, Judaism’s second patriarch who according to the biblical text is willing to be sacrificed, foreshadows Jesus’ willingness to die on the cross for the salvation of humanity. Thus, according to Christianity (cf. the apostle Paul’s writing), the Abraham story foreshadows its actualization in Jesus Christ. Actualization is, of course, of greater value than mere prophecy! Given this Christian valuation, Christianity and the Christian people supercede and displace Judaism and Jews from their special relationship to God. The covenant with the Jews is annulled and instead, established with the Christian Church, i.e., the Christian people.
In Islam, which is not a monolithic religion either, Abraham is the believer par excellence who obeys God Allah. The term Islam means submission and Muslims are the people who in following Allah’s word in the holy book called the Qur’an (or recitation) submit to the divinity. In Muslim theology, Abraham, in Arabic Ibrahim, is the first who submits to Allah’s word and so, here also, is the role model for what it means to live in submission or surrender to God. Also, however, Abraham, or rather Ibrahim, in Islam’s teaching is thus the first Muslim, having totally surrendered to Allah’s will. Whereas in Judaism it is Abraham’s son Isaac who was to be sacrificed, in Islam it is Abraham’s and Sarah’s older son Ishmael (in Arabic, Ismail) who was to die and so, by submitting to be sacrificed, Ishmael becomes the eponymous ancestor of Muslims. Ibrahim and Ishmael built the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, in the city of Mecca. Jerusalem is the place from where the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven after his Night Journey from Mecca and thus the Dome of the Rock, from where the prophet ascended and the nearby al-Aqsa mosque are the third holiest shrines for Muslims, the second holiest site being the al-Masjid an-Nabawi (Mosque of the Prophet) in the city of Medina. Because it is Allah’s word in the Qur’an, transmitted to humanity by the prophet Muhammad, it is by virtue of these words being the latest divine revelation, that the Qur’an displaces both the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) and the Christian New Testament. According to Muslim scholars, the Qur’an corrects both the Jewish and Christian Holy Scriptures where they had been tampered with and so restores the antecedent original revelations from God.
These three sets of religious affirmations, all three claiming to have issued from the God of the Hebrew Bible and the Jews, the trinitarian God of the New Testament and the Christians, and from Allah, the Qur’an’s God of Islam and the Muslims, respectively, do not agree with one another. In the minds of each of these religions’ literalist readers and practitioners, their God and their scripture calls for unquestioning acceptance and adherence. Figurative and/or metaphorical exegesis of holy book texts are not permitted. In that kind of religious fundamentalism it is “we” (believers) against “them” (unbelievers). Every reading and sermon of these divisive texts underlines and perpetuates separation and superiority, two disturbing and destructive attitudes.
Returning now to modern interfaith dialogue, it is my contention that problems of this kind, rather than to be swept under the rug, must be honestly confronted and discussed, before lasting improvement in interfaith relations can be achieved through inter-faith conversations. I do not believe that sitting around a campfire, holding hands and singing “kumbaya, my lord” will get us anywhere.
The regular reading in mosque, church, synagogue or at home of these divisive texts perpetuate misunderstanding and mutual alienation. Only the honest facing of the divisive texts, their learned study and discussion which involves historical context, perhaps even their elimination altogether or, at the least, critical annotation in Bibles, New Testaments and Qur’ans, will advance mutual respect and rapprochement. Perhaps I am asking for the impossible.
This said, I recommend the teaching of the great Rabbi Tarfon (1st to 2nd cent. CE), “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either,” (Babylonian Talmud, Avot 2:21).
Congratulations are due to those interfaith groups who are courageous and dedicated enough to undertake that difficult and risky task.
Aside from being a CBI treasure, Dr. Walter Ziffer is a Holocaust survivor and retired professor of Biblical Studies and Theology. A tireless advocate for Jewish-Christian dialogue and human rights across the globe, he shares his amazing life experiences with middle school, high school and university students, as well as churches and synagogues. Dr. Ziffer is the author of The Teaching of Disdain, available as an e-book through Amazon; The Birth of Christianity from the Matrix of Judaism and Confronting the Silence: A Holocaust Survivor’s Search for God, all available at Amazon or through your local bookstore. His blogs, re-posted here, can be found at on his website, walterziffer.com