In the faith traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Abraham is a much loved, much coveted, much invoked, much commemorated and perhaps much disputed ancestor. Whatever the historical Abraham may have been, the true one is the one that comes to life in the stories each generation has woven around him, in the short statements or literary masterpieces which the biblical authors wrote about him, each one adding its own sensibility. These stories were understood and interpreted in ways that made Abraham live in our own hearts and minds. The “real Abraham,” says a Christian scholar, cannot be retrieved from under the earth and yet the “true Abraham” accompanies us through time (1).
Unsurprisingly, the claim to a shared Abrahamic heritage marks the modern history of interreligious dialogue, be it the continuing one in the West between Christians and Jews or the recently attempted encounters between Christians, Jews and Muslims. The reference to the paternity of Abraham as a bond of unity between adherents of the three monotheistic religions has become a commonplace.
However, a number of questions regarding the claim to Abraham deserve a more careful scrutiny. Otherwise, a superficial “Abrahamist” discourse overshadows a genuine dialogue, an encounter of commitments, first and foremost. Abrahamism is equivocal. It can lend itself to a misuse, political and theological, which defeats its own purpose.
In the wake of a renewed debate on the US government’s involvement in the Arab-Israeli Peace Process, and in an article entitled “The Kinship,” the author reflects on what makes Clinton one of the closest friends of the Jews among American Presidents. She over-states his religious motivation and recalls that of Carter, two Baptist Christians who saw, mutatis mutandis, their role as peacemakers in terms of Abrahamic reconciliation (2).
This is not a novelty. In the last three decades, with the emergence and proliferation of Christian-Jewish friendship groups and interreligious dialogue initiatives, the Abrahamic kinship has become increasingly dear to religious souls. For many less religious ones and among the theologically little informed minds, a vaguely defined heritage of Abraham is seen hastily to draw near to each other religious communities that are otherwise driven apart by political conflicts. Among those who are prone to highlight the materiality-rather than the spirituality-of a proud inheritance, many are inclined to justify political projects and territorial claims, at a distance or on the Abrahamic “site” itself (3). More recently, the emphasis on “shared heritage” functions as a legitimating factor for a proposed political and territorial settlement.
In the past, such ambiguities of Abrahamism may have been less noticeable. The common Bible reading among Christians, of all persuasions, hardly denotes a need, or a desire, to appropriate the material heritage of Abraham, let alone share it. Abraham was often looked at in terms of roots or origin, a prototype of discontinuity with paganism. Much was said about Abraham’s obedience and his “estrangement.” His faith was portrayed to be a sort of certitude of hope (4). His hospitality was also a source of inspiration in art. Suffice it to mention the remarkable and popular icon of Andrei Roublev and, beyond Christian iconography, the numerous Persian and Ottoman miniatures.
Today, belonging to Abraham ornaments, in many cases, the invitation to what remains an uneven and politically instrumental interreligious dialogue. It is invoked as peace between nations and religions, more particularly between Arabs and Israelis, is sought. For many western Christians have portrayed the Arab-Israeli conflict as a dispute between the descendants of the two sons of Abraham. The call to reconciliation grounds itself in Abrahamic brotherhood. Originated within a certain stream of western Christian theology, it has spread well beyond. There are those who depict the dispossession of the Palestinian people as imaging the deprivation of Ishmael. Arabs and Israelis are therefore at a religious war between Islam and Judaism fuelled by scriptural symbols.
Without necessarily sharing all these perceptions, many believers-Jews, Christians and Muslims- increasingly boost their relation to Abraham before they even know or say what figure he is. Whether they affirm their genealogical descendance or lift up their spiritual filiation, the “children of Abraham” are not immune to the temptation of Abrahamism.
Abrahamism, for its part, is bred by a particular, though not marginal, Christian theology of other religions, Islam in particular.
In the genesis story of Abraham there are different strands. The chapters that deal with Ishmael (Gen. 16; 17; 21; 25) do not offer exactly the same perspective.
Be that as it may, the Christian tradition has not been tender to Ishmael. As soon as Islam emerged and started to expand beyond the Arabian Peninsula, Byzantium evoked the spectre of Ishmael as portrayed in Genesis: “wild with his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him” (Gen 16, 12). In the time of the Crusaders, war was waged against the sons of Ishmael, the Hagareans or the Saracens-interpreted to mean those expelled by Sarah.
Recently, a group of orientalists (5), reviving ancient Christian apologetics and blending them with a string of modern research, chose to characterise Islam as “Ishmaelism” or “Hagarism.” They see it as a “fruit of the Judaic tree,” while it is meant to be, at the same time, an expression of protest against Judaism.
On a more theological note, Islam is placed, in the Christian history of salvation, under the sign of Ishmael rather than Abraham. A “mystery of Ishmael” (6) grounds itself in a text of the Old Testament that has no respondent in the rest of the Hebrew Bible, let alone in the New Testament. In this way, the Abrahamic heritage is not inclusive, inter-communal or ecumenical (7) but an object of an unequal distributive sharing. Christian Abrahamism pretends to reconcile but it turns into a denigration of Islamic integrity and universalism (8).
In fact, in as much as it is spoken of Israel and Ishmael, some people, innocent and less innocent, end up calling for a partition of the heritage in order to accommodate Muslims, although Islam rejects forcefully this partition.
This leads likely to the opinion that there is nothing unjust in bringing Israel to “its land” and expelling Ishmael to the desert. Subsequently, giving those who are called the descendants of Ishmael some limited portions of what is labelled as the “land of Israel,” for the sake of achieving peace, becomes a noble concession.
The foundational text of Christian Abrahamism is centred on the idea of an everlasting covenant. It draws a distinction between the legitimate inheritance of Isaac and the compensational character of the blessing granted to Ishmael: “Your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his off springs after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation” (Genesis 17, 19-21).
But there are, on the other hand, texts that emphasise the covenant with Abraham more than differentiating between his sons: “Abraham was the great father of a multitude of nations and no one was found like him in glory. He kept the law of the Most High and entered into a covenant with him; he certified the covenant in his flesh and when he was tested he proved faithful” (Sirach 44, 19-22).
In addition, in the New Testament Pauline perspective, an inclusive spiritual descendance is affirmed in opposition to the genealogical argument: “For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham, for he is the father of all of us as it is written I have made you the father of many nations” (Romans 4, 16-17).
These texts and many others cannot be dismissed or even under-stated by the Christian proponents of Abrahamism. No matter how they read other Pauline texts regarding the two covenants or other New Testament passages which refer to the Abrahamic claim, they cannot turn away from the verses, in the gospels, which refer to God being able “from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Matthew 3,9) or, in the same vein, lay emphasis on “doing what Abraham did” (John 8, 39).
On the other hand, Christian Abrahamists often assume that Islam has identified itself with Ishmael’s ancestry, whereas Islam itself does not confirm this view. Muslims consider themselves as children of Abraham by faith and not by biological ancestry. The Quran mentions both sons, Isaac and Ishmael, and does not specify which of the two sons has been offered to God (Surah XXXVII, Al Safat, 100-109) (9).
Islam takes no pride in its Abrahamic-Ishmaelic ancestry. But the Quran praises the two Prophets as models of submission to God: “And when Abraham and Ishmael were raising the foundations of the House, our Lord! Accept from us. Lo! Thou, only Thou, are the Hearer, the Knower. Our Lord! And make us submissive unto Thee and of our seed a nation submissive unto Thee, and show us our ways of worship and relent toward you. Lo! Thou, only Thou, art the Relenting, the Merciful” (Surah II, Al Baqara, 127-128).
Thus, the Quranic criterion for the claim to Abraham’s heritage is emphatically stated as that of following his path: “Lo! Those of mankind who have the best claim to Abraham are those who followed him” (Surah III, The Family of Imran, 68).
Such criterion seen in relation to the Quranic invitation to “excel each other in good deeds” is, in my view, the basis for an interreligious dialogue to take place under the tent of Abraham.
During the last few decades, many Christian-Jewish groups produced, in dialogue, a discourse on Abraham as they tried to build a new relationship between the Church and the Jewish people. They operated a critique of the Christian universalising, through supersession, of the Abrahamic covenant.
Also, as the Christians affirmed that the Jewish people are the “elder brother” they retracted from the traditional interpretation of the Genesis story where the Lord says to Rebekah: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger”(Genesis 25, 23). For they were asked to repel an interpretation that is said to have legitimated the subordination of Judaism to Christianity (10).
In the recent years, some of the Jewish-Christian friendship groups hoped to extend dialogue under the sign of fraternity in Abraham to Muslims. The political significance of such openness could not be hidden. Muslims saw themselves invited to a dialogue, the terms of which were already set by others (11). Understandably, only a few of them, and for reasons of political expediency in their own context, were willing to be co-opted.
It is needless to re-affirm that an interreligious dialogue cannot be genuine unless all its partners own it. While all ambiguities cannot be dissipated from the start, it remains difficult, if at all possible, to come together in the name of Abraham, if both the “Abrahamic privilege” and the unequal partition of a common heritage are not excluded.
The best dialogue may well be the one that calls people to a “spiritual emulation” where all, drawing on their differing respective faith traditions, seek inspiration from the example of Abraham as they know him and appropriate his story.
Instead of taking pride in a disputed heritage, they seek to follow what the Quran describes as “a goodly pattern for you in Abraham” (Surah LX, She That is to Be Examined, 4).
(1) DE PURY Albert, Abraham, What Kind of an Ancestor is He? A New Look at Biblical Traditions, unpublished paper presented at a Muslim-Christian Conference on the Heritage of Abraham, Beirut, July 1998.
(2) GROSS Netty, The Kinship, in The Jerusalem Report, Vol. IX No 2, May 25, 1998, pp28-33.
(3) As illustrated, in a crude form, by Israeli settlers in Kiryat Arba’ interviewed in the documentary Enqu괥 sur Abraham, directed by Abraham Segal and S鬩m Nassib and produced by the German-French television broadcast Arte, 1998.
(4) Expressions used by KIERKEGARD S., Crainte et tremblement, traduction P. -H. Tisseau, Paris, 1946,pp.90-93.
(5) Such as Snouck Hurgronje, Lammens, Crone and Cook and others.
(6) See HAYEK Michel, Le Myt貥 d?Isma묦lt;/i>, Paris, Mame, 1964.
(7) As we read in the various meditations on Abraham of Louis Massignon. Suffice to mention two: MASSIGNON Louis, Les trois pri貥s d’Abraham, in Opera Minora, Textes recueillis, class鳠et pr鳥nt鳠par Moubarrac Y., Dar al Maaref, Liban, 1963, t. III, pp.804-816; Des convergences de la pri貥 abrahamique ࠴ravers les tendances dogmatiques respectives de l’Islam, de la Chr鴩ent頥t d’Isra묬 cours au Coll觥 de France, in Annuaire du Coll觥 de France, Ann饠54, pp. 248-260.
(8) MOUBARRAC Youakim, Pentalogie Islamo-Chr鴩enne, Editions du C鮡cle Libanais, Beyrouth, 1973,Vol.V, pp.250-253.
(9) There is some hesitation among many early Muslim exegetes, like al-Tabari, even if most of them opt, in the end, for Ishmael.
(10) EISENBERG Josy, Historique des relations entre les trois religions, Fraternit頤?Abraham, Sp飩al trentenaire, 1967-1997, No 98, avril 1998, p.14.
(11) One of the recent illustrations is the 1995 initiative of the International Council of Christians and Jews, in 1995, to invite Muslims to join them in an “Abrahamic Forum”.
This article was first published in “Current Dialogue” of the World Council of Churches, No. 36, December 2000. It is reprinted in The American Muslim with the permission of the author.