Prophet Abraham Was The Beginning Of Three Monotheistic Religions – OpEd


Prophet Abraham was the first person to be called a “Hebrew” in the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 14:13). The term Hebrew probably comes from the verb to go over a boundary, like the Euphrates or Jordan river, or to be a migrant. Ten generations later the Philistines in Canaan used the term “Hebrews” to refer to the 12 tribes of Israel: “The Philistine commanders asked, “What about these Hebrews?” (1 Samuel 29:3); and Prophet Jonah identified himself to non-Jewish sailors as “a Hebrew” (Jonah 1:9). 

Prophet Abraham was the first Muslim Hebrew as Qur’an 3:67 states: “He (Abraham) was not Yahuudiyyan, “a Jew”, nor Nasraaniyyan, “a Christian”, but rather a Haniifan” i.e. “a monotheistic Hebrew believer submitting (Islam) to the one imageless God who created all space and time; and who made Prophet Abraham’s descendants through Prophets Isaac and Jacob (Israel), into a great multitude of monotheists called the People of Israel-Banu Israel.

The Prophet Isaiah said: “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord: look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he [Abraham] was only one when I called him, that I might bless him and multiply him. (Isaiah 51:1-2) and the Qur’an states: “You have an excellent example to follow in Abraham.” (60:4) and “Follow the way of Abraham as people of pure faith.” (3:95) 

Most people in the world have learned of Prophet Abraham, not by reading a book of Jewish history or religion, but by listening to and reading from the Christian Bible or the Muslim Qur’an. This unique and amazing situation is a reflection of a promise made to Prophet Abraham more than 36 centuries ago, and recorded in both the Torah and the Qur’an.

“I swear (says God) because you did this – not withholding your son, your favorite one, I will bestow My blessing on you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore; and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes.  All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed My command.” (Genesis 22:16-18) and “Indeed, We chose him (Abraham) as one pure and most distinguished in the world, and he is surely among the righteous in the Hereafter”. (Qur’an 2:130)

Prophet Isaiah also said: But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, are the offspring of Abraham, my friend;”  (Isaiah 41:8) So the biological offspring of Prophet Abraham (the Banu Israel) became the first ongoing monotheistic community when God rescued them from Egyptian oppression; and made an ongoing covenant with them at Mount Sinai. Prophet Abraham was not born a Jew, but his descendants from his grandson Jacob/Israel became the Banu Israel—Jewish People.

For 1200 + years after Prophet Moses, the Banu Israel was the only ongoing monotheistic community in the world. “Similarly, no Messenger came to the People before them, but they said (of him)  “A sorcerer, or one possessed'”! (51:52) And as the Qur’an informed us: “The people of Noah denied before them, and the companions of the well and Thamūd; and ʿAad and Pharaoh and the brothers [neighbors] of Lot; and the companions of the forest, and the people of Tubbaʿ. All denied the messengers [Allah sent to them] so My threat was justly fulfilled.” [50:12-14] 

And those monotheistic communities that did last for a few generations, always fell away during subsequent centuries; while most, but not all, of Banu Israel remained loyal to the covenant God made with them at Mount Sinai: “Before (Messengers Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus) We sent messengers to many nations, and We afflicted the nations with suffering and adversity, that they call Allah in humility. When the suffering reached them from Us, why then did they not call Allah in humility? On the contrary, their hearts became hardened, and Satan made their sinful acts seem alluring to them. (Qur’an 6:42-43)

But as the centuries passed the ongoing need to protect the Jewish way of life became increasingly the focus of their efforts; and after the deaths of Prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, Banu Israel became more and more inclined to building a fence around the Torah, and making the rules more numerous and restrictive. 

In 1065 Pope Alexander called for a Crusade against the Moors in Spain. Then in 1073, Pope Gregory issued official proclamations urging Christian princes to recover lands occupied by Muslims in Spain, over which he claimed papal sovereignty on the basis of previous Christian rule and right. These decrees were really the beginning of the Christian Crusades against Islam.

Pope Gregory’s ideas about Christian warfare were also extended to fighting against domestic enemies of the Church (like Protestants). 

For example, in 1209, Pope Innocent III urged a band of northern French nobles to rally an army that swept into southern France, where they unleashed a crusade so bloody it included the sacking of Beziers by an army under papal authority. Just before the attack, which would kill 15-20,000 men, women and children, the pope’s man on the scene, Arnaud Amalric, is reported to have uttered one of history’s most famous orders: “Kill them all. God will know his own.”

The next 4-5 centuries of religious military war in Europe and the MiddleEast was the result of the previous 2-3 centuries of all-out polemic verbal war between Christianity and Islam. 

Religious truth became a zero sum game: anything positive said about another religion was seen as a weakening of your own side. The goal was not to modestly try to harmonize various religious perspectives of the one and only God; but to self-righteously exaggerate religious differences, well beyond any reasonable understanding of the two sides.

In the Greek world, the Jerusalem Temple (Beit HaMikdosh) was well known, while the Ka’ba, the House of God (Baitullah) in Mecca was not known by name at all. The first Roman reference to the Baitullah is from Diodorus Siculus, a first century BCE Roman historian who wrote that in Arabia there was a temple greatly revered by the Arabs. 

According to G. E. Von Grunebaum, who I studied with at the University of California Los Angeles in 1959, Mecca was also mentioned by Ptolemy, a second century Alexandrian mathematician, astronomer, and geographer who wrote, “The name he gives it allows us to identify it as a South Arabian foundation created around a sanctuary.” (G. E. Von Grunebaum, Classical Islam: A History 600–1258, p. 19)

Yet just seven centuries later both of these cities and sanctuaries, one almost unknown by the Romans and the other totally destroyed by the Romans, were destined, throughout the Middle Ages in both Europe and west Asia, to be viewed as the heart, lungs or navel of the world. 

Jerusalem and Mecca were frequently portrayed by Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the center of their maps. God willing, someday everyone may see both cities and their sanctuaries as central to our monotheistic connections to the One God of  Prophets Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac. 

Indeed, much of the folklore about these two holy spaces is very similar. The following fable, transmitted orally in both Arabic and Hebrew for many centuries and finally written down in several versions in the 19th century, illustrates how these two holy spaces can be connected even though they are over 700 miles apart. Some say this happened in the generation when Abraham was born. 

Two brothers who inherited a ‘valley to hilltop’ farm from their father divided the land in half so that each one could farm his own section. Over time, the older brother married and had four children, while the younger brother was still not married.

One year there was very little rain, and the crop was very meagre. This was at the beginning of a long term drought that would turn the whole valley into an arid, treeless, desert where even grain did not grow, and all the springs dried up. 

The younger brother lay awake one night praying and thought: “My brother has a wife and four children to feed, and I have no children. He needs more grain than I do; especially now when grain is scarce.”

So that night, the younger brother went to his barn, gathered a large sack of wheat, and left his wheat in his brother’s barn. Then he returned home.

Earlier that very same night, the older brother was also lying awake praying for rain when he thought: “In my old age, my wife and I will have our grown children to take care of us, as well as grandchildren to enjoy, while my brother may have no children. He should at least sell more grain from his fields now, so he can provide for himself in his old age.

So that night, the older brother also gathered a large sack of wheat, and left it in his brother’s barn, and returned home.

The next morning, the younger brother, surprised to see the amount of grain in his barn seemed unchanged, said “I did not take as much wheat as I thought. Tonight I’ll take more.” That same morning, the older brother, standing in his barn, was thinking the same thoughts.

After night fell, each brother gathered a greater amount of wheat from his barn and in the dark, secretly delivered it to his brother’s barn. 

The next morning, the brothers were again puzzled and perplexed. “How can I be mistaken?” each one thought. “There’s the same amount of grain here as there was before. This is impossible!  Tonight I’ll make no mistake—I’ll take two large sacks.”

The third night, more determined than ever, each brother gathered two large sacks of wheat from his barn, loaded them onto a cart, and slowly pulled his cart toward his brother’s barn. In the moonlight, each brother noticed a figure in the distance. 

When the two brothers got closer, each recognized the form of the other and the load he was pulling, and they both realized what had happened! Without a word, they dropped the ropes of their carts, ran to each other and embraced.

God noted the two brothers’ actions, and thought that their brotherly love and concern for each other should make a very good example for their descendants, and make them worthy to build a holy House on that hill; and rebuild a holy House in this valley.

When all those, both near and far, who revere these sacred places as a standard, share it in love with everyone else who reveres it, then Prophet Abraham’s request for Allah to “make this a land of peace, and provide its people with the produce of the land”. (Qur’an 2:126) will be extended throughout the world; and all the children of Noah and Abraham will live in Holiness, Peace and Prosperity. 

Jews and Christians believe the hill is Jerusalem. Muslims believe the valley is Mecca. I believe they are both right and someday if we can live up to the ideal that religious pluralism is the will of God, we will help fulfill the 2700 year old vision of Prophet Isaiah: 

“In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt, and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. On that day Israel  will join a three-party alliance with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing upon the heart. The LORD of Hosts will bless them saying, “Blessed be Egypt My people, Assyria My handiwork, and Israel My inheritance.”…(Isaiah 19:23-5)

So God’s promise to Prophet Abraham, that the other families of humankind will ultimately bless themselves, and one another, thus aspiring to be like Abraham’s descendants (Genesis 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14), will be fulfilled in the three Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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