The Idea of Abrahamic Religions: A Qualified Dissent
A particularly apt example of the hopes currently attached to the patriarch comes from the Abraham Path Initiative, an organization dedicated to getting people to “follow the footsteps of Abraham/Ibrahim through the Middle East.” As their literature notes, “three and a half billion people—over half the human family—trace their history or faith back to Abraham, considered the father of monotheism.” Their aim is to develop a thoroughly modern interfaith and intercultural pilgrimage, which will inspire “respect and understanding among people, young and old, around the world.”
Needless to say, groups like this have their work cut out for them. For it certainly seems that most Jews, Christians, and Muslims regard Abraham as the father of their own community alone, a view that is easily explained if we consider the foundational literatures of the three putatively Abrahamic communities. In Judaism, Abraham serves as the first Jew, the biological father of most Jews and the adoptive yet no less real father of those who have converted to the religion of his descendants. For Christians, Abraham has long been “the father of all that believe,” in the words of the apostle Paul (Rom 4:5), who clearly thinks that what those believers believe—and what the patriarch’s life prefigures—is the core message of the gospel. In the Islamic case, as early as the Qur’an, Abraham is emphatically said to be neither a Jew nor a Christian but rather a muslim, one who has submitted to God. In the words of the Muslim scripture itself, “the people who are worthiest of Abraham are those who followed him, together with this Prophet and the believers.” As an imam in Jerusalem put it not long ago, “Abraham is the father of one religion, and that religion is Islam.” That there are now, and have long been, Jews and Christians who make the same statement in behalf of their own religions merits serious thought.
The Muslim case is unique among the three, though, since however sharply Jews and Christians differ in their interpretation of the scriptures they hold in common, they are after all working from the same text. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw’s quip, if “England and America are two countries separated by a common language,” then Judaism and Christianity are two religions separated by a common Abraham. Genesis is not part of Muslim scripture, however, and the Qur’anic Ibrahim is different from that of Genesis in ways great and small. Another way of stating this is to say that whereas Judaism and Christianity have long diverged in their interpretations of Abraham, it is not at all clear that Islam is interpreting what the other two mean by “Abraham.”