Imagine a situation where you have no choice but have to sacrifice your only child – your precious, who came late in your life as a great surprise.
Or think of yourself rejected by your father and your community because of your out-of-the-box beliefs that challenged theirs, and you have only a few who believe in you.
And just for good measure, add to these the wrath of the ruthless ruler of your land who has declared you his archenemy.
This would be more or less a very brief summary of the story of the great patriarch Abraham, peace be upon him, as told in the holy scriptures. Considered as one of the key figures in the history of monotheism, Abraham holds a very central role in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. Today, his mission is being revitalized through meetings and panels where his legacy is discussed from the perspectives of different traditions, in the hopes of creating friendships across faiths. I had the opportunity of participating in some of these events this past year and, while making new friends, I was also able to see my Abraham in the eyes of friends from other traditions. Despite some of the recent polarization, it is very hope-inspiring to see many American communities striving to consolidate bonds among different groups and treating diversity as a source of richness.
What you will be reading below is an effort to share some reflections on this great man, whose life can by no means be retold within the limited scope of an article.
At a time of tension between different religious and cultural voices, Abraham – the patriarch of monotheism – could be a uniting force.
Abraham (Ibrahim in Arabic and Turkish) is a commonplace element of our cultural makeup, as many of our religious values are. Abraham and his family are remembered, praised, and prayed for by Muslims in their daily prescribed prayers, during the annual festival of sacrifice (eid al-adha), and also when performing the Hajj, which is the pilgrimage to the holy land of Mecca. How the name and the story of Abraham are reflected in Muslim worship will be detailed below in the section “Abraham and Islamic worship.”
“Abraham” is a popular name across Muslim communities. And especially in places like Urfa, Turkey, it is very difficult – perhaps even impossible – to find a third male name other than Halil or Ibrahim. “Halil” literally means friend and is one of the distinctive attributes of Abraham.
The historical city of Urfa, on the Turkish-Syrian border, is dedicated almost entirely to the memory of Abraham. Balıklı Göl, or Abraham’s Pool, one of the most visited ancient sites in Urfa, is believed to be the place where he was thrown into fire, and by God’s will, the fire turned “cool and peaceful” for him. According to the legend, the logs that were used in the furnace turned to fish, which still exist today.
Many restaurants across Turkey have the name “Halil Ibrahim Sofrası,” which is an allusion to the generous hospitality Abraham used to show his guests. In Turkish folk culture, it is told that he would not eat without having a guest at his table, and if there was no one, he would go out to find one.
Some of the stories that are recorded in religious literature and discussed in reading groups to impart moral lessons are believed to have been first told in the scriptures that were revealed to Abraham. Prominent Islamic scholar Bediüzzaman Said Nursi noted that the story he narrates and expounds on in his 8th Word in the Risale-i Nur collection did originally exist in the “scrolls” of Abraham. Also told as an “Eastern fable” by famous novelist Leo Tolstoy in his Confession (1884), Bediüzzaman paraphrased this story for the purpose of his religious wisdom, turning the “traveler” in the story into two brothers, one obedient and wise and the other rebellious. In Bediüzzaman’s version, although they aim to reach the same destination, the two brothers choose different paths on the same journey of life, yet going through the same ordeals, escaping from a beast and trying to survive in a well.
Bediüzzaman’s version reads like a lesson on the fate of two characters, the wicked and the prosperous, in the al-A’la Chapter of the Qur’an. This parable is recorded as “Man in Well” in the legend of two Christian martyrs from India, Barlaam and Josaphat, and in other earlier versions in Buddhist literature, too (Bilici 2014). Joseph Jacobs wrote that this parable “was one of the most popular morals of mediaeval sermonisers. Indeed, it puts in a most vivid form the most central practical doctrine of both Christian and Buddhistic Ethics. The supreme attraction of the pleasures of the senses amidst all the dangers of life and the perpetual threat of death has never been more vividly expressed” (Jacobs, 1896, p. lxx).
As we have no access to the scrolls of Abraham, we cannot prove whether they originally date back to him or not. However, considering the widespread existence of this parable across different traditions, if we are to credit it to a historical figure, Abraham is certainly the best fit.
Another story attributed to Abraham goes that he was once again hosting a guest. As he started eating, he called the name of God first, while his guest did not. Abraham asked him why he did not say God’s name first, to which his guest replied that he was a fire-worshipper. Abraham showed the man the door. Then, God asked Abraham why he did so. “He denied You, my Lord.” God said, “That man has been denying Me his entire life, and I am still feeding him.”
Whether this really took place as it is told here or not, the story reflects the infinite Mercy that rules the universe. God extends His mercy without questioning whether we truly recognize Him, and He asks us to do the same for others. This divine guidance is what lies behind Abraham’s legendary hospitality, the one that finds expression in so many restaurant names today.
Islamic tradition records that God has sent every community a messenger to guide them to faith (Qur’an 10:47; 13:7). According to some narrations, there are as many as 124,000 messengers. Abraham, “the friend of God,” is among the five top messengers of God, the others of whom are Noah, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, peace be upon them. They are called “ulu’l azm,” i.e. masters of determination, and are exclusively praised in the following verse from the Qur’an:
Of the Religion (that He made for humankind and revealed through His Messengers throughout history), He has laid down for you as way of life what He willed to Noah, and that which We reveal to you, and what We willed to Abraham, and Moses, and Jesus, (commanding): "Establish the Religion, and do not divide into opposing groups concerning it." What you call people to is hard and distressful for those who associate partners with God. God chooses whom He wills and brings them together (in faith and in obedience) to Himself, and He guides to Himself whoever turns to Him in devotion. (42:13)
Practicing Muslims who pray five times a day mention Abraham’s name at least 28 times (the number is double if one includes voluntary prayers) in the following way: “O God, send grace and honor to Muhammad and his family, just as You sent grace and honor to Abraham and his family.” Many Turks, and perhaps other Muslim nations too, add Abraham’s name to the Muslim prayer after eating when they ask for God to further His grace upon them (ni’mat Jalil-ul’lah), the Prophet’s mediation on the Day (shafaat ya Rasulullah) of Judgment, and the abundance God blessed Abraham with (barakat Halil-ul’lah).
A full chapter in the Qur’an is named after Abraham. A lengthy portion of this chapter (14:35-41) is a beautiful prayer of Abraham for Mecca to be a secure land and that his progeny to be protected from ever worshipping idols.
Abraham’s legacy manifests itself more thoroughly in the pilgrimage to Mecca, which is an obligatory duty for Muslims who can afford it. Almost all of the rites of pilgrimage, the hajj, and the locations where the hajj is observed have all been inherited from Abraham. The history of Mecca, the holiest place for Muslims, starts with Abraham, when he brought his wife Hagar and baby son Ishmael to begin the first human settlement there. Muslims remember the frustration of Hagar seeking water as they run between Safa and Marwa around the holy sanctuary. As the pilgrims wash themselves from the well of Zamzam, they remember God’s mercy upon her and upon humanity, when God sent them the angel to bring this abundant source of water from out of nowhere under Ishmael’s heel; a fountain so abundant that it keeps flowing even today, watering pilgrims.
The Ka‘ba, the cubic building located at the heart of Mecca, was built by Abraham and Ishmael. As Muslims circumambulate the Ka‘ba, they start from the corner of Black Stone, which was placed by Abraham, and after their cycles are complete, they stand for prayer behind the Station of Abraham (maqam Ibrahim), which is believed to be the rock he climbed while building the sanctuary. Another rite of the hajj is Jamarat, where pilgrims throw pebbles at three pillars. It is believed that Abraham and his son stoned Satan away when he tried to seduce them to turn back from the sacrifice. And at Mina, pilgrims offer their sacrificial animals whose meat are given away in charity, as they remember Abraham’s ordeal with his son, who God “ransomed with a sacrifice of tremendous worth” (Qur’an 37:107).
As a side note, a great majority of Islamic scholars agree that the son to be sacrificed was Ishmael, while some think he was Isaac. Whichever son was going to be sacrificed that day is not completely insignificant; however, there are more important lessons to be learned from this story, and it does not produce any benefit to engage in disputes on this matter. Besides, for Muslims, both Ishmael and Isaac are prophets and are equally respectable. This ordeal did not only testify to Abraham’s and his son’s incredible submission to God, but it also showed the atrocity of human sacrifice, which was, and unfortunately still is, one of the most violent forms of false devotion to the Divine.
Islamic faith holds at its center the oneness of God, which is believed to be one of the key teachings of all prophets, from Adam to Muhammad, peace be upon them. Despite varying outward forms, all the messengers sent to humanity taught their communities God’s uniqueness (tawhid), resurrection and life after death (hashir), messengership (nubuwwa), and worship (ibada). However, Abraham’s firm stance against idolatry and other forms of associating partners with God (shirk), which had reached an unprecedented extreme in his time, made his mission even more connected to the revival of monotheism. Even when he was a child, he would not pay any respect to the idols his father was crafting. He always opposed his community’s worshipping of idols and celestial structures, like the moon and the sun. While he was staunchly against them, he still engaged in a “gradual” effort to invigorate his audience’s logical reasoning. The Qur’anexplains, in 6:76-79, how their deities are temporary, even if they might be as bright as a star or as glorious as the sun, which are doomed to eventually set. Abraham voices the inner conscience of every human whose desire for eternity cannot be truly satisfied by false deities when he says, “I love not the things that set” (6:76). Professor Ibrahim Canan notes that Abraham’s evident challenge to his own people “must have taken place after he had been thrown into the fire,” when an intellectual struggle ceased to be possible (Canan 2007, 47).
Despite his gradual and convincing argument to inculcate certainty of faith, the response he got from his community was what almost all messengers of God received:
We had showed Abraham (the ugliness and irrationality of polytheism and) the inner dimension of (the existence of) the heavens and the earth, and the eternal truth. We had done so that he might be one of those who have achieved certainty of faith (6:75). They replied: "But we found our forefathers doing the same" (26:74).
Abraham’s mission almost exactly matches the Prophet Muhammad’s. Between them are connections at multiple levels: ancestral relations through Ishmael, the Ka‘ba as the shared sanctuary, and their struggle to show the truth at times when idol-worshipping was at its highest. Leaving behind his hometown where idol-worshipping was the unbreakable norm, Abraham was ordered to build the Ka‘ba, to be a direction for prayer and site of pilgrimage, as a place to praise the only true God the Creator. The Prophet Muhammad was born in the shade of this holy sanctuary, but it was already filled with hundreds of idols, and his mission was to reinstate its holiness by purifying it from them. Not surprisingly, when he started calling his community to the One God, they said: "Enough for us (are the ways) that we found our forefathers on" (5:104).
Another interesting connection is that the Prophet was a descendant of Ishmael, whose mother, Hagar, was given by the ruler of Egypt as a gift to Sarah, who gave her to Abraham. Centuries later, Muqawqis, the ruler of Egypt, would send Maria to the Prophet as a gift, and the Prophet would name his son from her Ibrahim, or Abraham.
What stands tallest amongst Abraham’s many virtues is his confidence in, and submission to, the Almighty. It is told that an angel came to offer help when Abraham was being thrown to the fire, and Abraham said, “Sufficient for me is God.” He was in such a state of Divine refuge that he did not ask for the intervention of any other being.
Abraham’s trust in God was also proven when he was told to take Hagar and his son Ishmael away from home and leave them in the middle of the desert. Abraham did not answer Hagar’s questions about why he was leaving them there, until Hagar asked whether this was a command from God. The wisdom of this would manifest itself in time: Abraham and Ishmael would later build the Ka‘ba there, and the Arab nation would emerge from that community. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, would come from that community, generations later.
Another ordeal Abraham had to face was his sacrificing his son. It is told that when Abraham had the dream, he waited for two more days, and when he saw the dream again, he was assured of the Divine source of it. Both he and his son had full confidence in this command, and they were rewarded when God’s ransomed the boy and granted us the “festival of sacrifice,” which we still celebrate today as we remember the honor and value of human life while sharing food with the poor.
Abraham’s story is a rich source of lessons for anyone who seeks a life of virtue and commitment to a Prophetic mission. More importantly, as we are living through difficult times of extreme polarization across religious, cultural, and political divides, Abraham can be held up as a unifying figure among Jews, Christians, and Muslims, whose scriptures praise him and his family as the father of all prophets. His path of full confidence in God in the face of imminent death and apparently unbearable ordeals could inspire all of us today, but is especially useful for those being persecuted and who are being forced to leave their homelands or to abandon their families, and who are even threatened with torture and death.
Abraham in the Jewish Tradition
The introduction of Abram in the twelfth chapter of the biblical book of Genesis, aids in the Hebrew Bible's transition from a text focused on the general workings of the world, to a text specifically focused on the creation, development, and flourishing of the Israelite people and nation. God calls upon Abram to leave his land, his birthplace, and his father's home in Ur of the Chaldeans (in the Mesopotamian region) and go on a journey "to the land that God will show him" (Genesis 12:1-2). That Abram followed such a call with such deeply trusting faith is quite remarkable.
As a result of Abram's faithful journey, God chooses to establish a covenant with him. Renaming Abram as Abraham, God promises Abraham that he will "become a father of the multitude of nations," that Abraham's descendants will be "exceedingly numerous," and that Abraham and his offspring will live in the land of Canaan as an "everlasting possession" (Genesis 17:4-8). As a partner with God in this covenant, Abraham and his descendants must keep God's commandments, and males will be circumcised as an indication of their adherence to God's covenant.
In addition to the establishment of the covenant, Abraham's character is developed in other scenes. We see Abraham as a man who cares deeply for his family and for the needs of others. In one remarkable episode, when God announces to Abraham the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham questions God directly, demanding that the Judge of the world act righteously. More gently, Abraham is regarded as a person of loving hospitality, welcoming three strangers into his tent, and feeding them, when he himself is recovering from having just circumcised himself. He also faces the tremendous trial of being called by God to bring forward his beloved son Isaac as a sacrifice - until an angel of God intervenes. Teachings from rabbinic sages developed concepts surrounding Abraham's unbreakable, unwavering faith in God, and that during his lifetime, he succeeded in overcoming ten specific trials regarding his faith, moments when God was testing his devotion to his faith.
Abraham is remembered in our daily prayers, traditionally recited three times a day. The opening prayer of a rubric in our service known as the Amidah, the "standing" prayer, is an extended reference to our patriarchs (and in egalitarian congregations to our matriarchs too). We praise God as the "God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob" linking ourselves today with our biblical ancestors. Such an important historical connection inspires the Jewish people to aspire to a life in which we live by the best attributes of our ancestors, and continue to make those values our own.
Rabbi Paul Jacobson
Temple Avodat Shalom
River Edge, New Jersey
Jews refer to Abraham as Avraham Avinu, Abraham our father. He is very important to us: our first patriarch, the one whose family was chosen to have a covenant with God. Of course, not all Jews believe the same things about our spiritual ancestors, whose stories are told in our Torah. I will share the way I think about Abraham, with which many, but not all, Jews would probably agree.
It is not important, to me, to think of Abraham as perfect in any way. Rather, I see him as just as human as any one of us, and that is meaningful to me, because if Abraham was an imperfect human, and God chose him, it means God can choose us, too. One of the stories we learn about Abraham is that God told him that He, God, was going to destroy the great cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of the evil behavior of the people there. Abraham does not simply accept this. He argues on behalf of any righteous people who may live there. He stands up to God, asking whether God will destroy the place if as few as 10 righteous people live there. God says no – though apparently there were not even 10, because the place is destroyed (Genesis, 18:17-33).
Later, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac (Yitzchak), and Abraham does not object at all (Genesis, 22:1-19). This is troubling for many Jews, who struggle with how a father could agree to sacrifice his son, regardless of who is telling him to. When we find the behavior of our patriarchs and matriarchs troubling, we see it as an invitation to look more deeply at the story to find meaning for our own lives.
One of the ways I have understood Abraham’s lack of objection is that it’s easier sometimes to stand up for strangers, as Abraham stood up for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, than to stand up for ourselves. This is a reading that sees Abraham as being so devastated by the command to sacrifice Isaac that he numbly complies without argument. (Jews also understand the stories in our Torah as having multiple meanings, even contradictory ones.) This interpretation helped me to understand something about many people, not just Abraham.
We look to Avraham Avinu to find God’s first covenant with a family that later became the Jewish people. We look to him as an example of a relationship with God—he tries to understand, he questions, he argues, sometimes he looks out for himself, and sometimes he does as he is told. He isn’t perfect, but God chooses him. And we can strive to have that kind of relationship with God, too.
Rabbi Heidi Hoover
Temple Beth Emeth
Brooklyn, New York
Abraham in the Christian Tradition
From the deepest mists of time our Holy Scriptures tell of Abraham’s wanderings through life with his wife Sarah from Mesopotamia, possibly near Edessa (Urfa in modern day Turkey), across the Sinai and into Egypt and then back again into the Hebron Valley. These Holy Scriptures also tell of Abraham’s spiritual wanderings and even his stumbles, as he becomes ever more aware of the call to live in a covenant relationship of righteousness, trust and love with our One God and Father of Us All.
Like so many of us today, Abraham, this great and ancient archetype of so many faiths and cultures, was called into a personal relationship of righteousness and faith with God and humanity. Descriptions of the human experience as we struggle with both good and evil extend through his life and all through the genealogies of our faith for thousands of generations; the path of faith and righteousness, though life and culture is filled with both human weakness and yet also joy.
Christians take heart and great assurance in these accounts of the struggles and the enduring honesty, faithfulness and forgiveness shared between God, Abraham and Sarah. They are the ancestors of our Savior Jesus Christ, whom we believe has stepped into history to bring us forth in forgiveness and restoration from our own weakness and stumbles in our life of faith. So Christians also claim Abraham and Sarah as our own ancestors.
The Book of Genesis (25:9) tells us that when Abraham “was gathered to his people” his sons Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury his remains in the cave of Machpelah that was purchased earlier from the Hittites as a burial place for his wife Sarah.
I find this passage touched with love and hope for each of us today. For here we notice that Abraham’s sons, who took their separate ways as patriarchs in their own expressions of faith, came together once again to honor their father. They came together in peace even in the presence of their mutual and ancient enemy, the Hittites.
And so, may we, as brothers and sisters in faith like Abraham, Sarah, Ishmael and Isaac, and even those beyond the understanding of our faith, be brought together again under the high calling of living within God’s covenant of steadfast love, abiding justice and eternal mercy.
The Rev. Anne McRae Wrede
The Episcopal Churches of St. Stephen
Beverly and Riverside New Jersey
This article is a fruit of interfaith gatherings organized by a number of partners from different faith traditions. I am very thankful to everyone involved, but especially to Rabbi Paul Jacobson (Temple Avodat Shalom), Fr. Michael Perry (Our Lady of Refuge Church), Rabbi Matt Carl, Cantor Sam Levine, and Sally Hipscher (East Midwood Jewish Center), Rabbi Heidi Hoover (Temple Beth Emeth), Rev. Anne McRae Wrede (Episcopal Churches of St. Stephen Beverly and Riverside New Jersey), Mr. Ercan Tozan (Peace Islands Institute), and Mr. Fethullah Önal (Turkish Cultural Center), for their efforts to provide us with opportunities to reflect on the legacy of Abraham and to promote peace in our society.