Monday, August 20, 2018

Islam: The Legacy of Abraham (Part I)

Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘…I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)

God said, ‘I will make you a leader for mankind.” (Qur’an, 2:124)

In the season of Hajj, it is important to remember and reflect on what the Hajj is about.  That is what I intend to do briefly here in these posts, focusing on a particular Qur’anic passage that explains this theme.  This passage is Abraham’s prayer of consecration as he is building the Ka‘ba with his son Ishmael (peace be upon them), as it is recorded in Sura 2, The Cow (al-Baqara), in verses 124-129.  This passage occupies a central place in the Qur’an as far as salvation history is concerned, and it is no accident that it occurs in the beginning of the Qur’an, in the very second sura.  This sura, and in particular this passage, explains the very foundations of Islam as a religion.  Before we dive into this passage, however, there is some background that is worth briefly examining.

1. Abraham: The Father of the Muslim Nation

In various places in the Qur’an, Allah specifically dubs Islam “the religion of Abraham” (millat Ibrāhīm).  For example, in response to some members of the Jewish and Christian communities in Medina, who criticized the Muslims for not following their religions, the Muslims are repeatedly told to “Follow the religion of Abraham, ḥanīfan; and he was not one of those who associate partners with God” (2:135; 3:95; 4:125; 6:161; 16:123).  At the conclusion of Surat al-Hajj, Allah even calls Islam “the religion of your father Abraham (millati abīkum ibrāhīm)”:

Strive hard for Allah as is His due: He has chosen you and has not placed on your religion any difficulty—the religion of your forefather Abraham.  He named you muslims in the past and in this [message]. (22:78)

Thus, according to the Qur’an, Abraham (peace be upon him) is the spiritual father of the Muslim nation, and Islam is to be understood primarily as “the religion of Abraham.”

It is important to understand the background of this declaration.  The Qur’an’s interlocutors consisted on the one hand of the pagan Quraysh of Mecca, and on the other hand of the Jewish and Christian communities in Medina and elsewhere.  The Quraysh of Mecca claimed their status as the leaders of the holy city and the custodians of the Ka‘ba on the basis of their descent from Abraham through his son Ishmael.  Likewise, the Jewish community looked to Abraham, whom they called “our father Abraham,” as both their physical father and as the spiritual father of Judaism.  Christians also claimed Abraham as their spiritual forefather: Paul claimed Abraham, who was justified by faith rather than by adherence to the Jewish law, as the archetype of Christian faith, and declared Christians to be the children of Abraham in faith apart from obedience to the revealed Law (Rom. 4; Gal. 3).[1]  The Qur’an turns each of these claims on its head, asserting,

Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but was a ḥanīf; and he was not one of those who associate partners with God (3:95).

The Qur’an thus responds to the claims of the pagan Quraysh by pointing out that “Abraham was a ḥanīf—and he was not one of those who associate partners with God.”  The word ḥanīf, which I have abstained from translating, is generally understood to mean a follower of the natural, inborn monotheism that is innate to human nature.  As a ḥanīf, Abraham’s faith differed too from that of Christians, as it was basic, unitarian monotheism, free from the complications of the Trinity and other later Christian dogmas.  Nor was Abraham a Jew in his religious practice, because he preceded the revelation of the Torah.  Rather, he was a muslim, one who surrendered himself unconditionally to God’s commands, without restricting them to what would later become Jewish law and tradition.[2]  As the Qur’an also says, “People of the Scripture, why do you dispute about Abraham, while the Torah and the Gospel were not revealed until after him? Do you not reason?” (3:65).

The Qur’an pronounces Abraham to instead be the father of the Muslim nation, in both faith and practice.  In terms of faith, it is Abraham who restored monotheism in an age when the world had become almost completely immersed in polytheism and idolatry.  It would likewise be the role of the Muslims to restore this pristine monotheism to the world, starting with the city and house that Abraham had originally founded for the purpose of worshiping the One God.  In terms of his practice, Abraham was a perfect model of islām, fully submitting himself to divine command, even though he received the most difficult commands out of any human being.  For this reason, Surat al-Baqara states,

Abraham’s Lord tested him with instructions, and he fulfilled them completely. (2:124)

In the Arabic text of this verse, “Abraham,” who is the direct object, is muqaddam, meaning that it is shifted to the beginning of the sentence, against the normal order of a sentence in Arabic.  This shift serves to highlight that Abraham was tested in a unique way, like no one else before or after him.  Moreover, the word “instructions” (kalimāt, literally “words”) indicates that that the tests were several, rather than being restricted to a single one.  Abraham was repeatedly tested with divine instructions that no one else was tested with, and in these tests, he demonstrated the highest level of islām, or submission to God.

Two of these unique tests occurred in association with what would subsequently become the city of Mecca.  The first of these was God’s command to Abraham to leave his wife Hagar and his infant son Ishmael in the middle of the Arabian desert, without any food, water, shelter, or company.  This was a test primarily of Abraham’s and Hagar’s faith and trust in God’s providence.  The test resulted in miraculous origins of the well of Zamzam, marking the land that would later become Mecca.  This story is narrated in the Bible, in Genesis 21:

When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. (Gen. 21:15-19) 

This test also resulted in the tradition of running seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwa, which would become part of the Hajj, in commemoration of Hagar’s distraught search for water for Ishmael.

The second of these unique tests was that, years later, Abraham was given the command to sacrifice his son Ishmael:

He said, “I will go to my Lord: He is sure to guide me.  Lord, grant me a righteous son,” so We gave him the good news that he would have a patient son.  When the boy was old enough to work with his father, Abraham said, “My son, I have seen myself sacrificing you in a dream. What do you think?” He said, “Father, do as you are commanded and, God willing, you will find me steadfast.” When they had both submitted (aslamā) to God, and he had laid his son down on the side of his face, We called out to him, “Abraham, you have fulfilled the dream.” This is how We reward those who do good––it was a test to prove [their true characters]––We ransomed his son with a momentous sacrifice, and We let him be praised by succeeding generations: “Peace be upon Abraham!” This is how We reward those who do good: truly he was one of Our faithful servants. (37:99-111; cf. Gen 22:1-19)

This also was a test primarily of Abraham’s faith and trust in God, because God had previously promised Abraham that he would make him a great nation through his seed.[3] Surat al-Baqara continues to narrate that as a result of Abraham’s unwavering faith and obedience, God announced to him, “I will make you a leader for mankind” (2:124). Abraham thus became the spiritual role model for the rest of mankind, an example of unconditional trust in God and surrender (islām) to His command. During the Hajj season and ‘Eid al-Adha, it is his example that we remember and commemorate.

[1] See F.E. Peters, The Children of Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, Islam (Princeton University Press, 2010); Jon D. Levenson, Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton University Press, 2012). 

[2] In this article, I am using the term “islam” in two senses. When spelled “islām,” I will be referring to islam as the spiritual state of self-surrender to God, the religion that all of God’s messengers called to. When spelled “Islam,” I will be referring to the manifestation of this that was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) through the Qur’an and in the form of the Islamic Shari‘a. 

[3] According to some Biblical scholars, this test and the replacement of Abraham’s son with a ram had the further significance of abolishing child sacrifice, which was a widespread religious practice in the ancient Near East.

1 comment:

  1. Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but was a ḥanīf; and he was not one of those who associate partners with God (3:95 . Correct reference should be 3:67 insread 3:95. Please correct . Jazakallah khair