This fall and winter, I will again be teaching my online course on the Qur'an and Biblical History for Albalagh Academy, God willing. This is my favorite subject to teach because it involves exploring several different academic fields—ancient Near Eastern studies, biblical studies, late antique Jewish and Christian traditions, and Qur'anic studies—and there is so much to talk about! Moreover, teaching it always gives me the opportunity to ponder, read, and learn more myself and to share new insights that I find along the way. If you are interested in learning more about the stories of the Qur'an and how they relate to biblical tradition and history, then please consider enrolling! Also, feel free to let me know if you have any questions.
Thursday, August 19, 2021
Sunday, December 27, 2020
My friend Abu Zakariya of ManyProphetsOneMessage has just released this high-quality video, based partly on research I have gathered here on this blog—though I have learned several new things from it myself. I highly recommend checking it out, along with his other videos and resources.
Sunday, December 20, 2020
Friday, July 10, 2020
Saturday, September 8, 2018
The carving of Mount Rushmore alerted Standing Bear to the need for a memorial to tell the Native American side of American history. Ziolkowski soon became dedicated to this cause, and embarked on a project to sculpt a Native American memorial in the mountains of South Dakota that would rival Mount Rushmore, and to use the funds from tourists to establish a museum dedicated to educating people about Native American culture and history, as well as a medical center and a university to train Native Americans in medicine, law, and other fields. When Ziolkowski consulted the Oglala Lakota leaders as to whom they would like the mountain sculpture to portray, they all agreed on Crazy Horse.
who issued a postage stamp in his honor.
When I exited the Crazy Horse visitor center and museum, it was raining outside. As I headed for my car, I turned in the direction of the Crazy Horse sculpture to take one last picture. To my amazement, a rainbow had formed right next to it, and I was delighted to be able to capture such a moment:
It is significant that even settlers from the time of Columbus, who treated the Native Americans in extremely inhumane ways over the course of centuries, admitted that the nobility, generosity, and spiritual devotion these people were beyond anything they had ever witnessed.
Monday, August 20, 2018
We made the House a center for mankind and sanctuary, saying, “Take the spot where Abraham stood as your place of prayer.” We commanded Abraham and Ishmael: “Purify My House for those who walk round it, those who stay there, and those who bow and prostrate themselves in worship.” Abraham said, ‘My Lord, make this a secure city and provide with produce those of its people who believe in God and the Last Day.” (2:125-126)
As Abraham and Ishmael built up the foundations of the House [they prayed], “Our Lord, accept [this] from us. You are the All Hearing, the All Knowing. Our Lord, make us submitted to You (muslimayni la-ka), and make from our descendants a nation submitted to you (ummatan muslimatan la-ka)…Our Lord, make a messenger of their own rise up from among them, to recite Your revelations to them, teach them the Scripture and wisdom, and purify them: You are the Mighty, the Wise.” (2:127-129)
The foolish people will say, “What has turned them away from the prayer direction they used to face?” Say, “East and West belong to Allah. He guides whoever He will to the right way.” Thus We have made you into a middle nation (ummatan wasaṭan), so that you may bear witness [to the truth] before others and so that the Messenger may bear witness [to it] before you. (2:142-143)
It was in the month of Ramadan that the Qur’an was revealed as guidance for mankind, clear messages giving guidance and distinguishing between right and wrong. So any one of you who is present that month should fast…He wants you to complete the prescribed period and to glorify Him for having guided you, so that you may be thankful (2:185).
The revelation of the Qur’an, as we have seen before, was the fulfillment of Abraham’s prayer. Hence, all five pillars of Islam go back to Abraham.
We made the House a center for mankind. (2:125)
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). 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. 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. 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.
 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).
 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.
 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.