Issue 48 / October - December 2004
Paragon of Unity: Discovering The Essence of the Abrahamic Messages
Dr. Ibrahim Canan
When I first heard a politician say, âWe can rule from beyond the grave,â I didnât respond very positively. âWhat does that mean?â I exclaimed in confusion. However, as it dawned on me that he was actually referring to great men and their immortal ideas about transcending our limited ideas, I gradually began to appreciate his meaningful words. As he continued, he mentioned Rumi and quoted his words, âCome, whoever you are; ours is not a caravan of despair.â I then realized that this wise politicianâs words were a subtle yet powerful invitation to unity and brotherhood.
The greatest challenge ever known to humankind will probably always be that of transcendence. Surpassing oneâs biases, expanding oneâs horizons and striving toward universal brotherhood, thereby existing above the cherished limits of oneâs comfort zones is probably the toughest virtue to cultivate and practice. The more we choose to identify solely with our primary reference groups, the more we become divided. When these sources of identity are closer to us in time and space like those of political parties, provincial and ethnic group memberships, we only become even more constrained. This parochial mentality will sooner or later give birth to fear and hatred for those unlike us, or those who do not share our ideas and experiences. Inevitably, hostility and bitterness will be generated as consequences of these narrow and circumscribed reference points. In contrast, the farther we traverse beyond the âgrave,â beyond space and time, the more our horizons expand and inch toward universal brotherhood. Rumi touches upon this very lesson in transcendence calling all of us passionately to his caravan. It was in the same light that Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, addressed all of humankind with these timeless words: âThose who believe in One God are but brothers and sisters.â
Scientists today will vouch for the fact that technology has shrunk the boundaries of our world, ensconcing us in one big global village. This extraordinary sense of the compression of time and space has made it possible to imagine ourselves in the prophet Adamâs time again. However, the relevant question to ask ourselves at this juncture is whether or not our outlooks and mentalities have developed to a degree, so as to embrace and accept the virtue of togetherness that prevailed during that time. The bitter truth remains that although materially superior, we are far from the solidarity that was typical during the time of Adam. There is however a light at the end of this dreary tunnel. If we cannot bridge the gap that exists between our differences, perhaps tracing our roots back to common fathers will help reconcile some of these discordances. It is at this key juncture that the acknowledgement of great prophets and their messages becomes mandatory. It is through the legacy of such distinguished messengers that we shall endeavor to reconstruct our spiritual world. Abraham is the best example of one such prophet who is still accepted as a common father and loved by all believers whose heritage is intrinsically connected with him.
The Prophet Abraham: The Beloved Patriarch
Abraham is the beloved prophet of the members of three great religions, who take him as an exemplar, dutifully venerating this revered patriarch. Sacred texts of the three monotheistic religions make many deferential references to the prophet Abraham. For instance, a verse from the Old Testament reads:
Now the Lord had said unto Abraham, Get you out of your country, and from your kindred, and from your fatherâs house, unto a land that I will show you: And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing; And I will bless them that bless you, and curse him that curses you: and in you shall all families of the earth be blessed. (Genesis 12:1-3)
Likewise, the New Testament makes the following mention of the great prophet: . . . Abraham, who is the father of us all (Romans 4:16). Another verse of the Bible states, For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith (Romans 4:13). The Holy Qurâan similarly proffers an exceptional place upon the prophet Abraham. In response to the dispute between the Jews and Christians and their tendency to appropriate him to themselves, it clearly indicates that Abraham was a Hanif (Follower of the Truth). It further explicates that he was essentially Muslim and joined not gods with God (Al Imran 3:68). What is even more wondrous is that while referring to Islam, the Qurâan describes it (at least seven times) as Your father Abrahamâs religion. 1
One may ask, âIsnât it an incredible mistake to call someone who lived 2,600 years before Prophet Muhammad a âMuslim,â which is a derivative of âIslamâ ?â The answer to this objection is that the Holy Qurâan clearly elucidates the fact that the religion before God is Islam (Al Imran 3:19) indicating that the essence of all the religions brought by the many prophets since Adam has remained the same. In the same light, Islam is but a reinforcement of these very principles. Most importantly, in Arabic the word Islam means, âsubmission to Godâs will.â Islamic scholars hence summarize the following four essential principles that have remained constant in all religions:
Unity of God: The belief that there is one God Who is the creator of existence.
Belief in the Afterlife: The belief that after death we will be resurrected and asked to account for our actions in this world.
Complete faith in the Prophethood: The firm belief in all prophets and Godâs message they brought to humankind.
Adherence to Justice: The fulfillment of manâs responsibilities to God, to others around him, and his responsibility to himself: his thoughts and actions (worship, law, morality).
Consequently, Islamic scholars do not accept as celestial any religion that does not include these four points. These issues endure in the Old and New Testaments, as well as in the Qurâan. So much so, that the names, deeds and miracles of prophets in the Old Testament are found in Christianity and Islam as well. It can therefore be argued in accordance with the above explanation that in essence, Judaism and Christianity are nothing but âIslam.â It must be reinforced that this Islam, which has prevailed over a constantly evolving humankind since the time of the prophet Adam, has essentially been the same. It is precisely due to this unchanging core that it was easy and natural for some of the peripheral details of the religion to become modified in accordance with the constantly evolving social conditions as and when each prophet was sent to propagate a specific message.
Rediscovering the Most Important Prophetic Link
Abraham represents a very important link in the chain of prophets, each of which accentuates some kind or degree of human development. According to the Qurâan, Abrahamâs book does not take into precise consideration detailed matters of right and wrong or, in other words, issues of human law and punishment. The Divine Will therefore consigned appropriate books and divine messages to other prophets. Upon examining the chapters in the Qurâan related to Abrahamâs book such as Aâla and Najm, (verses 36-54 or others2 related to Abraham), we see they are all related to faith, worship, and virtue. This offers further proof of the fact that as in the Old Testament, legal decrees, as far as the prophet Abraham is concerned, are absent in the Qurâan. This, however, should not be understood as a misgiving or an aberration. It is supremely important to acknowledge that a prophet like Abraham on whom members of the three major monotheistic faiths all confer respect, appreciation and love, emphasized faith, worship and virtue rather than legal judgment. This can be argued for the following reasons:
Judicial matters are subject to constant change depending upon the socio-political situation of the existing people. It is because of this that Muslim scholars collectively adopt that âchanges in time and legal matters cannot be denied.â3 It would therefore be a colossal task to attempt to unite these three religions, under the umbrella of a common law.
With some exceptions, spiritual and moral values are predominantly universal. The values represented in Abrahamâs character and actively realized in his life, are values that can be adhered to by all of humankind. The conscious implementation of these values is necessary for both individual and communal spiritual evolution.
Furthermore, these values transcend the boundaries of religion. Values form the inner framework of anyone intent upon leading a life of righteousness and decency. It is precisely because of this all-embracing nature of Abrahamic messages that they render themselves the perfect tools for the arduous task of propagating unity and brotherhood.
Abrahamic Messages: Enduring Lessons in Unity and Brotherhood
There are innumerable Abrahamic virtues mentioned in the Qurâan and the sayings of the Prophet (hadiths) which carry timeless lessons for humankind. It is interesting to note that most of these lessons imparted by Abraham are those that were reinforced emphatically on more than one occasion by Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. It is hence evident that a journey into the essence of the three faiths will reveal but one beating heart! It is the purpose of this text not merely to enumerate these virtues, but also to explain how these can be used as founding stones upon which to build the palaces of unity and brotherhood.
Abandoning meaningless imitation of ancestors
The Qurâan mentions that one of the greatest obstacles encountered by the prophets in conveying the divine message was the meaningless imitation of tribal ancestors. When the prophets attempted to expound the divine word, one of the commonest excuses offered by the tribes for not accepting the call was the inexplicable fear of abandoning the path of their ancestors. Whether it was worshipping idols or indulging in other despicable rituals, the very fact that it was practiced by their ancestors was given as evidence of its purity and necessity.4
One of the matters in his calling that the prophet Abraham constantly dwelled upon was humankindâs enduring struggle with this particular weakness. In the following verse, it can be seen that he cried out to both his father and his nation about this. From the very fact that âfatherâ and ânationâ are mentioned, it is clear that Abraham reiterated to his father the mistake of imitating ancestors blindly from his initial call until the very end of his life. He said to his father and people:
âWhat are these images to which you are (so assiduously) devoted?â To this they replied, âWe found our fathers worshipping them.â When Abraham stated, âIndeed you have been in manifest error-you and your fathers,â they answered, âHave you brought us the truth, or are you one of those who jest?â To which he replied, âNay, your Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth. He who created them (from nothing): and I am a witness to this (truth).â (Anbiya 21:52-56)
Verification of faith
This is probably one of the first messages that comes to mind when Abraham is mentioned, especially today. Just as he opposed the tradition in former pagan societies of continuing the religion of their forefathers or being satisfied with what they had learned from their ancestors about faith and worship, he also took the verification of revealed faith as a reigning principle. The Holy Qurâan does not mention the verification of all matters involved in faith; however, it does clearly put forth the verification of two of faithâs most important principles. One of these is related to Godâs existence and unity and the other to resurrection (or the dead being raised to life in the afterlife). If humankind can instill these two principles as the edifices of faith, it is believed that other matters can be easily accepted.
Rather than resorting to the compulsive instruction of abstract philosophies, Abraham verifies the matter of Godâs existence and unity by intelligently illustrating Godâs majesty that is clearly visible in the exterior realm of existence such as the impeccable order prevalent in nature and in the universe. Thus, he plants the internal seeds of faith by opening our eyes to the external verification of matters of faith. Abraham explains his message of divine unity through indicating the uselessness of the worship of stars, which was the religion in esteem in his community. In order to guide his people to truth, Abraham takes what they worshipped as a starting point. First he says to the brightest star in the sky, âThis is my Lord,â (according to your claims), but when it fades he assumes that the brighter moon might be God. However, when the moon disappears, he says that the sun, which is the brightest of all, must be his Lord. When he sees the sun set, he tries to make his people understand that those things that set cannot be God (Anâam 6:75-81).
The Qurâan mentions this even more striking investigation related to the resurrection of the dead (belief in the hereafter):
Behold! Abraham said: âMy Lord! Show me how you give life to the dead.â He said, âDo you not then believe?â He said, âYes! But to satisfy my own understanding.â He said, âTake four birds; tame them to turn to you; Put a portion of them on every hill, and call to them: they will come to you (flying) with speed. Then know that God is exalted in Power, Wise.â (Baqara 2:260)
Razi, a great commentator on the Qurâan, formulated the basic principle presented to humankind in this verse related to the investigation of faith as âthe verse that proves that religion must be based on proof, not imitation.â
Investigation of faith: Basing religious precepts upon intelligent rationale
It must be emphasized that âinvestigation of faith,â one of Abrahamâs clearest messages, is a very convincing argument for those today who shy away from religion because they are tired of imitation. This Abrahamic message explains clearly that religion must rest on an intelligent and methodical investigation, and not on blind, heedless imitation. Indiscriminate imitation is construed as a mistake, a crime committed in the name of religion by incompetent men of religion. As a matter of fact, Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, comprehending that his community of followers was more in need of seeking verification of faith, said âWe are more apt to uncertainty than Abraham.â5 Commenting further on this subject, Godâs Messenger said, out of his modesty:
Just as I never wavered (in faith), Abraham never wavered in any way. If prophets had the impediment of doubt, I would have been the most vulnerable, but you know that I have never been uncertain. You should know, then, that he never fell into uncertainty either. â6
Thus, it is necessary to understand the nature of Abrahamâs uncertainty in this light. Of course, it is not possible to doubt the degree of the submission to God of a prophet like Abraham; it has been clearly verified in the Qurâan.7 In this case, this Abrahamic story is a message and lesson for future humankind regarding the necessity of the verification of oneâs faith. Moreover, the fact that principles of faith are open to intelligent verification presents a great challenge to atheism.
Watering the tree of divine unity
One of the distinguishing characteristics of Abraham that is mentioned again and again in the Qurâan is his not being from the pagans. This is a striking expression because it is reiterated in six different places regarding Abraham: He is not from the pagans. 8 In one case, he exclaims, I am not from the pagans (Anâam 6:79). It is obvious that a prophet will never adhere to the precepts of paganism. Despite this indubitable fact, the repeated assertion about Abraham being not from the pagans must be an emphasis on how sensitive he was on matters regarding the Unity of God. This situation allows us to make this conclusion: just as lack of faith has different degrees, faith has different levels of conviction in the Unity of God.
Willingness and unquestioning obedience to the Divine alone
The other distinguishing attributes of Abraham mentioned in the Qurâan are different reflections of his multi-faceted messengership. He was devoted to the divine and complied with his duties without hesitation or doubt. Abraham is said to have met his Lord willingly, with a peaceful heart, when he was ordered by the Divine in his dream to sacrifice his only son, whom Abraham had so lovingly fathered at a very advanced age, and who had been born as a result of much pleading and prayer. There are several lessons to be learnt from this great apostle and the incredible incidents of his life such as his struggle alone against a whole community including his parents, the king, the law and custom; his disputes with the king; destroying idols; being thrown out of his family; being thrown into the fire; exile and migration: all of these difficult experiences that he faced are expressions of the strength and power of his belief in the Unity of God.
Regarding Abrahamâs pure belief in Godâs unity, it is fitting to quote another verse in the Qurâan. It is stated in the verse 106 of the chapter Yusuf (Joseph): And most of them believe not in God without associating (others as partners) with Him! This verse can be assumed to make an allusion to those who fall into the clutches of shirk, the worship of others instead of God or along with God, the gravest sin in Islam. As a matter of fact, the clear reference to âhidden shirkâ expressed in Prophet Muhammadâs sayings warns us that even exemplary Muslims can unconsciously fall into hidden shirk in spite of their belief in God. In a hadith from Al-Mustadrak, the Prophet lays down a guideline that must be thought about seriously: Love. The various objects of an individualâs love and affection which are cherished in the heart are the rightful determinants of a personâs religion. If love is not centered on God, it is denotative of shirk. In order for a person to escape from the grip of shirk, he has to be consciously in control of all the emotions which are generated in the heart. Emotions like love, hatred, appreciation, reprimand, malice, and enmity must be directed solely according to Godâs approval. Thus the guideline put forth by the Messenger of God was:
Shirk is more silent than the sound of a small antâs footsteps while walking on Safa (a small hill nearby the Kaâba in Makka) during a dark night. The smallest degree of this shirk is liking someone in spite of oppression and hating someone in spite of justice. Do you think that religion is anything other than love and hate? God said, âIf you love God, conform to Me.â 9
In chapter Mumtahana, in the first verse, it is indicated that those who show love to Godâs enemies have strayed from the true path precisely because of this misdirected love.
To further illuminate this fact, it is important to recapitulate the hadith about those who are so fond of money that they refrain from giving a small share to the less fortunate. Those resembling the aforementioned are rightly called abd al-dinar (slave to the money) and abd al-kadifa (slave to velvet) and are duly cursed.10 In addition, many other indulgences and vices such as hypocrisy,11 swearing oaths in the way pagans do,12 belief in superstition,13 and sorcery14 are expressed as shirk in the hadiths. Some scholars also consider attribution of divinity by some Jews to Ezra (Uzayr) and some Christians to Jesus, by way of addressing them as âson of Godâ as shirk, despite their belief in God, the Merciful and the Compassionate, Who created the heavens and the earth.
In this case, Abrahamâs belief in the Unity of God, which is repeatedly lauded in the Holy Qurâan, is an uncorrupted conviction in Godâs unity that has been purified of the minutest and most hidden of polytheistic tendencies. The late Fahraddin Razi described the station of Abrahamâs faith as follows: âThose who are familiar with Qurâanic knowledge know that Abraham drowned in the ocean of tawhid (belief in the Unity of God).15 Abrahamâs tawhid is hence presented as a remarkable example to all believers who love him (Jews, Christians, and Muslims).16