Pathways of Faith

'Abraham' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

About This Resource

This article discusses Abraham, common ancestor of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, as background for F.E. Peters' The Children of Abraham. The article by Devin J. Stewart is reprinted from The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World in the Oxford Islamic Studies Online.

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Abraham, one of the many Old Testament figures that appear in the Qurʿān as a prophet of the Biblical tradition, assumes an outstanding role in Islam because of his association with (proto-)Islam, an uncorrupted form of Biblical monotheism that preceded the foundations of Judaism and Christianity. His importance also relates to his association with the Kaʿbah, the shrine at Mecca that was revealed during the Prophet Muḥammad's mission as a temple originally dedicated to the one God but later corrupted by polytheist Arabs and converted into a pilgrimage site where many gods were worshiped.

Abraham is one of the most prominent characters in the Qurʿān. His name appears in the sacred text sixty-nine times, more than any other single figure except Moses. The Qurʿānic, or Arabic, form of the name is Ibrāhīm. Many aspects of the Biblical story of Abraham appear in the Qurʿān: his visit by divine messengers to announce the birth of a son to Abraham and Sarah, despite their advanced age; his connection with the story of Lot and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; and God's test of him by instructing him to sacrifice his son. Significant evidence preserved in the exegesis (tafsīr) suggests that the early Muslims understood the intended sacrificial victim to be Isaac, as in Genesis, but subsequent tradition came to agree that it was Ishmael (Ar., Ismāʿil) instead. In both the Qurʿān and Islamic tradition, the figure of Ishmael points to the close relationship between the Islamic and Jewish traditions while at the same time signaling their distinct differences.

As with many other Biblical characters, including Noah and Lot, Abraham's portrayal in the Qurʿān stresses his prophetic role. The Qurʿān shows Abraham denouncing polytheism and rebelling against those of his society who worshiped the planets and idols, including his father Azar, a sculptor of idols. He smashed the idols in his father's workshop, and when reprimanded, asked why they did not prevent him from destroying them, if they were so powerful (Qurʿān 2:258–60, 6:74, 9:114, 19:46, 21:60–69, and 60:4). In this respect, his story resembles that of other prophets, such as Noah, who preached to their communities to worship God alone and reject polytheism.

Abraham, however, has a major significance in the Qurʿān; he is a foundational figure on a par with Moses and Jesus. The Qurʿān presents Islam as both a continuation and confirmation, a sequel to the earlier divine dispensations of Judaism and Christianity; it is also a return to an original, uncorrupted form of Biblical monotheism. The Qurʿān suggests that while both Jews and Christians claim Abraham as their own, he was neither a sectarian Jew nor a Christian, but a follower of the true religion (dīn) of monotheism. The term the Qurʿān uses for Abraham in this context is “true believer” (ḥanīf  ), which is contrasted in the Qurʿān with “polytheist” (mushrik). Islam is therefore the direct continuation of Abraham's religion, the primordial Biblical monotheism, that avoids the historical corruptions that occurred in the Jewish and Christian traditions (Qurʿān 2:130, 135; 3:95; 4:125; 6:161; and 16:121, 123).

According to Islamic tradition, Abraham, like Moses and Jesus, was thus the founder of a major religious tradition. In keeping with this special status, the Qurʿān refers to a sacred text termed the “Scrolls of Abraham” (87:19). He is also the central figure in the narrative behind Islam's major holy day, the Feast of the Sacrifice (ʿĪd al-Aḍḥā or al-ʿĪd al-Kabīr), which takes place on the tenth of Dhu al-Ḥijjah, the twelfth month in the Islamic calendar, and parallels Jewish Passover and Christian Easter. It commemorates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, and is connected with the rituals of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the ḥajj. The Kaʿbah, the cubically shaped building at the heart of the pilgrimage, according to the Qurʿān, was built by Abraham and his son Ishmael, and Islam restored it to its former status, cleansing it of idols and devoting it to the worship of the one God. Many of the rituals of the pilgrimage are associated with Abraham, his concubine Hagar, and their son Ishmael. For example, the running back and forth between the two Meccan hills of Ṣafā and Marwah is said to emulate Hagar's search for water for her son Ishmael before she came upon the well of Zamzam.

As the founder of proto-Islam, Abraham is connected closely with the Prophet Muḥammad. Abraham is the name of the Prophet's son, who did not survive, by his wife Mary the Copt. Abraham also appears prominently in most versions of the legend of the Prophet Muḥammad's Night Journey and Ascension to Heaven (al-isrāʿ wa al-miʿrāj), along with Moses and Jesus; the Prophet meets with him either in Jerusalem or in the sixth or seventh heaven, and in some traditional reports (ḥadīths) Muḥammad refers to Abraham as his father. A number of ḥadīth reports stress the close physical resemblance between Muḥammad and Abraham; he is reported to have stated, “I saw Abraham; I look like his son.”

Bibliography

  • Bashear, Suliman. “Abraham's Sacrifice of His Son and Related Issues.” Der Islam, 67 (1990): 243–277.
  • Bijlefeld, Willem. “Controversies around the Qurʿanic Ibrāhīm Narrative and Its ‘Orientalist’ Interpretations.” Muslim World, 72, no. 2 (1982): 81–94.
  • Firestone, Reuven. “Abraham's Association with the Meccan Sanctuary and the Pilgrimage in the Pre-Islamic and Early Islamic Periods.” Le Muséon, 104, no. 3–4 (1991): 359–387.
  • Firestone, Reuven. “Abraham's Son as the Intended Sacrifice.” Journal of Semitic Studies, 34, no. 1 (1989): 95–131.
  • Geiger, A. Judaism and Islam. New York, 1970 [Reprint of 1898 edition]. English translation of Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen? originally published in 1835.
  • Moubarac, Youakim. Abraham dans le Coran: l’Histoire d’Abraham dans le Coran et la naissance de l’Islam. Paris, 1958.

Source

Stewart, Devin J. "Abraham." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t236/e1119.

How to Cite This Page

"Muslim Journeys | Item #175: 'Abraham' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", April 23, 2018 http://bridgingcultures.neh.gov/muslimjourneys/items/show/175.

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