The Excellence of Abraham; Friend of God Rabbi Allen S. Maller
The Qur'an states, “You have an excellent example to follow in Abraham.” (60:4) and “Follow the way of Abraham as people of pure faith.” (3:95) What makes prophet Abraham, “whom God chose to be His friend” (Qur'an 4:125 & Isaiah 41:8) so special? For Jews and Christians Abraham is the first monotheist. But for Muslims, Adam was the first of many thousands of prophets of God (one Hadith says 124,000, another mentions 224,000) who called upon the people of their own tribe or nation to worship only the One God. There have also been about 315 messengers, who brought a unique set of laws to their own tribe or nation. Thus God provided humans with Divine guidance and knowledge long before the birth of Abraham.
All prophets Divinely inspired by the one and only God are of course monotheists. Pious believers of any individual prophet should not “discriminate between anyone of His prophets” (Qur'an 2:285 & 4:152) This is why prophet Muhammad said, “Prophets are brothers in faith, having different mothers. Their religion is, however, one.” (Muslim, book #030, Hadith #5836) All prophets have the same father, who is the One God whose inspiration gives birth to their prophethood. However, each prophet has a different mother i.e. a mother tongue, a motherland, and a target audience that he speaks to at a specific time in history. Thus prophets are brothers in faithfulness to the One God but their Divinely inspired message differs because it must be appropriate for their motherland, their mother tongue, their own people and the historical circumstances of the prophet's lifetime.
Therefore, not all monotheistic prophets are the same. “We have exalted some above others. To some (Moses) God spoke directly (4:164)); others He raised high in rank (4:163-6); to “Jesus, Mary's son, We gave clear signs and supported him with the Holy Spirit.” (2:253). Also, “We have exalted some prophets above others (see 38:41-48) and gave the Zaboor (Book of Psalms) to David.” (17:55) Abraham (Qur'an 57:26), Moses, David, Jesus and Muhammad all received a Divine book. Abraham was the first of those we know to receive a Sacred Scripture. All of the others were among his descendants.
Is this what makes Abraham so special that his name appears 69 times in the Qur'an, second only to Moses (136 times)? I do not think this alone is why Abraham plays such an important part in all three Abrahamic religions. Abraham is famous for the numerous ways God tested him especially the terrible tests of banishing Hagar and his first born son Ishmael (Qur'an 2:124 & Genesis 9:9-21) and of making his son an offering to God. (Qur'an 37:100-113 & Genesis 22:1-24) Most Muslim commentators say the son, unnamed in the Qur'an, was Ishmael. Some Muslims assert it was Isaac. Perhaps both participated in the test at different times, so that each son could produce descendants who in time would become a blessing for other nations of the earth. (Genesis 22:16-18 & Qur'an 4:163) In any case, Abraham's test with his son became an iconic sign of faith and trust in God's will; for Jews, Christians and Muslims. In addition to his two sons, Abraham is unique in the numerous prophets God chose from among his descendants, whose names are recorded in the Bible and the Qur'an. With the exception of Balaam (and perhaps Melchizedek in Genesis 14:18), all Biblical prophets and most of the 25 prophets named in the Qur'an, are descendants of Abraham. “We did grant the Family of Abraham the Book, the Wisdom and a mighty (spiritual) kingdom.” (Qur'an 57:26)
One of the most insightful verses relating the special virtue of Abraham states, “Abraham was a community”. (Qur'an 16:120) How can one person be an umma, an ongoing people/community? Muslim commentators offer many different glosses on this verse, and one medieval commentator, Fakhr al-Din Razi (1149-1209) offers four different opinions. His fourth opinion is that Abraham reached a unique level of faith and religion above the many prophets that preceded him. A similar view was also propounded by a Hassidic Rabbi, Levi Yitzkhok of Birditchev, (1740-1809). Levi Yitzkhok and Razi lived in totally different worlds in terms of time, space and culture; yet spiritually they seem very connected.
I am not a Muslim; I am a Reform Rabbi who first became interested in Islam when I studied it at a university (UCLA) 50 years ago. I have continued my study of Islam off and on for 5 decades and for some time I have considered myself to be a Reform Rabbi and a Muslim Jew. Actually, I am a Muslim Jew i.e. a faithful Jew submitting to the will of God, because I am a Reform Rabbi. As a Rabbi I am faithful to the covenant that God made with Abraham – the first Muslim Jew, and I submit to the commandments that God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. As a Reform Rabbi I believe that Jewish spiritual leaders should modify Jewish tradition as social and historical circumstances change and develop. I also believe we should not make religion difficult for people to practice. These are lessons that prophet Muhammad taught 12 centuries before the rise of Reform Judaism in early 19th century Germany. In many ways, statements in the Qur'an about Orthodox Jewish beliefs and Ahadith relating Muhammad's comments about Orthodox Judaism, and religion in general, prefigure the thinking of Reform Rabbis some 12-13 centuries later. Had the Jews of Medina been more open to his teachings, Reform Judaism would have started almost 14 centuries ago. Of the 13 million Jews in the world today the majority, both in Israel and throughout the world, are no longer Orthodox. The largest denomination of non-Orthodox Jews in the US and Canada, where 6 million Jews live, is the Reform movement. As a Reform Rabbi I offer a neo-Hassidic gloss of Razi's opinion that Abraham was unique and exceptional by becoming himself a model spiritual-religious community.
Rabbi Levi Yitzkhok of Birditchev, in his Torah commentary Kidushat Levi, glosses Genesis 15:1 as follows:”There are two kinds of God worshipers. One group worship due to their consciousness that there is a creator of everything (including good and bad). Another group worships due to the 'heavenly help' they received for doing God's will. Those who worship due to their conscious understanding, really envision God. And those who worship due to 'heavenly help” envision God to be like a judge but not worship with the devoted eyes of a lover. Worshipers with conscious understanding are able to influence others, and give birth to ongoing outcomes. Worshipers due to 'heavenly help' can't influence others because when their faith doesn't 'pay off' they despair in God. This is the meaning of the verse (15:1) “After these events the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision” . Abraham was now able to envision God in a new way because he himself had come to a new level of self conscious worship. Thus in verse 15:4 Abraham is told that (after decades of infertility) he will produce offspring due to his new self consciousness.”
Worshipers who benefit from heavenly help are literalists and pragmatists. Before Abraham all religious groups took their religious mythology literally because their religion was functional. Religious beliefs help reduce anxiety and depression; strengthens the immune system and thus help healing; create cultural motifs that socialize the young; and by promising Divine reward and punishment help enforce moral principles of fairness and reciprocity. Shared religious rituals and customs strengthen community solidarity; and justify the tribe's social and political organization. Before Abraham people simply received these benefits and felt grateful to the Gods who bestowed them. They felt they had real spiritual experiences even though they worshiped multiple Gods and idols. When their Gods failed to deliver what they wanted, they begged, bribed and propitiated other Gods. This kind of functional religion is universal and helps account for the failure of 99.9% of the (124,000 or 224,000) prophets sent by God to establish ongoing communities of ethical monotheists. Few people remained loyal to the teachings of their religious leaders when, in later decades or generations, things turned against them. The few individuals who in their own life did remain faithful to the teachings of their prophet saw their children or grandchildren turn away. As literalists they could not interpret the hidden ways of God's guidance when they suffered continual defeat or disappointment. This is why even the descendants of prophets like Noah and Ishmael did not remain an ongoing monotheistic community; and after several generations reverted to idolatry and polytheism.
Abraham reached a higher level of religious self conscious. Abraham realized that everything comes from God; both what we think is good and what we think is bad. We should not judge life from our very limited personal perspective. In the words of another Hassidic Rabbi, Moses of Kobryn, “A suffering person should not say: 'That's bad. That's bad.' Nothing God imposes on a human is bad. Bur it is all right to say: 'That's bitter!' For there are some medicines that are made with bitter herbs.” The ability of religious scholars and leaders to find hidden meanings in revealed texts in order to explain gaps between the literal statement in revealed texts and subsequent different outcomes, expanded in the centuries after Abraham's assent to a higher level of religious self consciousness. Religious self consciousness even penetrated dualistic and polytheistic systems which began to move toward monotheism. An increase understanding of loyalty to God in good times and bad times made people willing to undergo a lifetime of suffering and even martyrdom, without abandoning trust in God. This higher level of spiritual commitment enabled suffering or oppressed religious communities to prevail over pragmatism, and survive.
Thus Abraham was willing to sacrifice his own life in Nimrod's fire (Qur'an 21:68-71 and oral tradition in both Jewish and Muslim sources) and to twice risk sacrifice of his sons, after waiting for so many years until he finally had two sons. Indeed, because Abraham had reached this level of religious consciousness he could be tested and would become an excellent example for all mankind. For rising up above 'functional benefits' religion, Abraham became the first prophet to establish an ongoing religious community among his immediate descendants: Jews who were believers; then by spiritual adoption- Christians who were believers; and then by reversion- Muslims who were believers. As the Qur'an states: “God said I will surely make you the leader of humanity and Abraham asked 'What about my offspring?' God replied, 'My pledge does not apply to those who do evil” (2:124} “This was the legacy that Abraham bequested to his sons as did Jacob when he said: “My sons, (who will become the Jewish community) God has chosen for you this way of life” (2:132) All three religions inherit the blessing of Abraham, (2:134-137) and for all three religions the blessing applies to their respective believers, but does not include those individuals who refuse to submit to the will of God as reflected in the prophet and book they were given. (2:124) Thus in all three communities there are some who do not attain a level of spiritual consciousness and awareness that transcends the basic 'heavenly help' of literal reward and punishment for orthodox dogma and rule keeping. Those who do reach the level of Abraham, the friend of God, need to keep the others from leading the community astray.
Since all prophets are brothers, religious leaders should openly and actively act against those in their own community who claim their religion or their prophet is superior to another, as Muhammad did according to a Hadith reported by Abu Huraira: Two persons, a Muslim and a Jew, quarreled. The Muslim said, "By Him Who gave Muhammad superiority over all the people! The Jew said, "By Him Who gave Moses superiority over all the people!" At that the Muslim raised his hand and slapped the Jew on the face. The Jew went to the Prophet and informed him of what had happened. The Prophet sent for the Muslim and asked him about it. The Muslim informed him of the event. The Prophet said, "Do not give me superiority over Moses, for on the Day of Resurrection all the people will fall unconscious and I will be one of them. I will be the first to gain consciousness, and I will see Moses standing and holding the side of the Throne (of Allah). I will not know whether (Moses) had also fallen unconscious and got up before me, or Allah has exempted him from that stroke." (Bukhari book 76 #524). Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders should all learn humility from this teaching of Prophet Muhammad and we should all teach this humility to our followers. Then God's blessing promise will be fulfilled: “I will make you (Abraham) an imam (religious leader) for all people”. (Qur'an 2:124 & Genesis 22:17-18)