The Excellence of Abraham; Friend of God Rabbi Allen S. Maller
Qur'an states, “You have an excellent example to follow in
Abraham.” (60:4) and “Follow the way of Abraham as people of pure
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
Most Muslim commentators say the son, unnamed in the Qur'an,
was Ishmael. Some Muslims assert it was Isaac.
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)
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
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
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.
Levi Yitzkhok of Birditchev, in his Torah commentary Kidushat Levi,
glosses Genesis 15:1 as follows:”There are two kinds of God
One group worship due to their consciousness that there
is a creator of everything (including good and bad).
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
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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)