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‘Abrahamic religions’ – From interfaith to scholarship

Together with Ulysses, Abraham is the earliest culture hero in the Western world. More precisely, as Kierkegaard, who called him ‘the knight of faith,’ reminds us, he has remained, throughout the centuries, the prototype of the religious man, of the man of faith. The wandering Aramean from the Book of Genesis, who rejected his parents’ idols and native Mesopotamia to follow the call of the One God to the land of Canaan, started a saga reverberated not only in early Jewish literature, but also in the New Testament (Galatians 3: 6-8), and in early Christian literature. Abraham (Ibrahim in Arabic) is also a leading figure of the Qur’an, where he is called ‘God’s friend.’ From the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur’an, the figure of Abraham became paradigmatic for Jews, Christians and Muslims. In particular, all argued they were following Abraham’s original conception of religion, and all claimed to be the true followers of Abraham’s religion, his only spiritual heirs. As is so common in families, a common father proved to be an element of discord, not of unity. Much in the sad, long, and complex story of religious intolerance and violence between Jews, Christians, and Muslims goes back directly to the inheritance of Abraham’s original religion. This is also true, of course, about the many other religious groups issued from the Abrahamic trunk, such as Samaritans, Bahais, or Mormons.

In all those early perceptions, it remained a matter of course that, just as Abraham had only one religion (Qur’an 4: 125), only one among the contenders to his inheritance was his true heir. The false pretentions of the other groups were to be rejected, in the name of God, and, if need be, through violent means, as their very claim was perceived as blasphemous. Intolerance may well be a universal propensity, but there is no doubt that the idea of a single, universal God often acts as gasoline over fire. In history, it has only been in a second, reflexive stage that men and women of faith have learned to recognize that there is more than one way to reach the same divine truth. The fable of the three rings, made famous by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing in his play Nathan the Wise, but the roots of which go back to the eighth century soon after the birth of Islam, tells about the king who had two exact copies of his golden ring made, so that none of his three sons would know whether he received in inheritance the original royal ring or a copy of it. For Lessing, the message was clear: as no one could know if it was Judaism, Christianity or Islam which retained the original divine truth, religious tolerance was both necessary and inescapable.

Qur'an by Doctor Yuri,  CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.
Qur’an by Doctor Yuri. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

We know, of course, that the Enlightenment faith in human moral progress was, at the very least, premature. If Nathan the Wise is today compulsory reading for German schoolchildren, this reflects the inheritance of Hitler, not of Abraham. Indeed, it is not until after the Second World War, mainly as a sign of contrition, as it were, for the genocide of the Jews of Europe, that the expression ‘Judeo-Christian tradition’ became current, sometimes replacing the previously ubiquitous ‘Christian tradition.’ It is harder to pinpoint the origin of the expression ‘Abrahamic religions’ (in the plural). I suspect that the French Orientalist Louis Massignon (1883-1962), who taught Arabic at the Collège de France, was mainly responsible for launching the idea of the ‘Abrahamic religions,’ in his oral teaching, as well as in his essay on ‘Abraham’s Three Prayers’, a text which made a deep impression on his Maronite students, whom they permitted to approach their Muslim compatriots in Lebanon in a non-polemical fashion, as common children of Abraham.

It is only in the 1970s, then, that the expression ‘the Abrahamic religions’ became more and more commonly used to describe, together, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The main reason for this fact lies in the massive immigration of Muslim populations to Europe. In order to make them feel at home, one had to use inclusive religious language. ‘Abrahamic religions’ was perfect: just like Christians and Jews, Muslims, too, were the sons of a common father, and the inheritors to the same spiritual family.

This reflects an interfaith approach: believers of different traditions learn to appreciate and accept one another, through the recognition of similarities in their faith (here: they believe in the same God). The comparative student of religion has different aims, and uses different methods. But for her or him too, the recognition of what Wittgenstein called ‘family resemblances’ between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (both from a genetic and a structural viewpoint) is essential in order to understand not only similarities, but, more importantly, differences between them.

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