The Abrahamic Faiths


Having talked about ways to understand and categorize religions, let’s now do so.  There are various ways to do so:  by geographic region (Asian religions, African religions, European religions, etc.); by founding (revealed religions vs. folk religions, etc.); and so on.  I want to look at what might be called “genetic” or “family” relationships.  That is, members of a particular faith might modify, develop, or alter doctrines, worldviews, and such, until what initially is a sort of heresy of the original religion becomes a brand new religion in its own right.  That process is a topic for the future.  Right now, I want to look at the “family” of religions that claims the most adherents worldwide, the Abrahamic family of religions.

In the early days of the United States, though the Founders strongly emphasized freedom of religion and did not, themselves, think of America as founded on Christianity or any other religion, the general feeling was that the U. S. was, in a sense a “Christian” nation.  In the 20th Century, as the nation became more diverse, there was some effort to expand the definitions of U. S. religious culture.  Particularly after World War II, in light of the Holocaust, and in an attempt at reparation for the Antisemitism that had been all too common previously, it became common, and later expected, to use the term “Judeo-Christian”.  The idea was to emphasize commonalities–ethics, the Ten Commandments, etc.–as an attempt at a more irenic way of speaking about religions.  It has been objected–and in my mind, rightly so, to some extent–that the term “Judeo-Christian” is a bit of a weasel word that improperly conflates vastly different faiths.  Nevertheless, it has been thought of as a better-than-nothing term.  However, as Islam has become more noticeable in our society, there has been a casting about for a new term.  “Judeo-Christian-Islamic” and similar locutions have been tried, but are cumbersome.  Finally, the term “Abrahamic” has been coined as a way of embracing the commonalities of all three religions.  In this case, I think the term is good and useful.  It is this which I wish to discuss.

Abraham, of course, is the patriarch whose story is told in the book of Genesis, chapters 11-25 (nearly a quarter of the book), thus figuring in Scripture held sacred by both Jews and Christians.  He also appears in several surahs (chapters) of the Quran, thus figuring significantly in Islam.  Abraham is held in equal esteem by all three faiths, and is interpreted in important ways as the “founder” of each.  Moreover, Abraham is depicted as being born in Ur of the Chaldees, in Mesopotamia, and moving from there to Canaan (now Israel/Palestine).  The three main faiths named after him were also born in or near this region, the Middle East.  For all these reasons, I think the term “Abrahamic” is quite appropriate.  Let us look at the specifics.

Abraham is viewed by the Jews as their ultimate ancestor, and the founder of the Jewish people.  Admittedly, Judaism as a systematic religion was not codified until a millennium later under Moses, who could be said to be the founder of Judaism.  The Jews do not take their name from Abraham, either, referring to themselves as the “Children of Israel” (the name given to Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, by God) or as Jews (from Judah, the founder one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel and Abraham’s great-grandson).  The reasons for this are complex, and possible food for future posts.  Here it is important to note that despite all of this, Abraham is still seen as the founder of the Jews as a people, if not of a religion.  It was with Abraham that God made His initial covenant, according to the Bible, and it was he who first instituted circumcision, the physical symbol of the covenant of the Jews with God to this very day.  He was, also, the ancestor of the Jewish people by descent (the facticity of this is a topic for another day).  Thus Abraham is the father of the Jews both physically through descent and spiritually through his covenant with God.

As related in Genesis 16 and 21, Isaac, the father of Israel and thus of the Jewish people, was not, in fact, Abraham’s first son.  At the urging of his then-barren wife Sarah, Abraham took her slave-girl Hagar as a concubine and fathered Ishmael.  Ishmael was essentially disinherited in favor of Isaac; but he survived, grew to adulthood, and became “a wild man; his hand…against every man, and every man’s hand against him” (Genesis 16:12).  Moreover, just as his nephew, Isaac had twelve sons, Ishmael, too, had twelve sons (I Chronicles 1:29-31) from whom sprang a new people.  That people, according to implications in the Bible as well as later Jewish lore, is the Arab people, whose lore confirms this.  Muhammad, of course, was an Arab, and though the majority of Muslims today are not Arabs, it was among the Arabs that Islam originated and spread.  More significantly, the Quran itself repeatedly refers to the religion of Abraham as islam (“submission [to God]”), and thus an earlier form of the same religion preached by Muhammad.  Therefore, like Jews, Muslims see Abraham as their father, both spiritually and literally.

Christianity has a more complex relationship with Abraham.  Most Christians after the initial generations were Gentiles, and thus could not claim to be physical descendants of the patriarch.  Strictly speaking, this is true of most Muslims, as well; but the Arab Muslims intermarried with converted peoples, and Islam has always had a tribal aspect missing in Christianity.  This has resulted in high prestige being accorded to descendants of the Prophet (and thus also of Ishmael, or as Muslims call him, “Ismail”); thus there are many lineages, both real and questionable, of Arab descent even among non-Arab Muslims.  On the other hand, among Christians, genealogical, physical descent has never played a part in the faith.  Thus, reverence for Abraham must be located elsewhere.

The seminal text for Christian reflection on Abraham is the fourth chapter of Paul’s epistle to the Romans.  In a sense, Paul does something similar to what Muhammad did six centuries later; that is, just as Muhammad made Abraham a proto-Muslim, Paul makes him a proto-Christian.  Paul’s discussion is more intricate, though.  After all, Muhammad considered Abraham, by way of Ishmael, as the literal ancestor of the Arab people.  Paul makes no such claim for Abraham vis-à-vis Gentile Christians.  Rather, by a sort of rhetorical jujutsu, Paul argues that the covenant inaugurated with Abraham and its descent to his offspring was entirely irrelevant to Abraham’s importance.  Pay close attention to this extended quote from Romans 4, my emphasis:

What, then, are we to say about Abraham, our [Jews’ and Jewish Christians’] ancestor in the natural line?  If Abraham was justified by anything he had done, then he has a ground for pride.  but he has no such ground before God; for what does Scripture say?  “Abraham put his faith in God, and that faith was counted to him as righteousness.”  Now if a man does a piece of work, his wages are not “counted” as a favor; they are paid as debt.  But if without any work to his credit  he simply puts his faith in him who acquits the guilty , then his faith is indeed “counted as righteousness“.

Is this happiness [of those whom God counts as just] confined to the circumcised [the Jews, who are physical descendants of Abraham], or is it for the uncircumcised [Gentiles, specifically Gentile Christians] also?  Consider:  we say “Abraham’s faith was counted as righteousness”; in what circumstances was it so counted?  Was he circumcised at the time or not?  He was not yet circumcised, but uncircumcised; and he later received the symbolic rite of circumcision  as the  hall-mark of the righteousness which faith had given him when he was still uncircumcised.  Consequently, he is the father of all who have faith when uncircumcised, so that righteousness is “counted to” them; and at the same time he is the father of such of the circumcised who do not rely upon their circumcision alone, but also walk in the footprints of the faith which our father Abraham had while he was yet uncircumcised.  (Romans 4:1-5; 9-12, NEB)

The traditional understanding was that Abraham and his line were made God’s special people, with the covenant being sealed by circumcision and obedience to God on the part of Abraham’s progeny.  It was the covenant itself that was important, and the keeping of it by Abraham’s descendants throughout history.  Paul turns the traditional Jewish understanding of the Covenant with Abraham on its head.  In his reading, Abraham’s faith, manifested before his circumcision and thus before the covenant, is the linchpin of his relationship with God.  God counts Abraham’s faith as righteousness, in effect taking the full initiative without need of a formal “agreement” between  Himself and Abraham.  Circumcision itself is merely a “symbolic rite” which is but a sign of the righteousness that God imputed to Abraham.  This resulted from Abraham’s faith; and since he had that faith before his circumcision, he is the “father of all who have faith when uncircumcised”, that is, of Gentile Christians.  He is the father of the circumcised, too, but only insofar as they “walk in the footprints of the faith which our father Abraham had while he was yet uncircumcised.”  Thus, ever since Paul, Christians, the vast majority of whom are Gentiles, consider Abraham to be their “father in faith” (in the words of the Roman Canon), making him their ancestor as much as he is the ancestor of Jews and Muslims.

Thus, as different as they are in many other ways, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam concur in seeing Abraham as their ancestor, though interpreting this in different ways.  Other areas of commonality in the Abrahamic faiths are:

1.  Monotheism, specifically ethical monotheism.

2.  A personal God who is understood as acting, and sometimes directly intervening, in human affairs.

3.  A belief in angels and demons.

4.  Belief in a personal principle of evil, Satan, also known as the Devil or Iblis (though Judaism is much more ambiguous on this score).

5.  Belief in heaven and hell (some forms of these religions have universalistic tendencies).

6.  Denial of reincarnation (with some exceptions in Judaism and some heterodox versions of Christianity and Islam).

7.  A linear, non-cyclical view of time.

8.  Ascription of the material world to God’s creation, and a tendency to view it as basically good.

9.  Relatively exclusivist–that is, Abrahamic faiths tend to view membership in more than one religion at once as a contradiction, or as impossible.  The strictness of this varies according to historical context and particular sect, and there are degrees of tolerance, but on the whole, it is usually considered that membership in Judaism, Christianity, or Islam precludes membership in or practices of any other religion.

Demographically, the Abrahamic faiths constitute the largest group of religions in the world.  Christianity and Islam put together claim nearly half the population of Earth.  There are other religions that could arguably counted as “Abrahamic” (e.g.the Bahá’í Faith), but few are substantial in number.  According to, Christianity has about 2.1 billion adherents, and Islam about 1.5 billion, with Judaism the smallest at about 14 million.  Other arguably Abrahamic religions (the Bahá’í Faith, and various religions that are sometimes considered separate from Christianity or Islam, such as Mormonism or Ahmadiyya Islam, though adherents may deny this) would add up to perhaps twenty to fifty million more, though many might not be counted separately in censuses.

In the next post in this series, we’ll look at the second largest family of faiths, the Dharmic religions.

Posted on 04/05/2013, in religion and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

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