B. MILLAT-A-IBRAHIM: THE FAITH OF ABRAHAM.
1. The Nature of Abraham's Faith in the Qur'an.
We have already seen that there are two great points of agreement between Islam and Christianity respecting the patriarch Abraham, namely that he was called the Friend of God and appointed the head of all true believers. We come now to the third great feature that Christianity has in common with Islam, and that is the teaching in both the Bible and the Qur'an that it was by faith alone that Abraham found approval with God. Indeed the Qur'an teaches that Islam is not a new religion but claims that it is this very thing of which we are speaking, namely the faith of Abraham. The following is but one of many passages which make this claim:
In this verse the faith of Ibrahim in the original Arabic reads millata-Ibraahiim. The word millah appears fifteen times in the Qur'an and on seven of these occasions it is used in direct association with Abraham (see, for example, Surahs 2.130, 2.135, 6.161). On one occasion it is significantly said that God has laid on the Muslims the millata-abiikum-Ibraahiim - "the faith of your father Abraham" (Surah 22.78). The word millah is taken to mean "religion, faith, creed" (Kassis, A Concordance of the Qur'an, p. 768) and it is clear, therefore, that Islam takes the faith of Abraham, the father of the faithful, as its model.
We must enquire, however, as to what the millata-Ibrahim is held to mean in practice. In the last section we saw, from various passages in the Qur'an, that Abraham's greatness before God arose out of his belief in the oneness of God and his willing submission to him. Another passage helps us to understand further what the Qur'an has in mind when it speaks of the faith of Abraham. It reads:
The command in the Arabic original is simply Aslim - "Submit!" Abraham's reply aslamtu - "I submit". Both words come from the same root letters (sin, lam and mim) as the words Islam (Submission) and Muslim (one who submits). Here we see how the Qur'an regards Abraham's faith and why it speaks of him as a Muslim and the father of those who believe. It sees Abraham's faith, as in the other passages, as an unquestioning obedience to the commands of God. Surah 2.130 Speaks of the millata-Ibrahim as the true faith from which only fools turn away and the declaration of submission to God in Surah 2.131 quoted above does indeed appear to be a commentary on and explanation of the nature of Abraham's faith.
We are compelled to enquire whether the Qur'an has an adequate conception of what this faith really was. Our study of the title Friend of God disclosed that there was a very close relationship between Abraham and his Lord and that it was based on a spirit of mutual trust, in particular Abraham's faith in God's own faithfulness. This aspect of his faith has been overlooked in the Qur'an which sees his faith purely as conformity to God's commands. If it was nothing more than this, an unquestioning submission, it does not qualify as faith in the Biblical sense. It is simply a blind resignation to the will of God. A Christian writer in consequence says, "Islam is submission to the inevitable" (Christensen, The Practical Approach to Muslims, p. 382). In much of the Muslim world a sense of fatalism prevails, an attitude that what will be will be, and that no one can change God's decrees. Still less should anyone ever seek to question them.
A dog can soon be taught to submit to its master and when he commands "Heel!" and the dog responds appropriately, we shall not say that the dog has faith in its master but rather that it has been taught to implicitly obey whatever the master says. Such obedience is indeed commendable, but it cannot qualify as faith. No more does the response aslamtu, "I submit", constitute a response of faith to the command Aslim - "Submit!" We shall see later what the implications of this are when the command comes to Abraham to sacrifice his son.
2. The Faith of Abraham in the Christian Bible.
As in Islam, so in Christianity we find Abraham marked for his faith in God and here too it is a model and example for all true Christians. The following verses set out comprehensively the relationship between Abraham's faith and true Christian faith:
In this case, however, the faith spoken of has a very different nature to the faith of Abraham in the Qur'an. It is faith in the faithfulness of God. God promised to bless Abraham and give him a son and, because Abraham believed that God would be true to his word, he responded in faith. It was this implicit trust in God, not an unquestioning submission to his commands, that commended him to God and as a result his faitb was reckoned to him as righteousness. This verse very succinctly describes the character of his faith. He believed:
An illustration helps to identify the nature of Abraham's faith as it is set forth in the Bible. The sun and the moon are the two most obvious celestial bodies and each has its place. The sun gives light by day and the full moon light by night. Yet there is a vast difference between them. The sun generates light and its brilliance is unrivalled in the sky. At best the moon can but feebly reflect the sun's light. Without the sun the moon cannot shine at all, yet the sun will shine on untroubled if the moon should be removed. The moon simply reflects the sun's light.
So it was between God and Abraham. God's glory is unrivalled in the heavens. He generates holiness, righteousness and faithfulness. At best man can only reflect his glory for no man has power to generate any righteousness of his own (John 3.27). In this way, therefore, Abraham's faith was a reflection of God's faithfulness. No man will have faith in someone he considers untrustworthy. Abraham had faith in God because he knew that "God is faithful" (1 Corinthians 10.13, 2 Thessalonians 3.3). His faith was a response to God's faithfulness. This is why his faith was "reckoned to him as righteousness" (Genesis 15.6). God generates both faithfulness and righteousness and as Abraham laid hold on the former by faith, so the latter was counted to him as well. His righteousness' was not a self-righteousness obtained through good deeds, etc., but a God-given righteousness, a righteousness that was reckoned and imputed to him, a reflection of God's own righteousness and faithfulness.
2. The Promise of a Son to Abraham.
We have been analysing points of agreement between Islam and Christianity regarding the great patriarch Abraham. As we proceed to analyse succeeding events in his life we shall see what tremendous material we have here for an effective witness to Muslims of God's grace in Jesus Christ.
We begin with the promise to Abraham that he would have a son. This promise is recorded in both the Bible and the Qur'an and in both books it is expressly stated that the promised son was Isaac, the first-born son of Abraham's wife Sarah. The promise is recorded as follows in the Bible:
"As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her; I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall come from her . . . Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him". Genesis 17.15-16,19.
In the Qur'an we likewise find passages plainly stating that God promised Abraham that he would bear a son, Isaac, through his wife Sarah:
And We gave him the good news of Isaac - a prophet - one of the Righteous. Surah 37.112
What was Abraham's response to this promise? No mention is made of it in the Qur'an but, as we have seen, the Bible States that he "believed the Lord" and that this response of faith had momentous consequences for "he reckoned it to him as righteousness" (Genesis 15.6). Never had it ever been heard that an old woman of ninety could bear a son, especially when the woman herself had hitherto been unable to bear children. What made Abraham believe God - did he just simply believe that God could do anything he wished? Not at all. He believed God because he trusted in God's faithfulness. He knew he would be true to his word. This is indeed the true millata-Ibrahim, "the faith of Abraham". He believed that, once God had made a promise, he would certainly fulfil it. It was as a result of this conviction that he concluded that God could bring about the birth of a son when it seemed to be naturally impossible. The following passage outlines perfectly the process of faith that enabled Abraham to believe that the promise would be fulfilled:
He did not blindly resign himself to what he had heard. Twice we read that he gave the promise much thought and reflection: "he considered his own body . . . he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb". He took full stock of the situation. Nothing in the circumstances around him would give credence to the promise. To all intents and purposes both he and his wife were well "over the hill" and her barrenness only served to increase the unlikelihood that she would bear a son. But in hope he "believed against hope" because he knew God would fulfil his word. "No distrust made him waver" - a vital clue to the character of his faith - but he "grew strong in his faith" as he gave glory to the God whom he considered faithful to his word. Thus he became, by a studied process of reasoning based on the assurance that "every word of God proves true" (Proverbs 30.5), thoroughly persuaded that the promise would be fulfilled, "fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised". The passage concludes: "That is why his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness" (Romans 4.22).
On the basis that God would surely fulfil his promise Abraham was led to believe that the son would be born and this led him to discern that God is he "who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist" (Romans 4.17). He believed that God would give life to his body, though it was as good as dead, and that he would call into being something that otherwise could not exist. We also read that his wife Sarah likewise shared this very faith in God's faithfulness to his own word:
She followed the example of her husband and did not just blindly believe what she heard. She too considered just as he had done, not so much that God had the power to fulfil his promise, but rather believed "him faithful who had promised".
Abraham did not just believe God would fulfil his promise but considered as to how it could be fulfilled. Because of this exercise of faith, because he reasoned carefully about it, he came to understand how his son would come into being and so gained a greater understanding of the mind and will of God. He came to understand the promise and so gained knowledge of the ways of God. He was thus able to believe with sound reason (and not blind resignation) and so became fully convinced that God would do as he had promised.
Abraham received a promise that he would bear a son and that his name would be Isaac. Some years later God spoke to him again about this very same son Isaac, issuing a command that seemed to shatter the promise in pieces. We shall proceed to see how the great prophet, maintaining the same faith that had enabled him to respond to the promise, was able to reconcile the two apparently contradictory messages that came from heaven. More importantly, we shall see how this led Abraham on to perceive from afar the coming of God's redemption through his Son Jesus Christ.
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