Abraham, Father of Faith

From Bob Kirk (kirk@lambton.on.ca)
Newsgroups: soc.religion.islam
Subject: Abraham
Date: Wed Oct 09 14:03:35 EDT 1996
Message-Id: 53gpdn$q52@shellx.best.com

As members of the three great Monotheistic faiths, believers in the one, true God, let us examine our common father Abraham, and his faith in the Almighty, the Creator of all.

The Qur'an, in sura 37:102-108 states, 'He [Abraham] said: "I will take refuge with my Lord; He will give me guidance. Lord, grant me a righteous son." We gave him news of a gentle son. And when he reached the age when he could work with him, his father said to him: "My son, I dreamt that I was sacrificing you. Tell me what you think." He replied: "Father do as you are bidden. God willing, you shall find me steadfast." And when they had both submitted to God's will, and Abraham had laid down his son prostrate upon his face, We called out to him, saying: "Abraham, you have fulfilled your vision." Thus do We reward the righteous. That was indeed a bitter test. We ransomed his son with a noble sacrifice and bestowed on him the praise of later generations. "Peace be on Abraham!" Thus do We reward the righteous.' (The Koran, translation by N.J. Dawood) And in 2:139-140 we read: 'Say [To People of the Book]: "Would you dispute with us about God, who is our Lord and your Lord? We shall both be judged by our works. To Him alone we are devoted. "Do you claim that Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes, were all Jews or Christians?" Say: "Who knows better, you or God?"'

These verses identify the Qur'ans position on Abraham and his relationship with God. They can be further summarized into three essential points:
1.The author states that he will reward the righteous for their devotion, obedience and good works, based on Abraham's example. 'Thus shall we reward the righteous.' In other words, righteous works merit reward.
2.The author states that Abraham did not profess the faith known as Judaism, nor Christianity, and believers (Muslims) are to ask the People of the Book to examine whether or not Abraham, Isaac etc., were Jews or Christians.
3.Both 'Believers' (Muslims) and 'People of the Book'(Jews and Christians are people of the same God, and of the spiritual lineage of Abraham.

It is necessary here once again, to examine the Qur'ans opinion of the scriptures contained in 'The Book' which Christians and Jews posessed in about 650AD when the Qur'an referenced them. Sura 6:89-91 reads, (speaking about Job, Noah, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joseph, David, Solomon, John, Jesus etc.), 'Such is God's guidance; He bestows it on whom He pleases of His servants. Had they served other gods besides Him, their labours would have been vain indeed. On those men We bestowed the Scriptures, wisdom, and prophethood. If these are denied by this generation, We will entrust them to others who will not deny them.'

It is clear that what constituted scripture in the time of the Qur'an (and indeed does today), was accepted as previous revelation from God. What then does previous scripture say about Abraham?

First, consider this story:
Suppose you received a speeding ticket one day on the local highway. In court, you stand before the judge, and look for something to say. What would or could you say? Would you waste your time telling him that you've driven that particular stretch of highway _within_ the speed limit more often than you have _exceeding_ it? Would he let you off under the theory that your 'good deeds outweigh the bad'? You know that this is the case for virtually all of the people who use that stretch of road. They usually drive within the limit except when they are late, or at least justify to themselves reason for exceeding the limit. So would this work with the judge? How much less would it work with God?
Would you then tell him that if he lets you off this time you will never break the law again? You know that this doesn't hold water. He gives you a look of, 'Are you serious'? For if you actually do manage to go without breaking the law again, you're only doing what the law requires. You aren't getting extra merit or credit for doing what you are supposed to be doing anyway, and therefore, you certainly aren't removing from yourself the 'guiltiness' of speeding in the past.

Let us then look to the Torah to find what is recorded of our forefather. Representatively, one can look at Abra(ha)m's story in Genesis as a cyclical one, which centers in organization around the expulsion and saving of Hagar and her son Ismael. Though the actual analysis of why this is so is beyond the scope of this article, one can reference Galatians 4:21-31 for the beginnings of insight into that matter.
The following is an illustration of Abra(ha)m's life as recorded in Genesis. Information in square brackets is information which does not follow the precise observed pattern.

A Geneological framework (11:10-32)
 B Migration from Haran; separation from Nahor ([12:1-3]12:4-5a)
  C Building of altars; land promised (12:5b-9[13.14-18])
   D Wife/Sister episode (12:10-20)
    E Border agreement with Lot (13:1-13)
     F Sodom episode and rescue of Lot (14.1-24)
      G Covenant of sacrifice (15:1-21)
       X Expulsion and rescue of Hagar (16.1-16)
      G'Covenant of circumcision (17.1-27)
     F'Sodom episode and rescue of Lot (18:1-19:38)
   [E'Border agreement with Abimelech (21.22-34)]
   D'Wife/Sister episode (20:1-18)
  C'Building of altar (22:6); land secured (22:17b;23:1-20)
 B'Migration to Haran; reunification with Nahor's line (24:1-67)
A'Geneological framework ([22:20-24]25:1-18)

To be more concise, in another way, let us examine which parts of Abraham's life more directly relate to the Qur'anic quotes earlier. In Genesis 12, we see Abram leave the land of his father, and venture on the word and command of the Lord, to '... a land that I will show you' (12:1 all verses NKJV unless otherwise noted). God here begins to relate to Abram the special position he will have in terms of God's plan for the world. In 12:2, we read, 'I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; And you shall be a blessing.' Then, in verse 7 we read, 'To your descendants I will give this land.' The Lord, when Abram was finally in Canaan, speaks to him in chapter 13, verse 15, 'for all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever.'
After this (as indicated in the above illustration), Abram rescues Lot the first time, and God makes a covenant with Abram. Chapter 15 is the first of two major areas of interest in terms of the difference between the Muslim and Christian perceptions of Abram's relation to God.

Chapter 15:1-6 'After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, saying, "Do not be afraid, Abram. I am you shield, your reward shall be very great."(1) But Abram said, "Lord God, what will you give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?" Then Abram said, "Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir!" And behold, the word of the LORD came to him, saying, "This one shall not be your heir, but one who will come from your own body shall be your heir." Then He brought him outside and said, "Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them." And He said to him, "So shall your descendants be." And he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.'

Here, there are a number of issues that must be addressed. First, the Lord promises Abram reward, _before_ Abram has done any work or obedience such as spoken in Qur'an sura 37:108, which it's author indicates is the reason for reward. God in his Wisdom and Grace has set Abram apart here, because he has believed in the only LORD. God 'accounted' Abram as righteous, not because he had yet gone to sacrifice his son Isaac, but because he had faith, evidenced by his following the voice of the LORD to leave his homeland to receive the promised land. There is a very distinct distiguishment here between the faith and works of Abraham (and man) as justification. I will comment on this again, at the close of this article.

After this, Abram receives many things, such as his name being changed from 'exalted father' in Abram, to 'father of a multitude' in Abraham, and the birth of Ishmael, and the promise of Isaac, through whom Abraham's descendants would receive an everlasting eternal covenant. The Lord establishes the covenant of circumcision, Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed, Hagar and Ishmael leave, and Isaac is born.

Genesis chapter 22 is the location of the second significant (in terms of this analysis) happening. Here is the section in particular of which I wish to speak, verses 1 through 13, and 15 through 18;
22:1 'Now it came to pass after these things that God tested Abraham, and said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am."
22:2 'And He said, "Take now you son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you."
22:3 'So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son; and he split the wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him.
22:4 'Then on the third day Abraham lifted his eyes and saw the place afar off.
22:5 'And Abraham said to his young men, "Stay here with the donkey; the lad and I will go yonder and worship, and we will come back to you."
22:6 'So Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand and a knife, and the two of them went together.
22:7 'But Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, "My father!" And he said, "Here I am my son." And he said, "Look, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?"
22:8 'And Abraham said, "My son, God will provide for Himself tha lamb for a burnt offering." And the two of them went together.
22:9 'Then they came to the place of which God had told him. And Abraham built an altar there and placed the wood in order; and he bound Isaac his son and laid him upon the altar, upon the wood.
22:10 'And Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.
22:11 'But the Angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am."
22:12 'And He said, "Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; _for now I know that you fear God_ (my emphasis), since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me."
22:13 'Then Abraham lifted his eyes and looked, and there behind him was a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up for a burnt offering instead of his son.
22:15 'Then the Angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time out of heaven,
22:16 'and said: "By Myself I have sworn, says the Lord, because you have done this thing, and have not witheld, you only son,
22:17 'in blessing I will bless you, and in multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies.
22:18 'In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.'(NKJV)

First, it should be noted that the same promises made here in verses 16-18, were made above in the aformentioned chapters 12, 13 and 15. Here however, the Lord states, 'By Myself I have sworn..' In other words, by the most absolute, Holy standard by which truth can be stated or gauged, Himself, God has guaranteed that these promises shall come to pass. Here, Abraham by his faith, was given the assurance that no longer could sin or disobedience (or anything) turn the fulfillment of the promises of the Lord from him and his descendants.
Second, there is one key to understanding the entire situation of the above verses, that is verse 12, specifically the section emphasized above. '...for now I know that you fear God...' In other words, the purpose of the test. It was to determine through Abraham's actions, whether or not Abraham truly feared the Lord. This 'fear' is not simple trepedation of danger or the act of being scared of something, but fear in the sense of complete faith and submission. The test was not directly to get Abraham to go to the point of lifting the knife above Isaac for it's own sake, but to testify to the beliefs Abraham held, and the degree to which the Lord was his 'living, active' Lord.
Third, and somewhat relatedly, since Abraham did not actually complete the work, the work itself for it's own sake can not be the reason for the 'reward'. I will speak of the Qur'ans interpretation in a moment.

So, if Abraham's works did not accumulate 'rewards' for him, and those works attested to the true matter under test, namely Abraham's faith, then his faith was graced by the reception of the covenant of everlasting Lordship from the one and only God. This is the real 'reward' for Abraham's righteousness, and was not earned by the works per se, but by the faith Abram had in God, which was exemplified in his works, the fruits of his faith.

The disciples and apostles of Christ were aware of these important distictions about Abraham, and accordingly, commented on them in the books of the New Testament:
James 2:21-24 'Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, "Abraham believed GOD, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness"'(RSV)
Romans 4:1-5 'What then shall we say about Abraham our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? "Abraham believed GOD, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." Now to one who works, his wages are not reckoned as a gift but as his due. And to one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.'(RSV)

Now, these two authors, James and Paul, are often misquoted by Muslims, (and even some non-believers) to point to two apparently different salvation 'mechanisms' in the Christian faith. However, on closer inspection, one can see that both emphasize either faith or works, but only in order to underline the requirement for both. In other words, faith in God, produces works, and faith without works is dead. So are works in vain, without faith. James states that Abraham, in performing his good works, is completing his faith. He is not working to gain merit, or reward, but to testify to his faith. In other words, to glorify God. Paul, likewise, is stating that no one can do righteous works before the Lord which surpass His (God's) in order to be able to boast. On the contrary, it is faith in God, which _evidenced through_ the works and not _by_ the works, receives grace from God, and this is a gift, that no man should boast. Abraham, received a reckoning of righteousness not as a reward for his works, (which the sacrifice of his son was NOT completed anyhow), but for the faith which evidenced through the binding of his son testified to. There is a real, important difference here.

Let us then reexamine the Qur'anic account of 37:102-108 above. Abraham had a vision in which he was sacrificing his son. 'Allah' states that Abraham has 'fulfilled' his vision. Now, if the Abraham's vision including completing the sacrifice of Isaac, why did the author say it had been completed, when it hadn't? If the vision Abraham had included him not killing Isaac, being stopped at the last instant by the Lord, intervening to save his son, then how could this have been anything even remotely resembling a 'bitter test' deserving of a 'reward'? Knowing that the Lord would intervene and save Isaac, how could this have been a test worthy of anything? Knowing one will not lose anything save for a couple of days of their time, to inherit 'the praise of later generations' seems more than worth doing.
But further, the reward in the Qur'anic account is clearly attributed to Abraham's works of obedience. How is it that he was rewarded for something that was left undone? The actual 'vision' Abraham had of sacrificing his son, mentioned as fulfilled by the author, was left incomplete. Yet this is the basis of Islamic theology, as indicated in sura 2:140 above, 'We shall both be judged by our works.'
I refer again to the story mentioned at the beginning of this article. How does one by doing only what is required make up for that which we have failed in already? We can't.

It is also true that Jesus spoke of reward from God. For example, in Matthew 6:1-4 we read, 'Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let you left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly(2).'
This seems to suggest as the Qur'an states, reward for good works.
However, Jesus continues on to speak in the same breaths, verses 5 and 6; 'And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. but you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly(2).'
How does prayer merit reward, and what reward is merited by prayer, something so unique and diverse to each individual? To find the answer to this question, we turn to the original Greek, contained in the UBS4 Greek/ English Interlinear Translation, and find something intriguing. The words Jesus actually used, as the 'reward' God will give us in verses 4 and 6, is 'repay you'. This differs from the literal 'reward' that the hypocrites of verses 2 and 5 seek from men. In other words, they seek as verse 2 states, 'glory' from their fellow men. So what will God repay us, and for what, as everything we have is His to begin with? The only place we actually see the word 'reward' used by Jesus here in terms of what God will give us, is in verse 1, which more accurately reads transliterated, 'But be careful the righteousness of you not to demonstrate before men with the aim to be seen by them; otherwise, you have no reward with the Father of you in the heavens.'(UBS4)
So righteousness is that for which reward or repayment is spoken of. Righteousness evidenced in prayer and charitable works. Jesus knew exactly what God had been saying to Abraham so many centuries before.

Therefore, I would like to return once again to the statement made in the opening quote of this article, from the Qur'an in the same sura 37:108, 'We called out to him, saying: "Abraham, you have fulfilled your vision." Thus do We reward the righteous.' Is this saying what Jesus said above? Though the english words 'righteous' and 'reward' appear together, are they saying the same thing?

Nahmanides, a great Jewish Rabbi and expositor on the Torah in the twelfth century, wrote in his 'Commentary on the Torah-Genesis' chapter Lech Lecha on Genesis XV:
'(Genesis, my comment)6. And he believed in the Eternal; and he accounted it to him for righteousness. The correct interpretation appears to me to be that the verse is stating that Abraham believed in G-d and he considered it due to the righteousness of the Holy One, blessed be He, that He would give him a child under all circumstances, and _not because of Abram's state of righteousness and his reward_ (my emphasis), even though He told him, 'Your reward shall be very great'(verse 1, my comment). Thus from now on he would no longer have to fear that sin might prevent the fulfillment of the promise. Now although in the case of the first prophecy Abraham had thought that the promise was conditional upon the recompense for his deeds, yet now since He promised him that he should have no fear on account of sin and that He will give him a child, he believed that the thing is established _by God_ (my emphasis).

Also, one of the greatest Rabbinical Jewish mind's in history, Maimonides in his 'The Guide for the Perplexed', chapter LIII - Explanation of Hesed (Love), Mishpat (Judgement), and _Zedakah (Righteousness)_ writes:
'The term zedakah is derived from zedek, "righteousness"; it denotes the act of giving every one his due, and of showing kindness to every being according as it deserves. In scripture however, the expression zedakah is not used in the first sense, and does not apply to the payment of what we owe to others. When we therefore give the hired labourer his wages, or pay a debt, we do not perform an act of zedakah. But we do perform the act of zedakah when we fulfill those duties towards our fellow-men which our moral conscience imposes upon us; e.g., when we heal the wound of the sufferer...When we walk in the way of virtue we act righteously towards our intellectual faculty, and pay what is due unto it; and because every virtue is thus zedakah, Scripture applies the term to the virtue of _faith in God_.(and not deserving retribution for works, my emphasis and comment) Comp. "And he believed in the Lord, and he accounted it to him as righteousness"(Gen. xv. 6)'
In other words, the Grace of God. On the righteous, those with faith who testify by their works, God will and has poured out his grace. This is the true reward for Zedakah, that Jesus knew would be poured from His hands, His feet and His side on all those who had faith like Abraham.

One can see from this material, that the possibility exists that the writer of the Qur'an, simply misunderstood, or rather, incompletely understood the implication and literal description of Abraham's righteousness, and from this, created the underlying doctrine of the Qur'an, that of salvation through obedience and works. There is no other way to interpret it in my opinion. Abraham, the father of our faiths did not 'earn' his reward, as then he would not have been reckoned as righteous, but rather reckoned as obedient. Abraham _was_ obedient, but it was because of his faith that the Lord set him apart and named him Abraham.

The reason for this exercise, was to show that dependence on works themselves for salvation are not how our father Abraham was accounted as righteous and rewarded before the Lord. In claiming 'true submission' or otherwise, one must examine the doctrine they espouse and test it's validity against what it claims. The Qur'an in my opinion can not be what it claims to be, (in part) as it calls men and women to 'save' themselves by right conduct and thought. Though these are requirements in Christianity as well, one is not directly saved by their charitable works or obedience in prayer. Jesus knew this, and so did Abraham.
Luke 7:44-50 'Then He turned to the woman and said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in. You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil. Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little." And He said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." And those who sat at the table wih Him began to say to themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" Then he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you. Go in peace."'

Peace in Christ,
Bob Kirk

John 8:56-58, '"Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad." Then the Jews said to Him, "You are not yet fifty years old and have You seen Abraham?" Jesus said to them, "Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM."'

note 1, NKJV alternately reads, 'your exceedingly great reward'
note 2, United Bible Society (UBS) 4th edition Greek Text does not include 'openly'. Only KJV (NKJV) and NEB include this manuscript textual addition

Answering Islam Home Page