Ifeoluwa Siddiq Oyelami
After a series of interreligious dialogues and jamborees that it has continuously hosted, the United Arab Emirates has peaked these activities by launching a building complex that houses a mosque, a synagogue, and a church. It named this building “the Abrahamic House”. The building is said to be a translation of a peace treaty signed by the pope and the grand sheikh of al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayeb, who has since then been critical of the idea of an “Abrahamic religion”. The Abrahamic house seems to be another episode of the (mis)use of the name of the noble Prophet Ibrahim in middle eastern politics. During the Trump administration, we saw the Abrahamic accord, which made some Arab countries sheath their sword against Israel and accept having diplomatic relationships with it, despite Israel’s endless cruelty towards Palestinians. And, of course, the ever-controversial discourse of “Abrahamic religion”. How do these all play out? What are their relationships, and is there a concept of Abrahamic brotherhood?
What is Abrahamic?
To say something is Abrahamic means it has something to do with Abraham, a prophet of Allah, who is accepted as an epitome of faith in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic scripture. The term Abrahamic religions started to be used as a generic name for Christianity and Judaism after WWII in an attempt to get the Christians to accept the Jews as brothers. As the anti-west discourses increased in the Muslim world towards the end of the 20th century, Muslims too came to be included in Abrahamic religions discourse by comparative religion scholars and politicians. After 9/11 prompted a lot of interreligious dialogues around the Muslim world, the term seems to sit down well even with certain Muslim intellectuals.
While the term ‘Abrahamic religions’ may sound harmless in everyday political and social debates, it is actually a contentious term when used to refer to the religions involved. In fact, many Christians and possibly Jews have rejected the term altogether. It’s not surprising that they would do so. As for Muslims, the term Abrahamic and many of the characteristics that might have been loaded unto it do not fit in the spirit of the Qur’an. Not to say, the classification “Abrahamic religion” does not even have a place in the Qur’an. Literally, in Islam, for a path to be Abrahamic, it must fit in the characteristics of what the Qur’an described as “Milat Ibrahim” (the path of Abraham).
Even though the basic classification of people in Islamic theology is Muslim and Kafir, it is through that Islamic jurisprudence, in the light of the Quran and sunnah, recognises a group like “Ahl al-Kitab” (people of the book), which represent the Jews and Christians, who follow revealed books to an extent. This implies that these two nations have characteristics others may not have, and Muslims are allowed certain engagements with them. Apart from the prideful significations of the “Ahl-Kitab” nomenclature, it is a term that is best summarised by the parable of a donkey that carries books but cannot figure out what it is all about (see. Jumu’ah 62:5). This is based on the scriptural honesty of the supposed ‘Ahl al-kitab,’ i.e. Christians and Jews, who struggle to uphold many of the principles in their own scriptures.
What is Abrahamic according to the Qur’an?
The Qur’an refers to Christians and Jews as “Ahl al-Kitab” and to the followers of Muhammad as Muslims and does not in any way match them together. Given this, why do we consider it appropriate to merge these two groups into a single category called ‘Abrahamic religions’? It is remarkable how Surat al-Hajj verses 77-78 describe the path of Ibrahim. Allah outlines the actions of those on this path, calling them to ruku, sujud, ibadah, goodness, and a rightful jihad. Allah also states that those on this path were named Muslims in previous scriptures and the Qur’an. Allah commands them to observe salah and zakat and to take Allah as their protector. In summary, the Abrahamic path described in the Qur’an is the path of the last messenger Muhammad (peace be upon him). Anyone who follows what he brought is both Abrahamic and Muslim.
It may be asked, why should one deny the fact that the Jews and Christians also lay claim to Abraham? They can lay claim to him, as some other artificial creeds do. However, this does not change the fact that they are not on the path of Abraham and that what the media, academia and politicians call Abrahamic religions should not deceive anyone. The fact is that even to the face of the Prophet, the ahl al-Kitab have claimed Abraham and, thus, saw the Muslims as misguided. The response Allah ordered the Muslims to give them is that they (Muslims) are on the path of Abraham and not polytheists; then, in a way to distinguish themselves from the ahl al-Kitab, the Muslims were ordered to spell out the fact that an act that the ahl al-Kitab shun -adherence to all the Prophet sent by Allah- is embedded in their faith (see. Baqarah 2:135-139. These polemics was capped with this verse:
“Do you claim that Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and his descendants were all Jews or Christians?” Say, “Who is more knowledgeable: you or Allah?” Who does more wrong than those who hide the testimony they received from Allah? And Allah is never unaware of what you do.” (Baqarah 2:140)
While these show the term Abrahamic, in the Quranic spirit, is not befitting for the Jews and Christians, as they do not uphold the true legacy of Prophet Ibrahim, do they imply that we should not engage in any form of humanitarian dialogue with the Jews and Christians? No! The Qur’an does not prohibit this, and the Prophet practically had social and economic relationships with them. What of faith-based dialogue? What do the Qur’an and Sunnah teach about it?
Interfaith dialogue in the Qur’an and Sunnah
If one goes through the circumstances of the revelations of many verses of the Qur’an, one would see that they were revealed to answer relationships with people with other faiths as well as demystify some questions the adherents of these faiths have about Islam. For instance, al-Ikhlas was to define Allah to the polytheists who were ‘curious’ about His lineage. Maidah has many verses that describe the relationship of Muslims with the ahl al-Kitab and so on…In this context, let’s look at one surah which tells us what an interfaith dialogue seems like during the time of the Prophet- that is surat Ali-Imran, the third chapter of the Qur’an.
The surah has 200 verses, but the first 80 verses are significant in interfaith dialogue as they reflect what happened in the discussion of the Prophet with the Christians who have visited him from Najran. The Prophet accepted them in his mosque. It was dialogue that saw the Prophet draw out similarities between the faith of the Christians and Islam, not for funfair but to call them to the truth. They asked him what he thought of Jesus Christ. He told them he is a messenger of Allah. They rebuked this and said that he is a son of Allah, to which the Prophet asked, “does a son not resembles his father”? Indeed, he does! Then recited to them, “Alif-Lâm-Mîm, Allah! There is no god ˹worthy of worship˺except Him—the Ever-Living, All-Sustaining.” (Ali-Imran 3:1-2). This discussion goes on the miraculous birth of Jesus Christ, and the Prophet continue to answer them using the verses that show that a miracle does not necessarily translates to divinity.
The Ali-Imran dialogue must have included the status of Prophet Ibrahim that Allah says in verse 68: “Indeed, those who have the best claim to Abraham are his followers, this Prophet (Muhammad), and the believers. And Allah is the guardian of those who believe.” Well, the discussion between the Christians and the Prophet continues! While the verses are still there for those who will take heed, the Christians of Najran were not convinced. And this verse summarises all that transpired:
“Say, “O People of the Book! Let us come to common terms: that we will worship none but Allah, associate none with Him, nor take one another as lords instead of Allah.” But if they turn away, then say, “Bear witness that we have submitted (Muslims).”
Summarily, with Christians and Jews, we have common terms. Still, these terms are practically enshrined into some tenets and practices that whoever does not accept, we can only say, “well, sorry, we have a stand”. This happened in the Prophet’s meeting with the Najran Christians. He asked them to make Mubalaha (invocation of curse on the liar; see. Al Imran 3:60), but they refused and preferred peace with the Muslims.
Looking at how the Qur’an address the Abrahamic discourse, we see that it is not in any way on par with what the UAE government is into today. They claim that the whole project would help establish a culture of tolerance and acceptance of others and contain many social and political problems. But does the need for peace warrant playing with tenets of the deen. Because the whole project is creating an avenue for Islam and the religions of the Ahl al-Kitab to be seen as equal. This is why some scholars have given the mosque the status of Masjid al-Dirar (see. Tawbah 9:107-108), as it not only causes a division between the Muslims but is also detrimental to their faith. Interestingly, those who built the masjid al-Dirar during the time of the Prophet also said, “We intended only the best.”
UAE and their collaborators have claimed that the “Abrahamic house” aims to bring peace to the middle east and the world. However, they fail to address the real issues of peace. They are very curious about making peace with the Zionists but practically cause and aid conflicts among their own Arab neighbours. The Zionist Jews who were not even party to the agreement that produced the project have been the most excited about it. Some Israeli and pro-Israeli media like The Times of Israel and AJC Global Voice have projected the best thing that has happened in a long time. After all, the building houses the first purposely built synagogue in the UAE. It is a series that seems to continue anyways. UAE now proudly hosts the largest Hindu temple in the middle east but never cared about the extremism of hinduwata government towards Muslims in India. In the end, it is like UAE is more concerned about its own economy and appearance to the western world and does not mind using religious matters as bait for this.