"The Role of Abraham in Judaism, Christianity and Islam"
November 3, 2011
Prof. Carol Bakhos delivered thoughts from her forthcoming monograph project in which she compares Judaism, Christianity and Islam’s scriptural interpretations. Her presentation challenges the applicability of “Abrahamic” to refer to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and by filial extension, engages the metonymic uses of “Ishmael” and “Isaac” which are often used to represent Islam and Judaism. This deference to collapse the three seemingly similar religious configurations as “Abrahamic” is necessary because closer examination evidences their stark dissimilarity, in spite of verisimilitude rituals, belief systems, or expressions of interpretive expressions.
Below is a compilation of reflections on this presentation by ISS staff and students in the Critical Comparative Scriptures program. click here to view video
One way in which I would like to extend Dr. Bakhos' presentation is regarding the question of differences between the three “Abrahamic” religions. Her point that the term Abrahamic tends to cover up real differences between the three is well taken. Even more, it is well-known that each religion is also broad enough that simply to speak of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam is also a simplification. Not all adherents of any of these religions can really agree on any one specific issue.
But what about traditions within each of them? Perhaps it is possible that one specific tradition within (for instance) Christianity would have a unique point of contact with a particular strand in Judaism or Islam. One possible example from my own Anabaptist background is the persecution that Anabaptists went through in the Reformation and later by Soviet Communists, which created a culture of isolation and ethnically-defined “otherness,” even as Anabaptists retained the missionary mentality that is common among other Christian groups. In the same way, Sufi Muslims have been persecuted at the hands of their coreligionists.
Sufis could also connect with mystical traditions in the other two religions, which Anabaptism generally is not. Perhaps, if Abraham is too mythologized and indistinct to be useful for building real bridges between Islam and Judaism, mysticism could be used instead, between Sufism, Kabbalah Judaism, and Eastern Orthodox Christianity.
Carol Bakhos’ lecture on Abraham and the “Abrahamic” religions raised important questions about categories that we use in talking about religions. In making clear the important differences between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and their relationships with Abraham, Bakhos revealed what the term “Abrahamic” obscures, and how it has been used throughout history to either reify differences or to construct a façade of similarity. It seems to me that the problems that she points out—the Othering based on difference and the violence of constructing an Other in our own image through the use of seemingly neutral categories such as “Abrahamic traditions”—are problems that can be applied far beyond the three “Western monotheisms” (another problematic category) to the category of “religion” as a whole. This is the insight of such thinkers as Tomoko Masuzawa and Timothy Fitzgerald.
Yet, even while we recognize the violence that we do by our categories, they still serve an important function and ought not to be simply abandoned. In pulling apart the categories, images and assumptions that underlie “Abrahamic,” we might expand the question to think about the role familial imagery plays in both academic and popular discussions of religion, and how family and text or scripture relate to one another. For instance, on the one hand, some groups of Protestants seek to problematize the use of the term “father” as an honorific applied to priests by Catholic and Orthodox Christians, quoting Matthew 23:9 (call no man father). In other cases, there is discussion of Hinduism being the parent religion of Buddhism and Jainism. Or, one is reminded of attempts by scholars to explain what “religion” means, by drawing upon the Wittgenstinian “family resemblances,” casting some groups as siblings (say the so-called “World Religions”) and others as “distant cousins” (including nationalism, Marxism, and so on). In all three of these cases, familial language takes on a different discursive role, each of which is well worth investigating in its own right.
What I want to do here though, is to ask “how does the employment of familial language by tradents and academics relate to scriptures?” and “what does that tell us about the categories of ‘scripture’ and ‘scriptural religions?’”
Further, is there some sort of explanation that we can find for why familial language is used sometimes, but not others? I cannot hope to answer these questions in this short response, but I want to suggest that perhaps, when there is something identified as “scripture” by a given community, it is frequently around that text (or non-text as the case may be) that familial relations get constructed.
In the near-entirety of human thinking, humans make and hold certain assumptions that drive the process of thinking and acting in the world, be it on individual or societal level. These underlying assumptions are particularly heavy-hitting in religion, and the heightened stakes that can end in hyped-results are crucial to the effectiveness of such thoughts in human activity. One of the “assumptions” I have observed at work in my thought about religion and in the larger realm of thinking about religion via the Critical Comparative Scriptures lenses, and beyond, is that humans expect and make categories do a lot of work for them. In Professor Bakhos’ lecture, she directly uncovered and challenges the category of the “role of Abraham in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam” as well as the implications that his two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, have on the respective cultures mythologically attributed to them. In the Hebrew scriptures, Ishmael is the product of a “forced” attempt to produce a sire for Abraham and the text designates him as a “wild-ass of a man” who will be in conflict with everyone, and so will his lineage (Genesis 16:12 NRSV). Therefore, when certain modern day groups of people think about Ishmael and the people genealogically attributed to him, they [also] use the descriptive term of “wild-ass” to explain the violence and unrest seemingly found in the Arab world heavily accompanied by Islam.
Therefore, I found Bakhos’ lecture and work very interesting and effective in ways that I cannot state about other work. By exploring the assumptions behind the “three Abrahamic religions” and exploring what this term means in academia, inter-religious dialogue, and for each of the three religious traditions the category represents itself, it quickly becomes apparent that reflexivity and critical analysis is more than necessary when using terms and categories to classify human activities and movements, especially ideologically based ones such as religion. While it may seem convenient to blindly lump certain ideas and expressions together based on preconceived similarities, one need to ask at what cost does this process of “categorization” come and what are the results of seemingly naive representations? I think that one may find [through] the process of “excavating” such categorical assumptions and phenomena that the cost of using the categories uncritically is greater than the benefit. Thus, humanity needs to be more careful and selective in labeling certain activities with too large a label that does too much damage to the individual religions and ideologies.
Speaking of the role of “Abraham” in the ways devout Christians, Muslims, and Jews have deployed the term “Abrahamic,” professor Carol Bakhos’ presentation helped me to see, and have more ways to critically evaluate how personages become, and are used as read, texts— as scriptures. She problematizes the stakes of perpetuity of categorizing “Abraham” in any/or all of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. I find very fascinating the way she questioned deployments of “Abrahamic,” “Isaac”, and “Ishmael”. Bakhos shows great (dis)similarities between these religions, and the vicious tensions created as a result of their inventions and interventions in history make contemporary human life hang in some automated (im)balance.
The tale she told also help me to begin to rethink fresh perspectives on “the rings” of exclusive truth claims as found in any of the three western monotheisms. For example, entangled in history through historicization and textualization of all three religions, it is almost tantamount to global debasement or even visceral embarrassment, should any of these religious traditions decide to accept the other as the absolute real, or the true progeny of that which is “Abrahamic”. But, what are often left out in such religious historiographies are the overly political human agencies, actors, and consequently their actions, demonstrative of the fact that what goes on between the three religions is actually much more than “Abraham” could be handle for. These are the real interpreters of historical consequences (accidents?). Arguably, Abraham is the most convenient wedge for the three religions to contest their uniqueness, and to affirm a monolithic synchronization.
An aspect of her presentation which struck me was the fact that ALL three religions not only take Abraham as their roots, in spite of their hotly contested uniqueness, but that they also take for granted that Abraham was a given, a naturalized medium. This literal explanation of the founder-patriarch-Abraham leaves all three religions locked in fierce impenetrable battles for superiority, thus, establishing the need for stereotypes. In the three religions, stereotypes result from particularized social orientations, and these impulses are accentuated by elective monotheistic claims, and the idea of the “three-sibling-religions” rhetoric ultimately carries too charged political ideologies despite any shared narratives.
Because human life is, more often than not, structured around some vestiges of communal life, our existence and interpretations of ultimate realities are intricately woven into but also due to such communities, human independence best mirrors mirages. Inclinations toward using communally texted-ness (globally) put all three religions within or without certain chosen, (s)elected, or redeemed groups of few, leaving out the greater portion of US behind.
It is very evocative how each tradition using Abrahamic concept ingeniously deviate from the others in order to arrive at some preconceived superiority, which is later on naturalized. My frustrations surge further as I examine the theatre of religious ecumenisms (especially between Islam and Christianity) even in their sincerest forms. I cannot but imagine the vulnerability of the rest of humanity as three religions, ostensibly coming from the same routes, devour and blackmail each other, while at the same time tenaciously holding-on to unassailable divine authorization. Confessedly, this is my own anxiety, having being locked into and between one, or two, of the three.
However, from the lessons and seminars I have participated at in the Critical Comparative Scriptures program at CGU’s School of Religion, I find it helpful to explain most of these politically intriguing religious performances as the variants of identical, but purely personalized ecumenism and hermeneutics. I try to fathom “scriptures” from the point of view of examining the communities that put them to use through critical, expansive, interpretive lenses; and I find solace in recognizing their human agents.
But what if there hadn’t been any Abraham in the first place? What would be at stake should Christians, Jews, and Muslims ALL decide to abandon the Abraham-Ishmael-Isaac module? What would be lost or (re)gained? How deep would be the psychological sores should each branch decide to end the current standoffish relations among them? Is there any hope in getting the original “truth” here on this side of our existence? What are the roles of the religious elite in each religion in fomenting status quo or encouraging critical dialogues? How far does Abraham go in portraying the use of human tropes as yardsticks of memory or remembering/recollecting, to reimagine the past? Finally, how far are ecumenical forums ready to go in having religious conversations for global peace? Will it help if Christianity, Judaism and Islam attempt to see each other the way others see them? Is our world “landlocked” into the fate of these three traditions, that is, is it by mere divine interplay that another world religion has not yet taken the place of say Christianity since the beginning of the challenge posed through the growth in Islam to the former’s hegemon?
Professor Carol Bakhos’ presentation regarding the place of Abraham(ic) in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity was very stimulating. Besides being a contextualization of the debate over the use of Abraham as a descriptor, it also highlighted the use of comparison as a method of analysis. In this regard a couple of comments may be appropriate. First, in her conclusions, she seeks a middle ground between Abraham(ic) as a useful term to emote solidarity and Abraham(ic) as a term that so occludes differences that it should be abandoned as a useable and useful term. Bakhos’ own middle ground seems to be that if the term is used, it needs to be contextualized within the individual religious traditions. Of interest is the way this apparently plays itself out practically when she mentioned that in a ten-week course on the origins of the three traditions, Islam, Judaism and Christianity which she taught at UCLA, she avoided the term Abraham(ic) throughout the course instruction. So while her position may be that a critical use of the term Abraham(ic) may be useful de jure, it apparently leads her to avoid the term altogether de facto.
Second, as far as the comparative enterprise is concerned, she seems to say that the term Abrabam(ic) is used today at a high level of abstraction that masks differences at lower levels. Her discussion of differences between Judaism, Islam and Christianity was enlightening at this point and her examples of contemporary misuse of the term were insightful. So little intriguing is the way by which she addresses the Abraham(ic) usage in the individual traditions. For example, when addressing Christianity’s use of Abraham, her point of departure was Hebrews 7, to say that Christianity saw itself as more than Abraham(ic). It seems that this analysis is at a relatively high level of abstraction and without much contextualization. For instance, I wonder how the Matthean community would see Abraham when the writer has John the Baptist rebuke the Jewish leaders in his audience, those claiming Abrahamic ancestry to allude punishment, by stating that God could make Abrahamic descendants from rocks?
The point is that taking each of the traditions as monolithic structures is also a source of occlusion. So would a more contextualized understanding of the way the Abrahamic myth evolved within the traditions, perhaps show a way forward where Abraham(ic) could still be used while navigating around abusive usages? By highlighting and analyzing the way the myth was constructed in each of the traditions could help to deconstruct the discourse of power or powerful discourse than each of the traditions have constructed around the figure/symbol of Abraham.
Thank you Professor for a very thoughtfully provoking discussion.
Dr. Carol Bakhos argued that the use of the term “Abrahamic” to describe the monotheistic traditions of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity is problematic. She claimed that each of these traditions employs the figure of Abraham differently, and therefore, when we employ the use of the term “Abrahamic” it obscures these differences. She acknowledged that the proclivity toward the use of the term Abrahamic is often out of desire to foster inter-religious dialogue. However, Bakhos demonstrated how the use of the symbol Abraham does not necessarily foster acceptance. For example, the religion of Islam is said to be traced back to Abraham’s son Ishmael and the religion of Judaism, and thereby Christianity, is said to be traced back to Isaac, another of Abraham of son. Bakhos stated that the fact that Ishmael has been, and continued to be, considered by many Jews and Christians to be outside of the covenantal family, as he was banned from the household of Abraham, does little to foster understanding and appreciation. In fact, it aggravates the antagonism it hopes to alleviate. Bakhos’s example of Ishmael and Isaac prompted me to think about the way in which symbols, in this case Ishmael and Isaac, are used to establish insider/outsider boundaries and how symbols are used to construct identity.
Dr. Carol Bakhos brings an interesting point in “teasing out” the problems with using the term “Abrahamic” to describe Judaism, Christianity and Islam. While it is true all three religions trace their roots back to Abraham, these modern day religious siblings only share a fractional resemblance of shared heritage. We can be quick to try to find common denominators between religious groups in our effort to bridge gaps, but we are subject to several risks. With reference to the usage of “Abrahamic” in this fashion, not only do we devalue other significant religious differences, the term can be desensitized and within the religious groups. As Dr. Bakhos points out, Abraham has not always been used to display cohesiveness; Christian writers in Syriac and Arabic, during times of classical Islamic dominance, often used Abraham with the intention of highlighting the contrast of the two religions and furthering the lines that divide.
Abraham has unique and varying significance in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The respective religious traditions each draw their lineage differently from Abraham. Jews are elect through Abraham’s son Isaac, using Romans 4:16-24 as Dr. Bakhos’ reference, Christians hold that Abraham is father to all believers not just genealogically but spiritually through belief in Jesus, and Muslims view Abraham as a model of piety and father to all prophets. Additionally, each religion is not only Abrahamic in theme, they also contain other important thematic figures like Moses and David in Judaism, Jesus in Christianity or Mohammed in Islam.
The move from using “Monotheisms” to “Abrahamic” to describe Judaism, Christianity and Islam has fallen short of its goal, but in the process has revealed key issues surrounding these sorts of bridge building endeavors. Lastly, this presentation helps underscore the fascination of how we come to terms with our heritage, and the ways in which it can be used to share or distinguish our “divine pedigree.”