Many ancient societies in what we now call the Middle East were polytheistic, meaning they believed in many gods. These many gods were closely linked to particular aspects of life, for example, the weather. In Egypt, rituals were developed to help guarantee the flooding of the River Nile; essential for crops to grow so the people could be fed. The Babylonians build pyramid-like structures called ziggurats to their gods and recorded people’s offering in those temples.
However, there was also the idea of one god who controlled everything – this is the idea of monotheism.
We are not exactly sure when Abraham lived, but it is thought he lived about 4000 years ago. Abraham, (or Abram as he was initially known) was a Semite, a descendent of Shem, one of the sons of Noah. It is the Semites who are credited with developing the idea of monotheism. Today, the languages of the Semites continue, with both Hebrew and Arabic being known as Semitic languages. What we know of Abraham (Ibrahim in Arabic) comes mainly from the Bible and the Qur’an.
The Judeo-Christian story
The Call of Abram
“I will give you many descendants, and they will become a great nation.” (Genesis 12:2)
In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, the story of God’s dealings with Abraham is to be found. It is said that God spoke to Abram and promised him that his many descendants would become a great nation. God said to Abram,“Look at the sky and try to count the stars; you will have as many descendants as that.” (Genesis 15:5) However there was a problem, as Abram and his wife Sarai, who both very old, had no children. So, Sarai told Abram that he was to have a child with Hagar, a servant girl. So Abram had a child with Hagar, and this child was called Ishmael (Ismail in Arabic). Unsurprisingly, this caused problems between Sarai and Hagar.
God then speaks to Abram again, and the covenant between them is reaffirmed. God changes Abram’s name to Abraham, which means father of many and Sarai’s name is changed to Sarah. At this point the sign of the covenant is determined – the circumcision of every boy. Sarah and Abraham are promised a son, but Abraham laughed at the idea as he was 100 years old and Sarah was 90. Abraham also suggested that Ishmael should be his heir, but God disagrees. Sarah gives birth to a son, Isaac (meaning he who laughs) and God says that the covenant with Abraham will pass to Isaac, not Ishmael, however, Ishmael will be blessed with many descendants.
Ishmael and Isaac grew up together for a short time, but Sarah soon demanded that Hagar and Ishmael were sent away as she was concerned that Isaac inherited Abraham’s wealth. And so they left. When they ran out of water and Hagar thought that Ishmael would die, God showed them a well. They survived and Ishmael grew up to be a successful hunter.
God then commands Abraham to take his son Isaac and sacrifice him as an offering to God on Mount Moriah. Abraham follows God’s command, builds an altar and binds Isaac, but as he is about the kill his son, God intervenes, telling him to stop as he had proved himself to God. A ram is sacrificed instead and the covenant is reaffirmed.
The father of many
In time, Isaac had a son, named Jacob. God later changed Jacob’s names to Israel (this sounds like the Hebrew for ‘he who struggles with God’) and Israel’s 12 sons become the 12 tribes of Israel. Isaac therefore becomes the father of the Jews while Ishmael is regarded as the father of the Arabs.
The Islamic story
Who therefore shrinks from the religion of Abraham, except he who fools himself? Indeed We chose him in this world, and in the Hereafter he shall be among the righteous. (Qur’an 2:130)
While much of the Judeo-Christian story remains the same in the Islamic tradition, there are a number of crucial differences. Hagar is regarded not as a slave girl, but as Abraham’s second wife. Ishmael is the older of the two sons, but according to Islamic tradition, it is Ishmael that is offered for sacrifice, not Isaac, though the Qur’an (Q37:102-111) does not make specific mention of which son.
Abraham and Ishmael are also regarded as having restored monotheistic worship at the Ka’aba in Makkah, though by the time of the Prophet Muhammad, idols had returned to the Ka’aba. Hagar’s search for water before she was shown the well by God is now an important part of the Hajj pilgrimage.
‘Abraham had been neither a Jew nor a Christian, but he had been a monotheist, one who submits to God. He had not been of the ones who were polytheists.’ (Qur’an 3:67)