The Qur’an states, “You have an excellent example to follow in Abraham.” (60:4) and “Follow the way of Abraham as people of pure faith.” (3:95) What makes Abraham so excellent is that three different religion’s Sacred Scriptures proclaim, “whom God chose to be His friend” (see Qur’an 4:125, Isaiah 41:8, and James [the brother of Jesus] 2:23) so special?
For Jews and Christians Abraham is the first monotheist. But for Muslims, Adam was the first of many thousands of prophets of God (one Hadith says 124,000, another mentions 224,000) who called upon the people of their own tribe or nation to turn to the One God.
There have also been about 315 messengers, who brought a unique set of written laws to their own tribe or nation; and Abraham may have been the first of them.
According to Islam, God provided humans with Divine guidance and knowledge long before the birth of Abraham but only five (Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus and Muhammad) are mentioned in the Qur’an as Prophets who brought written monotheistic revelations for religions that still inspire religious communities today.
All prophets are Divinely inspired by the one and only God. Pious believers of any individual prophet should not “discriminate between anyone of His prophets” (Qur’an 2:285 & 4:152) This is why prophet Muhammad said, “Prophets are brothers in faith, having different mothers. Their religion is, however, one.” (Muslim, book #030, Hadith #5836)
All prophets have the same father, who is the One God whose inspiration gives birth to their prophethood. However, each prophet has a different mother i.e. a mother tongue, a motherland, and a target audience that he speaks to at a specific time in history.
Thus prophets are brothers in faithfulness to the One God but their Divinely inspired message differs because it must be appropriate for their motherland, their mother tongue, their own people and the historical circumstances of the prophet’s lifetime.
Therefore, not all monotheistic prophets are the same. “We have exalted some above others. To some (Moses) God spoke directly (4:164)); others He raised high in rank (4:163-6); to “Jesus, Mary’s son, We gave clear signs and supported him with the Holy Spirit.” (2:253). Also, “We have exalted some prophets above others (see 38:41-48) and gave the Zaboor (Book of Psalms) to David.” (17:55)
Abraham (Qur’an 57:26), Moses, David, Jesus and Muhammad all received a Divine book. Abraham was the first of those we know about to receive a Sacred Scripture. All of the others were among his descendants.
Is this what makes Abraham so special that his name appears 69 times in the Qur’an, second only to Moses (136 times)? I do not think that being mentioned frequently is by itself why Abraham plays such an important part in all three Abrahamic religions.
Abraham is famous for the numerous ways God tested him especially the terrible tests of banishing his wife Hagar and his first born son Ishmael (Qur’an 2:124 & Genesis 9:9-21) and bringing his son to a special place as an offering to God. (Qur’an 37:100-113 & Genesis 22:1-24)
Most Muslim commentators say the son, unnamed in the Qur’an, was Ishmael. Some Muslims assert it was Isaac. Perhaps both participated in the test at different times, so that each son could produce descendants who in time would become a blessing for many other nations of the earth. (Genesis 22:16-18 & Qur’an 4:163)
In any case, Abraham’s test with his son became an iconic sign of faith and trust in God’s will for Jews, Christians and Muslims.
In addition to his two sons, Abraham is unique in the numerous prophets God chose from among his descendants, whose names are recorded in the Bible and the Qur’an. With the exception of Balaam and Noah (and perhaps Melchizedek in Genesis 14:18), all Biblical prophets and most of the 25 prophets named in the Qur’an, are descendants of Abraham. “We did grant the Family of Abraham the Book, the Wisdom and a mighty (spiritual) kingdom.” (Qur’an 57:26)
One of the most insightful verses relating the special virtue of Abraham states, “Abraham was a community”. (Qur’an 16:120) How can one person be an umma, an ongoing people/community? Muslim commentators offer many different glosses on this verse, and one medieval commentator, Fakhr al-Din Razi (1149-1209) offered four different opinions.
His fourth opinion is that Abraham reached a unique level of faith and religion above the many prophets that preceded him. A similar view was also propounded by a Hassidic Rabbi, Levi Yitzkhok of Birditchev, (1740-1809).
Levi Yitzkhok and Fakhr al-Din Razi lived in totally different worlds in terms of time, space and culture; yet spiritually they seem very connected.
Rabbi Levi Yitzkhok of Birditchev, in his Torah commentary Kidushat Levi, glosses Genesis 15:1 as follows:”There are two kinds of God worshipers. One group worship due to their consciousness that there is a creator of everything (including good and bad). Another group worships due to the ‘heavenly help’ they received for doing God’s will.
Those who worship due to their conscious understanding, really envision God. And those who worship due to ‘heavenly help” envision God only to be like a judge, they do not worship with the devoted eyes of a lover. Worshipers with conscious understanding are able to influence others, and give birth to ongoing outcomes.
Worshipers due to ‘heavenly help’ can’t influence others because when their faith doesn’t ‘pay off’ they despair in God. This is the meaning of the verse (15:1) “After these events the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision”.
Abraham was now able to envision God in a new way because he himself had come to a new level of self conscious worship. Thus in verse 15:4 Abraham is told that (after decades of infertility) he will produce offspring due to his new self consciousness.”
Worshipers who benefit from heavenly help are literalists and pragmatists. Before Abraham religious groups took their religious mythology literally because their religion was functional. Religious beliefs help reduce anxiety and depression; strengthens the immune system and thus help healing; create cultural motifs that socialize the young; and by promising Divine reward and punishment help enforce moral principles of fairness and reciprocity.
Shared religious rituals and customs strengthen community solidarity; and justify the tribe’s social and political organization. Before Abraham people simply received these benefits and felt grateful to the Gods who bestowed them. They felt they had real spiritual experiences even though they worshiped multiple Gods and idols. When their Gods failed to deliver what they wanted, they begged, bribed and propitiated other Gods.
This kind of functional religion is universal and helps account for the failure of 99.9% of the (124,000 or 224,000) prophets sent by God to establish ongoing communities of ethical monotheists. Few people remained loyal to the teachings of their religious leaders when, in later decades or generations, things turned against them.
The few individuals who in their own life did remain faithful to the teachings of their prophet saw their own children or grandchildren turn away. As literalists they could not interpret the hidden ways of God’s guidance when they suffered continual defeat or disappointment.
This is why even the descendants of prophets like Noah and Ishmael did not remain an ongoing monotheistic community; and after several generations reverted to idolatry and polytheism.
Abraham reached a higher level of religious self conscious. Abraham realized that everything comes from God; both what we think is good and what we think is bad. We should not judge life from our very limited personal perspective.
In the words of another Hassidic Rabbi, Moses of Kobryn, “A suffering person should not say: ‘That’s bad. That’s bad.’ Nothing God imposes on a human is bad. Bur it is all right to say: ‘That’s bitter!’ For there are some medicines that are made with bitter herbs.”
For more examples of close connections between Islam and Judaism see my book ‘Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms: A Reform Rabbi’s Reflections on the Profound Connectedness of Islam and Judaism’ (a collection of 31 articles by Rabbi Maller previously published by Islamic web sites) for sale ($15) on Amazon.