The Duality of Abraham in Islamic and Jewish Narratives

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Courtesy of Rachel Funk

Rachel Funk
Staff Writer

The Jewish Studies Program, the Islamic Studies Network and the Department of Religious Studies held, “Abraham’s Discovery of God in Islamic and Jewish Narratives,” on Thursday. The talk intended to compare and contrast the Jewish and Islamic narratives of Abraham and his discovery of God. Leading the talk, was Professor of Islamic and Jewish Studies at Stonehill College, Shari Lowin, who came all the way from Massachusetts to speak at UNCG.

At the center of Lowin’s academic research, is the interplay between classical Islamic exegetical narratives and Rabbinic Midrash Aggadah materials. As such, Lowin was the ideal candidate to speak about Abraham’s discovery of God and the ways in which the story of Abraham’s discovery diverges and converges in Jewish and Islamic narratives.

She began the discussion by commenting on how the American academy has changed in the past five to seven years. “Academic programs which used to not really see themselves as connected or related have become more aware that they are,” said Lowin.

This connection, she discussed, between Judaism and Islam, has its root in the shared patriarch, Abraham. In the conversation, the question Lowin focussed on was: “Why, out of all the people in the world, did God choose Abraham as his partner, as the forefather of both religious traditions–of both Judaism and Islam?”

In the Jewish text of the Hebrew Bible, Lowin said, not much is said about the early life of Abraham, which many found surprising. His first appearance is in Genesis 11, which refers only to Abraham’s birthplace, his family and that he grew into a man and eventually married his wife, Sarah.

In the next chapter of Genesis, God tells him to leave his country and that out of Abraham, he will will make a great nation. There is however, no explanation for why God chooses him.

Only the events described in the later part of Abraham’s life, Lowin said, explain the reasoning behind God’s decision to choose him. “Only later does he express a personality in sync with God’s value system, and only later does he take action that might strike a reader as his worthiness for God endowing him with the blessings of Genesis 12,” said Lowin.

One of the traits Abraham expresses, Lowin described, is his faithfulness to God. In Genesis 17, he has faith that God will let him and his wife bear a child at their old age. In Genesis 19, he stands up for the righteous people who may be living in Sodom before it is destroyed. In Genesis 22, he trusts that good things will happen when God tell him to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. All of these events happen when Abraham already has an established relationship with God. How is it then, that Abraham discovered God? Even early Hellenistic Jewish philosopher, Philo, was troubled by the lack of information about what led God to choose Abraham.

Lowin takes narratives from different texts in both Islam and Judaism to see where they differ and how they connect. Two of the Jewish texts she references are the Midrash and Genesis Rabbah. The Midrash is a collection of exegetical stories from rabbis used to teach a lesson and to explain difficulties in the Biblical narrative, like the lack of information about Abraham and his discovery of God. Genesis Rabbah, a verse by verse commentary of the Bible, attempts to fill in the blanks the narrative may create for the reader. Details such as Abraham being three years old when he discovered God, are included in this commentary. The rabbis, Lowin said, simply believed God chose Abraham because Abraham chose God.

Islamic narratives, which were influenced by Jewish narratives, as they predate Islam, offer different perspectives on characters in the Hebrew Bible. Even within the Qu’ran, Lowin pointed out, the story of Abraham’s discovery of God is described differently in different sections of texts. In one version, Lowin said, Abraham sees the stars and discovers God for himself, while in another, she said, that God showed Abraham how to think, therefore showing himself to Abraham.

An early commentator of the Qu’ran, Al-Tabari, offers a different Qur’anic narrative. According to the works of Al-Tabari, Abraham was born in a cave and discovered God when he saw the sun for the first time at 15 months old. Another Islamic text, Tafsir Al-Qummi, said that God revealed Himself to Abraham. Other Islamic sources share the story presented in Tafsir Al-Qummi, rather than the Qu’ran’s account of Abraham finding God by himself.

Through every different account from each different text, Lowin explained that many find it difficult to determine who drew from who; Jewish from Islamic or Islamic from Jewish? Lowin believes Islamic narratives drew from Jewish, and then later Jewish narratives drew from Islamic narratives. What accounts share between them is the motif of astral contemplation, how looking at the sky made Abraham contemplate his creator. The main difference between Jewish and Islamic accounts is this: in Judaism, God is not the cause of Abraham’s discovery of God, but in Islam, God is the key to Abraham’s discovery.

Overall, the discussion was an informative and interesting experience for the many students and faculty in attendance. Chelsea George, a Biology major, said, “It was awesome. I really like hearing people speak about things they are passionate about. I really liked how she spoke.”

Alyssa Gabbay, the Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and specializes in Islamic Studies, who helped organize the event, said, “Comparative material between Islam and Judaism is something we’ve been interested in promoting,” she continued, “so we’re always looking for people doing comparative work and who look at them from a comparative perspective.” Of Lowin, Gabbay said, “we thought she sounded perfect,” for the very comparative perspective she was looking for.

Learning new things about different religions is one endeavor, but seeing where they connect, however, is another entirely. The Religious Studies Program at UNCG, aims to create more events like Lowin’s talk to discuss how one religion influences or intertwines with another.



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