Islam's Attempt to Appropriate Abraham

My review of Prof. Jon Levenson’s superb new book Inheriting Abraham appears this morning at the Jewish webzine Tablet. Levenson, who holds the main chair in Bible at Harvard Divinity School, has produced a series of indispensable books, including a joint volume with the Catholic theologian Kevin Madigan on resurrection. He doesn’t disappoint this time. The new book debunks the idea popular in liberal religious circles that Christians, Muslims and Jews can hold hands and sing Kumbaya around the campfire by virtue of our common Abrahamic heritage. As I wrote,


In Inheriting Abraham, Jon Levenson, the Albert A. List Professor of Bible at Harvard’s Divinity School, throws cold water on the mutual-understanding campfire. Misunderstanding is not what divides the image of Abraham in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the misnomered “Abrahamic religions”; on the contrary, the founders of the younger religions well understood Abraham’s role in Judaism. St. Paul’s transformation of Abraham into the father of all who believe, and the Quran’s recasting of Abraham as a Muslim prophet who prefigured Muhammed, both rejected the Jewish version by design, by inventing their own Abrahams to serve their own doctrinal purposes.

Abraham is something of an afterthought in Islam; he is not the father of God’s people in the flesh (Judaism) or in the spirit (Christianity), but a mere placeholder for Mohammed, an earlier prophet of monotheism. Levenson explains brilliantly and lucidly how Jews and Christians understand Abraham and each other. His account of Islam leaves no doubt that the later religion is doing something entirely different. Again, from my review:

Midway through the book, the reader encounters this astonishing question: “Why are Jews, Christians and Muslims not sacrificing their beloved sons? Why are so few Muslims engaged in mass murder à la Sept. 11 suicide bombers?” Levenson implies here that jihad, including its manifestation in terrorism, is a mode of sacrifice in Islam—the spiritual heir of the binding of Isaac. That is not a new thought. As the great German-Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig put it, “Following the path of Allah means in the narrowest sense propagating Islam through holy war. In the obedient journey upon this path, taking upon one’s self the associated dangers, the observance of the laws prescribed for it, Muslim piety finds its way in the world.”


So, if death in jihad is the Muslim equivalent of the sacrifice of the beloved son in Judaism and Christianity, one understands why it continues to shape life in Muslim countries and in countries where Muslims live. The National Counterterrorism Center lists 79,766 terrorist attacks globally from 2004 through 2011 with 111,774 dead and 228,317 injured, almost all by Muslims. Although a tiny minority of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims takes part in jihadist terrorism, such sacrificial acts have a solid doctrinal foundation in the faith. A majority of respondents to a 2011 Pew Center survey in Egypt, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories said that suicide bombing against civilians was sometimes justified.

I wish Levenson had drawn out the implications of his insights into Islam in the same detail he accorded Judaism and Christianity. It is a magisterial book, with this lacuna. Emphatically recommended. Read the whole review here.




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