Whatever changes in tactics may have been forced upon Muhammad as his mission developed, there seems little doubt that he started on his prophetic career with a certain well-defined aim which was nothing less than the task of welding unto a unity the heterogeneous compound of warring elements and conflicting religious faiths which made up the Arabia of his day. The fact that at the time of his death he had largely succeeded in imposing at least a superficial and outward unity, if not a willing obedience, reveals him as a man of outstanding ability. The conflicting religions with which he had to deal were, of course, Judaism, Christianity and Arab paganism. His mission as he viewed it, was to found a universal monotheistic faith which would include and supersede them all. From a very early period he had had abundant opportunity of contrasting the paganism in which he was cradled with the two monotheistic religions and the former was shown to be inferior under the impression created by the latter. His attitude to paganism was never in doubt; he was utterly convinced, from the very start, of the necessity for its dissolution and destruction, and the evidence goes to show that once only (under the stress of persecution) did he waver from this conviction.1 In the earlier years of his mission he sought to establish a modus vivendi, now with the adherents of one monotheistic faith, and again with those of the other. That Muhammad believed the doctrines of Islam and Christianity to be essentially the same at this period as shown by the permission granted to his followers to emigrate to Abyssinia, where they would be welcomed and be safe from temptation.2 What made the Jews and Christians so important in his eyes was their possession of sacred Books (the idea of a Book for Islam did not come till later).3 The Qur'an shows, however, that he was more influenced by floating legends, both Jewish and Christian, than by the actual contents of the Scriptures as we have them, for the simple reason that these Scriptures had not yet become current in Arabia.4 His main sources of information about Jews and Christians were the versions of the Talmud and the Apocryphal Gospels current in the Arabia of the seventh century. Between the rival claims of the two religions whose adherents were engaged in a bitter but barren controversy Muhammad tried to find common ground. This stage in his development was reached after a period of study had convinced him that neither, as it existed in Arabia, was capable of providing the materials for the building of a universal monotheistic faith. Judaism was by nature exclusive and was not acceptable to the Arabs. Christianity he came to regard as a modified form of polytheism. Some of the accusations which Jews and Christians were constantly hurling at each other, Muhammad was able, in later years, to use against both. One of these was the charge that both Jews and Christians, while not guilty of directly falsifying their records, had nevertheless concealed and omitted certain passages which bore reference to himself.5 So in his effort to find a basis for the new universal faith Muhammad was eventually driven behind the Jesus of the Christians, behind Moses the Jewish Lawgiver, to Abraham, "the Friend of God and the Father of the Faithful." His final adoption of "the religion of Abraham" was not to come till after the Hijrah and when it came it was in the context of an assertion of his independence of Jewish claims.6 By his choice of Abraham, who for quite different reasons is venerated both by Jews and Christians, the Prophet of Islam pressed into the service of his cause the one personage common to the two monotheistic faiths of Arabia.

The fact that the Abrahamic heritage was not shared by the Arabs does not seem to have presented any major difficulty. There are Traditions which assert that they were already familiar with him as the founder of the Ka'bah and the initiator of the rites practiced there. There does not seem to be any real historical evidence to support this assumption and it may be regarded as a pious 'reading back' of Islamic belief regarding Abraham into the pre-Islamic era. For example, two Jewish Rabbis are made to express a typical Islamic belief to As'ad Kamil, when, on the advice of some Hudhalites who wished his destruction, he resolved to attack Mecca, for the sake of the treasures which the House contained. The Rabbis warned him off, telling him that destruction awaited any who should violate its sacred precincts for it was the House of God. Instead they enjoined him to worship at it and reverence it in the usual way. The king said: "What then prevents you from doing this yourselves?" They replied: "It is the House of our father Abraham, but we are debarred from it by the idols which the people have set up around it, and by the sacrifices which they make at it, they are polytheists, unclean," or words to that effect.7 Ibn Ishaq tells us that the practice of worshipping unshapen stones among the Arabs took its rise from the rites of the Ka'bah. When any of the people of Mecca were compelled to leave because of hard times, each of them carried with him one of the stones of the sacred precincts and these they set up and circumambulated just as they did the Ka'bah itself. With the passing of time they came to worship every goodly stone they saw until "they changed the faith of Abraham and Ishmael into the worship of images."8 Muir remarks on this: "It is more probable that it (stone worship) gave rise to the superstition of the Ka'bah with its Black Stone, than took its rise therefrom."9 When Abrahah announced to 'Abd al-Muttalib that he had not come to fight the Meccans but merely to destroy the House, he replied: "We seek not war for which we are not able. This is God's House and the House of Abraham His Friend! If He abandons it we have no means of defending it."10 When Muhammad entered the Ka'bah after the conquest of Mecca he saw there amongst the pictures of the angels the other beings the picture of Abraham with the divining arrows in his hand making distribution by lot, and he said: "May Allah destroy them! (the Meccans). They have made our Shaikh cast lots with arrows. What has Abraham to do with divining arrows? Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but he was a Hanif, a Muslim; he was not one of the polytheists." Then he ordered those pictures to be effaced and it was done.11 The story is not well authenticated. It is given by Ibn Hisham "on the authority of one of the scholars."

The Arabic form of the name Abraham (Ibrahim) has not been found in any authentic work anterior to the Qu'ran and therefore must be due to Muhammad himself.12 Margoliouth suggests that it owes its form to the names Isma'il and Isra'il.13 The name was probably acquired from Jewish sources, but whether in Mecca or Medina is not easy to determine. But, though the name Ibrahim was new to the Arabs, the same is not true of the monotheistic idea with which he is connected. The nation had lapsed into idolatry, it is true, but still there were signs that the idea of the divine unity had not entirely faded from their minds. Along with their worship of minor deities there was associated, in some vague way, the idea of Allah Ta'ala (God, Most High), in relation to Whom the other deities were regarded as inferior, and with Whom they sometimes played the role of intercessors. Jeffery says: "It is possible that the expression 'Allah Ta'alla', is of S. Arabian origin"14 The name Allah, he also points out, occurs in N. Arabian and S. Arabian inscriptions, as well as in pre-Islamic oath forms.15 In Arabic poetry the word Allah frequently occurs,16 though here there is always the possibility that, under Islamic influence, it has been substituted for al-Lat.17 There is also the evidence afforded by proper names before the time of Muhammad whose own father was called 'Abdallah. Ibn Ishaq states that the Quraish in their religious ceremony called 'Ihlal' used these words in addressing the Deity: "Labbaika, Allahumma!" "Here we are O Allah! Thou hast no partner except such partner as Thou hast. Thou possessest him and all that is his." He goes on to say: "Thus they asserted His Unity in the Talbiya, but then along with Him they introduced their idols and placed what they possessed under His power."18 This practice, he tells us further, called forth the protest from Muhammad: "The most of them do not believe in Allah without giving Him associates." (Surah xii, 106).

There was sometimes an unfair division of the votive offerings as between Allah and the lesser deities. Ibn Ishaq tells of a tribe who had an idol to which they gave a part of their cattle and grain, a part being reserved for Allah. "But if some of the portion allotted to Allah got into the portion which they had set apart for 'Amm Anas (the idol), they left it with the idol, but if any of the portion allotted to 'Amm Anas got into the portion alloted to Allah, it was given back."19 Against this practice Muhammad uttered his protest.20 He found the monotheistic idea still alive under the abuses of pagan worship and his main protests are directed against the "association" of other gods with Allah.

It is becoming increasingly recognised that Muhammad's thought of Abraham holds a key place in the re-arrangement of the Quranic materials, There are two hypotheses, (a) Muhammad gained his information about Abraham from Jews at Medina but, failing to win acceptance from them, broke with them, and declared himself a follower of Abraham of whom he had learned at Medina. Professor A. Guillaume may be quoted as an exponent of this view. "It is interesting to observe," he says, "that the Meccan Surahs contain no reference to Abraham, and, as he occupies a position of paramount importance in the Kuran, as a faithful Muslim, it is natural to conclude that Muhammad had not heard of him before he mixed daily with the flourishing community of Jews in Medina."21 (b) In Medina he was merely expanding, and adapting to present circumstances an idea with which he had been familiar in his Meccan days. For example, Professor A. J. Wensinck traces the development of Muhammad's thought with regard to Abraham in this way: "In the earlier Surahs22 he is an Apostle of God, fills the usual apostolic role of warner to his people, but he does not yet appear as the founder of the Ka'bah or the first Muslim. In the Medinan Surahs, on the other hand, he is called Hanif, Muslim and the founder of the Ka'bah." Wensinck explains this by saying that in Mecca Muhammad had appealed to the Jews but in Medina they left him, and so being forced to find other support he gave the Patriarch a new role. He was now the first Muslim and the precursor of Islam.23

There seems to be sufficient evidence to warrant assigning some of the Abrahamic references in the Qur'an to the Meccan period of his ministry, although it would be unsafe to assume a Meccan background for all the passages listed by Prof. Wensinck24 and others. The language of Surah vi. 74., for instance, giving Abraham's dispute with his people, would seem to be analogous to Muhammad's situation at Mecca, since the dispute is about the worship of idols. Bell seems inclined to place vv. 74, 80, 81, 82, in the Meccan period, and 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 83 in the Medinan. The whole passage he classifies as "Meccan scraps, revised in Medina."25 The role of Abraham vis-à-vis the idolaters of his day is parallel to that of Muhammad confronting the polytheists of Mecca with the demand to worship God alone. The next passage (Surah. xxi. 52 seq.) mentions the persecution which befell Abraham because of his opposition to the religion of his people. Another version of this, given in Surah xxxvii. 81-113 is probably a Medinan revision with later additions superimposed.26 Bell says vv. 100-107 "were inserted probably as a substitute for vv. 108-113. Here, without mention of the name, the story of the sacrifice of Isaac is used to suggest a basis in 'the religion of Abraham' for the sacrifices at the Pilgrimage."27 The former passage Bell describes as "late Meccan (?) with Medinan additions." In these two passages at least we detect not only knowledge of the Patriarch but the beginning of a process of identification with him. The Prophet's fight with polytheism in Mecca is in the same category as Abraham's contest with Namrud. They mark the early stages of Muhammad's interest in Old Testament characters.

It is after Muhammad has settled in Medina that we get the most significant references to Abraham. The Jews have refused to accept him and his utterances about the Patriarch undergo a marked transformation. There now comes the definite adoption of the 'religion of Abraham;'28 his association with the Ka'bah;29 and the change of Qiblah as his answer to the Medinan Jews.30 This naturally evoked their protests and an appeal to their Scriptures (or rather legends) to which Muhammad replied that they had deviated from the pure religion of Abraham, and both they and the Christians were guilty of concealing and misinterpreting parts of the revelations given them.31 The assertion that the religion of Abraham had once been practised at the Ka'bah would please the Arabs, who hitherto had labored under the stigma of paganism. This stigma was now rolled away from their race, for was not Abraham, the father of Ishmael, the ancestor of the Arabs? A second result achieved was that Islam was now provided with a firm historical basis; it was no longer an innovation, or an adaptation of Jewish and Christian ideas. Islam now asserted its spiritual independence of all contemporary faiths for it claimed to be the re-establishment of the faith of Abraham and Ishmael which had once been practised in the land, but was now set aside. Islam was now in a position to claim the allegiance of men in its own right, and this right it owed largely to the figure of Abraham.

The most important fact about Abraham is that he is known throughout the Near East as "The Friend of God" (Khalil Allah), and this designation of the Patriarch is common to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It occurs twice in the Old Testament and once in the New King Jehoshaphat, in his prayer, speaks of "Abraham, Thy Friend"32 and Isaiah, speaking in the name of Yahweh says: "Abraham, My Friend."33 Apostle James, after his account of the deeds by which Abraham was justified, adds: "And he was called the friend of God."34 The title is no doubt derived from the account in Genesis xviii where Abraham spoke to the Lord as a man speaks to his friend. Philo, indeed, renders v. 17 of this chapter: "Shall I hide from Abraham, My Friend, that which I shall do."35 It occurs in one place in the Qur'an: "Allah took Abraham as a friend."36 Thus he is known as one of the greater prophets of Islam by the name Khalil Allah, just as Moses is called Kalim Allah (the Spokesman of God),37 or Jesus Kalimat Allah (the Word of God).38 The Quranic name, however, may have some connection with his victory over Namrud when he vindicated the worship of Allah. Be that as it may, no other Old Testament character has made quite the same appeal to Jews, Muslims, and Christians.

The Friend of God has indeed become the Father of many nations who claim him as their spiritual ancestor in one way or another. The Jews of the New Testament, in controversy with our Lord, claimed physical descent from the Patriarch, but He pointed out to them that if they were the "children" of Abraham (as distinct from being his descendants) they would do his works.39 Both our Lord and the Apostle Paul draw a distinction between "children" and "descendants." As the Rev. E.F.F. Bishop has said:40 "It is only as children that relationship with Abraham becomes worth-while, and friends of God are brought into being pulsating 'with the warmth of close human relationships'." That is not brought about through ancestry, or on a sudden. Modern Jews cannot establish any physical connection with Abraham but it is still possible for them to enter this relationship which alone is worth-while. Islam, too, includes within its fold many people in many lands, who could not by any stretch of the imagination be called descendants of Abraham, but whose chief bond of unity is the Ka'bah at Mecca, which Islamic Tradition says was built by Abraham and Ishmael. Paul apparently felt it necessary to establish Christianity on a secure basis, and as Muhammad was to do later, be went behind the Law of Moses to the Faith of Abraham, and "made Abrahamic sonship safe for Christianity on spiritual lines alone, with the right to have our names inscribed as children of Abraham, if we like, through faith that is in Christ Jesus."41 Faith was prior to the Law and therefore superior to it. The promise to Abraham turned on faith, that he might become the spiritual father of all who believe and that others besides Jews might have an equal claim to the promise. It had nothing to do with Law.42 All those who have Abraham's faith are blessed with him; they are his children. Thus he has his spiritual children in all three faiths. But they are not yet friends. Indeed, relationships between them in some senses were never worse.

The faith of Abraham was willing to sacrifice "things" for the sake of a relationship. Here we all can learn from the Patriarch. Is it not the desire to hold on when we should let go that has brought about the present unhappy state of affairs between the three monotheistic faiths? Things matter more than people. The principle of exploitation has lain underneath too many of our contacts. This idea could be carried into other spheres, such as that of tradition and dogma. Abraham abandoned a tradition, the worship of idols of wood and stone. In order to follow him in his faith it may become necessary for all concerned to lay aside certain idols of the mind, and untrammelled, fare forth into a fuller fellowship becoming those who would be sons of Abraham. The glory of Abraham consists in that he abandoned belief in all the safe things when he felt the call to seek something higher. There is always the danger of resting complacently in one's faith and that seems to be the trouble both with Islam and Christianity. The urge to make changes that may prove costly is stifled. It is surely part of faith to cast overboard even those things which make us feel secure if they are standing in the way of the realisation of a fuller fellowship, which in turn would create happier human relationships.

Had Abraham allowed the call of kindred and community to stifle the greater call he would never have been in any sense the Friend of God and the Father of the Faithful. It meant for him a decided breach with his community and its ways of life. The charge brought against Muhammad by the Quraish was that he had broken away from the community and in this at least he was a follower of Abraham, whether consciously or not we have no means of knowing. In the Easterner the call of community is too loud and persistent to be denied. He is first and foremost a member of a community. If the Muslim is to enter into the heritage of Abraham he too must be willing to take the leap in the dark. The modern form of this community consciousness is nationalism in which religion is retained only for its value as a political weapon, and a deplorable situation arises when religion becomes the hand-maid of politics. The real value of any religion consists in what it means for its followers and not in the utilitarian ends it may be usd to achieve. To follow Abraham means the abandonment of what may be considered moral and material safeguards; it could mean the breaking away from the past in which we arc all so deeply rooted, and the ruthless cutting away of those prejudices which keep men apart. To be the friend of God in any sense of the words is to be the friend of man. Those who lay claim to being the children of Abraham must do the works of Abraham.

This is no attempt to 'get behind' Jesus Christ as Muhammad did. The faith of Abraham provides a pattern which might enable a greater degree of fellowship between Muslims and Christians (at least between individuals on both sides). While it is no substitute for the Christian Faith, given good-will on both sides, there is no reason why it should not eventually bring Muslims more truly "within the orbit of Jesus Christ."

Wishaw, Scotland.


1 Tradition says that Muhammad, after mentioning al-Lat, al-'Uzza and Manat in Surah liii. 19, 20, had originally inserted: "These are the exalted swans whose intercession is to be hoped for." This, for the time being, reconciled the Meccans, and led to the return of some of the emigrants from Abyssinia. The story is related by Ibn Ishaaq but omitted in Ibn Hisham's rescension (Tabari i, 1192, 4 sqq.).

2 Ibn Hisham i. 208 (Wust.).

3 Bell. Translation of the Qur'an, Pref. vii.

4 Blair. The Sources of Islam, 10, n. 4.

5 Surahs iii. 72; v. 16-18; cf. iv. 48.

6 Surah iv. 124.

7 Ibn Hisham i. 15 (Wust.).

8 Ibn Hisham i. 51 (Wust.).

9 Life, Introd. p. civ.

10 Ibn Hisham i. 33 (Wust.).

11 Ibn Hisham ii. 821 (Wust.).

12 Jeffery, Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur'an, p. 45.

13 Schweich Lectures, p. 12.

14 Foreign Vocabulary, p. 67.

15 ibid., p. 66, 67.

16 e.g. the Mu'allaqat.

17 Nicholson, Literary History of the Arabs, p. 134.

18 Ibn Hisham i. 52.

19 ibid., i. 53.

20 Surah vi. 136.

21 Article on "The Influence of Judaism on Islam" in The Legacy of Israel, p. 132.

22 Surahs li. 24; xv. 5 sqq.; xxxviii. 81 sqq.; vi. 74 sqq.; xix. 42 sqq.; xxi. 52 sqq; xxix. 15. Encycl. Islam ii. 432.

23 ibid.


25 Translation of the Qur'an i. 122.

26 Bell, Trans. Qur'an ii. 445 f.

27 ibid. 441 f.

28 Surah ii. 129.

29 Surah ii. 121.

30 Surah ii. 139.

31 Surah iii. 72. Muhammad did not charge the Jews and Christians with corrupting or altering the text of their Scriptures, but of suppressing those passages referring to him, vide also Surah v. 16, 18.

32 ii Chron. 20. 7.

33 Isa.xli.8.

34 James ii. 23.

35 Gen. 18. 17.

36 Surah iv. 124.

37 Sürah 19. 53; xx. 11-50.

38 Surah iii. 40.

39 John viii. 39.

40 In an unpublished paper.

41 op. cit. I am indebted to this paper for much of this paragraph.

42 Rom. iv. 13-17.

The Muslim World, vol. 65: 1955, pp.114-120.

Answering Islam Home Page