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Abraham

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Abraham

    ca. 2000 B.C.E. Patriarch of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

    Abraham is considered the patriarch, or founding father, of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. According to the holy scriptures of Judaism and the Christian Bible, Abram (as he was called) received a call from God to leave his native city of Ur in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) and bring his family to another land where he would become the father of a new nation. Abram obeyed, and God later changed his name to Abraham, which means “Father of Many Nations.” The writings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam portray Abraham as a model of faith and monotheism.

    After receiving God's call, Abraham journeyed with his wife and other family members to Canaan, between Syria and Egypt. God promised him that his children would inherit the land and become as numerous as the stars in the sky. Abraham, however, was already an old man, and his wife Sarah , who was also very old, had been unable to conceive a child. Sarah encouraged Abraham to have sexual relations with her Egyptian servant, Hagar, so that he might have an heir. Abraham agreed, and Hagar gave birth to a son, Ismail. Later, Sarah became pregnant. When Abraham was 100 years old, she bore him a son, Isaac. Jewish and Christian traditions identify with Isaac, while Islamic tradition identifies with Ismail.

    After the birth of Isaac, Sarah became jealous of Ismail. As the firstborn son, Ismail would have been the primary recipient of Abraham's inheritance. Sarah, therefore, insisted that Abraham banish Hagar and Ismail. Abraham was reluctant to follow his wife's demand. According to Jewish tradition, he sent them away after God revealed to him that Isaac would be his rightful heir but that Ismail would also become the father of a nation.

    Muslims believe that Hagar and Ismail traveled to the desert near Mecca, where they nearly died of thirst. They were saved by a miraculous spring of water that flowed from the sand. When Abraham discovered that they were alive, he joined them in Mecca. To celebrate the miracle in the desert, Abraham and Ismail built (or rebuilt, according to some traditions) the Kaaba, which became Islam's holiest shrine. During the hajj, Muslims participate in a variety of rituals that commemorate Hagar and Ismail's experiences in the desert.

    The most serious test of Abraham's faith occurred when God commanded him to sacrifice his son. According to the Biblical account, God instructed Abraham to take Isaac to the top of a mountain and sacrifice him as an offering. Abraham went to the appointed spot, constructed an altar, and placed his son on it. He was about to kill Isaac with a knife when God stopped him. Satisfied that Abraham had proved his faith, God provided a ram for the offering instead of the boy. The Qur'an presents a similar account but does not name the son. Abraham says, “Oh my son! I see in vision that I offer thee in sacrifice.” When God sees that Abraham is willing to obey this command, he then promises him: “Behold, I make you a leader for the people.” Most Muslims, therefore, identify Ismail as the one that Abraham intended to sacrifice.

    Abraham died at a very old age—175 years, according to the Bible. He was buried alongside his wife, Sarah, in Hebron's Cave of Machpelah. A Muslim shrine, Haram al-Khalil, now marks the site of the tomb. See also Hajj; Ismail; Kaaba.

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