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The ‘Abrahamic religions’ are a group of religions that, despite considerable differences, all claim descent from the worship of the God of Abraham. This designation includes three of the most prominent global religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Who is Abraham?
Abraham is an ancient figure whose story of faith in God has become paradigmatic for those religions emanating from him. He lived around the turn of the second millennium BCE (born circa 2000 BCE). His faith was demonstrated in his travel from the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur, located in present-day southern Iraq, to the land of Canaan, which included all or portions of modern-day Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine.
A second faith-defining narrative was his willingness to sacrifice his son, though the actual details of this narrative are a point of dispute between the different faith traditions. Today, he is regarded as one of the most influential people in history because of the number of religious devotees claiming to worship the God of Abraham.
Major Abrahamic Religions
Adherents to Judaism are ethnoreligious people known as the Jewish people. They derive their identity from the cultural, ethical, and religious tradition of the Torah, God’s revelation given to Moses at Mt. Sinai. They view themselves as God’s chosen people because of the special covenants made between God and his children. Today there are approximately 14 million Jews worldwide with the two largest population groups being in Israel and the United States.
Historically there are various movements within Judaism, which have been emanating from various rabbinic teachings since the destruction of the 2nd temple in 70 BCE. Today, the three largest are Orthodox Judaism, Reformed Judaism, and Conservative Judaism. Each of these is characterized by differing views on the importance and interpretation of the Torah and the nature of revelation.
Christianity is a global religion generally characterized by the worship of Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and belief in the Holy Bible as the revealed word of God.
Historically it grew out of 1st-century Judaism, viewing Jesus of Nazareth as the promised Messiah or savior of God’s people. It quickly spread throughout the Roman Empire by extending the promise of salvation to all people. According to the interpretation of Jesus’ teaching and the ministry of Saint Paul, faith is what characterizes someone as one of God’s children rather than an ethnic identity.
Today there are approximately 2.3 billion Christians globally. This means over 31% of the world’s population claims to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, making it the largest religion. There are numerous sects and denominations within Christianity, but most fall within one of three umbrella groupings: Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox.
Islam, meaning ‘submission to God,’ is the world’s 2nd largest religion with around 1.8 billion adherents worldwide. 20% of Muslims live in the Arab world, the countries comprising the geographical area known as the Middle East.
The highest populations of Muslims are found in Indonesia followed by India and Pakistan respectively. The two primary denominations of Islam are Sunni and Shia with the former being the larger of the two. The division arose over the succession from Muhammed, but over the years has also come to include theological and legal differences.
Muslims follow the teachings of the Koran (Quran) which they believe to be the final revelation of God given through the final prophet Muhammed.
The Koran teaches an ancient religion that has been taught in various ways through other prophets including Moses, Abraham, and Jesus. Islam began on the Sinai Peninsula in the 6th century as an attempt to recover this worship of the one true God, Allah.
Comparison of the Three Beliefs
How the Three Religions View Abraham
Within Judaism, Abraham is one of the three patriarchs listed with Isaac and Jacob. He is viewed as the father of the Jewish people. His descendants include his son Isaac, his grandson Jacob, who was later named Israel, and Judah, the namesake for Judaism. According to Genesis chapter seventeen, God made a promise with Abraham in which He promises blessing, descendants, and land.
Christianity shares the Jewish view of Abraham as the father of the faith with covenantal promises through the descendants of Isaac and Jacob. They trace the lineage of Jesus of Nazareth through the line of King David back to Abraham as recorded in the first chapter of The Gospel According to Matthew.
Christianity also views Abraham as a spiritual father to both Jews and Gentiles who worship the God of Abraham. According to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans in chapter four, it was Abraham’s faith that was credited as righteousness, and so it is with all believers whether circumcised (Jewish) or uncircumcised (Gentile).
Within Islam, Abraham serves as the father of the Arab people through his first-born son Ishmael, not Isaac. The Koran also tells the narrative of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, though it does not indicate which son. Most Muslims today believe that son to be Ishmael. Abraham is in the line of prophets leading to the Prophet Muhammed, all of whom preached Islam, which means ‘submission to God.
All three religions trace their worship of a single deity back to Abraham’s rejection of the many idols worshipped in ancient Mesopotamia. Jewish Midrashic text and the Koran tell the story of Abraham smashing the idols of his father’s house and admonishing his family members to worship the one true God.
Islam and Judaism are also closely aligned in their belief in strict monotheism. According to this belief, God is unitary. They reject common Christian beliefs of the Trinity along with the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Christianity sees in Abraham an example of faithfulness in following the one true God even as that worship puts one at odds with the rest of society.
A Comparison of Sacred Texts
The sacred text of Islam is the Koran. It is the final revelation from God, coming from Muhammed, the final and greatest prophet. Abraham, Moses, and Jesus all have a place in that line of prophets.
The Hebrew Bible is also known as the Tanakh, an acronym for the three divisions of texts. The first five books are known as the Torah, meaning teaching or instruction. Then there is the Nevi’im or prophets. Finally, there is the Ketuvim which means writings.
The Christian Bible is divided into two major sections. The Old Testament is a version of the Jewish Tanakh, the contents of which vary among Christian traditions. The New Testament is the story of Jesus Christ and the spread of belief in him as the Messiah throughout the first-century Mediterranean world.
Key figures in Judaism include Abraham and Moses, the liberator of the people from slavery in Egypt and the author of the Torah. King David also figures prominently.
Christianity holds these same figures in high regard along with Paul as the most prominent early Christian evangelist. Jesus Christ is worshipped as the Messiah and Son of God.
Islam views Abraham and Moses as important prophets. This line of prophets culminates with Muhammed.
Judaism’s holiest site is the Western Wall located in Jerusalem. It is the last remains of the temple mount, the site of the first and second temples.
Christianity varies by tradition in its view of the importance of holy sites. However, there are many sites throughout the middle east connected to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus along with other events reported in the New Testament, particularly the journeys of Paul.
For Muslims, the three holy cities are, in order, Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, is one of the 5 pillars of Islam and is required of every able Muslim once in their lifetime.
Places of Worship
Today the Jewish people gather for worship in synagogues. These are consecrated places for prayer, reading the Tanakh, and teaching, but they do not replace the temple which was destroyed for a second time in 70 AD by the Roman army led by Titus.
The Christian house of worship is a church. Churches serve as a place for community gatherings, worship, and teaching.
The Mosque is a Muslim place of worship. It serves principally as a place of prayer along with providing education and a gathering place for Muslims.
Are There Other Abrahamic Religions?
While Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are the most well-known Abrahamic religions, there are several other smaller religions around the world that also fall under the Abrahamic umbrella. These include the following.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Founded by Joseph Smith in 1830, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormon Church, is a religion that originated in North America. It is considered an Abrahamic religion by virtue of its connection to Christianity.
The Book of Mormon contains the writings of prophets who lived in North America in ancient times and was written to a group of Jews who had traveled there from Israel. The key event is the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus Christ to the people of North America.
The Baha’i faith was founded in the late 19th century by Bahá’u’lláh. It teaches the value of all religions and includes the major prophets of the three main Abrahamic religions.
Samaritans are a small group of people living in present-day Israel. They claim to be the ancestors of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, northern tribes of Israel, who survived the invasion of Assyrians in 721 BCE. They worship according to the Samaritan Pentateuch, believing they practice the true religion of ancient Israelites.
With so many people worldwide following religious traditions in which Abraham is viewed as the father of their faith, it is easy to understand why he is one of the most influential men to ever live.
While the three main Abrahamic religions have differentiated themselves from one another over the centuries leading to numerous conflicts and divisions, there are still some commonalities. These include monotheistic worship, a belief in revelation from God written in sacred texts, and strong ethical teachings.