The Making of a Forefather: Abraham in Islamic and Jewish Exegetical Narratives (Islamic History and Civilization)

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 The Making Of A Forefather
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The unique stories a people tells about its ancestors often hold the key to understanding who and what that people understands itself to be.

Through their stories, groups relate not only the facts of their history but also their values, the nature of their relationship to each other, to those around them, to their God. One nation tells of an ancestor born of humble beginnings, in a log cabin, who rose to prominence as the leader of the nation, victor of a civil war, restorer of national unity, and abolitionist of slavery.

Not surprisingly, this is the very same nation that sees itself as the epitome of democracy and honesty, committed to the principles of equality and the right of self-determination, the “land of the free and home of the brave.” Another society tells of a founding father, a prince, who rejected his royal stature and riches in favor of ascetic wandering and contemplation. It is the same society whose core value places the virtuous-ness of the spiritual life over the material world.

Where the Islamic and Jewish stories of the founding forefathers are concerned however, academic scholarship has largely ignored this significant aspect of the source material. Instead, in compara-tive studies of Islamic and Jewish exegetical narratives (˙adìth and midrash aggadah, respectively) on scriptural figures in general, scholars like Abraham Katsh, Julian Obermann, Richard Bell, and even S. D. Goitein1 have often looked only fleetingly at the themes embedded in the texts.

Instead, they dwell all too frequently on determining the primacy of one tradition over another. Such scholarship, while valuable in one aspect, misunderstands the very complex and often symbiotic relationship between Islam and Judaism and ignores the intrinsic creativity of both.

 Furthermore, such an approach denies the narratives themselves a large part of their inherent worth as enti-ties that supply spiritual meaning to the lives of their adherents.

The case of the forefather Abraham ranks as especially significant in the problematics of this conversation. After all, he plays a pivotal role in both Judaism and Islam: despite their vying for the same sacred history, both Muslims and Jews trace the genesis of their bio-logical as well as spiritual communities back to him. In other words, while they understand themselves to be two different societies and religions, Islam and Judaism share the very same founding father.

More importantly, although the Jewish and Muslim scriptures them-selves provide relatively little information about the early life of the man, the extra-Scriptural exegetical literature of both tell the very same stories about him and his development into God’s beloved. Yet Islam is not Judaism, Muslims are not Jews, and vice versa. Rather, the two traditions remain distinct entities with distinct value systems. In the search for the absolute “original,” Western academic scholarship thus largely ignores the exegetical narratives’ clues for what it means to each culture to be Muslim or Jew.

The current study aims at filling in these gaps through a re-examination of the Islamic and Jewish versions of the early biography of the forefather Abraham, from his birth through his miraculous escape from the flames of the Chaldean furnace, i.e. the years leading up to his election as God’s chosen.

 The purpose of such an investigation is two-fold. On the one hand, the present approach to the mate-rial challenges the all too frequent scholarly insistence that artifacts appearing in both the Jewish and Islamic contexts result ipso facto from Islam’s dependence upon its elder brother.

Instead, the present analysis demonstrates the mutual interdependence of the Jewish and Islamic corpora in creating these narratives; just as Islam undeniably took from Judaism, so it gave back to the midrashic corpus. In the case of Abraham, the Muslim and Jewish accounts are so intertwined, each influencing the other, that in charting the development of their motifs one can not treat them as truly separate entities. In other words, in order to understand fully the development of the Islamic accounts of the early life of Ibràhìm, one must be familiar with the pre-Islamic midrashic sources. Conversely, in order for one to com-prehend thoroughly the evolution of those Abrahamic midrashic accounts compiled after the development of Islam, one must attain knowledge of the Islamic texts.

The second objective aims at examining how the two traditions used those Abrahamic elements they adopted from one another. After all, Islam and Judaism did not simply copy from each other; had they done so, the differences between Islam and Judaism would be only marginal, which they obviously are not.

More accurately, the two religious traditions used shared information while creating vastly differing conceptualizations of their common forefather. The analy-sis here will dispute the folklorist Haim Schwarzbaum’s statement that:

All students of the Quran have failed to realize that Muhammad’s deviations from the biblical pattern or from the biblical text would seem quite natural and even reasonable to anyone who has even a moderate acquaintance with the basic laws of oral storytelling, as well as of oral transmission and diffusion of tales.

Muhammad’s Jewish and Christian informants did not stick to any fixed written literary text. They behaved in the same way as all storytellers do since time immemorial: they tell stories in a free, spontaneous manner.2

Unlike Schwarzbaum, I argue here that Islam and Judaism purposely and purposefully manipulated and adjusted the texts of the other in order to emphasize their own unique religious values.

 In so doing, the traditions provided their adherents with material for religious self-perception and for defining themselves as entities distinct and separate from one another, despite their almost identical biological and spiritual heritage.

The particular theological/philosophical issue around which the early Abrahamic accounts orbit is one of the most important and simultaneously complex issues facing religious systems: human free-will vs. divine predestination.

For religions which emphasize the omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence of the Deity, as Islam and Judaism do, the possible existence of human free-will poses no small problem. If God knows all, and controls all, it logically follows that our every move, thought, and feeling is orchestrated from above.

 This brings up the obvious existential questions: if we are but puppets in the hands of the Divine, why did He bother with our creation? Furthermore, what use are the religious laws, rewards and punishments of orthoprax religions?

How can God penalize and recompense one who has no control over one’s actions? To do so strikes the mind as patently unjust, especially problematic for systems which insist on God’s justice and righteousness.

 Yet, if, in order to allow for human freedom to choose to sin or not, one denies God ulti-mate and complete control of the universe and all that it contains, one diminishes both His power and the force of His demand to be recognized and worshiped.

 For Islam and Judaism, there could be no more appropriate figure to whom to turn for instruction on this matter than the man who laid the groundwork for each tradition and thereby the values they contain: Abraham.

Definition and Nature of Midrash

The corpus of Jewish texts from which this project draws is known collectively as “midrash aggadah,” or midrash, for short here. This expression indicates both individual narratives (pl. midrashim) or pieces of exegesis as well as entire books, and even a literary type, dating roughly from 400 CE to 1200 CE.3 The Hebrew word midrash derives from the root çrd (dr“ ) meaning to seek, consult, or inquire.4

Scholars have struggled to pin down a less literal yet more accurate definition of the term, one that would cover all aspects of the large corpus included under the midrashic rubric.

So complicated is the issue that Joseph Heinemann, one of the premier writers on midrash, defined midrash aggadah by describing what it is not rather than what it is. According to Heinemann, midrash aggadah is that multifaceted mate-rial found in the Talmudic-Midrashic literature that does not fall into the category of Jewish law (thus distinguishing it from midrash halakha, legal midrash).5 Renee Bloch provides a more positive yet equally vague definition;

she writes that the word designates exegesis which “moves beyond the literal in order to penetrate into the spirit of Scripture,” to draw interpretations which are not always immediately obvious.6 Others have seen fit to define the term not as…..

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