Father Abraham - Ishmael & Islam
Who can forget the towers burning?
For many college-aged students, the events of September 11, 2001, are a strange memory. The mental images of smoke, destruction, and crumbling buildings are unforgettable, and yet at that time, many who were then young children could not really understand what was happening.
In fact, it may well be the case that most people - even full-grown adults - could not completely comprehend what was unfolding before their eyes. What started out as just an unexplained act of violence would go on to change the world. The aftershocks of this event have impacted countless lives ever since. The world will never be the same.
Like World War II for the ‘Silent Generation’ and the Moon Landing for ‘Baby Boomers’, 9/11 is the definitive event of the ‘Millennial’ generation. Though most of us were born before it (Neil Howe and William Strauss put the range from 1982 to 2002), all of us have faced adulthood in a world with increased airport security, terror threats, and war in the Middle East as a result of what happened that day.
But for 1.6 billion people, 9/11 didn’t just change the way they see the world. It changed the way the world sees them.
Women in hijabs doing their grocery shopping, executives on business trips, and students in college classrooms all instantly became associated with the Muslim extremists who had killed thousands. To be a Muslim was to be a suspect.
More than a decade later, public opinion towards Muslims remains as divided as ever. Many see Islam as a religion of peace and tolerance that has been vilified by a few extremists. On the other hand, many argue that Islam is essentially a violent religion, and that messages of peace and tolerance ignore a fundamental reality that it is foolish to ignore. On top of that, many Christians are suspicious of Islam and harbor hostility towards Muslims.
This hostility does not come out of nowhere, but has thousands of years of human history behind it. Christians and Jews alike will say that they worship the God of “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”; Jacob, after all, is the man who would later be renamed Israel (Genesis 35:10). The Judeo-Christian tradition traces its history through Israel, stretching back through Isaac, to father Abraham. Islam traces the lineage of God’s people back to father Abraham through Ishmael. You can read about how Judaism and Christianity understand the relationship between Isaac and Ishmael in Genesis 17:15-21.
Like any religion, Islam is complicated, and has some different interpretations. Does the Muslim holy book, the Qu’ran, contain admonitions towards violence? Yes. But so does the Bible. To illustrate this, here are several statements from the Bible and the Qu’ran. Can you identify which is which? (Source)
a) We took all his cities at that time, and we utterly destroyed the men, women, and little ones of every city; we left none remaining.
b) Slay the idolaters wherever you find them. Arrest them, besiege them, and lie in ambush everywhere for them.
c) He left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as God had commanded.
d) True believers fight for the cause of God.
e) Fight for the sake of God those that fight against you, but do not attack them first. God does not love aggressors.
f) You shall destroy all the peoples whom God delivers over to you; your eye shall have no pity on them.
In any reading and research we do, context is extremely important. Not every instruction in the Bible is for every time - hence, we as Christians no longer offer animal sacrifices, just for example. It is very clear from Jesus’ teachings that the Christian concept of God is one that requires peaceful attitudes and behaviours from people. But it is through that lens that Christians must still deal with and interpret the more violent parts of scripture.
Understanding this, it is important that we as Christians also respect that Muslims are engaged in much the same task of hermeneutics - interpreting the Holy Book to find out what it means, what its overall message is and how the pieces fit together. We have to do that when we read the Bible - it should not be surprising to us when other ancient texts, such as the Qu’ran, also require the same kind of careful interpretation.
Let us also remember God’s promise to Abraham: that from his descendants would come One who would be a blessing to all the nations (Genesis 22:15-18). We must remember as Christians that Jesus - the promised descendant of Abraham - wants to bless all the nations of the earth. Christians who were not born into the lineage of Israel share in that inheritance through the Messiah - Jesus - and as His followers should first and foremost be asking ourselves how we can be a blessing to everyone on this planet, especially our spiritual cousins.
How do you relate to people of other religions? Where have you gotten information about Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism? How would you learn more about people who believe differently than you?
There are three major monotheistic religions: religions that believe there is only one, all-powerful God. These religions are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Do you think these three religions all believe in the same God? Why, or why not?
Read through Genesis chapters 16-18, and 22. This is the story of Abraham’s family and his sons Isaac and Ishmael. What do you notice about the promises that God makes to Hagar and Ishmael in Gen 16:10-13; 21:8-21.
God intended to create a covenant with Abraham through his son Isaac, but Abraham and Sarah disobeyed and brought another son into the world first: Ishmael, through his mother Hagar:
- Notice that in Genesis 17:15-21, God intends to bless both Ishmael and Isaac, even though Isaac is the child intended for the covenant. God did not reject Hagar and Ishmael but chose to protect them. How might you learn about God’s grace from this story? How does God show his grace to Abraham in light of the story of Isaac and Ishmael?
Many Christians struggle with the violence and other ethically questionable material especially found in the Old Testament of the Bible. For some perspective on this topic, Listen to this lecture by Christian apologist and philosopher Dr. Paul Copan at Tyndale University entitled "Slavery and Genocide? A Fresh Look at Two Old Testament Ethical Issues."