The Religion of Abraham

Friday Khutba by Dr Zahid Aziz, for Lahore Ahmadiyya UK, 7 June 2024

“And when his Lord tried Abraham with certain commands he fulfilled them. He said: Surely I will make you a leader of people. (Abraham) said: And of my offspring? My cove­nant does not include the wrongdoers, said He.” — 2:124

وَ اِذِ ابۡتَلٰۤی  اِبۡرٰہٖمَ  رَبُّہٗ بِکَلِمٰتٍ فَاَتَمَّہُنَّ ؕ قَالَ اِنِّیۡ جَاعِلُکَ لِلنَّاسِ  اِمَامًا ؕ قَالَ وَ مِنۡ ذُرِّیَّتِیۡ ؕ قَالَ لَا یَنَالُ عَہۡدِی الظّٰلِمِیۡنَ ﴿۱۲۴

“Abraham was not a Jew nor a Christian, but he was (an) upright (man), one who submitted to Allah; and he was not of those who set up partners (with Allah).” — 3:67

مَا کَانَ  اِبۡرٰہِیۡمُ یَہُوۡدِیًّا وَّ لَا نَصۡرَانِیًّا وَّ لٰکِنۡ کَانَ حَنِیۡفًا مُّسۡلِمًا ؕ وَ مَا کَانَ مِنَ الۡمُشۡرِکِیۡنَ ﴿۶۷

“And who is better in religion than he who submits himself entirely to Allah while doing good (to others) and follows the faith of Abraham, the upright one? And Allah took Abraham for a friend.” — 4:125

وَ مَنۡ اَحۡسَنُ دِیۡنًا مِّمَّنۡ اَسۡلَمَ  وَجۡہَہٗ لِلّٰہِ وَ ہُوَ مُحۡسِنٌ وَّ اتَّبَعَ مِلَّۃَ اِبۡرٰہِیۡمَ حَنِیۡفًا ؕ وَ اتَّخَذَ اللّٰہُ اِبۡرٰہِیۡمَ خَلِیۡلًا ﴿۱۲۵

“Then We revealed to you [O Prophet]: Follow the faith of Abraham, the upright one; and he was not from among the idolaters.” — 16:123

ثُمَّ اَوۡحَیۡنَاۤ  اِلَیۡکَ اَنِ اتَّبِعۡ مِلَّۃَ  اِبۡرٰہِیۡمَ حَنِیۡفًا ؕ وَ مَا کَانَ مِنَ  الۡمُشۡرِکِیۡنَ ﴿۱۲۳﴾

In the present world circumstances of unending war and conflict, it is important and absolutely vital to remind ourselves, and also to inform the world, that Islam reveres and honours as its original founder a man, Abraham, who is accepted also by Jews and Christians. The teachings of Islam always keep in view the broad interests of humanity, and are not concerned solely with the interests of Muslims. This is why the Holy Quran begins with the declaration: “Praise be to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds”. This is also why a fundamental of Islam such as the Pilgrimage, and the associated ‘Id-ul-Aḍḥā, commemorates the mission of a prophet — Abraham — who is an important figure in other religions as well. If the Holy Prophet Muhammad had been self-seeking, and wanting to project his own fame, he would have constructed some memorial to his own achievements and required Muslims to visit and honour that monument. But he was concerned only with the glory of God, and therefore, under God’s guidance, he honoured the services of those earlier prophets who had sacrificed everything to pro­claim the glory of God.

Abraham lived about 2000 years before Jesus, which is about 2500 years before the Holy Prophet Muhammad. Abraham’s life shows his great dedication to preaching the oneness of God. He argued about it and held debates with his people (21:52–67), with his king (2:258), with his father (19:42–49), and even argued within himself (6:76–79). This is all related in the Quran. But he did not only prove the oneness of God by argument and logic. He showed his devotion and attachment to God by being prepared to sacrifice his son, Ismail, when he thought, by mistake, that God had commanded him to sacrifice his son. Human sacrifice, especially of a young boy or virgin, was very common in the world in his time. In fact, it was being practised in India even two or three centuries ago. This is why it was Abraham’s perception that he was being asked to sacrifice Ismail. As we know, God stopped him and told him:

“You have indeed fulfilled the vision” (37:105).

He had already fulfilled the vision by settling his wife and son in the wilderness where, later, father and son would re-build the Ka‘bah as a monument to belief in One God. To commemorate Abraham’s willing­ness to sacri­fice, the sacrifice of a ram as a symbol was instituted. In Islam this institu­tion was continued and maintained and it takes place on the occasion of ‘Id-ul-Aḍḥā.

Before attempting sacrifice his son, Abraham told him about his dream, and asked him: “What do you think?” So Abraham was a man who pondered over the command­ments of God, or what he perceived were command­ments, and discussed them. The son, who was about 13 years old at the time, agreed that if it was God’s command then it must be carried out. But, as we all know, Allah stopped Abraham from carrying it out.

God promised to Abraham that his spiritually dead nation would be raised to life through his teachings. Abraham asked God: “My Lord, show me how You give life to the dead.” God said: “Do you not believe?” Abraham replied: “Yes, but that my heart may be at ease” (2:260). Abraham believed God’s promise, but for the satisfaction of his heart he wanted God to show him how it would happen. God then explained to him that if he were to tame birds, then they would respond to his call and come to him instead of running away from him. So here a prophet is seeking satisfaction of his heart in regard to what he is being asked to believe, and he is asking questions to satisfy his mind, going beyond merely believing something that he has been told.

Abraham’s preparedness to sacrifice is also indicated in the following verse:

“And when his Lord tried Abraham with certain commands he fulfilled them. He said: Surely I will make you a leader of people” (2:124).

This shows that someone should only be appointed to be a leader when he has proved himself to be the best follower of the law, who follows the law even at the cost of suffering material loss. Then this verse continues:

“(Abraham) asked: What about my offspring? Allah replied: My promise does not include the wrong­doers.”

Allah told Abraham that the later generations descended from him would only inherit spiritual leadership from him if they followed his teachings and their deeds were like his. Those of them who would be wrong-doers would not receive the same promise of being made leaders that Abraham was given by Allah. This also shows that Islam rejects the granting of a privileged position to anyone because of their birth and descent.

The religion taught by Abraham was simple: You must believe that God is One, and worshipping Him means that you must sacrifice or give up some worldly desires, as and when required, in order to become a better person. In line with this, the monu­ment he built, the Ka‘bah, is also a simple structure, compared to the great and elabo­rately adorned places of worship that we see around the world.

Long after the time of Abraham, Moses arose among his descendants. Through him God revealed the Israelite religious law, and the basis was laid of the beliefs and customs which define the Jewish religion. But the rules and regulations of that law became so detailed and elaborate that the followers of this law forgot its true purpose and aim. They considered that sticking to its observance only outwardly was the purpose of following religion. Whenever they wanted to fulfil some greedy, material desire they would manipulate the law so that they could do whatever they liked but still appeared to be following the letter of the law, while they were breaking it in spirit. We often see in this world wrong-doers sheltering behind the letter of the law, while violating its intent.

God then sent Jesus among those people to revive the real spirit of the faith and show how man could attain nearness to God. Jesus condemned it as wrong to follow the rules of the religion only in a physical way, without involving your heart in it. After him, those who believed in Jesus took this to the opposite extreme and declared that following the rules of the religious law was not necessary at all. They said that all you need is to believe that Jesus is the son of God who had come to die for mankind’s sin and you were forgiven all your sins.

By the time that the Holy Prophet Muhammad appeared, the followers of Abraham, i.e. Jews and Christians, had deviated from the concept of submission to the One God and had lost the simplicity of religion taught by Abraham. The Jews believed in a national God who was always on their side, while the Christians believed that the old God, God the father, now had a partner and replacement in the form of God the Son. Instead of submission to God, they both invested their priests with Divine powers, powers of determining religion, and of handing out forgiveness. Submission to God was replaced by submission to rules and to priests.

The Jews had made the practice of religion complicated by introducing rigid rules relating to small details. Christians had made belief very complicated by introducing useless theological dis­cussions about how God could be one and also three at the same time, and about how much of Jesus was Divine and how much of him was human.

So Islam, by instituting the Ḥajj and ‘Id-ul-Aḍḥā, draws the attention of Jews and Christians to the simple religion of sincerity and devotion to God practised by Abraham, who was their own patriarch. This is the meaning of the verse:

“Abraham was not a Jew nor a Christian, but he was (an) upright (man), one who submitted to Allah; and he was not of those who set up partners (with Allah).” — 3:67.

At the time of Abraham, the Jewish and Christian religions did not exist, and therefore Jews and Christians cannot deny that their great patriarch Abraham attained his exalted position near God without following either of these religions.

This has a lesson for Muslims also, who have forgotten that religion is simple and should be followed with sincerity of the heart. We too ask questions about small details of religious practice and argue about them, and indulge in theoretical dis­cussions about abstract matters which are of no practical benefit. We think that this is what is religion. However, the Quran tells us:

“And who is better in religion than he who submits himself entirely to Allah while doing good (to others) and follows the faith of Abraham, the upright one? And Allah took Abraham for a friend.” — 4:125

The best religion, says the Quran here, is to follow the faith of Abraham, i.e. to submit yourself along with your desires entirely to God and do good to others, to follow a simple creed and to be sincere.

The life of Abraham is marked by his submission to God, his use of reasoning and arguments to understand his faith and to present it others, and his desire to be satisfied in his heart about the truth of his faith. May we follow in his footsteps, Ameen.