Is Islam an “Abrahamic” Religion?

For most non-Muslims and Westerners, Islam is a religion which was founded in the 7th century by the Prophet Muhammad, spread throughout the Middle East, Asia, and the Mediterranean area (including many European countries), and is now in a state of flux, making inroads in some areas, causing turmoil in others.

But this viewpoint differs sharply from the narrative accepted by many Muslims. Like (probably) the majority of Catholics who do not read the Bible, most Muslims do not read their sacred scriptures – the Qur’an, the Hadith (sayings of the apostle Muhammad), and the Siras (biographies of Muhammad). But for those who do – including scholars, enthusiasts, and converts – a very different interpretation is attached to their religion. In their eyes, Islam does not stem from the 7th century, but has had a much more extensive history, as follows:

ŸAbrahamic religion: According to the Qur’an, which Muslims believe was dictated directly by God, Abraham (Ibrahim) was a Hanif (Muslim). [Sura 3:67] When Allah tested Abraham, he was ready to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, but was released by Allah from that duty. Abraham and Ishmael preached Islam, and traveled to Bekka (Mecca) [3:96-7], where they built humanity’s first temple, the Kaaba, the place for Muslim pilgrimage even today. [2:125-127] True Muslims believe in the original, universal Hanifi religion (din al-fitrah), which was “sent down to Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and the Patriarchs, and what was given to Moses and Jesus and the prophets.” [3:84]

ŸJesus and Mary: Jesus was the son of Mary, the daughter of Imran, the father of Moses and Aaron. [66:12] Thus Mary was Aaron’s sister. [19:28] Jesus was born to Mary by divine help, did wondrous deeds, and preached the coming of the prophet Muhammad. [61:6] He was not crucified, but only appeared to be crucified, and then was taken up to heaven by Allah. [4:157-8]

ŸPolytheism: One of the worst blasphemies against the unity of Allah is the doctrine of the “Trinity.” This Christian doctrine, as interpreted in the Qur’an, concerns a divine trinity of Allah, Jesus, and Mary. [5:116], although – in Muslim eyes – Jesus denied that he was divine. To believe that Allah had a son is polytheism. [4:171, 5:75, 9:30]

ŸMuhammad, last of the prophets: Mecca was host to devotees of multiple gods during Muhammad’s lifetime, and his initial attempts to convert polytheists to the worship of Allah as the sole god met considerable opposition; and he acquired only a small cadre of followers. With them he fled in a famous migration (Hijrah) to Medina, where he was initially accepted cordially, and attracted converts. But as he continually received the revelations later incorporated into shariah law, strong opposition developed, especially from Jews who rejected or ridiculed his status as a prophet. His responses evolved from apparent tolerance (“let there be no compulsion in religion” [Sura 2:256]), to warnings that those who do not accept Islam will go to hell [Sura 3:85] and should never be taken as friends [3:28, 4:89, 5:51].

Muhammad (right) converses with Abraham (left) in Paradise [Persian, 15th century]
Mohammed (right) converses with Abraham (left) in Paradise [Persian, 15th century]

Jihad: Islamic scholars speak of the principle of abrogation, according to which later suras of the Qur’an can abrogate earlier suras. Allah himself sanctifies this principle in sura 16:101. Thus, many late revelations at Medina [e.g. suras 2, 4, 5,8, 9, 47, and 48], given the resistance of unbelievers to tolerant approaches, advocated spread of Islam by “the sword,” making war on neighboring peoples a duty [9:39, 123], and promising an instantaneous paradise of sensual pleasures, including the ministrations of 72 comely virgins for men who die in battle against infidels.

ŸFinal goals: According to the narrative of this Abrahamic religion, Islam is the original and indispensable religion for all mankind [34:28], and Muslims are the chosen people [3:110] whose religious duty is to rule the world and implement Sharia everywhere [2:193]. At the end, the Muslim version of Jesus (Isa Al-Masee) will come to destroy all crosses, vanquish the Muslim Anti-Christ (Dajjal), and thus assist the final caliph, the Mahdi, to bring about a world in which Islam remains the only religion.

ŸIslam vs. history: This extended narrative in which Muhammad becomes the agent who finally brings about the fulfillment of the true Abrahamic religion is comparable to the narratives of some other religions.

Foremost in similarity is the narrative of Mormons (Latter Day Saints), who assert that a group of ancient Hebrews (“Lamanites”) migrated to America before the birth of Christ. The Christian church apostatized shortly after the ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven, and Jesus appeared to American Indians, who were the descendants of the Lamanites, but also eventually apostatized. Finally, in the 19th century, Joseph Smith, after some revelations and angelic visits, restored the true “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.”

Also similar, if mind-boggling, is the narrative of the “Nation of Islam.” According to Elijah Muhammad, its founder, blacks came into existence trillions of years ago, progressed tremendously, but were betrayed by a mad black scientist, “Yakub,” who created the white race to rule until the year 2000.

Conscientious Mormon anthropologists and geographers have tried to explain or correct Joseph Smith’s narrative. No one would try to find evidence for Elijah Muhammad’s narrative. But both narratives have dedicated believers.

Muslims would encounter especially difficult problems if they tried to establish historical evidence for their narrative. The only possible source for investigating the history of Abraham and his Hebrew descendants would be the Old Testament. But that, according to Muslims, has been distorted and is completely untrustworthy.

There is historical evidence of the life and actions of Jesus not only in the Gospels but also in historians like Tacitus and Josephus. Nonetheless, in the Muslim narrative, the New Testament – it’s claimed – is also distorted, creating false doctrines about Jesus’ crucifixion, the Trinity, and the Christian Church.

So Muslims, relying solely on the word of Muhammad, share less with Jews and Christians than is often implied in calling all three faiths “Abrahamic.”

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.