Monday, December 13, 2010

The Evolution of God: Jews, Christians, and the Establishment of Islam

Until recently I knew very little about Islam. Then I read a book by Tamim Ansary, Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes, and found the subject fascinating. Of the relationship between the three monotheistic religions Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Ansary provided this intellectually teasing comment.

“Both the Arabs and Jews were Semitic and traced their descent to Abraham (and through him to Adam). The Arabs saw themselves as the line descended from Abraham’s son Ishmael and his second wife, Hagar. The stories commonly associated with the Old Testament—Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and his ark, Joseph and Egypt, Moses and the pharaoh, and the rest of them—were part of Arab tradition too. Although most of the Arabs were pagan polytheists at this point (the time of Mohammed) and the Jews had remained resolutely monotheistic, the two groups were more or less indistinguishable in terms of culture and lifestyle: the Jews of this era spoke Arabic, and their tribal structure resembled that of the Arabs.”

“Mohammed considered himself a descendent of Abraham and knew all about Abraham’s uncompromising monotheism. Indeed, Mohammed didn’t think he was preaching something new; he believed he was renewing what Abraham (and countless other prophets) had said....”
What was intriguing about this passage is that it seemed to be claiming that Arabs had assimilated the Hebrew writings into their cultural history long before Mohammed arrived on the scene. That seemed unlikely and left me wondering about how this process might have occurred. Robert Wright, in his book The Evolution of God, comes to the rescue with a slightly different view, and a more detailed look at Mohammed and the origins of Islam.

When Mohammed appeared on the scene the Arabs were a polytheistic society. As such, it was not unusual for practicing Jews and Christians to be intermixed in the society. The Christian Byzantine Empire was right next door so familiarity with both Judaism and Christianity would be expected.

Of the several gods who were popular one was called “Allah.” Allah was considered a “creator god,” responsible for the universe. This brings to it some similarity to the attributes of the Jewish and Christian Gods. Some scholars believe that the Arabs had recognized a tie between their Allah and the Allah worshiped by the Christians. Wright suggests that such a connection was merely a familiarity because the Christians were plentiful and they referred to their god as Allah also.

What is clear is that Mohammed preached monotheism. The available template for monotheism was the Jewish Abrahamic tradition. Mohammed incorporated this tradition in his religion, whether from revelation or from practicality is unknowable.

The tie between Abraham and the Arabs is through Abraham’s son Ishmael. The Arabs dwelling in the vicinity of Israel were referred to as Ishmaelites by the ancient Israelites. This association by Mohammed required a positive image of the Arabs via this connection. Interestingly, there are two histories of Ishmael in the Bible. One is somewhat flattering, and one is definitely not. The earliest version has Ishmael as the bastard son of Abraham via his wife’s slave girl Hagar. The child is ultimately abandoned in the desert with an angel proclaiming “He will be a wild ass of a man, his fist against all, and everyone’s fist against him.” This would not be a particularly appealing historical legacy to present to potential Arab converts. Fortunately for Mohammed, after the Babylonian exile the Jews had political reasons for not wanting to present Arabs in an unflattering manner. So they changed their scriptures to incorporate a second version alongside the original. This one presented Hagar as another wife of Abraham (with his first wife’s blessing). And instead of giving birth alone in the desert, she gives birth in Abraham’s presence. Instead of ending up “a wild ass of a man,” Abraham asks God to provide for his son and God replies “I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.” This version was something Mohammed could work with.

The degree to which Mohammed tried to tie the two religions together is surprising. At one point while Mohammed was beginning to acquire adherents and power he proclaimed the following (note that there are many ways to spell the prophet’s name in English).
“....he decided that his followers should have a twenty-four hour fast, just as the Jews did on Yom Kippur. He even called it Yom Kippur—at least, he used the term some Arabian Jews were then using for Yom Kippur. And the Jewish ban on eating pork was mirrored in a Muslim ban on eating pork, probably first enunciated in Medina. Muhammad also declared that his followers should pray facing Jerusalem. Indeed, so thoroughly did Muhammad intermingle Islamic and Jewish ritual that half a century after his death, a Byzantine Christian would describe Muhammad as a ‘guide’ who had instructed Arabs in the Torah.”
This collegial spirit did not continue for long. The Jews were unlikely candidates for religious compromise. Wright describes the standard Muslim narrative for a falling out between Mohammed and the Jews.
“...the Jews resist Muhammad’s theological message, noting contradictions between their Bible and his teachings....Muhammad essentially gives up on Jewish conversion, and signals this turn in a stark change in ritual: Medina’s Muslims had been praying towards Jerusalem, but henceforth they will face by one, he expels the Jewish tribes from Medina, with the final ‘expulsion’ so bloody that it’s closer to annihilation.”
Wright believes this description overstates the theological tension between the two religions and may have been developed via oral tradition that evolved long after Mohammed’s death. While there could never be a union of the two, there were many subsequent examples where the Jews practiced their religion like any other faith under Muslim rule.

While Jewish prophets are often also formally considered prophets within Islam, Muslims do not view their religion as having developed out of Judaism.
“In the Koran’s scenario, Judeo-Christian theology was transmitted to the Jews and Christians by God and then to Muhammad by God. When God, in the Koran, tells Muhammad that he has ‘made it an Arabic Koran that ye may understand: And it is a transcript of the archetypal Book,’ the archetypal Book isn’t the Bible. Rather, the archetypal book is the word of God....of which the Bible is equally a ‘transcript.’ Muhammad didn’t get the Word via Moses. Rather, like Moses, he had a direct line to God.”
Wright believes that Christians may have been an even more tantalizing conversion target than the Jews. They were more numerous and more influential throughout the known world. Mohammed’s monotheism did not allow him to countenance a religion that professed a god who had a son. That would have opened up a can of worms for him with respect to other gods he was trying to supersede. Wright reminds us that at this time and this location, not all sects that were called Christian believed in the divinity of Jesus, so his attempts were not necessarily doomed to failure.

Consistent with Wright’s thesis that religions develop and evolve to meet men’s needs on earth, as the Muslims went from a meager sect to a religious and political force, to an empire, the need to associate itself with established religions dissipated. Jesus was left as a prophet and the Jews were treated as any other non-Muslim religion: if they paid their taxes they could practice their religion.


  1. "Arabs had assimilated the Hebrew writings into their cultural history long before Mohammed arrived on the scene"----not likely,the Arab Jews spoke Arabic.
    There used to be a Jewish kingdom in what is now Yemen---later became Christian....

  2. The Muslim religion in contrast to the Christian religion is also a political religion as is the Catholic religion. Christ didn't preach that at all. The Romans were in fear of Christ and what he taught because he professed to have a kingdom and would appear as a threat to Rome, but he actually said that his kingdom wasn't of this world which they apparently did not understand. World religions often incorporate a form of government so this is a huge difference than what Muslims and others preach.


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