Abra­ham: A Jour­ney to the Heart of Three Faiths

Bruce Feil­er
  • Review
By – November 7, 2011

Extra-ter­res­tri­als inter­est­ed in explor­ing plan­et earth may want to skip the long jour­ney across the solar sys­tem and sim­ply order Bruce Feiler’s col­lect­ed works from Ama​zon​.com. Feil­er has made a career out of explain­ing the world’s cul­tures and sub­cul­tures to his read­ers. He has explored a strange and scin­til­lat­ing vari­ety of places, from mod­ern day Japan to the cir­cus, from the rar­efied halls of Oxford to the sub­ur­ban-hill­bil­ly col­li­sion of the coun­try music indus­try in Nashville, Ten­nessee. In last year’s best-sell­ing Walk­ing the Bible, Feil­er trav­eled to the sites through­out the Mid­dle East where the sem­i­nal events of the Bible took place. What start­ed out as a jour­ney through antiq­ui­ty ulti­mate­ly turned into a jour­ney inward, and in the end, the author’s faith in God, and his sense of his own Judaism, under­went a pro­found rev­o­lu­tion.

Spurred on by the con­flict in the Mid­dle East, and in par­tic­u­lar by its rever­ber­a­tions in his home­town of New York, Feil­er has gone back to the Bible in his lat­est book, Abra­ham. Part biog­ra­phy, part trav­el­ogue, and part bib­li­cal exe­ge­sis, the book fol­lows Feil­er as he tries to uncov­er who Abra­ham was, how he is per­ceived by Jews, Chris­tians, and Mus­lims today, and whether or not he can serve as a uni­fy­ing fig­ure for his feud­ing descen­dants. 

Feil­er begins by exam­in­ing the great texts of all three reli­gions. Based on what he learned in Sun­day School, he’s expect­ing the bib­li­cal Abra­ham to be a wise, benev­o­lent fig­ure. But instead he finds a com­pli­cat­ed and ambigu­ous man. Abra­ham aban­dons his first son, Ish­mael, to the desert. He binds his sec­ond son, Isaac, to a rock, and appears ready to stab him to death at God’s com­mand (Mus­lims believe it was Ish­mael who was tied to the rock). Abra­ham,” Feil­er writes, “…is not just a gen­tle­man of peace. He’s as much a mod­el for fanati­cism as he is for mod­er­a­tion. He nur­tured in his very behav­ior – in his con­vic­tion to break from his father, in his will­ing­ness to ter­ror­ize both of his sons – the inti­mate con­nec­tion between faith and vio­lence.” 

As Feil­er moves from the Bible and the Koran to the oral and legal tra­di­tions that devel­oped out of them, he dis­cov­ers that under­stand­ing Abra­ham becomes even more com­pli­cat­ed over time because all three reli­gions have con­stant­ly rein­vent­ed him to suit their own reli­gious and polit­i­cal needs. The Jews were the first to do this – after the Romans destroyed the Sec­ond Tem­ple in 70 C.E., the need­ed a sym­bol­ic fig­ure to help them resist new pres­sures to con­vert. They began twist­ing the orig­i­nal bib­li­cal mes­sage of inclu­sive­ness and claim­ing that Abra­ham was their fore­fa­ther and theirs alone. Chris­tians and Mus­lims fol­lowed suit. Even­tu­al­ly, any real sense of Abra­ham as a com­mon father was lost. 

Feil­er has as much of Mar­co Polo as DeTo­queville in him, and after study­ing the texts, he hits the road. He trav­els across Amer­i­ca and the Mid­dle East, meet­ing with schol­ars and cler­ics, politi­cians and priests, try­ing to find out how the dif­fer­ent reli­gions think and feel about Abra­ham today. He turns up some par­tic­u­lar­ly fas­ci­nat­ing and rev­e­la­to­ry infor­ma­tion when he meets with lead­ers of the mod­ern inter-faith move­ment. Sev­er­al of these schol­ars sug­gest that around two-thirds of Jews, half of Chris­tians, and a third of Mus­lims believe that all three faiths are equal. The rest believe that every­one should con­vert and fol­low their reli­gion. Sheikh Abdul Rauf, who heads a mosque in New York, claims that most Mus­lims still adhere to this tri­umphant doc­trine because they haven’t had the edu­ca­tion or eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ty to under­stand and embrace the ideas of plu­ral­ism and coex­is­tence. This is a pow­er­ful and con­vinc­ing way to under­stand the strug­gle going on today, and sug­gests that social and eco­nom­ic progress in the Mid­dle East may be the only long-term solu­tion. 

Near the end of his jour­ney, Feil­er meets with a fire­brand Mus­lim cler­ic in Jerusalem named Sheikh Abu Sneina. After a some­what hos­tile recep­tion and repeat­ed failed efforts to find com­mon ground, the Sheikh sud­den­ly says, If we look beyond the details, which we may dis­agree about, and fol­low the prin­ci­ples of Abra­ham – truth, moral­i­ty, and coex­is­tence – then most of our prob­lems will dis­ap­pear.”

This is a stun­ning and hope­ful moment. Abu Sneina is one of the most vocal and impor­tant Imams in the Mid­dle East. If he thinks Jews, Chris­tians, and Mus­lims can get along by fol­low­ing the exam­ple of Abra­ham, it sug­gests there is a path open to rec­on­cil­i­a­tion between the three faiths, and that our com­mon link to Abra­ham can start us on the path. 

Feil­er has found an Abra­ham that can be brought back, recre­at­ed in a sense, to res­cue us from modernity’s eth­no-reli­gious morass. This Abra­ham is in cer­tain parts of the bible and the Koran, and also in the hearts of the world’s reli­gious thinkers and lead­ers. Feil­er also invents this Abra­ham to some degree him­self, which adds to the impor­tance of his work. It is not just a pow­er­ful piece of report­ing, it is also a propo­si­tion, mod­est­ly put forth, that we unite behind our com­mon father. 

As for Abra­ham the book, it is an irre­sistible page-turn­er. Any­one inter­est­ed in going on the dif­fi­cult jour­ney of chal­leng­ing their notions about the cur­rent con­flict will both enjoy it, and be changed by it. 

Discussion Questions