Noted Religious Scholar Firestone Discusses Religious Similarities

Rabbi Dr. Reuven Firestone has an extensive list of qualifications in both the religious and academic realms. He is a Professor of Medieval Jewish Studies currently teaching at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Additionally, Firestone is a senior fellow of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California, co-director of the Center for Muslim Jewish Engagement and has been awarded several research fellowships at universities around the world including at the American University of Cairo. Firestone has also written seven books on the relationship between Judaism and Islam, including: Who Are the Real Chosen People?: The meaning of Chosenness in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and Journeys in Holy Lands: The Evolution of the Abraham-Ishmael Legends in Islamic Exegesis. On Tuesday, March 24, Firestone came to Colgate to give a lecture on Abraham in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim religions.

“Don’t believe anything I tell you,” Firestone said as he took the podium in the Perrson Hall auditorium. “You can’t really trust me because my purpose here is to force you to see my perspective and in any case I might be entirely wrong.”

With that warning in mind, Firestone continued, using excerpts from the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Qur’an, to show how Abraham fits into all three religions. Abraham was, in all three religious faiths, the first person who had a personal and lasting relationship with God, which makes him an incredibly important figure. In addition, he is the prophet from whom all other faithful people of these religions are said to descend. In all three texts this relationship — characterized by God commanding Abraham, Abraham following the wishes of God and finally God making a covenant to protect Abraham’s people if they follow God — is similar.

The key difference that Firestone cited as separating the Abraham of Judaism, Christianity and Islam lies in the interpretation of one word in each. In the Hebrew Bible, Abraham has a belief in the God he sees, in the Christian Bible he has faith in God and in the Qur’an he is submissive before God.

“They are definitely not the same Abraham because each is the embodiment of a different religious paradigm,” Firestone said.

Thus, Abraham has the same purpose in each religion but by no means the same message. The way this prophet interacts with his God determines how followers function in that religion. The Jewish Abraham believes that his good deeds will reward him in his life, the Christian Abraham has faith that he will be rewarded in the afterlife, and the Muslim Abraham submits himself to the God above all other idols and false gods.

What makes Abraham so important that a small variation in terminology leads to an utterly different interpretation and three vastly different religious beliefs? According to Firestone, the answer lies in a process that has been going on since humanity conceived of religion and continues to occur every day.

“We have seen thousands of new religions spring up in our lifetimes, and what happens to most of these?” Firestone asked the audience. “They fail because established religions that preach monotheism must hold fast to the notion that the ‘true’ God and ‘true’ message are infallible. So those established religions are always seeking to destroy new religious movements.”

If a new religion is to succeed, it must demonstrate authenticity by incorporating ideas that have proven successful in other religions.

“Abraham represents the ultimate religious person,” Firestone said. “He is the very definition of monotheism.”

So it is only natural that the new Christians took the idea of Abraham from the Hebrew Bible and used him to enforce their own ideas about faith in Christ. In this way, they kept their religion alive in the face of the established Jewish and pagan religions that were attempting to destroy Christianity. Islam underwent a similar process in its attempt to preach its doctrine of submission to God and survive in the face of the pre-existing religions of Christianity and Judaism.

Audience members expressed their appreciation of Firestone’s perspective.

“It was wonderful to have the opportunity to study with Dr. Firestone,” Colgate Associate University Chaplain and Director of Jewish Life Rabbi David Levy said. “It was both enlightening and encouraging to learn about three major faiths’ approach to our shared patriarch.”

Levy concluded that it is indeed remarkable to study how three religions whose influence is so wide and powerful can all pay heed to one figure, Abraham, for their existence and their very survival.