The Three Abrahamic Faiths of the Middle East
The Three Abrahamic Faiths of the Middle East
By Stephanie Elaine Cavanaugh - http://stephaniecavanaugh.com
Religions and stories of gods and goddesses can be found throughout the history and evolution of humankind. They are woven into the very fabric of how humans understood, explained, and gave meaning to the world around them. Religion in the Middle East has been a huge sphere of influence throughout history. From a Pagan world of polytheistic worship grew the three Abrahamic faiths––Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Their birth and rise all have roots in the Middle East. Religion and faith are deep-rooted into the beliefs and values of many peoples; at times they have cemented strong bonds of unity and peace, while at others, they have been the foundation for conflict and divide. Today, Islam is the most dominant of the three in the Middle East and Jerusalem is a shared location of religious and historical importance.
Islam is the newest of the three Abrahamic faiths alive and thriving across the globe today. While it is the dominant faith across the Arab world, there is a common misconception that Muslims primarily reside in the Middle East. This is not true––the majority of Muslims are found in Asia, not the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. In many ways, the three Abrahamic faiths are built upon the foundations of one another, from Judaism to Christianity to Islam. It should then come as no surprise that there are many similarities between them––one of which are miracles. During the time of Moses, miracles were experienced by way of magic, during the time of Jesus, they were experienced through healing and exorcism, and during the time of Muhammad, miracles were experienced through sacred word and poetry (Aslan 2011). It was this man, Muhammad, who became the messenger of God and launched the new faith of his time: Islam.
Before the rise of these Abrahamic faiths, there was Zoroastrianism, a dying faith, but one still in practice by some 200,000 followers. Despite its dwindling following today, it greatly influenced the Abrahamic faiths during their infancy. Shared stories across all four religions, which began with Zoroastrianism are those of the three wise men, the North Star, and the birth of Jesus. The monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all trace their origins back to Abraham and present-day Iraq, and it is for this reason that they are coined the three Abrahamic faiths. The oldest of these is Judaism, estimated at around 3,500 years old; Yahweh is its God, and its holy book is the Tanakh.
Judaism is deeply rooted in Middle East history as well as in the history and emergence of monotheistic worship. Historically, Judaism as a practice stems from stories told as a means of instruction, which illustrated appropriate behavior and beliefs. These stories were later written by multiple scribes through the Torah, a holy book meaning Instruction in Hebrew. The purpose of the Torah was to disseminate the messages “set forth by God to Israel at Mount Sinai” (Neusner 2006, 18).
The Torah and its scripture are not unique to Judaism. They were later adopted as the Old Testament in Christianity and the Torah is the culmination of various stories that make up what is termed the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy (Neusner 2006, 19). To dive a bit deeper into the teachings found within the Torah, Neusner explains, “For Judaism, the Torah or Teaching sets forth the master narrative of the human condition. It is God’s story of who “we” (humanity, Israel) are” (Neusner 2006, 19). It is important to point out here that “Israel” in this context is not about a particular place, but rather a people, or the followers of the faith. The Torah speaks through stories that illustrate human progress, a progress that began with the creation story of Adam and Eve and progresses through the monotheistic worship of its followers––the birth of Israel.
Current Practices & Relations With Other Religions:
Judaism in practice contains five critical occasions of importance and celebration. These are the Passover Seder, the Days of Awe, Huppah, the private rite of marriage, and circumcision. The first two mark important occurrences in history, namely the celebration of Exodus and the freedom of Israelites in ancient Egypt, and the “synagogue rite that in the autumn marks the season of judgment, days of repentance, and atonement for sin” (Neusner 2006, 31). Neusner details that “each rite recapitulates a segment of the Judaic narrative sustained and framed by Scripture” and he goes on to explain that “the first defines the relationship between the community of Israel and God, the second, between the individual Israelite and God, the third between one Israelite and another and the fourth between the male Israelite and God through the rite of circumcision” (2006, 31). These practices are important because they have survived the test of time and are still very much alive and thriving practices in modern-day.
Judaism survived the challenges that came with the birth of Christianity (fourth-century) and the birth of Islam (seventh-century). It survived because of its resiliency and its adaptability to “new modes of thought”, which came to include philosophy and mysticism (Neusner 2006, 129-130). The ability to pivot, adjust, and adapt in the face of change is a critical component for survival, not only within religion but many other facets of life as well. In addition to openness toward “new modes of thought”, the “power to define the agenda of dissent” marked critical components in the long term survival and success of Judaism (Neusner 2006, 129-130).
Jerusalem is an important place for Judaism as well as for Christianity and Islam. It also serves as a present-day local where interactions between these three Abrahamic faiths can be observed. For Christians, Jerusalem marks the place of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection; for Muslims, the Dome of the Rock is said to be the place where Muhammad traveled into Heaven; and Jews believe the city of Jerusalem to be a holy city––a gift from God to them, and it is home to the Western (or Wailing) Wall in the Old City––all that survives of the Second Temple (Jerusalem: Three Religions, Three Families, 2015). It is in the small confines of the Old City that the three Abrahamic faiths live together, albeit in clearly delineated districts. The three faiths have lived in peace at times but at other times among tension, such as seen with Temple Mount as well as with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While in modern-day Jerusalem the three faiths may live side by side as neighbors and friends, there are lines often drawn, such as marriage across the faiths.
Objectives For The Future:
The future objectives of Judaism can be described in many ways as a continuing struggle to overcome exile and return. Judaism has largely been successful thus far due to its ability to answer the changing questions faced by its followers in a “self-evidently valid” manner (Neusner 2006, 130). The continued ability to persevere in the face of challenge is certainly important to the future success of Judaism. Neusner described Zionism as a political system rather than a religious one that “rejected the hope that the Jews could ever be secure in the gentile nations and proposed the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, where Jews in security could be Jewish and nothing else, for example, speaking Hebrew as their everyday language” (2006, 148-149). The struggle seen in today’s Israel is an important factor to look at when discussing the future of Judaism.
Unfortunately, in today’s Israel, peace between the religions seem a long way off. All are in many respects competing for the rights to the same land and it is in Judaism that the belief is engrained that the land belongs to the Jews as a gift from God. Yet, the primary theme behind religion is one of compassion, a theme that Karen Armstrong echoes a great deal. She also stated that within these three Abrahamic faiths, God “has inspired an ideal of social justice, even though it has to be said that Jews, Christians, and Muslims have often failed to live up to this ideal and have transformed him into the God of the status quo” (Armstrong 2011, Ch. 1). The future objectives of Judaism will largely depend on how it decides to interact with the Christians and Muslims in Israel and Palestine.
The historical foundations of Christianity are rather complex to untangle, but it can be seen with certainty that Christianity grew from the fabric of its predecessor, Judaism, and it was also heavily influenced by the Mediterranean world. The concept of the trinity (the father, son, and holy spirit) is unique to Christianity and set it apart from the Judaism and Zoroastrianism faiths which emerged before it. It was during the time between Christ (a Jew who would come to be known as the son of God) and Constantine that Christianity was born and as Humphries detailed, “Christianity evolved as a religion within the society of the ancient Mediterranean, heavily influenced by, but with very little capacity to shape, that society” (Humphries 2006, 11). It was from Jesus Christ that Christianity derived its name.
While these elements of historical Christianity are relatively clear, much of the details and facts of both early Christianity and that of the life of Jesus Christ himself, elude historians. Part of the challenge is that Christianity began with small groups of believers––small groups that were significantly more vulnerable to alienation and persecution by those in power (“From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians", 1998). Further, the very life of Jesus is difficult to ascertain because concrete accounts of his life by firsthand sources aren’t available; which left the life of Jesus to multiple later, and often conflicting, interpretations (“From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians", 1998). This lack of firsthand accounts created much debate, including the actual social class of Jesus (“From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians", 1998). Jesus as a peasant versus Jesus in a higher social class in a bustling city would vastly change the environmental influences which shaped his worldviews. It is also important to note that in this early history of Christianity, religion and politics were one, merged in a similar vein to its yet to be born Abrahamic descendent, Islam.
Christianity encountered many challenges during its rise, and it did not climb to the ranks as a major religion overnight, nor with the birth of Jesus. Humphries detailed that Christianity encountered significant “harassment from the imperial authorities even after Constantine’s conversion” (Humphries 2006, 11). Despite the challenges it faced, Christianity endured and solidified its beliefs. It eventually established organized institutions, churches, and its bible. But that was not the end of its challenges. The church faced what are called heresies (challenges), which included Gnosticism, Arianism, Monophysitism, and Bogomilism. Additionally, the enticing call of power and influence created conflict around the power of the Pope and birthed the great schism between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church that still lives on today.
Current Practices & Relations With Other Religions:
In modern times, Christianity has met additional challenges, and this has worked to reshape its current practices and its relations with other religions. Modernity led to new traditions within the church to accommodate the changing times. Modernity, Darwin, and scientific progress brought a desire for the separation of church and politics, as Christians no longer saw the political realm as the “will of God”, but instead as “a product of human endeavor” and this meant increased religious toleration (Wilson 1999, 67). Worship, as well as the ritual within the faith became more personal and less structured. Wilson described the shift as one that emerged more about the “ethical core” and religion became “a matter of personal choice, to be made according to the dictates of one’s own conscience” (Wilson 1999, 68). This added an element of freedom to the nature of worship and created a foundation conducive to a merger with the practices of other faiths.
The current practices of modern Christianity have also witnessed a distancing from the church in favor of deinstitutionalization and privatization, but not a decrease in faith itself (Wilson 1999, 100). The concepts of a white-bearded male God and the trinity are being replaced by ideas of a personal God that blurs lines with the other gods of other religious descriptions and in some cases, a non-gendered idea of God has taken root (Wilson 1999, 102). At its heart, Christianity holds to a belief in God, Jesus, life after death, angels and devils; but it’s the details that are changing (Wilson 1999, 106). The Christianity of modern-day is more personal and less structured to the stance of the church, the bible, and their traditional views. In addition, evangelical Christianity has seen a shift into three basic groups: the far-right fundamentalists, the far-left liberals, and the middle majority mediating between the extremes.
The interactions of Christianity with the other Abrahamic faiths can be seen to a large degree in Israel and Jerusalem, as this region is important to all three faiths. Jerusalem is the sacred home of the Wailing Wall, Jesus’ crucifixion, and the Dome of the Rock. Christians in Jerusalem live, to a large degree, in peace with Jews and Muslims. However, the city also serves as a place of freedom and safety as Christians in much of the Middle East are minority groups who are often persecuted. One Christian living in Israel noted that Israel provided freedom of speech, movement, and religion; but stated, “we have our Christian brothers and sisters from our same faith in Syria and in Lebanon and in Iraq and in Egypt [who] are persecuted because they are Christians” (“Being a Christian in the Middle East - YouTube” 2016). However, Israel has its own sets of challenges and conflicts across the three monotheistic faiths living there, namely the Israeli-Palestinian conflict still in the throws today and peace in the region, across the faiths, doesn’t appear to be coming anytime soon.
Objectives For The Future:
How Christianity itself, as well as its objectives and goals, will evolve in the future cannot be said with certainty. However, Christianity is more global and personal now more than ever before and this will be an influencing factor in its future challenges and successes. How the future of Christianity plays out will to some degree depend on the “evolving relationship between Western and non-Western Christians” as, even in the wake of decolonization, Westerners continue to maintain their influence over non-Westerners and therefore “to a certain degree control the destinies of non-Western Christianities” (Wilson 1999, 95-97). But the West is also becoming more and more secularized and this will also impact future objectives within the faith. Wilson arrived at an important point on the subject of Christianity and its future when he stated: “faced with the competition of another rapidly globalizing worldview––modernity––the Christian tradition will finally be forced to embrace diversity, not flee from it” (1999, 98).
Christianity is a fluid faith in the sense that it adapts to the changes and challenges that modernity and changing times bring. There is no reason to think this will not be the case in the future. This could perhaps mean a more “permanent eclipse of institutional Christianity in the West” but perhaps not (Wilson 1999, 114). Much like Christians of the past could not have predicted modernity and the changes it would bring, Christians of the present would be hard-pressed to predict all that the future will bring and the changes and challenges yet to face Christianity, let alone how it might adapt to them. But the key is in its ability to adapt and the desire by followers of the faith for Christianity to survive. Survival and adaptation are at the root of Christianity’s future goals and objectives.
The birth of Islam goes back in history to the days of Muhammad, the city of Mecca, and an environment in the midst of transformation. This transformation was a fundamental shift in values––from a value on tribal wellbeing to a value on personal wealth; and it birthed new conflict and a deepened class divide (Armstrong 2011). Muhammad was a young man in Mecca who was keenly aware of this shift, the growing divide it caused, and he was deeply troubled by pain it caused the underprivileged within the community. Muhammad himself felt connected to the outcasts (including the lowly status of women), the orphans, and the poor. Having himself been orphaned at a young age, he understood their pain, while at the same time seeing the materialistic ways of merchant life in the new bustling commercial city. It is said that around Muhammad’s 40th year, he was visited by the angel Gabriel who bore into him a message from God. It was this event that launched Muhammad into his new calling––as a Prophet and messenger of God––the very same God of Christianity and Judaism.
Islam initially faced plenty of challenges and was nearly squashed out of existence on more than one occasion. It began with Muhammad and a very small band of followers who were persecuted by the ruling Quraysh tribe; a tribe to which Muhammad himself had been tied. The Quraysh felt threatened by a potential loss of power and status brought on by the teachings of Muhammad. But it was in the hijra, or journey to Yathrib (Medina) that the fate of Muhammad and his followers changed, and Islam was born. In Yathrib, Muhammad emerged as the leader of both the political and religious combined––and gained a significant following that continued to grow.
Another challenge came in the battle of Uhud. In this battle, the Quraysh defeated Muhammad and his followers, which was a devastating and crushing blow to their morale (Aslan 2011). But Muhammad and his followers eventually prevailed, and the faith continued to grow and spread throughout the lands. Another challenge to Islam came with Muhammad’s death: no clear instruction on who should succeed him was in place and it spawned a succession dispute still alive today. This dispute launched the Sunni/Shi’a split––two sects alive and thriving within modern-day Islam. Regardless of the challenges and succession disputes, Islam expanded and grew into one of the world’s major religions. This launched both Muhammad and Islam into a prominent place in history. The resounding message set forth from Muhammad was one of compassion––one that greatly improved the wellbeing of the vulnerable and the poor. As Karen Armstrong described, “In practical terms, Islam meant that Muslims had a duty to create a just, equitable society where the poor and vulnerable are treated decently” (Armstrong 2011). This message has, at various times in its history, become clouded or misconstrued, but at its origins and its core, it is a faith-based on kindness.
Current Practices & Relations With Other Religions:
Within Islam, there are a variety of deeply engrained practices and beliefs, many of which are in a similar vein to those of Judaism and Christianity. There are five core beliefs held in the Islamic faith: belief in God, prophethood, God’s justice, imams, and judgment day. Additionally, there are five pillars within Islam: Shahadah (submission to God), Salat (prayer, five times daily), Zakat (paying charity for the poor), Sawm (fasting through Ramadan), and Hajj (a once in the lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca). Judaism and Christianity both share similar practices through prayer, fasting, and charitable contribution. Aslan highlights that in some respects, the Shahadah can be viewed as the one pillar based on belief, while the other four pillars act as actions of support for that belief (Aslan 2011). Shahadah is viewed as the most critical of the five pillars and as the primary criteria for being Muslim. Aslan goes on to highlight that “the primary purpose of the Five Pillars is to assist the believer in articulating, through actions, his or her membership in the Muslim community” (Aslan 2011).
There are also two significant concepts within Islam: tawhid and shirk. Neither is easy to define concepts but in general terms, tawhid essentially speaks to the unity between God and creation and is a core foundation of the faith (Aslan 2011). Shirk, on the other hand, is in many ways the opposite of tawhid and is viewed as the worst of sins in Islam. Aslan notes that “for Muslims, the Trinity is shirk, for God is nothing if not Unity” and goes on to explain that “any attempt to anthropomorphize God by endowing the Divine with human attributes, thereby limiting or restricting God’s dominion, could be shirk” (Aslan 2011). This illustrates some of the friction between Islam and Christianity. However, Islam is in general respectful toward the beliefs of Christians and Jews as they are both of the book, but there are unfortunately also areas where the relationships between the faiths are less peaceful, where minority groups are persecuted as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Objectives For The Future:
As with the other faiths, the primary objective when it comes to Islam and its future is survival. This means understanding and meeting new challenges and learning how to adapt to changing times. As Aslan outlines, across its history, Islam has seen a variety of challenges and “ruptures”, including the Prophet Muhamad’s death, transformation into an empire, European conflict and the Crusades, the influence of colonialism, and the Caliphate’s demise (Aslan 2011). Yet, as he points out, “no previous rupture has had a greater impact on Islam’s evolution, or so thoroughly breached the Ulama’s bond with the past, than the Muslim encounter with modernity and globalization” (Aslan 2011). Modernity and globalism are critical factors of influence when it comes to Islam’s objectives for the future.
What Islam is witnessing in its shift into a modern and globalized arena, ripe with technology, is a loss of the presence of single authority. Further, technology has opened the doors to new and mass translations of the Quran. This has created an environment fertile to a plethora of self-proclaimed authorities, all offering their own interpretations and sharing them in an online capacity where they can gain a global following. This has kickstarted a shift away from global unity and toward the individual Muslim––a story with some similarity to Muhammad’s time when Mecca shifted focus from tribal wellbeing to the individual. As with other religions, modernity and globalization have created both positives and negatives, but perhaps more so for Islam given its structure.
Some “authorities” use their interpretations and tools of influence for good and others use it for power and control. Aslan explained that some people have used “radical creed to develop wholly new interpretations of Islam that foster pluralism, individualism, modernism, and democracy”, while “others have used it to propound an equally new ideal of Islam that calls for intolerance, bigotry, militancy, and perpetual war” (Aslan 2011). This duality falls at the heart of Islam’s future objectives, and how Islam’s future will unfold will have a great deal to do with which message drowns out the other. By far, the loudest voices in Islam are ones of peace, kindness, and compassion––of the same nature that Muhammad voiced. The key to its future will be in its ability to adapt to a changing world and unforeseen upcoming shifts and technologies.
What all three of the Abrahamic faiths in the Middle East share are their foundations, much of their history, and their struggle for survival in an ever-changing modern world; constantly shedding old skin to make way for new challenges, ideas, values, and technologies. How each faith fares in the future will depend, to a large extent, on their adaptability and a willingness to face currently unimaginable challenges.
When it comes to Judaism, Neusner summed it up well when he said, “Here we end where we began: Israel in exile from the Land, like Adam in exile from Eden” (2006, 25). This points to the heart of the driving force within Judaism. With the Torah and the messages found within it, Israel can choose a different path from that of Adam and Eve: “Israel came into existence in the aftermath of the failure of Creation with the fall of humankind and their ultimate near-extinction; in the restoration that followed the Flood, God identified Abraham to found in the Land, the new Eden, to realize his will in creating the world” (Neusner 2006, 25). How Judaism decides to interact with the other Abrahamic faiths, Palestine, the Middle East, and the world in its attempt to accomplish such a goal will largely impact whether the future of the region is a peaceful one or a scene of conflict and violence across the faiths––and Palestine is where it will all play out.
Christianity grew from the fabric of Judaism and the influence of the Mediterranean world. It has a long but elusive history where much remains shrouded in mystery. Over time, it has successfully spread across the globe and adapted to the challenges of the modern world. No one can predict its future with certainty, but survival and adaptability are at its core. Science, rationalism, globalization, and modernity will certainly play a part.
Islam has a great deal of history and a great track record of overcoming obstacles and challenges. In the Western media, it is often portrayed in a negative and violent light, too often in a storyline of Islam versus the West. But Aslan did well to highlight that what is happening in modern-day Islam is not some battle with the West, as various news outlets might suggest, but rather it’s “an internal conflict between Muslims” and “the West is merely a bystander—an unwary yet complicit casualty of a rivalry that is raging in Islam over who will write the next chapter in its story” (Aslan 2011). Regardless, adaptability in an ever-changing world is key to its survival.
It is of paramount importance that all three faiths remember their underlying themes of compassion, treat each other with respect, and work to better educate an oftentimes misinformed public to dispel stereotypes, biases, and discrimination.
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Armstrong, Karen. 2011. A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. New York: Ballantine Books.
Aslan, Reza. 2011. No God but God (Updated Edition) : The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. New York: Random House, Inc.
“Being a Christian in the Middle East - YouTube.” 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=62&v=zlWKzNDmDFI.
“From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians | Watch S16 E10 | Frontline | PBS | Official Site.” 1998. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/showsreligion/.
Jerusalem: Three Religions, Three Families | Faith Matters. 2015. DW News. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3inhQffPlAI.
Humphries, Mark. 2006. Early Christianity. Classical Foundations. London: Routledge.
Neusner, Jacob. 2006. Judaism: The Basics. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.
Wilson, Brian C. 1999. Christianity. Religions of the World. London: Taylor & Francis Routledge.
About the Author:
Stephanie Elaine Cavanaugh is a writer, podcaster, artist, and nonprofit operations director. She currently resides in Houston, Texas, where she works to help the local refugee community and the general population navigate the job search arena. She is currently working toward a degree in Middle Eastern studies.
Interests, ever-evolving: photography, painting, art, science, medicine, astronomy, yoga, travel, the world, culture, language, education, politics, women's rights, human rights.