Friday, October 24, 2008

Muslims Christians Jews share faith ancestors

I have planned for quite a while to have a set of commentaries and tutorials on this subject. Here is a quick introduction to the topic, just so I can get the idea in front of all of you, before writing more detailed comments at a future date.

I use the term "faith history" to refer to sequence of historic events that are described in the Torah, Bible (Old and New Testament), and Qur'an that document encounters between God and those he chose for revelation. By God I mean the one true God as he revealed himself in scriptural events. This is not to say that God has not touched and influenced those who are not Muslims, Christians or Jews. However, the Jewish and Christian Bibles and the Qur'an are the only works that document the historical events and the spiritual teachings as God himself chose to present them to humans. Other faiths, particularly those that are polytheistic or pagan, are based on humans speculating upon spiritual and philosophical questions of being, which are valid, and their responses, such as understanding that the Deity has love and mercy, can be said to be authentically inspired. However, it is only the Jewish and Christian Bibles and the Qur'an that are what we call "the revealed word of God." Jews, Christians and Muslims agree that God reveals what he wants and to whom he wants, and that "insight" into God cannot be made up or forced by humans, only freely given by God as he pleases.

The Jewish sacred books, which are preserved in the Christian Bible, particularly the Catholic Bible which retains books that the Reformation discarded from the Jewish and Catholic consensus, document the genealogy of faith history in addition to God's instructions and law. In other words, the Jewish sacred books document actual people, geographic places, historic events, calendar dates and cultural activities. In that way it is like the ultimate family photo album and diary going back many generations, except there are no paintings or photographs of course. But what was important was to record those who "witnessed" to the Biblical events, in other words, the participants and their relationships. I have written about the God given concept of "witnessing" in previous posts, explaining that God gave to humans instructions how to agree as to the truthfulness of a matter and how to make honorable agreements among each other. That is called "witnessing." This is why the Bible is sometimes full of lists of names of people who lists of offspring for many generations, yet are never mentioned again in the Bible. The point is not like in modern times where the actors are being introduced before a play where they have action, even bit parts. The point is that for centuries the Bible authors carefully recorded the names of everyone who "was there." That was their way of assuring those who would read the scriptures in future generations of the many people who "witnessed" all that happened. So when you reach those parts in the Bible where this man begot that son who had that son, or when the king was accompanied by this attendant and that attendant, the point should be when you read it that you realize that all of these people actually lived and witnessed the monumental events in faith history. It was an automatic, God given cultural and religious good habit of inscribing along with the events the name of every person who was in attendance or related to participants (including simply being in their lineage). This was, in a sense, how the ancient Israelites gave what Catholics call an imprimatur, which is an authentication of the sacred writing. Ancient Israelites documented the lineages and attendees of all participants and observers of faith history, and thus many faceless names come down through the ages in the sacred scripture. Some who are faith skeptics misunderstand this practice, saying, "Why would 'a God' want long lists of people's genealogies? Surely this means it is not sacred scripture given by God." But actually, the opposite is true; the lineages and detailed recording of actual people's names, even if they "play no role" is validation of the authenticity of the events in the Bible, since those people were there and "witnessed" whatever was there to witness. This is why the Bible is entirely inspired by God, even when, and even especially when, such prosaic information is recorded and retained. It is the prosaic, the real that is recorded, generation after generation, that distinguishes the Jewish and Christian Bibles from mythologies and story telling.

Here is my first important point about what I will write more about in the future. Muslims, through the Qur'an, authentically share in and are "invested" in all of the same personages that are recorded in the Jewish and Christian Bibles. This is because the Qur'an not only contains the names of many of the key faith history patriarchs, prophets and companions, but also, albeit in very summarized form, mention events that are described in more detail in the Bible. Using my family diary and photo album analogy, think of three families who live in separate parts of the country, and each have a family diary and photo album that has been passed down in their family through the generations. If they get together and compare their albums and diaries, this is what they may find.

1) The Jewish family has the incredibly detailed family history from the common ancestors, Adam and Eve, up until a few centuries before the birth of Christ. If anyone wants to know anything about anyone during that time, boy can they find that information in their diary. However, a few ancestors "went off on their own" and not much is known about them. And the diary stops as the Israelites are occupied by foreign pagan forces, like I said, a few centuries before Christ.

2) The Christian family actually has all of the same diary and album as does the Jewish family, though they don't look through it all that often, the older parts, though they value it highly. Instead the love to look through their diary and album that starts with the birth of Jesus Christ and ends with the Book of Revelation as written by St. John. The Christian family has kind of forgotten how to understand much of what they have in the older part, the Jewish part, of their family diary. But they keep it all together and highly value it, even if they no longer understand some of the older portions of it.

3) The Muslim family has a diary and album that was written six hundred years after Jesus Christ, but even though it was not kept as a diary through the ages, comparing it to the Jewish and Christian families, they find that theirs start with Adam and Eve just the same as the others and has most of the most well known ancestors mentioned and revered. So the Muslims point to all the ancestors they share in common, Adam, Job, David, Abel, Aaron, Abraham, Elias, Isaac, Ishmael, Jesus, the Archangel Gabriel, Cain, Lot, the Archangel Michael, Moses, Noah, Solomon, Saul, Ezra, John the Baptist, Jacob, Jonah, Joseph, Zacharias and Mary. If, during this family get together, there is plenty of time, the Jewish and Christian families can tell the Muslim family many details of events from the lives of those shared ancestors, since they are speaking of the same people. In return, the Muslims can tell the Jewish people what happened to that ancestor who went off on his own, Ismael.

There is no doctrinal or theological difficulty in that exercise since the exact same people are described in all three families' sacred history. There is no problem with doctrine in sharing stories that describe the events that took place with the people that every one agrees they share in common. For example, if I was sitting around with some Muslim friends who had not read the Bible, I could tell them a story of what happened when two sons of Jacob sought vengeance because their sister had been dishonored, and I know that the events in that matter would totally resonate with my Muslim friends. It is a historical event within a sacred context, thus there is no theological difference or difficulty in sharing that information. Likewise, the Muslims can give to the Christian family some very sweet information about words that the baby Jesus spoke that are not recorded in the Bible. (I've posted about that before).

So there is enormous fruitful collaboration and enjoyable information if the three faiths, all descended from our common father, Abraham, compared the "historic" events in their respective sacred books, in order to make those people come alive in the minds of us, their spiritual descendants. I'd love to tell Muslims all about Moses, for example. And they have insights about figures such as Solomon. It is all good and it is all in agreement. It is the same information but like I said, it is like three families who have been apart and thus have different pieces of the puzzle of the same shared family members and ancestors. What God gave the Muslims was kind of a crash course in putting together their family album, so this is why one modest size book of scripture was given to one man, the Prophet (PBUH), yet it spans the same generations, the same ancestry and the same belief in the same God as the books that were compiled as the events happened, over the centuries, by the Jewish scribes and the Christian disciples.

I have a second quick point to make. Much has to be written on it, but let me touch on it so you can start to think about it in the correct way. Many misunderstand a section in the Qur'an, in Surah 2:132-135 where it is stated that Jacob, Abraham, Ismail and Isaac are Muslims, and that they deny being Christians or Jews. As a result, this entire section is often a great stumbling block to all three faiths, thinking that this is a repudiation of each other's faith history. That is actually an incorrect reading.

Here is the meaning. The Chosen People became the Israelites, and that is who they are, the ancestors of the Jews. But they are not "Jewish" until they are given the Law, which is what happened after the time of the Patriarchs, who are in that list in the Surah, since the Law is given to Moses after the Exodus from Egypt. So God is telling the Muslims that the Jews cannot claim the Patriarchs as being "exclusively" theirs. Likewise God is telling the Muslims that the Christians cannot claim the Patriarchs as being "exclusively" theirs either. God is telling the Muslims that their ancestors are the Patriarchs too, and that the Patriarchs are not confined to being "Jewish" or "Christian." You have to read the whole section to really let what I am saying sink in, especially since so many generations have misunderstood this section and God's intention. Remember, God's intention was to find the lost flock, which was the Muslims, those of Ismail. They were living among pagans and did not possess a book that recorded their own history, and so God restored to them their lost lineage. So God gave the words to the Patriarchs where they state that they "are Muslims" in order to restore the lineage and provide spiritual solidarity. Then God told the Muslims of events that took place and structures that were built by the Patriarchs, such as Abraham, that are not recorded in the Bible but are of geographic and thus spiritual importance to the people who would become the Muslims, as they restored the knowledge of where Abraham had been and worshipped. This is the origin of the sacred places in Saudi Arabia.

I'll write more about this sometime, I'm sure, but it has chaffed at me for some time how people have misunderstood this scripture (I use the word scripture generically, but to use the Muslim term, this revelation). It has not chaffed me with annoyance since it is obviously one of the more difficult things to understand regarding God's intention and point of view in making that particular revelation. Rather, I've been chaffed with pity and sorrow for those who felt disenfranchised and worse, hostile, over a statement that was expanding inclusiveness, and not being exclusive at all. God is saying to the Muslims, do not believe if Jews or the Christians claim that the Patriarchs are theirs alone, for they are not, they are Muslims "also." But obviously the Patriarchs were not exclusively any of the three, they were not only Jewish, only Christian, or only Muslim. The Patriarchs were the Patriarchs, the Chosen, the Israelites. They belong to everyone, but not exclusively to only one. That is the meaning of that whole section of revelation in the Qur'an.

To use a contemporary secular example, many remember when the USA President John F. Kennedy went to Berlin in the 1960's and said in his Boston accented German, "Ich bin ein Berliner." Obviously JFK was not saying that he was a German speaking German resident of Berlin! He was making a statement of solidarity in a way that is still quoted to as recently as in the past week. Likewise, God gave the Patriarchs' statement of solidarity to the people who would be their faith descendants, the Muslims, and told them to not permit Jews and Christians to claim that the Patriarchs are only their own. Both sides have misunderstood this however, as being exclusionary rather than the ultimate expression of inclusion.

I really hope this helps and look forward to further discussions. Best wishes to all of you who will be participating in Rome at the Vatican.