I love the Islamic depiction of Abraham. Though the Christian tradition portrayed him as so sure and certain, I had come to know Abraham through my prayer and meditation as a figure that struggled perpetually to find the Truth. One who wrestled and agonized, who God continued to challenge throughout his life.
“Get out of your country, from your family, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you.” is the beginning of God’s promise to Abram in Genesis 12. This pushes him to continue to spend his life in that space in between… finding solace in neither This- not yet knowing where That is, he must negotiate a space somewhere in the middle. Though he loved his father dearly, he could not abide with the idolatry that was not only a part of his society, but had put food in his belly and a roof over his head all of his life. He literally becomes a voice in the wilderness- leaving his family and society behind to go find God.
The rest of the promise in Genesis 12 is that of making him a great nation. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, beginning the story of Abraham with this great promise lays a foundation of certainty. Yet though the promise gave him the strength and courage to leave behind his home and family, surely he wrestled with it. The idea of him puffing his chest out with pride and arrogant assurance, pushing the villagers aside as he set off to establish a nation is absurd.
He left with a heavy heart. The Qur’an tells us in many places of how he continued to pray for his father over the years.
The Qur’anic depiction in Al-An’am beginning at 6:74 of Abraham’s leaving home and beginning his search in the desert is so poignant, so tender and human. There were likely many who did not believe in the idols, who saw the vanity of the practice, but did not act upon it. In acting in line with his convictions–despite the social consequences–Abraham is shown the Kingdom of Heaven and Earth. The veils are dropped from his eyes so that his heart would be strengthened.
There is the certainty of knowing that the idols are false, but when darkness falls, he searches for light- only to be disappointed when faced with the temporal nature of the stars. His repulsion for that which sets sends him to expand his search- to look beyond, to look under, to find that which is bigger. He turns to the moon, only to realize that he’s made the same mistake. “Surely if You do not guide me I will be of those who go astray” he calls to God. The search and the struggle of the search help him build his relationship with God. Each verse indicates hours and days watching, questioning, nights awake searching the heavens. Questions, answers, questioning the answers…
Though frightened and unsure, Abraham pressed on. He left all he’d ever known–the physical “certainties”–to search for something that existed only in his heart. He was scared, but still he went. This is what makes Abraham so inspiring as a religious character, and so prescient as a role model. This is where his faith and bravery lies: though he was scared, still he followed. Though he had no physical proof, still he had faith in that to which his heart alone attested. Though his mind fluttered and whirred, still he did not leave the tree that had sprouted from the convictions of his heart. Each time his mind returned to the branch, the tree strengthened, the roots deepened, and he was brought closer to God.
Abraham’s relationship to God is marked by great sacrifices: to ask a tribal desert-dweller to leave their family and society is worse than death. Indeed, what makes Abraham’s story so relevant to our lives today is that even now we still find this to be a terribly frightening prospect. We define ourselves by our families, our culture, our geography, our language, our food, the religious practice we were raised with… Abraham left all of these things and embarked on a unique path. He would not lose that rugged individualism and continued to live and act in ways that were far from the societal norms, but were in alignment with the convictions of his heart, and his relationship with his Creator. Abraham shows us that questioning does not necessarily mean the dissection and death of faith, but is rather the basis and edification of True faith.
In working with Muslim immigrant families while living in The Netherlands, I saw these children and youth- who others saw as caught between two worlds- as living in Abrahamic Space. Little did I know at the time that 5 times a day they asked God to help them follow the Path of Abraham as part of their daily prayers. I often wonder if Muslims ever think about what that really means… to leave not only your country, but your father’s house… to wander in the desert-exposed to every danger imaginable- in order to find God.
I wonder how many believers of any faith think about the amount of questioning Abraham engaged in to become so close to God… If we really consider the magnitude of the actions that he took as a result of the answers he received… If we ever wonder how religions founded by someone so unique, intellectually curious, and individualistic could become so rigidly conformist and anti-intellectual… how we could ever come to fear that space in between- that Abrahamic Space of the Middle Way.