During the next month, Muslims and Jews throughout the world will celebrate a transformative moment in the life of Abraham, whom both traditions see as their most ancient sage and teacher.
The story begins with God calling “Abraham,” who answers, “Here I am!” He remains steadfast in deep faith even when God tests him by telling him to sacrifice his beloved son. But when the terrible moment is actually upon them, God's messenger calls “Abraham -- -- ABRAHAM!” Why twice? Because Abraham had committed himself so deeply to do what gave him great pain that he did not stop the knife from falling until God called again.
This was the moment of transformation that both traditions celebrate as the birthing of their vision. And it teaches us that today, even in a dangerous moment in the history of America and of our Mother Earth, even when some of our leaders are bringing down the knife upon our children and grandchildren, we the People can still turn our ears and our hearts to hearing the Voice of justice and compassion. And transform our future.
Muslims will honor this story beginning the evening of August 21, with Eid al-Adha -- Festival of the Offering -- in which the key element is sharing food with the poor, in memory of Abraham’s offering of a ram as a substitute for his son. Jews will honor it beginning the evening of September 9 till the evening of September 11, with Rosh Hashanah, by reading in the Torah the stories of Abraham’s relationships with his two sons -- stories of danger and pain that end in survival and success.
The ancient tale -- as often happens in a family remembering some crucial moment in their history – takes on different versions in the two traditions, and in Christianity as well. Many Jews, Christians, and Muslims have focused on the differences as a source of enmity. I have had the joyful opportunity to work with an extraordinary Christian leader and an extraordinary Muslim leader to weave together the different versions -- not ignoring the differences, but seeing them as complementary teachings of different spiritual truths.
We turned that effort into a book published by Beacon Press, The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
My comrades in that effort were Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, a Roman Catholic feminist, working toward the transformation of her own tradition and community – and Murshid Saadi Shakur Chishti (Dr Neil Douglas-Klotz), a Sufi Muslim teacher of the Aramaic spirituality and culture that gave birth to Rabbinic Judaism and to Christianity. Around each of these teachers has grown up a world-wide community of spiritual searchers.
Each of us wrote ten essays on how and what we learn from the whole saga of Abraham’s family as it appears in the Torah (me), in the Christian Testament (Chittister), and in the Quran (Chisti). Then together we wove the story of Abraham’s and his family’s life.
When we had finished writing, we shared our work with Karen Armstrong, still another world-renowned teacher of the history and meaning of religion. She wrote a profound preface for the book.
During the past several years I have heard from synagogues, churches, and mosques that exploring the book has opened new understandings for their members. Since our generation remains caught in a history when many Jews, many Christians, and many Muslims see the other traditions as their enemies, it may be useful to take this season as a time to read and discuss it.
Though no Christian festival is as focused on Abraham as the Jewish and Muslim ones are, the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, October 4, may appeal to many Christians as a relevant time. Francis opposed the Crusades -- an act of heresy and treason in his day – and studied with Muslims to enrich his Christian prayer.
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"The Tent of Abraham is the first book to tell the entire story of Abraham and to reenergize it as a basis for peace. It explores in accessible language the mythic quality and the teachings of reconciliation that are embedded in the Torah, the Qur’an, and the [Christian] Bible."