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THE DECEMBER 2001 issue of National Geographic
holds a tantalizing cover story, "Abraham: The Father of Three
Faiths." Author Tad Szulc, in a carefully researched and illustrated
essay, demonstrates how Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious
traditions each deeply revere the patriarch Abraham.
But Abraham is not the only spiritual commonality these faiths
share. In this article, I will examine 10 among many, including
our father in faith, Abraham. A greater awareness and appreciation
of these religious commonalities could help build unity among
the sharply divided peoples in this world of ours.
1. One God
To be a Muslim in essence means privately and publicly believing
in the one, divine, transcendent, omnipotent God, Allah
in Arabic. Interestingly, the root of this Arabic word for
God is identical to the root of the Jewish word for God.
Muslims use many beautiful names for Allah, each describing
a divine quality. The most common terms are The Beneficent
One and The Merciful One. Those concepts of God provide a
theological understanding for the Muslim customs surrounding
Connected with that faith in the one God is a belief that
Muhammad is God's messenger. This prophet is neither the founder
of the Muslim religion nor a divine individual. Rather, he
is the last of God's many messengers to this world that include
Abraham, Moses and Jesus.
Belief in these two points allows a person to enter Islam
and become a Muslim.
Reading through the Bible's Old Testament, also known as
the First Testament or Hebrew Scriptures, one discovers the
revelation of this one God to a chosen people. God commands
these Jewish personsliving in the midst of polytheistic
culturesto be faithful by clinging to a monotheistic
religion even though surrounded by temptations.
"I am who am," God says to Moses, "the God of Abraham, the
God of Isaac, the God of Jacob" (Exodus 3:14-15).
In giving the Chosen People the Ten Commandments, the Supreme
Being declares, "I, the Lord, am your God.... You shall not
have other gods besides me....You shall not bow down before
them or worship them. For I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous
Followers of Christ accept this teaching of the Hebrew Scriptures
and have faith in the one true God. Trinitarian Christians,
however, also believe in Jesus' teaching about God the Father,
Son and Holy Spirit. That central mystery of the Trinity is
problematic for Jewish and Muslim people.
Nevertheless, despite such a significant difference, Christian,
Jewish and Muslim believers should be very comfortable together
discussing and worshiping the one God they hold in common.
2. Divine Assistance
Christians take seriously these words of Jesus: "Ask and
it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and
the door will be opened to you" (Matthew 7:7); "Come to me,
all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest"
(Matthew 11:28); "All that you ask for in prayer, believe
that you will receive it and it shall be yours" (Mark 11:24).
Belief in those words leads to every type of prayerful petition
for every conceivable need. We who pray in this way have faith
that God does intervene in our lives and responds to our prayers.
Jewish history, as recorded in the Old Testament, views such
divine intervention or assistance as a given. The Passover
angel, Red Sea parting and manna from heaven are but a few
examples of what God has done for them in the past, is doing
right now and will continue to do in the future.
Psalm 88 reflects that confidence: "O Lord, my God, by day
I cry out; at night I clamor in your presence. Let my prayer
come before you; incline your ear to my call for help" (Psalm
The Muslim prayer of supplication can be equally intense,
but more general in its direction. These petitions focus rather
on submission to the will of the Beneficent and Merciful One.
They ask for divine help to stay the course, for guidance
and for aid following Allah's plan during the midst of adversity.
All three religious groups believe that God comes to our
assistance, and their members pray accordingly.
3. Daily Prayer
A practicing Jewish person is expected to utter acclamations
of praise or a berakah prayer at least 100 times daily.
A brief exclamation, "Blessed are you, Lord," acknowledges
with adoration and gratitude the major and minor gifts from
God received each day: for example, sleep and water, air and
food, friends and work, health and medicine, a rainbow and
An invocation before eating and a gathering with several
others for small-group daily prayer in the synagogue are likewise
common elements of the Jewish tradition.
Muslims must pray five times a day with each prayer requiring
five to 10 minutes. These occur at dawn, afternoon, later
afternoon, following sunset and at night.
The prayer is recited facing Makkah or Mecca, the sacred
spot where Muslims maintain that the Angel Gabriel first spoke
to Muhammad. The believer kneels on a prayer mat, if possible,
with forehead touching the ground. The posture and words convey
a sense of submission, adoration and trust.
Christians who follow the Roman Catholic Liturgy of the Hours
pray seven times a day as the Psalm suggests. This covers
the Office of Readings, Morning, Evening and Night Prayer,
plus three brief Daytime Prayers. Others probably observe
a more informal pattern of morning and evening prayers with
a grace, blessing or prayer before meals. This type of informality
lacks the precision and repetition of the Muslim and Jewish
traditions, but reflects a commonly shared value of daily
4. Weekly Worship
Because of September 11, Americans are much more aware of
Muslim religious customs. Some newspapers have published extensive
reports on Islam in the United States, including the Articles
of Faith and the Five Pillars of Islam. Stories also reported
on the significant number of people who come to mosques each
Friday for special prayers after midday.
While Friday is the day of weekly worship for Muslims, Saturday
is the Sabbath observance for Jewish people. It is observed
from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday and includes the synagogue
service on Saturday morning and the day itself, dedicated
to personal rest and family events.
Most Christians celebrate the Sabbath on Sunday, a move made
in the early centuries as followers of Jesus recalled his
Resurrection and the Pentecost descent of the Holy Spirit,
both of which occurred on Sunday. The form of observance varies
with different Christian traditions, but all would expect,
ideally, attendance at a public worship service and avoidance
of unnecessary work. Sunday celebrates God's creation of the
world and Christ's efforts to save all.
The crucial point here is that the three religions observe
a weekly day set aside for public prayer and personal re-creation.
Christians, following the example of Jesus who fasted for
40 days and 40 nights, recognize the need for some fasting
or self-denial in their lives. In the early centuries, Wednesdays
and Fridays were generally observed as days of fast.
In more contemporary times, the Lenten season from Ash Wednesday
until Easter Sunday is the extended period (40 days, if you
count only weekdays) of Christian self-denial. That generic
type of fasting takes many forms, but has as its purpose to
recall the sufferings of Jesus and to purify or prepare our
hearts for the Resurrection.
Jewish persons practice a strict and total fast on Yom Kippur,
the major holy day in the fall, with no eating or drinking
from sundown to sundown. They do it for reconciliation or
cleansing from personal sins or misdeeds. Many also fast in
August on Tisha B'av, in mournful memory of the Temple's destruction.
Muslims fast during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic
calendar, which is based on lunar calculations.
The Ramadan fast makes Christian or Jewish fasts seem like
child's play. For the Muslim, the fast begins with a light
meal before daybreak, then no water, food or drink until after
sunset. Moreover, during that time there is to be no sexual
intercourse, tobacco, backbiting or lying.
Ramadan is for Muslims a long, hard month. Nevertheless,
the fast helps them to obey God, be more sensitive to the
sufferings of others, develop self-discipline and appreciate
their unity with all other Muslims fasting at the same time
in similar fashion.
The following words of Jesus in Matthew 25 can make any Christian
uncomfortable. I was, he observes, hungry, thirsty, a stranger,
naked, ill and in prison, but you did not care for me. "What
you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do
for me" (25:45).
In response, Christians try to share a portion of their time,
talent and treasure with others, especially the poor, sometimes
giving to individuals and sometimes channeling contributions
to group efforts. For example, at our Syracuse Cathedral,
an emergency center provides nearly 500 households each month
with food donated by several local parishes. For a dozen years
now, volunteer laypersons have funded and staffed a program
that provides a hot breakfast every Wednesday to about 100
homeless men. The church subsidizes at great expense our school
whose student body is mostly non-Catholic, black and drawn
from below-poverty-level-income homes.
Muslims would applaud this almsgiving. The Prophet said,
"He is not a believer who eats his fill while his neighbor
remains hungry by his side." Every Muslim has the duty to
pay a specified tax, the proceeds of which are used for good
causes or for the poor.
These alms can be given directly, but Muslims are encouraged
to give secretly. That prevents the giver from feeling superior
and the poor person from being embarrassed.
Jewish persons likewise approve of such sharing with others.
Early sections of the Hebrew Scriptures remind the Chosen
People of their obligation to care for landless and thus poor
personsespecially widows, orphans and strangers. A local
rabbi, following that injunction, co-chairs the interfaith
fund-raiser in Syracuse and dishes out food for a project
that feeds a hot meal each afternoon to 200 homeless people.
7. Holy Places
Once in a lifetime, if financially and physically able, every
Muslim is expected to make a pilgrimage to Mecca and participate
in the five-day celebration surrounding that event. Among
other things, Muslims recall their belief that the Angel Gabriel
in 610 A.D. spoke here to Muhammad, the prophet of Islam.
But they revere other sacred places, especially Jerusalem.
They believe that the Prophet himself ascended into heaven
from the rock over which the Dome of the Rock, the earliest
Islamic monument, now stands.
The site is also sacred to Jews, who recall its connection
with the Temple. Jewish persons, of course, consider themselves
the Chosen People and that God has designated today's Palestine
as their home. Jerusalem is also sacred to them, as are many
other locations in the Holy Land. Their liturgy suggests three
pilgrimage festivals: Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot.
Christians believe that Jesus came and dwelt on this earth,
for the most part in that area termed the Holy Land. Over
the years, millions of Christians have come to this sacred
place and are eager to visit locations where Jesus was conceived,
born, grew up, taught, ate his Last Supper, sweated blood
in Gethsemane, died, was buried, rose and ascended into heaven.
Disputes over these places, especially in the Holy Land,
have probably caused the sharpest divisions and hateful feelingsas
well as the most violent actionsamong Christians, Jews
and Muslims. Perhaps an appreciation of each group's reverence
for the same or neighboring sacred spots could eventually
dissolve the hatred and lead to peace.
8. People of the Book
In the Old Testament we see the unfolding of the Jewish religion.
Moses and Aaron are there; so, too, are Abraham and Isaac,
David and Solomon. During the Sabbath synagogue service, the
leaders draw back a veil, revealing richly ornamented scrolls
containing these inspired words of God.
Christians, who call themselves spiritual Semites, accept
these Old Testament writings, but judge that they lead to
and find fulfillment in the New Testament books, together
forming the Holy Bible.
Since the 1970s, Roman Catholics and most mainline Christian
bodies follow on Sundays a three-year cycle of biblical readings.
While these are excerpts only, they still contain samplings
from almost all of the 46 Old and 27 New Testament books.
For Muslims, the Prophet is the messenger, but the Quran
(Koran) is the message of God. It is not a structured book
or set of arguments, but a collection of divine messages.
The Quran repeatedly labels Jewish and Christian persons
as "people of the Book" and views their original Books as
coming from God.
Yale University historian Jaroslav Pelikan maintains that
the ignorance of otherwise well-educated Westerners about
the religion of Muhammad and the message of the Quran is "not
only abysmal, but frightening."
Learning about and appreciating these closely connected inspired
books surely is an easy and readily available stepping-stone
Certainly Christian and Jewish persons hold Abraham close
to their hearts. They marvel at his trust in leaving home
for an unknown new location. They admire that faith which
brought about his holiness or righteousness. They rejoice
in his dedication and obedience to God, which prompted a willingness
to sacrifice even his only child and son.
In Eucharistic Prayer I for Roman Catholic Christians, worshipers
hear these words: "the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in
Muslims, too, hold Abraham in great esteem, regarding him
as a great prophet and one of God's special messengers. During
the days of their pilgrimage at Mecca, Muslims observe several
rituals commemorating events in the life of Abraham.
10. Jesus and Mary
Muslims speak of both Jesus and Mary with reverence and respect.
They believe that Allah or God gave revelations not only to
Abraham and Moses, but also to Jesus and all prophets. For
them Christ is not messiah, savior or divine, but one of God's
In the Quran, Mary is the only woman's name mentioned. Moreover,
Surah 19, one of the longest chapters in the Quran, carries
the title "Maryam: Mary." It is said that in our times as
well Muslims have a special place for Mary in their devotional
Jesus is the focal point for Christians. He is their teacher,
healer and savior. He is a model for them. He is divine, the
Son of God and the one who revealed the mystery of the Most
Mary's frequent appearances in the New Testament make her
a necessary ingredient of Christian life. The honor given
to Jesus' mother by Roman and Orthodox Christians is well
known, although some Christian traditions tend to find that
Respect and affection for Jesus represent a real challenge
for Jewish people. They reject him as the long-awaited Messiah.
They also disapprove of his divine claims and his teachings
about the Trinity.
Still, he was born of a Jewish mother, grew up in a Jewish
home and prayed regularly in a Jewish synagogue. He also frequently
cited the Hebrew Scriptures, and many of his words are consonant
with Jewish religious principles.
Mary, likewise, grew up in a Jewish home, practiced Jewish
religious traditions and, according to some scholars, would
have been of the house and lineage of David. Her famous Magnificat
(Luke 2:46-55) bears a close resemblance to Hannah's prayer
of praise in 1 Samuel 2 of the Old Testament.
We Remain Divided
These 10 spiritual commonalities make it confusing and contradictory
to witness hateful words and deeds done in the name of religion.
Jews and Muslims squabble over a mutually revered holy place
in Jerusalem. Fundamentalist leaders in Afghanistan resent
and arrest eight outsiders trying to bring Christianity to
that country. Some cite the Quran, the sacred book of Islam,
to support a holy war against infidels, the destruction of
the United States and suicidal actions in the name of Allah.
In the midst of such hatred and disrespect, of such violence
and division, a long-term solution exists which would replace
hatred with love, disrespect with respect, violence with a
just peace, division with unity. Recognizing, understanding
and appreciating the many common spiritual elements which
Christians, Jews and Muslims share with one another can contribute
to this solution.
Dr. Anis I. Obeid, born in Lebanon and raised as a Druze
Muslim, has practiced medicine in the United States for many
years. During the course of that service, he became an expert
in echocardiography, gaining worldwide recognition in this
field. He would agree with my proposal.
This heart specialist strongly believes in a comment he once
heard: "There are only two kinds of peoplethose I love
and those I don't know."
Franciscan psychologist Father Jeffrey Keefe holds a somewhat
similar view and would likewise support my suggestion. As
a therapist, he observes, "The more I get to know my clients,
the better I like them. As I hear in greater detail their
stories, I appreciate better the complexity of their struggles.
I am moved to a deeper respect for them."
Both seem to maintain this principle: The more I know about
others, the easier it is to love them. And the greater understanding
I possess of others, the better I can respect them.
We Can Move Toward Harmony
The 10 spiritual commonalities shared by Christians, Jews
and Muslims are indeed remarkable. But it would be inaccurate
and naïve not to recognize that real differences do exist.
Moreover, years of conflict have generated, among some, intense
bitterness, hatred and mistrust.
Despite those divisions, if we know and understand each other
better, then it should be easier for us to love one another
more. Religion, instead of being a source of division, could
become a basis for unity.
For such a positive global development to take place, we
need to take some practical domestic steps. Individuals can
educate themselves through print publications or Web sites
such as the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious
seia), Jewish-Christian Relations (www.
jcrelations.net) and the Middle East Policy Council
Families might discuss these 10 spiritual commonalities to
deepen their own awareness and appreciation. Parishes could
arrange for visits to both synagogues and mosques. Dioceses
might facilitate public dialogue among Christian, Jewish and
Each of us needs to take the important step of praying individually
and with others "that we all may be one" (see John 17:21),
just as our loving God has envisioned us from the beginning.