The Review of Religions, October 1992
The world of the ancient Near East — particularly in the regions of Egypt and the lands east of the Mediterranean Sea (Assyria and Media) — was predominantly a polytheistic world around the time of the 7th Century B.C. (Historical Atlas of the World, p. 3). The people in those lands worshipped many different kinds of deities. Some were linked to the welfare of towns and cities in local areas, such as Marduk in Babylonia or Ra of Heliopolis in Egypt. Other gods were responsible for the livelihood and welfare of man during times of war and chaotic upheaval — such as Baal for the Canaanites, and Ishtar for the Sumerians and Assyrians. (The Heritage of World Civilizations, p 54)
Amongst this diverse conglomerate of varying polytheistic cultures and beliefs, emerged a single great tradition that was to later fuse the foundations of three great religions of the world: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These three religions can all be linked to one common religious tradition that goes as far back as the time of the patriarchal prophet Abraham. This underlying religious tradition forms the solid foundation on which all three religions have built upon over the course of history, and from which each has developed different beliefs and ideals that set them apart from others.
To begin with, the one fundamental difference that sets apart the religious tradition of these three religions was the unifying concept of monotheism:
faith in a single, All-Powerful God who is the sole Creator, Sustainer and Ruler of the universe. (Ibid, p. 56)
While it is not quite clear exactly when this doctrine first came into being, historians generally agree that the concept of monotheism first made a clear appearance amongst a nomadic tribal people known as the Hebrews. (Ibid, p. 56) Essentially, the common religious tradition that Islam, Christianity, and Judaism share can be traced back to these peoples. A better understanding of the history of this group of people can be useful in understanding the common origin of contemporary monotheistic religions.
The precise account of the activities of the Hebrews is not available. Nevertheless, scholars agree on the fact that Biblical accounts of the migration of the Hebrews into the Near Eastern area from Mesopotamia are plausible, and in accord with what is known of the general migration routes of such semi-nomadic tribes. (Ibid, p. 57) Religious and historical traditions mention that the patriarch Abraham came from Mesopotamia, and migrated west with his Hebrews followers, and settled along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, in the area now known as Palestine. (Ibid, p. 56)
Abraham brought with him the idea of a monotheistic belief, an idea that would later prove to endure for a long time in the area. Monotheistic belief emphasized on the moral demands and responsibilities of the individual and the community towards the worship of one God, who was ruler over all. Moreover, a belief in one God stressed the idea that God had a divine plan for human history, and the actions and ideals of His chosen people were inextricably tied to that divine plan. (Ibid, p. C-1) At the apex of this tradition sits Abraham, who is recognized as the founder of their faith by all three religions: Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Abraham’s followers passed down this tradition generation after generation, strengthening and unifying the people in the Palestine area with the belief in God and the covenant made with His chosen people. It was the 13th century B.C. that the personage of Moses proved to be a great unifying force that was to quite literally forge the nation of Israel. It was during the time of Moses that the concept of the covenant was reiterated and reinstated amongst the descendants of Abraham.
The importance of this covenant can be recognized from a close scriptural analysis of all three religions. All three branches of the original monotheistic beliefs introduced by Abraham into the Palestine area recognize and account for the event in their religious scriptures:
And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord, and rose up early in the morning, and builded an altar under the hill, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. … And Moses took half of the blood of the oxen, and put it in basons; and half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar. And he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient. (Exodus: 24: 4, 6, 7)
Similarly, the religion of Islam also recognizes the covenant of the Hebrews with God. It is mentioned in the Holy Quran, the religious text of the Muslims, that man must remember the fact that such a covenant was taken by a group of people with God:
O children of Israel! Remember My favours which I bestowed upon you, and fulfil your covenant with Me, I will fulfil My covenant with you, and Me alone should you fear….. (The Holy Quran: 2:41)
O children of Israel! Remember My favour which I bestowed on you and that I exalted you above the peoples of the time. (The Holy Quran: 2:48)
And remember when We gave Moses the Book and the Discrimination, that you might be rightly guided. (The Holy Quran: 2:54)
And remember the time when WE took a covenant from you and raised you above the Mount, saying, `Hold fast that which WE have given you and bear in mind what is therein, that you may be saved.’ (The Holy Quran: 2:64)
The need to quote the fore-going passages is seen when one attempts to correlate and compare them together with other underlying beliefs found in all three religions. It is seen that the tradition brought by Abraham, and reinforced and reinstated by Moses, is present and recognized by all three religions. This is the common point among all the three faiths: an affirmation and acknowledgment of the covenant which the Hebrews of the Palestine area made with God. This forms the fundamental basis for these monotheistic religions.
Another important similarity among the three religions is their relative closeness in terms of geographical proximity. It is not coincidental that all three great monotheistic religions of the world today have a common ancestral homeland: the fact that Abraham was the father of the faithful for all three religions also would signify that the place where he lived and led his people would be the place where all three faiths would be born. The Near East, comprising of the Palestine area, the Sinai peninsula, the Arabian peninsula (especially the northern half), and the areas of modern-day Turkey and Greece — essentially make up the birthplace of all three faiths.
Yet another parallelism among the three religions is the belief and ideal that through prayer and supplications, and establishing a relationship with God, one can achieve goodness in life and be in a constant state of peace and tranquillity with himself. This is the fundamental root of all worship in a monotheistic religion. The Almighty Creator is seen as a Being actively concerned with the deeds and doings of His creatures: thus a turning to Him would eventually lead to a path of divine Grace and Mercy. Essentially speaking, God’s purpose in creating mankind was for a very good reason:
they were called upon to be just and good like their Creator, for they were involved with the fulfilment of His divine purpose. (Craig, Albert, et al; [The Heritage of World Civilizations, page 60])
This concept is illustrated in God’s statement to the House of Israel mentioned in the Bible.
I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jeremiah: 31:33)
God’s purpose, according to monotheistic beliefs, was to raise man in rank and elevation in terms of spiritual conduct and moral excellence. This could only be done if the individual, or the society at large, would acknowledge the fact that they were created for a divine purpose, and according to a pre-ordained plan. Believers were expected to follow the teachings given to them through their respective scriptures and to recognize such personages as Abraham, Moses, and others to be Prophets who were inspired and enlightened by God, and given the task of leading and reforming the people. (Craig, Albert, et al; [The Heritage of World Civilizations, page 59])
All of the beliefs mentioned are found in all three faiths. They all share a common belief in a living, self-sufficient, and ever-present God that maintains and regulates each and every individual’s lifestyle and conduct. These beliefs formed the cement for the foundation that was common to all faiths which originated from Abraham. This common point also served as the unifying force that united all of Israel under one belief and one God.
The religions of Islam and Christianity also maintain these beliefs. Originating in the Arabian Peninsula and Palestine area respectively, both hold the personage of Christ to be the extension of this tradition. While both Islam and Christianity believe in Christ as a Prophet and reformer — the Jewish faith does not.
This is where the parallelisms and similarities among all three religions stop. Islam and Christianity break away from Judaism when they acknowledge the holiness and righteousness of Christ. All three share a belief in Moses, but only two share a belief in the truth of Christ. The similarities between Christianity and Islam come to an end as well, when Islam breaks away from the parallelisms and acknowledges the Holy Prophet of Islam as a true prophet of God who came after Christ to bring God’s final law for the guidance of all mankind. Both Judaism and Christianity reject this claim. Hence, the religions split apart, and their similarities end when they begin to differ in opinion regarding Christ and Muhammad (peace be on them). Only Islam acknowledges the divine selection and prophethood of all three personages, while the other two do not.
All three religions do not share common beliefs after the belief in Moses. Islam acknowledges all three, Christianity acknowledges two, and Judaism only one.
Yet all are deeply rooted in the fabric of monotheism. It is this tradition that serves as the backbone for each religion. The covenant established by the patriarch Abraham, reinstated by Moses — serves as the common link between three world religions. A close geographical and historical origin brings all three religions closer together, and under a unifying perspective. This feature is what makes the religions so remarkably similar.
The great tradition that gave raise to these three faiths traces its origin and birth to a tiny group of nomadic Hebrew people, simple in lifestyle and habits. It was not the product of imperial forces, or from great empires (Bid, page 56). The eventual products that formed as a result of this tradition came into being after a long period of time. It was a gradual and slow process — not a quick period of religious upheaval and chaos. The time interval between the advent of Moses and Muhammad (peace be on them) was roughly nineteen centuries (1300 B.C. – 600 A.D.) — a monumental amount of time to change and evolve in religion.
Nevertheless, a proper understanding of the origin of monotheistic belief enables one to clearly and understand to what extent Judaism, Christianity and Islam can be considered as part of the same religious and spiritual tradition: a tradition that dates back to the time of Abraham, simple nomad leading his flock of followers to a better homeland.