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date: 01 June 2020

(p. xiii) Introduction

(p. xiii) Introduction

The primary aim of this book is to contribute to the emergence and development of the comparative study of the Abrahamic religions. The Handbook thus includes authoritative yet accessible studies on a variety of topics dealing comparatively with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as with the interactions between the adherents of these religions throughout history. Underpinning this is the assumption that there is something to be gained from studying these religious traditions together, an assumption to which we will devote some attention in what follows.1

In a sense, the comparative study of the Abrahamic religions has been undertaken for many centuries, first by adherents of the respective religions who sought to make sense of their neighbours and competitors (and, in many cases, to refute their claims about religious truth), later by European scholars, Catholics and Protestants alike, in the early modern period, for whom adopting a comparative approach to the monotheistic religions was obvious. More often than not, these studies reflected a polemical rather than an ecumenical approach to the topic, a fact also emphasized by the Enlightenment pamphlet about ‘The Three Impostors’ (Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad), who deceived humankind with their false claims to prophecy.

Since the nineteenth century and the development of the scholarly, non-theological study of religions, the comparative study of the Abrahamic religions has not been pursued either intensively or systematically, and it is only very recently that the comparative study of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam has picked up in earnest. It should be noted that despite its recent use in interfaith dialogue, the concept of the Abrahamic religions reflects the fundamental ‘family resemblances’, to use a Wittgensteinian metaphor, between these religions. Hence the concept is useful for the (p. xiv) comparative study of these religions, which seeks to identify differences and distinctions between them at least as much as similarities.

Over the past few decades, a handful of scholars have been instrumental in creating the modern, academic groundwork for the study of the Abrahamic religions. It is perhaps to Francis E. Peters, more than to anyone else, that this emerging field is indebted: Peters has both authored introductory surveys on this topic—as The Children of Abraham (Princeton, 1986) and The Monotheists: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Conflict and Cooperation (Princeton, 1994)—and has usefully collected primary sources from each of the three traditions, published in the three-volume set Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: The Classical Texts and their Interpretation (Princeton, 1990), amongst other contributions to specific sub-topics within the field.2

With the field’s growth came the almost inevitable scholarly dissensions. Objections to the comparative study of religions are in some ways understandable and to be expected. After all, the implication of comparative studies is that religions and their adherents influence one another, while scholars of a religious tradition often accept, at least implicitly, the internal narrative of these religions, which emphasizes their autonomous development. Similarly, since Islam is the youngest of the three Abrahamic religions, studies of Islam in the context of Judaism and Christianity often amount to investigations into the ‘origins’ of things Islamic, which can have the effect—even if unintended—of downplaying the originality and contribution of Islam and Muslims to history. Moreover, some voices have recently been heard, which raise a caveat about the relevance of ‘Abraham’ to the comparative study of these religions, or against the heuristic value of the concept of Abrahamic religions outside interfaith dialogue.3

Traditionally, what has been more common than the comparative study of the Abrahamic religions has been the study of two of these religions together, to the exclusion of the third one. Studies of Judaism and Christianity, of Christianity and Islam, and of Judaism and Islam, have contributed greatly to our understanding of the beliefs, practices, and interactions between these respective communities. However, in excluding the third side of the triangle, as it were, these studies are necessarily limited and provide only a partial picture of a complex and dynamic interface between the beliefs and practices of these communities throughout the ages.

Be all that as it may, the study of Abrahamic religions is as much about encounters between traditions as it is about encounters between peoples. Abrahamic studies of (p. xv) such topics as ‘Mysticism’, ‘Prophethood’, ‘Messianism’, ‘Theology’, ‘the Hereafter’, amongst many others, concern not the individual traditions or communities but rather the topics themselves as they have been interpreted and developed by the various Jews, Christians, and Muslims who have applied themselves to these topics. Put another way, what brings the Abrahamic religions together is a common set of questions about God and his world; what distinguishes the Abrahamic religions from each other are their respective answers to these questions.

We should stress that the point of the comparative study of the Abrahamic religions is not, contrary to a common misconception, to stress how much the relevant religions have in common—though, it is admitted that this is often an element of ‘Abrahamic’ initiatives of many sorts—but to illuminate our understanding of each individual religion by situating it appropriately in its spiritual, social, and historical context(s). As Max Müller memorably put it: ‘He who knows only one religion knows none.’ Accordingly, even those who choose not to engage in the comparative study of religions must accept that in order to appreciate the unique stance of their chosen religion on a given topic they must know what alternative stances were tellingly rejected.

The Handbook is divided into six parts. Part I is dedicated to histories, examinations, and criticisms of the very concept of the Abrahamic religions, providing various perspectives on its contexts, functions, and viability. Reuven Firestone and Gil Anidjar discuss the figure of Abraham, the former as reflected in the Abrahamic traditions themselves and the latter as seen through the prism of continental philosophy. The historical manifestations of the idea of the Abrahamic religions as sharing essential attributes, whether the figure of Abraham or more general principles, are examined by Adam J. Silverstein. Guy G. Stroumsa explores the place of the study of the Abrahamic religions in the development of the discipline of comparative religion in the eighteenth to twentieth centuries, while Mark Silk traces the concepts of ‘Abrahamic’ and ‘Judaeo-Christian’ in English and American discourse of same period. Finally, Rémi Brague warns about the dangers inherent in such terms as ‘the three monotheisms’, the ‘three religions of Abraham’, or the ‘three religions of the book’.

From this foundation, Part II moves to historical perspectives on the interactions between Jewish, Christian, and Islamic communities. Richard Bulliet presents the essential similarities between the theology, practice, and social realities of Islam and Christianity, and argues that an ‘Islamo-Christian’ civilization is a more valid concept than a tripartite, ‘Abrahamic’ one. David Abulafia proposes to see the shores of the Mediterranean as a central stage for interactions between the three religions, whether negative or positive. The place of law in the interactions between Abrahamic communities is studied by Uriel Simonsohn and John Tolan, the former investigating especially the legal institutions of Christian and Jewish communities under the aegis of the Islamic caliphate and the latter focusing on the perceptions of Jews and Muslims in Christian law and historical consciousness throughout history. Dorothea Weltecke closes this section with an analysis of various medieval discourses of religious multiplicity in the Abrahamic religions, which showed ‘different levels of ethical and religious respect towards the other.’

(p. xvi) The next three parts discuss substantial issues central to the practice and thought of all three religions. Part III includes chapters on scripture and its interpretation throughout history, as well as conceptions of religious history. Nicolai Sinai traces the history of modern historical-critical interpretation of both the Bible and the Quran, and its significance for the development of the Abrahamic religions in the modern period. Carol Bakhos surveys classical scriptural exegesis of the three religions—Jewish ancient exegesis and midrashic literature, Christian patristic exegesis, and Islamic interpretation of the Quran up to the twelfth century. David Powers discusses the Islamic doctrine of Muhammad as the final prophet, and its ramifications for Islamic understanding of the other Abrahamic religions. Lutz Greisiger analyses the varieties of Abrahamic eschatological vision and practice, their common and diverging nature and dynamics.

Part IV turns to issues of religious thought and philosophy central to all three traditions, focusing especially on the common questions discussed by the great thinkers of the Abrahamic religions in the Middle Ages. Observing that ‘one of the defining features of the Abrahamic religions that ties them closely together is undoubtedly their constant recourse to the classical tradition’, Peter Pormann proceeds to survey the engagement of philosophers and theologians of the Abrahamic traditions with Greco-Roman thought and literature. The next three chapters discuss central aspects of philosophical discourse among Abrahamic thinkers. Sidney H. Griffith focuses on the philosophical discourse on the concept of the ‘oneness’ of the one God, which developed in ninth-century Baghdad among thinkers of the three religions; Carlos Fraenkel investigates models for the relationship between theology and philosophy developed by Muslim, Jewish, and Christian thinkers of the eleventh and twelfth centuries in Islamic-ruled lands; and William E. Carroll discusses the problematic of accommodating the doctrine of creation ex nihilo with scientific and philosophical understanding in the Middle Ages. Yuri Stoyanov explores the relationships of the monotheistic Abrahamic religions with heretical traditions, ideas, and practices of religious dualism. This part closes with two chapters on major issues in the intersections between thought and practice: Moshe Idel presents an overview of mystical thought, traditions, and practices in the Abrahamic religions, and Anthony Black charts currents of political thought over the centuries.

Part V explores interactions and comparisons in the realm of practice and ethics. Prayer, the most pervasive ritual of all Abrahamic religions, is the subject of the first chapter by Clemens Leonhard and Martin Lüstraeten. The two next chapters, by Moshe Blidstein and David Freidenreich, analyse practices and discourses of purity, defilement, and dietary prohibition, both as important dimensions of each religion and as central aspects of their interrelations throughout history. Harvey E. Goldberg discusses the significance of life-cycle rituals in the Abrahamic religions, historically as well as in contemporary societies, and the value comparative analysis brings to their understanding. Yousef Meri surveys practices and concepts of sainthood in the three religions and the associated practice of pilgrimage, focusing on interactions in medieval Syria. David Nirenberg and Leonardo Capezzone discuss the place of love—towards (p. xvii) God, fellow humans, or the self, as well as by God towards humans—in the self-perception of the Abrahamic religions. Lastly, Malise Ruthven analyses historical and contemporary manifestations of fundamentalism in the Abrahamic religions.

Part VI comprises three Epilogues, intended to provide a broader perspective on the comparative study of the Abrahamic religions from the viewpoint of each of the religions and to complement the individual foci of the various chapters. These Epilogues, accordingly, are penned by writers who are at once eminent scholars and influential voices in their respective religious communities.

Although the chapters in this volume deal with a wide variety of topics, almost inevitably, some subjects have benefited from more attention within the chapters than others. This is partly a function of each contributor’s own specialization and interests, partly a ramification of the complexity of a field that draws on primary sources in over a dozen languages, and partly a reflection of the fact that this field is still very much in its formative stages and few are the scholars expert in the comparative study of all three religions in relation to their topic of choice, or daring enough to rise to the challenge of the comparative approach. Unfortunately, certain topics that might be deemed central to this emerging field have not been covered in dedicated chapters: fundamental topics such as women and gender, the family, education, religious law, ethics, Satan, a phenomenological approach to the Abrahamic religions, martyrdom, and the impact of modern science on these religions, have been treated only in passing, and not systematically in chapters of their own. Ideally, it would also have been preferable to have more women and Muslims among the chapters’ authors. This proved impossible and this too reflects the fact that the field is still in its infancy.

Such regrettable omissions serve to remind us that there is still much work to be done in establishing the comparative study of Abrahamic religions on firm academic foundations. It is our hope that this volume will introduce scholars, students, and other readers to the challenges and rewards of studying these three religions together. Although our approach is by no means shaped by interfaith concerns, we believe that inasmuch as ignorance is the mother of prejudice this handbook might play a role in fighting religious intolerance in all its forms.


(1) There are, of course, a number of traditions originating within these three main Abrahamic Religions that might also be considered ‘Abrahamic’, such as those of the Samaritans, the Mormons, and the Bahais. However, in order not to further complicate what is an already complex picture, we have asked our contributors to focus on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

(2) E.g. The Voice, the Word, the Books: The Sacred Scriptures of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007); and Jerusalem and Mecca: The Typology of the Holy City in the Near East (New York: New York University Press, 1986). Other scholars, including in Continental Europe, have also contributed significant studies to this field, e.g. H. Busse, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity: Theological and Historical Affiliations (Princeton: Wiener Markus, 1998); and Karl-Josepf Kuschel, Abraham: A Symbol of Hope for Jews, Christians and Muslims (London: SCM, 1995).

(3) On Abraham: J. D. Levenson, Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012); on the concept itself: A. W. Hughes, Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).