Shedding multi-faith light on Abraham

By 
  • October 12, 2007
{mosimage}TORONTO - Abraham’s star has certainly risen since jumbo jets slammed into the World Trade Centre towers in New York City, Sept. 11, 2001. Interfaith dialogues acquired a sense of urgency at the dawn of the new century, and such dialogues almost always begin by holding up Abraham as the common ancestor of Jews, Christians and Muslims.


“Abraham in the Qur’an is the patriarch of all monotheists,” claims professor Abdulaziz Sachedina of the University of Virginia. “... the paradigm for the worshippers of one God until the end of time.”

Sachedina is one of three featured speakers at the University of St. Michael’s College conference “Abraham’s Light” running Oct. 28-29 on the University of Toronto campus. Sachedina will be joined by Professor Peter Ochs, also of the University of Virginia, and keynote speaker Jane McAuliffe, a scholar of Islam at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

In an abstract to the paper he will present in Toronto, the Jewish scholar Ochs asks whether three entirely different understandings of Abraham, derived from three different ways of reading the story, really can advance us toward religious understanding. Rather than relying on a purely academic, scientific approach to understanding Abraham, which excludes the patriarch’s role in faith history, Ochs proposes a different approach — “A way to gather Jews, Muslims and Christians together in shared study of the three scriptural traditions, honouring religious faith as well as the reasoning that arises through dialogue.”

Left unsaid, too often, is the rationale for such new and extraordinary efforts to understand Abraham. All three faiths are trying to respond to wars and violent ideologies that have stolen big chunks of religious language, convictions and logic for acts and ends antithetical to the authentic traditions of Christians, Jews and Muslims.

The West has fostered two equal and opposite reactions to violence in the name of Islam. There has been anger, suspicion and demonization of Muslims, and there have been bridges built in hope that authentic, peace-loving Islam engaged with the West will crowd out the jihadists.

“There’s an awful lot of informal relationship-building that has accelerated exponentially since Sept. 11,” McAuliffe told The Catholic Register. “At the same time, there does not seem to have been any diminution in acts of aggression against Muslims. There continues to be fear. There continues to be ignorance.”

Interfaith dialogue has done a good job of creating new grounds for academic understanding among the sort of people who always were going to be tolerant and understanding, but that understanding hasn’t necessarily percolated into the political level or popular stereotypes, said McAuliffe.

“The fact that the United States is at war in Iraq has heightened anxieties and solidified positions and fears on both sides,” she said. “It’s given an opportunity for the demonization of North American Muslims by those who are set on furthering the aims of that very misguided war — that horrible situation in which a country is being destroyed.”

In polite company and among politicians who hold high office there may be vague words of tolerance and reason, but there’s a swamp of easy us-versus-them rhetoric bubbling along parallel to official justifications for sending troops into the Middle East.

“Part of what’s feeding that is frankly the Internet. There is so much hate-mongering that is done electronically,” said McAuliffe. “The Internet gives individual nutcases almost unlimited reach.”

But McAuliffe rejects the idea that understanding and tolerance are just for academics.

“I’m not sure I would call Sept. 11 a political event, but that single thing catapulted Islam into a degree of public attention that it had never secured in either North America or Europe before that,” McAuliffe said.

The result has been a much better informed public. North Americans as a whole know far more about Islam than they did 10 or 20 years ago, McAuliffe said. The next task is getting that new understanding out of the lecture hall and onto the political plane.

“People who are charged with cultivating this increase in inter-religious understanding usually don’t have ready access  to the policy makers,” she said.

McAuliffe will take up the topic in a lecture titled “Abraham and the Culture of Dialogue” Oct. 29 at 8 p.m. in Sorbara Auditorium, Brennan Hall.

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