Islamic monotheism has always stood in continuity with the sacred history of prophethood. From the beginning, the One God sent humankind prophets and messengers entrusted with the message, the reminder of His presence, His commands, His love, and His hope.
From Adam, the first prophet, to Muhammad, the Last Messenger, Muslim tradition recognizes and identifies with the whole cycle of prophethood, ranging from the most famous messengers (Abraham, Noah, Moses, Jesus, etc.) to the lesser known, as well as others who remain unknown to us. The One has forever been accompanying us, His creation, from our beginnings to our end.
This is the very meaning of tawheed (the Oneness of God) and of the Qur’anic formula that refers to humankind’s destiny as well as to that of each individual: “To God we belong and to Him we return.”
A Lineage, a Place
Of all messengers, the most important figure in the Last Prophet’s lineage is undoubtedly Abraham (peace be upon him). There are many reasons for this, but from the outset, the Qur’an points to this particular link with Abraham through the insistent and continuous expression of pure monotheism, of human consciousness’s adherence to the divine project, of the heart’s access to His recognition and to His peace through self-giving.
This is the meaning of the word Islam, which is too often translated quickly by the mere idea of submission but which also contains the twofold meaning of “peace” and “wholehearted self-giving”.
Thus a Muslim is a human being who, throughout history-and even before the last Revelation-has wished attain God’s peace through the wholehearted gift of him- or herself to the Being. In this sense, Abraham was the deep and exemplary expression of the Muslim:
He (God) has chosen you, and has imposed no difficulties on you in religion; it is the cult of your father Abraham. It is He Who has named you Muslims, both before and in this (Revelation); that the Messenger may be a witness for you, and ye be witnesses for mankind! (Al-Hajj 22:78)
In God’s Scriptures
The book of Genesis, like the Qur’an, relates the Story of Abraham’s servant Hagar, who gave birth to his first child, Ishmael, in his old age. (Genesis, 15:5 (Revised Standard Version)
Sarah, Abraham’s first wife, who in turn gave birth to Isaac, asked her husband to send away his servant and her child.
Abraham took Hagar and Ishmael away to a valley in the Arabian Peninsula called Bakkah, which Islamic tradition identifies as present-day Mecca.
The Islamic account, like Genesis, relates the questionings, suffering, and prayers of Abraham and Hagar, who were compelled to experience exile and separation. In both the Muslim and Judeo-Christian traditions, this trial is recounted with the certainty and intimate comfort that the parents and child were carrying out a command from God, who will protect and bless Abraham’s descendants born of Hagar. To Abraham’s invocations about his son, God answers in Genesis:
“As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I will bless him … and I will make him a great nation.” (Genesis, 17:20)
Then further on, when Hagar is helpless and without food and water:
“And God heard the voice of the child, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not; for God has heard the voice of the child where he is. Arise, lift up the child, and hold him fast with your hand; for I will make him a great nation.” (Genesis, 21:17-19)
As for the Qur’an, it relates Abraham’s prayer:
“O our Lord! I have made some of my offspring to dwell in a valley without cultivation, by Your Sacred House; in order, O our Lord, that they may establish regular Prayer: so fill the hearts of some among men with love towards them, and feed them with fruits: so that they may give thanks. O our Lord! truly do know what we conceal and what we reveal: for nothing whatever is hidden from Allah, whether on earth or in heaven. Praise be to Allah, Who has granted unto me in old age Isma`il and Isaac: for truly my Lord is He, the Hearer of Prayer! (Ibrahim 14:37-39)
On a purely factual level, the Prophet Muhammad is a descendant of Ishmael’s children and is therefore part of that “great nation” announced by the Scriptures.
Abraham is hence his “father” in the primary sense, and Islamic tradition understands that the blessings of this father’s prayers extend to his descendant the Last Prophet as well as to the place where he left Hagar and Ishmael, where, a few years later, he was to undergo the terrible trial of his son’s sacrifice, and where he was finally to raise with him God’s sacred House (the Ka`bah). Qur’anic Revelation recounts:
And remember that Abraham was tried by his Lord with certain commands, which he fulfilled: He said: “I will make thee an Imam to the Nations.” He pleaded: “And also (Imams) from my offspring!” He answered: “But My Promise is not within the reach of evil-doers.”
Remember We made the House a place of assembly for men and a place of safety; and take ye the station of Abraham as a place of prayer; and We covenanted with Abraham and Isma`il, that they should sanctify My House for those who compass it round, or use it as a retreat, or bow, or prostrate themselves (therein in prayer).
And when Abraham prayed: My Lord! Make this a region of security and bestow upon its people fruits, such of them as believe in Allah and the Last Day. (Al-Baqarah 2:124-126)
This is the millenary teaching of Islamic tradition: there is a God and a line of prophets whose central figure is Abraham, the archetype of the Muslim, the blood father of this lineage of Ishmael leading up to Muhammad.
Abraham and Ishmael sanctified this place in Bakkah (Mecca) by building God’s House (bayt Allah) with their own hands. And this is precisely where the last of God’s messengers to humankind was born: Muhammad ibn `Abdullah, who bore the message reminding people of the One, of the prophets, and of the sacred House. A God, a place, a prophet.
The article is an excerpt from Dr. Tariq Ramadan’s book “In the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons from the Life of Muhammad, Oxford University Press (2007).