Prophet Abraham

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Did the prophet Abraham ever worship celestial bodies?

Abraham was one of the greatest Prophets, one who was called ‘the intimate friend of God’. God’s Messenger took pride and pleasure in his connection with him, saying: I am the one whose coming Abraham prayed for and Jesus gave glad tidings of, and I resemble my forefather Abraham more than anyone else [1]. He was thrown into fire because of his belief in One God, and the fire became, by God’s Will and Power, coolness and a means of safety for him.

Abraham, like the other Prophets, never worshipped, nor thought of worshipping, idols in any phase of his life. Despite this fact, some erroneous and untrue stories have unfortunately found their way into some Qur’anic commentaries. They have come from a misunderstanding of the following verses:

When the night covered him over, he saw a star: He said, ‘This is my lord’. But when it set, he said, ‘I love not those that set.’ When he saw the moon rising in splendor, he said, ‘This is my lord’. But when it set, he said, ‘Unless my Lord guided me, I would surely be among those who go astray’. When he saw the sun rising in splendor, he said, ‘This is my lord; this is the greatest (of all).’ But when the sun set, he said: ‘O my people! I am indeed free from your ascribing partners to God. For me, I have set my face towards Him who created the heavens and the earth, as a man of pure faith and one by nature upright, and I am not among those who associate partners with God’. (al-An’am, 6. 76–9)

These verses clearly show that Abraham tried, by way of analogy, to convince his people that none of the heavenly bodies was worthy to be believed in or worshipped as God. Historically, Abraham lived among the Chaldeans in northern Mesopotamia, a people very knowledgeable about heavenly bodies and who worshipped them along with many other idols. Abraham first argued with his father that the idols could not be worthy to worship, as explicitly stated in the verse preceding those cited above:

Abraham once said to his father Azar: ‘Do you take idols for gods? Surely I see you and your people in manifest deviation.’ (al-An’am, 6. 74)

Since Azar was the maker of the idols for his people to worship, Abraham had started his mission by opposing him. After that, he turned his attention to his people to guide them to the truth. Since they had great knowledge of heavenly bodies, God would instruct him in matters concerning them and showed him the metaphysical realities behind them so that he might attain certainty of the highest degree with respect to the truths of belief and convince his people of their deviation:

So also did We show Abraham the inner dimensions of, and the metaphysical realities behind, the heavens and the earth, that he might have certainty. (al-An’am, 6. 75)

While traveling in mind and heart through heavenly bodies, Abraham began by saying in front of his people that a star could not be God because it sets. Although the superstitious might read fortunes into it or attribute some influence to it, true knowledge shows that it rises and sets according to the laws authored by God, and its light is extinguished in the broader light of day, so worshipping it is futile.

Abraham took a second step in his analogy to guide his people to the truth and showed that, although looking brighter and bigger than the star, the moon could not be God either because, besides setting like the star, it changes its shape from hour to hour, and depends for its light on some other body. At this point, Abraham openly declared that he had already been guided by his Lord, and that those who did not worship Him alone were among those that went astray.

The last blow which Abraham struck was to show that the sun could not be worshipped as God either because, despite its size and light, it also disappears from sight, and therefore it was folly to worship created phenomena. After rejecting the worship of creation, Abraham declared his faith:

I have set my face towards Him who created the heavens and the earth, as a man of pure faith and one by nature upright, and I am not among those who associate partners with God. (al-An’am, 6.79)

So, it is sheer illusion and a great mistake to infer from the verses above that Abraham took heavenly bodies as God in the early phase of his life.

Did Abraham have doubt about God’s reviving the dead?

The second point regarded as a fault or lapse on the part of Abraham is that he appealed to God to show him how He revives the dead. Concerning this, the Qur’an says:

Behold! Abraham said: ‘My Lord! Show me how You give life to the dead.’ He said: ‘Do you not believe?’ He said: ‘Yes indeed, but to set my heart at rest.’ (al-Baqara, 2.260)

In a hadith, God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, says that there are seventy thousand veils separating God from man. This implies that man’s journey towards God is endless and people have different degrees of knowledge and understanding and varying capacities for spiritual and intellectual satisfaction. Since God Almighty is infinite, unbounded with all His Attributes and Names, each man can obtain only some knowledge of Him and attain some degree of satisfaction according to his capacity. The Prophet Abraham, upon him be peace, had one of the greatest capacities and therefore needed to increase in knowledge of God every day in order to get full spiritual satisfaction. The Prophets were, like every other human being, in constant spiritual and intellectual growth and, regarding each of their previous stages of growth as inadequate in knowledge of God and satisfaction, they incessantly pursued a further degree of conviction. For this reason, God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, asked God’s forgiveness about a hundred times a day and frequently entreated Him, saying:

Glory be to You, we have not been able to know You as Your knowledge requires, O Known One!

Glory be to You, we have not been able to worship You as Your worship requires, O Worshipped One!

Once, Muhyi al-Din ibn al-‘Arabi encountered Mawlana Jalal al-Din al-Rumi and asked him:

– Who is greater? The Prophet Muhammad, who says, ‘Glory be to You, we have not been able to know You as Your knowledge requires, O Known One !’, or Bayazid al-Bistami, who says [in an instance of entranced ecstasy], ‘Glory be to me, how exalted I am!’?

The reply which Mawlana gave is also a reply to those who dare to find fault with Prophet Abraham, upon him be peace:

– Both of these utterances show to what extent our Prophet is greater than Bayazid. For the heart or soul of our Prophet was like an ocean so deep and vast that it was impossible to be satisfied. But the soul of Bayazid was, in comparison with our Prophet’s, like an ewer, easy to fill and quick to over-flow. [2]

In order to remove any possible doubt concerning Abraham’s conviction, God’s Messenger once said: If Abraham’s were a doubt, we are more liable to doubt than him[3].

Did Abraham ever lie?

No Prophet ever told a lie. Truthfulness was the most important and indispensable attribute and necessity of Prophethood. The Prophet Abraham, upon him be peace, was among of the five greatest Prophets. He cannot have told a single lie even. In his whole life spent in constant struggle with unbelief and polytheism, the Prophet Abraham, upon him be peace, spoke allusively on only three occasions. That is, in order to either shun the harassment of unbelievers or explain to them a religious truth more simply, he chose to divert the attention of his addressees to something else by indirect reference to the truth. Since, however, some scholars have misinterpreted those allusions to be lies, I feel it is necessary to clarify them:

1. When his people wanted him to accompany them to their religious celebration, he cast a glance at the stars and said that he was sick.

Abraham was not bodily sick, but the grief was preying on his mind and soul that he might be associated with the falsehoods of his people. It was impossible for him to worship idols; rather, he was determined to destroy them. So, in order to avoid participating in their ceremonies, he told them that he was sick and when they had left him, he struck their idols down and broke them.

In saying he was sick, Abraham certainly did not lie, for what he meant was that he was sick of their idols and idol-worship. It is because he was sick of the idols, truly, that as soon as they departed, he turned to the idols and broke them. The Qur’an praises him for this deed:

Surely among those who followed his (Noah’s) way was Abraham. Behold, he came unto his Lord with a pure, sound heart. Behold, he said to his father and to his people, ‘What is it that you worship? Is it a falsehood – gods other than God – that you desire? What then is your opinion of the Lord of the Worlds?’ Then he cast a glance at the stars, and he said, ‘I am indeed sick!’ So they turned away from him, and departed. Then he turned to their gods and said, ‘Will you not eat [of the offerings before you]? What is the matter with you that you speak not?’ Then he turned upon them, striking them with might (and breaking them). (al-Saffat, 37.83-93)

2. The second allusion of Abraham is mentioned in the following verses:

We bestowed on Abraham his rectitude before, and We were well acquainted with him. Behold! He said to his father and his people, ‘What are these images, to which you are (so assiduously) devoted in worship?’ They said, ‘We found our fathers worshipping them’. He said, ‘Indeed you have been in manifest deviation – you and your fathers.’ They said, ‘Have you brought us the truth, or are you one of those who jest?’ He said, ‘Nay, your Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth, He who created them. And I am a witness [to this truth]. By God, I have a plan for your idols after you go away and turn your backs.’ So he broke them to pieces, (all) but the biggest of them, that they might turn to it. They said, ‘Who has done this to our gods? He must indeed be some evil-doer!’ They said, ‘We have heard a youth talk of them: he is called Abraham.’ They said, ‘Then bring him before the eyes of the people, that they may bear witness.’ They said, ‘Are you the one who did this to our gods, O Abraham?’ He said, ‘Nay, he did it – this is their biggest one! Ask them, if they can speak!’ (al-Anbiya’, 21.51-63)

Some think that Abraham told a lie by saying, ‘Nay, he did it – this is their biggest one!’ The truth is that Abraham is using here a biting irony. What Abraham wanted was precisely that the people should understand that things that do not speak and can be of neither any good or harm to them were not to be worshipped. He succeeded, and his people, dumbfounded by his reasoning, could find no way out other than throwing him into the fire to protect their ‘gods’.

Abraham did not say that the idols had been broken by the biggest of them. Rather, in reply to their question, ‘Are you the one that did this to our gods, O Abraham?’, he said, ‘He did it’ and stopped – there is a significant stop in the reading of the verse – and then he continued: ‘This is their biggest one!’. Therefore, by the phrase, ‘He did it’, he alluded to the one who broke the idols, but diverted the attention of the people to the biggest one by continuing, ‘This is their biggest one!’

Once, God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, said to an old woman, The old will not enter Paradise.. When he saw that the old woman was distressed by his irony, he clarified: Because they will enter it as young people [4]. This is, in one way, similar to what Abraham did for some important purpose, and it was not therefore a lie.

3. In a hadith, and also in the Bible, we read that Abraham, upon him be peace, wanted his wife, Sarah to say, if asked who she was, that she was his sister, not his wife [5]. According to the Bible, Abraham did this because he would have been killed because of her. This too, is also not a lie, as the other allusions of Abraham mentioned above are not lies, in that, as declared in the Qur’an, all the believers are indeed brothers or sisters to each other.

In conclusion, Abraham, upon him be peace, never lied. If he had lied, he would certainly have been reproached by God, but there is not a single reference in the Qur’an to God having reproached him for lying. On the contrary, his allusions mentioned above are mentioned where he is praised in the Qur’an by God. For this reason, the Prophetic Tradition about those allusions should not be treated literally.

Why did Abraham pray for his unbelieving father?

Abraham’s father, Azar, was the man among his people who shaped idols out of wood or stones. Abraham started his mission by calling him to desist from idol-worship and turn towards God, the Creator of the heavens and the earth. When he encountered the inexplicable opposition of his father, he left him, saying: ‘I will pray for forgiveness for you,’ and because of this promise, he asked God’s pardon for him, saying, ‘Forgive my father, for that he is one of those who go astray!’ (Shu‘ara, 26.86).

Some have regarded Abraham’s asking God’s forgiveness for his father as a lapse, as his father was an unbeliever. However, it is difficult to regard it as a lapse. For, first of all, Abraham was a Prophet deputed by God to call people to the truth and salvation. Like every Prophet, he was so caring towards all of God’s servants that he grieved himself to death if they did not follow God’s way to happiness and salvation in both worlds. We can discern in the following verses to what extent he desired his father's guidance:

(Also) mention in the Book (the story of) Abraham: He was a man of truth, a Prophet. Behold, he said to his father: ‘My father, why worship you that which hears not and sees not, and can profit you nothing? My father, surely there has come to me the knowledge which has not reached you, so follow me; I will guide you to a straight, even way. O my father, serve not Satan, for Satan is a rebel against the Most Merciful. O my father, I fear lest a penalty afflict you from the Most Merciful, so that you become a friend to Satan.’ (Maryam, 19.41-45)

It was Abraham’s duty to call them to worship the One God regardless of their persistent rejection. Although the Qur’an openly stated that As to those who unbelieve, it is the same to them whether you warn them or not, for they will not believe (al-Baqara, 2.6), God’s Messenger never gave up warning them. Besides calling his father to the truth, Abraham prayed for his father until, as stated in the Qur’an, it became clear to him that his father was an enemy to God. When Abraham was convinced that his father was an enemy to God, he dissociated himself from him (al-Tawba, 9.114). God Almighty mentions this not as a lapse on Abraham’s part, but as a virtue, saying: For Abraham was most tender-hearted, forbearing. He also introduces Abraham’s conduct as an excellent example to follow:

There is for you an excellent example (to follow) in Abraham and those with him. They said to their people: ‘We are clear of you and whatever you worship besides God. We have rejected you, and there has arisen enmity and hatred forever between us and you, unless you believe in God and Him alone.’ But Abraham said to his father: ‘I will pray for forgiveness for you, although I have no power (to get) anything on your behalf from God.’ – ‘Our Lord! In You we have put our trust, and to You we turn in repentance; to You is the final return.’ (al-Mumtahana, 60.4)

As indicated above, Abraham’s prayer for his father was because of a promise he had made to him (al-Tawba, 9.114), and when it became clear to him that his father was an enemy to God, he dissociated himself from him and gave up praying for his forgiveness.

It should finally be noted here that some interpreters of the Qur’an do not accept that Azar was the father of Abraham. Although it is not a defect on the part of Abraham to descend from an unbelieving father, for God Almighty brings forth the living out of the dead, and brings forth the dead out of the living (Al ‘Imran, 3.27), the Qur’an always uses for Azar the word, Ab, meaning also uncle, step-father or foster-father or grandfather. Although the Prophet Abraham was prohibited to ask forgiveness for Azar, we see in the Qur’an that he asked forgiveness for his parents in his old age, saying: Our Lord! Forgive me, my parents, and all believers on the day that the Reckoning will be established’ (Abraham, 14.41). In this prayer, he uses the word, walid for father, meaning the one who begets him. It is therefore a strong probability that Azar was not his father who begot him. According to the Bible, the real father of Abraham was Terah. However, God knows best.

1. Muslim, “Iman,” 271.

2. Mulla Jami’ Nafahat al-Uns, 521.

3. Bukhari, “Anbiya’,” 11.

4. Ibn Kathir, Shama’il, 84–5.

5. Bukhari, “Anbiya’,” 8; Muslim, “Fada’il,” 154

 

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