Lodahl – Claiming Abraham

Lodahl, Michael, 2010, Claiming Abraham: Reading the Bible and the Qur’an Side by Side , Grand Rapids: Brazos, 240pp, pb


Many of the Bible’s characters and stories are also found in the Qur’an, but there are often different details or new twists in the Islamic retelling of biblical narrative. In Claiming Abraham, seasoned theologian Michael Lodahl explores these fascinating divergences to discover the theological difference they make.
Writing from a Christian perspective that is respectful of the Islamic tradition, Lodahl encourages readers to reflect on the real and appreciable differences among Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. He contends that exploring the distinct trajectories created by the different tellings of biblical stories gives readers a deeper appreciation for each faith’s reading of Scripture. To this end, Claiming Abraham compares and contrasts how the Bible and the Qur’an depict and treat certain characters in common to both religions, including Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Lodahl provides extended theological reflection on doctrines held in common by Christians and Muslims, such as creation, revelation, and the resurrection of the body. He also explores rabbinic writings as an important source for understanding the Qur’an and accentuates the critical role of interpretive communities in the making of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions.

Claiming Abraham offers an accessible introduction to Muslim theology and to the Qur’an’s leading themes, providing readers with a fuller understanding of Islam. It will benefit professors and students in theology, comparative religion, intercultural studies, and Islam courses as well as thoughtful lay readers and pastors.

(taken from the publisher's website)


By Danny Crowther, post-doctoral researcher at the Centre for Muslim-Christian Studies

In 2013, the Michael Ramsey Prize for theological writing was awarded to Michael Lodahl’s ‘Claiming Abraham’ for ‘a novel approach to interreligious dialogue.’ In this book, Lodahl considers Muslim, Christian and Jewish understandings of a number of biblical characters and stories. The title ‘Claiming Abraham’ is, in fact, shorthand for the traditions of Abrahamic faith which include Abraham, the Torah, Creation, Revelation, Adam, Cain and Abel, Noah, Sinai, Mary, Jesus, the essence of God and the Day of Judgement. In each case, Lodahl presents the traditions of the Qur’an in parallel to those of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. His thesis is that that the traditions of the Qur’an are different because they reflect post-biblical rabbinic and Christian interpretations. In the words of Lodahl, ‘I discover and present in this book what I consider to be compelling evidence of direct Jewish and Christian influences upon Muhammad’s thinking’ (p.72).

Lodahl’s expertise is undoubtedly in the field of rabbinic literature. In regard to Abraham, the Torah, Creation, Revelation, Adam, Cain and Abel, Noah and Sinai, Lodahl finds that a strong similarity between the Qur’anic version and at least one rabbinic writing that represents the Jewish oral tradition extant at the time of Muhammad. For example, Genesis Rabba, a collection of oral traditions and teachings related to the book of Genesis, expresses unease with the way in which Abraham argues with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. This unease is also expressed in the Qur’an at Hud 11:69-76 where God rebukes Abraham and commands him to accept God’s judgement unequivocally. Genesis Rabbah also understands the angels to have not literally eaten the food prepared by Abraham. Whilst this understanding is against the text of Genesis itself (18:8 say that Abraham stood by as the angels ate), Hud 11:70 records that Abraham suspected his visitors were angels ‘when he saw their hands went not towards the meal.’ Genesis Rabba agrees with the Quran at other places too, such as in the pre-creation existence of the Torah which mirrors the idea of an eternal Qur’an or Umm al-Kitab. An authoritative source of Jewish oral tradition is found in the Talmud (of Babylon or Jerusalem). For example, the treatise, Baba Metzia in the Babylonian Talmud teaches how the revealed Law must be applied in the minutest detail through the agency of human reasoning and consensus agreement. This is very similar to the Muslim approach of ijtihad and ijma (personal study and scholarly consensus). The giving of the Law at Mount Sinai is another striking example of the interconnectedness of the Qur’an with Jewish oral tradition. Lodhal notes that Avoda Tzara in the Babylonian Talmud describes how Mount Sinai was hung over the people who stood underneath it. As a result, they were faced with a choice of acceptance of the Law or the judgement of the mountain. This oral tradition is based on an unusual and over-literal rendering of the use of the Hebrew preposition tachat in Exodus 19:7. However, the same imagery of a mountain held over the heads of the people of Israel to frighten them into obeying the Law is found repeatedly in the Qur’an at Al Baqara 2:62-62, 91-93, An-Nisa 4;154 and Al-A‘raf 7:171.

Lodahl refers to a number of sources of Jewish oral traditions including the Jewish tractate, ‘The Life of Adam and Eve,’ (known in Greek as ‘The Apocalypse of Moses’), the Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible and collections of rabbinic commentary on the biblical text (midrash) such as Tanchuma Bereshi. Lodahl also refers to a number of lesser known Christian treatises such as the Infancy Gospel of James, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Apocalypse of Peter and the Second Treatise of Great Seth. In each case, Lodahl finds that these secondary sources ‘explain’ the difference between the biblical and Quranic account.

The approach of Lodahl is fascinating, but it is not original. These observations have been made from medieval times in Muslim-Jewish discourse as documented by Wasserstrom (Between Muslim and Jew, 1995). Indeed, Abraham Katsh (Judaism and the Koran, 1954) applied this methodology to almost every verse of Surah Al-Baqara (there are 286). Lodahl, however, reports each of his connections as a personal discovery. For example, on p.128 he writes, ‘Were it not for the privilege I enjoyed in 1988 of studying rabbinic literature under the tutelage of Israeli philosophers David Hartmen and Tzvi Marx at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, I would not have recognised in these mountainous passages from the Qur’an yet another Talmudic tale…’ This style of writing adds much interest to the text, but it cannot be described as academic since it fails to interact with the previous research in this area. Lodahl does not indicate whether any of his connections have been noted before, and if so by whom and to what effect. This weakness is also evident in his chapters discussing the Qur’anic conceptions of Jesus, Mary, the essence of God (Trinity) and the Day of Judgement. In these chapters, the references to Christian extra-canonical writings are brief and the discussion leads directly to the teachings of twenty-first century orthodox Christianity rather than to the beliefs of the Nestorian, Jacobite, Coptic, Armenian and Byzantine Christians through which Muhammad may have become aware of them.

Lodahl has written an entertaining and insightful introduction to some of the Christian and Jewish context of the Qur’an. The background narrative of this work is one in which Muhammad is presumed to have not been aware of the scriptures of Judaism or Christianity. For example, on p.131, in reference to Mount Sinai, Lodahl writes, ‘It seems reasonable, too, to suspect that Muhammad assumed that this scene of Mount Sinai hanging suspended over the children of Israel was the unvarnished biblical story.’ To Christian readers who understand the Scriptures to be a product of human culture and divine inspiration, this description of the Qur’an sounds both reasonable and respectful. Muslim readers, however, who understand the Qur’an to be the pre-existent Word of God, may find Lodahl’s approach unbearably offensive. He does not appear to recognise how difficult this conception of Scripture will be to most Muslims. This is a great shame since, as a result, Muslim readers are repelled from working through the import of his observations. I am sure there are other ways of understanding the evidence that Lodahl has presented. Lodahl correctly observes that the Qur’an uses of Christian and Jewish seventh century oral tradition in order to communicate its message to the people of seventh century Arabia. The ignorance of Muhammad need not be part of the explanation of this evidence.