The Term ‘Abrahamic’


image above: detail of Abraham and Isaac on the way to the Place of Sacrifice Marc Chagall, 1931

It is endlessly troublesome to create helpful categories for the myriad religions of the world.

The centuries of hostility between the so-called Abrahamic religions originate from their competitive claims to the Hebrew prophetic tradition and from their mutually exclusive claims to the revelations attributed to Abraham and the canon of Israelite prophets. I’m not sure why this category title ever felt right to anyone, religious or otherwise.


Grouping Judaism, Christianity and Islam together for the sake of study does make sense; but neither the title Abrahamic Religion, nor the title Revealed Religion will do the student of religion much good. This problem is part and parcel of the fundamental problems of religious studies.

Every label and every division results in argument, and sometimes, resistance to the very idea of religious studies. The names Abrahamic and Revealed Religion cause as many problems as they solve when trying to group together Judaism, Christianity and Islam for the sake of study.

Recently I have found a kindred spirit in the book, Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History by Aaron W. Hughes published in 2012 by Oxford University Press.

Strangely this book is available for free on Google Books, but I have already bought it anyway. This is the first time I have read an opinion coming from Religious Studies that seems to resonate so strikingly with my own. I hope to explore this book in a future post.

This present post is of my own opinion, drawing from my classes of eight years ago.

Christianity and Islam, the two most populated religions in the world, are founded upon criticism, correction and rejection of Judaism. The title Abrahamic implies the opposite; with the title Abrahamic we imply that there is a common belief in the Hebrew Prophetic tradition, and in the founding prophet Abraham, and that the Hebrew Prophetic tradition is somehow common ground.abrahamicSymbols

For the student standing outside of these three religions, the term ‘Abrahamic’ is used to indicate that these religions are ‘based upon’ the Judaic tradition of Abraham and the sacred history of the Israelites. But from within – for example Islam – it is impossible to imply that Islam is based upon or comes from Judaism.

Both Christianity and Islam claim to be the ‘true Judaism’. These two religions claim to be the correct fulfillment of what God was trying to impart to the ancient Israelites.

Since the nineteenth-century we have grown accustom to the term ‘Judeo-Christian’, which is an attempt to extract a modern moral and political code of ethics from Christianity as dependent upon the ancient moral codes of the Jewish people. This is a modern political position which attempts to suppress ancient bigotry and avoid the mix of dependency and hostility of Christianity to Judaism.

It is a particular and immutable element of both Christianity and Islam that an adherent must stop being Jewish in order to be a part of the faithful. It is quite misleading to the student of religion to name Abraham as a common element or insist that these religions worship the ‘same God’.

I’m not sure that it is even possible to familiarize oneself with these three major world religions in a way that escapes the traditional, historical commentary of one religion upon another.

The most common alternative is to refer to Judaism, Christianity and Islam as the Revealed Religions. But this title is equally unsatisfying, and maybe even fundamentally misleading. I argue that all religions claim to have an origin that is, in one form or another, revealed to humanity from outside of humanity.

image above:  detail of Abraham and Isaac on the way to the Place of Sacrifice Marc Chagall, 1931



Filed under Origins, Religious Controversy, Religious Literacy, Ways to Learn the World Religions

3 responses to “The Term ‘Abrahamic’

  1. Nice piece. I assume you have, but just in case you haven’t, you might enjoy bruce Feiler’s “Abraham”. I really enjoy his work and as someone who has traveled much, you might really appreciate his journeys through all his works.


  2. Great read. Nice. Simple. And to the point. I feel this puts into words a lot of my own feelings as a student. However, I didn’t have the best words to articulate those feelings.

    M. A. Franco


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