A few days after the last Friday of Ramadan I walked hurriedly through the drizzly streets of the Muslim Quarter in the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City. The air is gray and the mood even grayer. I duck underneath a Mamluk bridge and step through a rarely used tunnel before arriving at a small stone staircase just steps from the Iron Gate to the Haram al-Sharif. Two Israeli guards are manning the entrance. They eye me suspiciously. Westerners don’t make this walk. A woman steps out of the doorway with her laundry, catches sight of me, and quickly retreats and slams the door.
At the top of a narrow staircase I enter a small, white- washed office, with a green-screen computer, a floor heater, a coffeemaker, and a copy of the multivolume Encyclopedia of Islam. The office belongs to Dr. Yusef Nadsheh, the head of the Department of Islamic Archaeology for the Palestinian Authority and curator of the Dome of the Rock. We chat for a few minutes and share a cup of tea. He shows me a chart of all the crescent shapes atop minarets across Jerusalem.
Promptly at 10:45 A.M., a broad-shouldered man with a town-elder face and a businesslike manner walks through the door and greets me coolly but cordially. I offer him a seat next to me. He declines and sits down across the room. Sheikh Yusef Abu Sneina is the imam of El-Aksa Mosque, one of the most vocal Islamic leaders in Jerusalem, and the one who delivered the fiery sermon I overheard on the last Friday of Ramadan. He has dark hair and a salt-and-pepper beard cut close to his face. His black eyebrows are sharply etched and remind me, against my will, of Ayatollah Khomeini’s, but his eyes crinkle in a gentle way. He is young, only forty-three years old. He is also nervous. This is his first interview with a non- Muslim reporter.
“He is known for his knowledge of the Koran,” Yusef Nadsheh had said of the imam before he arrived. “He knows it by heart, as well as the hadith.” He was referring to accounts of what the prophet Muhammad said and did that were gathered in the centuries after his death and are considered the most reliable authority on his thinking. “He also speaks beautiful Arabic. He lived for five years in Medina, the center of Islamic learning.”
Our conversation was stilted at first. I thanked the sheikh for taking the time to meet me, and asked a few questions about his life. His answers were perfunctory. In time I asked him about the importance of Abraham to Islam. “Abraham is a major figure,” he said, his voice stern, lecturing. “His descendants are like a spins along the generations. Among the twenty-five prophets in Islam, seventeen belong to the family of Abraham. And Abraham himself makes eighteen. Everything in Islam is bound to him.”
I asked him why, of all the people in the world, God chose Abraham.
“God didn’t just choose Abraham,” he said. “He tested Abraham. Abraham had problems with the king who worshiped idols, he had problems with his wife, he was old before he had children, God asked him to sacrifice his son. And every time he submitted to God. He was completely devoted to God. This is an example we all have to follow.”
In the Torah, I mentioned, Abraham does not always obey God. He converses with God. He even argues with God. I asked him if he felt the same way about Abraham in the Koran.
“Yes,” he said, and cited the example of Abraham and the birds, a story that is not in the Bible. In sura 2, Abraham asks God for proof that he can raise the dead. “Have you no faith?” God asks. “Yes,” Abraham says, “but just to reassure my heart.” So God tells Abraham to take four birds, cut their bodies to pieces, and scatter them over the mountains. Then he tells Abraham to summon them home. “They will come swiftly to you,” God assures him.
“So God showed the power he had, and Abraham believed him,” Sheikh Abu Sneina said. “Therefore Abraham submitted himself to God.”
“So was Abraham a Muslim?” I asked. This was one of the key questions I had come to explore. The Muslim decision to embrace Abraham was arguably even more remarkable than the Christian decision to embrace him. Islam emerged a full six centuries after Christianity, and at least a millennium after Judaism. Muhammad lived twenty-five hundred years after Abraham would have lived. And yet Muhammad followed the same course that Paul and early Christians did, and the same course that Ezra and early Jews did: He attached his spiritual message to the earliest prophet. Then, just like those forebears, early Muslims, having basked in the glory of the past, proceeded to claim that past as theirs alone.
“That depends on what you mean by Muslim,” Sheikh Abu Sneina said. “If you take a Muslim to be anyone who submits himself to God, then Islam began with Adam, continued through Abraham, then all the prophets of Judaism and Christianity. But if you mean a Muslim is one who follows Islam, with the prophet Muhammad and all the interpretations, then that comes much later.”
“So which definition do you prefer?” I asked. “For me, Abraham submitted himself to Allah. He did everything for God. I don’t know if he’s like me, but I would like to be like him.”
Excerpted from Abraham – A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths by Bruce Feiler.
Copyright 2002, 2004 by Bruce Feiler. HarperCollins Publishers