The Mystical Heart of Abraham
Inspired by a miniature painted a millennium ago, noted spiritual writer Christopher Bamford reflects on the venerable tradition of Abraham as patriarch and suggests that the heart of this father of three great monotheistic religions embodies “feminine” traits such as unselfish love, forbearance, hospitality, and, above all, receptivity to the Divine.
A remarkable miniature painted perhaps a thousand years ago suggests what lies within the mystical heart of Abraham. It depicts Abraham, holding the three communities that descend from him: the Jewish, the Christian, and the Muslim. As Dom Sylvester Huédard points out, this illumination “indicates in a single image both the unity of the human race and the unity of what is revealed . . . . It shows that the promises to Abraham are for the sake of all the children of Adam.” To many, the three Abrahamic religions seem to be distinct, so sharply differentiated as to be almost by definition hostile. But Abraham is the patriarch of three faiths. Contemplating the “feminine” heart of this father—loving, forgiving, hospitable—teaches us that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have also one spiritual mother.
One Community, 124,000 Prophets
The Qur’an (2.213) says, “Humanity used to be one community and [to every nation] God sent messengers.” Elsewhere, Muslims are reminded “To each . . . a way and a rule” (5.48) and “For every people. . .an apostle” (10.47). Diversity is not an aberration; it exists by divine permission. Although only 25 prophets are mentioned in the Qur’an, Islamic tradition is that every people has had its messenger, so that there have been an astonishing 124,000 prophets, including the sages of the Vedas, Zoroaster, Hermes, Akhenaton, Plato, and even Buddha.
Abraham is the initiator, the one who begins the cycle of the Complete Human. With him, the mythic hiero-history begun by Adam gives way to a new age. According to Jewish commentary in the Midrash, only Abraham, of all men, refused to help build the Tower of Babel—that structure that marked the end of a common language, a shared meaning, a unified community. His initial “No” indicates that Abraham does not catalyze change. Yet when God says, “Go, get thee out of thy country", Abraham replies, “Yes.” From a past of certain fragmentation, he moves toward an uncertain future.
As Emmanuel Levinas points out, God’s “Go!” is a metaphoric command to “turn inward, know yourself.” Abraham says “Yes” to the unknown and “Yes” to a new knowing. Responding to the call of the Infinite, Abraham uncovers the infinite within himself. Leaving the old self behind, he moves toward a “new” infinite Self. Thus Abraham’s outer journey from “the land of Ur” mirrors his inner journey.
Smashing the False, Surrendering to the True
A vital step on this inner journey, is the smashing of idols. Idolatry, in this context, is not merely the worship of “graven images” but the blinding attachment to all literality, a rigid adherence to preconceptions that exclude love. Midrash and Qur’anic tradition both include a story about the boy Abraham helping in his father’s workshop, in which images of local gods were crafted. One day, Abraham smashes all the idols. “Why worship gods you create?” he says. “Worship the Source of all.” Only in a dissolution of fixed certainties, the tale suggests, can that still-unknown Source of all be found.
Abraham’s path, then, begins in negation and continues in faith. He has no representation of God—his love has no object. Having said “No” to idolatry, Abraham says “Yes” to submission. The divine directive calls for displacement and indeterminacy as its crucial experience. Abraham agrees to become a wanderer on a mapless journey. His true Self travels with him, and when it manifests, Abraham marks the spot of its emergence with an altar and moves on without hesitation—and without destination.
Wandering, Abraham learns, is itself a dwelling. He finds that the world itself not fixed and sedentary, but endlessly nomadic. He moves through “Messianic time,” the time in between what has been abandoned and what has not yet arrived. Abraham waits for what he will recognize only when it arrives. He is a seeker who does not know what is sought, who must trust that he will be guided.
Abraham, God’s Intimate Friend
Yet Abraham speaks to the Divine as to a close friend. There is on-going dialogue, an intimacy that Andre Neher calls the “thou-ing of love.” As Levinas points out, “the word of the one and only God is precisely the word one cannot help but hear and cannot help but answer: the word that obliges us to enter into discourse.” In The Bezels of Wisdom, Abraham is characterized as God’s intimate, one permeated in an effable reciprocity and mutuality of being and non-being, knowing and unknowing. Such a relationship, in the deepest sense, is a friendship. It is because of Abraham, Ibn Arabi explains, that “hospitality became a sacred act,” a welcoming that forms the basis for both faith and friendship.
The name of Abraham has become a byword for hospitable generosity. In any form, he welcomes the “other” without reserve or calculation. To every “other,” stranger or kinsman, Abraham offers his trust, his home, his possessions, and, ultimately, even life itself. Obviously, hospitality evinces itself in the legendary feast he provides for the three strangers who visit him on the plains of Mamre. More subtle is the larger hospitality, the greatness of heart with which Abraham intercedes for others, even the sinners of Sodom, but also for the son of Hagar, Ishmael. Most dramatically, Abraham responds hospitably to God’s commandments, even “entertaining” God’s radical request that he sacrifice a son. Abraham is called upon to welcome the strange and the stranger and to see only holiness.
Accepting the “strange” or “other” within himself is also part of the hospitality. Although generally perceived as quintessentially patriarchal, like all revelations the Abrahamic revelation is “feminine.” The receptivity affirmed by Abraham’s “Yes,” and the hospitality practiced as a result are associated with the feminine. At one time, what we now call “the Abrahamic religions” had at their heart the mystical “feminine” infinitely yearning heart of Abraham. This heart, at once longing and in love with the Unknown and united with it, softened religious “bodies” stiffening into idolatry, literalism, and exclusivism.
Even today, our preconceptions must be discarded for us to reach that mystical heart. We speak of plural Abrahamic religions, not of the single faith that Abraham inaugurated. To consider its modern expression as three distinct and separate dispensations is a contradiction of its unity. Judaism, Christianity and Islam contain one and reflect one another. Each is at once universal and particular, a kind of commentary on the “other” religions, while the Abrahamic faith includes all and lies both within and outside each. God being One, religion must be one.
Three Streams, One Single Ocean
We see three different streams rather than a single ocean because of human history. For instance, when the miniature of Abraham was painted, Judaism and Christianity were engaged in a polemical process of defining themselves in opposition to one another, through exclusion. For the 400 years following the Crucifixion, Christianity and Judaism were so interwoven that they truly may be said to have contained each other, their differences merely interpretative and superficial. As Daniel Boyarin stresses, what we now see as two distinct faiths “should not be thought of a mother and son (or daughter) but as “twins—children of Abraham—joined at the hip.”
Solomon’s Temple, scholars say, included three deities: El-Elyon, the Most High, was supreme. The Elohim, the “angelic host,” were the sons of El-Elyon. First and most important of these was Yahweh. Asherah, Wisdom, was a goddess who was the Holy of Holies, the tabernacle, the “living ark of God.”
A writer or writers commonly known as the Deuteronomist considered this configuration idolatrous and conflated the small pantheon into a single deity, Yahweh, who became, as a result, oddly androgynous. Wisdom, the feminine aspect of the Divine, was mourned. Contemporaries of the prophet Jeremiah complained, “Since we left off burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out libations to her, we have been in want, consumed by the sword and by famine . . . . Before, we had plenty of food; we prospered and saw no evil.” The Book of Enoch charges: “godlessly their hearts forsook Wisdom; and the house of the kingdom was burned; and the whole chosen people was scattered.”
Abraham and Sophia
“The Enochian writers and Gnostics remembered [her] as Sophia/Wisdom and the Kabbalists as Shekinah,” writes Margaret Barker, linking this Divine Feminine with “the Queen of Heaven . . . so deep were her roots in Israel’s religion that her loss was never forgotten; on the contrary, her restoration was to be a sign of redemption.” The heart of Abraham, filled with its great “Yes” of assent and acceptance, is evident in the love of the Queen of Heaven. It shapes Mary’s “Be it unto me according to thy Word” and Jesus’ “Not my will but thy will be done.” The Abrahamic Wisdom traditions echo his “Yes” of submission and hospitality.
In Islam, too, the characteristic hospitality and feminine receptivity at the heart of Abraham welcomed in all. The Qur’an honors Jews and Christians and calls to community, Ummah, a consensus and unification of the diverse.
Despite popular prejudices, Islam is also permeated with the Divine Feminine, both historically and today. It is a matter of record that the Ka’aba at Mecca was once idolatrous, principally a shrine to the Goddess. Of the more than 300 images there, Mohammad allowed only one to remain: Mary with the infant Jesus.
In addition to the names Ar-Rahman and Ar-Rahim—both derived from the word for “womb”—Ad-Dhat, the Essence beyond Being, is “the mother of the Divine Attributes.” Wisdom survives as Hikmah, and the only woman that the Qur’an mentions by name, Mary, is permeated with Divine Spirit: “We breathed into her [Mary] of our spirit and we made her and her son a sign to the worlds. “(21. 91) In fact, the Qur’an mentions Mary by name 34 times compared to the 19 times her name is written in the New Testament. A Qur’anic sura, or chapter, is called by her name. Since most of the other eight suras that have personal name titles refer to prophets, some commentators have surmised that she is the prophet for all the descendents of Abraham.
Abrahamic hospitality is also extended to Jesus, who is singled out for honor in the Qur’an, more respectful titles heaped upon him than upon any other figure from Islam’s past. He is a prophet, a messenger, a servant, a witness, a mercy, an example, the Word of God and the Spirit of God, to cite the descriptors. Twenty-three times he is called “son of Mary;” 11 times referred to as “Messiah.”
Esoterically, Jesus is the “Seal of Universal Sainthood,” the initiator of sanctity and the spiritual path. In this guise, Jesus was the prime initiator and guide of the Al-Shaikh al-Akbar, (“the greatest sheikh”) Ibn Arabi, who wrote: “He was my first teacher, the Master through whom I returned to God.”
The Echoing “Yes”
At the mystical heart of Abraham, then, is a profound, and ever-recurring “Yes” to all that only misunderstanding, willful or otherwise, can negate. This heart, assents. Assenting, it opens the way to welcoming hospitality. In this “Yes,” is true faith—paradigmatized by Abraham, incarnated by Mary, and sealed by Mohammed—in which all opposites are unified and all truths contained. In this “Yes” all yearnings for the Infinite undertake an endless journey.
Forsaking idolatry, this “Yes” recognizes all forms, all images, as way-stations on the wandering that leads to metamorphosis. This “Yes” flows endlessly through God and through God’s creation like divine water, radiates like divine light, reveals and thus enables revelation. This “Yes” is the human echo of the Divine “Yes.” It has no object. It is a “Yes” that listens even as it is spoken, that interprets everything, that contains all. Finally, this “Yes” is Love that reaches from heaven to earth and from earth to heaven. This “Yes,” welcomes whatever and whomever is given. Reaching out to all, enclosing all in his mystical heart, the “Yes” of Abraham is a proclamation of unity that can be echoed by all hearts.