Genesis 21:13, How Constantine Created Islam
“Yet I will also make a nation of the son of the bondwoman, because he is your seed.”
//These are the words of God, spoken to Abraham. Abraham is distressed by the hostility of his wife, Sarah, toward Hagar, his “bondwoman” … a hostility born of jealousy. It results in a division between the sons of these two women—Isaac and Ishmael—though the boys themselves never appear to be at odds. Indeed, they come together at the end of the story to bury their father when Abraham dies.
In today’s verse, God assures Abraham that Ishmael, too, will be the father of a great nation. Tradition holds that Israel (and Judaism) descends from Isaac, and the Arabian nations (and Islam) descend from Ishmael, so we can see for ourselves how deeply the division runs. Not because of Isaac or Ishmael, nor of Abraham’s favor toward either, nor of God, but because of the jealousy of one mother toward another.
With this interpretive history in mind, it’s interesting to note how Islam came about. Perhaps the story starts back with Constantine, the ruler who legitimized Christianity in the Roman Empire, but who did so by the sword. Picture an Arabian man about three centuries after Constantine, who had a series of visions convincing him that there were not multiple gods—the belief held by his countrymen and nearly everyone else outside the now-Christian Roman empire—but only one god; the god of Abraham. This man was Mohammed, of course, the founder of Islam. This was a rather unlikely revelation, when you think about it, and God was calling Mohammed to reveal this truth to his fellow Arabs.
But how could he do this? His message held a deep respect for Jesus, but he couldn’t become Jewish. Not after centuries of Christian anti-Semitism. He couldn’t become Roman Christian; that would be tantamount to an act of treason, surrendering to a hostile nation. Unwilling, however, to reject the God of his father Abraham, he managed to found a separate branch; his only means of remaining true to God. Islam was born.
The division and distrust continues today.
(Thanks to Brian McLaren’s book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, for inspiring today’s post.)