+ Click image to enlarge
of engraving printed in 1860. Considered to be the fourth holiest site in Islam, Al-Haram Al-Ibrahimi (Sanctuary of Abraham) or Tomb of the Patriarchs dominates the city of
Hebron, Palestine. This 1000-year old mosque enshrines the tombs of prophets Abraham "Ibrahim", Isaac "Is'haq", Jacob and their wives. It is believed that prophet Mohammad
(saws) visited it on his night journey from Makkah to Jerusalem.
Not part of original article.
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 gende way. He is young, only forty-three years
old. He is also nervous. This is his first interview with a non-
"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
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
"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.