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Abraham: Journey of Faith
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Land of Abraham

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By Tad Szulc Photographs by Reza

Abraham’s biblical trek through the Middle East kindled three major religions, whose past and present conflicts would surely sadden this patriarch of peace.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

At this point Genesis records an event that would profoundly influence the course of world history. In the ancient Middle East wives who could not bear children encouraged their husbands to procreate with slaves or concubines. Thus Sarah, who was barren, convinced Abraham to have a child with Hagar, an Egyptian slave who had probably stayed with them since the clan’s expulsion by the pharaoh.

The birth of Ishmael, Abraham’s first son, foreshadowed the emergence in Arabia in the seventh century A.D. of a new religion—Islam—under the guidance of the Prophet Muhammad. The Koran calls Abraham’s first son an apostle (and) a prophet. . . . He was most acceptable in the sight of his Lord. Ishmael’s pedigree lent legitimacy to the new faith, but the Koran never mentions Hagar’s name.

Abraham first, then Ishmael, are the perfect models of piety for Muslims. Abraham’s name appears in 25 of the 114 chapters of the Koran, and to this day Ibrahim and Ismail are common first names among Muslims. “The Koran explains that all true revelations come from God,” says John Voll, professor of Islamic history at Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. “It is the record of the divine revelation, which is shared by all the scriptures.”

There is no doubt that Muhammad and his inner circle of disciples believed in Abraham as the founder of their faith. The Koran orders Muslims to follow the religion of Abraham. Abraham was not a Jew nor yet a Christian; but he was true in Faith, . . . and he joined not gods with God.

Muhammad was born in Mecca around 570. There he was surrounded by Jewish and Christian communities—-although Muslims do not believe that these faiths influenced the revelation of Islam. In 622 Muhammad moved to Medina, where his following quickly grew. He was recognized as the last in a series of prophets, including Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, all of whom appear, redefined, in the Holy Book of Islam.

The Koran reports that Abraham and Isma’il raised the foundations of the House. The “house” is the Kaaba in Mecca, Islam’s holiest shrine. One of the four corners of this small rectangular structure is a sacred black stone that is a remnant of the original building. The annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the hajj, when Muslims from all over the world circle the Kaaba, reinforces the central role of Abraham and Ishmael in the Islamic faith.

The Koran does not give particulars about the birth of Ishmael, but Genesis goes into great detail. It reports that after Hagar became pregnant, Sarah resented her. She complained to Abraham that when the Egyptian “saw she had conceived, I became slight in her eyes,” and she went on harassing the girl. Abraham replied meekly, “Look, your slavegirl is in your hands. Do to her whatever you think right.”

Consequently Hagar fled from Sarah into the desert wilderness. Sarah’s motivations are blurred, but what intrigues Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is that she acted independently of Abraham when circumstances required. As the rabbi put it, Sarah and Abraham were as much partners as a married couple, and “she would allow Hagar to be an instrument of procreation but would not allow her the honor and privilege of being Abraham’s beloved wife-companion.” By law, Steinsaltz said, “women were quite independent. They had the right to own property, and they had standing. Sarah had a say, in one way or another.” I asked him if this makes Sarah the first great feminist. “Yes,” the rabbi shot back.

God, for his part, took another view of the situation. An angel intercepted Hagar when, apparently heading home to Egypt, pregnant, she stopped at a spring near Kadesh in the Negev. Hagar told the messenger she was fleeing from Sarah, but the angel ordered her to “return to your mistress and suffer harassment at her hand.” As a consolation the angel said to Hagar, “Look, you have conceived and will bear a son and you will call his name Ishmael for the Lord has heeded your suffering.” Hagar obeyed. Ishmael (whose name in Hebrew means “God has heard”) was born. Abraham was said to be 86 at the time.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

Abraham: Journey of Faith
VIDEO Photographer Reza discusses the moving and menacing moments of his coverage. Click Here

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Online Extra
Farewell to a Friend
National Geographic Senior Editor Oliver Payne gives tribute to writer Tad Szulc.

Final Edit
The one that got away from our coverage of Abraham is this month’s Final Edit.

How can the embattled followers of the three religions born of Abraham reconcile their differences and embrace his message of peace? Share your thoughts.

Enjoy these desktop images this holiday season.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

While Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all revere Abraham as their spiritual ancestor, each religion has a different honorific for him. For Jews he is Father Abraham. For Christians he is Father in Faith. In the Koran, the holy book of Islam, God says, “I will make thee an Imam to the Nations,” or leader to all people (Sura 2: 124).

The Academy for Judaic, Christian, and Islamic Studies at UCLA works to foster communication and connection between people of all three faiths. The Academy’s President, George B. Grose, explains how all three religions have intertwining destinies: “They are separate and distinct yet conjoined. They will interact to the last days. This interaction is threefold. If there is interplay between two, wait a moment, wait a day, wait a thousand years—and the third will appear.” Abraham, representing a common spiritual heritage, can be a powerful force uniting Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

—Michelle R. Harris

Bible Versions and Translations
This website allows you to read different translations of the book of Genesis, from the King James to the New Revised Standard.

The Holy Quran
On this site you can search different translations of the Koran by passage.

Internet Islamic History Sourcebook
Interested in finding out about the Muslim world? Look at this site for sourcebooks for Islamic and pre-Islamic history. You’ll find links to places where you can hear the Koran chanted and where you can read source material on the Prophet Muhammad.

The Dome of the Rock
Take a closer look at the Dome of the Rock, and learn about its history and significance.

Jewish Virtual Library
This is the Jewish Virtual Library site about the Tomb of the Patriarchs (also known as the Cave of Machpelah).

Hajj: The Journey of a Lifetime
For more information on the hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, check out this site, which includes photographs and detailed information.

The Samaritans
Learn about the Samaritans and their history and beliefs.


Alter, Robert. Genesis. W.W. Norton and Company, 1996.

Armstrong, Karen. A History of God.Knopf, 1993.

Esposito, John L. Islam: The Straight Path, 3rd ed.Oxford University Press, 1998.

Finkelstein, Israel, and Neil Asher Silberman. The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts.The Free Press, 2001.

Glasse, Cyril. The Concise History of Islam. Harper and Row, 1989.

Grose, George B., and Benjamin J. Hubbard, eds. The Abraham Connection: A Jew, Christian and Muslim in Dialogue. Cross Cultural Publications Inc, 1994.

Holt, P.M., Ann K. Lambton, and Bernard Lewis, eds. The Cambridge History of Islam. Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Kugel, James L. The Bible as It Was. Harvard University Press, 1997.

Kuschel, Karl-Josef. Abraham: Sigh of Hope for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Continuum, 1995.

Marcus, Amy Docker. The View from Nebo. Little Brown, 2000.

Meyers, Eric M., ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East. Oxford University Press, 1997.

Shanks, Hershel, ed. Ancient Israel: Revised and Expanded: From Abraham to the Destruction of the Temple. Biblical Archaeology Society, 1999.

Shaw, Ian, ed. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Steinsaltz, Adin. Biblical Images. Jason Aronson, Inc., 1994.


MacLeish, Kenneth. “Abraham, the Friend of God,” National Geographic (December 1966), 739-789.

Simpich, Frederick. “Change Comes to Bible Lands,” National Geographic (December 1938), 695-750.

Mallowan, Max Edgar Lucien. “New Light on Ancient Ur: Excavations at the Site of the City of Abraham Reveal Geographical Evidence of the Biblical Story of the Flood,” National Geographic (January 1930) 94-130.


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