Published: November 2009
The Rise of Three Faiths
Judaism, Christianity, Islam
By Jeff Sheler

They are the great ancient repositories of monotheism—the religions of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad—and their visions and cultures often conflict, sometimes violently. Yet they are locked in an uneasy symbiosis, connected by history and a shared reverence for the land that bore them all from a single seed. Each traces its origins to the story of a solitary figure, an ancient patriarch and exemplar of faith, who undergirds the sacred literature of all three.

That founding father was Abram, an obscure shepherd and the reputed son of an idol maker, who packed his tents and his family and left his ancestral homeland in upper Mesopotamia, along with its manifold deities, in obedience to the command of the one true God: "Go …  from your father's house to the land I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great."

And so at the age of 75, Abram and his wife, Sarai, set out for the land of Canaan. There he would live the life of a nomad, tending his flocks, first at Shechem, a great walled city guarding a strategic pass between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, and later at Bethel, Ai, Hebron, and other cities to the south.

It was at Shechem, according to the Hebrew Scriptures, that the Lord first appeared to Abram and promised that his descendants would inherit the land around him. Out of gratitude, Abram erected an altar—an act of veneration he may have learned from his forebears' worship of Nanna, the great moon god of Ur, and his son Utu, the sun god. In years to come, Abram would build many altars and offer many sacrifices to the one God he had come to believe was over all creation, a God he knew as Yahweh.

Despite God's promise that Abram would father a great nation, Sarai remained childless in her 70s. Despairing, Sarai offered Abram her handmaid, Hagar, who bore him a son. They named him Ishmael. (According to Islamic tradition, Ishmael would become the father of the Arab people.) The Lord appeared to Abram again, saying the promise would be fulfilled not through Ishmael but through a son to be born to Sarai. God changed Abram's name to Abraham, father of a multitude of nations, and Sarai's to Sarah, meaning "princess," and a year later, at the age of 90, Sarah gave birth to Isaac. As a test of Abraham's faith, God commanded him to sacrifice Isaac but stayed his hand at the last moment.

God's covenant with Abraham was passed to Isaac and to his son, Jacob, who was given the name Israel—one who wrestled with God. Jacob's 12 sons would become progenitors of the 12 tribes of Israel. Seeking refuge from famine, Jacob and his clan migrated to Egypt, where they settled in the eastern portion of the fertile Nile Delta—the biblical land of Goshen—and their descendants "multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them." After a few generations, their fortunes turned: They were enslaved by the pharaoh, who "made their lives bitter with hard service." Through strange chance, a young Hebrew slave named Moses was adopted into the pharaoh's household and became a prince of Egypt before he fled to the wilderness after killing a guard. There God called to Moses from a burning bush and told him to go to the pharaoh "that you may bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt" and lead them to the Promised Land.

The biblical accounts that follow are familiar—Moses' confrontation with the pharaoh, the sending of plagues and the striking down of the firstborn of every household, the marking of Israelite doorposts with lamb's blood so that death would pass over their houses—and they resulted, as intended, in the Israelites' release. Moses led his people out of Egypt and into the Sinai, where he received the Ten Commandments and the other laws of the Torah. After wandering for 40 years, the Israelites arrived at the Jordan River and crossed into the land God had promised to their fathers.

Roughly 300 years later, faced with a growing military threat from the Philistines, the independent-minded Israelite tribes began to unite, according to the Bible, first under Saul and subsequently under David, who forged them into a powerful nation with Jerusalem as its capital. The reigns of King David and his son Solomon marked the glory years of ancient Israel, roughly 1000 B.C. to 930 B.C. During Solomon's reign, vast wealth poured into the kingdom, funding massive construction projects.

Of all Solomon's buildings, the grandest was the temple in Jerusalem, a mammoth, elaborately adorned edifice of quarried stone and Lebanon cedar that would become the House of Yahweh, the focal point of the Israelite religion. Built on Mount Moriah—the site where Abraham was said to have offered up Isaac—the temple became a place of daily prayer and burnt offerings, replacing the crude altars that had been scattered throughout the countryside. It stood for more than 370 years. (A second, more modest temple was later built on the same site. It would be renovated and expanded by Herod the Great about 10 B.C.)

When Solomon's reign ended, the nation descended into religious and political turmoil and split into rival northern and southern kingdoms. Israel, the northern kingdom, came to an end with an Assyrian conquest in 720 B.C. The southern kingdom, Judah, survived until the Babylonian king Nebuchadrezzar sacked Jerusalem in 586 B.C. and carried the people into captivity. It was a period that saw the rise of prophets—stern men of God who chastised the people for their faithlessness and who warned of calamities that would befall unless they repented. After the Persians overthrew the Babylonians in 539 B.C., many Jews returned home. Their religious leaders set about instituting reforms that emphasized the role of the Torah in Jewish life and rooted out cultural influences that had encroached on Jewish traditions during captivity.

From the middle of the fourth century onward, the Holy Land came under the control of a succession of military rulers, starting with Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. and ending with the Romans, who conquered Judaea in 63 B.C. and held it for centuries. During Roman rule, four groups vied for attention among the Jews: the Sadducees, the priests of the temple and overseers of its ceremonies; the Pharisees, lay religious scholars; the Essenes, an apocalyptic sect based near the Dead Sea; and the Zealots, advocates of violent resistance.

In A.D. 66 the Zealots and others revolted against the Roman garrison in Jerusalem. After some initial success, the rebellion was crushed by overwhelming Roman force, and both the city and the Second Temple were destroyed in an event that sealed the future direction of Judaism. Without a temple, the party of the Sadducees ceased to exist, and the practice of burnt offerings and animal sacrifices came to an end. The Pharisees, with their emphasis on the synagogue and the oral and written law, became dominant. With Jerusalem in ruins and Jews scattered, Judaism became a religion of the Diaspora.

During the tense decades leading up to the revolt, messianic fervor had swept the Holy Land as people chafed under the Roman yoke. Writing about this period near the end of the first century A.D., the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus chronicled the appearance and passing of a series of prophets, each claiming to be Israel's long-awaited Messiah and vowing to overthrow the Romans and restore the nation to its former glory.

It was against this backdrop, late in the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, that a charismatic young rabbi walked out of the Judaean wilderness and began proclaiming to all who would listen that the kingdom of God was at hand. In the villages of Galilee, word spread slowly but surely that Jesus of Nazareth, a descendant of David, was a gifted teacher who spoke with unusual authority. It was said that he was a healer and an exorcist and that he raised people from the dead. Soon, wherever he went, crowds pressed close to hear his teachings and to witness his amazing deeds. Some were convinced he was God's "anointed one," while others walked away disappointed—he was not at all what they imagined Israel's Messiah would be.

Indeed, where other would-be deliverers had exhorted their countrymen to take up arms to restore the Davidic throne, Jesus preached rebellion of a different sort. The kingdom he spoke of was "not of this world." Love, he declared, was the greatest of all the biblical commandments, and he spoke reassuringly to the poor, the powerless, and the peacemakers. He challenged Jewish law and its dietary restrictions, insisting that "the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" and that it was "not what enters the mouth [that] defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth." In the process, he earned the enmity of many Pharisees, whom he derided as hypocrites for following the letter but not the spirit of the law.

Less than three years after he began his teaching, Jesus was arrested in Jerusalem on the eve of Passover at the instigation of religious authorities and executed on a Roman cross. Demoralized, his small band of disciples scattered. But as the New Testament describes it, their faith was restored when they encountered the risen Christ and when the Holy Spirit came upon them a few weeks later, at what became known as Pentecost. Suddenly and dramatically, they began preaching boldly in the streets of Jerusalem that the resurrected Jesus was "both Lord and Christ," and in a single day, the Bible says, 3,000 were added to their number.

Within a few years their message would echo in towns and villages throughout Judaea, Samaria, and beyond, striking a chord with many but also creating turmoil within Judaism. From the Temple courts to the remotest synagogues, religious leaders rejected the audacious assertion that the crucified Jesus was the Messiah: He was gone, after all, and the Romans were not. Those who proclaimed it were shouted down and driven out as heretics. Yet the preachers would not be silenced, and the ranks of believers continued to grow. Largely banished from the synagogues, they met in private homes, where they would sing and pray together and share a eucharistic meal in remembrance of Jesus' last supper with his disciples.

Despite the growing divisions, most early believers remained observant Jews. The congregation in Jerusalem—which was led by James, the brother of Jesus, and Peter, one of Jesus' closest disciples—continued to serve as the movement's base of operations. But by the time of the violent Jewish revolt and harsh Roman response, the Christ followers had dispersed to Syria and beyond, and the movement was changing from a Jewish sect to a separate and distinct religion.

The seeds of that transformation were sown by the missionary work of the Apostle Paul, a Pharisee and onetime persecutor of Christians. After his own dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus three years after the Crucifixion, he became convinced that he had been called by God to be a "witness to all the world"—gentiles as well as Jews—and he started preaching a universal message that salvation "by grace … through faith" in the risen Christ was available to all. Over the next two decades Paul and his cohorts, along with other pilgrims, carried that message to Rome and the commercial and cultural centers of Greece and Asia Minor.

Communities of Christianoi, or Christ's people, as they became known, began to sprout and flourish in cities all across the eastern Mediterranean. But they would face periods of violent persecution under the emperors Nero, Domitian, Trajan, and others for refusing to worship the Roman gods. Many believers, including Paul, were martyred.

The hostile climate changed dramatically early in the fourth century A.D. when the emperor Constantine, after a stunning military victory that he attributed to the Christian God, outlawed harassment of Christians and welcomed the faith, eventually becoming a convert himself. In short order, Christianity became the official religion of Rome. What had begun as a grassroots movement of messianic Jewish peasants in the dusty villages of Galilee was on its way to becoming a world religion and dominant cultural force.

The rugged cave high atop Mount Hira on the Arabian Peninsula where the Prophet Muhammad is believed to have received his first divine revelation some 300 years after Constantine is far removed from the traditional boundaries of the Holy Land. But the distance separating Mecca and Jerusalem would be quickly bridged by the bearers of Muhammad's new and fervent message of Islam, or "submission" to God.

The rise of Islam in the birthplace of Judaism and Christianity came swiftly and unexpectedly in the middle of the seventh century. It was a period of growing discord within Christendom, which by then had been riven into competing sects, with large Christian populations in Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem. The Byzantine Empire, which had grown out of Constantine's melding of church and state, found itself besieged both by foreign invaders and internal dissension. It had fought its regional nemesis, the Persians—worshippers of the Zoroastrian god, Ahura Mazda—to a stalemate, leaving a power vacuum in the empire's southern reaches. With communities of Jews and Christians and pagan clans scattered across the Arabian Peninsula and the southern Levant, conditions were ripe for a new unifying vision to arise and fill the void.

The vision that came to Muhammad in the hills above Mecca one summer night in A.D. 610 was the angel Gabriel announcing that Muhammad was to be the "messenger of God." Over the next 22 years the messages Muhammad received—dictated in Arabic, verse by verse—would become the Koran, the sacred scripture of Islam.

Muhammad had grown up in Mecca, an important commercial city that was also a center of polytheistic paganism, where people worshipped patron gods and goddesses. Included in their pantheon was one they called Allah, the High God, who many believed was the deity worshipped by Christians and Jews. But Allah had given no scripture to the Arabs, and they had not embraced him. The Koran would change that with a resounding call to monotheism: There was no other God but Allah, and Muhammad was his prophet.

Like the first Christians, Muhammad and his early followers did not at first see themselves as starting a new religion. They believed that God had spoken through other prophets—from Abraham and Moses to David, Solomon, and Jesus—but that the revelations they delivered had become corrupted over time, and Muhammad had been sent to restore them. Only after Christians and Jews failed to embrace Muhammad's corrective teachings did his followers come to view Islam as a separate and superior faith.

Still, they maintained a strong familial connection with Christianity and Judaism, retelling many of the central stories of the Bible but with important differences. The Koran describes the Patriarch Abraham as the first Muslim and Ishmael, rather than Isaac, as the favored son who received God's blessing. Both David and Solomon are revered as great kings and prophets, but the biblical accounts of their moral failings—David's adultery and Solomon's idolatry—are absent from the Koran. Jesus is exalted as a righteous prophet and a worker of miracles but, though born of a virgin, not as the Son of God. To Muhammad and his monotheistic followers, Christianity's doctrine of the Trinity was its greatest offense.

Although Islam took root first in Muhammad's Arabian homeland, and Mecca and Medina became its holiest sites, believers also viewed the city of Jerusalem as sacred because of its association with the biblical prophets. Mount Moriah, the Temple Mount of Judaism, was held to be the site of Muhammad's departure to heaven on the back of a winged horse. His followers later referred to the mount as Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, and built two great shrines there, the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque.

In its earliest days Islam was often spread by the sword, as Muslim armies on the Arabian Peninsula, following ancient tribal customs, plundered hostile villages, many of them pagan. Christians, Jews, and other monotheists were considered believers in God and generally left alone. But that would change.

In 633, a year after Muhammad's death, the prophet's successor, Abu Bakr, set out to expand Islam's domain by invading Persia and conquering most of present-day Iraq. He then turned his sights on Syria and the Holy Land, which were part of the Byzantine Empire. In the summer of 636 Byzantine forces faced off against the invading Muslims in a fierce six-day battle at the Yarmuk River, east of the Sea of Galilee. A decisive Muslim victory opened the Christian-held Levant to the rapid advance of Islam. Damascus quickly fell, and in 638, after a two-year siege, Jerusalem surrendered.

Within 20 years of Muhammad's passing, the Byzantine Empire had lost all of Palestine, Egypt, and Syria to the Muslims, and within a century the Islamic empire stretched from the Indus River and the mountains of central Asia across northern Africa and into the Iberian Peninsula. The advancing Muslims were welcomed as liberators by some Christian sects that had been persecuted under the Byzantines, and adherents of the rival faiths abided together in relative harmony. The tenuous peace would not hold for long. With the dawn of a new millennium, heightened religious fervor in Christian lands to the north ignited new antagonisms, and the Crusades bathed the Holy Land in blood. It would not be the last time.