Many of the Jewish prophets and patriarchs of the Bible are revered by Muslims as well. Among these, none is more important than Abraham. He is said to be the father not only of Judaism but also of Islam, through his first son Ishmael.
Islam, say the Muslims, is the pure religion of Abraham, restored and extended by God through his prophet Muhammad. One of the chief tenets of this faith is the rejection of idolatry—as exemplified in this legend of Abraham’s youth. This tenet was especially important to the first Muslims, since the Arabs of Muhammad’s time still worshiped idols.
The legend is found in the Koran, the holy book of Islam. Though not in the Bible itself, it appears in Bible commentaries of the rabbis and is one of many legends shared by Muslims and Jews.
In the days of mighty King Nimrod, there lived in Mesopotamia a young man named Abraham. Now, Abraham’s father was an idol maker named Azar, who carved the wooden gods worshiped by his people. But Abraham was a believer in the one God, and not in the gods made by hand.
Azar would send Abraham and his other sons to sell his idols in the marketplace. But Abraham would call to the passersby, “Who’ll buy my idols? They won’t help you and they can’t hurt you! Who’ll buy my idols?”
Then Abraham would mock the gods of wood. He would take them to the river, push their faces into the water, and command them, “Drink! Drink!”
At last Abraham said to his father, “How can you worship what doesn’t see or hear or do you any good?”
Azar replied, “Dare you deny the gods of our people? Get out of my sight!”
“May God forgive you,” said Abraham. “No more will I live with you and your idols.” And he left the house of his father.
Now, the time came for one of the festivals of that town. The people gathered in their temple and placed offerings of food before their gods.
Abraham walked among them, saying, “What are you worshiping? Do these idols hear when you call them? Can they help you or hurt you?”
But their only reply was, “It is the way of our forefathers.”
“I am sick of your gods!” declared Abraham. “Truly I am their enemy.”
When the people had gone out, Abraham took some of the food and held it up to the idols. “Why don’t you eat?” he mocked them. “Aren’t you hungry? Speak to me!” And he slapped their faces.
Then Abraham took an ax and chopped the idols to pieces—all except the largest idol, the chief god of the people. And he tied the ax to the hand of that idol.
When the people returned, they were shocked to find their gods broken up and scattered about the temple. Then they remembered how Abraham had spoken, and they sent for him.
“Abraham,” said the head man, “was it you who did this?”
“Surely it was someone!” he replied. “Their chief stands there with an ax in his hand. Perhaps he grew jealous and destroyed the rest. But why don’t you just ask him?”
The head man said, “You know they neither strike nor speak.”
“Then why worship gods that you make?” demanded Abraham. “Worship instead the Maker of all!”
But few of the people would listen. Abraham was seized and brought to King Nimrod for punishment.
When Nimrod had heard the accusers, he turned to Abraham. “Who is this mighty God you spoke of?”
“He it is Who gives life and death,” answered Abraham.
“But I too give life and death,” said Nimrod. “I pardon a guilty man sentenced to die—then I execute one who is innocent!”
“That is not the way of my Lord,” said Abraham. “But listen to this: Each morning, my Lord brings the sun up in the east. Can you make it rise in the west?”
Then Nimrod grew angry. He had a great fire built, and he ordered Abraham to be tied up and thrown into it. But the fire only burnt away the ropes, and they saw Abraham sitting peacefully among the flames. Beside him was an angel in Abraham’s likeness, comforting and protecting him.
After that, Nimrod did not dare try to harm Abraham again. Abraham returned to his town, where he gathered those who believed in the one God. Then he set out west, placing all faith in the Lord.
In the Koran, Abraham’s father—or “sire”—is called Azar, while the Bible calls his father Terah. Some Muslim authorities believe the names refer to two different people. But various versions of this legend use the names interchangeably for the same character.
While the Bible is mainly a book of stories, the Koran is a book of sermons. Nearly all of its tales are provided only in scattered fragments. But the Arabs, if nothing else, are great lovers of stories. After Muhammad’s death, all story fragments in the Koran were extracted, linked, interpreted, and expanded by scholars and popularizers.
In the Koran, bits about Abraham’s youth are in chapters 2:258–260, 6:75–84, 19:41–50, 21:51–70, 26:69–104, 29:16–25, 37:83–98, and 43:26–27. Influential reconstructions are found in the works of Ibn Ishaq, Tabari, Thalabi, and Kisai. (Thalabi’s works are not yet available in English.)
The Holy Quran, translated by Maulana Muhammad Ali, Ahmadiyyah Anjuman Ishaat Islam, Lahore, 1917, 1951.
The Tales of the Prophets of alKisai, translated by W.M.Thackston, Jr., Twayne, Boston, 1978.
The History of alTabari, Vol.2: Prophets and Patriarchs, translated by WilliamM. Brinner, State University of New York, Albany, 1987.
The Making of the Last Prophet, edited and translated by Gordon Darnell Newby, University of South Carolina, Columbia, 1989. Reconstruction of the lost first section of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah.
The Koran, translated by N.J.Dawood, Penguin, London, 1990.
For further reading:
The Life of the Prophet Muhammad, by Leila Azzam and Aisha Gouverneur, Islamic Texts Society, London, 1985.
Islamic Legends: Histories of the Heroes, Saints, and Prophets of Islam, by Jan Knappert, E.J.Brill, Leiden, 1985.
For the Jewish version of the legend:
A Harvest of World Folk Tales, edited by Milton Rugoff, Viking, New York, 1949.
Mimekor Yisrael: Classical Jewish Folktales, Vol.1: National Tales, collected by Micha Joseph bin Gorion, translated by I.M.Lask, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and London, 1976.
The Book of Legends, Sefer HaAggadah: Legends from the Talmud and Midrash, edited by Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, translated by WilliamG. Braude, Schocken, New York, 1992.
The Legends of the Jews, Vols. 1 and 5, Louis Ginzberg, translated by Henrietta Szold, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1937.