I’ve been very focused on the historical study of Jewish-Muslim relations, though my focus in my academic studies is the comparative study of the two religions. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but I began to miss delving into the religious perspectives, though the role as a historian seems to come naturally to me.
Nevertheless, in order to stay (more) true to my academic studies, I thought about the roles of the major figures in the two religions; Abraham, Moses, and Muhammad, and how these roles are understood.
I’ve been dealing with Abraham (Avraham in Hebrew, Ibrahim in Arabic) a lot – I might upload my assignments relating to him in time, after I’ve made them more readable for the general reader – and his role is interesting. Though being considered a prophet in both religions, it seems that his main importance is focused on another aspect, the founder of a people or as a religious example (a true monotheist/submitter to God/hanif).
In this role he seems to hold a lot of similarities. He is both the father of the Jewish people, through Yitzhaq (Isaac), and the Arabic people, through Ismaîl (Ismael). He is not so much considered a bringer of any Divine Law, though he does bring commandments, at least in Judaism (the circumcising the boy on the eighth day), but are more the first true follower of God (true, there are earlier monotheists, for example Adam in the Islamic tradition, but there seems to be a period, where mankind totally lost it).
Both religious traditions have a lot of similar stories about him, how he discovered Monotheism, his conflict with the idols/idolators, and so on. They also agree that he was told to sacrifice his only son, both versions of the account being rather similar, except that the Quranic version does not specify which son it was (though there was debates over who it was in the first centuries AH – see for example the Muslim historian al-Tabari’s coverage of them, later it was agreed that the son was Ismaîl).
When it comes to Moses (Moshe in Hebrew, Mussa in Arabic) and Muhammad there are some similarities between them, but also some important differences.
First and foremost Muhammad doesn’t play any role in Judaism. His role in Islam does remind of Moses role in Judaism though, who has more or less the same role in both religions, though in the Islamic tradition he is of lesser status than Muhammad.
Both are lawgivers, both are considered the most authoritative/greatest prophet in their respective religions.
But where Moses was the greatest prophet in Judaism, he wasn’t the last, other prophets came after him, confirming the Law (Torah) being revealed to him on Sinai. Furthermore, though he did have children, they never really played a big role afterwards.
Muhammad was the last prophet, the “Seal of the Prophets”, as well as the greatest. He is “Rasûlullahi”, the Messenger of God, not just a prophet (Nabí). That’s an interesting concept found in Islam, which isn’t found in Judaism. Nabí, the Arabic word for “prophet” (most likely coming from the Hebrew “navi”, also meaning “prophet”) is the “norm” for all the Islamic prophets, whereas rasûl”, messenger (from rasîla), is someone not only coming with warnings and corrections, but also being revealed Divine “books”
(kitâb). Examples on these are Moses (the Tawrah), David (the Zabûr), Jesus (the Injîl) and – of course – Muhammad (the Qur’ân).
Though his children do not play a great role in Sunni-Islam, they do in Shi’a-Islam, his descendants being the true Imâms (actually they are not so important because they are his children as such, but because ‘Ali – their father – is believed to have been chosen as the true heir to Muhammad, and – being of Muhammad’s family – a Divine spark, sort of speaking, is found in all of his family/descendants).
Another interesting difference is the titles given the two prophets. Where Muhammad is Rasûlullahi, the Messenger of God, and Seal of the Prophets, bringing the last and lasting revelation, Moses, in Judaism, is “Moshe Rabenu”, Moses our Teacher. Where Muhammad is the authority to be followed, not only through revelation, but also through behavior (sunna), Moses is the great teacher, not just a bringer of a Divine revelation. As such there are several traditions in Judaism relating to Moses in this role, one where he sees later Jewish kids being taught by a great sage, not understanding what is going on, but relaxing when he hears that all is based on his teachings of the Torah from Sinai, as well as him being the first link in the oral tradition, teaching it to Yehoshu’a bin Nun (Joshua).
These two roles are also reflected – I believe – in the conceptions of the two religions. Islam is about being submitted to God, being a “Muslim”, whereas the Jew is supposed to be a student of God’s Torah, the only true thing worthy of study and reflection, something that should be done – under perfect circumstances – at all times.
I think such a study, the study of these three great figures and their roles in the two religions, will teach us a lot, both how the religions perceive them – of course, but also how the two religions perceive themselves, and how they differ in their outlook and approaches to their own roles in this world. This, in turn, can explain us something about where the followers of the two religions are getting each other wrong, and helping them (and us) to get a better understanding of each other.