1 Living Together in a Multicultural Society: IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF ABRAHAM

Ibrahim Ozdemir, Ph.D. Ankara University

“Abraham Conference Avustralian Catholic University”, Ana Konuşmacı 22 Mayıs 2004, Melbourne, Avustralya.

We are observing an increasing interest in seeing Abraham as a symbol of peace, coexistence, and living together in recent decades. Jews, Christians, and Muslims, as members of the Abrahamic family, tirelessly have been trying their best to understand Abraham as their common grand ancestor. Shalom Spiegel suggests that, the "story of Abraham renews itself in every time of crisis".1 I think it is time to take another look at his story. His story, like that of Jesus and Muhammad, was powerful enough to change the course of human history. It is clear that the story of Abraham is not just one story among others; it is, as Judah Goldin underlines, "central to the nervous system of Judaism and Christianity".2 It is also central to Islam. Insofar as it has shaped the three religious traditions, their ethical values, and their views of social relations; it has shaped the realities we live by. Hence, today, Jews, Christians, and Muslims are seeking “a unifying symbol” in his personality in a time of strife. A question is in order: While there are many prophets, whose names are mentioned respectively in the Qur‟an and other scriptures, why is the focus only on Abraham? And why is a prophet who lived approximately 4000 years ago so relevant in the 21 st century? These are only few questions, which are like a knife eternally poised in mid-air that should be held in our minds. Therefore, the challenges before us are formidable and deadly serious. One possible answer may be that “we just have been discovering our grand father when we began to come closer to each other, live and work together in a globalizing world.” Then, we discovered that although there is “more in common than we think”, 3 misunderstandings, ignorance, prejudices shadow our relations with each other. I am surprised, for example, when I saw that neither my Jewish nor Christian students in the USA knew very much about the role and place of Abraham in Islam. In fact, the Qur‟an, our holy book, portrays Abraham as the first human being to surrender himself fully to God. Each of the five repetitions of daily prayer ends with a reference to Abraham. The Ka'aba, the black cube that is Mecca's central shrine and where we face during our daily prayer, was built by Abraham and his son Ishmael. Several of the rituals performed in that city by pilgrims making the hajj recall episodes from his life‟s work and actions. 4 Therefore, we, as members of the Abrahamic family, have to study the multi-layer meaning of this phenomenon for a better understanding of each other. Although we belong to different histories, traditions, and cultures, we just began to understand the fact that we belong to the same family and more importantly our well-being, integrity, and peace are dependent upon our capacity and will to co-exist and live together in a globalized world. Today, we are not living in a monolithic world anymore. When we look at the Muslim presence in the West, for example, we see that approximately 15 million Muslims live in Europe and 8-10 million in USA. Today, Muslims are not members of an alien religion in the Orient or Middle East. They are your neighbors, colleagues; their children sit in the same classes with your children and they play with each other. 5 Moreover, Jews, Christians, and Muslims together make up more than half of the world‟s population today. Better understanding, communication and peaceful relations between our communities

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are not only good, but they are essential for our well-being and for the well-being of the world at large. I do believe that it is time for true believers in the God of Abraham to learn to come together as partners in peace and then we can move our societies and our world “from combatibility to compatibility; from intolerance to tolerance, seeking justice, mercy and compassion for all.” 6 In fact it is an obligation and responsibility we owe toward all unborn generations to come. We, here and now, must begin the task of working together as partners for peace, however, this is not an easy task to accomplish for a couple of reasons. First, our modern histories do not present and provide us with necessary examples. The experience of a pluralistic and diverse society is a new phenomenon in itself for modernity. Therefore, today, we need creative pioneers who will open up new avenues for us. We need a new moral vision to live by--one that will change the course of history as profoundly as did Abraham. However, I think, the Ottoman Empire, which came to life in the late 13 th century as a small Turkish principality and gradually found its place in history as one of the great empires of Renaissance Europe, is a good example of living together in a multicultural society.7 Second, to be a member of the Abrahamic family may not be sufficient for co-existence and peace. The best examples of this can be found in our sacred scriptures. If the story of Cain, who killed his own brother Abel, is the best one, the other is the story of Joseph who was cast into a well and left to die by his brothers. There are also exclusivists‟ understandings of Abrahamic family for which I have no time here. However, we should not lose our courage and hope for positive action. We have to reread our sacred text in the light of the dreadful experiences we witnessed in the 20 th century, not to mention other centuries in history. What is needed is a re-interpretation of the text in order to create shared identities and commonalities among us. Apparently, it may be easier for those who belong and share the same village, town or country, or the same regiment, commander, or master to feel a close brotherhood and warm friendship.8 While those deprived of such bonds feel a constant painful torment surrounded by darkness. In other words, to be from the same class, school, village, town, and country creates a psychological bound among people. Nobody can ignore the humane dimension of this belonging and its importance for the well-being of a person. In the same way, Abraham, who is at the foundation of the three monotheistic (Abrahamic) religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam can become the model of faith and moral values. As we know his story, which has been inscribed on our hearts and minds, we can re-tell and reinterpreted this story as a hallmark of our co-existence and culture of dialogue and tolerance. If dialogue could not be built in a void, one cannot find any better foundation than Abraham, who has not received the credit he deserves as a religious innovator until recently. As the great Sufi master Rumi reminds us: “Today, we have to say something new”. Keeping all this in mind I will try to highlight Abraham‟s religious experience with God as told to us through the Qur‟an and the ethical implications we can draw from his experience. Then, I will underline the meaning and relevance of his faith end moral traits in a globalized world. Abraham was a curious, courageous and visionary child who challenged and rejected the idol-worshiping religion of his father and society. To find God, he studied the great book of nature with a burning curiosity. Then, he discovered the real creator and master of the world.9 It is true, Abraham discovered his God through wonders of nature and than submitted wholeheartedly to Him. But what is it about his God? Is He, as some philosophers assume, the Unmoved Mover or someone remote from the real world or was He close to us? Has He cast us to this world and then left us alone? 10 To Abraham, I think, all these questions were meaningless. He would respond as follows: "Truly, my prayer and my

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service of sacrifice, my life and my death, are (all) for God, the Cherisher of the Worlds: (Qur‟an, 6:162)11 Why? He would say: "Who created me, and it is He Who guides me; Who gives me food and drink, And when I am ill, it is He Who cures me”. (Qur‟an 26: 78-80.) It seems that God is so close to Abraham, he is neither left alone nor cast away to a dark and alien world. Therefore, Abraham‟s perception of God and his commitment to Him is very crucial and important for us. It can help us to overcome our perception and understanding of the world, which is soundless, colorless, meaningless and more importantly lifeless according to modern and positivist philosophy of science. The farreaching implications of these modern and secular conceptions of reality began to challenge the core and foundational values of the Abrahamic tradition since the 17 th century. That is, a universe in which there is "no natural law, no divine purpose, no objective importance, no hierarchy of values is inherent in nature of things, to which we should concern." As a result of this understanding, "many people have not made a go of it, becoming alcoholics, drug addicts, war addicts, mental patients, or suicides". 12 This modern nihilistic understanding contents that “let us eat and drink. For tomorrow we must die. There is no point in caring for what has no sanction behind it in any creative intention”.13 However, Abraham‟s example and story can help us to create a meaningful world, where we can live together in peace and solidarity. In other words, to overcome this nihilistic and relativistic understanding, Abraham‟s conception of God, who is omnipresent and always with us, can help. We can find the same spirit and message in his teaching. I will underline only few in the remainder of this paper. When we look at the heart of his teaching, we see healthy and life-sustaining moral values. These include humility, modesty, control of passions and desires, truthfulness, integrity, patience, steadfastness, generosity, hospitality, and fulfilling one's promises. Abraham told us not only to love our neighbors but even strangers; care about the poor and neglected. Abraham‟s message was echoed on the lips of Jesus as “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with your entire mind” (Matthew 22:37-40). Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, upon hearing about a dispute among Jews, Christians, and Muslims of his day, immediately reminded and advised them that “It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces towards East or West; but it is righteousness- to believe in God and the Last Day, and the Angels, and the Book, and the Messengers; to spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer, and practice regular charity”. (Qur‟an 2:177) When we look at Abraham‟s story, we see that there is a direct link between his faith and practice. Abraham translated his faith in a dramatic and passionate way, which had a great influence upon forthcoming generations. In his personality we find a powerful consciousness and faith in God, which forms the foundation of his psyche. Therefore, the Abrahamic faith has implications both at individual and societal levels. When he rejected his community‟s pagan religion, he endured all sorts of calamities and hardships from them; then he left his homeland and journeyed for the sake of his beloved friend, God, to unknown and distant lands. The most tragic example of his commitment is his attempt to sacrifice his son. In a world, where the sacred dimension of life is lost or forgotten for a few centuries, Abraham‟s faith and commitment can help us to re-discover it.14 Let me underline his altruism, generosity and hospitality in this context. As we all know, the hallmark of Abraham‟s character was his generosity and hospitality. He never sat at table for breakfast, lunch, or dinner alone. He did not hesitate to share what he had at his table with his neighbors, guest, or even with travelers and strangers.

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It is well-known that one day he even invited a Zoroastrian to his table and shared his food with him. Now, as his hospitality and generosity toward people are historical facts, the poverty and deepening and disturbing gap between rich and poor, developed and undeveloped/south and north are also contemporary facts we have to address. Our well-being depends on our capability to respond this problem in a meaningful and creative way. Poverty, however, hangs as the major problem and it is the source of many others, such as alcoholism, drugs, crime, terror, violence, etc. Nearly a third of the people in the developing world remain in absolute poverty, living on less than a dollar a day. They can't buy shoes; they can't buy adequate meals or medicine for their children, let alone an adequate education. The gulf between the poorest and wealthiest people on the Earth is widening very fast. Therefore, the global community, and especially people who passionately connect themselves to Abraham, should not forget that the challenges before us are formidable. So, what do we do? As a starting point, we can begin to examine our sense of ourselves, community, and our shared identity. The Prophet Muhammad reminds us for example “He is not a believer who eats his fill when his/her neighbors beside him/her [Jews, Christian, etc.] are hungry”. If we do not define our shared identities in the footsteps of Abraham, our supply of solutions will be restricted because we won't think of each other as members of the same family and, as a result, we won't be prepared to make the sacrifices for each other or share costs among ourselves to deal with problems. What is needed is a moral compass and orientation. To sum up, to respond to the formidable challenges we face in the globalized world and find a way to co-exist in the pluralistic and diverse societies of the 21st century, we need to go back to our grand father Abraham; knock on his door with respect, sincerity, and hope. I do believe that he, as a symbol of generosity and hospitality, will open his door wide and accept us, as his grand children. When we come back, we will come with a sense of unity and togetherness, a new sense of a common and shared identity as Homer-Dixon describes.15 Then, we can write the manifesto of co-existence, living together in peace and harmony; where the “other” is not excluded and the poor and needy are not oppressed and exploited. It seems that the members of the Abrahamic family have an obligation toward themselves and others. They have to present to our globalized and multicultural world the formula of co-existence in peace and harmony. They have to re-vitalize the moral teachings of their grand father Abraham and be a hope, a beacon, and a new breath for humanity. To sum up, Abraham, as the great ancestor of three great religions, can play a crucial and unifying role to combat global problems. It depends upon how we conceive him and interpret his life and character in a creative and meaningful way.
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Carol, D., 1999, „Abraham, Isaac, and Some Hidden Assumptions of Our Culture - Abraham's impact on Judaism, Christianity and Islam‟, Humanist, May, Available at: http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1374/is_3_59/ai_54574811 2 Ibid. 3 For commonalities between Islam and Christianity see: Baker, B., 1998, More in Common Than You Think: The Bridge between Islam and Christianity, Defenders Publications. 4 For more information consult: Armstrong, K., 1992, Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet: HarperSanFranscisco, San Francisco; Cragg, K.& Marston, S., 1980, Islam from Within: Anthology of A Religion, Wadsworth Publishing Company, Belmont; Hodgson, M., 1974, Venture of Islam. 3 vols., University of Chicago Press, Chicago. Lings, M., 1983, Muhammad, His Life Based on the Earliest Sources. Inner Traditions International, Rochester, Vt.; Ibn Ishaq. 1990, The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah. Translated with Introduction and Notes by A. Guillaume. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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About Muslim presence in the West see: Smith, J. I., 2000, Islam in America, Columbia University Pres, New York; Ramadan, T., 2000, To be a European Muslim, The Islamic Foundation, Markfield, Leicester; Ramadan,T., 2003, Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, Oxford University Press Inc, Oxford. 6 Dr. Robert H. Schuller, „Common Ground‟ Available at: <http://www.hourofpower.org/helpforyou/spiritual_detail.cfm?ArticleID=1892>
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The Ottoman State was multi-national and multi-cultural. It was based on a millet system, an administration model which functioned relatively well for its time. It gave different religious groups and minorities the right to establish their own educational and religious and judicial institutions. Thanks to the millet system, various ethnic minorities, during the Ottoman rule, enjoyed many rights, which even in modern society many modern states have not been able to provide to their ethnic groups. Consult: Stanford J. Shaw and Ezel K. Shaw, 1976-77, History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, Cambridge University Pres, Cambridge and New York, and Lybyer, A. H., 1913, The Government of the Ottoman Empire in the Time of Suleiman the Magnificent, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA; Karpat, K. H. (1982) “Millets and Nationality: The Roots of the Incongruity of Nation and State in the Post-Ottoman Era” in Benjamin Brad & Bernard Lewis (Eds.), Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire, The Functioning of a Plural Society, Vol.1, Holmes & Meier Publishers, New York, London, pp.141-170. 8 I borrow this analogy from Said Nursi, 1997, Letters 1928-1932: From the Risale Collection, Sozler Publishing, İstanbul, p.313. 9 The Qur‟an presents the story of Abraham vividly and colorfully in these verses: 6: 75- 79; 2: 68. 10 For a detailed history of God in Abrahamic traditions consult Armstrong, K., 1993, A History of God: From Abraham to the Present: the 400-year Quest for God, Vintage, London. 11 All quotations from the Qur‟an is from Asad, M., 1980, The Message of the Qur’an, Dar al-Andulus, Gibraltar. 12 Griffin, D. R., 1989, God and Religion in the Postmodern World: Essays in Postmodern Theology, SUNY Press, Albany, p. 17. 13 Ibid. 14 See Berger, P., (Ed.), 1999, The Desecularization of the World: Resugent Religion and World Politics, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Washington D.C.; Smith, H., 2001, Why Religion Matters, Harper, San Francisco. 15 Homer-Dixon, T. “The Ingenuıty Gap: Can Poor Countrıes Adapt To Resource Scarcıty?” Peace and Conflict Studies Program, University of Toronto Population and Development Review, Volume 21, Number 3, September 1995, pp. 587-612. Available at: http://www.library.utoronto.ca/pcs/tad.htm

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