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The patriarch of three religions

Author follows in the path of 'Abraham'

By Todd Leopold


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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Bruce Feiler's work wasn't finished.

The author, who spent more than a year traversing Israel and the Middle East for his best-selling book, "Walking the Bible," was working on the follow-up when he received a call from his brother on September 11, 2001.

"Look out the window," he was told.

Feiler, a Manhattan resident, saw the towers of the World Trade Center fall. In the ensuing days and weeks, as he grappled with the tragedy, he kept hearing the same name come up in discussions about Islam and the differences between religions: Abraham, the man considered the patriarch of the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Despite the research he'd compiled doing "Walking the Bible," "I didn't know anything about him," he said in an interview in Atlanta.

So Feiler, 37, returned to the Middle East, this time to try to understand Abraham, the itinerant prophet at the center of three faiths with 3 billion adherents -- and to better understand what unites and divides the religions that place Abraham in a position of honor.

What he found, in "Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths" (Morrow), is that the story of Abraham blends two elements that push and pull in equal measure: faith and violence.

"One of the reasons Abraham is an important figure in the world today is because he is not a saint," Feiler said. Abraham stands up to God, Feiler observed, but he's sometimes cowed by his wife, he cast his first-born son, Ishmael, into exile, and took his other son, Isaac, to a hilltop with the intention of killing him. He's a contrary figure, Feiler said, easy to relate to because he's human.

"People can see in him what they want," Feiler said.

A legacy that can bind or divide

Of course, that's one reason there's so much disagreement about Abraham -- and perhaps, by extension, the religions themselves. Details in the Old Testament story of Abraham don't match the details about him in the New Testament or in the Koran.

A legacy that can bind or divide

For his book, Feiler talked to experts and clerics from all three religions. The result is a biography of the patriarch, with lessons on how his legacy can be used to bind Judaism, Christianity and Islam, instead of divide them.

Feiler knows it won't be easy. The story of Abraham raises strong feelings on all sides; the place where he attempted to sacrifice Isaac is perhaps the holiest in the world, the home of the Temple Mount, the Dome of the Rock, the place where Jesus rose to heaven.

It's that story of Abraham and Isaac -- one told by all three religions during their holiest times of the year -- that provides the lens through which many see Abraham, Feiler noted.

As the tale is told in the Bible, God calls to Abraham and tells him to take his son, Isaac, to the land of Moriah and present him as a burnt offering. Abraham follows God's request, takes Isaac to the chosen spot, and without telling Isaac any of the plan, prepares to kill his own flesh and blood -- to kill in the name of faith.

As the pair's world stands still, an angel calls to Abraham and tells him not to raise a hand against Isaac. Abraham then captures a ram caught in a thicket and presents that to God, and the angel reiterates God's blessing on Abraham.

The story is often seen as God's test of Abraham, but Feiler said it can also be read as the reverse. Moreover, the story leaves out so many details it can be interpreted in any number of ways; for example, Feiler added, God never asks Abraham to kill Isaac, only to offer him -- a fine distinction, but exactly the sort of phrasing that has made the Bible so open to meaning: "God said, 'Take your son Isaac, your only son, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah," reads Genesis 22:2 (New English Bible, Oxford University Press, 1976). " 'There you shall offer him as a sacrifice on one of the hills which I will show you.' "

A story pregnant with violence can also be seen as a story about the limits of faith.

"It's a story that fails as history, but that's why it succeeds as scripture -- because it's elliptical," Feiler said. "The story has the ability to be perpetually now."

Probing hallowed ground

"Abraham" is Feiler's fifth book. All of his works have attempted to examine cultures and ideas, from the traditions of the Japanese to the ins and outs of a traveling circus.

But with "Walking the Bible" and "Abraham," he's probing hallowed ground -- and he's aware of the responsibility.

"This is a big conversation, and what I can do is speak out," he said.

Muslims' relationship with Abraham -- "I think they see him as a hanif -- a true believer -- as the first Muslim, 'one who submits' " -- is key to understanding how they see the world, he observed. A Jew may note Abraham's defiance of God, as when Abraham bargains with God over Sodom and Gomorrah. A Muslim may "see Abraham as an inventor of monotheism," said Feiler, "but not as someone who stands up to God."

So is there hope that the three major monotheistic religions can find common ground? Yes, Feiler believes.

First of all, religion can't be ceded to the extremists, he said. And then everybody else has to be willing to talk, as Abraham -- a gracious and hospitable man -- was willing to do. Feiler is trying to create discussion through "Abraham Salons," detailed on his Web site,

"People are hungry for hope," he said. "And Abraham contains the seeds of hope."

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