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Not the Best Argument Against Abrahamicism

Hughes, Aaron W. Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History. Oxford University Press, 2012.

[An Installment of the “Read Me” Project.]

I agreed with this book as soon as I heard about it. According to the description on the website, the author, Aaron W. Hughes, argues that the notion of the “Abrahamic religions” is a recent creation, and something of a fictional one. Although people appeal to the “common heritage” of the “Abrahamic religions” when they want to encourage more peaceful coexistence and less conflict among Jews, Christians and Muslims, when we examine the history and substance of the term it turns out to be vague and empty. If we wanted our categories to tell us something real and useful about the religions we are studying, we wouldn’t use this one. Yes to all that, I thought, as I added Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History to the reading list with approving enthusiasm.

cover of Abrahami Religions
Aaron W. Hughes, Abrahamic Religions, Oxford UP, 2012.

I’d recently run into a perfect example of what I understood the author was calling into question. In the perennial quest for a better book for RS219 World Religions II Western, I’d reviewed The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. It turned out to be a book-length plea for interfaith conversation and mutual affection, making its appeal to the “Abrahamic family” of religions that “shares a story” (xiii) to draw on the “powerful symbol” of “the tent of Abraham … kept open in all four directions of the world so that travelers who thirsted for water or hungered for food might be welcomed instantly and warmly, no matter the direction from which they came” (xviii). If all the faithful would be more like Abraham, their ancestor in the faith, no matter which one, this world would be a better place. This is a beautiful sentiment; it might even contain a seed of potentially fruitful interfaith conversation.

But we shouldn’t kid ourselves. This conversation would not draw on ancient wellsprings of historic religious unity. Any religious unity that might conceivably emerge along these lines would draw its water from freshly-dug wells, the new construction of a usable mythic past. We should tell the truth – especially when it comes to our religions.

The Tent of Abraham didn’t have as much to offer RS219 World Religions II Western as I’d hoped it would, mainly because it didn’t include enough descriptive content about the religions. That’s not a criticism of The Tent of Abraham. It never said it was going to be a world religions textbook. I had to fall back on God Is Not One, by Stephen Prothero, yet again. Supplemented by another popular text on the “Abrahamic” bookshelf, The Children of Abraham, by F.E. Peters.

Peters uses the “Abrahamic religions” term differently from the authors of The Tent of Abraham. He recognizes, more or less, the conceit involved in linking Judaism, Christianity and Islam through the figure of Abraham. As a character who appears in the sacred texts and narratives of all three religions, Abraham becomes something of a rhetorical device, the convenient excuse for splitting the university world religions curriculum into two semesters. Abraham, along with these three traditions’ broadly similar features and historic relationships: the Near Eastern points of origin, the theism, the concept of prophetic revelation, the role of sacred text, for all of which “Abrahamic” has become a kind of shorthand signifier. Peters focuses on these three traditions’ history as it relates to the development of some of their distinctive theological and practical features; his eye is also on their significant differences.

Peters writes like a university professor, however, which prompts complaints from my students, and as a scholar for whom Christianity is the paradigmatic world religion, which prompts complaints from me. From the perspective of my textbook quest, then, The Children of Abraham is only a stopgap. From the perspective of “how people use the term ‘Abrahamic religions,’” on the other hand, he illustrates a different phenomenon from that of the authors of The Tent of Abraham. For Peters, the “Abrahamic” designation functions more like a chapter heading or a sorting device, like “vegetable/fruit” or “Chevy-Ford-GM/Toyota-Honda.” You still have a bunch of different things, but your basket can be a little smaller.

The Tent of Abraham and The Children of Abraham, then, illustrate two different uses to which the “Abrahamic” designation can be put. One way, the descriptive-loose sort one, seems, to me relatively unobjectionable. There may be better ways to organize college semesters in the departments of religious studies than at the boundary of the Near Eastern monotheistic traditions, but there are undoubtedly worse ones, too, and anyway, adjunct faculty can’t be choosers. The other one, the illusion of meaningful common cultural ground one, the spuriously explanatory stories one, annoys me and strikes me as problematic, in the way fiction posing as fact can strike me as problematic, if I notice it, which I don’t always.

After my own experiences with both kinds of “Abrahamic religions” rhetoric, then, I was looking forward to reading a book by someone who shared my annoyance with it and had taken the time to put the scaffolding of some scholarly inquiry under it. Hughes’s monograph sounded promising. Its introduction announced it would address some basic historical questions: “Whence does the term ‘Abrahamic religions’ derive? When was the term coined? Who created it and for what purposes? What sort of intellectual work is it perceived to perform? (2)” Hughes’s core argument is that the category of “Abrahamic religions” explains nothing, assuming explanation is our purpose in studying religion, because it captures nothing real. The contemporary use of the category, when it is not an exercise in comparing apples to oranges, promotes an “ecumenicist” agenda driven by theological rather than analytical concerns; to put words into Hughes’s mouth, when it isn’t faulty scholarship, it’s wishful thinking.

I am fundamentally sympathetic to this argument. I think more of us should be. For that reason, I wish this was a better book. As it stands, however, I doubt Abrahamic Religions will persuade anyone who isn’t already on Hughes’s side; it may almost unpersuade some of us who are.

On the analytic side, my main concern is that Hughes does not distinguish carefully enough between the two kinds of uses of the “Abrahamic” designator represented by the theologian authors of The Tent of Abraham and the world religionist authors of treatments like The Children of Abraham. This matters. The two different uses spring from different projects, and raise different problems. Hughes’s treatment, by conflating them, manages not to raise the most cogent case against either.

It is fair to argue, against an academic project in religious studies, that it does not lead to the development of knowledge. It is fair to assume that a “religionist” (the discipline seems to be stuck with that label, for want of anything better) is trying to explain the patterns of similarities and differences we observe in people’s religious behavior, and to account for particular religious phenomena as instances of more general principles. It’s fair to think that scholarship in religious studies is at least trying to understand what we know of human religious life, and maybe even trying to predict, with decent accuracy, the consequences of particular religious choices. It’s fair to argue that we should have good operational definitions for our independent variables. “Abrahamic” is a lousy independent variable, from that perspective, because it doesn’t include relevantly similar things and exclude dissimilar things. I like that argument; Hughes does, too. And on the whole, I think he makes this argument pretty well, eventually.

The problem arises when he uses that argument as a charge against the theological use of the “Abrahamic” designation. It is not reasonable to criticize someone for using a lousy independent variable when they are not religionists pursuing an interpretive and explanatory project, but instead are theologians engaged in an “ecumenicist” project. How can you reasonably fault someone for not doing what they are not trying to do? What would be reasonable, and what Hughes does not do – certainly not to my satisfaction – is to make the argument that you can’t do good theology on the basis of a faulty understanding of religion.

It doesn’t make much sense to criticize theology for not being good social science. It does make sense, though, to criticize theology for not being good theology. The fundamental problem with The Tent of Abraham and other, similar, projects is that they are not good theology, because solid practical theology can only be built on the foundation of a solid, accurate understanding of social reality. Starting with the illusion of that understanding, but not the substance, dooms the theological project to naïveté or futility or both. Hughes doesn’t even begin to make that argument; he is willing to fault theology for not being religious studies, and quit there. I wish he had been willing to go that extra mile.

The best part of the book, in my view, is Hughes’s three core chapters that explore the history of the use of the figure of Abraham by Jews, Christians and Muslims. From sacred text to our own times, he points out that the figure of Abraham in these three distinct religious traditions has historically been used contentiously, to argue that one or the other of the traditions is a more authentic guide to the desirable human-divine relationship personified in Abraham. Abrahamic Religions is a short book, so these chapters are illustrative, rather than exhaustive. But we have no good reasons to suspect that Hughes has overlooked some ancient, irenic episode in which Jews’ and Christians’ and Muslims’ identification with their common patriarch actually took precedence over their distinguishing commitments to the halakhah of Moses, the way of Jesus, or the sharia of Muhammad. This is valuable, informative background. Added to Hughes’s overview of the difficulties with the contemporary re-imagination of the Golden Age of medieval Spain, as an instance of contemporary-style politically correct religious pluralism, they remind us that looking closely at what real historical people have said and done will teach us something.

Hughes himself seems to have invested considerable emotional energy in his theoretical treatment of category formation in the field of religious studies. Here especially, while I am broadly sympathetic with what seem to be Hughes’s aims, I felt this chapter did not serve them well. The main problem here struck me as overgeneralization. No doubt the linguistic nature of human understanding poses challenges that we are hard pressed to face and meet. The philosophers have been working on this for at least a couple of centuries now. Even so, it seems inadvisable to identify the problem with theory formation as “words,” and the way “words … have the potential to undermine communication precisely as they facilitate it” (100). We speaking animals don’t have many options besides words. And since Hughes’s main quarrel seems to be with the potential misuse of the Big Nouns that name concepts or categories, and in particular with the problem of reification, I think he could safely have let the pronouns and prepositions and conjunctions off the hook. Maybe even some of the verbs.

I also did not appreciate his confusion of nominalism with essentialism (114), which forced me to look stuff up in the Encyclopedia to make sure I hadn’t been imagining things for the past twenty-five years or so. I think when you are developing an argument that people should be careful about the words they use, you should practice what you preach.

Finally, I admit, I found myself wishing Hughes’s text had spent more time at the copyeditor’s. I think that would have boiled the number of times he made the same point, especially in the introduction, down to one or two.

All in all, then, my high hopes for Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History were disappointed. I continue to root for the success of Hughes’s scholarly project, however. The deconstruction of the illusions associated with the “Abrahamic religions” would have benefits, both for the religious studies that are Hughes’s primary concern and for the practical theological projects that are downstream from those.

Even so, I don’t hold out much hope that those benefits will extend to deconstructing the course catalog. At least not before I need to tackle World Religions II Western another time or two.


Chittister, Joan; Chishti, Murshid Saadi Shakur; Waskow, Rabbi Arthur. The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Beacon Press, 2006.

Peters, F.E. The Children of Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, Islam. Princeton University Press, 2004.

Prothero, Stephen. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World, and Why Their Differences Matter. HarperOne, 2011.

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