Abraham [according to the Book of Genesis, Heb., = father of many nations] or Abram (āˈbrəm) [key] [Heb., = exalted father], in the Bible, progenitor of the Hebrews; in the Qur'an, ancestor of the Arabs. As the founder of Judaism, he is said to have instituted the rite of circumcision as a sign of the covenant between God and the Jews, who are descended from Isaac, son of Abraham's old age. Abraham also received the promise of Canaan for his people. In response to divine command, Abraham left Haran, taking his wife Sara and his nephew Lot to Canaan, where God promised him many descendants who would become a great nation. His devotion and trust in God and his promises are exemplified pre-eminently in Abraham's preparedness to sacrifice his son Isaac. The Book of Joshua confesses Abraham as a one-time worshiper of other gods before he entered Canaan.
Muslims believe that Arabs are descended from Abraham and Hagar through their son Ishmael. Abraham is further regarded as an ancestor of Muhammad. According to the Qur'an, Abraham and Ishmael built the Kaaba in Mecca and instituted pilgrimages there. The Qur'an depicts him destroying the idols of his father and of his clan; hence, Islam is the restoration of the religion of Abraham.
Other Abraham traditions are to be found in the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, especially in the Book of Jubilees. See also Josephus' Jewish Antiquities. Modern biblical scholarship has revealed anachronisms in Genesis that cloud attempts to place chronologically Abraham's historical existence.
See T. L. Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives (1974); J. van Seters, Abraham in History and Tradition (1975); A. R. Millard and D. J. Wiseman, ed., Essays on the Patriarchal Narratives (1983); J. D. Levenson, Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (2012).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.