Arabs, Jews, Christians : The Family Quarrel

(Published in the Kingston Whig Standard, March 19, 1991, just after the end of the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein)

By Robert Brow    (web site -

It sounds like a fairy tale, but this was for real, bloody and without a happy ending for 38 centuries.

Once upon a time a man called Terah and his son Abraham set out from the area of Kuwait. Terah stayed in Iraq, but Abraham knew he had to move on. God would take him to a land, make him a great nation and bless all the people of the world through him. So Abraham traveled on with his wife Sarai and many camels and servants, and arrived in the land now called Israel.

But the upsetting thing was that he had no heir. Abraham kept hoping, and God told him he would have a son. So when Sarai saw Abraham was so convinced, she suggested he try to produce a son through her Egyptian slave girl, Hagar. The boy who was born was called Ishmael, and his descendants became 12 Arab tribes (Genesis 25:12-18).

By then Sarai was very old, but God said she would bring forth her own son, and he changed her name to Sarah. Sarah laughed at the very idea, but she did have a baby, and he was called Isaac. He was the father of Jacob, and his descendants became the 12 tribes of Jews.

Already before the birth of Isaac, trouble had begun. Hagar despised Sarai for being a barren old hag. Nobody appreciates that kind of remark. When Isaac was weaned, and Sarah loved him more than his brother, she decided that Ishmael would not become Abraham's heir. Abraham wanted to keep the boy, but Sarah said Hagar and her son Ishmael should get lost, which they did. And the family quarrel between the Jewish cousins and the Arab cousins has continued ever since.

Abraham felt so concerned about all that was going wrong that he felt God was calling him to make a supreme sacrifice. So he took his son to Mount Moriah, which is now called Jerusalem. The young man lay down on the altar ready to have his throat cut, but God said he had a much better sacrifice in mind, and he showed Abraham a ram to sacrifice instead.

That was a relief for Abraham but the enmity between the cousins went on and on. They all knew how to stop it. You had what was called a peace offering. Both warring parties came together for a sacrifice, a fatted calf was killed, and they had a barbecue and a great party together. But no one would do that. Jesus talked about such a peace party when a lost son came home, but of course the other son was afraid he would lose the real estate.

That was the trouble. The cousins were obsessed with real estate and so they kept hating each other. Nineteen hundred years after the quarrel began a great prophet among the Jewish cousins said that God's better sacrifice was right there among them.
What better sacrifice could God give than his own son? After training his disciples Jesus let himself be crucified in Jerusalem near where Abraham's son had been offered. After he rose again and went back to heaven Jewish and Arab cousins began having peace-offering feasts of pita bread and wine together. As the numbers increased there wasn't room for them all to gather in one place in Jerusalem so they began to meet in small gatherings every Sunday in homes all the way to Kuwait.

The problem was the Rabbi Paul, a learned man among the Jewish cousins, pointed out that people of all nations could join the peace- offering parties. All they needed was faith. That was the most important part of the original promise of Abraham. So all sorts of people joined in. That didn't please some of the Jewish and Arab cousins at all. How could people of all nations come in and think they owned the promised land?

So now there were three sets of cousins claiming to be children of Abraham. And they all agreed that their title deeds depended on the faith of Abraham. But faith was no help in settling the title to real estate. That was why each of the three sets of cousins set about defining what faith was. They all viewed it as a kind of submission. And they each concluded that faith was obedience to their own religion.

The Christian cousins got the idea that you had to submit by obeying the priests and traditions of the church. That sounded fine in theory, but there were Latin-speaking, Greek-speaking, and Syriac-speaking churches, and they all disagreed about the language and rules and location of the true church.

The Jewish cousins had another idea.: you should obey what was taught by the great rabbis as recorded in the Talmud. That sounded fine, except that finding out what the rabbis agreed about was a formidable task, and their best brains had no time for anything else.

The Arab cousins were confused until their prophet Muhammad told them it was really very simple: think of five pillars. There is one God, you pray fives times a day, give alms, fast from dawn to dusk during the month of Ramadan and go to Mecca on a pilgrimage if you possibly can. This kind of obedience was easy to grasp, not too impossible to practice and it made sense to ordinary people. The Arab cousins found that their simple faith energized them to recover nearly all those in the east who had defected to their Christian cousins. It also enabled them to develop a marvelous civilization. They came close to taking over the whole of Europe. But they also got bogged own in bickerings about rules to be obeyed. The Christian cousins saw their chance to go for the jugular and seize the promised land, but their five terrible wars called Crusades were a disaster.

Eventually some of the Christian cousins realized that the heavy armor of the church, with its obedience to priests and traditions, was a useless handicap. Submission to the God of Abraham could be simply stated as submission to God's own son, who had clearly revealed what the Father had in mind from the beginning. As Paul, the Jewish rabbi, had written, we are put right with God by faith alone, without any rules of religion. By going back to that simplicity of faith, the Christian cousins were able to build an even greater civilization than the Arab cousins. And they began taking the good news of the faith of Abraham to the whole world.

Eventually it penetrated the heads of the Jewish cousins that although Abraham's faith was important, Talmud study was something else. It kept promising a Messiah and a return to Jerusalem, but it never translated into real estate. One of their number, Karl Marx, said that religion is like taking drugs: it dulls your brain for what really needs doing. So instead of poring over the Talmud, many of the cleverest Jewish cousins took to modern university studies and technology. That soon enabled them to get back into the promised land. In spite of those who still wanted to find rules to obey in the Talmud, they managed to repel several onslaughts of the Arab cousins who tried to evict them.

Finally the Arab cousins began to realize that prayer, alms, fasting and pilgrimages to Mecca, and the many other rules of their religion, would never prevail against their efficient Jewish cousins. So some of the Arab countries told the mullahs to keep their religion out of politics.  Meanwhile the Arab cousins found themselves sitting on billions of barrels of oil. Secretly, they laughed at the Jewish cousins who thought it was Isaac who was favored. But all the land their father Abraham had given the Jewish cousins was a pile or rocks and Jaffa oranges. Obviously Abraham had favored Ishmael. For the Arab cousins God had hidden a huge treasure of black gold in the sand. And the Christian cousins had better keep their greedy hands off.

It wasn't long before Iraq, one of the stronger Arab nations, decided it should own all the Arab oil. So it attacked and took over a small Arab neighbor whose people were very rich with enough oil to last for 100 years. Some of the other Arab nations asked the Christian cousins to come in and help them. Saddam Hussein, head of the Iraqi Arabs, said there would be the mother of all battles, and the blood of the Christian cousins would redden the sands of Arabia. But he forgot that the Christian cousins didn't have airplanes when the Crusades were fought. The poor Iraqi Arab cousins were half dead before the battle began, and many more died as they tried to get away from the areas round Kuwait, which was exactly where our story began with Abraham.

When will the three groups of cousins ever stop fighting? I suppose one way would be for groups of Arab and Jewish and Christian cousins to start having peace barbecues together. But don't hold your breath. It might not happen tomorrow, or next week, or even next year. But why can't they make peace and love one another?

There is a way but none of the cousins will like it. They could meet in a peace conference, and agree that the Arab cousins could share all the oil of Arabia, so they would be very, very rich. The Jewish cousins could have the little strip of land from Dan to Beersheba, with its rocks and Jaffa oranges, which is what they want. And the Christian cousins could talk about the faith of Abraham among all nations, which is what they are meant to be doing anyway. But it's not that easy. When a quarrel between cousins has gone on for nearly 4,000 years, nobody can remember what the quarrel was about in the first place.

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