Posted by: Paul Chiariello | February 17, 2011

What the First Words of the Torah, New Testament and Quran Say About their Religions

As I was reading through the Quran earlier I noticed a beautiful trend of relationships that all three religions seem to emphasize, or at very least can be teased out, from the very first words they use in their texts.  I invite my various religious friends and everyone else who reads this to give me their own understandings (disagreeing or agreeing with me) on these key introductions.  Let me start in the order they are written.

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The Torah – Bereshit, בראשית, is the first book of the Torah and called Genesis in English.  The very name comes from the first concept expressed in the book: “In The Beginning.”  However, the first few words I’d like to look at now are “In the beginning God created.”  This is the full meaning of the English term ‘genesis,’ which implies a beginning or creation of something and also includes the figure who initiated it, God (sorry, G-d for my Jewish friends).  So very literally, these first words are used to describe the first book of the Torah.

To me, this, especially compared to the other two which I’ll get into in a bit, refers to the founding of the first comprehensive monotheistic religion, and within that worldview all of… well… everything.  God, or Yahweh or El, creates everything that exists.  All that is, man to matter, is expressed as a product from this new religious concept, a god who stands alone: God.

This idea of a singular source for everything not only represents the first step in a timeline or chronology for my Christian or Muslim friends, but also can be interpreted as meaning a sufficiency and stopping point for those who don’t continue on to those traditions.  The Torah does not need more.  Nothing else needs to be created.  God already did that in the very beginning.  Yahweh is sufficient, and it stops there.  There is one creation story.

This also provides for me a picture of the central relationship of creation: the Creation and the Creator.  And the importance of a picture of what God intended at creation and the eventual return of to it.

The New Testament – Many may want me to start with the Gospel According to John.  Unfortunately, this would not only be a controversial discussion of a verse which requires knowledge of the original language, but it is also not the first Gospel in the New Testament.   So I shall begin with Matthew.

“This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah” expresses, I believe, beautifully the entire Gospels and sums up the hopes and doctrines of Christianity.  Jesus is the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy and he fulfills it as both a divine and human being.  For Christians, Jesus is an addition to the relationship expressed in Genesis between creator and created.  Jesus becomes the mediator between these two because he is of these two.  Therefore, the relationship between Creation and Creator is bridged.  The entire purpose of Jesus coming to Earth as the Messiah is to create this bridge.  And starting the story of his future, Matthew maps out his pass.  Where he is going starts with where he came from.  He is the Son of King David and child of Father Abraham.

Besides a basis for discussing Jesus’ role as Messiah and future, the genealogical process of listing names in the passage, which is the focus of the first chapter (Luke also covers his genealogy, though disagrees with Matthew on it), is that he is not merely the fulfillment of divine prophecy through David and Abraham but also the progeny of Man.  The genealogy fulfills the Christian focus on Jesus as a bridge by showing that he is of Man and fits him firmly within a series of mortal men.

The geneology plays a duel role, therefore, first, of providing a divine lineage through Abraham and David and fulfilling prophecy that begins a story of Jesus’ mission on earth and, second, of establishing him in an earthly series of births and clearly a Son of Man.

The central relationship in Christianity is therefore between “Creator-Messiah-Created.”  Where Judaism focuses on the aspect of a right creation and returning to a state as G-d intended for “Creator-Creation,” Christianity believes this can only be done through what they have understood in Jewish prophecy concerning the Messiah and therefore focuses on the Messiah in the middle of the previous dichotomy as a bridge.

The Quran – Here is where I got the original idea of looking into a comparison of each religions’ first words.  I have heard many Muslims praise education and learning in Islam by emphasizing that the very first word and commandment of the Quran is “Read,” or Iqra for my Arabic speaking friends.  Later I plan on writing an article about classic emphasis on education in Islam and how central it is to the religion.  But for now I will just try to summarize a few things.  First, here is one of my favorite quotes by the Prophet.

“Acquire knowledge: it enables its possessor to distinguish right from the wrong, it lights the way to heaven; it is our friend in the desert, our society in solitude, our companion when friendless – it guides us to happiness; it sustains us in misery; it is an ornament among friends and an armor against enemies.”

After the fall of the Byzantine and Persian/Sassanid Empires and the rise of the first Islamic Caliphs the world was reborn in trade and learning.  This is the period where everything from euclidean geometry to early calculus came in being (algebra and algorithm are Arabic words) and international trade networks expanded to their greatest yet known extent.  As a chess lover myself I also have to point out that this was also the when chess exploded out of India to the world.

But what does this mean for the central message of Islam?  As I personally understand the verse and Islam broadly, I draw a couple things out of it.  First, the centrality of the last message and the last prophet.   Even if you don’t believe in Islam, Muhammad is certainly the last great prophet of the world’s religions.  These words were commanded to him personally concerning the Book.  Second, it was also declared in Arabic, and thus one the fourth largest natively spoken language in the Modern world was commanded into being.  And henceforth a unifying language for the religion.  Third, they were commanded in reference to learning and religion broadly, but also concerning what eventually became the Quran itself.  Both religion and nature are central to learning and there is no separation between the two.  In my own studies on Christianity and Islam in Nigeria, one of the biggest issues for Muslims concerning education is the materialistic and secular nature of Western (usually read ‘Christian’) education.

This unity and finality is central to (what I believe and have heard argued from others is) the central doctrine and value of Islam.  Tawhid, the idea of ‘oneness’ or ‘unity,’ is a constant thematic refrain.  In terms of relationships, as opposed to what many Christians I’ve talked to believe, Islam does not create a stony distance between God and Man, but instead a unity between all men (the ummah in Islam) and with God (wusuli, meaning ‘rebirth’ and union’).

One important manifestation of this to quickly note is the fact that Muslims spend more time in direct conversation with God, i.e. salat or the prayer 5 times a day.  For many Muslims I’ve talked to this is not a impersonal commandment, but an intimate time to be with their God.  On the other hand, for Catholics the priest and saints are considered intercessors.  And for all Christians, Jesus plays such an go-between role (this was the main argument on the section on Christianity above).  God remains this out of reach entity and a mediator is needed as a bridge.  However, there is nothing of the sort in Islam.  Sufis, probably the most popular strain within Islam, even take this direct connection between the Human-Divine very literally.  For them, all Islam is is an inner journey and immediate connection with the divine.  In Nigeria  the term ‘faida,’ meaning something close to the word “overflowing,” expresses this relationship beautifully as an intimate participation in and emotional knowledge of God.

So the relationship for Islam becomes “God/Man”.  While the Torah is “Creator – Created” and Christianity introduces the bridge of “Creator-Messiah-Created”, Islam finally collapses those relationships back on themselves with the centrality of Tawhid.  Read! – the first commandment for the final prophet’s final revelation for the unity of all.

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Responses

  1. I agree somewhat with you in that all the great religions of the world teach you to be a good person and help fellow human beings as this is godly and best way to be on the way to have onneness, returning to the source, bridging the gap between creator and the created. Moreover, the message of the creator -the word is the same in all four books of revelation.
    In was revealed in Torah to Moses, in Zaboor to David, in Bible to Jesus, in Qur’an to Muhammad, one unifying doctrine that acquire knowledge to understand your creator as all the 124,000 messengers who were sent to humanity emphasized this idea of worshiping only ONE God, and have a direct connection with Him without any intermediary.
    In Islam, it is proclaimed in the last Book of Revelation-Qur’an to the last prophet of God (Allah) Muhammad that Our message was altered with the passage of time. Not so in Qur’an as We -Allah(God) will keep it intact until the Day of Judgment, meaning no one can ever change a single word of Qur’an. Therefore, the Arabic text of Qur’an will remain in original form as it is recited by millions of Hafiz (who learn Qur’an by heart) without actually looking at the Book. No other book of the world of this magnitude is recited this much as Qur’an. This will continue so until the end of the world.

    • Thank you very much. And I agree, I hope to even write a little post on Hafiz. What it is and how prevalent and such.

      • Thank you, Paul.

  2. Hey Paul,

    I finally finished reading this piece. I’m really sorry about how long it took because I had to keep breaking to do my dissertation work etc. However, I thought I would take a moment to tell you that this was a very thought-provoking piece, which I’d like to continue to discuss with you later. I was especially intrigued by your deconstruction of the concept of the Messiah in Christianity. There is something dual about Jesus (as man and god, is it?) that I don’t quite understand. Hopefully, we can talk about that :)

    Regardless, well done and keep at it!


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