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Speeches

O. Al-Mallakh: The Monotheistic Family’s Common Book

 Presentation at a conference on “Religion and Peace in the Middle East: the Significance of Interfaith Cooperation”
Jerusalem, Israel - August 26-28, 2012
Published in UPF's interfaith journal Dialogue & Alliance, Vol. 26, No. 2, Fall 2012
Theme: Religion and Peace in the Middle East

Here in Jerusalem, I stand instigating an open invitation! Calling the monotheistic family, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, to a momentous family reunion. Summoning all the members of the family of Abraham: Jews, Christians, and Muslims to gather around. Here in the City of David, let us engage in a historical encounter around their common revealed Scriptures, which was revealed to David and is known as the Book of Psalms in English, Tehillim in Hebrew, and Zabur in Arabic.

First, let us review the ancestry of our monotheistic family of Abraham to remind us all monotheists of our shared roots. This realization is essential and of utmost importance for achieving our deep rapport and unrelenting cooperation to succeed in our common mission of lasting peace.

Indeed, the narrative of God’s dealings with Abraham and his progeny makes a wonderful, turbulent, and amazing account. This is a story of a dysfunctional family which had their ups and downs but also had faith, experienced God, and learned to trust him. And it becomes clear that they lived close by each other, because when Abraham died, Ishmael and Isaac together gave their father a proper burial.

We are also informed that when Rebecca, Isaac’s wife, was pregnant, she was in great pain and sought God in prayer and was told that she was pregnant with two nations at war: Esau and Jacob. Esau later married his cousin, the daughter of his uncle Ishmael. This points to the intermarriage between the branches of Abraham’s clan.

The Qur’an says:

We believe what has been sent down to us, and we believe what has been sent down to you. Our God and your God is one, and to Him we submit. (29:46)

The Qur’an does not relate complete stories; it explains what people already knew from the earlier revealed Scriptures.

The story of Abraham starts in the Book of Genesis. On the way, Abraham was blessed by Melchizedek, king of Salem (Salem is modern-day Jerusalem):

Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of the heavens and the earth. And blessed be Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand. (14:18-20)

God made a covenant with Abraham, to be fulfilled through Isaac, son of Sarah, promising him numerous descendants, who would form nations. Sarah, Abraham’s barren wife, took matters in her own hands and offered her husband her maid Hagar. When Hagar became pregnant she mistreated Sarah, and Sarah in turn maltreated her and Hagar ran away. The angel of the Lord told Hagar to go back to Sarah and promised that from her unborn son, who was to be called Ishmael, would come a great nation.

Thus, Sarah and Hagar are not only women of strong characters but they are also mothers of nations and role models for generations to come, although they are quite human in their behaviors! When Sarah asked Abraham to let Hagar and Ishmael go (out of jealousy), Abraham was distressed and turned to God, who told him to listen to Sarah, his wife. The Bible tells us that Hagar called the Lord who spoke to her by the name El-roi. She was the only woman who dared to name God! And thus was blessed!

David’s Book of Psalms/Tehillim/Zabur is the one revealed book that is not contested or considered corrupt or invalid by any among the family of monotheism. It contains 150 Psalms. It is Wisdom literature delivered in a poetic language in the traditions of Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Canaanite, and Phoenician writings.

We read David’s last words identifying him as a prophet of God in the Second Book of Samuel, in the Old Testament of the Bible:

The word of David son of Jesse, the word of the man whom the High God raised up, the anointed of the God of Jacob and the singer of Israel’s psalms:

The spirit of the Lord has spoken through me,
And his word is on my lips.
The God of Israel spoke,
The Rock of Israel said of me:
‘‘He who rules people in justice,
Who rules in the fear of God
Is like the light of morning at sunrise,
A morning that is cloudless after rain
And makes the grass from the earth sparkle.

Surely my house is true to God;
For he has made an everlasting
Covenant with me,
Its terms spelled out and faithfully kept:
That is my whole salvation, all my delight!

But the ungodly put forth no shoots,
They are all like briars thrown aside.
None dare put out his hand to pick them up,
None touch them but with a tool of iron or wood;
They are fit only for burning where they lie. (2 Samuel 23:1-7)

The psalms are poems, songs, can be read or chanted, usually used as prayers. How marvelous would it be if the psalms are recited in the Qur’anic style of chanting! The only scripted meeting point of the three monotheistic faiths is this Book of Psalms/Tehillim/Zabur. The Psalms are used in worship in both the synagogue and church and are mentioned in the Qur’an.

The Qur’an, the sacred Scriptures of Islam, tells us about the Psalms:

We have sent revelations to you as We sent revelations to Noah and the prophets [who came] after him; and We sent revelations to Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob, and their offspring, and to Jesus and Job, and to Jonah and Aaron and Solomon, and to David We gave the Book of Psalms. (4:163)

Your Lord knows whoever is in the heavens and the earth. We exalted some of the prophets over the others; and to David We gave the Book of Psalms. (17:55)

We had prescribed in the Book of Psalms after the reminder and admonition, that those of Our creatures who are good will in the end rule the earth. (21:105)

Furthermore, the Qur’an tells us about David:

We favored David with excellence, [and commended]: O Jibal (mountains) and Tair (birds), glorify the greatness of God with him. And we made iron pliable for him. (34:10)

Bear with patience what they say, and remember Our votary David, man of strength. He surely turned to Us in penitence. We subjugated the chiefs [of tribes] to struggle day and night with him, and the levied Tair. They were all obedient to him. So We further strengthened his kingdom, and bestowed wisdom on him, and judgment in legal matters. Have you heard of the litigants who jumped over the wall into his chamber? When they came before David, he was frightened of them. “Do not be afraid,” they said. “The two of us are disputing the wrong one has done the other. So judge between us with equity, and do not be unjust, and guide us to the right path. This man here is my brother. He has ninety and nine ewes while I have only one. He demands that I should give him my ewe, and wants to get the better of me in argument. (38:17-23)

[David] said: He is unjust in demanding your ewe to add to his [many] ewes. Many partners are surely unjust to one another, except those who believe and do the right; but there are only a few of them. It occurred to David that he was being tried by Us, and he begged his Lord to forgive him, and fell down in homage and repented. So We forgave him. He has surely a high rank with Us and an excellent place of return. ‘‘O David, We have made you trustee on the earth. So judge between men equitably, and do not follow your lust lest it should lead you astray from the way of God. Surely for those who go astray from the way of God, is severe punishment, for having forgotten the Day of Reckoning.’ (38:24-26)

In verse 17 of Surah 38, God describes David as “Our votary.” This is very significant. This simply means that David has the vote of confidence from God, since the meaning of the word votary as defined in the Webster Dictionary, is a sworn adherent, and enthusiast devotee, devoted admirer; a devout or zealous worshipper; a staunch believer; an advocate. This definition describes David, the man of God, and the chosen believing leader who pleased God, answered the calling, and delivered the message: the Zabur (Book of Psalms in English, Tellihim in Hebrew, and Zabur in Arabic).

We read in the Qur’an:

He has verily, revealed to you this Book [the Qur’an], in truth and confirmation of the Books revealed before, as indeed He had revealed the Torah and the Gospel. (3:3)

In the Book of Psalms we read:

For evil doers will be destroyed, while they who hope in the Lord will possess the land. A little while and the wicked will be no more; however hard you look, you will find their place empty. But the humble will possess the land and enjoy untold prosperity….For the Lord is a lover of justice and will not forsake his loyal servants. The lawless are banished forever and the children of the wicked cut off, while the righteous will possess the land and live there forever. (37:9-11, 28-29)

This agrees with the following verse of the Qur’an:

We had prescribed in the Book of Psalms after the reminder and admonition, that those of Our creatures who are good will in the end rule the earth. (21:105)

And in the Gospel of Luke in the Christian Bible, we read:

And he said unto them, these are the words which I spoke unto you. While I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the Psalms concerning me. (24:44)

Thus the Psalms/Tehillim/Zabur are the religious inheritance par excellence of the three branches that make up the family of Abraham: the Jews, the Christians, and the Muslims, who received revealed sacred scriptures from God. Thus, it should be considered the universal literature revealed by God to his family of Abraham and his descendants. This is the one and only book which escaped misunderstanding through the ages, because Jews, Christians, and Muslims all accept and believe in this Book of David, the Psalms/Tehillim/Zabur.

The English word Psalms comes from the Greek word psalmos, meaning the music of stringed instruments. Hence the name, since reciting the psalms was accompanied by stringed musical instruments. Tehillim in Hebrew means the book of praise songs, and Zabur in Arabic is equivalent to Zimra in Hebrew, which means song and music.

Here are samples of the Psalms:

  • David started out a shepherd who tended to his sheep, loved them, and took care of them, and with him they lived without fear, clinging to him, and answering his call. So Psalm 23 presents God as the good shepherd. No arguments here among the descendants of Abraham. We all experience and call on God for protection and assistance.
  • David in Psalm 24 instructs us how to get close to God, namely by “having clean hands, a pure heart, and not acting deceitfully.”
  • David was also a warrior, a ruler, a poet, and a statesman. In Psalm 8, David indicates how humankind is weak and yet God gave us mastery over the world we live in. This is an important concept that all three faiths share. In the Qur’an, Adam and his descendants, that is mankind, is God’s Steward on earth.
  • David in Psalm 19 shows how God reveals himself to humankind through nature.
  • David in Psalm 33 instructs us to put our hope in God. He is calling us all to sing unto the Lord a new song and to rejoice in the Lord who loves righteousness and the good judgment: “Blessed is the nation, whose God is the Lord.”

Therefore, the Psalms establish the fact that God, the creator, is the sovereign, the master, the deliverer, and the sole ruler of the universe. Meanwhile, the Psalms also pour out all the components of the human soul, such as grief, doubts, sorrows, lamentations, fears, complaints, cares, confusions, warnings, joys, hopes, praise, and thanksgiving. Hence the book of Psalms becomes the discourse of the soul, our soul, addressing our creator. Consequently it becomes the ultimate book of prayers for the monotheistic family of Abraham: the Jews, the Christians, and the Muslims.

Holding David’s Book of Psalms/Tehillim/Zabur in my hand, I reflect that this is the one revealed book that is not contested by any among the family of monotheism. So I pause, ponder, and send this call to Abraham’s clan: we should emulate our common ancestor, Abraham, in obedience and compliance to God’s Word starting with the one book we agree upon.

Let us gather around this book of David in the spirit of interfaith cooperation, exalting in the love of God. Here in Jerusalem, surely we will find courage to embark on the road of understanding and collaboration among the members of the family of Abraham. Let us start reading it together. Let us teach the Psalms/Tehillim/Zabur to our children, to the leaders of the next generation, so they know that we are not strangers to each other. We are kin, the children of Abraham who found favor with God the Almighty.

Now is the time to start printing the Psalms/Tehillim/Zabur, and make it available and affordable in synagogues, in churches, and in mosques.

Let us all praise the Lord together: Jews, Christians, and Muslims; men and women; mothers and fathers; brothers and sisters; sons and daughters; friends and acquaintances, standing up in unison, offering praise to our Lord:

Let us listen to Qur’anic-style chanting of the first section of Psalm 145:

I shall extol you, my God and king
And bless your name forever and ever
Every day I shall bless you and praise your name forever and ever
Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise
His greatness is beyond all searching out
One generation will commend your works to the next
And set forth your mighty deeds
People will speak of the glorious
Splendor of your majesty
I shall meditate on your wonderful deeds
People will declare your mighty and terrible acts
And I shall tell of your greatness
They will recite the story of your abounding goodness
And sing with joy of your righteousness.

Next, let us read in unison the second part of the Psalm:

The Lord is gracious and compassionate,
Long-suffering, and ever faithful
The Lord is good to all,
His compassion rests upon all his creatures.
All your creatures praise you, Lord
And your loyal servants bless you.
They talk of the glory of your kingdom
And tell of your might,
To make known to mankind your mighty deeds,
The glorious majesty of your kingdom
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
And your dominion endures throughout all generations.

In all his promises the Lord keeps faith,
He is unchanging in all his works,
The Lord supports all who stumble
And raises all who are bowed down
All raise their eyes to you in hope,
And you give them their food when it is due
You open your hand and satisfy every living creature with your favor
The Lord is righteous in all his ways,
Faithful in all he does
The Lord is near to all who call to him, to
All who call to him in sincerity
He fulfills the desire of those who fear him
He hears their cry for help and saves them
The Lord watches over all who love him
But the wicked he will utterly destroy
My tongue will declare the praises of the Lord
And all people will bless his holy name
Forever and ever.

Olfat El-Mallakh is currently Adjunct Faculty at College of DuPage, Illinois in the Department of Religious Studies, where she teaches courses on Introduction to Religion and Comparative Religion, Arabic Language and Culture, Women Artists, and Christianity in Islam.

Bibliography

Ali, Ahmed. Al-Qur’an. A Contemporary Translation. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Alter, Robert. The Book of Psalms. A Translation with Commentary. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007.

Cohen, Mortimer J. Pathways Through the Bible. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 5717-1957.

Rosner, Steven. A Guide to the Psalms of David. A Book for all Reasons. Denver, Colorado: Outskirtspress, 2012.

Suggs, Jack M., Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, James R. Mueller, editors. The Oxford Study Bible. Revised English Bible with the Apocrypha. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.