Arabian Religions

Religions of the Desert

Paulo JS Bittencourt

I would like to briefly discuss an essential ingredient that is found in the “genetic architecture” of the so-called Abrahamic religious traditions.
The starting point is the vehement need, in these beliefs, to profess a non-negotiable faith in the unique and exclusive existence of their God. There isn’t necessarily a problem with that. The issue is that we almost always forget the other side of the same coin, namely, the “a priori” denial of any potential truth about other deities or doctrines, something simply unthinkable to believers. It is clear that here Christianity and Islam emerge as universalist religions in relation to Judaism. Hence the expansionist proselytism that has historically characterized them. But we must also not forget that the notions of the Christian church of constituting, itself, a New Israel or of the community of believers submissive in Islam echo the same principle of divine election and unwavering fidelity of the faithful to God’s precepts. Another irrevocable consequence of the monotheistic faith was precisely the fidelity expressed in terms of the most absolute submission.
This is what we see in the scene of Isaac’s sacrifice, when God puts Abraham to the test: “Take your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and there you will offer him as a burnt offering on a mountain that I have given you. I will recommend!” (Gen 22: 2) Abraham was already advanced in years, and his wife Sarah had, miraculously, conceived the couple’s only son in her old age. God then decided to “play” with the patriarch by testing his submission. Abraham obeys, but then the angel of Yahweh is sent to tell him: “Do not reach out against the boy! Don’t do him any harm! Now I know that you fear God: you did not withhold from me your son, your only one.” (22: 12) As everything would belong to God, especially the first fruits, the firstborn of Israel are redeemed through an atoning sacrifice by way of compensation. A firstborn and “without blemish” lamb is sacrificed, when “it will be a burnt offering with a pleasant aroma to Yahweh” (Lev 1: 9) According to these beliefs, it is inconceivable that God would give up his share.
In the first centuries of the Christian tradition, the Fathers would see in the sacrifice of Isaac the pre-figuration of the Passion of Jesus, the Only Son. But, unlike Isaac, who did not know that he was the victim himself in the sacrifice of which he presumed to be a mere officiant with his father, Jesus agonizes because he is aware of his cruel death. He cries out, sweating blood, for the chalice of torture to be removed. But behold, an angel is also sent to him, not to commute the dreaded “penalty”, but to console him so that, like the Lamb of God, he submissively carries out the will of the Father. Even though Christianity was born in context of a new religious sensitivity in the Judaism of his time, according to which it is more fundamental to love God and one’s neighbor as oneself, the fundamental premise remained. It was necessary for God to redeem through blood. I have always wondered about the reasons for this fundamental intransigence of God in relation to the very rules that He Himself stipulated.
In the Islamic faith, which presents itself predominantly as the culmination of the long tradition of the Messengers of God dating back to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and Jesus, Jews and Christians are exalted as the Adepts of the Book. They are, however, “myopic” believers. The Jews and Christians, respectively, “took their rabbis and their monks, as well as the Messiah, son of Mary, for Lords instead of God, when they were commanded to worship only the one God,” (“Quran”, 9: 30) The God of Muhammad, when revealing to His messenger the implacable vision of the “Final Judgment”, threatens the infidels with the vision of Gehenna, the eternal fire that will consume them, and exhorts believers to persevere for the eternal delights that are promised to him . Everything is premeditated by God. Nothing happens without his permission, so inflexible infidels are constituted as proof of the loyalty of believers. In this sense, there are even interdictions from God to the Prophet in the face of the intention of converting non-believers who supposedly find themselves in the plans of Divine Providence. Furthermore, the “Quran” returns to the compensatory ethics of the Law of Talion, always so powerful in texts from the Jewish Torah or the Christian “Pentateuch”.
This is obviously not about “pathologizing” religious beliefs as certain fundamentalist atheists do very well. With this, of course, I am far from equating atheism with religious belief. But militant atheism uses the same denial mechanism as the other, albeit through epistemological delegitimization. I seek, here, to conceive religious narratives not on the basis of the profession of faith, but, much more, based on their discursive assumptions as a mythical attempt to signify the human experience.

In this sense, it is opportune to ask whether at the root of the culture of hatred and intolerance to which, in the name of a fundamentalist perception of religion, Brazil was subjected in the four-year period from 2019 to 2022, there are no echoes of a worldview based on much of it, about the primordial fear of submission through wars, whose reactive counterpart was hatred itself, and this thirst for water that raged relentlessly in the desert environments of the Near East. It was from this rocky and sandy soil that monotheistic faith emerged.
By way of metaphor, and therefore without intending to incur geographic determinism, all of this could have, in fact, culminated in a desert philosophy of life.


Professor Paulo Bittencourt is a brilliant teacher of Ancient and Medieval History at the Universidade Federal da Fronteira Sul UFFS [Erechim Campus], Brazil. He contributes articles regularly, and is a columnist of a periodical too. He has several books to his credit. He is an ardent student of Vedanta.