Three of the major religions were born in the Middle East. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all recognize Abraham as their first prophet, so they are called the Abrahamic religions.
Judaism arose in modern-day Israel in the second millennium B.C.E. According to the Bible, Abraham was the first Jew, and he made a covenant with God.
In 73 C.E. the Roman Empire dispersed the Jews from historic Palestine. Most Jews then lived throughout the world as minorities, until the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948. Today, most Jews live in the United States and in Israel.
Jews believe in one god and his prophets, especially Moses. Jews do not believe in Jesus and Muhammad.
Judaism emphasizes actions more than beliefs. Jewish law is written in the Torah and the Talmud, covering rituals, diet, marriage, and inheritance. Major holidays include Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) and Passover, with its seder meal (freedom feast).
Christianity started in the first century C.E. in modern-day Israel. Early Christian communities were often persecuted. When Emperor Constantine converted in 324 C.E., Christianity spread across the Roman Empire. There are now large populations of Christians on every continent, although the forms of Christianity vary.
Christianity’s holy scriptures are the Old Testament (the Jewish Torah with additions), and the New Testament (written by the followers of Jesus).
Christians believe that God is revealed through the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit. Jesus was born to the Virgin Mary (celebrated at Christmas) and came to Earth to offer redemption for people's sins. After Jesus was executed by the Romans, Christians believe he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven (celebrated at Easter).
Christians believe in an afterlife with rewards in heaven and punishment in hell.
Christians believe that the ritualistic Jewish law was replaced by a universal gospel for all humanity and the Christian teaching, "Love thy neighbor as thyself."
Islam arose in the early seventh century C.E. in Mecca, in modern-day Saudi Arabia. Over the centuries, Islam spread from the Middle East into North Africa, Europe, and Asia.
Muslims believe that Allah (Arabic for God) sent His revelation, the Quran, to the prophet Muhammad to declare it to mankind. The Quran tells Muslims to worship one god, and it explains how they should treat others.
Observant Muslims practice five principles: orally declaring their faith; praying five times a day; daily fasting during Ramadan; giving charity; and making a pilgrimage to Mecca. Many Muslims also observe dietary rules that forbid foods (like pork) and alcohol.
Major Muslim festivals include Id al-Fitr (the Fast-Breaking Festival), celebrated at the end of Ramadan, and Id al-Adha (the Festival of Sacrifice), the commemoration of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Ishmail.
Muslims believe in a Day of Judgment, when righteous souls will go to heaven and wrongdoers will go to hell. Muslims see Islam as the final, complete, and correct revelation in the monotheistic tradition of the three faiths.
Source: Three Religions, One God
© 2002 WGBH Educational Foundation