IN THE Middle East, where some say civilzation first began, there arose a wise man, the son of a herdsman in Mesopotamia, who was called Abram.

And the Lord said unto Abram: "Thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of nations have I made thee . . . I will multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is upon the seashore."

And Abraham, following the Lord's commandments, begat the kingdom of Israel. The tribes of Abraham in the hundreds of years that followed wandered far over the earth. In 4 B.C. Jesus, whom many call Christ, was born. And in 570 B.C. Muhammad, whom the Muslims worship as the one prophet, was born.

Now the Children of Abraham are split into three faiths, each with divine revelations and prophets sent from God. Yet, Hebrews, Christians and Muslims all still worship one God, obey His commandments and hold Jerusulam as the holy city.

"Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, The Lord is one."

"And the word was made flesh and Dwelt Among Us . . ."

"There is no God but God and Muhammad is his Prophet."

In these days before the great holidays, candles burn, feasts are laid, songs are sung to the heavens, and people remember that all are children of Abraham and of God.

In this spirit, the National Geographic Society with the National Committee of Islam Centennial 14 has mounted an exhibition in Explorers Hall that points out the similarities between these three great religions espoused by a third of the world's people. The show was inspired by an earlier one at Muhlenberg College, Allentown, Pa., by Linda Weintraub. The National Geographic show is open through April 18, at 17th and M streets NW. The Islam Centennial committee hopes to help other cities organize a similar three-faith exhibit.

The 200 religious objects are primarily menorahs, icons and prayer rugs. Most menorah and icons are made of gold, silver and sounding brass, ornamented with precious jewels that burn with fire when the light hits them. The rugs are wool in soft colors and intricately woven. These ancient craftsmen and their wealthy patrons gave their best to their God.

Huge National Geographic photographs of Jerusalem's sacred sites, called thrice blessed, are in the entry room. In the center is a domed case holding a torah in a magnificent silver, velvet and deerskin torah case, a 19th-century Sephardic object; a 1611 Christian Bible (Geneva version) printed in London and a 15th-century Koran with a Persian moroccan leather gold-tooled cover protecting the text in thuluth script with the name of Allah inscribed in gold.

Great red and blue banners proclaim the symbols held sacred: the hand, the lamp, the tree of life, the star, the moon, the bird, the plant and the circle of eternity. To this list should be added architectural elements: arches, domes, columns and fountains, recalling sacred places of worship.

These mystical symbols, abstracted, appear again and again on the three important manifestations of these major religions: the Jewish menorah, the Christian icon and the Muslim prayer rug.

The exhibit points out that the icon is intended only to be venerated, not worshiped. It is an aid to meditation, a way of opening a window between earth and heaven, God and man. The same thing might be said of the other symbols.

The menorah's symbol is Moses' tabernacle, the law ofSee FORM, Page 2, Col. 3 FORM, From Page 1 God brought down from the mountain, and the temple in Jerusalem, both, themselves, earthly manifestations of Yahweh, the Hebrew word for God

The icon, for Orthodox Christians, is, as the exhibit text says, "a sacred picture of Jesus or a Christian saint that helps the mind transcend the everyday world and enter the 'sacred time' and 'sacred space' of God." The icon is most often influenced by the Orthodox church's Byzantine inheritance, and is rich in Jewish and Islamic symbols as well. Most of the icons in the exhibit come from Russia.

The prayer rug always depicts the mihrab, the niche in the mosque indicating the direction of the Kaaba, the black robed shrine in Mecca believed to mark the place Abraham and Ishmael worshiped. The prayer rug also fulfills the requirement to kneel on a ritually clean space.

Peter Purpura, the National Geographic's curator, has built a temple (synagogue, mosque) inside Explorers Hall. The material is a honeycombed paper, but it has been stuccoed so it is almost indistinguishable from a masonry wall. The National Geographic exhibits are always the most lush, as well as the most architectural, in the city. The objects are enshrined under domes, in arched niches and cases shaped like mihrab.

The exhibit has a room for each of the three categories of objects. By each object is an informative label, silk-screened on mylar, by Nancy Beers, Purpura's assistant, and Cynthia S. Finlayson of the Islam Centennial committee. Stylized symbols, pointing out the universal motifs in the objects, mark each label.

Thus the flames that represent eternal light, in all three religions, are seen in lamps and menorah in Jewish synagogues, in halos and light in icons and in mosque lamps both in mosques and stylized in rugs.

The hamsa in Jewish folk art represents the Hand of God, and stands for good luck. In icons, a raised hand is a blessing. In Islamic folk art the raised hand, the Hand of Fatima, reminds of Muhammad's family and daughter, Fatima, the five basic beliefs of Islam and the five daily prayers.

"The tree of life, birds, animals, vines and flowers are all . . . symbols associated with man's hope for the fulfillment of God's promises," the text says -- hope for the Messiah for the Jew and the return from exile, the hope of eternal life for the Christian and paradise for the Muslim.

The collection of menorahs and Hanukah lamps show the diversity of work that comes from the Diaspora. Moses' Menorah, long lost, was copied until the destruction of the Temple. Until then, the menorah burned day and night to signify the eternal present of God. From then, exact copies were forbidden, but variations flourish. The seven branches represent the days of creation, but the rest is in the hands of the artist.

A brass one made in the 19th century in India has all the advantages of that country's great craftsmanship. A simple clay oil lamp goes back to the second and third centuries in Palestine. The Hanukah menorah goes up as far as Sweden, for a brass version, and as far south as Persia for one hand-cast in wrought iron. Often they use columns and arches to symbolize the temple. One from 18th century Zabludow, is in the form of the wooden synagogue in Zabludow, destroyed in the Holocaust. It was lent by the B'nai Brith Klutznick Museum. The most beautiful object is the torah crown, made in silver in 19th-century Poland. The crown is covered with three-dimensional bells, flowers and, of all things, reindeer.

In the icon room, the Lady of Vladamir, picturing the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child, comes from 17th-century Moscow. The magnificent icon belonged to the Count Tolstoy's family. Purpura points out that the icon is extremely rare, the only similar one is in Russia. The wood icon casing is of gold, ornamented by chased niello with rubies, diamonds, pearls and emeralds. "Most Russian gold objects made before Peter the Great were either destroyed or melted down to mint coins," he said.

Beers points out that icons were originally made of wood, but the smoke from incense and candles blackened the pictures, so metal cases, rizas, of gold and silver, set with precious jewels, were made to protect the holy portraits and became an offering to the saint. Sometimes these covers were architectural, much like Islamic buildings.

These icons are the most gorgeous and extravagant of the show. The Panagia and Chain of Christ Pantocrater, for instance, is of gold set with sapphires, rubies, diamonds and pearls with a cloisonne'-enamel medallion of Christ, made, as you might expect, in late 19th-century St. Petersburg by Faberge'. The Deisis (Christ, the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist), a gilded silver and jeweled 17th-century icon carries an archaic Armenian inscription on the back. The removable center panel reveals a dedication bestowing the triptych on a baby on the occasion of a baptism. At least one icon shows the donor being blessed.

Not all the icons are of precious metals and stones. The royal doors, once guarding the entrance to a sacristy in Russia in the 17th century are painted with a scene of the Annunciation. The Last Judgment, an early 16th-century Russian icon of the Novgorod School is enough to make anyone mend his ways, with devils, tortures, dragons and hellfire awaking the evil. A more optomistic icon is the menology, a double-sided calendar icon, with 12 panels, each representing a month in the Russian Orthodox Church calendar, with a saint for each day.

The prayer rugs are dominated by the 19 feet 6 inches by 16 feet 3 inches Hereke prayer rug -- said to be the largest in the world -- woven for the late King Farouk of Egypt in Anatolia, Turkey. It took three people to hang its 300 pounds.

The rug designs are rich in animal and insect life: butterflies, beetles, dragons, animals and fish. The Koran forbids human or animal forms on religious objects, but the Marasali prayer rug from the 19th-century Caucasus renders men and animals in geometric froms. A dragon is worked around the border. A Melas prayer rug from 18th-century Turkey is a stylized tree of life, with tulips bordering the mihrab.

This exhibit, stretching as it does from Hanukah to Easter, is a splendid evocation of the joyful noise to the Lord transformed into objects. The Symbols of Faith come from Washington's B'nai Brith Klutznick Museum, Islamic Center, Harold Keshishian, National Museum of Natural History, Textile Museum, Rare Book Library of the Washington Cathedral,; the Judaic Museum of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville; the Walters Art Gallery of Baltimore; Parviz Nemati of Antique Buyers International and Peter L. Schaffer of A La Vieille Russie, both of New York City.