Sunday, November 23, 2014

40 Vignettes on the Life of Muhammad (9): Muhammad Co-Opts Religious Liberty


In four significant phases, Muhammad is de facto protected in his early and vulnerable Meccan years by the religious, political and economic liberty given him by non-Muslims.

First, his uncle and polytheist Abu Ṭalib, protects him over and over from his enemies. Second, as already noted, ‘Umar is protected by a Qurayshi polytheist and shaykh, Al-‘As b. Wa’il Sahmi, at the outset in the Meccan sanctuary. This is strategic for Muhammad’s confidence in moving forward, as it is his lifelong goal to bring the Ka’ba and Mecca under Islamic dominance. Third, under the duress of initial opposition, many of the early Muslims flee to Abyssinia, where the Christian Negus (king) gives them protection. And fourth, as we will note momentarily, the Jews in Medina give him protection from his enemies as he flees Mecca.

But, as we will also see, Muhammad never reciprocates any of the liberties he is given.

Jesus: The freedom to choose yes or no to Jesus fulfills the biblical order of creation and the Law of Moses, and is never manipulated. In the Golden Rule taught in the Sermon on the Mount, the equanimity and justice of Jesus can be seen as he says, “Treat others as you would have them treat you” (my translation) and as well, “Give, and it will be given to you.”

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Forty Vignettes on the Life of Muhammad (8): Jibril Kills Those Whom Muhammad Curses


In five sequential instances where Muhammad curses his enemies, Jibril cripples one and kills the other four in response. This mighty angel shows up in some visible fashion (in the storyline) and engages in the minutiae where he 1) throws a leaf in one man’s face to make him blind, 2) points at another man so that he dies of dropsy, 3) points at the next man so that an old scar opens up and he dies, 4) points at yet another man so that a thorn in his foot kills him, and 5) points to a final man whose head immediately fills with pus, killing him.

Jesus: As he seeks to tempt Jesus, the devil quotes Psalm 91 out of context: “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” The devil’s purpose is to get Jesus to act presumptuously in using angelic power for his own self-aggrandizement. Jesus refuses this temptation and as well, Jesus teaches us to bless and not curse our enemies.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

40 Vignettes on the Life of Muhammad (7): The Night Journey to Jerusalem



A central aspect to the claims of Muhammad is his story about making a “night journey” to Jerusalem, flying there and back in one night on a “half mule, half donkey, with wings on its side.” This is another internal story for which there are no eye-witnesses. Ibn Ishaq records how many of his companions express doubt about the story, calling it an “absurdity” given how it takes two months for a round trip to Syria (then the province for Jerusalem). Some companions of Muhammad thus give up their faith in him. The importance of the story lies in two important claims. First, Muhammad says he meets with Abraham, Moses and Jesus, and acts as their imam in prayer. This is used to ratify his superiority to them, and that of Islam over Judaism and Christianity. Second, here Muhammad is told by Jibril not to drink wine, which thus becomes a law in Islam.

Jesus: Apart from traveling to Egypt as an infant with Joseph and Mary, Jesus lives his whole life between Galilee and Jerusalem, in the Roman occupied Judah, the remnant nation of ancient Israel. He makes no claims about his earthly ministry that cannot be tested and verified, nor to carve out important doctrines in such an unreachable sphere.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Forty Vignettes on the Life of Muhammad (6): The Use of the Qur’an to Silence Debate


In Muhammad’s early years in Mecca, he engages often in debate with the polytheists. But instead of reasoned arguments being sought in both directions, Muhammad shuts down the questions at given junctures by appealing to the Qur’an.

The Qur’an is not a written document at this time. Rather it is the words Muhammad claims are given directly from Allah in the moment or earlier, oftentimes in a trance, and through the angel Jibril. He recites them as the unchallengeable oracles of Allah, and accordingly, debate is over when the Qur’an is quoted – no more questions allowed.

For example, a pagan storyteller named Al-Nadr b. al-Harith (with Persian allusions) compares himself to how Muhammad teaches in the assembly: “Muhammad cannot tell a better story than I[,] and his talk is only of old fables which he has copied as I have.”

Muhammad then brings some verses of the Qur’an, as they “come down” from Allah, promising “a painful punishment” for Al-Nadr’s refusal to believe in Muhammad. Immediately thereafter, Muhammad interacts with him again “and the apostle spoke to him until he silenced him,” and then reads a portion of the Quran to Al-Nadr, promising him that he and his gods are the “fuel of hell.”

In another example, a polytheist named Ubayy b. Khalaf questions Muhammad on the possibility of the resurrection, about the power of Allah to “revivify” rotted bones. Muhammad answers by mere assertion, with no explanations or interest in dialogue, and promises that Allah will send Ubayy to hell.
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The rabbinic teaching ethic, which Jesus embodies, is rooted in teaching students how to ask hard questions so as to engage in honest discussion and debate, especially about the nature of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible). The quoting of Scripture is used to further this sharing of questions, and not to shut them down. Jesus goes out of his way in seeking hard questions, especially from his sworn enemies during Passover Week. And the language of hell is not aimed against the refusal to state a prescribed belief, but it is ethical in the nature of “men [who] loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.”

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Monday, September 22, 2014

Forty Vignettes on the Life of Muhammad (5): The Conversion of 'Umar, the Second Bodyguard


Another early convert is ‘Umar, “he being a strong, stubborn man whose protégés none dare attack.” He physically fights against the Quraysh tribe (from whom Muhammad comes) in their control the Ka’ba at the heart of the sanctuary in Mecca – so that the Muslims can pray there too. The Ka’ba is the enclosure for a sacred stone, and the sanctuary is the center for the 360 gods of various Arab tribes. ‘Umar thus becomes Muhammad’s second bodyguard.

Interestingly, as some of the Quraysh then fight “Umar over his conversion to Islam, a Qurayshi shaykh, Al-‘As b. Wa’il Sahmi, defends ‘Umar’s religious freedom to leave polytheism – even as Sahmi never converts himself. Then ‘Umar immediately seeks out Abu Jahl to advertise his conversion to his face, and Abu Jahl “slammed the door in my face and said, ‘[Allah] damn you, and damn what you have brought.’ ” ‘Umar is spoiling for a fight with the polytheists, and this aggression is honored by Muhammad. Thus, religious liberty is received by ‘Umar for himself, but not honored by him toward others, he who later becomes the second caliph in Islam.
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Such violence has no place in the Gospel, and the main challenge Jesus gives to the religious elitists who oppose him is their hypocrisy – requiring of others what they do not require of themselves.

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Friday, September 19, 2014

Forty Vignettes on the Lfe of Muhammad: (4) The Conversion of Hamza, the First Bodyguard


One of the earliest converts is Hamza, known as “the strongest man of Quraysh [the tribe that governs Mecca], and the most unyielding.” He reacts at one juncture to some insults and curses given to Muhammad by polytheist and Meccan leader Abu Jahl. So Hamza takes his bow and strikes him with a “violent blow.” Hamza thus becomes Muhammad’s bodyguard.

As Ibn Ishaq relays the story, Hamza is honored by Allah for his rage in protecting Muhammad against insult. In a sequential story, Abu Jahl tries to kill Muhammad with a stone, [the angel] Jibril appears as a camel’s stallion with bared teeth, and Abu Jahl’s hand withers on the stone and he flees in terror. When Hamza later dies in battle, Muhammad is in deep agony.
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There are no bodyguards for Jesus and no violence permitted among his disciples. Jesus does not use the power of twelve legions of holy angels at his disposal to prevent his death, and he rebukes Peter for drawing the sword in such an attempt. At an earlier juncture, when a crowd seeks to throw Jesus off a cliff, “he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.” In other words, his intrinsic spiritual authority supersedes the need for human bodyguards or same such.

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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Forty Vignettes on the Life of Muhammad: (3) Insult, Initial Violence and the First Bloodsheed



Muhammad immediately meets great resistance, as he preaches against the polytheism that is embraced by the Arab tribes who congregate in Mecca. When he and a few followers are praying in a glen outside Mecca, “a band of polytheists came upon them while they were praying[,] and rudely interrupted them. They blamed them for what they were doing until it came to blows, and it was on that occasion that Sa‘d smote a polytheist with the jawbone of a camel and wounded him. This was the first blood to be shed in Islam.”

Muhammad’s uncle Abu Talib protects him, but never converts to Islam.
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The ethics Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount are opposite to such violence, highlighted in turning the other cheek to insults (not being affected by them), the love of enemies and praying for those who persecute us. Jesus dies on the cross for the salvation of his enemies, and thus advances the kingdom of the Gospel not by assaulting his opponents, but in absorbing their assaults.

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