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.

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.”


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.

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.


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.

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.


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.

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.


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Forty Vignettes on the Life of Muhammad: (2) Muhammad's Calling and the Fear of the Demonic

Muhammad’s calling happens through internal witness alone – no other human being experiences it with him, none can testify to the source of the voice, nor of the presence of an angel.

He receives this calling at age forty when Allah “sent him in compassion to mankind, ‘as an evangelist to all men.’ ” A universal mission is in place.

As a man who loves solitude, Muhammad is once in a mountain cave overlooking Mecca. There the angel Jibril appears to him in dream and tells him to read a coverlet of brocade with writing on it.

Jibril “said ‘Read!’ I said, ‘What shall I read?’ He pressed me with it so tightly that I thought it was death; then he let me go and said, ‘Read!’ I said, ‘What shall I read?’ He pressed me with it again so that I thought it was death; then he let me go and said, ‘Read!’ I said, ‘What shall I read?’ He pressed me with it a third time so that I thought it was death and said ‘Read!’ I said, ‘What then shall I read?’ – and this I said only to deliver myself from him, lest he should do the same thing again. He said:

“ ‘Read in the name of the Lord who created,
Who created man of blood coagulated.
Read! Thy Lord is the most beneficent,
Who taught by the pen,
Taught that which they knew not unto men.’

“So I read it, and he departed from me. And I awoke from my sleep, and it was as though these words were written on my heart.’ ”

The image is one of the mighty angel Jibril, pressing deathly hard against his very breath, and putting him into a corner apart from which he has no option but to submit. Muhammad is disturbed with the dream, and flees the cave, saying: “Woe is me poet or possessed … I will go to the top of the mountain and throw myself down that I may kill myself and gain rest.”

But then he testifies to a vision of Jibril “in the form of a man with feet astride the horizon,” calling him “the apostle” of Allah. He maintains uncertainty, and tells his wife Khadija and cousin Waraqa b. Naufal about it. Khadija assures him that he is to be “the prophet of the people,” and “O son of my uncle, rejoice and be of good heart, by [Allah] he is an angel and not a satan.”

The question continues to haunt Islam – why does Muhammad consider the possibility that the angelic message is demonic in origin?

The calling of Jesus is public with many eyewitnesses as the angels reveal themselves to Joseph and Mary and the shepherds, and the Holy Spirit speaks through a prophet and a prophetess in public. The idea of “angelic” coercion is foreign. His calling is affirmed among those being baptized by John, and later with the disciples as the Father speaks from heaven for all to hear: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” And immediately after his baptism, Jesus confronts and refuses the devil’s temptations.


Monday, September 15, 2014

Forty Vignettes on the Life of Muhammad: (1) Anti-Jewish Theme

[In this series, I am covering forty vignettes from the life of Muhammad. The source is Ibn Ishaq’s Sira, the most ancient, extant and historically reliable biography of Muhammad – the person whom Muslims are called to imitate. In the process I will also give succinct profiles of Jesus from the four gospels. For those who pursue religious, political and economic liberty for all people equally, it is a question of whether we choose to follow Jesus or Muhammad.]

1. Anti-Jewish Theme

When Muhammad is a boy, under the guardianship of his uncle, Abu Talib, they meet a Christian monk named Bahira. The monk recognizes “the seal of prophethood between [Muhammad’s] shoulders” and says to Abu Talib: “Take your nephew back to his country and guard him carefully against the Jews for by Allah! if they see him and know about him what I know, they will do him evil; a great future lies before this nephew of yours, so take him home quickly.”

When Jesus is a Jewish boy, his threat is from King Herod because of his messianic Jewishness. Though in his adulthood he is hated by much of the Jewish religious elite, the problem is that they are not being faithful Jews as they oppose the coming Messiah. Jesus also declares that “salvation is from the Jews” as he comes to fulfill the Law of Moses.


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Apostle Paul (Part 2)

When the apostle Paul writes to Philemon, some see a supposed parallel in Roman society. N.T. Wright points out, that over a century prior, the distinguished Pliny the elder writes to a friend named Sabinianus. He makes a plea for a "freedman" who has fled from Sabinianus, a man with whom Sabinianus is angry, one who has done obvious wrong in some capacity and is sorry for it. Pliny counsels Sabinianus to be merciful, but also adds: " ... because I've given him a severe talking-to, and I've warned him clearly that I won't make such a request again (This is because he needed a good fright ...)." A "freedman" is someone who has already gained freedom from slavery but is not a citizen with full rights.

There are two important observations N.T. Wright makes here. First, the literary structure at play is something with which Paul is well familiar, and uses easily. But second, and dynamically, the underlying reality for Paul is the biblical narrative that is radically different than that of the Roman storyline.

Pliny expects the freedman to stay within the social order as it exists, and reinforces it with a strict warning. But Paul radically undermines the Roman social order while not engaging in lawbreaking. First, Onesimus, though a slave, is to be received back by Philemon as much more - he is now a brother in Christ, regardless of what the Roman social order says. Second, Onesimus is to be regarded as Paul's assistant. And third, Paul implicitly but powerfully suggests to Philemon that Onesimus receive his freedom. In Christ, there is a deeper fellowship (koinonia) that transforms social orders for those who grasp its nature. We treat one another - regardless of social standing, race, sex, education etc. - as equals in the sight of Christ Jesus. As members of the Body of Christ, we work together in true unity.