Although I am not Jewish, the Jewish New Year is one of my favorite religious holidays; it is often in September. In the spirit of hope and forgiveness among all humanity, I want to cross the bridge between religions this year. I want to share the story of Mohammed, founder of Islam to mark this year’s Jewish New Year.
The Jewish New Year is a holiday with many meanings, one of which is to help people ask forgiveness from those they have wronged in the last year and to be quick to forgive others. Christianity, Islam and Judaism all teach forgiveness. These three religions are called the religions of the Book – that is the Bible. The Jewish Scriptures (Christians call this their Old Testament) and the Christian scriptures (Christians call this their New Testament) are the books in the Bible and Islam honors both scriptures as part of their own history of events and prophets. They consider Mohammed, their founder, the last and greatest prophet.
Ironically, today, these three Western religions hold a main global political stage of war. This irony cannot be lost on us. It is a poignant paradox that centers of teaching peace and generosity of spirit have taken on the dark cloak of war, also. This must not be seen as an error, however. In the crucible of light, the dark is harbored until it is revealed and dissipated. The darkness that has led to 21st Century war has been there, waiting, beneath the surface. Now, it is being revealed to the light and humanity is working its way to solutions — that may be based in war, or not. Hopefully enough, these religions are not only a core story of the world’s wars — they are also a core story for healing the human heart. It will be interesting to see if that spirit which they carry can be used in service of solutions. Meanwhile, they can feed us as individuals, renewing our hope with the oils of wisdom.
I am indebted to Karen Armstrong, noted religious scholar, for her 2006 book Mohammad: A Prophet for Our Times. Most of my information is from her. For historic context we can remember that dates in this time period are at the beginning of the modern western calendar, which revolve around the birth of Christ. CE means the Common Era – which means 570 years after Christ’s birth. To help us remember we can round off the year of the beginning of main world religions/belief systems in this way — Judaism began about 2000 BCE (Before the Common Era), Buddhism was about 500 BCE, Humanism (Rationalism/Atheism/Socrates) in Greece was about 500 BCE and then Christ at about 0 and Islam about 500CE.
I come to this story as a beginner. I am summarizing from my reading, and I am sure it can be improved and refined. I offer this as a place to begin. Let’s us begin.
Mohammed was an original thinker, led by his faith, who in his lifetime brought peace to a troubled people. He did not claim divinity or enlightenment; he was a human being directed to a mission from God. He led armed raids and battles to accomplish his peaceful country, and taught principles of peace. He is an interesting teacher for today’s times.
Mohammed was born in Mecca in 570 C.E. His father died in his infancy. He and his mother then lived with his paternal grandfather. His mother died when he was six. When Mohammad was eight his grandfather died, and he went to live with his uncle. His uncle was a merchant and a leader of his clan. As Muhammad grew he was tutored in his uncle’s business. This was a good thing, as Mecca was a thriving international commercial center.
Muhammad married an older woman and had many children. His business did well — his wife was a primary advisor in all he did. The astonishing business success of Mecca had increased its wealth rapidly–and thus he had benefited. However, he was troubled. The society around him was becoming more and more materialistic and violence was on the upswing. The traditional practice of generosity in transactions had disappeared. Muhammad contemplated the situation with grave concern. As a religious man he followed the path of Allah – the high god of Arabia. He knew the stories of the Jewish and Christian Bible. He also, like most Arabs, believed that Allah – God – would send a prophet for the Arabic people one day – since they did not have one. As a matter of fact, the Arabs were often looked down on and ridiculed because God had not given them a prophet.
In the year 610, he went on one of his frequent retreats to a cave where he prayed and gave alms to the poor in the neighboring region. He contemplated these concerns. And then, he reports, he felt a crushing blow to his chest and a devastating presence in his cave. He heard the word, “Recite!” and felt his cave had been possessed by a demon…He protested to the voice…. that he was not a poet, given to recitations. Then, the first words of the Quar’an came out of his mouth, unbidden by him. This entire first passage defined the human being’s relationship to God, and criticized human beings for believing that their possessions were their source of safety.
Well, he was shocked, of course, and, according to biographies, ran shaking back to Mecca, to the arms of his wife. Together they discerned what had happened. He was being given a special message from God. Over the next two years he continued to receive such recitations in his prayer life in the cave. The words were beautifully formed – unlike anything anyone had every heard.
He believed they came from the angel Gabriel, whom he had seen on that first night when the first recitation came. He describes what he experienced, in this quote from Armstrong.
“Towards whatever region of the sky I looked, I saw him as before.” It was the spirit of revelation, which Muhammad would later call Gabriel. But this was no pretty, naturalistic angel, but a transcendent presence that defied ordinary human and spatial categories. He said this being was “gazing at him, neither moving forward nor backward…”
This type of experience is not easily believed by others, or, communicated. Muhammad, at first incredulous that he had chosen as the Prophet of Allah to the Arabic people, accepted his role and began to work to spread the good news to others. Over the next two years he told those closest to him, and gradually people listened and were convinced of the message.
One of the biggest challenges was that the message was antithetical to the aristocratic warring, patriarchal, and prideful powerful of Arabia. The culture lived in a desert. Raids on each other’s strongholds were common and part of the ethos of taking care of your clan in a region with limited resources. The message of the Quar’an (which means recitation) called for submission or complete surrender to God (The word Islam means to surrender.) and for peace. Islam called for the importance of continuous kindness, generosity and extension of equality, including women and the poor. It underlined the importance of care and attention to the deprived and orphaned. It emphasized that one needed to live one’s religion as part of one’s work life, public life and daily home life. The wellbeing of the society depended on you living your religious values into your days.
Muhammad grew Islam in Mecca until 622, when spreading the message was stalled and tensions were high. People could not believe that this common man could be the prophet. Concurrently, he was invited to move to Medina to mediate the terrible conflicts they were having there. So, he and the followers of Islam left his beloved city of Mecca, and moved to Medina.
This migration marks the beginning of the Muslim era. The Islamic calendar dates from this journey. In Medina Muhammad shored up his reputation and his movement. It initiated a number of years of warfare between Mecca and Medina. Mohammad led raids and worked within the parameters of his culture, always working for uniting the country. In 628 — a short 6 years after the migration –Mohammad led a peace initiative to Mecca that was successful. He was now seen as the most powerful man in Arabia. In 630 Mecca violated the treaty and Muhammad marched on them. But, Mecca opened its gates voluntarily and Muhammad took the city with no bloodshed and without forcing anyone to convert to Islam.
In 632, Muhammad died at 63, having united the country of Arabia, founded a religion that calls for peace, kindness, equality and a committed struggle for what is right, and left a legacy of how to turn around a country at war with itself.
Now, how does this early history of the message of Islam, speak to us today? What can we take from this story and apply it to our current situation? Several things stand out to me.
First, he found a way to be realistic in his culture – fighting wars and living with the object of making peace and creating a society of equality ever foremost in his mind. Although we object to war and violence, from a spiritual leader, we must remember the times and place he lived in. He participated in accepted raiding behavior, always working to put an end to it. He did it in defensive acts. And, he did it to keep his clan alive. He did not claim to be a savior or enlightened. He claimed to be a prophet for peace and “just” living.
I heard a wonderful story about the possibilities with peace on our minds. About five years ago in Jerusalem, a Muslim scrap metal worker, looking for scrap metal, found an infant that had been left in a dumpster to die. He took it to a Catholic sister he knew, who worked with children. The Catholic sister gave it a home and began looking for an adoptive family. But, then they discovered the baby had a heart problem that required. The sister took the baby to a Jewish surgeon, who volunteered to do the surgery for free. The child was saved and successfully adopted by a Turkish family. The story became known in Jerusalem and represents hope to all there. It also represents the essence of Islam – that we can live together in peace helping each other.
Secondly, a message of Islam is equality. Mohammad worked for an equal society among Jews, Christians and non-believers and among the well to do and the poor. This was, and still is, a major message of Islam. I went and spoke to the man who sells me yogurt — Said –- who is Muslim. I asked him to tell me about Islam. In between customers, he and I sat at the side table and we talked. I asked him near the end, what was the main message of Islam for believers and nonbelievers alike –- he said, Equality. That is, we are all of the same importance. I was so impressed with this answer and his clarity about it. Clearly, if one believes in equality one believes in peace.
Thirdly, is the message of Islam that believes that our religion is a part of our work for a healthy society. Islam taught that Jews and Christians must be accepted and allowed to their religion, as all three religions worshipped the same God. As a world of very diverse religions and philosophies, we might begin to bring our values and discussion of our obligations to each other into the public discussions to solve our problems, without arguing about religious paths or beliefs.
Islam is a complex religion. I cannot do justice to it here. Like all religions, it attempts to explain how things work in balance between the world of the seen and the world of the unseen. It is meant to bring comfort and meaning to the everyday life of the everyday human being. It teaches, peace, collaboration, equality and concern for society. It has a lot to offer us all.
May we each take the time to learn and understand those who are different from us – and welcome those who might want to learn about us. In this way we build, safety and relationships that can save the world.