Sunday, April 29, 2012

Ulul Azmi: Some Comparative Analysis

It is alleged that 124,000 prophets were sent to mankind, and of these, 313 or 315 were messengers as well.  In the Quran, 25 of them are mentioned by names, and of these, five are single out as the leading prophets, known in Arabic as Ulul Azmi, or the Most Resolute Ones. 
They are, in chronological order: Noah (Prophet Nuh), Abraham (Prophet Ibrahim), Moses (Prophet Musa), Jesus (Prophet Isa) and Muhammad, peace be upon them all.  As to why these five are the chosen ones, this we have covered in our earlier instalment, Ulul Azmi: The Greater Among Equals.
In this instalment, we shall make some comparative analysis among them.  A cursory look at them would reveal some interesting data.
First, in terms of timeline, Prophet Noah belongs to prehistoric.  We don’t know the period he lived, because history was not yet written during his time.  Everything we know about him comes from Biblical or Quranic traditions.  Any attempt to put a date on him would be superfluous, as we have observed in the Timeline of Leading Prophets.
Abraham, meanwhile, had lived during ancient times.  He is said to flourish about 4,000 years ago. Moses, a direct descendant of Abraham, separated by six or seven generations,  lived around 3,400 years ago, during the Middle Period, as per the Timeline above.  While history is already recorded during their eras, most of what we know about them comes from Bible or Quran as well. 
The last two lived in Modern Era.  They are the most recent prophets, although Jesus had already left us around 2,000 years ago and Muhammad had left us exactly 1,380 years, since he died in 632 CE.
Second, in terms of lifespan, these five prophets make a curious observation.  One of them lived the longest and another one the shortest.  We have Prophet Noah who had lived for 950 years, while Jesus is said to flourish only for 33 years.
But here we are facing with a very interesting phenomenon.  The Prophet who had lived the shortest is actually having the longest lifespan of all.  According to Islamic Tradition, Jesus did not die on the Cross.  He was raised to Heaven and would be coming back to live on earth for his second coming.
Now, when Jesus was raised to Heaven, he is by definition still alive, is he not?  If yes, then he is already more than 2,000 years old.  If he is still alive, in what condition is he living?  Is he alone or among his companions?  If alone, what kind of life would that be?  If among his companions, they are already dead.  Could one who is still living mingle with the dead? 
I don’t have answers to those questions.  They are not important questions to ask anyway, for these are beyond our knowledge.  But if you have interesting theory concerning those questions, I would be interested to know. 
Some people with Swoon Theory, as we have briefly narrated in the Good Friday and the Need for Crucifixion, believe that Jesus had died.  These people believe that Jesus was crucified, but he did not die on the Cross.  He only fainted.  He then woke up from his grave, met his disciples and travelled to India.  He died in India, somewhere in Kashmir, so they allege. 
I personally believe that these people with Swoon Theory talk more about themselves than about Jesus.  You see, when one is fainting, he would be unconscious and would not know what is going on.  These people are “swooning.”  They don’t know what they are talking about.  All they have is conjecture. 
For our purpose, suffice to say that Jesus had lived a normal life for about 33 years.  Since he only lived for 33 years, that would make him the Prophet with the shortest lifespan.  Thus we have in the Ulul Azmi the longest living Prophet in Noah, and the shortest living Prophet in Jesus. 
As for the other three, their lifespan is quite normal for their times.  In the case of Abraham and Moses, they had lived for 175 and 120 years, respectively.  As for Muhammad, we know that he died when he was 63 years old, which is common lifespan for modern people. 
Third, in terms of commencing the “official office” as prophets, we only have the knowledge about the last three prophets.  Of these three, only Prophet Muhammad we know for sure.  He began his work as a prophet when he was forty years old, according to Lunar Calendar, or 39 years according to Solar Calendar. 
Jesus officially assumed his role as a prophet when he was about 30 years old, considering that he “disappeared” when he was 33, and his ministry had lasted for about three years.  Moses assumed the role as a prophet when he was in Madyan (Midian), just before he returned to Egypt to face Pharaoh.  
While it is difficult to determine the exact age when Moses was given the first revelation, it is generally assumed that his life is divided into three phases.  For the first 40 years, he lived with Pharaoh as the latter’s adopted son.  Having fled Egypt when he accidentally killed an Egyptian, he went to live as a refugee in Madyan for the next 40 years or so, where he was married to Zipporah (Safura), the daughter of Jethro (Prophet Shuaib). 
Towards the end of his stay in Madyan, he saw the burning bush without smoke up in the mountain, and went there to check what is going on.  It was in that mountain that he was given the first revelation, and was instructed to go to Egypt to face Pharaoh.  He was probably around 80 years old at that time, plus minus. 
As for Abraham and Noah, we do not know for sure when they first received revelation.  But in the case of Abraham, we know for sure that he started preaching tawheed, or Oneness of God, when he was quite young.  
Fourth, in terms of working miracles, two of them are prominent, the other two resort to these occasionally, and the last one we have no knowledge whatsoever.  In the first category, they are Jesus and Moses, the second, Muhammad and Abraham, and the last one is Noah. 
Jesus was the miracle worker.  He could revive the dead, cure the lepers and the blinds, walk on water, and feed the multitude of people with a few loaves of bread.  Moses was given the miraculous stick that can do many wonders, including turning itself into a huge serpent, turning the river Nile into blood, and splitting the ocean. 
As for Abraham, he was not given any miracle per se, but when he was thrown into the inferno, the fire did not harm him whatsoever.  In another occasion, he had asked God to show him the power of God reviving the dead with his own eyes.  God instructed him to take the living bird, cut it into four pieces, and put each of these in four directions.  This bird which had been cut into four pieces came together and flew again. 
Like Abraham, Muhammad was given only a few miracles.  The most outstanding one was splitting the moon.  His greatest miracle is actually the Quran itself, which always have a mesmerizing effect to its listeners, be they his companions or his enemies.  And that miracle continues until this very day, until the end of time. 
As for Noah, we know nothing about his miracles, or whether he was given any, if at all.  Perhaps the only miracle associated with him is the building of huge ship and his ability to keep the animals in the ship without causing much mayhem.  But the Biblical Tradition says that he took 100 years to build the ark.  If that is true, then it is due to hard work, not miracle.  
Fifth and finally, in terms of achievements, these prophets display varying success. 
Measured by the number of adherents, Noah and Abraham do not appear to strike much success.  After preaching for hundreds of years, Noah managed to have only a handful of followers, numbered around 80 according to Islamic sources.  The Bible says that it was only his family on the ark.  Given that he was already 600 years old when the Great Flood occurred, perhaps it is proper to say that those in the Ark were mostly his family members, comprising his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. 
As for Abraham, we do not know much about the number of his followers.  In any case, they are no more than a few hundred at most, but Allah knows best.  His greatest achievement is not in the number of followers he secured, but in being the Patriarch for the three main Divinely inspired religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. 
Moses had many followers.  According to Biblical account, the Israelites who fled Egypt with him during the Exodus were 700,000 men, women and children.   Ibnu Khaldun, however, believes that such cannot be the case.  Since Israelites are the descendants of Jacob, and what separates Jacob and Moses is only four generations, it is therefore unlikely for that number to be that huge.  In any case, the number is substantial.  Perhaps in the tens of thousands. 
Jesus spent his time as a prophet for only three years.  In that short time, he became immensely popular and followed by the multitude, if the Gospel is to be believed.  He organized his movement around 12 core disciples and 70 secondary disciples.  His popularity had attracted the attention of the Jewish religious elites as well as the Roman power, which subsequently led to his “arrest” and the subsequent persecution of his followers. 
As for Muhammad, we have already touched this matter under the Number Game and the Overview On Supremacy.  We need not repeat it here.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Ulul Azmi: The Greater Among Equals

In the tenth year of his prophethood, the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessing be upon him, was at the lowest of the low.

His uncle had just died, thus he was bereft of the much needed political support against his hostile enemies in the field.  His wife too had just died, thus he was bereft of the much needed emotional support at home. 

Most of his companions were living in exiles, in the far away land called Ethiopia.  Furthermore, there had not been any new convert for a few years already. 

Everywhere he went, he was rejected, insulted and mud was thrown to his face, both literally and figuratively.  Even his life was in danger.  He had to be extremely careful with his every move.

In short, he was heading to a dead end.

In that state, as we have narrated at length in the series of Surah Yusuf Part 1 and Part 2, a surah was revealed to him and to his companions as a means to comfort them.

At the same time, however, Muhammad was asked to persevere.  Some verses that make up the Surah Al Ahqaf were revealed to him, narrating the situation he was in, which was not much different from the people of the old.

This Surah is then concluded with the verse: 

So be patient, [O Muhammad], as were those of determination among the messengers, and do not be impatient for them [to be punished].  It will be - on the Day they see that which they are promised - as though they had not remained [in the world] except an hour of a day (46:35).

In short, the Prophet Muhamamd was asked to be patient and persevere like those of determination among the messengers.  Those of determination in Arabic is Ulul Azmi, also known as the Most Resolute Prophets, Leading Prophets, or Arch-Prophets.

Who are they?  The Surah Al Ahqaf does not name them, but the scholars point to them in two verses of other surahs, namely Surah Al Ahzab verse 7:

And [mention, O Muhammad], when We took from the prophets their covenant and from you and from Noah and Abraham and Moses and Jesus, the son of Mary; and We took from them a solemn covenant.

and Surah Ash Shuraa verse 13

He has ordained for you of religion what He enjoined upon Noah and that which We have revealed to you, [O Muhammad], and what We enjoined upon Abraham and Moses and Jesus - to establish the religion and not be divided therein…

In short, they are: Noah (Prophet Nuh), Abraham (Prophet Ibrahim), Moses (Prophet Musa), Jesus (Prophet Isa) and Muhammad, peace be upon them all.

Why are they singled out as Ulul Azmi at the exclusion of others?  Because while Allah does not differentiate the prophets and/or messengers in terms of their worthiness, or the message that they carry, or the need for us to believe in all of them, it is a fact that some are endowed above others.  In other words, some are greater among equals.

Many Quranic verses point to this fact.  One of them, Surah Al Baqarah verse 253, clearly states:

Those messengers - some of them We caused to exceed others. Among them were those to whom Allah spoke, and He raised some of them in degree. And We gave Jesus, the Son of Mary, clear proofs, and We supported him with the Pure Spirit…

That some are bound to be greater than others is a fact of life.  Thus, even in the ideology which purportedly goes to the extreme to exact equality, differences are bound to exist, as George Orwell beautifully captures it in his Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” 

Orwell was referring to the Communist regime of course, not to the prophets.  You can say that to liken Animal Farm to Quran is preposterous, if not downright blasphemous, but I am merely making a point to some fools who claim that since Allah does not differentiate between His prophets and messengers, all of them are therefore equal, and thus we should not differentiate them at all.

The truth is that they are all equal in the sense that all of them carry the same message and bring the same truth, and therefore all of them have to be believed without distinction.  We cannot choose to believe in some of them and disbelieve in others, as the Jews and the Christians do. 

The Jews do not believe in both Jesus and Muhammad, while the Christians do not believe in Muhammad.  As for the rest of the prophets, the Jews and the Christians believe in all of them.  Yet, since they choose to disbelieve in some, and not others, irrespective whether these others are only a few, we consider them to be in grave error.

Looking at the five names above, we discover two differentiating factors that make them Ulul Azmi.  The first is that they were given a Covenant, and second is that they were given a Religion.

A covenant is a promise, an agreement or a pact.  This is easy to understand.  For instance, Abraham was promised that his descendants will be among the Chosen Ones.  Moses was given the Covenant that became the Law, or the Torah.  Noah was promised by God that He will not extinguish all mankind all at once again, as He did during the Great Deluge.

As for Religion, this requires a little elucidation.   The Arabic term used for Religion is DeenDeen is not merely a religion as understood in the West, defined as a set of beliefs.  It is a Way of Life, which encompasses everything that has to do with life, including the aspects which are not generally considered as religious, such as political, economic and social activities.

These five Ulul Azmi were given two distinctions not given to others, although all prophets essentially carry similar message to their people, namely, the Oneness of God.  Further, if we look at their lives, we would find that they are tested the most, and they persevered throughout. 

Now, at one look, we may find the inclusion of Jesus on the one hand, and the exclusion of King David (Prophet Dawood) on the other, to be curious.  Although Islam gives the title Messiah only to Jesus, i.e., Isa Al Masih, in Biblical account, David was also a Messiah.  He was the Anointed One who gave the Israelites their great kingdom.

In addition, both of them were given the Divine Books:  Zabur (Psalms) in the case of David, and Injil (Gospel) in the case of Jesus.   Furthermore, Jesus only carried his prophetic mission for only three years, and, in terms of worldly achievement, he did not achieve what David had achieved.  Jesus was the Anointed One who was never crowned, while David was crowned as a king, hence his title as King David in Biblical account.

Yet, Jesus is included in the list of Ulul Azmi while David is not.

Upon closer examination, however, we would find that worldly achievement is not the criteria to be included in the list of Ulul Azmi.  The two main criteria are the Covenant and the Way of Life (Religion) bestowed upon them, in addition to the fact they remain resolute in the face of opposition and persecution

When David was raised, Religion or the Way of Life was not an issue.  They had prophets and priests among themselves, and the Israelites in the main were following the Way of Moses, as in the Torah.  What the Israelites did not have was political authority.  David gave them kingdom.  His trials and tribulations were of political kinds, such as opposition from his own father in law and brothers in laws.  He did not face much religious issues.

By the time Jesus was raised, the Israelites or better known as the Jews at that time, were already very much corrupted with foreign ideas, as a result of long association with the Gentiles as well as under foreign occupation for a long time, one after the other.  Greek philosophy as well as other philosophical thoughts and religious ideas had crept in and corrupted the Way brought by Moses.

Jesus was covenanted to bring the Way of Moses back to its pristine state.  He was tasked to eliminate all the foreign elements in the Way of Moses.  It is for this reason that he said: I do not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.  The Law here refers to Torah, the Way of Moses. 

To eliminate the foreign elements would also entail the elimination of the foreign power.  At that time, the Jews were under the Roman occupation. 

It is for those reasons that the Jewish authority opposed him, because he was challenging their corrupted way in the Religion; he was also the enemy of state number one to the Roman power, because he was challenging their political hegemony.  As a consequence, both the Jews and the Romans conspired to eliminate him.  He was steadfast and resolute in his struggle, although it happened only for a few years.

In the final analysis, what we write here is only speculative.  It is no more than an attempt to understand why those five are chosen to be the Ulul Azmi, while others are not.

The real reason lies only with Allah, for He alone knows best.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Holy Grail And The Dollar Sign

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked me about the Holy Grail. I told him it is no more than a religious relic, a cup supposedly used by Jesus during the Last Supper. It does not have anything to do with the Christian's belief or tradition. It is just a legend circulated among the Christians.

Then he asked me to write about it in my blog.

Now, grail is simply Old French for a cup or bowl of earth, wood or metal. Sometimes it is called chalice. Since it is associated with Jesus Christ, either the one he used during the Last Supper, or the one used by one of his disciples, Joseph Arimathea, to scoop the blood from the body of Jesus during crucifixion, it is therefore considered sacred. Hence the name Holy Grail. If it is not associated with Jesus, then it is just a cup or utensil like the one you and I used to sip a coffee or tea .

The Grail legend is first featured about 800 years ago, in a poem by Chrétien de Troyes, telling a story about a certain young knight, whose name is Perceval, witnessing a wondrous procession in which youths carried magnificent objects from one chamber to another. First came a young man carrying a bleeding lance, then two boys carrying candelabras. Finally, a beautiful young girl emerged bearing an elaborately decorated graal, or "grail." In other word, an elaborated cup or chalice. At that time, this grail had yet to assume its sacred nature. So says Wikipedia.

From thereon, many more tales were told about the grail, and it became holier and holier.

Now, two things need to be understood here. One, by the thirteen century, the first time the Grail legend came into the picture, the crux of the Christian's faith, such as the godhood of Jesus Christ, had been settled. Two, the story was told in the form of legend, not religious tradition. For that reason, the Holy Grail does not constitute part of the Christian's faith.

That said, since the cup itself is associated with Jesus Christ, it is therefore considered as a religious relic. The existence of the cup itself, however, remain legendary. It has never been proven that such a cup does exist, and the Christian authority never make any absolute claim that they have it in their keeping, or in anyone's keeping for that matter.

Furthermore, in the popular folklore, as in the story by Chretien, the grail is depicted as a beautifully decorated object. This in itself suggests that the story is a mere legend, for Jesus was poor and would have used only common cup normally used by ordinary people.

In this regards, I would venture to say that the importance of the legend lies in the fact that such a cup does not exist in the first place. Hunting for the non-existence thing is always fascinating, unlike hunting for the real thing. When something does not exist, it captures people's mind, and they would search and hunt for it forever, as more and more stories about the Holy Grail suggest. As for the real thing, once found, its mystery is lost.

The Christian authority, on their part, do not consider this Holy Grail tale something bad. Any religious relic, a holy one to boot, after all, cannot be a bad thing. Therefore, they do not make an effort to ban such a legend, or to take actions against those perpetuating the tales.

Until quite recently, that is.

In 1982, a non-fiction bestseller was published with the title, The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail. Based on this non-fiction bestseller, a fiction was written by Dan Brown under the title Da Vinci Code. The novel became a runaway success and was later turned into a movie.

The Church authority have problem with this version of the legend. This version is considered as the conspiracy theory, because the Holy Grail is no more depicted as a cup or bowl that Jesus had used during the Last Supper, or the one Joseph Arimathea used to scoop the blood of Jesus during crucifixion, but rather the "Holy Blood" that carried Jesus' offspring.

How does this conspiracy theory come into the picture?  Well, through clever wordplay if you care to know.

You see,  Holy Grail in English is sangréal in French. In Old French, san graal or san gréal means "Holy Grail" or "Holy Cup," since san means holy and graal means cup. With a clever twisting of word, it is written as sang réal means "royal blood", since sang means blood and réal means royal.

Building from there, the "royal blood" is no longer associated with the blood dripping from Jesus body when he was pierced with the spear by the Roman soldier, to check whether Jesus was really dead on the Cross. But rather the blood means the "offspring" or children, pretty much like your children are your flesh and blood.

This Royal Blood, or the "new" Holy Grail in this theory, is Mary Magdalena, purported to be the wife of Jesus Christ, through whom the descendants of Jesus Christ were perpetuated. In other word, this theory depicts Jesus Christ or Isa al Masih as simply human. Great though he was, he was therefore not God. As you can see, this can be very problematic to the Church authority, for Jesus had been declared as the Son of God in literal instead of metaphorical sense.

As the Son of God, the purpose of Jesus coming to this world is not to get married and have children. He comes to erase the Original Sin so that mankind can be redeemed. If he is merely human, then his purported death on the Cross would not be able to erase the Original Sin, because that Sin can only be redeemed by God sacrificing Himself, as we have briefly narrated in the Good Friday and the Need for Crucifixion.

By making Jesus as merely human who gets married and has children, therefore, the whole Christian's faith is put at risk. It is for this reason that the conspiracy theory version of the Holy Grail is so controversial. What more when these authors claim that the Church authority have been suppressing this information from the public for centuries.

Personally, I would say that Dan Brown has hit the "Holy Grail" big time with his creatively entertaining fiction. It seems that his novel has sold in excess of 84 million copies by 2009. He has become among the rich and famous with that fictional work. Other people have been hunting for the Holy Grail for centuries, but Dan Brown has found it, if you ask me.

As I said earlier, once found, the mystery of anything mysterious would be broken, for things are mysterious only because they are not known.  Once known, they become knowledge rather than mystery.  Likewise with the mystery of Holy Grail. 

Well, it turns out that the Holy Grail has a very big Dollar sign attached to it.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Good Friday and The Need for Crucifixion

Last Friday was Friday the 13th.  It was a bad Friday.

The Friday before that was the Good Friday.  Many Christians were fasting that day, and the churches all over the world were holding religious service, commemorating the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus.

Friday is a good day for Muslims.  It is the chief of all days.  On this day, the Muslim men would observe the Friday Prayer in congregation, the only prayer that is not valid except being observed in a group.  If the day of pilgrimage happens to fall on Friday, it is considered a Hajj Kubra, or Great Pilgrimage.

The Jews consider Saturday to be the chief of all days, which they call Sabbath.  It is the day the Jews are not allowed to work, but to spend the day singing praises to the Lord.  They are not allowed to work because God Himself rested on that day, having completed His creations in six days, so the Bible says.

To the Christians, Friday is generally considered a bad day.  It is the day Adam ate the Forbidden Fruit, and the beginning of Prophet Noah’s Great Flood.  Their good day is Sunday, the day Jesus was resurrected. 

Although Friday is not a good day to the Christians, if it falls during the Easter Week, then it becomes Good Friday.   It becomes a good day because on that day, Jesus was crucified.

The Friday, the day on which Jesus was crucified, is actually not good, for crucifixion is not a good thing.  But it is considered a Good Friday because through that crucifixion, the Original Sin of mankind is erased.  For this reason, that Friday is considered a good Friday, although in general Friday is bad. 

Thus, unlike Muslims who generally believe that Jesus was never crucified, the Christians would not be Christians if they do not believe that Jesus was crucified.  To the Muslims, the crucifixion of Jesus is at best a possibility, which they generally reject.   To the Christians, it is a certainty.  Not believing in it would make their faith flawed.

Now, the Muslims’ main contention is due to the fact that the Quran (chapter 4: verses 156-159) makes it clear that Jesus was neither slain, nor crucified.  Some Muslims theorize that even supposed Jesus was crucified, he did not die on the cross.  He only fainted, because people don’t die through crucifixion that soon.  Death because of crucifixion was supposed to take days, not hours.  Or more precisely, six hours in the case of Jesus’ alleged crucifixion.  This becomes known as the Swoon Theory.

The Christians argued that Jesus was already beaten to a pulp.  He was already half dead, so to speak, by the time he was crucified.  That he died soon thereafter was not at all improbable.  Perhaps God did not want him to suffer much longer. 

I would say to my Muslim brothers holding the Swoon Theory to cut the crap.  Since the Quran is already very clear on the matter, we need not theorize any further.  Jesus was not slain, nor crucified, but only made to appear like that to the eyes of the people, Quran says.  Enough said.

In any case, from an Islamic point of view, it does not matter one way or another.    If God decides that Jesus the Christ, or Isa al Masih, was to be slain and crucified, there would be nothing strange about it.  Many other prophets had been slain by various means.  Prophet Ezekiel (Nabi Zulkifli) was said to be sawn into half.  John the Baptist (Nabi Yahya) was beheaded.

In short, if God decides that His prophets would be slain by their enemies, these would be done.  It is not a matter of faith as far as Islam is concerned.  The only reason we need not theorize any further in the case of Jesus is because Allah has already made it clear in our Holy Book.

For the Christians, however, crucifixion is a matter of faith.  It is one of their pillars.  For Christianity to hold water, Jesus must die on the Cross.

You see, when Adam and Eve ate the Forbidden Fruit, the twain had committed the sin.  Since this was the first sin ever committed by mankind, it became the Original Sin. 

Now, all sins can be forgiven, but Original Sin cannot.  While the sins of fathers and mothers are not inherited to their children, the Original Sin is.  Even the saints or the prophets are tainted with this sin.  Thus, everyone is tainted with the Original Sin. 

Hence, even when the baby is born and not yet committed any sin, he or she is already a sinner, because he/she inherits the Original Sin from his/her parent.  The worst part is that even God is not at liberty to forgive this Sin as He may like.

To erase this Original Sin, God has to make a sacrifice.  He has to get Himself killed.  But how can God kill Himself?  Well, God is God.  He can kill Himself if He wants to.  But if God kills Himself, what would happen to the universe and all the creations?  Can the universe perpetuate without God?  As you can see, it is quite a dilemma, even for God.

Fortunately, about 2,000 years ago, God finally found a solution.  He took His Word (understood as His Speech, or Qalam in Arabic) and planted it in the womb of Mary the Virgin.  Thus, God was born in the form of a man.  That man, Jesus the son of Mary, became God’s only son.  Having spent 33 years as a man, he was arrested, beaten to a pulp and crucified to death.  With his death, the Original Sin is erased.

But there is still one final catch.  When Jesus the Son of God gets himself sacrificed on the Cross, the Original Sin is not erased automatically.  To have it erased, you have to believe that the Lord Jesus is the Son of God, who had sacrificed himself in order to save mankind from eternal damnation.  This you have to do during the ritual of Baptism.  If you don’t believe in it, you are still damned.

This is what Good Friday is all about, and why Crucifixion is essential in Christianity.  It is pointless therefore for any Muslim to argue with his Christian friends whether or not Jesus the Christ died on the Cross.  Christianity does not hold water without crucifixion. Crucifixion is a sine qua non, without which cannot, in Christianity.  For mankind to be saved, Jesus must be crucified. 

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Muhammad and The Birth of New Era (4/4)

In Part 3, we have seen that the Arabs and Arabia, and more specifically the Quraysh in Makkah, were chosen to carry out the Final Message of Allah because of the covenant between Allah and Abraham.  God had sent many prophets and messengers to every nation, but Abraham was singularly favored because of his status as the khalil or the beloved of Allah.  The first fulfillment of this covenant was through his second son Isaac, and the second and last fulfillment was through his first born, Ishmael.  

To carry out the final and last message, a special type of people with special character was chosen.  In the 6th century, none was more suitable than the sons of the desert, the Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula.  In spite of the apparent negative qualities as we have described in Part 3, upon closer examination, the Arabs had what it takes to be the leading nation to carry out the final message. 

Firstly, because their nature blended well with the message to be carried out. 

Islam is not a complex philosophical thought, but a comprehensive and yet a simple way of life.  Its teachings are meant to be simple for anyone to understand and to practice in their daily lives.  It is not merely food for thought, but a guide for people to lead their lives.  It is not a technology to be mastered and perfected, but a way of life to live with and die by.  

While it has spiritual element, the connection is only as far as to establish the relationship with the unseen world, the world of ghaib.  It accepts the spiritual domain, but it does not regard everything as spiritual or mystical. 

In short, it is a simple and clear way of life with a simple and clear belief system, meant to be understood and practiced by everyone.  It does not take a philosopher, a mystic, or a spiritualist to understand Islam, although it has ample room for people of these inclinations. 

Given what Islam is, and against the backdrop of the 6th century, no nation was more suitable to carry out and spread this message than the Arabs.  

The Greeks and the Romans would be ill suited for the job, for they were too philosophical in their outlook.  They had turned the simple teaching of Jesus into a complex philosophical treatise.  The simple Oneness of God, for instance, had been turned into a complex trinitarian abyss that no one can understand properly.  This can be attested from the saying of St. Augustine: “Anyone who denies Trinity is in danger of losing her salvation, but anyone who tries to understand it is in danger of losing her mind.”  

Neither the mystical world of the Persian would do the job, for while there is a room for mysticism in Islam, it does not treat everything in a mystical way.  The high spirituality of India, together with their pantheistic outlook, was also ill suited to carry the simple and clear message of oneness of God.  Nor would the Confucian ethics of the Chinese, which was devoid of clear deity.  

These people of high culture and great civilization did not have the required simplicity to carry out the simple message.  

On the other hand, the natives of the American continent, or the Turkish people in the Central Asia, or the people in the South East Asia, were filled with superstitions.  They too were unsuited to be the bearer of the new religion.  

All else considered, the only people left to carry out this simple message was the simple sons of the desert, the Arabs of Arabian Peninsula.

Secondly, the new message had to be carried by people who would spring to action without too much deliberation.  It had to be carried by people who were independent minded, aggressive and did not fear death.  

The Arabs in the 6th century had these qualities.  They were simple minded but not stupid; they were aggressive and passionate, yet can be very kind; they valued freedom greatly but were obedience to their leaders.   And they would spring to action at the slightest provocation.  Slight insult on the honor of their tribe was enough to start a war.  

They were simple minded folks who would not question too much.  Although most of them did not embrace the new religion as soon as it come, and in fact fought it tooth and nail, but once they embraced it, they held it like no one would.  

Thirdly, the Arabs were proud people who had not been masters at the world stage.  Their lives had been confined only in their desert.  They did not look beyond their tribes.  

While they did not fear the great Roman and Persian empires, and refused to be made the vassal to either of these empires, they had no interest to confront these empires either.   In fact, before Islam came, they had nothing to offer to these two empires.  So long as the Romans and the Persians left them to mind their own business, the sons of the desert were happy.  

But once the purpose—the new religion—was given to them, the Romans and the Persians were no longer great in their eyes.  Rather, the Arabs looked at these people as the targets to spread their message.  With the new found way of life, they crushed the mighty Persian Empire and decimated the great Byzantium Empire in a matter of only a few years.  

Fourthly, Islam had special connection with them.  It was not a new faith to the Arabs.  It was the faith of their forefather, Abraham.    When Muhammad came, it was only presented in the new mould to suit for their time.  

They were made to recall that the Kaabah, which was built two thousand five hundred years ago, was meant to be the center of worship of the One God.  The time was not yet ripe 2,500 years ago, but by the 6th century, the world was ready.  Islam was nothing but a continuation of what their forefather had been preaching.  

Thus, the simple minded but not simpleton Arabs, once seized and absorbed with the new faith, the simple way of life, were given the new meaning in their lives.  Refusing to be the slaves of any nation, but embraced the notion of being the slaves of Allah, they went spreading the new message with the zeal not seen before.  

While God had put the foundation two thousand five hundred years before, it was only by the 6th century that the world was ready for the last message.   The world by then was sophisticated and modern enough for the last and final prophet to be sent.  And the message—revealed as Quran, and exemplified in real life through the Sunnah or the Way of the Prophet—was ready to be preserved in the memory of people as well as written in books.  

While the Arabs were mostly illiterate at that time, writing was common to some of them, and their language had reached the level of sophistication required.  Muhammad had more than enough companions to record whatever message was revealed.  Some of his companions preserved it in their memory.

To sum up, Arabia was chosen because it was untainted with complex philosophical thinking.  If Islam was sent to China, India, Persia and Rome, it would have been  shot down by philosophical debates and thus would not see the light of the day.  It would also not be put into action because these people had been “civilized”  and had led sedentary lives.   

That philosophical debate was to come a century and a half later, when the Muslims had copied the Greek philosophy as well the literature of other nations.  By then, however, Islam was ready to face all these philosophies, beliefs, cultures, technologies, etc., because the new religion was already well established. 

The absorption of these philosophies and literature had ushered in the new era in knowledge and learning.  Islamic cities throughout the vast region became the centers for learning.  Baghdad was bigger and more illustrious than Athens, while Cordova was more illustrious than Alexandria.  

But by then, the Arabs had lost their vitality.  They too had been sanitized by philosophy and by civilized, sedentary lives.  After dominating the world for about three centuries, they were reduced to mere figureheads.   The Abbasid caliphs were powerful only for the first one hundred years or so.  After that, they were forced to share their power with their subjects, whom they made wazirs or prime ministers.  Another hundred years or so, they were no more than puppets.  The center of power had shifted to the Persian and Turkic people.  

But in the 6th century CE, the Arabs were ready for Islam, and Islam was ready for the world.  The Arabs had all the qualities to carry this last message in its pristine simplicity, and the world was sophisticated enough to preserve this message for eternity.  With the advent of Islam, the revelation ceased to be sent, for the chain of prophethood had been completed.  There is no more need for the new prophet after Muhammad, upon him be peace, was sent.  

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Muhammad and The Birth of New Era (3/4)

In Part 1, we take a cursory look at the world in the sixth century CE.  In Part2, we look briefly at the event leading to the birth of Prophet Muhammad, ushering the new era.  In this part and the next, we shall try to answer the following questions: why Arabia, and why in 6th century.  

The answer to the first question, why Arabia was chosen to be the birthplace of Islam, may not be apparent at the first look.  

The place was hot.  The air was arid.  The land was barren.  The people were as harsh and as hard as the place.  The region was not a seat of civilization.  There was no organized central government there.  People lived with their tribes.  They were independent minded, subservient and obedient only to their tribal leaders.  

Furthermore, the people were mostly illiterate.  Writing was not their habit.  Whatever was deemed important to them were coined through poetry, recited and remembered that way.  Even these poems were not really something to be admired.  These were not great philosophical discourses.  The subjects of these poems were mostly about their tribes’ superiority or their ancestors’ exploit in war, which they were fond of bragging.  

Their behavior was uncultured.  They were hot tempered people, quick to take revenge on the slightest of provocation.  Most of them worshipped idols made of stones or woods.  Sometimes these idols were made of dates, which they will eat when hungry.  

Their food was simple.  Goat or camel’s milk and dates were their staples.  These were about the only things that can be reared or grown in their land.  Grains such as wheat and barley had to be imported.  

They were not sophisticated people, unlike the highly philosophical Greeks, or the well organized Romans, or the highly cultured Persians and Chinese.  They knew not any great technology, as were the Chinese and the Indians.  

To the outsiders, they led barbaric lives.  Women were objects of desire that they possessed and disposed at will, marrying as many as they wanted, and divorcing them as soon as they had no more use of them.  So low was their treatment to women that this fairer sex became the object of shame, leading to infanticide by burying their baby girls alive.  

Yet, this place and these people were chosen to lead the new era at the world stage, when other places and other people appeared to be more suitable.

We may say that China would have made a better candidate, with their highly cultured and well organized society, great technology and highly obedience citizens.  Or perhaps India, with their great brains and highly spiritual society.  Or perhaps Persia, with their long history, well organized and cultured society with great arts.  Or perhaps Greece or Rome, with their cultured and philosophical mind as well as great organizing skills.  Or perhaps Egypt, with their illustrious history.  

Or, if it were to be among the Arabs, it should probably have been in Syria and Yemen, for these were the centers of civilization among the Arabs.  Both dated back prior to the Greek civilization, which surfaced only in 700 BCE.  

Yet, the Arabian Peninsula was chosen, with Makkah giving the impetus.  

Upon closer examination, however, we find that the Peninsula of Arabia was not only the obvious choice, but the only choice.  This is because of two main reasons.  

One, because of the fulfillment of the covenant between God and Abraham.  In the Unlikely Beginning, we have seen that Abraham was longing for a son to continue his work, but his wife was barren.  Knowing how much her husband wanted a son, and out of goodness of her heart, Sarah had asked Abraham to take her bond maid, Hagar, to be his second wife.  Through that communion, Ishmael was born.  

But the fulfillment of God’s covenant came in two stages.  The first was not through Ishmael, but through his second born son, Isaac.  Isaac was miraculously conceived by Sarah although she was already in her advanced age and was barren to begin with.  

From Isaac, the covenant was to be fulfilled through his younger son, Jacob, known as Israel.  Jacob’s older twin, Esau, was bypassed through trickery, if the story in the Bible is to be believed.  

We have briefly narrated Jacob’s story in Is Jesus A Jew and Surah Yusuf Part 3 and Part 4.  Suffice to say here that it was through the Israelites, or the children of Israel, that the major work of tawheed (Oneness of God) was carried out.  To put it differently, they were the Hunafa of their time.  

For some reason, the Israelites seemed to display some weaknesses in their character.  This was apparent even from the beginning.  Instead of accepting the fact that Joseph was more beloved to their father, their envy had led them to do evil to their little brother, as we have seen in Surah Yusuf.  

When they were enslaved by the Egyptians, they prayed for the deliverer.  When Moses was sent as their deliverer and he delivered them from the bondage in Egypt, they gave him hard time.  God punished them by making them wandered in the wilderness for 40 years.  

Their time finally came with the advent of David and Solomon, but soon they fell out of line and were made to be people without homeland, as we have seen in Is Jesus A Jew Part 2.  They even made the universal religion of their forefather, Abraham, to be racial based, exclusively for them.  Those who wanted to believe in One God must also become Jews.  

  When he came, however, they rejected him.  His teaching was then hijacked by the Gentiles who made it to be universal, but it was no longer pure because it has been mixed with Gentile’s religion and philosophy.  Obsessed with the notion of man-god, demigod, godlike, etc., the Gentiles focused on the person rather than his teaching.  Eventually Jesus himself was made be a god, the co-equal to the real God, the second god in the Holy Trinity.  

After two thousand and five hundred years, their time was up.  By then, it was the time for the line of Ishmael.  The Kaabah, built by Abraham and Ishmael, was finally to serve it over encompassing purpose: to be the center of the worshipers of One God.  Since Ishmael’s descendants lived in Arabia, including in Makkah, it therefore became the obvious and only choice. 

It is for the reasons enumerated above that Arabia in general and Makkah in particular were chosen.  

The fulfillment of the Covenant between God and Abraham forms the first part of the equation.The second part is the nature of Arabia and the character of Arab people themselves.  All the qualities which at one look appeared to be undesirable were in fact the qualities that were needed.  

This we shall cover in the concluding part, insyaAllah.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Muhammad and The Birth of New Era (2/4)

There was nothing magical about the birth of baby boy Muhammad. 

The thunderous storm and lightning did not greet him, as it would greet the birth of Malay kings in the ancient times, as the legends say. 

He was not born to a virgin mother like Jesus, although his father was not there during his birth.  Being a posthumous child, his father died while his mother carried him in her womb.  Unlike Muhammad, however, Jesus never had father, which made his birth miraculous.

He was not born at the tip of the sword, as Moses was.  When Moses was born, his mother had to hide him in a cooking pot with burning charcoal, as the tradition goes, because the army of the Pharaoh was looking for the Israelite baby boys to be executed.  One of these boys would unseat his power, as the Pharaoh understood from his dream.  Other baby boys would have been cooked to death, but Moses survived, just as Abraham survived the inferno more than 500 years earlier.

The birth of Muhammad was as normal as any other birth, with a few exceptions.

First, his birth was already foretold.  Those with revealed scriptures, the Jews and the Christians, knew that his time was forthcoming. 

Second, his mother had an easy pregnancy.  His mother, Amina, was reportedly saying that when she carried Muhammad in her womb, she did not feel like being pregnant.  It was light and easy, as modern man would say.  When she gave birth to him, she saw light coming out of her birth canal.  The birth itself was also easy, no complication, not as painful as it normally would.

Third, the fire which had been burning for a thousand years at the heart of the Persian Empire suddenly went out. 

But all the three above lack historicity.  They are taken as given by the Muslims, but remain points of contention by non Muslims.  The historical event that suggests something extraordinary was about to take place is the abortive demolition of Kaabah by the Elephant Army of Abrahah.  This event requires some deliberation.

Kaabah was built around 2000 BCE by Abraham and his son Ishmael, as we have narrated in TheUnlikely Beginning.  Like angels who were wondering why Allah wanted to make human beings, as narrated in the Divine Intervention, Abraham too was wondering why would people want to visit a place like Makkah.  On both accounts, Allah had His way, as always is the case.

Ever since Kaabah was built, people kept coming to Makkah every year to perform pilgrimage.  But it was only the Arabs who came, imitating the tradition of their forefathers, Abraham and Ishmael.  This went on forever, and was never an issue to anyone.  It was considered simply as the peculiarity of the Arab people.  No people or nations were bothered about it, until the 6th century CE that is.

In the 6th century, the Axum Empire of Abyssinia (Ethiopia, or Habsyah in Arabic) was a noted regional power.  They occupied the southern Arabia, Yemen, with the capital in Sanaa.  The Abyssinians were Christians. 

Their governor in Yemen, whose name was Abrahah, had been wondering for sometime why on earth the Arabs revered the shrine in Makkah.  It was just a cube like stone structure.  No aesthetic value can be attached to it.

The Arabs at that time were polytheists, with the exception of a few Christians in the region called Najran, north to Yemen, and far south of Makkah.  Abrahah himself was a Christian and desired that the Arabs be Christianized.  So he built a great cathedral in Sanaa, and invoked all Arabs, especially those in his dominion, to come and worship in it.

The Arabs not only ignored his invocation, but was insulted by it, especially the Quraysh.  Thus insulted, during one of their trading expeditions to Yemen, one of the Quraysh had answered the call of nature inside the majestic cathedral.  Even supposed he was not able to do it, since all eyes would be watching, he had nevertheless smeared the sanctity of the cathedral with his feces. 

Abrahah was incensed and declared to take the revenge by demolishing Kaabah.  Thus decided, he rode to Makkah with his large army containing many elephants. 

Now, the Arabs were united only in their reverent to Kaabah.  Politically, they were independent and subservient only to their tribal chiefs.  Although all Arabs revered Kaabah, many decided that it was the issue between Abrahah and the Makkans.  Furthermore, many thought that the Abrahah army was too powerful to be overcome. 

Thus, except for a few tribes, none resisted the ambition of Abrahah.  Those who tried were easily defeated and their leaders captured.  Some even helped Abrahah by guiding the army to Makkah.  These were tribes envious of Quraysh high standing among the Arabs, on account of them being the custodian of the Holy Kaabah.

The news of Abrahah army coming to destroy Kaabah was a great concerned to the Quraysh.  After consultation among themselves, they decided not to fight, for they were powerless to confront the army as powerful as Abrahah’s army.  They decided to leave KaabahKaabah, after all, is the House of Allah.

When Abrahah and his army reached the vicinity of Makkah, they confiscated many livestock belonging to the Quraysh and sent the message that he wanted to speak to their leader.  Abdul Muttalib, the grandfather of the Prophet, being the supreme leader of Quraysh at that time, came to see Abrahah with a few of his colleagues.

When Abrahah saw Abdul Muttablib, he was impressed with his look and his demeanor, so Abrahah went down to sit with his guest, instead of remaining to his seat.  Upon inquiry, he was told by Abdul Muttalib that his army was too big for the Quraysh to withstand, so they won’t put up any fight.

“Wise choice,” said Abrahah, and continued, “and is there anything you would like to ask from me?”

“That you give back our livestock you have wrongly taken, including my 200 camels.”  Abdul Muttalib answered simply.

“When I saw you, I was impressed by your look and your demeanor, but when I find out that all you care is your livestock, I respect you no more.”  Said Abrahah disappointed.

“I am the owner of my camels.  As for Kaabah, Allah is the owner.  I protect what is mine.  Allah will protect what is His.”  Abdul Muttalib replied.

“Your God will not be able to withstand my army.”  Abrahah retorted arrogantly.

“We will see.”  Abdul Muttalib replied, with a tinge of threat in it.

That reply did not diminish Abrahah’s ambition, but he was impressed with Abdul Muttalib courage, for throughout the conversation, the latter did not show any sign that he was afraid of Abrahah.

When Abrahah and his army arrived near Kaabah, the Quraysh had left their houses and encamped at the nearby hill, watching what Abrahah and his army would do, and praying that Allah will save Kaabah.  Abdul Muttalib himself had spent the night before in Kaabah, praying and invoking Allah to save it from destruction.

The elephant tasked with the job of demolishing Kaabah, called Mahmoud, refuse to obey the order.  When the direction of Kaabah was pointed to her, she sit down.  When other direction was pointed, she marched.  These they tried a few times with similar result.  Neither persuasion nor force would make Mahmoud obey the command.

Abrahah have had it enough.  If Mahmoud was not willing to do the job, then his whole army would do their bits.  When the Abyssinian army was about to do that, suddenly small birds came out of nowhere and dropped stones the size of peanut on Abrahah’s army.  When these stones hit them, their flesh came out.

Most died because of that.  Abrahah himself was hit, but he survived while at Makkah.  On his way back to Sanaa, little by little of his flesh kept dropping.  He died upon reaching home. 

Thus the Kaabah, whose foundation was built about 2,500 years before, was saved. 

This extraordinary event, to us Muslims, is a portent for the extraordinary thing to come.  It was Divine intervention, not human resistant, that had saved Kaabah from the destruction.  It was a prelude to the birth of the great man who will change the course of the world affairs.

Some people, however, do not quite see it that way.  To take out the miraculous nature of this event, the orientalists simply say that Abrahah and his army were stricken by smallpox.  Strangely, the great scholar Muhammad Abduh, also claimed the same.  Sayyid Quth in his famous commentary, In the Shade of Quran, chided Muhammad Abduh for parroting what the enemies of Islam say. 

As far as we are concerned, there is no need to be apologetic about the miraculous nature of this event.  After all, smallpox does not cause the flesh to fall out of the body, like leaves eaten by worms, as Quran puts it. 

Miracle or otherwise, the interesting part is that soon after the destruction of Abrahah’s army, Muhammad was born.  It is Allah’s way of ushering the great era which was about to come.

In the same domain, Muhammad was not supposed to be born in the first place, because his father Abdullah was supposed to die before he married Amina, the prophet’s mother. 

Many years back, Abdul Muttalib had vowed to sacrifice one of his sons if he were granted many sons.  When at last he did, he set out to fulfill his promise.  When the ballot was taken, it was Abdullah’s name on that divining arrow.  Abdullah was about to be sacrificed when the Quraysh interfered and invoked Abdul Muttalib to settle the matter by referring to the soothsayer, as was their practice during those days.

The soothsayer asked them what was the ransom for blood money in their society.  They replied that it is ten camels.  She told them to retake the divining arrow.  If the name Abdullah came out, ten camels should be sacrificed in his place.  This process was to be repeated until the name camel came out.

Every time the arrow was taken, the name Abdullah came out.  This happened ten times in a row.  On the eleventh time, the name camel came out.  After they tried again, it was camel again.  After three times in a row the name camel came out, Abdul Muttalib was satisfied and considered it a divine decree, and sacrificed 100 camels in place of Abdullah.

Abdullah was married to Amina soon after.  A few days into the marriage, Amina was pregnant.  A few weeks later, Abdullah went to Syria in a trade expedition and died on his way back home.  His life was spared long enough to plant the seed of the Seal of the Prophets.  That in itself is also a wonder.

Whether it is the story of Abrahah, or the story of Abdullah, each of these is God’s way of introducing a new era.  As is always the case, a great introduction is of paramount importance to everything.  If we are to make a big sale, first impression matters.  If we are to make important presentation, a great introduction is indispensable.  To usher in a new era, God had made a great introduction with the story of Abrahah.

Kaabah was just a stone structure and was built only by men, not angels.  If men can build it, they can also demolish and rebuild it, as had happened many times throughout history.

If Abrahah had demolished it, it can be rebuilt as soon as Abrahah army left.  From a purely material perspective, the event is not a big deal.  The Quraysh understood it.  If they resisted Abrahah, they would have been destroyed.  If Abrahah destroyed only the Kaabah, but the Quraysh were spared, they could build it again.  It was a practical choice on their part. 

Nevertheless, they prayed that Allah would protect it, since it was not the act of demolition itself which was an issue.  It was the evil intention of Abrahah which they were against.  Abrahah wanted to destroy the symbol of their religion.  He wanted to eradicate the root of their tradition. 

While steeped in idolatry, the Quraysh sincerely believed that Kaabah is the House of God.  Since they could not oppose Abrahah army, they prayed for God to protect His house from Abrahah’s evil intention.

On His part, Allah had decided Kaabah to be His House.  His House had been repaired and rebuilt before due to natural disasters, or worn by time.  But Allah did not want His House to be insulted, as Abrahah was intent on doing.  And Allah also wanted to give a memorable introduction to the new era.  Thus, in the 6th century, as a way of ushering the new era, He made the fate of Abrahah’s army as a prelude for what to come afterward.  He wanted to show that when He wills, nothing can stop him. 

The Quraysh did not defend the Kaabah.  Allah Himself did.  It matters little whether it was miraculous birds with magical stones that saved the Kaabah, or whether it was smallpox.  Either way, it was the army of Allah.  But since Allah wanted to put a little showcase to the event, it would be preposterous to think that it was just a plague of smallpox. 

The event in itself was not even important.  It was just an introduction, a prelude to the greater thing that was about to come.  And that was the birth of the Seal of the Prophets, Muhammad bin Abdullah, peace and blessing be upon him.