As the world continues to shrink and its populations mingle, we find ourselves living in a soup of mixing cultures. We may be mowing the lawn one day when a neighbor’s smiling face pops up over the backyard fence asking to borrow your chain saw. After remarking that you have not seen him for a while, he explains that he has been fasting in his basement for a week as part of Ramadan, and that he now feels refreshed and ready for jihad. You wonder if he is referring to jihad, the Islamic Holy War. Then as if reading your mind, he explains he needs the chain saw to trim his oak tree, not to chop off the heads of infidels.
In this post I am launching out on an adventure outside my limited world of understanding the sacred scriptures of the Jews and Christians, to explore the good book of the Muslims – the Quran. I am as ignorant as the next Westerner on this subject, so I thought I would start by doing some research into how the Quran evolved and then study passages of the Quran that dealt with Jesus. Muslims I have met have often told me Jesus is mentioned in the Quran, so I was curious to know just what it mentioned.
The Quran means “Recitation“. It was received by the prophet Muhammad in the 7th century CE as a series of revelations while in a trance-like state over a 23 year period. Since Muhammad was illiterate, they were preserved and taught by memorization until after his death, when they were gathered into a book called the Quran to help spread Islam. It is about one tenth the size of the Bible and consists of 114 chapters known as suras which have verses within the chapters known as ayat.
He said, “I am indeed a servant of Allah who hath given me revelation and made me a prophet, and
who has made me blessed wherever I go, and has enjoined on me prayer and charity as long as I live. He has made me kind to my mother and not overbearing or miserable. So peace is on me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day that I shall be raised up again to life!” Such is Jesus, the son of Mary, and the saying of truth about which they dispute’” (Quran 19: 30-34).
This is from the sura 19, ayat 33-34. This sura has the English topical title “Mary”, who is depicted with the infant Jesus in this Persian painting presented at the beginning of this post, an Islamic twist of the virgin birth. Wow, that’s some yamaka on Jesus.
The Quran has a lot to say about Mary. She was a virgin serving in the Jerusalem temple under the care of Zachariah the priest when she gave birth. When she carried her newborn child into the temple to have him consecrated she was in the middle of being ridiculed for giving birth out of wedlock when the infant miraculously spoke the ayat above.
Note that Jesus is referred to as the son of Mary, not the Son of God. He was considered a prophet anointed by Allah to perform miracles, but not the second person of the Trinity. Islam is strictly monotheistic, and the Quran considers it an unpardonable sin to claim any man is adjoined as a party to Allah. Jesus is considered another prophet in the succession of prophets including Noah, Abraham and Moses, with Muhammad as the last and final prophet called to complete Allah’s instruction to man.
Also notice that Jesus was “kind to his mother and not miserable”. I would venture this has something to do with the fact that Muhammad had 14 wives and only Allah knows how many children, but I am certain Islamic scholars would insist that Muhammad’s revelations were not related to his personal life.
Also notice that peace was on him the day he was born. That sounds about right for a Christmas carol. But then notice that he was blessed wherever he went and peace was on him the day he died. Oops, this is a serious departure from the Bible account of Jesus bearing all the curse of mankind’s sin upon him when he was crucified to death. Not a peaceful way to go.
Born in Arabia
Muhammad was born in the Arabian Peninsula, a huge land mass the size of New England also referred to simply as Arabia. Arabia means “island of the Arabs” and is bordered by the Red Sea to the West and Iraq and the Persian Gulf to the East. Most of it is now Saudi Arabia, but includes a collection of smaller countries consisting of the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Omar, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and Yemen. If Canaan is the land of milk and honey, Arabia is the land of oil and money.
Mohammed was born in 570 CE to an Arab family in Mecca, the trade center of Arabia. Arabs were polytheistic during this time, each tribe worshipping its own idol representing a God or Goddess who protected them. Each tribe developed an independent moral and social code called Sunnah.
In celebration of polytheism, a central shrine for 360 Arab idols was erected in Mecca, called the Kaaba (Temple), to which all Arabs made an annual pilgrimage well before the rise of Islam. Mohammad was born to the tribe that was given the responsibility of guarding the Kaaba. Ironically, this tribe was one of the few monotheistic tribes in Arabia and legend has it they were descendants of Abraham through Ishmael.
Muhammad’s father died before he was born and his mother died when he was young, leaving him an orphan. As was the custom of those days for orphans, he received a bare minimum of care by relatives of his tribe so at least he would not starve, but not much upbringing. According to tradition, he remained illiterate, which would appear to strengthen his claim that his knowledge and wisdom came directly by revelation from Allah.
When he was about 10, when his Uncle brought him on trading mission to Syria, he was noticed along the way by an eccentric holy man named Bahira, who identified him as a great prophet. This parallels some of the great Kings of Israel being recognized by a prophet before their time of reign, and identification of Jesus by John the Baptist.
The Cave Experience
No one is sure what happened to Muhammad as a younger adult. Some legends claim he sailed the seas as a merchant. This is similar to the legend of the lost years of Jesus. If this is true, there is no telling what kind of religious training he might have picked up abroad through the grapevine.
As an full adult living back with his tribe in Mecca, Muhammad was in charge of upkeep of the Kaaba, but every year he spent several weeks off meditating alone in a cave. During one of these retreats, at the age of 40, on December 22, 609 CE, he claims to have been visited by a spiritual being and while in a trance, received his first revelations later to be recorded in the Quran. This parallels different aspects of revelations received by Moses, Daniel, Buddha, and John the Revelator. The spiritual being is identified in later ayat as the angel Gabriel.
Inimitability, Submission, and Sharia
The Quran states it is “inimitable” (from the root word “imitate”, meaning it cannot be imitated by humans), and the only scripture that has not been corrupted, (similar to the claim of infallibility of the Bible by fundamentalist Christians). Islam is Arabic for “submission” and a Muslim is “one who submits to Allah”. One becomes a Muslim by confessing “There is no true God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.” Allah is Arabic for ”God” and has also been used by some Arabic speaking sects of Christians and Jews Muslims perform many activities aimed at helping them remember and deepen their sense of submission to Allah, including mandatory prayers several times a day and periodic reciting of passages from the Quran.
Besides the Quran, Muslims are guided by the Sunnah (clear and well-trodden path) taught by Muhammad and by hadith (traditions) taught by Mohammad plus various Islamic leaders and scholars. These were combined to derive Sharia (legislation) law, the official binding moral, legal, and religious code. Unlike modern Western culture where there is a separation between church and state, in Islam when you submit to Allah you also submit to the Sunnah, hadiths, and Sharia law created by Islamic leaders. This results in a very efficient theocratic government that cannot be easily challenged and where, in my opinions, religious fervor can be channeled into extremist political agendas, bypassing the redemptive mechanism of ordinary human conscience and sense of decency. Again, that is my personal opinion. Also there are similar examples in history of Jews and Christians committing atrocities in the name of God.
As Muslim nations through globalization have become introduced to the better parts of Western culture such as basic human rights, government by the people, and respect for diversity, the danger of extremism has been partially offset. The downside is the introduction of corrupt Western values along with the good. The merging of the paths of West and Middle East may be fraught with suffering and conflict for now, but perhaps there is a hope these painful encounters are part of a cosmic purification process that will one day advance civilization to the next level?
In the next post I will continue to explore more about Jesus in the Quran.