Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Saudi Arabia - Birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad

Muhammad as the Messenger of God

Saudi Arabia is, of course, best known as the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad.  In the past, the term Mohammedean was used to describe all Muslims, but this term is deemed to be highly offensive to Muslims, as it suggests that Islam is all about the worship of Muhammad, rather than submission to Allah.  I guess that Europeans and Americans, in the past, used the term Mohammedean as a linguistic parallel to terms such as Christian or Buddhist.  It's a very Western way of describing things and inadequate to explain Muhammad's role as a messenger of Allah.

Muhammad and the word of God

Having said that, from the point of view of a non-believer, I find Muhammad is pretty central to the development of the Islamic faith.  Leaving God to one side, what we have left is the word of God, passed on by Muhammad during his revelations and written down in the Qur'an (recitations) and, much later, recorded in the Hadiths (sayings) ascribed to Muhammad and written down in the centuries following his death.  Christians trying to understand the Qur'an would find a book that is completely different to the Bible - it doesn't have a narrative, as such, and it's certainly not a record of the life of Muhammad, in the way that the New Testament records the life of Jesus.  Non-Muslims and, more importantly, non-Arabic speakers, will struggle to understand the Qur'an.  The beauty of its message is contained in the words themselves.  The mercurial flexibility of the Arabic language and the hynoptic sound of the sutras when recited by those who believe, don't translate well!  Better to learn Arabic.

Muhammad the man

As there was no definitive account of Muhammad's life, what we know about Muhammad 'the man' has been obscured by the mists of time.  The first biography of Muhammad wasn't written until 767 CE, 135 years after his death.  We do know that he was born in Makka, around 570 CE and that he belonged to a tribe called the Quraish.  He married a wealthy widow called Khadija and travelled a lot between the Hejaz and Syria as a trader.  His travels brought him into contact with Christians and Jews and it is thought that he was influenced by the Christian anchorites (or hermits) and was inspired by them to withdraw to the desert on a tahannuth or retreat, which led to his first revelations on the true message of Allah.  A Christian monk called Bahira is believed to have foreseen Muhammad's destiny as a prophet of God.

The Night Journey

One of the most interesting parts of Muhammad's experience was his famous 'night journey'.  The first part of the journey, the Isra, sees him taken on a winged horse called Burag to Masjid Al-Aqsa, or 'the Furthest Mosque', believed to have been in Jerusalem.  In the second part, Mi'raj (which means ladder), he is taken to heaven where he meets the prophets Abraham, Moses and Jesus.  Some Muslims believe his journeys to have been actual physical journeys, others ascribe the event to a dream or trance brought on by his revelations.

The Hijra

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the people of Makka didn't believe a word of Muhammad's story about his 'night journey' and begin to resent his message of God, especially when he started to criticise the pagan beliefs of those around him.  Apart from Khadija, Muhammad also had a protector in Makka called Abu Talib.  When both Khadija and Abu Talib died within months of each other, Muhammad suddenly found himself being forced out of Makka and took his followers on the famous Hijra (migration) which brought him to the city of Medina, where he found refuge from his enemies and started plotting his return from exile.  The Islamic calendar is dated from the year of the Hijra, so that the current Islamic year is 1431 AH. 

A Tale of Two Cities and the Satanic verses

Muhammad found willing converts in Medina and ultimately led his followers out of exile and reconquered the lands of his ancestors.  The biggest obstacle Muhammad had faced with the people of Makka was their unrelenting belief in the pagan gods of the region.  Makka had long been a place of pilgrimage, in the pagan tradition, before it became a place of pilgrimage for Muslims.  The famous Satanic verses of Tabari claim that Muhammad compromised with the pagans of Makka and acknowledged the pagan goddesses al-Lat, al-Uzza and Manat.  Most Islamic scholars these days would take a different view and say that Muhammad was relentless in his efforts to rid Makka of its pagan beliefs.

Idolatry and depictions of Muhammad

One of the reasons Muslims believe that Muhammad (or indeed, any life form) should not be depicted in art stems from this desire to rid the Islamic tradition of idolatry.  Muhammad believed himself to be the messenger of God and didn't wish to be worshipped.  It's an interesting contrast with the Christian tradition that eventually came to accept the concept of the Holy Trinity - essentially worshipping Christ as a God and surely one of the biggest mistakes in the history of the Christian church.  I kind of appreciate the idea that Muhammad didn't want to distract people from the essence of their belief and the message of God.  It's such a contrast to my own upbringing, as a Catholic and all the depictions of Hindu gods that I researched during my learning about Rajasthan. 

Danish newspapers and freedom of speech

I'm sure most people will remember the controversy caused by the Danish newpaper Jyllands-Posten and their cartoonists' depictions of the Prophet Muhammad that caused uproar in the Muslim world in the months following September 2005, leading to an estimated 100 deaths in the riots that ensued, not to mention the torching of Danish and Norwegian embassies and a Saudi-led boycott of Danish goods.  Although I'm not religious, I think it's important to respect other people's religious beliefs and I honestly don't understand why the Danish and Norwegian newspapers (and those in other European countries) wanted to publish these cartoons that were so obviously offensive to Muslims.  Interestingly, the UK, Canada and the US were amongst those countries that didn't reprint the images in their national newspapers.  It's dangerous to get involved with other people's beliefs and, as far as depictions of Muhammad are concerned, I think Muslims are in the best position to decide what is or isn't appropriate. 

Image credits:

The images of Muhammad's name in Arabic and the 17th Mughal miniature depicting the Burag are both taken from Wikipedia and are in the public domain.

The photograph at the bottom was taken by me and is an unusual depiction of animals (Tigers chasing goats) which can be found on the Registan in Samarkand (Uzbekistan)
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