Muhammad accepted an invitation to settle in the oasis of Yathrib, located some eleven days miles north by camel, for the oasis had been nearly torn apart by wars between the clans, of which many were Jewish. Muhammad's hegira from Mecca marks the beginning of a new polity. For the first time in Arabia members of a community were bound together not by the traditional ties of clan and tribe but by their shared belief in the one true God.
Later believers, looking back on this event, recognized its seminal importance by designating it as the first year of their new era. In further recognition of this great event, the oasis of Yathrib came to be called Medina, "the city [of the Prophet]. Muhammad, surrounded by his followers, lived in Medina for ten years, slowly winning over converts.
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Muhammad made repeated attempts to attract the Jews to his cause, for example, he directed that believers worship like the Jews in the direction of Jerusalem. Ultimately these attempts failed, and henceforth Muslims prayed in the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca. Muhammad's native town, which had long been a center of paganism, thereby became the center of the true religion, the focal point of the believers' daily prayer, and eventually the object of their annual pilgrimage. Raiding and warfare were the primary economic activities of the new community in Medina, and the rich caravans organized by the Quraysh of Mecca were particularly attractive targets.
In , Muhammad finally negotiated a truce with the Meccans and in the following year returned as a pilgrim to the city's holy sites. The murder of one of his followers provoked him to attack the city, which soon surrendered. Muhammad acted generously to the Meccans, demanding only that the pagan idols around the Kaaba be destroyed.
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Muhammad's prestige grew after the surrender of the Meccans. Embassies from all over Arabia came to Medina to submit to him. Muhammad's extraordinary life and career were cut short by his sudden death on June 8, , aged about sixty, less than a decade since he had set off from Mecca with his small band of followers. Muslims to this day revere Muhammad as the embodiment of the perfect believer and take his actions and sayings as a model of ideal conduct. Unlike Jesus, who Christians believe was God's son, Muhammad was a mortal, albeit with extraordinary qualities.
His divinity is strenuously denied either by him or by God directly. Equally denied is his crucifixion. A Christian may well ask, what can possibly be left of his significance if all these essential attributes of his image are gone? Jesus reinterpreted by the Qur'an is singled out, again and again, as a prophet of very special significance. Uniquely among prophets he is described as a miracle of God, an aya ; he is the word and spirit of God; he is the prophet of peace par excellence; and , finally it is he who predicts the coming of Muhammad pbuh and thus, one might say, is the harbinger of Islam.
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How did these earliest images of Jesus grow and develop inside Islamic culture? The Hadith or Prophetic Tradition of Muhammad pbuh depicts him as a figure who will come at the end of days to help bring the world to its end. He can now be said to bracket the era of Islam, standing right at its beginning and right at its end. But it is the rapidly growing literary tradition of Islam which now began to embrace the various images of Jesus current in the lands that Islam had conquered. There came together a corpus of sayings and stories attributed to Jesus which in their totality one could call the Muslim Gospel a collection of these I have just published under the title The Muslim Jesus.
Let me quote a few of these sayings and stories: "Jesus said, Blessed is he who sees with his heart but whose heart is not in what he sees". Here's another: "Jesus said, The world is a bridge; cross this bridge but do not build upon it". And here's a short exchange: "Jesus met a man and asked him, What are you doing? Jesus asked, 'Who is caring for you? Jesus said, 'Your brother is more devoted to God than you are'. At times he is a fierce ascetic, at other times he is the gentle teacher of manners, at yet others the patron of Muslim mystics, the prophet of the secrets of creation, the healer of the wounds of nature and of man.
But back now to my sketch, to just a few other illuminations inside this lengthy historical record. In the tenth century A. If you want to take my word for it, you would regard him as one of the most Christ-like figures in human history, up there with Socrates, Gandhi and one or two of the greatest saints of mankind. What made al-Hallaj a Christ-like figure was total absorption in the life of the spirit, a realm lying beyond law, and an exploration of a reality that led him ultimately to claim identity with the divine. But at the same time, there is in him the unshakable willingness to submit to the law, even unto death.
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So he dies under the law, as it were, in order to rise above it, in order to triumph over the law. Thus, at one time he used to advise his disciples: "Why go on pilgrimage to Mecca?
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Build a small shrine inside your own house and circumambulate it in true faith, and it is as if you have performed the pilgrimage. The model of sanctity prefigured by al-Hallaj was to survive most notably inside Muslim mysticism where Jesus was to become a patron saint of Muslim sufism. But let me move now to later times. And here was a chance for Muslim scholars to point to the glaring disparity between Jesus, the prophet of peace, and the barbaric conduct of his so-called followers.
In the twelfth century, Jesus was once again reclaimed by Muslim polemics, once again reinvented, if you prefer, in order to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Muslims against his alleged followers. In the battle for the legacy of Jesus, there was no doubt whatsoever in Muslim eyes that the true Jesus belonged to Islam. It was in a sense a replay of the Qur'anic scenario, this time more urgent and dangerous. As we approach our own days, we observe that many of his earlier manifestations continue to dominate the spiritual horizons of contemporary Islam. Let me speak of only two major images: Jesus the healer of nature and man, and Jesus the Crucified.
To encounter Jesus the healer, I invite my listeners to take a trip to to the Monastery of Sidnaya north of Damascus or to the Iranian city of Shiraz. It sits on an outcrop of rock high above a valley. To this Monastery travels an endless stream of men and women seeking the blessings and healing of our Lady and her infant son. The vast majority of visitors are Muslim, who come to this Christian shrine as did their ancestors for a thousand years.
A visit to Shiraz might come next. Here, the celebrated city, a treasure house of Muslim art and architecture and a garden-city of poets and mystics, is home also to a living Muslim medical tradition of healing, the tradition of the Masiha-Dam , the healing breath of Christ.
This theme is already reflected in the poetry of the great Persian poet Hafiz, some seven hundred years ago.
Thus, in both the literary as well as medical tradition of contemporary Iran, there runs a continuous preoccupation with the healing Christ figure. And for Shii Islam in particular, the life and death of Christ is a parallel spiritual event. I should now make mention of another poet, widely considered the greatest Arab poet of the twentieth century: the Iraqi Badr Shakir al-Sayyab.
His life was one of exile, imprisonment, ill health and of total commitment to the cause of the oppressed; his was a poetry utterly Modernist in form but utterly classical in diction. One poem in particular, entitled Christ after the Crucifixion is a Passion, a vision of Christ as lord of nature and redeemer of the wretched of the earth.
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At the risk of doing violence to its tight structure, I will give only its first and its final stanzas:. After they brought me down, I heard the winds In a lengthy wail, rustling the palm trees, And steps fading away. So then, my wounds, And the Cross upon which they nailed me all afternoon and evening Did not kill me. I listened. The wail Was crossing the plain between me and the city Like a rope pulling at a ship As it sinks to the sea-bed. The dirge Was like a thread of light between dawn and midnight, Upon a grieving winter sky. And the city, nursing its feelings, fell asleep. I was in the beginning, and in the beginning was Poverty.