Saturday, 22 April 2017

** FATHER FRANK’S RANTS Rant Number 723 20 April 17 WHICH MUHAMMAD?


‘We had “Life of Brian”…we should have a Life of Muhammad’ says Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Somali émigré, feminist and feisty anti-Islam campaigner. Well, anti-radical Islam, she claims. But what if the jolly send-up caused more pious people to be radicalised? Enraging them, driving them to do murder and mayhem? Judging by the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ cartoons, the precedents are not encouraging…

Islam’s Prophet has always fascinated friends and foes alike, and many lives of Muhammad have ensued. St John of Damascus’ M. is predictably hostile. Historian Edward Gibbon has the Prophet come ‘with the sword in one hand and the Qur’an in the other’. Voltaire’s ‘Le Fanatisme ou Mahomet le Prophete’ is a scurrilous Enlightenment travesty. (Hirsi Ali’s model, perhaps? Voltaire actually hated all religious revelations – his ‘Muhammad’ probably a veiled attack on the Papacy.) By contrast, Thomas Carlyle’s Muhammad is a glowing, heroic figure. John Davenport’s ‘An Apology for Mohammed and the Koran’ is just that. Marxist Maxime Rodinson’s biography is cognitive but critical. Harry Turtledove’s alternate history, Agent of Byzantium, daringly casts Muhammad as a Christian saint and hymn writer. Jorge Louis Borges’ sketch, A Double for Mohamed, is bizarre. Karen Armstrong’s M. is a Pollyanna-like eulogy by a failed nun. A Greek Emperor’s venomous take on M. caused Pope Ben
edict some grief. Immodestly, there is also my own, mystical Muhammad, in The Prophet and The Priest, available on Amazon Kindle.

Negative portraits of the Prophet by Muslims are very rare and, pace Hirsi Ali, mischievous. One brave, dialectical attempt was by Mohammed Mahmoud Taha, a Sudanese Sufi politician. He postulated not one but two Muhammad. The first is reflected in the chapters of the Qur’an dating from Mecca. The early revelations received by the Prophet are filled with spirituality, peace, love, praise of Christians, Jews and so on. In the later Medina surahs the accent falls on fighting, war, condemnations and the like. Accordingly, Taha identified two distinct Muhammad and strove to prioritise the former, not the latter. A surprising idea because it came not from uppity infidels but from a genuinely spiritual Muslim. It didn’t work. Few believers would wish to partition the Qur’an that way. The Book for them is a unity. Anyway, the Sudanese dictator Nimeiri had Taha tried and publicly hanged. End of that story.

The key reason why the Prophet Armed was somewhat different from the Prophet Unarmed is that at Medina Muhammad was the head of a state. And no statesman can govern without the use of force. Coercion as well as affection. Depending on the circumstances. Indeed, it is intriguing to speculate how Jesus would have behaved if he had ever ruled a city or a nation. Satan tried to lure him to accept that role but the Son of God spurned the offer. Does it mean Christianity is beautiful and ethereal while Islam is hard and practical? Too simple. Christian states, when they existed, have behaved exactly like any other state. Indeed, even Popes when temporal rulers in Rome till 1870 mustered armies, fought and enforced capital punishment. Political power is like that.

A striking event in the Prophet’s career belongs to the Mecca period, when he was in the Arabian city of Ta’if. He went there seeking help from the persecution he suffered from the powerful Quraysh tribe. The leaders of Ta’if did not respond well. ‘Couldn’t Allah send a better messenger than you?’ they scoffed, refusing any support. Then they stirred up the local riff-raff to attack and chase away Muhammad. Pelted with stones, the wounded Prophet while fleeing the city did not curse his enemies. Instead, an early biographer narrates that Muhammad addressed God thus: ‘Do not punish them, because they don’t know I am your Prophet.’ Uplifting episode, I feel.

Hirsi Ali’s own ‘Muhammad’, she proposes in a Times interview, should be like a Monty Python film. But wouldn’t the actors incur…ahem, a little danger? Well, she suggests, it would be an animated form, the credits left anonymous. Huh! Spunk isn’t quite what the combative lady has loads of, eh? More cogently, her modest intellectual gifts appear to desert her. Lampooning someone’s deepest sentiments and beliefs isn’t the best way to turn him into a friend. Pope Francis once wisely remarked: ‘You cannot make fun of the faith others.’ As Hirsi Ali was once a Muslim she should know the special reverence virtually everyone in Islam has for the Prophet.  To treat him as an object of ridicule will never win over minds, let alone hearts.

‘We accept and revere Prophet Jesus. Why don’t you Christians recognise our Prophet?’ a nice Moroccan bloke asked me in Marrakesh, near the Qutubiyya Mosque, as the faithful were streaming out after Friday prayers. I replied: ‘Dear Wisham, the problem is that whilst being a prophet is the highest earthly rank in Islam, Christians consider Jesus as more than a prophet. It irks us a bit that the Jesus of the Qur’an says things like: “I am not the Son of God”. Besides, like Muhammad is the seal of Prophethood, Christ is the final Redeemer. Doctrinally, Jesus is the ultimate, perfect manifestation of God.’ Ehab didn’t look happy so I told him: ‘Please, read my book, The Prophet and the Priest. It shows, I hope, a way ahead.’ He read it and emailed me later thus: ‘Frank, I like it!’

Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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