Tag Archives: Bible

Muhammad as Solomon: A better story

25 May

solomon1

Time gives and takes. It adds and subtracts. It creates things that didn’t exist and extinguishes things that did. So as a general rule I distrust history.

Take for example the story of King Solomon and the baby. Why would a respected wise man mediate a custody case by offering to executive the child? Who would recognize this as rational? And why would any woman – mother or not –agree to it?

The story doesn’t ring true. I sense something was lost in translation and time.

A better story of wisdom comes from the Muslim world. It could be an additive story, but it nevertheless makes more sense.

This is it:

The shrine at the Kaaba in Mecca existed in pre-Islamic days and even then was considered sacred. It is said to have been built by Abraham. Inside then and now is a rock that fell from heaven. Possibly a meteorite, it is considered a divine gift. A flash flood not uncommon in the Arabian desert destroyed the Kaaba in the seventh century. Leaders of Mecca’s tribes and clans work together and rebuilt it.

All went well until it came time to place the stone back in the temple. Each leader argued for the honor. When the discussion broke down and violence was threatened, someone said, “Let us then agree that the next person to come over that hill will be given the task of deciding.”

Along came young Muhammad, future prophet. Being an orphan who had been raised in poverty by Bedouins, he was of low standing among the tribes. But he was also considered neutral.

Muhammad was told the problem.

He thought about it, then secured a tarp of some sort or a large blanket. He put the stone in the middle and told each clan leader to grasp hold of an edge. Together, they carried the stone into the shrine.

True or not, this is a great story of wisdom and mediation. Perhaps more important from the standpoint of story telling, the stone foreshadows the Quran, which Muhammad used to bring divisive, violent, warring Arab tribes together.

Quran or no Quran, Bible or no Bible, prophet or no prophet, the absence of conflict doesn’t last long. Today, the Judeo-Christian world tends to think it is at war with the Muslim world. It doesn’t realize the larger war is actually within the Muslim world. As Abraham, Moses and Jesus failed to bring peace, so has Muhammad.

Human nature embraces the words of prophets then simultaneously rejects them. It has always been.

Author Leslie Hazelton

Author Leslie Hazelton

My interest in learning more about Muhammad and Islam was recently heightened by a well-written work entitled, “The First Muslim: the story of Muhammad.” Author Lesley Hazelton, a journalist and former psychologist, takes a unique and interesting approach to her narrative. Scholars might object, but the most fascinating thing about her book is the way she fills in the historic blanks with rational speculation based on a keen understanding of the human mind.

Another appealing feature is the way she has put together all the fascinating stories from Islamic history and culture, ones widely known in the Muslim world but mostly unknown to western Christians and Jews.

For the first time I learned that many Islamic rites pre-date Muhammad, including regular pilgrimages to Mecca.  I also learned that Arabs considered all scripture sacred and were respectful of all prophets. Furthermore, in a day when little was written down, Jews were honored as “the people of the book.”  Christians also had great influence, as the Byzantine Empire moved into the area.

Faith and beliefs all seemed to have melded together. That’s enviable.

Practices in Arabia had come close to the monotheism of Abraham. The idea of one powerful, all-knowing god was accepted. But in Arabia this god had secondary, sister deities that also were worshipped. Muhammad, in perhaps his most controversial move, wanted the sisters dethroned.

His truth, as revealed to him by the angel Gabriel, proclaimed that God was neither begotten nor a begetter; that there were no sister gods. In a way, this is purer than Christianity, with its trinity.

For me, the most remarkable aspect of Islam is the Quran, or Koran (Spelled accurately only in Arabic script). Let’s remember that Muhammad could neither read nor write. His revelations came at a time when memory, not books, held the history and literature of one’s culture. In fact, the literal meaning of the word “Quran” is “the recitations.”

Indeed, it was not written down in the prophet’s lifetime.

To allow memory to commit large amounts of information, it usually had to be in verse; poetic and alliterative, like a beautiful song. This is the Quran, passed onto the world by a former camel boy.

In the process of revelation, where does the human take over from the divine? How much wisdom, intellect and creativity is required of the human? How much did Muhammad have? Was it Gabriel’s truth but Muhammad’s poetry? Or did the angel do it all?

If Muhammad had a role, then he was more than a natural poet; he was a self-taught scholar with deep, strong knowledge of the Bible. It is said the Quran was meant to be a continuation or extension of the Bible; that a good portion is biblical tales or re-workings of the tales. Gabriel, of course, would know them. But how did Muhammad?

Like the carpenter’s son, he somehow overcame circumstances and acquired a wide and useful education. Maybe it was easier than we think. Without a system of schools and universities, maybe elders were required to pass along great stores of knowledge to the young. Throughout much of his life, Muhammad was an agent and mediator on long caravans up and down the Arabian peninsula. That’s a lot of time for doing nothing more than talking and absorbing. Learning.

Another interesting things about Muhammad and the Quranic revelations is they did not come all at once but over a period of more than two decades. When he needed something new, he fasted and mediated and went back up the mountain.

Sometimes he had to wait years. Other times inspiration came quickly.

It is said by some and disputed by others than on one occasion the verses he brought back were wrong and had to be recanted. It is alleged that he had been spoken to not by Gabriel but by the devil. These are the so-called Satanic Verses, which for a brief time are said to have re-legitimized the three sister gods.

After I finish with “The First Muslim,” I’m going to read a translation of the Quran. I’m certain to be surprised, and that what I read will be a departure from what I think I know or have heard.

Although purists believe Muhammad’s messages should not be read or spoken in any language other than Arabic, that seems to be changing. I received my English copy from two guys handing them out at the mall, a gift from whyislam.org.

My book was published in Istanbul and translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali.

The name Abdullah, according to Hazelton’s book, means “servant of God.”

If we can get by the hate, the misunderstanding and the ignorance, there is much worthy to be learned about this culture.

Please listen to Ms. Hazelton speak on the Quran.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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The lucrative tunnels of Gaza

18 Feb

gaza-tunnels

 

For those without it, money always seems to end up in the wrong hands.

A fool and his money are soon parted because there never will be a shortage of disreputable types willing to fleece the weak and unknowing. Writer Dorothy Parker said if you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to. And the Bible itself, in Matthew 19-24, plainly and poetically states that heaven is not for the rich.

But while money has caused great misery in the world, it also has the remarkable, almost magical power of solving problems. It can literally break down barriers.

In the Middle East, in Gaza, there is a wall. On one side are people who need things they can’t get. One the other side are those things.

Due to the force and power of money, the wall and all its associated political obstructions have been circumvented.

They’ve been circumvented by tunnels, which in Gaza can make millions for their owners.

These outlaw entrepreneurs find the means to acquire the wood, concrete and excavation equipment needed to create 700-meter corridors of commerce. Some might even dig a tunnel by hand, even though it could be destroyed by Israeli bombs.

These tunnels are in the town of Rafah, which is split down the middle. Egypt controls one side; Israel the other. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, Gaza has 1.6 million people, with 40 percent living below the United Nations poverty line. Unemployment is at 31 percent.

Yet the tunnels can cause the economy to boom. Businessweek says that the tunnel system employs almost 15,000 and carries 75 percent of the good sold in the area.

One successful tunnel owner, Emad Shaaer, has family members on both side of the barrier, which greatly facilitates his business. Payment for his services vary. “Sometimes you got $200,000, and sometimes you got nothing,” he said.

Tunnel construction can cost about $200,000, but you only need $50,000 to get started. You don’t have to pay the labors and tunnel experts until the flow of goods starts.

Things became really good for the smugglers in 2007 when Hamas took control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority. To punish Hamas and Gaza residents for taking a more radical stance, Israel closed the borders even tighter. If anything can make a smuggler rich it’s a tight border. But as success and profits grew, they attracted attention.

When Hamas realized how much money the tunnel owners were making, it began to tax the operations, raising an estimated $188 million annually. (Hamas denies this.) The local Gaza government also regulates the good that can be transported, outlawing all the things that make the most money. (Further outlawing what is already outlawed.)

Even so, it is doubtful the tunnels will go away. Taxes and regulations can be skirted. Or, maybe there is enough for both the tunnel owners and Hamas.

The only thing that can truly destroy the tunnel system is peace, a highly unlikely prospect. Still, it is possible that the day may come when there will be enough profit in peace that the power and force of money will have succeeded in making us civil.

In such a case, I would argue that the time has finally arrived to allow the rich into heaven.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

Secrets of the Universe Revealed – Or Not?

29 Aug

A pause in the conversation led the old man to look up at the cloud formation and think about his future, which is death.

“I wonder if you learn everything,” he said. “How it all came to be; its meaning and purpose. It can’t be like that Big Bang crap. How could it all have gotten down into an infinitesimal speck, and how did it explode, instead of being sucked into itself like a black hole? And if there was nothing outside of it, how did it have a place to go?”

Death would be sweet if it meant getting all the answers. Without a body you couldn’t do much, but if you knew everything you’d feel pretty good about yourself. It would be like learning how the magician did the trick, only a trillion times better.

My intention was not to depress the old man, but I told him my theory of the moment.

“I doubt we get to know,” I said. “Our opinion of ourselves is exaggerated. Considering all that exists, I’d say we lack importance. I’m sensing we are the equivalent of a low-level employee who gets no time or attention from the boss.”

Top management, to whom the secrets might be disclosed, probably occupies another planet or dimension, is not prone to war and genocide and generally makes things easier for the CEO rather than more difficult.

While the Bible tells how Jesus came to save us, there also are passages like this one in Isaiah:

All the nations before him are as nothing; and they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity.

In a wonderfully written New York Times column (The Man in the Moon) Lydia Netzer says:

When humanity was in its infancy, we thought the universe revolved around us. Then, with Copernicus, we aged into heliocentrism, became aware we were one of a family of planets inside the walls of our house, the solar system. Nearby stars gather like a town, rotating through the galaxy, our country. Clusters are like continents. We realized in stages that we were very insignificant. And then, almost like grown-ups, we pulled our boots on and began to try to leave a significant mark anyway.

Sitting in a car seat next to the old man, I couldn’t accept that in a few years he would know it all. It’s too grand a gift. In the military, personnel are told things on a “need to know” basis. As humans, do we really need to know?

Once we have performed on Earth, it’s likely we will be whisked away like a bad vaudeville act. There’s plenty more in the wings.

But all is not lost.

“In a way, we are immortal,” I said. “Since matter is neither created nor destroyed, every atom that is you remains as part of the creation. After you die, your atoms eventually scatter. They say we could easily have been part of someone like Socrates or Newton. Can you image that? On the other end, you may help create the next Newton. But you won’t be conscious of it.”

“If what you say is true, I’ll make the next Newton but never know an ounce of what he will know,” he said.

“Look, this is only what I’m thinking today,” I said. “Tomorrow, when the clouds are different and I read a different Bible passage and cut and paste from a different New York Times column, I’ll have another opinion for you.”

“So maybe I will get to know everything.”

“Maybe you will.”

And then he went off to play cards with some ladies who had outlived their husbands and only worry about getting from one place to another without it causing too much pain.

— Lanny Morgnanesi

The 16th Century’s version of the Colbert Report

27 Jan

“A prince never lacks legitimate reasons to break his promise.”
Niccolo Machiavelli

 

I’ve made a lot of assumptions in my life, like thinking a rich man can get into heaven. Then I do something as simple as reading the Bible and learn he can’t.

Another assumption of mine was that Niccolo Machiavelli, author of “The Prince,” was a heartless cutthroat who would do anything to get ahead. “The ends justify the means” is how high school teachers summarize the book’s message. I recently read it (way too late) and don’t think that’s in there. To me, Machiavelli is a man whose spirit is wounded and disappointed by humanity’s inability to be human.

He recommends extreme harshness as a way to attain and keep power, but this comes across as a combination of satire and sarcasm. Machiavelli was the Colbert Report of his day, but no one seems to have gotten the joke.

At the end of “The Prince” the writing turns true and the author sadly pleads, begs even, for a savior who can unite and free Italy from foreign rule. Tears practically drip off the page.

I would love to hear from one other person who sees this great man as I. Without some small affirmation I’ll have to assume I am wrong.

What keeps a dictator in power?

13 Jan

“Mercy and truth preserve the prince.”

— Biblical proverb

Providers of order, not freedom

The Bible promises good things, mainly that the wicked will fall and the righteous will stand. It says the first shall be last and the last shall be first – but it doesn’t say when.

Prophecy, it seems, requires patience.

 

Please read on, then let me know the fallacy of my musings.

The Arab world and the Arab Spring are clear examples of a great shift in a once-passive acceptance of dictatorial princes. A change of will turned passivism into activism, which the princes could not withstand. Few things are more powerful than these kinds of mass movements.

 

Even so, less-demonstrative methods also can effect change.

A wide-spread lack of confidence in a leader, one it is exhibited, can be enough to challenge a regime. Roman emperors would go to great lengths and expense to keep public opinion on their side. They supplied free bread to all citizens, as well as entertainment (the famous “bread and circuses”) and built public works to garner love, respect and reputation.

Without strong citizen support, emperors, dictators and princes risk having an ambitious second-in-command engineer a coup or even assassination.

Of course, there is no guarantee the new regime will do better in the Mercy and truth department, but there usually is an attempt at some improvement.

The strength and permanence of a dictator often lies in his or her ability to maintain order. In so many countries, order is more desirable than freedom. I was once asked by a citizen of a totalitarian country, “Does you wife have the freedom to walk safely and unthreatened down a city street, alone, at 3 a.m.? Mine does.”

Excellent point.

It is said that during the panic of the Depression, America was willing to accept, and even longed for, the use of dictatorial powers by the chief executive. They wanted a return to order. Fortunately, FDR refused. Americans like order but appreciate freedom much more.

Perhaps one day the Bible proverb with become prophecy and no prince will rule without Mercy and Truth. Until then, Arab Spring or not, the world will most likely have many more dictators than it needs.

Your thoughts, please.

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