Looking for Muhammad

My writing has been completely taken up with completion of my woodworking and spirituality book project with my friend John de Gruchy, who lives near Cape Town. You’re going to hear more about that book in due course. Entitled “Sawdust and Soul,” it’s a lively, we hope, invitation to reflection on craft and spirit. Stay tuned.

But in the meantime the rest of the world moves on. We recently watched the three-part series “The Life of Muhammad,” on PBS, a documentary produced by Crescent Films in the UK. Narrated by Rageh Omaar, a Somali-born British journalist, it took us on a pilgrimage through the tumultuous life of Muhammad from his birth in Mecca to his death in Medina.

Brilliant scenes from those cities were threaded together with commentary from Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars, some very familiar, like Karen Armstrong, others unknown to us but equally insightful.

Omaar himself was on a quest to uncover the figure at the source of a worldwide movement that has both inspired and terrified people for centuries. Who was this unlettered recipient of the powerful poetic messages from the Core of all Being, Allah?

Muhhamad’s burning desire to bring about a just peace among the warring, polytheistic tribes of his day gains bright relief against the contemporary backdrop of conflict, jihad (misused), and transformation in today’s Middle East.

Muslims of today, though all proclaiming this One God, face the same problems he confronted almost 1400 years ago. As Sunni turns against Shia and both against Sufi, we all are caught up in the search for peace in the midst of seemingly absolute claims of tribe, nation, and religion.

While Muhammad resorted to military force to defend himself against attacks from his opponents in Mecca, even to the excess of slaughtering Jewish defectors from his cause in Medina, his ultimate victory was through a persistent non-violent campaign that finally brought Mecca to acceptance of a common peace within the common tent of Islam. To get the details and nuances, you need to see the PBS series Life of Muhammad and read some books like Armstrong’s own Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet.

How is it then that a man and a book of poetic insight and devotion could evoke both a way of peace and a way of war and violence? Has it not been the same with Jesus of Nazareth? Only a moment’s reflection recalls Christianity’s Crusades, pogroms against the Jews, bitter wars between Protestants and Catholics, genocidal extermination of the native peoples of the Americas, alongside St. Francis, Mother Theresa, and Christian abolitionists, prison reformers, and the like. Is the message meaningless? Are the heroic sacrifices of these religious founders for naught?

Max Weber, the German sociologist of religion, pointed out a century ago that every religious message, to have a historical impact, must have a social “bearer” of its vision. As St. Paul said of the Christian Gospel, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels.” But we don’t get to drink the wine and have its effect apart from its bearer – that’s the limit of the image. It is more like a noble family name that exists in this world only in the feeble, flawed relatives we actually live with.

And still the light flickers and does not go out. We never get its perfect illumination, whether in the divine Law (Shariah) tasted by Muhammad, the Way known to Jesus, or the Torah of Judaism. There is a way, a path, of peace, but we live most of our lives in the ditch, walking alongside it, often stuck in its mud, but knowing we are near the road, maybe even nearing a destination for which we and our tangled band of murderous loves have a promissory note.

Muhammad is one of those who left a trail of notes behind, hoping we might experience what he had known in frightening and tantalizing moments in that cave high above Mecca’s violent streets.

It’s Ramadan, let us pull back a little from our fearful greed and let the Abundant One fill our hearts.

1 thought on “Looking for Muhammad”

  1. Bill, What a powerful statement! How insightful! Thank you for these reflections. If only religious people would develop a bit of self-criticism and allow the Abundant One to fill their hearts with outgoing love and care, we have a bright future. Thank you.

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