Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Another View of Muhammad

Even casual readers of the Quran (if there are such people) are struck by the many Biblical characters found there.  Moses and his brother Aaron standing before Pharaoh, Noah and his family surviving the flood, and the wife of Potiphar trying to seduce Joseph all find their stories on its pages (comment: these stories were all strategically altered, of course, by Muhammad to indicate that he was not only similar to those ancient heroes, but also bigger and better).

For Muslims, the question of how Muhammad learned these stories from the Hebrew Scriptures is not even a question. Allah, who knew the stories better than anyone, relayed them to Muhammad and that was that. For anyone with a more inquiring mind, however, the story could be as fascinating as it has been unknown.

Thirty years ago, a Lebanese Maronite priest using the pen name Abu Musa al-Hariri culminated years of studying ancient Islamic and Christian texts to write a little book entitled "Qiss wa Nabi" (Nabi means Prophet, and Qiss is translated as Parson, Pastor, or Priest in various Christian traditions). The Priest and the Prophet is an analysis of the relationship that existed between Muhammad and his wife's cousin, the Ebionite Christian Priest Waraqa bin Naufal. The book was published in Lebanon in 1978, but as could be expected was pulled from library and bookshop shelves as soon as it appeared and is no longer in circulation (comment: could someone please explain again why Muslims are so terrified of critical textual examination of the Quran?).

A few weeks ago, the author of the book was interviewed on the Arabic TV show Daring Question. The interview took place by telephone, since he was unable to travel from Lebanon to the studio. For the first time he identified himself as Father Joseph al-Qazi, and explained the ideas found in his book. The rest of this post will be a brief presentation of his thesis.

Among the many and conflicting Christian Gospels that circulated in the early centuries of the Christian Church was one called The Hebrew Gospel (not to be mistaken with the New Testament Book of Hebrews). The Hebrew Gospel is no longer in existence, but was often quoted by the Early Church Fathers. It taught that Jesus was an ordinary human who was endowed with the Holy Spirit when he was baptized by  John the Baptist. He then became the Anointed Messiah, although he was not Divine. This Holy Spirit remained with Jesus until the Day of Crucifixion. It then departed from him and Jesus died, not to pay for the sins of the world, but as an ordinary person.

As church councils met in the Christian centers of Rome, Jerusalem, and Constantinople to separate Christian orthodoxy from heresy, the groups considered heretical were forced to migrate further and further away. One of these groups, the Ebionites, followed the teachings of the Hebrew Gospel. They are sometimes described as Jewish-Christian, because they continued Jewish religious practices while accepting Jesus as the Messiah. Some of them found their way to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, birthplace of Muhammad.

The true story of Muhammad does not begin with his birth, but with his ancestor Qusay five generations earlier. Qusay married the daughter of the Quraysh tribal leader, and eventually himself became their leader. He also purchased the key to the Kaaba, which provided a source of financial revenue from visiting tribes who worshipped their idols there. When Qusay died his son Abdel Manaf became leader, who in turn was followed by his son Hashim (Muhammad's great grand-father). As is true with many extended families over generations, one side became wealthier than the other. Muhammad's grandfather Abdel Mutalib and his father Abdallah were from the poorer clan. Muhammad himself was born into that side of the family, which explains the Quran's description of him as a poor orphan (Quran 93:6-9).

The wealthy side included a wealthy businesswoman named Khadija and her cousin Waraqa bin Nawfal. This side followed the teachings of the Ebionites, and Waraqa bin Nawfal was their main Priest. The common Muslim claim that the Arab tribes were all Jahiliya or ignorant before Muhammad was created by the Muslims themselves to force a wedge between them and all others. Many of these tribes followed various Christian and Jewish traditions.

Waraqa bin Nawfal, in a particular Ebionite emphasis of caring for the poor, took special care of the young and orphaned Muhammad. He taught him to read and write, and to translate their religious texts from Aramaic into Arabic. The Muslim claim that Muhammad was illiterate was another myth created by early converts to support their claim that the Quran was a special revelation from God. As Muhammad grew, Waraqa invited the young man to join him and his associates on their religious pilgrimages and meditations. He found employment for Muhammad on his cousin Khadija's camel caravans, and later arranged Muhammad's marriage to Khadija. They were married in accordance with Christian tradition, which meant that Muhammad took no other wives as long as Khadija was alive.

Waraqa bin Nawfal recognized Muhammad's religious tendencies and leadership capabilities, and hoped he would succeed him as the Ebionite leader of Mecca. The Quran itself specifies that when Muhammad first began to preach among the poor of Mecca, he called them not to "Islam", but to the monotheism of Abraham. It was only after Waraqa and Khadija both died, and Muhammad chose to follow some of his converts to the city of Medina 250 miles to the north, that his message and lifestyle drastically changed. His message became one of conquest and empire, and his lifestyle (like many self-proclaimed Prophets before and since) included Allah's giving him anything he wanted, including as many women as his heart desired.


Srinivasan said...

I can see why they would pull this book from the bookstores. I am surprised they left the author alive though.

fpb said...

Srinivasam, the author remained alive because he had signed himself by a pseudonym. It is only with this broadcast, apparently, that he has come into the open, and I imagine that by this time he is old enough not to worry much about death.

Where can we find a more detailed account of the priest's theories? That the pre-Muslim Arabs were not in fact pagans is, I think, accepted by scholars (cf. GR Hawting, "The idea of idolatry and the emergence of Islam: from polemic to history", Cambridge University Press, 1999), but the connected account offered by this work makes a lot of sense and strikes me as adding some really valuable items to our knowledge of Mohammed. It also has a curious echo of the medieval Christian belief that Mohammed was a failed Christian priest - according to some obviously anachronistic versions, one who had been refused a Cardinal's hat - who had started his religion as a heresy.