Because it’s only intangible ideas, concepts, beliefs, fantasies that last. Stone crumbles. Wood rots. People, well, they die.
But things as fragile as a thought, a dream, a legend, they can go on and on.
If you change the way people think, she said. The way they see themselves. The way they see the world. If you do that, you can change the way people live their lives.
And that’s the only lasting thing you can create.
- Chuck Palahniuk
If you’ve seen Fiddler on the Roof you’re well-aware that even the most casual Jews offer the traditional greeting of shalom to other members of the faith. Christians are told this is the Jewish equivalent of the peace be with you that they routinely offer each other every Sunday, when modern Christians take a moment away from what in most denominations is an otherwise methodical service to experience a cursory dose of human warmth in the form of a handshake or hug with their pew-neighbors.
Christians are told that they’re echoing the greeting Jesus used with his followers in their native language of Aramaic. Another version of this greeting has also been offered by Muslims at every coming and going since Islam’s birth, although it is getting a bit of a traditional crust on it for today’s youth.
Even if you’re not a Muslim, if your greeter has seen any grasp of Arabic at all on your part he’ll greet you with salam w’alay-kum, which is translated into the very same phrase Christians offer each other during that Sunday service break. However, there’re two problems with the translation peace be with you. And it’s not just between Arabic and English, although the most glaring mistake is.
First is that the kum at the end is the formal Arabic indicator of the “plural you,” so a more accurate translation would be peace be with y’all. This isn’t because of the formality imbued by the “plural you” like in French, but for a reason rooted in Muslim mythology. Muslims are literally saying “peace be upon you guys.” Because Muslims are told that everyone has a wee angel perched on each shoulder, a-la Animal House, one recording our good deeds and the other our bad deeds.2 So it is these two miniature bureaucratic seraphim that are being greeted along with you whenever the traditional Muslim greeting is offered.
But there’s still another inconsistency in the translation.
What is translated from Jesus’s Aramaic into Hebrew, and Mohammad’s miraculously penned Arabic as “peace” originally had a different meaning. All three languages are Semitic, and so they carry many commonalities in terms of grammatical rules and etymological heritage. Although now mistranslated back into each language to mean peace in the same sense that first pops to mind for English-speakers – the absence of war or turmoil – that’s not the purest sense of the word.
In the case of shalom, salam w’alay-kum, and peace be with you what was originally meant by the Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic is an idea of oneness, or wholeness. Something akin to “peace of mind.” So a much more accurate translation would be may you be made whole, or interpreted with a little more linguistic panache: may you join with the oneness of God.
It is this second translation that sends out a bridge to the world’s other great religious figure, the Buddha. Whose followers are not considered People of the Book but share a fundamental, often forgotten, agreement about the nature of the relationship between what is human and what is holy, and how to best combine the two. Meditation in Buddhism is bringing your bewildered mind into check by focusing on breath, flame, or other flickering indication of life. Relaxing into the oneness that is life. Union with the wholeness shared by God and man.
Although you are by yourself, you’re not alone but instead totally immersed in God. In this action Buddhists celebrate the humanity we all share and seek to unite with their concept of God, no different it turns out, if the syntactical parallels are believed, than the time Moses, Jesus, or Mohammad spent alone with their Father. And it was during this time that they would draw the tenets of the religions they would go on to found.
And not only does Buddhism bind all three Middle-Eastern religions together in the spiritual, it also provides a link to the formation of early Christianity. Which is tale which provides both parallels and foils for the justification of suicide-driven terrorist attacks as acts of martyrdom by Islamic extremists.
Buddha is translated into English as: the awakened one. The concept of awakening stirs nothing of the spiritual for most Christians around today. But go back a few thousand years, to the time just after Jesus’s death, and awakening becomes a key element in the most important debate to wrack Christianity since nailed tracts.
Long before Christians split themselves into a Catholic Church and a Protestant Church, before the nascent Christian religion had coalesced, a much more decisive debate predicated the formation of any church at all. On one side of the debate were the Gnostics. On the other was everyone else. In between there were actually hundreds of confessional divisions, but for the sake of understanding it works to describe everyone else as Fundamentalists because that’s what they all eventually became.
Not Fundamentalist in the Jerry Falwell, speaking in tongues, or curing paraplegics in a two-grand Gucci suit on Sunday cable television sense – but just Fundamental in that they took a more literal, orthodox, and accepted approach to what was finally preserved in the official Christian Bible as Jesus’s teachings.
Gnostics shouldn’t be confused with agnostics, the former were a highly devout and committed sect of Christianity. While the latter make it a point that although they generally believe in some sort of Higher Power they reject any formalized interpretation of what It might be or mean. Gnostics embrace faith as the only reason for life, while agnostics have no certain faith in the existence or machinations of a higher power. You’re considered a Gnostic if you’ve achieved gnosis, which is best thought of joining the likes of Buddha and awakening. But awakening from what exactly?
The dream that leads us to believe that anything we see around us really is. Awakening from the dream and realizing that “the earth and everything upon it is but a forstander, the material embodiment of a finer and more proud reality which exists immediately behind it.”1 Gnostics are a highly spiritual, highly faithful bunch, who some detractors might argue are just high. However their beliefs have specific impact on the accepted views and doctrines of what was then Fundamentalist Christianity, but has today become Christianity in entirety.
At its core Gnosticism differs from today’s accepted Christianity in that it doesn’t place any importance on the specifics of Jesus’s life, but seeks only to understand and imitate the spirit in which he lived it. If you do so, Gnostics teach, you will be awakened.
Being a Gnostic has nothing to do with saying you believe Jesus was literally the Son of God, going through baptism or any other social ritual, or being accepted as a member of any community. Christianity for Gnostics is a matter of how you truly live your life, not going through the motions and incantations that qualify you for membership in most of today’s Christian churches. This idea of membership was at the depths of the schism between Gnostics and Fundamentalists back in the days of early Christianity, and provides the strongest parallel to a similar argument about the violence carried out in the name of Islam by Muslims today.
But before that can be explored, what exactly the schism was splitting must be understood.
For almost every Christian church today, from Catholic to Seventh-Day Adventist, membership is predicated on publicly stating your belief in the specific doctrines regarding Jesus’s life that the denomination believes. Usually something along the lines that he was born from a woman celestially inseminated by God, that he died during crucifixion, that he came back to life and then ascended, body mind spirit and all, in the way of Ezekiel before him, up to Heaven. And then in light of all this that you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, although what exactly entails is left rather fuzzy.
Gnostics, on the other hand, don’t care what you “believe in your heart,” and don’t give any credit to ritual or rites, such as baptism or reciting any creed. They see that many “go down into the water and come up without having received anything.”2 Gnostics didn’t believe you were Christian because of any one action. Instead, “they required evidence of spiritual maturity to demonstrate that a person belonged to the true church.”3 Evidence manifest not by any one-time action but by continuous and habitual spiritual living. Living in a way that could only happen after you’ve awakened, achieved gnosis, from the dream of a material and physical life.
But this presented a problem for unifying a catholic – literally, universal – church. The Gnostics went by subjective arguable criteria, while the Fundamentalists used objective criteria which couldn’t be argued one way or the other. Using unarguable objective criteria was a requirement for the early Fundamentalist Christians, because that was the best, really the only, way to consolidate a cohesive group of believers. Jesus’s message and life differed from both Moses before him and Mohammad after him in that he himself didn’t provide any ritualistic points of behavior that could be translated into group doctrine. With Jesus there were no laws or requirements or traditions as in the Torah and the Koran, because Jesus’s teachings weren’t meant to unify a cohesive group.
He didn’t demand avoiding the consumption of certain foodstuffs, ritual circumcision, only praying the Lord’s prayer, or anything about what’s appropriate in terms of dress. This led in the early years of Christianity to “hundreds of rival teachers [who] all claimed to teach the ‘true doctrine of Christ’ and denounced one another as frauds.”4 This occurred because during Jesus’s short life he was attempting to create a religious awakening, not one unified group.
In fact, one of the specific points of behavior Jesus did mention is tacitly ignored by many of today’s Christians: that the rich are going to have a near-impossible time entering heaven and that you must drop everything and follow the path of poverty and service that Jesus blazed to be assured a place in heaven. These teachings have been summarily ignored by the vast majority of modern Christians, who have no problem living in the lap of luxury while members of their community who may not be members of their church go hungry and live in squalor.
Jesus fought against poverty and the use of places of worship to raise funds. He communed with the poor, sat with the sinners, hung out with hookers, and held himself close to the spiritually broken. These behaviors aren’t exactly heralded by the most prominent Christians in the American media today. Instead the most public fights carried out by vocal Christians aren’t against poverty or hopelessness, but against buttsex and evolution. And the most prominent Christians use television programming to raise the funds that contribute as much to their personal coffers and to political causes as any charity.
Due to the lack of any specific criteria for group-membership laid out by Jesus, the Fundamentalists had to create a doctrinal framework for group membership, and the lattice which held, and holds, this framework together was the Church hierarchy. Christian communities started off as small fellowships, many of them directly founded or epistolatorly inspired by Paul, within communities often hostile to them and their beliefs. As these communities grew and aged, questions of leadership and legitimacy arose.
And so since the second century “doctrine has served to validate the apostolic succession of bishops”5 in both the Catholic and Protestant traditions. This doctrine, specifically the belief in the literal death and resurrection of Jesus, keeps power in the hands of the bishops who stand “in a position of incontestable authority” with the question of succession being decided by this group alone.
In the early years the Gnostics contested the legitimacy of the bishops, creating a controversy which “occurred at the very time when earlier, diversified forms of leadership were giving way to a unified hierarchy of church office.” In these years Christianity was experiencing a crystallization into a set rank-and-order, with “certain Christian communities… organizing into a strict order of subordinate ‘ranks’ of bishops, priests, deacons, laity.”6 Bishops were at the top of the order, and soon began emerging within each church as a monarch, or “sole ruler.” And from their perch they shaped Christianity into its current form by establishing criteria for membership.
This criteria was fully objective. Under the nascent bishops anyone who “confessed the creed, accepted the ritual of baptism, participated in worships, and obeyed the clergy was accepted as a fellow Christian.”7 Because they sought to assimilate all Christians into a universal, or catholic, church the bishops got rid of any sort of qualitative measure in deciding membership.
Making like the Gnostics and looking at each prospective member through the lenses of “spiritual maturity, insight, or personal holiness… would require a far more complex administration.” The bishops both didn’t want such a cumbersome administration and wanted to include as many as possible into the embrace of the church and so created “a clear simple framework of doctrine, ritual, and political structure” still operating today.8 And so Christianity as a cohesive united religion was born, and how it would spread would echo in the blasts that collapsed the Marine barracks outside Beirut, and the Twin Towers.
As the hierarchical bishop-headed system of organization was taking hold, it was an outside force which threatened to tear the organization limb from limb – by tearing it’s members limb from limb within the Roman arenas – that caused Christianity to explode from just another quirky sect into the social and political force it remains today. Christians took up the cross traditionally carried by Jews – imperial scapegoat – and were burnt, drowned, dismembered, decapitated, and eaten in the name of repressing social dissent.
Emperor Nero likely went after Christians, because they “bore all the marks of conspiracy,” which included: following a man accused of using magic, being under Roman law atheists who denounced the gods of the Roman state as demons, and belonging to an outlawed group. In addition to these truths, they were also accused of the now age-old religious crimes of eating human flesh, drinking human blood, hosting wild orgies complete with wild goats, and, of course, eating babies. Christians killed in the name of securing the imperial peace were considered – just like Jesus is by Christians and just like the bombers of the U.S. Marine barracks in 1983 are by some Lebanese – martyrs.
The word stems both in Greek and Arabic from the root meaning “to witness.” And so in dying as a martyr you die so that others may witness your faith physically manifested. Then as now, martyrs were eyed by some not as pious or devout but as “morbid and misguided exhibitionists.” And, then as now, it was the Fundamentalist followers of the religion who encouraged martyrdom as a legitimate and blessed death.
In the case of early Fundamentalist Christians, it’s argued, this happened because “persecution gave impetus to the formation of the organized church structure that developed by the end of the second century.” It was this bishop-enforced structure to which the Gnostics objected, and so they also objected to openly seeking martyrdom by professing their Christian faith as hundreds did in the Roman arenas.9 And these early Christian martyrs were following in Jesus’s footsteps in that they were also able to bring about the third stage of Political Terrorism’s cycle, retribution from the authorities, without carrying out any violence of their own.
Second century Christian martyrdom was a form of inverted Symbolic Terror, used as recourse by political dissidents who were attempting to publicize cases of violence and injustice to the world to spread their faith. Although there was no mass media in second-century Rome for the martyrs of then to target, the next best thing was the arenas in which many of the martyrdoms were enthusiastically cheered on by macabre crowds eager for spectacle. And it’s certain from the letters and writings of the time that some who witnessed the executions were moved by what they saw and came to the Christian faith because of them.
Instead of spreading their faith through proactive action like Muslim martyrs, the Christian martyrs were reactive weapons used to encourage churches throughout the region to join into the institutionalized hierarchy. They created the final step of Political Terrorism by drawing the Roman hand down upon themselves without first striking out against it. Throughout the region, churches were written to in an attempt “to consolidate communities internally and in relation to one another.”10
It’s well known that nothing brings a group together better than a sense of being under seige. With the idea of your personal martyrdom hinging on the doctrinally enforced belief that Jesus was voluntarily martyred, it was the perfect means to unify Christians into a universal church hierarchy and squash the Gnostics. Today the Catholic Church places heavy emphasis on the veneration of these martyrs, officially canonized as Saints, because without them there never would have been a Church. It was their persecution and their sacrifice which tied the many disparate communities of Christian believers together by the end of the second century into one cohesive bureaucratized organization.
As the Tree of Liberty must be refreshed by the blood of patriots, the Tree of Faith must first grow in the blood of martyrs.
Muslim martyrs seek to accomplish similar ends as their Christian counterparts, they simply use more offensive means. Following the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat one of the jihadists involved noted that it was “that spirit of martyrdom [which] linked jihadists of all generations together.”11 In the twenty-first century, that spirit is again being summoned. Because Islam’s initial spread occurred in a way that could not have been more different than Christianity, by the sword and not by the word, the means used by Muslims today are going to invariably be very different when their faith is being spread by the blood of martyrs.
Besides any debate about the inherent militancy in the texts and stories of the Koran and how much violence is or isn’t encouraged, the point that Islam’s initial spread was one of conquest, in contrast to Christianity’s early peaceful spread, cannot be argued.
This differing level of first-generation violence may be largely due to the fact that Christianity took several hundred years to be institutionalized, while Islam was a cohesive institution from its very start. After Christianity was finally institutionalized by the Catholic Church and Byzantine Empire, men who took up the cross such as Clovis and Charlemagne were responsible for plenty of carnage and death in Christ’s name. The names of the untold hundreds of thousands put to the blade by nominally Christian generals have been lost to history – but their deaths and their neighbors’ fearful conversion were no different from the converts won and deaths caused in Islam’s early spread. In terms of pure volume and square mileage, Clovis and Charlemagne forcefully spread Christianity farther than anyone who came before them. However neither the Bible or any official Christian text really addresses this, and so it seems very far divorced from the faith itself.
It isn’t. Christianity didn’t become fully and inextricably rooted in Western culture until those men aided and abetted its spread – a spread just as violent and terrible as Islam’s early years.
So fairly or not, Christians today tend to overlook the violent actions of those nominally Christian men and only allow the use of the lives depicted in the Bible during debates of how “early” Christianity was spread or what Christianity is “really” about. But in the history of all three great Western monotheistic religions, there is no escaping the tension between religious party and political power:
Like any social organization, the religious party is at first a natural rival to political power. The struggle is all the more intense when a religion is universalist in nature, as are Christianity and Islam. The universalist religions… naturally cohere as ‘ideological communities.’ In other words, they include all those who accept their dogma and exclude all those who do not. Founded on a credo, such communities define and organize every aspect of the society to which their members belong. In their early phases, such organizations are mostly interested in religious or philosophical problems. As they grow in number and confidence, however, they extend their influence to other spheres of social organization and ultimately set their sights on definitive social control through political power.11.5
Nearly everyone in the West holds that the story of how early Christianity spread ends where the Bible does, and holds that as a comparison of how Jesus and Mohammad lived their lives and spread their faiths tells the entire story.
In the nine years after announcing the concept of jihad in 624 AD Mohammad ordered at least twenty-seven military campaigns, personally commanding nine of them.12 In the Bible, there isn’t mention of Jesus so much as backhanding a mouthy disciple. But, again, this shortsightedness is incredibly limiting, Christianity and Islam trace nearly identical paths of violent proliferation, the only difference is a temporal one – Christianity took many hundreds of years to cover the ground Islam only took a few generations to cover.
And yet being martyred in early Islam is being killed while battling for the spread of faith, being martyred in early Christianity is being publicly murdered for the sake of imperial oppression and entertainment. Mohammad and his followers spread their faith on horseback, often lopping off the heads of those who opposed them. Jesus and his followers spread their faith on horseback, often getting their heads lopped off by those who opposed them. Islam can and has been a peaceful religion for epochs at a time, and Christianity has been invoked in the name of violence just as much if not more than Islam – but when it comes to martyrs there is a difference lurking in the origins of each religion. The very idea of martyrdom is much more plastic within Islam, and much more open to debate.
Membership has never been debated in Islam, from its conception either you follow the five doctrinal pillars or you aren’t a Muslim. Very simple. And although succession was debated, it was a matter of choosing between two successors to Mohammad and not of deciding what true Islamic faith meant as it was in the Christian faith, at least not to the same degree.
Because of this Islam has never been as hierarchical as Christianity, nor ever been able to stand as rigidly about points of doctrine.
There was a time in Islam of rule by a Caliph who was both supreme religious and political leader, but on the community-level religious leaders in Islam have most often been more guru than governor. At least until recently when non-Arab immigrants and others who aren’t fluent in Arabic have begun to be manipulated by clerics who act as sole intercessor to an Allah whose words are unintelligible to those who can’t read written Arabic. But this is a problem which will later be placed in a modern framework, so for now we return to history.
The place of religious leaders in Islam, serving more as navigating guides than the sole channel through which one can reach God, is reflected the average Muslim’s conception of God. Muslims see God as more of an unfathomable heavenly force than as a benevolent bearded Grandfather wearing robes, sandals, and an understanding visage like Christians do. Any sort of depiction of either Allah, Mohammad, or any religious figure is explicitly prohibited in Islam, and so for the Muslim it follows to think of God as more of an eternal inexplicable power than simply a wiser but not-as-jolly Santa Claus clad in brightness and light.
For Christians the bishop is something of an extension of this human God, whereas for Muslims this sort of displacement has always been undermined by the fact Allah has never been personified in any sense. This is reflected in the fact that bishops are appointed as ruling authorities by the organized hierarchical Catholic Church, a practice shared to some extent by every mainstream Christian sect. Bishops, and church leaders in general, act as doctrinal conduits to the people, dutifully passing down what the top of the religious hierarchy has determined and not making any of their own innovations.
However in Islam an imam, cleric, Ayatollah like Khomeini – and any Muslim it can be argued – is free to function outside of a bureaucratic flowchart and make whatever interpretations of the faith they see fit. And when these interpretations pull in the idea of martyrdom and what actions can fall within that concept, the implications are immense.
Islam at its core is more Gnostic – in the sense of opposing the authoritarian, the mechanical, the rote, and the orthodox – than Christianity. Today in Christianity “religious feeling normally gets expressed in restricted and often private circumstances: inside the church, at the dining table, in the confessional.”
However Muslims “view religious expression as a public, communal act, not confined to one time slot a week; it is a daily journey.” There are many facets that contribute to this: the removal of shoes before entering a mosque placing “all worshipers in a common collective status,” and the daily occurrence of prayer which “requires believers to be continuously mindful of God’s presence,” among many others.13 Because of this fundamental functional difference every Muslim is encouraged to find his own interpretation of what the religion means for him, and how a faithful life should best be lived out.
But without a cadre of doctrinally-unified bishops or a Pope determining sans question what is legitimate outside of keeping the basic tenets of the faith, Islam is more open to challenges of legitimacy and interpretation. For Muslims, religious authority has little consensus but is instead “scattered among a host of smaller, competing, though exceedingly powerful clerical institutions.”14 And Mohammad explicitly said that no intercessor was either necessary nor permitted between a man and Allah, a claim not echoed until thousands of years after the formation of the Church, by Martin Luther.
Another challenge came in the 21st century from Osama bin Laden, following in the tire-treads of Hezbollah’s suicide bombers. And his claim was harder to discredit because there was no true sole authority, and no Core State, to discredit it. There were several respected learned clerical councils, however they are not able to pass dictatorial edict like the Pope and only able to, ironically, present a democratic condemnation of any one interpretation of Islam.
The book of martyrdom has been reopened by modern Islamic extremists who seek to use it to spread their interpretation of faith, a version which cannot be concretely condemned by any authoritative religious council that holds the same sway Christian authorities do. Nor was there a Core State in the Muslim world which might lead its people and the rest of the Muslim-Arab world away from bin Laden, and when ISIS emerged to pick up his mantle they simply continued on towards the same ends. So when the reopened book of martyrdom was thrown at the Marines outside Beirut it “dominated media headlines for weeks, consumed Western national leaders for months, and encouraged terrorist groups from Hamas to the Tamil Tigers to al-Qaeda to adopt this method of attack.”14.5
What Mohammad would say about recent reemergence of suicide-martyr operations is, for reasons just explained, debated by parties who don’t see themselves as regulated by any religious authority and who bring their own ideas to the concept of being a Muslim.
But offensive martyrdom was also used by Christians, after the Church had been established and the Gnostics delegitimized. It was used to try and reconquer, hundreds of years later, the lands swept up by Islam in the generations after Mohammad awakened from his caved contemplation and changed the way billions see the world.
Mohammad opened his eyes to the intense desert air, fought off his panic, got up from his wife’s side, and walked back out into his adopted hometown of Mecca, and began sharing what had been revealed to him in that mountain cave.
At first slaves were the only ones, besides a few relatives, who saw Mohammad as anything other than just another street-corner nutjob on a spice-box. Most of Mecca’s inhabitants met his shared revelation with jeers, insults, and rocks. It made sense that the most obviously enslaved would be the first to feel the pull of Mohammad’s ideas, as they aimed to break the societal bonds shackled onto them by a society that prospered by interweaving wealth with a religious duty to uphold the status quo.
Mohammad recorded the teachings passed onto him by Gabriel with his own hand which were, many generations after his death, organized into 114 chapters, or suras, containing injunctions that were to be explicitly followed. Many Muslims unfamiliar with Christianity are surprised to learn Christians view the Bible as so infallible when no Christian claims Jesus himself wrote even one word of it. Beyond that, you’d be very hard pressed to find a Christian able to tell you anything about the writers of the Gospel: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Other than their names, who exactly these men were has been lost to history. And, odds are, they’re all pseudonyms used by men who lived several generations after Jesus’s death, anyways.
Mohammad wisely ordered that these angelically-inspired teachings, known in their entirety as the Koran, be reproduced only in Arabic. This would serve two purposes: to prevent the misunderstandings and clouded meanings that come with translation and to provide a common bond to all who would follow its words. Many of these words seem odd to most people around today. One teaching was to stop the tradition of burying newborn daughters alive in the sand, a practice that oddly enough has its very own verb in Arabic: wa’ed.
But the teachings which generated the most enmity were the ones regulating more common social evils. Not only condemning the familiar lying, cheating, stealing, fornication – but also forbidding spending money on gifts for any of the litany of false-priests serving their false-gods enshrined in the Kaab’a. A practice that brought tens of thousands of pilgrims to Mecca who made the sacrifices which supported the entire economy and propped up the Quraysh tribe. Discouraging these sacrifices was seen as undermining the livelihood of the priests and merchants who depended on the gift-driven economy, and wasn’t smiled upon.
Before long Mohammad learned of a plot to murder him being hatched by those whose economic well-being he’d undermined. Much like Jesus, he’d drawn the wrath of those who depended on intermingling religion and economics and were incensed by his attempt to purify the former and undermine the latter.
And so, using an early bit of ingenious misdirection, he had his son-in-law lay wrapped in a green cloak in his bed as a decoy for the would-be assassins crouched outside his house while he pressed hard on camelback away from the city, seeking refuge in a city that would later come to be known as Medina. Here, in only a few years, he was able to shape the city’s politics around his beliefs and rule unopposed. Both by winning over vast swaths of believers, and also by having those who opposed him whacked. Mohammad built his treasury by raiding passing caravans, in one notable effort taking a caravan guarded by almost a thousand men with only three-hundred of his own. After losing only fourteen of his men in such a lopsided underdog victory he soon had no trouble attracting the martial as well as the spiritual to his cause.
When ten-thousand Meccans came to rectify the fact that one of their caravans had been attacked, Mohammad dug lines of steep trenches around Medina deep enough to prevent cameled cavalry charge and wide enough to keep the massed army too far away to effectively use their short-bows. Although this is a common, even taken-for-granted, defensive method today, at the time it was unprecedented in the Arab world – an early example of the union of irregular warfare and religion.
After eight years in Medina his following had become strong enough that he was finally able to go home. In 630AD Mohammad returned to Mecca. Not as a raving lunatic.
But as conqueror.
This return march is remembered today as one of the Five Pillars of the Faith, the hajj or pilgrimage, which all Muslims are implored to take at least once during their lifetime. Bulwarking this pillar are four others.
The first undertaken is the resuscitation that there is no god but Allah and that Mohammad is his prophet. The most trying is the Pillar of fasting, or sawm, to commemorate the time Mohammad spent alone in a cave meditating before Gabriel first appeared to him. During the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Ramadan, Muslims abstain from food, drink and sex from sun-up until the setting-sun has darkened the sky enough to make a black and white thread held up at arm’s length indistinguishable from each other.
Given the daytime abstention from sex, it’s likely threads from many different garments have been used for this purpose over the years. The final two pillars are the tithing zakat or alms tax given to charity and today in some Muslims states collected by law, and the prayerful salah, which is to be done five-times a day after ritual bathing, only in Arabic and always facing Mecca.
As rough as this sketch of the historical narrative that has become the foundation of the modern Islamic faith is, there is still one page very noticeably absent. It concerns the time just before Mohammad fled Mecca. And it ties the fate of a city to the fate of Jews, Christians, and millions of others alive today. It explains why Muslims are forbidden from drinking wine, and it’s where Christian martyrdom was reinterpreted from giving your life on the floor of a Roman coliseum to waging war on unbelievers in Christ’s name. Again it involves the archangel Gabriel, but this time also Jesus, Moses, Abraham, and a beast – half-jackass and half-donkey – that had somehow managed to sprout wings and fly. Seriously.
One ancient, troubled, warswept city, host to all three Middle Eastern religions, has come to contain touchstones for Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike. And its stones would become a Wall, a Dome, and a Temple in a place that has delineated not just the wholeness of peace – but the oneness of violence – as no single city ever has.