Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Musings on Moses & Muhammad

During the last full week of February, Jews and Muslims memorialized their respective founding prophets who, coincidentally, both died on their own birthdays.

Judaism commemorated Adar 7 as the day when Moses was born and died (coinciding with February 21); Islam commemorated Rabi-al-Awwal 12 (coinciding with February 26) as Muhammad's birthday and the anniversary of his death. The day, Milad an-Nabi, has religious as well as cultural significance. In Southeast Asia, for instance, it is marked by a carnival atmosphere. More conservative Muslim authorities hold that there is no theological basis to sanctify the day.

Yet this year in Damascus, it was a pan-Islamic occasion which saw Syrian President Bashar Assad, an Alawite, and the Persian Shi'ite president of Iran, Mahmud Ahmadinijad, attend a Sunni-led service.

Among Jews, the day is set aside for fasting and penitence but nowadays observed only by sectors within the Orthodox world. During medieval times, in Egypt, for example, Adar 7 took on communal and cultural significance; while Adar 8 was a carnival day! This made some conservative rabbis unhappy and they imposed restrictions on the participation of women.

The two faiths use different calendars so this year's convergence of birth/death anniversaries was mere coincidence. Yet there are some notable parallels along with dissimilarities between the two founders.

Moses was raised as a prince, but his birth father plays only a cameo role in the Torah and Muhammad's father, Abdullah, died while the prophet-to-be was still in his mother's womb. Some of Muhammad's successors were uncomfortable with the parallels the Koran draws with the Torah -- as when the Muslim holy book replicates the Torah's story of Moses smiting the rock for water.

Where Moses was a reluctant leader; Muhammad was keen and confident. Both men were warrior prophets, but Moses went to battle unenthusiastically, and appeared not to relish the role as commander-in-chief. Perhaps that is a reason why modern Israel memorializes those of its fallen soldiers whose graves are not known on the same day it remembers Moses.

Muhammad saw himself as more than the inheritor of Moses' mantle; he had come to perfect the earlier prophet's message. Muhammad, who came into contact with the Jewish tribes of Arabia viewed Judaism as a direct challenge to his religious mission. There is an account, for instance, of how his face changed color when he saw a follower reading from the Torah. The Hadith has Muhammad declaring that were Moses his contemporary, the Israelite would have become a Muslim.

Whereas Moses died with Joshua designated as his clear successor, Israelite fragmentation along tribal lines, notwithstanding -- Muhammad's demise led to a schism played out to this day between Sunnis and Shi'ites.

In the end, Moses expired in presence of God alone, whereas Muhammad passed away from an illness in his wife Aisha's home today. No one knows where Moses' burial place is. Muhammad is buried in the Al-Masjid al-Nabawi Mosque in Medina.

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