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  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

ISLAM Judaism | Christianity
What were the most significant events in the history of the religion?
by John Kaltner

Key episodes of Muhammad’s life are recalled and celebrated by Muslims as important moments in the history of their community. According to Islamic tradition he began to receive the revelations that eventually came to comprise the Qur’an during the month of Ramadan in the year 610. The “Night of Power,” which commemorates that event, is one of the holiest times of the Muslim calendar and is celebrated with great solemnity every year during the month of fasting. There is a difference of opinion regarding exactly what day of the month the revelations commenced, but most place it somewhere during the last ten days of Ramadan.

Muslims consider the hijra, the journey from Mecca to Medina that Muhammad made with a small group of followers, to be the most significant event in the early history of Islam. It was this change of location that allowed the nascent Muslim community to survive and develop into the influential religion it has become. The journey is so highly regarded that it was taken as the founding experience of the ummah that gave birth to Islam. For this reason, the year 622 is considered to be the start of the Muslim calendar, which is now in the first half of the fifteenth century.

Islam uses a lunar calendar, which is a bit shorter than the solar one found in the West, so one cannot determine the year of the Muslim calendar simply by deducting 622 from its western counterpart. Dates in the Muslim calendar are often written with the initials AH after them, which is an abbreviation of the Latin term anno hegirae, “in the year of the hijra.”

Another celebrated event of the prophet’s life has its basis in Qur’an 17:1, which speaks of God transporting “His servant from the sacred mosque to the furthest mosque.” Muslim interpretations have understood this passage to be a reference to Muhammad and a miraculous night journey he made from Mecca (the location of the “sacred mosque”) to Jerusalem, where the “furthest mosque” (al-aqsa in Arabic) is found. According to this tradition, Muhammad was then taken up through the various levels of heaven, where he was welcomed and honored by many of the great prophets of the past. This event has been frequently depicted in art, and some Muslims mystics, or Sufis, have understood it to be a metaphor of the soul’s journey to God.

Muhammad’s birth and death have sometimes been celebrated by Muslims, but this practice has never caught on in the community as a whole. In fact, in some periods and places Muslims have been forbidden from commemorating the beginning and end of the prophet’s life. This prohibition is often expressed in theological terms—Muhammad was only a man like all of the prophets, and so he deserves no special treatment or recognition. Some Muslim thinkers have voiced concern that such observances run the risk of divinizing Muhammad in a way similar to what has happened with Jesus in Christian celebrations of his birth and death at Christmas and Easter.

A very important moment in Shi`a history occurred in 680, when Ali’s son Husayn was killed by Sunni forces at a place called Karbala in modern-day Iraq. Husayn and his followers were on their way to Damascus to claim the leadership of the Muslim community that they believed was rightfully his when they were attacked and brutally slain by their enemies. This tragic event is recalled each year by Shi`a Muslims, who mourn the martyrdom of Husayn and reenact the circumstances of his death in a ritual passion play known as the ta`ziya.

The classical period of Islam came to an end in 1258, when Mongols invaded from the East and captured the city of Baghdad, which had served as the capital of the Muslim empire throughout the Abassid Period (750-1258). This was a significant event not just because it signaled the official end of the caliphate form of government that had begun with the death of Muhammad in 632. It also began a process of debate over who can legitimately rule Muslims. The Mongols converted to Islam, but because they were outsiders some believed they were unfit to govern the ummah. This is an issue that has continued to be discussed in the modern day because some Muslim extremists, like Usama bin Laden, maintain they have the right to oust from office those leaders they deem to be not “Muslim” enough.

In modern times, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 was a watershed event for many Muslims. Under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini the people of Iran were able to overthrow the Shah, a longtime ally of the United States who had relegated Islam to a marginal role in society. This marked the first time an Islamic regime had been able to replace a more secular form of government, a development that gave much hope to those who think this model should be adopted throughout the Muslim world. More than a quarter-century later, the Islamic Republic of Iran still plays a pivotal role in the international community.

Copyright ©2006 John Kaltner

John Kaltner is a member of the Department of Religious Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee where he teaches courses in Bible, Islam, and Arabic. Among his books are Islam: What Non-Muslims Should Know (2003); Inquiring of Joseph: Getting to Know a Biblical Character through the Qu’ran (2003); Ishmael Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers (Collegeville: Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier, 1999).

Excerpts from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for purchase in December 2006.


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