Monday, February 28, 2011

Muslims Through Other Eyes

Recently, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University hosted a speaker talking about the role of women in Islam.  Many of my students went to hear Dr. Jim Shoopman talk about the difference between public perception in this country of Islam women and reality.  He said that, e pointed that, in the Arab world, the position of women varies from country to country.  In Saudi Arabia, for example, women cannot drive; in Kuwait or the United Arab Emirates, they can and do. They also hold many rights not available in other less-enlightened countries, including the right to own and run businesses. He also pointed out how many Americans hold preconceived notions about women and Islam that are difficult to change.

Shoopman could have been talking about a lot more than women and Islam.  False impressions invariably seem to dominate our thinking. 

Take the hubbub in November over President Obama’s recent children’s book, which identified a handful of famous Americans.  He included Sitting Bull, to the consternation of those who argued that the Lakota Indian chief helped massacre Gen. George Custer and his men in 1876. That’s true, of course, but completely ignores other facts.

·                     Sitting Bull was defending sacred Indian lands stolen by gold-hungry American settlers despite a legally binding agreement between the tribe and the government.  In fact, he was standing up for human rights, a noble cause in any situation.
·                     Sitting Bull joined “Buffalo” Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, which toured this country and Europe just nine years after Custer’s Last Stand, a fact that apparently didn’t bother Cody or the thousands who turned out to see the entertainment.

Cody and Sitting Bull became friends.   In his autobiography, the famed Indian scout wrote, "Of all the Indians I encountered in my years on the Plains, the most resourceful and intelligent... were the Sioux.... The greatest of all the Sioux in my time, or any time for that matter, was that wonderful old fighting man, Sitting Bull."

Reality is never cut and dry.  George Washington was a patriotic American.  To the British, he was a traitor.  Robert E. Lee lost his family estate – now Arlington Cemetery – but he didn’t lose his reputation or go to jail for leading the Southern states in a rebellion against the U.S. Government.  Neither, for that matter, did Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who retained public affection in the South for decades after his great counterpart, Abraham Lincoln, was assassinated.

Confederate battle flags today are not uncommon, often dressing up trucks owned by patriotic Americans who would never dream of attacking their own country.

The list is endless.  We all tend to see reality as black and white.  We can put a political party, a person, an event or an idea into a neat box.  We can careful homogenize everything.  It’s easier that way.  It’s also often wrong.

Take American history.  While studying for a doctorate in American Studies, I read about Andrew Jackson, the Indian fighter and general who went on to be president.  My high school history book talked about the Jacksonian Age and his impact on American life.  In college, I discovered that most Americans then didn’t know who the president was or cared.  Based on voting records, Jackson had virtually no effect on anyone.

Or famed lawman Wyatt Earp, who has been the subject of multiple books, movies and the like.  He was actually a saloon owner and gambler who did little of what he was renowned for.  A later newsman, Stuart Lake, created a fictional biography of him that has been the basis of the movies.

The idea here is not to demolish heroes.  Nor am I trying to prove that reality is a lot messier than people would like to believe.  I suspect most people are well aware of that.  Rather, I would like to suggest we always keep an open mind and look at as many of the facts as possible before making decisions. 

Maybe then, we can resolve our many problems without being hampered by preconceived and little understood solutions, whether we are talking about the Islamic world, wars, political differences, taxes or any other topic on a local, state, national or international level.

There are two sides to everything – sometimes even many more than that.


Bill Lazarus teaches writing and communication courses at international students attending Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.  Recent books include Comparative Religion for Dummies (Wiley, 2009); The Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus (Halifax Press, 2010) and Noel, The Tradition and History of Christmas Carols (Halifax Press, 2010).  His books are available on Amazon or by going to his website, www.williamplazarus.com

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Bible and Koran II


I’ve been carrying on a discussion with a reader of my book, The Gospel Truth, which details where the authors of the New Testament got their information.  The reader thought both the Bible and the Muslim sacred text, the Koran, were created through the compilation of written and oral documents, which enhance their historical nature.

 I pointed out that while the Koran used that method, war interfered in the case of Christian compilers so that they had nothing left.  

 He countered with this comment: “I would still support the idea that in absence of a written history of Jesus during his life or immediately after, that the oral tradition and oral recording was far more powerful than we might suspect, and that the details of Jesus' life were maintained not only by a suppressed fledgling Christian religion, but also by those who either disregarded Jesus and Christianity, or opposed it entirely.”

 In addition, he noted, “The truth of the existence of Jesus has some correlation to the historic events that are cited in that religious history. Likewise, what's known about Mohammad and the formation of Islam also has a correlation to other historic events, only more so because presumably literacy and the technology of recording history had advanced to capture greater perspective of whom Mohammad was and how Islam emerged.”

While the comments seem plausible, they are not.  Without understanding the depth of investigations that have taken place regarding the time of Jesus, anyone might think that that historical recording improved in time and that the Gospels contain historical truths which buttress the account of Jesus’ life. 

 For starters, the recording of history was better in 1 AD than it was in 632 AD or in 1200 AD.  In reality, the Greeks and Romans did a far better job of recording history than any cultures prior to the advent of printing in the 1400s.  The Greeks had started the concept of history under Herodotus.  It flourished after that with Thucydides and many more. 

It’s hard to find historians once the Roman Empire fell.  The first Christian history was not written until the 4th century.  The Bishop Eusebius did not include any sources and, from all available evidence, was writing from a religious perspective, not an historical one. 

After him, there are few historians of any kind.  The Venerable Bede and Procopius are the most prominent.   Procopius, following in the Roman tradition, is better known for his secret history of Emperor Justinian’s reign, which contradicts his official account. 

Bede was a priest who wrote an account of Christianity in England from the beginning until his own day in the late seventh century.  As the Catholic Encyclopedia, his book serves as “the foundation of all our knowledge of British history.” Unfortunately, Bede considered the Scripture as a more important book and a valuable source, although historians today know it is very inaccurate.

The lack of any history is understandable.  People waiting for the world to end are not going to stress literacy.  The Catholic Church didn’t.  It wanted to dictate belief and fared a public that read the texts.  Christmas carols, crèches and the like start in the Middle Ages as way to educate the illiterate masses.

In the 1400s, Luther took advantage of the Church’s reluctance to launch of Protestant Revolution.  He did so by using the written language to translate the Bible into German.

Actually, much of what we know from the fifth century to the 14th has been gleaned from deed transfers and other records. For example, we know a lot of about England after the French conquest because King William ordered a survey of all the towns now under his control.  The result was what became known as the Doomsday Book, a survey of the English land and resources in 1086.  That suffices for historical reporting. 

In contrast, a wide array of historians was busily documenting facts through the Roman Empire.  They include world leaders like Augustus Caesar and Julius Caesar, whose books on the Gallic wars are still read in schools (I know – I took three years of Latin in high school.)  Others include Plutarch, Livy, Tacitus and Sallust.  Many of their works survive; none mention Jesus.

Given the extensive historical documentation in the Roman Empire, the absence of any mention of Jesus becomes startling.  Not even Philo, an Egyptian-based Jewish philosopher who lived at the same time of Jesus and was immersed in the idea of a God and the word (which is where John got the idea), knew the "messiah" existed. 

No one did.  Not even Paul, who wrote the first recorded Christian documents, his letters, had any idea that Jesus was betrayed, performed miracles or said anything special.  To Paul, Jesus becomes the chosen one of God after dying innocently on the cross.  He was, Paul wrote, born in the normal way to a woman in Galilee. History in his writing disappears after that. 

Besides, history was not the Gospel writers’ concern.  In answer to my reader’s second concern, the Gospel authors used names and places to give their account an historical patina, not the other way around.  Historians know that because the New Testament accounts are inaccurate. For example, the description of the trial of Jesus contradicts all valid descriptions of a Roman trial.  In those trails, Judges are never seen.  They do not traipse back and forth to address a mob.

The mention of Pilate, the census and the like are probably nothing more than glosses to give that historic sense.   Pilate, like all Roman administrators, left detailed records; they have vanished.  Hmm.  Don't you think that, if they matched the religious stories, they might have been widely disseminated? 

Finally, the records of those opposed to Christianity did survive.  The Ebionites, for example, the first followers of Jesus, condemned Paul and his teachings, which is the source of Christianity.  Christians call the Ebionite belief the "first heresy." 

In reality, the only reasons the revelations of Mohammad were preserved are because the religion he founded endured and thrived.  The comments of other would-be prophets have vanished or are ignored.  For example, the Avista, which contains the thoughts of Zoroaster, the founder of the once-powerful Farsi faith, are nothing more than afterthoughts in religious history.

None of this means that Christianity is wrong and Islam is right.  Or vice versa.  That is a matter of belief, something no historian can counter.  All historians can do is show how a belief started and developed over the years.  Fortunately, with Islam, we have the historical documentation to do that.  That’s simply not true with Christianity.


Bill Lazarus is been a long-time writer, educator and religious historian.  He holds an M.A. in communication from Kent State University and is a full-time instructor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.  His latest book, The Gospel Truth, was published in February 2011 and is available via Amazon.com or on his website www.williamplazarus.com .  You can also write him via Jeanne.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Bible and the Koran


A reader of my new book, The Gospel Truth, which examines where the authors of the New Testament gathered their information, sent me an e-mail that raised some important issues.  

My book points out that nothing was written down about Jesus until decades after his death, leaving little for the Gospel authors to work with.  “The lack of recorded narrative or history about Jesus would not have stopped a lesser author, and, in fact, 40 years later is not unusual for the literate to record the spoken history,” the reader noted.

He added that, “The Quran is not unlike that. It was decades after Mohammad's death that literates recorded the memorized or interpreted content of Mohammad's prophesies, and several hundred years later that the Hadith -- or Islamic laws -- were recorded with the meticulous pedigree of tellers that substantiate each entry.”

His comparison of the two, apparently similar, sacred documents is understandable.  Without studying history, no one would know that these texts were created under entirely different circumstances.

First, the Koran: Listeners scribbled revelations of Mohammad, who was illiterate, onto leaves, scraps of cloth and similar material.  The writings were supposedly assembled -- amended and augmented -- some 50 years after his death under Sultan Uthman.  Unfortunately, more recent scholars have argued that the text contains writing elements not used in Arabic until centuries later.  That would make the date of its compilation uncertain.  It’s also possible that the Koran went through the same kind of editing as the Bible, which is known to have received hundreds of thousands of changes.  Historian Paul Johnson called the rewriting “pious editing.”

Nevertheless, the Koran has been accepted as the revelations expressed by Mohammad.  Later commentaries were based on (often inaccurate) stories passed along through generations. Nevertheless, the people who knew Mohammad were able to share their accounts, no doubt flavoring them the way all witnesses do. 

That's not true with early Christians.  All the early followers of Jesus, called Ebionites, were wiped out in a war with the Romans before the initial Gospel text, Mark, was written. The Roman war started in 66.  The Temple, the core of Jewish belief, was burned down in 70, and the revolution ended disastrously for the Jews in 73.  Jerusalem was leveled.  Records destroyed.  Perhaps 1 million people died.  No one who knew Jesus was available to pass along his stories. Any written documents – a rarity anyway – would have been lost in the conflagration
.

Instead, survivors followed the teachings of Paul, who never met Jesus or agreed with his followers.  Paul moved outside Israel and, by tradition, died in Rome.  His letters went to colonies founded outside Israel and the war.  The Gospels were also written outside Israel.   The Christian movement was based on Pauline teachings and galvanized by the destruction of the Temple, which convinced believers that the promised end of the world would arrive soon.

Under the circumstances, few accurate stories about Jesus existed or could have existed.  As noted in my book, historians of the day did not know him.  That includes the Jewish historian Josephus, who described the war against the Romans.  

What has come down to us are four versions of the story of Jesus.  None of them agree except superficially. Many of the sayings attributed to Jesus predate him and are attributable to multiple speakers.  The stories clearly were drawn from biblical or other accounts and superimposed on the unknown life of Jesus. 

As a result, when whoever we call Mark sat down in Rome to tell the story of Jesus, at best he knew a few oral stories about Jesus -- all enhanced by both time and the desire to add divine qualities -- and teachings about what a messiah must do. Uthman had a lot more to work with, including eyewitnesses.
As Dr. Charles Guinebert, the late professor of Christian history noted in his famed book Jesus, “Jesus was born, he lived, he was crucified and he died.  Everything else is conjecture.” 
As a result, we can be sure at least some of the non-fantastic stories about Mohammad and sayings attributed to him are likely true.  That simply cannot be said for Jesus.  That's particularly evident when stories about Jesus are compared to those about Sabbati Zevi, a 17th century mystic once thought to be the messiah.  Followers of Sevi, who were Jews in a Muslim world and knew nothing of Jesus, developed virtually identical mythological tales as did followers of Jesus centuries before.  Sabbatai adherents actually accused Christians of stealing stories about Zevi and applying them to Jesus.

At best then, much – if not all – of the Jesus story is mythology.  No one as is supposed to know that.  As Winston Churchill was advised, once he started questioning his Anglican faith, the stories of Jesus are probably not true, but it would not be wise to discuss that openly.  Once we discard the mythology, however, Dr. Albert Schweitzer realized unhappy in his book Quest for the Historical Jesus, nothing is left, especially a real person.  That's not the case with Islam.

That may also explain why Islam is growing so rapidly.  Islam is now the world’s second-largest religion and boasted an annual growth rate of 6.40 percent, according to United Nations figures.  The growth is worldwide:  Since 1989, the number of Muslims in our neck of the woods has blossomed 25 percent and in Europe a whopping 142.35 percent.  Some of that is related to higher birthrates and to natural movement of people from one land to another.  

Some of it has to do with a decline in Christianity.  In some countries, like Sweden, the Christian religion has virtually disappeared.  

Some historians actually predict Islam will eventually replace Christianity as the world’s largest religion.

Of course, when that happens, there will be a lot more questions to answer.

Bill Lazarus is been a long-time writer, educator and religious historian.  His latest book, The Gospel Truth, was published in February 2011 and is available via Amazon.com or on his website www.williamplazarus.com . 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Trade Center Mosque

At this writing, Muslim leaders in New York are still hoping to build a community center and mosque some two blocks away from Ground Zero, the now-sacred ground that once held the World Trade Center.  The WTC was demolished when Islamic terrorists commandeered planes and flew them into the buildings.  More than 3,000 people died in the horrific attack.  

No one recorded the religion of the victims, but best estimates are that 400 to 500 were Jewish.  Other religions represented included Muslim, Hindu and, of course, Christian.  A Hindu friend of mine worked in the Towers and survived because he went to work late that day.  Many of his friends and colleagues did not.
The religion matters because the idea of a mosque next to such a site has inflamed the conservative sector of our society.  The complaints are vicious, laced with anti-Islamic sentiment and downright hatred.  

One friend wrote that it was no different than building a monument to Adolf Hitler.  I respectfully disagreed.  No one is talking about building a memorial to the Islamic zealots who died in the plane crashes.  In fact, the leader of the moment to build the mosque is renowned for his interfaith efforts and was openly appalled—as were virtually all American Muslims—by the nefarious actions of their co-religionists.

There are compelling reasons to allow the mosque planners to go ahead.

1)      It’s legal.  Even opponents agree there’s nothing wrong with the plans.  How logical is it to defy the law to prevent the construction?  Does one illegal act, however awful, warrant a parallel response?

2)      It falls under constitutional guidelines.  The Puritans who founded Massachusetts came here for religious freedom.  That basic concept helped created Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Maryland, and is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution.  It is the basic cornerstone of our country and the one thing that separates us from other lands.  We cannot discard it simply because of objections to the murderous actions of some members of a particular faith.  No religious is free of so odious behavior.  You can bet no one would object if the plans called for a church and/or synagogue, despite egregious behavior by some members of each in support of religious beliefs.  Rabbi Meir Kahane was hardly a pacifist, for example.  Neither are the Hutaree, a self-proclaimed Christian terrorist group arrested in March, arrested and charged with plotting to kill police officers around the country in support of their extremist views.

3)      It divides.  Refusing to allow a mosque simply drives a wedge between Muslims and American society.  Ironically, that’s exactly what the terrorists were trying to do: they believe Islam was the superior belief and wanted to rid it of Western influence.  That puts opponents to the mosque on the side of the terrorists. 

Our country has always been inclusive: there’s room for everyone.   The Statue of Liberty proclaims that in the immortal words of Emma Lazarus (no relation) : 

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Isolating one element of society in response to this terrible event only undermines our society and encourages anti-Americans.

I’ve heard people compare the events of 9/11 to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  They do not correspond.  The 1941 bombing was the deliberate act of a nation hoping to undermine America’s ability to wage war.  In contrast, the four hijackings in 2001 were the result of a conspiracy of a small group of terrorists bent on creating as much havoc as possible in misguided defense of their religious ideas.  The only thing the two landmark situations shared was that our country was less vigilant than it could have been, but, other than that, the events have nothing in common.

Unlike our war with Japan, we cannot easily strike back against the 9/11 plotters.  Some died in the crashes.  The rest are in hiding.  They were Pakistani and Saudi Arabian.  In our zeal for revenge, we attacked Iraq and Afghanistan, creating more deaths among innocent people and more animosities.

This has to cease sometime.  There is precedent: Germany and Israel are now allies, less than 70 years after the Holocaust ended.

One way to speed up that eventuality this time and heal the rift between the Muslim community and the rest of American society would be by welcoming the mosque.  Let’s make it a center of peace and understanding, rather than the subject of bitter controversy. 




Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.net.  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at http://www.udemy.com/comparative-religion-for-dummies/?promote=1


Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy Valentine's Day


Anyone can write mushy prose,
Heaven knows.
Valentine’s Day cards flood the store,
Filled with sluchy sentiment and more.

The airwaves daily over-spill
With heart-laden and breathy trills,
Lachrymose and so poignant,
They only add to my vast annoyment.

I just can’t seem to produce
Such heart-felt effuse.
The feelings there --the warmth and care –
But my vocabulary is of no use.

In the end, I’m left,
Quiet and bereft,
With the standard line:
Be my Valentine.