Holy Week Passion : Palm Sunday - The Price of Pettiness

Each Sunday in this season, we began with an ancient affirmation of faith from one of the first centuries of the Common Era:

Transfiguration Sunday, we heard the gospel story from the 1st century: “Who do people say that I am? Some say… Who do you say that I am?”

  • Lent 1, we heard Hippolytus’ 3 Questions, a 2nd century test for baptism: “Do you believe… “ and the baptisand need only reply: “I believe” to each

  • Lent 2, we echoed the Apostles Creed, from the 3rd century, the 200’s:
    I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth…”

  • Lent 3, we rehearsed the Nicene Creed, from the church council of 325CE:
    “God from God Light from Light very God from very God begotten not made

  • Lent 4, Athanasian Creed reflected Chalcedonian Trinitarian faith of 400’s:
    “Whoever shall be saved shall, above all else, hold the Catholic faith…’

  • Lent 5, Anathemas of… Constantinople enumerated those to shun in 500’s:
    “If anyone does not confess…. If anyone does not anathematize…”

  • Today, Palm / Passion Sunday, get your mouth around the cry of the 600’s:
    Tawhid and Shahada are the affirmations of Islam – story of the 7th century:

allahu akbar

God is greater.

lā ʾilāha ʾillā llāh muḥammadun rasūlu llāh

There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God

Did that stick in your throat any more than the other Sunday affirmations? To what heresies did these affirmations respond, as ‘heretics like us’?

Muhammad was born in 570CE, the year in which Gregory the Great died. The life and death of Muhammad, the rise of Islam, defined the 7th century, ‘the 600’s’. Did crude Christian bullying, or orthodox byzantine politics and dogmatics, contribute to the rise? Did our barbarism, or our decadence, aid the collapse of nominally Christian order? Imagine ‘heretics like us’ seeing the new movement – was it an improvement on the status quo?

Muhammad was born into a cosmopolitan culture of trading nations, and marrying a wealthy widow Khadija, was a successful caravan merchant. His import-export business informed his view of dominant super-powers, Byzantine (Roman) and Sasanian (Persian). Those empires had shaped the geopolitics, economic and cultural currents of Muhammad’s world.

Back in 106CE, Trajan launched expansion to control Petra, Palmyra, and Edessa. Septimius Severus in the 200’s expanded to 8 legions in Turkey, Iraq, and Arabia. Persian resurgence firmed up a frontier over the next centuries, despite the western capital moving from Rome to Constantinople. We might compare ‘Pax Britannica’ or cold war and détente.

The early 600’s disrupted the balance of power. Khusrau II of Persia, from exile in Constantinople, retakes the eastern empire. A military coup back in the western side lets him sweep back through his erstwhile allies, taking Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and much of Turkey. We might compare Shah Pahlavi from exile in Paris to cold war excesses to exile by Khomeini.

Heraclius swings down from Georgia and Armenia to unseat Khusrau from the north. We might compare Russian incursions in our time. Propaganda claimed victory for the western empire reclaiming ‘biblical lands’, but fragmentation and civil unrest was more real for traders like Muhammad. Can you imagine such a time in that part of the world? Of course you can!

Khadija recognizes the Prophet’s message of Muslim submission to God, before she dies in 618CE. Muhammad receives messages from God, transcribed as the surahs of the Quran, first in Mecca, and then in Medina. By 630CE, the movement controls both cities, and Muhammad with second wife Aisha leads the first hajj before his death in 632CE.

By 640CE, the Arabian deserts are controlled by Islam, reaching to Holy Land, Syria, and Mesopotamia. Mid-century, 650CE, campaigns are waged up the Nile in Egypt, and to the gates of Constantinople and Mediterranean coastal cities. Excursions head up into the Caucasus, and across North Africa. Call it divinely ordained – most contemporaries thought so.

Islamic tradition shares consensus about the ‘four rightly-guided caliphs’ who led the early movement in succession: Abu Bakr al-Siddiq , Umar ibn al-Khattab , Uthman ibn Affan , and Ali ibn Abi Talib. Abu, Umar, Uthman, and Ali were all prominent companions of Muhammad and from the tribe of Quraysh, ruling in succession to 661CE.

In the spirit of this study, let’s expect that reasonable and faithful Muslims may differ, and that partisan conflicts among competing ‘heretics’ will occur. The move from Mecca to Medina and back was fraught with conflict, and the third of the caliphs was assassinated. Compare succession beyond the family and clan of Mohammad to ‘heretics like us’ claiming apostolicity and legitimacy from original disciples through the centuries we reviewed.

The Umayyads under Mu’awiya consolidated the Islamic movement from 661CE to 750CE, through civil wars re-aligning civil and religious power. The caliphate was based in Damascus, sacred centres Mecca and Medina. The 680CE massacre at Karbala by Mu’awiya’s son and successor Yazid marks the separation of the Shi’ite movement from emerging Sunni faith. Compare our own Reformation events and subsequent Protestant church.

The Umayyads, their successors the Abassids centred in Baghdad, and in turn Ottoman empires ruled form Istanbul, controlled a swath of Africa, Egypt, Turkey, Iraq and Persia for a millennium, and for fewer centuries, the Iberian Peninsula. That provides a long record of Muslim toleration of Christians, unequally reciprocated through Christendom and Crusades.

Through Holy Week, let’s consider all our monotheistic ancestors of the 7th century, the 600’s CE, as ‘heretics like us’:

allahu akbar

God is greater.

lā ʾilāha ʾillā llāh muḥammadun rasūlu llāh

There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God