There's a story simmering in the news about a trial, due in December, of two hoteliers - a married couple - who allegedly called Mohammed a "warlord" and the burqa (garment revealing only the eyes and hands) "bondage" while in conversation with a Muslim woman who called Jesus a "minor prophet".
Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang run the Bounty House Hotel in Liverpool where, according to the Telegraph's John Bingham, they became involved in a comversation with a Muslim woman dressed in a Burqa about the relative merits of Islam and Christianity. The couple, members of the Elim Pentecostal Church, are being represented by the Christian Institute, who have been involved in several high-profile cases involving people victimised for refusing to hide their Christianity at work.
Cranmer, stating that he has been contacted by a personal friend of the family, elaborates:
Mr and Mrs Vogelenzang say that when the Muslim woman in question realised they were Christians, she kept trying to provoke them and start arguments about religion. They were wary of her and kept trying to change the subject but were always measured in tone and reasonable in the defence of their faith. They deny that they were threatening, abusive or insulting. Then, on her final day in the hotel, the Muslim woman emerged from her room in a burkha and started ranting at them about their Christian beliefs in an abusive and insulting fashion.I am sure there will be much light and heat released in the run-up to the trial, and hope to release more of the former than the latter.
Mohammed was born in 570AD in Arabia and, following the death of his mother and father, Aminah and Abdullah, was brought up by his grandfather - Abdul Muttayib, custodian of the Ka'aba in Mecca, a repository for the gods of rival tribes who they would lay down their spears, notably during the uproarious and lucrative month of Ukaz.
After his grandfather died in 579, Mohammed was taken in by his uncle, trader Abu Talib. During the happiest period in his life, he helped with trading trips and eventually became caravan manager for Khadija, a wealthy woman whom he married in 595, the same year that, according to Syed Ameer Ali's 1891 Spirit of Islam, he formed the League of the Fuzûl, whose members bound themselves by an oath "to defend every individual, Meccan or stranger, free or slave, from any wrong or injustice to which he might be subjected in Meccan territories, and to obtain redress for him from the oppressor". (The Hilf-ul-Fuzûl was based on an older society with the same aims named for its four leaders, Fazl, Fazâl, Muffazzal and Fuzail).
After increasing periods of time spent in meditation, Mohammed had his first vision in 610, in which he claimed that he had been instructed to memorise and recite a series of verses by the angel Gabriel. He began to construct a system of peace, respect and toleration in the face of persecution from the Meccan authorities, who had much to lose should presently warring tribes no longer need to make peace and parties during Ukaz.
We're coming to the crucial point, at which I think a comparison with Jesus of Nazareth is germane.
Like Mohammed, Jesus is said to have spent much of his younger life without his (earthly) father, and to have faced increasing levels of persecution which culminated in his crucifixion.
Jesus faced other pressures, too, notably through temptation. I once heard Bryan Knell of Global Connections break these down into temptations at the hands of Satan in the desert, to make life a little easier for himself, make his ministry of revealing God easier and claim what was his by right the easy way. As if that weren't enough, he faced a similar temptation from his own family, and later the strain of fighting the temptation to escape his gruesome bodily destruction manifested in his addressing Peter as the Evil One when faced with his friend's horror at the revelation of what was going to befall his Master - and towards the end, he possibly showed that flight was on his mind at his arrest, only to face down the final temptation at the hand of his sneering enemies when anybody could have forgiven a dying tortured man for taking an easier way out.
Mohammed's life started turning sinister in 619, after a period of refuge in Ethiopia, with the deaths of both his uncle and his beloved wife Khadija. He'd been visited often by representatives of his followers in Medina, who promised to adore and venerate him as a prophet. Six visitors came from Medina to Mecca - whose authorities had posted guards to warn people off trying to speak to Mohammed - to try to persuade him to join them in 620; this rose to 12 in 621 and 75 in 622. In this year he succumbed to an ironic analogue of Christ's third temptation in the desert, upon which Islamic scholar and convert Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall commented in his introduction ot the Koran,
Till then he had been a preacher only. Thenceforth he was the ruler of a state, at first a very small one, which grew in ten years to the empire of Arabia.And his world of peace, toleration and respect went to pieces.
In 623 he married A'ishah, who was nine. A year later, the nomadic custom of the razzia, a (sometimes murderous) raid on one's enemy's possessions, became the jihad, military action of "believers" towards "unbelievers" with the Battle of Badr, then the Battle of Uhud in 625, both victories for the Muslims against the more numerous Meccans; then followed the massacre of a Jewish tribe called the Banu Qurayzah. In 629 Mohammed broke an uneasy truce with Mecca with the "Lesser Pilgrimage", and the next year took the city with 10,000 men and cleared the Ka'aba of its legions of idols, although Knell notes that there was "little bloodshed".
If, in considering whether Ben Vogelenzang called Mohammed a "warlord", the trial and the cloud of commentary surrounding it come to considering whether this is an insult or a fair description, I think the paragraph above will indicate that it will not be a walkover to persuade people that it is the former.
It would have been easy to conclude a short while ago that, given the discrimination of Christians noted by MPs, there would have been no consideration given to the Vogelenzangs being offended by Jesus being called a "minor prophet". But, while its not our consistencies but the way we resolve our contradictions that make us interesting, the Arabian prophet's contradictions are so irresolvable that I think the Government, like Muslims who wish to rescue their religion from madmen, will be retreating to a safe distance from the void at the centre of Islam called Mohammed. I won't be surprised if this case is thrown out, should it make court at all.
NB: thanks to Bryan Knell for his series of presentations "Walking with Muslims" at Spring Harvest 2009 for much of the factual information: conclusions and opinions are mine alone.
Update: the case against Mr and Mrs Voglelenzang's case was thrown out of court on Thursday, January 9, with the judge calling their accuser's evidence "inconsistent". Click here for more details.
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