The Sacred and Secular Histories

One of the questions that I find myself asking most in class is “Is this the secular or the sacred history?” This question is really, “Did this actually happen or is this what the members of the faith tradition believe?” However, this has become a very important topic as Islam has progressed through week two and into week three. I wanted to illustrate this with both the stories of Muhammad as well as Jesus, two really important prophets in Islam. Muhammad’s sacred history seems to be the one that everyone knows and, oddly enough, is the history that Karen Armstrong tells in her book The History of God. In this sacred history we find that Muhammad was able to recite the Qur’an, a wonderfully poetic text, over a period of 23 years, and yet he was a potentially illiterate Arab with little experience of the Jewish and Christian traditions. Due to the poetic nature of the text and all of the references and allusions to the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New testament, Muhammad was far from ignorant of these traditions, and with language. Academic speculation rises as to who Muhammad actually was, and there are stories of an Arab Jewish Rabbi who started a new movement, and one of the texts from this last week points to a Gnostic Jewish-Christian, who gathered followers. Soon enough though, terms become convoluted, and the real Muhammad becomes unimportant in the comparison to Islam’s volumes of stories about the prophet and how he lived.

Jesus on the other hand. His sacred history differs between Christianity and Islam, but the secular history is fascinating. I’ll tell it in more of a story format mostly based on John Dominic Crossan’s book God and Empire. A boy is born around the same year that a legion of Roman soldiers swept through his town, destroying houses, killing, and raping. The Romans were on a campaign to stop Judeans from rising up against the empire. He grows up hearing the stories about the day that the Romans came threw. He becomes a disciple of a prophetic figure who lives out in the wilderness and talks about the coming end time, when God will defeat the Roman Empire. Jesus experiences John the Baptist assassinated, and starts his own movement. Jesus’ movement is not about an upcoming war so much as it is about living against the Romans in a way that is non-violent, just, and loving. When he goes to Jerusalem, he is arrested away from the crowds of supporters. Then he is crucified for the movement he started. Of course that is just a single interpretation of who the historical Jesus was, but I find it fascinating. It’s a character with a lot of history with the Romans, and its quite poetic, I must admit. Maybe the reason I find it compelling is what Albert Schweitzer said; that in the quest for the historical Jesus [or Muhammad] the only thing you find is yourself.

There you have it, an introduction to the dichotomy of sacred and secular history that we play with in the study of religion.