Tag Archives: religion

Did You Know… Muhammad Wrote A Letter Guaranteeing the Protection of Christians?

Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, lived from 570-632 AD. Muslims believe that he is the final prophet of the monotheistic Abrahamic tradition, which includes Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.

So although it may come as a shock to many, it’s really not that surprising that Muhammad frequently visited the Christian monks of Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai in the Sinai peninsula of Egypt.

For those who aren’t aware, Mt. Sinai is the mountain that Moses climbed to retrieve the 10 Commandments in the Exodus chapter of the Bible.

St. Catherine’s Monastery and the Sinai peninsula. Click to enlarge (Courtesy of BBC)

Muhammad had a great relationship with the monks, engaging them in discussions about science, philosophy and spirituality, among other topics. Their teachings had a great influence on the Muslim prophet.

In the year 622, Muhammad fled his hometown of Mecca in Saudi Arabia after hearing of an assassination attempt on his life. He and his followers (who left the city with him) settled in the city of Medina, where they officially established the religion of Islam. This pilgrimage is known in Islamic tradition as the Hijra.

In 626 (according to the current copy in St. Catherine’s Monastery), Muhammad personally granted a charter to the monks of St. Catherine’s Monastery to protect the rights of Christians and other non-Muslims “far and near” who were living in predominantly-Muslim areas.

In the letter, Muhammad made it known to his followers that Christians had the right to freedom of religion and movement within Muslim communities.

He decreed that they had the freedom to appoint their own judges and handle their own property, as well as exempting them from any taxes mandated by Islam or an Islamic government:

“They [Christians] must not give anything of their income but that which pleases them—they must not be offended, or disturbed, or coerced or compelled. Their judges should not be changed or prevented from accomplishing their offices, nor the monks disturbed in exercising their religious order…

No taxes or tithes should be received from those who devote themselves to the worship of God in the mountains, or from those who cultivate the Holy Lands.”

A copy of the Achtiname from the 16th century. Click to enlarge (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

He also told his followers that Christians would be exempt from any mandatory military service in a Muslim community, adding that the Muslims in that community still had a duty to protect them and fight for them in times of war:

“They shall not be imposed upon by anyone to undertake a journey, or to be forced to go to wars or to carry arms; for the Islams have to fight for them,”

and he declared Christian churches to be sacred places that should never be desecrated:

“No one is allowed to plunder the pilgrims, or destroy or spoil any of their churches, or houses of worship, or take any of the things contained within these houses and bring it to the houses of Islam.

And he who takes away anything therefrom, will be one who has corrupted the oath of God, and, in truth, disobeyed His Messenger.”

St. Catherine’s Monastery, built in 565 AD, still stands today. Click to enlarge (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Muhammad prefaced the letter by saying that its message had been sent, “to all the people as a trust on the part of God to all His creatures,” though he added that its contents were, “directed to the embracers of Islam.”

Then, in no uncertain terms, Muhammad described what he believed was a sacred spiritual relationship between Islam and Christianity:

“This letter contains the oath given unto them [the people of Islam], and he who disobeys that which is therein will be considered a disobeyer and a transgressor to that whereunto he is commanded.

He will be regarded as one who has corrupted the oath of God, disbelieved His Testament, rejected His Authority, despised His Religion, and made himself deserving of His Curse, whether he is a Sultan or any other believer of Islam.

Whenever monks, devotees and pilgrims gather together, whether in a mountain or valley, or den, or frequented place, or plain, or church, or in houses of worship, verily we are [at the] back of them and shall protect them, and their properties and their morals, by Myself, by My Friends and by My Assistants, for they are of My Subjects and under My Protection.”

Two modern-day monks sit and talk inside St. Catherine’s Monastery. The man on the left is a Bedouin server. Click to enlarge (Photo: Matthew D. Moyer)

The Achtiname pictured earlier in this post is not the original, but actually a copy of an original from the 16th century, which was likely already a somewhat altered version of the original text written by Muhammad in 626.

Dr. Aziz Suryal Atiya was a professor of Medieval History at Farouk University when he took part in The Monastery of St. Catherine and the Mount Sinai Expedition, a research project that looked into the history of the monastery and the authenticity of the Achtiname.

Here’s what he had to say:

“After the Arab conquest of Egypt in AD 640 , it was said that the Prophet Muhammad granted the monks of Mount Sinai a covenant whereby their lives and property became secure under Muslim rule. The existing tradition is that the original charter was taken from the Monastery by Sultan Selim I after the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517. The Sultan, however, gave the monks a copy of it and sanctioned its terms.”

This timeline puts the emergence of Islam into some historical perspective. Click to enlarge

The copy now in the monastery is a copy of the certified copy given to them by the Sultan after he took the original in 1517 (supposedly for safe keeping at his palace in Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul), prompting some to question its authenticity entirely.

However, the basic premise of the letter seems to have been maintained over the years, despite any small changes that may have been made to it as it passed between different hands.

Either way, the fact that St. Catherine’s Monastery has lasted for nearly 1500 years, surviving through countless different rulers (both Christian and Muslim) and years of bitter religious conflicts in the Middle East, speaks volumes about the mutual respect of the faiths on this hallowed ground.

BONUS: St. Catherine’s actually includes a 12th-century mosque within its walls, but it has never been used because it wasn’t built to face the Muslim holy city of Mecca in accordance with Islamic tradition.

The Pope Just Released A List of 10 Tips for Becoming a Happier Person and They Are Spot On

In a recent interview with the Argentine publication Viva, Pope Francis issued a list of 10 tips to be a happier person, based on his own life experiences.

The Pope encouraged people to be more positive and generous, to turn off the TV and find healthier forms of leisure, and even to stop trying to convert people to one’s own religion.

But his number one piece of advice came in the form of a somewhat cliche Italian phrase that means, “move forward and let others do the same.” It’s basically the Italian equivalent of, “live and let live.” You can check out the full list below.

The Pope gives a thumbs up to an audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. (Photo: CSV)

The Pope’s 10 Tips for a Happier Life

1. “Live and let live.” Everyone should be guided by this principle, he said, which has a similar expression in Rome with the saying, “Move forward and let others do the same.”

2. “Be giving of yourself to others.” People need to be open and generous toward others, he said, because “if you withdraw into yourself, you run the risk of becoming egocentric. And stagnant water becomes putrid.”

3. “Proceed calmly” in life. The pope, who used to teach high school literature, used an image from an Argentine novel by Ricardo Guiraldes, in which the protagonist — gaucho Don Segundo Sombra — looks back on how he lived his life.

4. A healthy sense of leisure. The Pope said “consumerism has brought us anxiety”, and told parents to set aside time to play with their children and turn off the TV when they sit down to eat.

5. Sundays should be holidays. Workers should have Sundays off because “Sunday is for family,” he said.

6. Find innovative ways to create dignified jobs for young people. “We need to be creative with young people. If they have no opportunities they will get into drugs” and be more vulnerable to suicide, he said.

7. Respect and take care of nature. Environmental degradation “is one of the biggest challenges we have,” he said. “I think a question that we’re not asking ourselves is: ‘Isn’t humanity committing suicide with this indiscriminate and tyrannical use of nature?’”

8. Stop being negative. “Needing to talk badly about others indicates low self-esteem. That means, ‘I feel so low that instead of picking myself up I have to cut others down,’” the Pope said. “Letting go of negative things quickly is healthy.”

9. Don’t proselytise; respect others’ beliefs. “We can inspire others through witness so that one grows together in communicating. But the worst thing of all is religious proselytism, which paralyses: ‘I am talking with you in order to persuade you,’ No. Each person dialogues, starting with his and her own identity. The church grows by attraction, not proselytising,” the Pope said.

10. Work for peace. “We are living in a time of many wars,” he said, and “the call for peace must be shouted. Peace sometimes gives the impression of being quiet, but it is never quiet, peace is always proactive” and dynamic.

Courtesy of the Catholic News Service.

Update: I Owe Hobby Lobby an Apology… Sort Of

Yesterday I took Hobby Lobby to task for what I saw as blatant corporate hypocrisy.

My goal for The Higher Learning is to always provide our readers with all the facts surrounding a story, even if they might contradict or weaken a claim that we made in the past.

So, I feel that it is my duty to revisit the issue and add some key information that I discovered earlier today.

In my post from yesterday, I criticized Hobby Lobby for including companies that produce contraceptives in their investment portfolios while celebrating the recent Supreme Court ruling which said they couldn’t be forced to provide contraceptives to their employees.

The nine current members of the Supreme Court

This is an oversimplification. First off, while Hobby Lobby provides employees with a number of different options in terms of their 401(k) investments, it’s ultimately up to the individual employees to decide how these investments are allocated.

Some people may have also gotten the impression that these investments are direct investment in the companies creating the contraceptives. They are not, they are part of mutual funds which often include hundreds of companies.

However, since the investment options are ultimately selected by Hobby Lobby’s owners, they should have just omitted the funds that include contraceptive companies, right?

Well it turns out that the pension law surrounding corporate retirement plans make this pretty difficult to do. The law states that owners can’t sacrifice returns or increase risk for the sake of pursuing religious preferences. Because of this, most companies will offer both a socially conscious option and an alternative that is based solely of financial factors, leaving the decision up to the individual employee.

Also, if a company official (like an owner or human resource officer) offers advice to an employee to invest based off of religious ideals and their portfolio loses value, that official can be held personally liable for the losses.

So, Hobby Lobby moving all of their employees’ pensions out of funds containing companies that produce contraceptives is unrealistic under current pension law.

But this brings up a new issue. The pension law forces companies to exclude their religious views from their decisions about retirement investments. The current version of the law was passed back in 2006.

President Bush signs the Pension Protection Act in 2006

That means for six years before the Obamacare lawsuit, the pension law was limiting Hobby Lobby’s religious expression by forcing them to include pension plans which invest in companies who make contraceptives.

But Hobby Lobby never complained about this law. It wasn’t until they were asked to provide contraceptives as part of their health-care plans that they decided their religious rights were being violated.

If Hobby Lobby steps up and demands that the pension law be reformed to allow them to avoid investing in contraceptive companies without facing financial liability, I will applaud them for being genuine and consistent in their religious convictions.

But I don’t see that happening any time soon, so I won’t be holding my breath.

Here’s the Forbes article about pension law which prompted me to write this update.

NOTE: The article above suggests that it is nearly impossible to create a portfolio using only “Christian” companies. I looked up “christian retirement plans” on google and found a number of organizations claiming to do just that.

Obviously, I haven’t looked through all of their various portfolios, but claiming that it’s virtually impossible to create a successful portfolio that avoids contraceptive companies is misleading at best.

The Pope Just Hosted A Historic Interfaith Prayer Meeting for Peace In the Middle East

Earlier today, Pope Francis, the progressive new leader of the Roman Catholic Church, set another first: he hosted an interfaith prayer gathering for peace in the Middle East at the Vatican.

He invited both Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli president Shimon Peres, as well as religious delegations from Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

The two presidents embrace as the Pope looks on (Photo: Gregorio Borgia / AP)

This multi-faith prayer meeting at the Vatican is the first of its kind and also marked the first time that passages from Islam were recited inside the Vatican.

Each religious congregation prayed separately in each other’s presence, going in chronological order of the founding of each faith (Judaism: ~2000 B.C.; Christianity: ~30 A.D.; Islam: ~570 A.D.).

Though it comes just a month after U.S.-led peace talks between Israel and Palestine broke down, the meeting was not be a mediation, and no politics were discussed. Here’s Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, a Church official in who played a key role in organizing the event:

“No one is presumptuous enough to think peace will break out on Monday. The intention of this initiative is to re-open a road that has been closed for some time, to re-create a desire, a possibility, to make people dream.”

The Pope speaks, flanked by the two presidents; Peres on the left, Abbas on the right (Photo: Gregorio Borgia / AP)

The prayer meeting concluded with both presidents giving “invocations” for peace. After that, the pair joined the Pope to plant an olive tree to symbolize,

“an enduring symbol of the mutual desire for peace between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.”

The two presidents join the Pope and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I to plant the olive tree (Photo: Gregorio Borgia / AP)

Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the country’s main decision-maker, declined the invitation and continues to refuse to engage in any negotiations in the new Palestinian unity government led by Abbas.

Read more from the New York Post here.

Feature image courtesy of Gregorio Borgia / AP.

BONUS: At a meeting with members of the Italian Sports Center in St. Peter’s Square yesterday, Pope Francis amused himself by balancing a basketball on a pencil.

Credit: Gregorio Borgia / AP

Why This Sculpture of Jesus as A Homeless Man Caused A Major Stir In A Wealthy Community

Davidson, North Carolina is an affluent neighborhood where things tend to stay pretty quiet. Recently, however, one seemingly innocuous sculpture sparked quite the controversy in Davidson.

The sculpture that started it all is called Jesus the Homeless. It depicts jesus as a homeless man wrapped in a blanket, laying on a park bench. The blanket obscures his face and hands, so the only thing that gives him away are the wounds on his feet from the crucifixion.

The wounds which identify the homeless man as Jesus

The reactions were very polarized: some people loved it, but some people hated it too. One woman actually even called the cops the first time she drove by the sculpture, thinking it was a real vagrant laying on the bench.

Others have written letters saying that it, “creeps them out”, and some people believe that it is a disrespectful or even insulting depiction of the Messiah.

The statue was purchased upon the orders of Rev. David Buck, a 65-year-old “Baptist-turned-Episcopalian” reverend at St. Alban’s Episcopal church in Davidson. He bought it as a memorial to one of his parishioners who had loved public art and doesn’t seem to be too bothered by the controversy it’s causing:

“It gives authenticity to our church … This is a relatively affluent church, to be honest, and we need to be reminded ourselves that our faith expresses itself in active concern for the marginalized of society.”

Rev. David Buck sits with the sculpture in front of his church (Photo: John Burnett/NPR)
Rev. David Buck sits with the sculpture in front of his church (Photo: John Burnett/NPR)

Buck also points out that the sculpture was intended to be a visual depiction of the passage, “As you did it to one of the least of my brothers, you did it to me,” from the Book of Matthew.

The sculpture is the work of a devout Catholic from Canada named Timothy Schmalz. Schmalz is aware that his work is provocative, saying,

“That’s essentially what the sculpture is there to do … It’s meant to challenge people.”

Sculptor Timothy Schmalz with his art piece

Many people really love the piece as well though. The Catholic Charities of Chicago and the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. are both interested in purchasing replicas of the statue. But Schmalz’s most high-profile installation of Jesus the Homeless will be on a park bench alongside the “Via della Conciliazione”, the road which leads to St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.

Schmalz got to hand-deliver a miniature version of the sculpture to the Pope himself last November. Here he is describing that experience:

“He walked over to the sculpture, and it was just chilling because he touched the knee of the Jesus the Homeless sculpture, and closed his eyes and prayed … It was like, that’s what he’s doing throughout the whole world: Pope Francis is reaching out to the marginalized.”

Pope Francis blessing the miniature sculpture Schmalz delivered to him last November (Photo: CNS/L’Osservatore Romano)

For what it’s worth, Reverend Buck says the people of Davidson have warmed up to the sculpture, and that its fans outnumber its critics now. Also, it’s become common for people to sit on the bench, rest their hands on the feet of the sculpture and pray.

Read the full story from NPR here.

Why It Matters That Hobby Lobby’s Investments Include Birth Control Companies

To understand the significance here you must first know the background. As part of the new Universal Healthcare law (Obamacare), the government requires employers to provide free birth control to their employees.

A number of groups protested this requirement, prompting the government to create an exemption form that allows employers with conflicting religious convictions to opt-out of this requirement; the employees can then use this form to obtain birth control elsewhere.

Some groups, such as the Little Sisters of the Poor (a group of nuns who run senior center), still rejected this measure, saying it is simply asking them to “deputize” the sin to someone else, which is still a sin. Their case is discussed in this Higher Learning article from back in January.

Hobby Lobby, which proclaims itself as a Christian-based corporation, decided that the new abortion requirement were not only imposing, but unconstitutional, and decided to sue the federal government for violating their religious freedoms. The case made it all the way up to the Supreme Court, who began reviewing it on March 25.

Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, the named defendant in Hobby Lobby’s lawsuit (Photo: Jim Bourg/Reuters)

It was recently revealed, however, that Hobby Lobby’s retirement plans are heavily invested in companies that produce birth control products. According to The Huffington Post, these companies include,

“Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, which makes the Plan B morning-after pill and ParaGard, a copper IUD, as well as Pfizer, the maker of the abortion-inducing drugs Cytotec and Prostin E2. Hobby Lobby’s mutual funds also invest in two health insurance companies that cover surgical abortions, abortion drugs, and emergency contraception in their health care policies.”

In fact, all nine of the mutual funds that make up Hobby Lobby’s retirement investments include companies whose products are in direct conflict with Hobby Lobby’s purported religious convictions.

Teva Pharmaceuticals building
Teva Pharmaceuticals building

Let’s be fair here. Retirement investing tends to be somewhat separated from a company’s every day operations- it’s typically left to “the financial people” who are trusted to pick assets that have good growth potential and low risk. So was Hobby Lobby’s operational leadership directly consulted about every company in every mutual fund that was chosen for investment? Probably not.

But were they aware that some of these mutual funds included companies that made birth control products? I would say it’s highly likely, and if they weren’t, I would consider it a pretty serious lack of institutional responsibility that no one in the upper management of the company knew how “the finance guys” were investing their money.

Again, let me be fair, I don’t personally have a problem with them investing in funds that include contraceptive companies- if these funds provide the best retirement packages to the employees, I’m all for it. My problem is with inconsistency.

Hobby Lobby supporters pray outside the Supreme Court (Photo: Jay Mallin/ZUMA)

By suing the government over this requirement, Hobby Lobby was attempting to put themselves on the moral/religious high ground.

I will never criticize a company for doing that, but if you talk the talk you better walk the walk, or someone will inevitably find out and call you out.

The most important question: Are they willing to give up all these investments now that they have been called on them? If they are truly as passionate about their Christian beliefs as they claim to be in their lawsuit against the government, they can’t possibly justify investing in birth control companies, can they?

The Little Sisters of the Poor  said that Obamacare’s exemption waiver forced them to deputize sin.  We could argue about whether financially investing in birth control companies entails “deputizing” sin.

But could you argue that funding sin is somehow more moral or even more “according to the Bible” than deputizing it?

Also interesting to note, Hobby Lobby is already providing contraceptives to employees in 28 different states, where state law mandates that birth control/contraceptive coverage must be included in any prescription drug insurance plan, according to this report released Tuesday by The Guttmacher Institute.

Mother Jones (who broke this story) clearly has a far left political bias, and the Guttmacher Institute doesn’t hide the fact that it is pro-abortion rights. Nonetheless, the points they raise about Hobby Lobby’s inconsistencies are valid.

I respect  the views of people on both sides of the argument about whether companies should have to provide contraception in their insurance plans. Personally, I think the exemption waivers are a reasonable compromise  but I understand why some would disagree.

What I don’t like, however, is companies taking advantage of people’s religious views by championing them for the good PR, while financially supporting the very things that they are vilifying as long as it’s good for the companies’ coffers.

Read more from The Huffington Post here.

Read the original story from Mother Jones here.

Read the Guttmacher Institute report here.


New Saudi Law Declares That Atheism (and Pretty Much Everything Else) is Terrorism

It’s no secret that Saudi Arabia is pretty socially conservative, especially when it comes to religion. But their recent recent legislation equating atheism with terrorism is extreme even for them.

In fact, the legislation targets not only atheism, but pretty much all dissident thought and expression. Here’s Joe Stark, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for North Africa and the Middle East:

“Saudi authorities have never tolerated criticism of their policies, but these recent laws and regulations turn almost any critical expression or independent association into crimes of terrorism … These regulations dash any hope that King Abdullah intends to open a space for peaceful dissent or independent groups.”

Saudi King Abdullah (Photo: AFP)

The Penal Law for Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing, widely referred to as the “terrorism law”, defines terrorism within the country as any action intended to, “insult the reputation of the state,” “harm public order,” or “shake the security of society,”. None of these terms are specifically defined.

The legislation also includes a number of articles which virtually criminalize any expression critical of the Saudi government or its interpretation of Islamic law, including Article 1:

“Calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based,”

Article 4:

“Anyone who aids [“terrorist”] organizations, groups, currents [of thought], associations, or parties, or demonstrates affiliation with them, or sympathy with them, or promotes them, or holds meetings under their umbrella, either inside or outside the kingdom; this includes participation in audio, written, or visual media; social media in its audio, written, or visual forms; internet websites; or circulating their contents in any form, or using slogans of these groups and currents [of thought], or any symbols which point to support or sympathy with them,”

and Article 6:

“Contact or correspondence with any groups, currents [of thought], or individuals hostile to the kingdom.”

One of the activists interviewed by Human Rights Watch commented on this particular provision, saying,

“Just talking to you now is considered terrorism – I could be prosecuted as a terrorist for this conversation.”

Read the full story from Human Rights Watch here.

Feature image courtesy of Borgen Magazine.

33 of The Most EPIC Photographs from the Last Year (Picture Gallery)

Every year, the World Photography Organization hosts the Sony World Photography Awards. They recently released their shortlist of winners, but you can see all of the winners at the World Photography Organization’s website.

Here’s the photos from their shortlist. Click an image to enlarge and/or read descriptions about the photos.

The Real History of St. Patrick’s Day

Every March 17, people around the world put on green and consume a lot of beer in observance of St. Patrick’s day. But where did this holiday originate from?

March 17 is actually the death day of the the patron saint of Ireland, Saint Patrick. St. Patrick is thought to be the author of an extremely old book known as The Declaration, which is where we get almost all of our historical information on him.

Stained glass depiction of St. Patrick

According to The Declaration, St. Patrick was born into a wealthy Romano-British (Britain was part of the Roman Empire during his lifetime), but was kidnapped by Irish raiders who forced him into slavery for six years.

It was during this time that St. Patrick found God- according to the story, God told him to flee for the coast, where a ship would be waiting to take him home. St. Patrick followed this guidance and upon his return home became a priest.

He gained fame over the next 17 years, evangelizing and converting “thousands” of pagan Irish to Christianity.

St. Patrick was said to have used the shamrock (clover) to explain the trinity to the Irish, hence the tradition of shamrocks. The color green has been associated with Ireland since the Irish Catholic Federation used it on their “green harp flag” in the mid-1600s.

The "green harp flag" (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
The “green harp flag” (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

BONUS: St. Patrick is often given credit for banishing all the snakes from Ireland, but most scientists agree the island never had snakes. Some hypothesize that this tale is actually referencing the Druids, members of the Celtic priestly class, who often had large snake tattoos on their arms.