Current relations between the Christian (or post-Christian) West and the Islamic world are, to be gentle about it, awkward and sometimes hostile. Each side tends to demonize the other.
Many in the Islamic world hate and fear the West. They have some legitimate grounds for this, but, by and large, the hatred and fear are misplaced and are most commonly found among those who have the least understanding and knowledge of their “enemy.”
Likewise, more than a few in the West hate and fear the Islamic world. Sadly, their attitudes haven’t arisen in a vacuum. They have cause. But, again, greater knowledge and understanding would almost certainly help to decrease the anxiety and the dislike.
Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, has become a particular target of some Western critics of the faith. Here, though, I would like to sketch an occurrence in his life that should appeal to the common humanity that we all share, whether Christian or Msulim.
Muhammad fathered only one son, Ibrahim. (His name is the Arabic equivalent of Abraham.) Unfortunately, though, Ibrahim didn’t live to maturity. He became ill somewhere between late AD 630 early AD 632, and died at somewhere around sixteen to eighteen months of age. The loss of Ibrahim had fateful consequences for the subsequent history of the Islamic world, as Shi‘ites and Sunnis disputed over who, if anybody, would succeed Muhammad in the leadership of the Islamic community.
When Muhammad realized that his infant son would probably not survive, he was so shocked that he needed help to walk. (He himself would die on 8 June AD 632.) His hands shaking, he placed the baby in his lap. “O Ibrahim,” he said to his son, “we cannot do a thing for you against the judgment of God.” And then he fell into silent sobbing. As the child continued to sink, his mother and his aunt, who were watching, wailed in despair. Some expected Muhammad to rebuke them, but he didn’t.
Finally, Ibrahim’s breathing stopped, and Muhammad knew that he was dead. “Oh, Ibrahim,” he said, addressing his son, “if it were not a certainty that the last of us will eventually join the first, we would have mourned you even more than we already do now.” Then, trying to comfort the two women (and, probably, himself), Muhammad assured them that Ibrahim would have his own nurse in the gardens of Paradise.
Muhammad and others carried Ibrahim’s body to the nearby cemetery, where, after the Prophet had prayed, the tiny boy was lowered into a grave. Muhammad himself filled the hole with sand, sprinkled some water upon his son’s burial place, and then marked the grave with a stone. “Tombstones,” he remarked, half speaking to himself, “do neither good nor harm. But they make the living feel a bit better.”
One of the most famous parables in Theravada Buddhism involves a woman named Kisa Gotami.
Kisa’s very young son, her only child, died. But she could not accept her little boy’s death, so she carried him from house to house, begging for somebody who could give her medicine that would restore him to life. Finally, somebody told her to go see the Buddha. Perhaps he could revive her son.
The Buddha advised her to return to her village, and to collect a mustard seed from every house there that had never been touched by death. He would, he said, be able to bring her son back to life with the medicine that he would make from those mustard seeds.
Eagerly and hopefully, she applied herself to this new task.
Everybody she spoke to was willing, but no household was qualified to contribute. Every family in the village had been touched by death.
Her grief was calmed by this realization. Death is the common lot of all humanity, and nobody escapes it.
Burying her child in a forest, she returned to the Buddha, who gently taught her to accept the fact that death comes to everybody. Some will die in childhood. Others will reach advanced old age. But everybody will die. We must accept it calmly.