The gap

When he first began to spread his message, Muhammad’s focus was almost entirely social justice. He lived in a region where many prospered from trade while others struggled to meet basic needs. In Muhammad’s time, it was normal for the rich to provide loans to the poor. Equally common were unfair lending practices such as high interest rates and payment schedules that put debtors at a disadvantage. Borrowers who failed to keep up might suffer from another caveat to the agreement: being forced work for their lender on terms dictated by the more powerful party. The households of the wealthy would expand as the disadvantaged lost their freedom, trapped in an indefinite loop of servitude.

Women and children were especially susceptible to this cycle. Custom did not permit women to accumulate resources in their own names or inherit wealth. Even a widow was not the typical recipient of her dead husband’s money. A woman who found herself with no male head of house would have no means of supporting herself or her children. If forced to borrow money, she would almost certainly be unable to pay it back. A needy widow might have no other option but to attach herself to a wealthy household by whatever means possible, even as a slave. Children left with no parents were especially at risk of needing to trade freedom for survival.

Both Muhammad and his beloved first wife Khadija faced circumstances before they met that could have relegated them to lives of subservience. They managed not only to avoid the worst consequences associated with those stations, but to go on to lead happy, prosperous lives. Muhammad lost his parents at a young age, but was raised lovingly in his uncle’s household. Khadija had been widowed, but amazingly defied the status quo by obtaining her deceased husband’s wealth and his thriving trade business. But I think both Muhammad and Khadija lived with the “what if’s” of fates narrowly escaped.

Muhammad didn’t start speaking out for social reforms until after he married Khadija. With her love and support, he argued for changing lending practices and abolishing interest rates so that the poor could have easy access to resources. The wealthy elite hated his ideas, but Muhammad didn’t care. He believed women deserved the ability to accumulate wealth and receive inheritance. He insisted that the rich had a duty to care for the needy. While Muhammad’s message evolved and expanded, it was rooted in these issues that troubled him.

The problems that existed around Mecca during Muhammad’s life are not exclusive to that region or time. All over the globe and across generations, people struggle with the same things. The source of the disadvantage may vary—it might be race or education or illness or age. Women and children continue to make the list almost anywhere you go, though certain laws and government programs help.

After my parents broke up, I suppose my mom and I became a modern-day equivalent of Mecca’s widow and orphan. We landed at the bottom of the barrel resource-wise. Fortunately, we had my grandparents who lived in Dallas as a safety net. My mom’s parents lived in South Dallas, in a mostly African-American neighborhood. My dad’s parents lived north, in a much whiter and ritzier area. My mom and I were constantly driving back and forth between those two parts of town—between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”

Dallas is the first I was aware of the difference between wealth and poverty. Even today, after living in a handful of other cities with similar income disparities, I still think of Dallas as particularly polarized by income. I attribute this association, at least in part, with the low-income status I shared with my mom when we lived there. Ours was a modest means. But the other part of my association is certainly tied to the “Big D” culture of wearing one’s fortune. The rest of the country has since caught on—thanks to reality television, I fear—but Dallas was ahead of the curve: fancy handbags, head-to-toe designer labels, diamonds the size of ice cubes, cars that cost more than my mom would earn in a decade. Maybe the gap just seems so much wider when that extreme is flaunted.

8 thoughts on “The gap

  1. Corinna–Your entry speaks volumes on so many different levels beyond religious labels. Muhammad’s message shares much in common with Pope Francis’s criticisms of modern-day wealth disparities. Wealth in and of itself is no sin; Paul saw it as an opportunity for ministry, when he advised the wealthy to “give joyfully” as their means allowed. I think what Muhammad, Jesus, and Francis condemned is the unnecessary accretion of wealth for its own sake, especially when the wealthy create a system designed to enrich themselves at the expense of others. Ironically, the wealthy have historically justified their avarice in religious terms; I once read about a trial involving Clarence Darrow and the Pullman railroad car company. When Darrow managed to get him on the stand, George Pullman defended his terrible treatment of his workers based the gifts God gave him that made him smarter, wiser, and better able to run a business than the less-gifted masses. It was–and is–the economic version of the “divine right” of kings to rule their subjects

    • Hi Tim, The more I learn, the more I see that there is a common little nugget of truth at the core of these faiths. But people take these simple ideas and twist and turn with them to justify just about anything. People are funny that way.

  2. If you think about all the research you have done, and the time you have invested in Islam, do you think Mohammed would be pleased with the way Islam is practiced today?? Many Christians say the same thing about Jesus—- which church or organization would be acceptable to him, considering his teachings….?

    • Hi Cheri, I think Muhammad would be a little baffled by some of what’s happened with his message–just as I think Jesus would too. I don’t know that they would recognize some of the issues that modern believers fight for or get hung up on as being related to what they taught or promoted. People seem to get really hung up on a few details and fail to see the big picture. I think that would frustrate the original teachers.

  3. Your observations and other’s responses remind me of my journey out of “Christianity” into Unitarian Universalism more that 30 years ago. I continue to grow and heal in this community as my life proceeds into aging.

  4. Hi all: Yeah, I don’t know what Mohammed would say, but I know that Jesus would not be pleased with all the divisions within the so-called Christian church. Our modern agendas seem so far away from what his was (is). It’s difficult for me sometimes when I’m reading the Gospels to see the point because of the accretions of tradition and differing teachings that have built up around them…

    An example would be your use of the phrase “social justice.” If you could list the things Jesus (or Mohammed) taught that are related to that, the total concept would likely be quite different from how a lot of people use that term today.

    Good post. Thank you, Corinna.

    • quick ps to my comment: A lot of people in American society see the church as very much against women (probably those who associate Christianity and the political right. Jesus elevated the status of women in rather radical ways. He had women who were his disciples (unheard of in his day), and the Bible unbelievably mentions women as the first witnesses of the resurrection–distinctly counter-cultural.

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