Have some faith; history isn’t always boring

Contributing WriterJanuary 4, 2014 

Yes, I am a lazy student when it comes to being taught anything tedious by a dull teacher. It takes two lively people to succeed at stuffing knowledge into a blockhead.

I had a diverse pair of history teachers in high school. One was an exhausted bore teaching European history. The other was an animated showman who loved American history so much that it made his students want in on the thrill.

The drab teacher sat at his desk, rarely looking up, while reading a European history book so dry it sucked all the eagerness from the room.

The American history teacher taught not so much by a book as by what he blatantly considered the fascination of his subject matter. His scholarly bottom rarely touched the chair behind his desk while he was teaching. Like an excited uncle, he strode back and forth gesturing dramatically, dazzling us with his favorite subject and with the astonishing characters who dwell inside our history. Talk about stranger than fiction.

I think of that teacher again today because of a few books I read last summer, books about Muhammad and Jesus. For years, I had realized I should learn something about Islam. After all, that’s a significant part of the world’s people and we have become closely involved with them.

Frankly, until last summer, I knew virtually nothing of Islam, historically or otherwise. However, I once started reading a book that was an overview of Islam. Unfortunately, it was written in the same verbal anesthesia as that book read by my dull European history teacher in high school. I bravely tried a few pages, but couldn’t stay awake reading it.

Similarly, my infrequent appearances in Sunday school as a child involved enduring several exhausted pastors who tried to communicate over the heads of children, wallowing in the archaic language of the Bible. They didn’t seem to realize that people who didn’t go to preacher school had little understanding of long, rusty words, especially people who were 9 or 10 years old.

But last summer I found two lively books on Muhammad. Both were written by a brilliant and jolly historian who was born to lighten heavy subjects. Her name is Lesley Hazleton, a Brit who now lives in Seattle. She’s not afraid to work at her craft. For instance, she has studied five English-language translations of the Quran, double-checking them against the original Arabic.

She wrote “The First Muslim,” a biography of Muhammad and the history of Islam. The second book was “After the Prophet” about the bloody civil war between two factions in Islam that began shortly after Muhammad’s death and continues to this day.

Never having read much about Islam previously, I was in for some fascinating surprises. For instance, I learned from Hazleton and others, once I got started, that Judaism, Islam and Christianity all began as do-gooder movements. All three religions were trying to better the harsh lives of ordinary people while trying to get redundantly wealthy people to back off a bit on hogging all the wealth in the world. (The new Catholic leader, Pope Francis, appears to be resurrecting that mission.)

To my surprise, I learned that Jesus was and still is a prophet to many Muslims. In fact, Muhammad admired Jesus for his belief in turning the other cheek. The Muslim leader tried to do the same himself. However, Muhammad tended to get irked and would deal violently with those who crossed him (a rough habit not unlike that of Jesus’ dad during the Old Testament years).

Jesus was a wandering preacher who would eventually acknowledge that he was the son of God. Muhammad identified himself as the messenger of God, who was told by the Angel Gabriel what God wanted him to do and say. Unlike Jesus, Muhammad had two jobs – serving simultaneously as a religious leader and as a government leader.

I didn’t fall asleep while reading Hazleton’s history books. Far from it. She doesn’t take sides. She has a warm sense of humor and describes herself as “an agnostic Jew.”

I would describe her as a gift to people who were fed dry, turgid history and religion as children. Her writing is full of clear explanations, charming metaphors and all the sweet words everybody can understand, even a 9-year-old child.

Contact columnist Bill Hall at wilberth@cableone.net or 1012 Prospect Ave., Lewiston, ID 83501.

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