Wednesday, December 8, 2010

December 8, 2010--An Important Date for Each of the 3 Abrahamic Faiths: Zot Hanukkah; Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary; Encampment at Karbala (2 Muharram)

In chronological order of their appearance, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are marking December 8, 2010 as part of their religious calendar. For Jews this is Zot Hanukkah, the final night of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights; for Christians, particularly Roman Catholics, it is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary (her pre-redemption from Original Sin); for Muslims it is 2 Muharram, on which is commemorated the day the Prophet Mohamed's grandson, Hussein bin Ali and his family pitched camp at Karbala in 61 AH (October 2, 680 CE), where later the Battle of Karbala would be waged and Hussein bin Ali would lose his life.


Hanukkah, which means dedication, commemorates a historic event of Jewish history, the re-dedication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem after it was recovered in 165 BCE from the King of Syria, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, ruler of the Seleucid Empire, a Macedonian Empire following and built from the eastern areas of Alexander the Great's Empire. The leader of the Maccabees, a Jewish rebel group, Judah, declared an 8 day festival of celebration after the temple was cleaned, and restored with a new altar and new holy vessels to replace the desecrated ones.

The reason for 8 days of celebration reflects the importance of 8 in Jewish theology--as the 7 days of creation plus one day signifying both infinity and the transcendence of the Jewish people above others as having a special place in history. While a 7 day festival would include all peoples in Jerusalem, the 8th day would be reserved for Jews only. More specifically, it is thought that the first Hanukkah was a delayed celebration of Sukkot, the Jewish harvest festival which lasts 7 days and to which all peoples are invited, and Shemini Atzeret, the 8th Day Assembly, which immediately follows it, but is an independent holiday of assembling Jews only. During the revolt neither celebration could be held properly. Now the combined celebration, in the form of Hanukkah, allow them to be religiously celebrated in the temple, and gave new meaning to the 8th day: the triumph of Judaic monotheism and the Old Testament God of Mosaic Law, over Greek polytheism and Hellenistic Humanism.

The most identifiable symbol of Hanukkah to non-Jews, is the Menorah, a special candelabra with 8 candles and a 9th distinct sentinel candle, the shamash, that serves as the "keeper of the flame". Lighting lamps is part of the Sukkot festival, but has come to have special significance during Hanukkah. At nightfall of each day of Hanukkah, the sentinel light is lit, then 1 candle for each day (from right to left) until on the final day the sentinel candle and all 8 candles of the menorah are lit. Some use the flame of the sentinel candle to light the others, or it may serve only to illuminate the altar or table. The Hanukkah candles themselves are to serve no other purpose than to remind the worshippers and to remind passersby of the Hanukkah story. A menorah may be subsituted by an oil lamp with 8 wicks and a sentinel wick; or by an electric version of the menorah, particularly valuable where an open flame is prohibited, in hospital rooms or other public places for example.

The Hanukkah story, which is retold each night in blessings, hymns and readings, includes the stories of other major events in Jewish history and the survival of the Jewish people due to the intervention of God. It also includes the story of the miracle of the oil which is an alternate and Talmudic version of the origin of Hanukkah. On this account, during the restoration of the temple for its re-dedication, there was only sufficient consecrated olive oil to light one branch of the menorah which was supposed to burn night and day for 8 days, yet miraculously this small quantity lasted the full 8 days.

Generally Hanukkah is a joyous occasion, without religiously prescribed prohibitions, a time of games (like the dreidl, spinning top, game), feasting, songs, and merriment. Potato pancakes (latkes), jam-filled doughnuts, and other foods fried in (olive) oil are traditional in honour of the flask of consecrated oil found on recovering the temple; and, dairy products, particularly cheese, are traditional in honour of Judith's ruse to intoxicate Holofernes, leader of the Assyrians, with her beauty, wine, and cheese, after which she beheaded him, and the Jews were able to liberate themselves during one of the battles for Judea. Hanukkah gelt, or money, is another tradition whereby parents and grandparents give gifts of money, traditionally coins, to children in commemoration of the gold coins minted by the Jews in celebration of their victory over the Seleucidians.

Zot Hanukkah, the final day of Hanukkah, is the day commemorating the consecration of the new alter in the restored temple. As such it is somewhat more solemn, and the end of the period of the High Holidays that begins with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

In reviewing the story of Hanukkah, 3 aspects struck me. The first is the complicated history, omitted here, which includes political and military infighting between traditional and Hellenized Jews. The second is the celebration of battles won by the Jews thanks to God that are part of the prayers and hymns of Hanukkah. Finally, in the Ashkenazi tradition some families have a menorah for each family member, while in the Sephardic one there is a collective familial menorah. These 3 aspects struck me because of the historical and current divisions among Jews, who remain united in their belief of themselves as the chosen people, uniquely blessed by a universal monotheistic God.

Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary

The Immaculate Conception of Mary, Murillo, 1660

The Immaculate Conception of Mary is celebrated as a feast day within the Roman Catholic Church, and occurs on December 8--9 months before the feast day of the Nativity of Mary.  According to this belief, Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was, in anticipation of this role, born without Original Sin. She was pre-emptively redeemed from Original Sin while in utero.

The concept of Original Sin is the belief that, after the fall of Adam and Eve, who sinned by defying God and eating from the Tree of Knowledge, all babies are born in a state of the sinfulness of humanity. It is for this reason that Catholics believe that babies should be baptized into the faith as soon as possible after birth, so as to cleanse them of Original Sin, that they might enter into Heaven should they die during infancy. Until recent doctrinal changes, babies who died before baptism were condemned to live for Eternity in limbo--a state neither of Heaven nor Hell.

According to the Roman Catholic Church, Mary was born immaculata--without the stain, or macula, of this Original Sin. This belief and doctrine have evolved over the course of the history of Roman Catholicism, and decisions made by successive Popes and their advisers. In that sense it provides one thread of the history of the Church.

In the early years of Christianity the Immaculate Conception of Mary was an implied belief of the writings of the Church Fathers, and the feast was celebrated historically in different regions of the Christian world on December 8.

It wasn't until a papal decree in 1476 that belief in and celebration of the Immaculate Conception were formally extended to the whole Latin Church. However Pope Sixtus IV did not make belief in the Immaculate Conception obligatory, leaving it as the status of doctrine rather than dogma, thus leaving good Christians free to believe it or not. In that way there could be no charges of heresy, punishable by death, even as the feast day itself was formalized for all of the Church. As this occurred before the Protestant Reformation (1517-1648), which established Protestantism as a major branch of Christianity, this decree applied to all of Roman (non-Orthodox) Christendom.

Later, in 1708, Pope Clement XI made the Feast of the Immaculate Conception a Holy Day of Obligation, meaning all Catholics were required to attend mass on December 8, which was also to be treated as a holy day, like Sunday, no matter the day of the week on which it fell.

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception became a dogma--a required belief--for Catholics, by decree of Pope Pius IX in 1854; and, was reconfirmed in 1904, by Pope St Pius X in his writings on Mariology. In order to make this belief a dogma, it was necessary to find scriptural proof in the Bible, which was determined to be the greeting of Mary by the Archangel Gabriel in the New Testament as "full of grace". It was also necessary to find evidence in the writings of the early Church Fathers, which was found in those of Irenaeus of Lyons and Ambrose of Milan.

Most Protestants, except for Lutherans, reject the dogma of the Immaculate Conception because it is not taught in the Bible, and because it allows for exceptions from Original Sin and the need for redemption. Old Catholic Churches, those who split from the Papacy in 1853 and subsequently, reject the dogma of the Immaculate Conception pronounced in 1854 as being beyond the provenance of the Pope to proclaim it so, even though they may celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. The Liberal Catholic Church, not connected to Roman Catholicism, also conceives of this belief as a doctrine rather than a dogma, a matter of conscience rather than an obligation.

The Quran includes extensive writing about Mary or Maryam Umm Isa, particularly in Surahs 3 and 19, those of Imran (the biological father of Maryam) and Maryam, respectively. As Islam does not hold a doctrine of Original Sin, the issue of Maryam being immaculata in the Catholic sense is irrelevant. Maryam is admired as one of the 4 righteous women of Islam, along with Asiyah, the Pharaoh's wife and acting mother of Musa (Moses), Khadija, the first wife of the Prophet Mohamed, and their daughter, Fatima. Neither Maryam (Mary) nor Isa (Jesus) are divine in Islam, where only Allah is, no matter how respected Messengers, Prophets, and Righteous Women are.

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary is celebrated primarily as a religious occasion. Masses, hymns and prayers to Mary Immaculata are part of that celebration, as may be special Novenas (a series of daily prayers for 9 days), which are made specifically to Mary Immaculata, rather than to other aspects of Mary's life and qualities.

As for my reviewing for Hanukkah, in reviewing the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary 3 aspects stood out for me. Like others, at various times and repeatedly, I fall into the misconception that the Immaculate Conception refers to Mary's virginal conception of Jesus, or the virginal conception of Mary herself by her mother Anne--the latter a very un-Catholic belief. Despite studying both marianismo, Hispanic worship of Mary, and European Mariology, I haven't noticed this doctrine as a main and fully articulated dogma, but rather as a vague ambient assumption of Mary's distinctive purity, and a feature of art and literature. Once again, belief in the Immaculate Conception of Mary shows divides within the Christian church between Catholics and Protestants, and even among sects within those groups--despite a shared belief in Mary as the Virgin Mother of the Son of God.

2 Muharram, 61 AH--Encampment at Karbala

As was noted in yesterday's post on Ras as-Sana and Muharram, the Islamic New Year and the first month of the Islamic (Hijri) Calendar, 2 Muharram, which this year falls on December 8 in the
Gregorian Calendar, is one of the more significant dates of the month, historically, and particularly for Shia Muslims who begin a 10-day period of mourning on 1 Muharram culiminating in Ashura, on 10 Muharram.

These dates are related to events in 60 and 61 AH regarding the succession of the Caliphate after the death of the 4th Caliph, Ali bin Abu Talib--the cousin, son-in-law, and father of the grandchildren of the Prophet Mohamed. As these events and the persons involved are crucial to the history of the split between Sunni and Shia, their recounting and impact are somewhat distinct for each of Islam's 2 main sects. The account here is a simplified one that traces the generally accepted beliefs of each.

In fact, Islam had become politically and religiously divided over the succession to leadership after the death of the Prophet Mohamed. The leader had 2 entwined functions: that of caliph or political ruler; and, that of imam, or religious leader. Part of the dispute was, and is, about whether succession should be determined by designation, election, or heredity.

The First Caliph (10-13 AH, 632-634 CE), Abu Bakr, a trusted companion of the Prophet, and his father-in-law (father of Aisha), is viewed very differently by Sunnis and Shias, whose tribal roots are with the Makkans, and the Madinah converts respectively. For Sunnis, Abu Bakr was elected by the closest companions of the Prophet, while for Shias he usurped the rightful place of Ali bin Abu Talib as the successor whom the Prophet had designated during his lifetime.

The Second Caliph (13-23 AH, 634-644 CE), Umar bin Al-Khattab (Umar 1), was designated in his will by Abu Bakr, and accepted by his closest followers, and uncontested by others. His reign was politically, socially, and militarily a great one. He was assassinated during the Stoning of the Devil ritual while performing Hajj by Persians (Assassins) rebelling against the Muslim conquest of Persia. Umar I did not designate a  successor but created an electoral process for his succession through a 6 man committee appointed by him for that purpose. This committee had 3 days to agree on a successor during which time a caretaker Caliph and a 50 man protective squad appointed by Umar ensured the process.

The Third Caliph (23-34 AH, 644- 656 CE), Uthman bin Affan, was thus rightfully elected in the Sunni view, but once again usurping Ali's rightful place as the Prophet's designated successor in the Shia view. Best known as the compiler of the Quran, Uthman also died by assassination during hajj, though at the hands of assassins from amongst Madinah rebels against his reign. He was supported by the grandsons of the Prophet Mohamed. After his death, there was a leadership vacuum and political infighting among the major families of early Islam in Madinah.

Ali bin Abu Talib became the Fourth Caliph (34- 40 AH, 656-661 CE) at the request of some of the companions of the Prophet, and moved his capital from the fractious Madinah to Kufa in Iraq. Nonetheless, political and religious divisions and allegiances escalated to Civil War, or the First Fitna, and cemented the divisions between Sunni and Shia over the succession to the Prophet Mohamed. Ali also died by assassination, this time during Ramadan, about a month prior to Haj.

In Sunni Islam, these first four caliphs are called the Rashidun, the "Rightly Guided Caliphs" a retrospective appellation made during the Abbasid Dynasty (8th to 10th centuries CE), an extension of the third Caliphate founded by descendants of the youngest of the Prophet's uncles, Abbas bin Abd al-Muttalib. The time of the Rashidun, the first 4 caliphs, was marked simultaneously by the expansion of Islam, and by internal dissent, leading to religious disputes, wars, and assassinations.

After the assassination of Ali bin Abu Talib in Kufa (Iraq), his son Hassan became Caliph, but he too was engaged in civil war with the opposition headed by Mu'awiyah in Kufa. Hassan's solution was to split the leadership function into the religious aspect, with himself as Imam based in Madinah, and the political one, with Mu'awiyah as Caliph based in Kufa. However, Mu'awiyah later had Hassan assassinated by poisoning, and younger brother Hussein became Hassan's successor as Imam, while Mu'awiyah appointed his own son, Yazid as his successor as Caliph. This appointment was seen as violating the treaty that Mu'awiyah had made with Hassan.

When Yazid I became Caliph in 60 AH (680 CE), Hussein, with his family and followers, left Madinah to establish themselves in Makkah; and prepared to retake political, as well as religious leadership, of the Muslims. He had supporters among the Shia Muslims in Kufa, which helped him make the decision to uproot family and followers from Makkah to do battle there. By the time Hussein was to set up his encampment at Karbala (Iraq), on 2 Muharram, 61 AH, Yazid I had subverted support for Hussein amongst the Shia of Kufa, and Hussein himself had rejected the military aid of other tribes along the way. Hussein was also prevented from returning to Makkah. Thus 2 Muharram, marking the day of Hussein's encampment at Karbala opposite Yazid's forces, is an important preliminary to the determinative Battle of Karbala on 10 Muharram, 61 AH.

Needless to say, the events leading up to Hussein's encampment at Karbala on 2 Muharram, 61 AH were conflictual ones amongst factions within Islam; and, the results entrenched the Sunni-Shia distinctions amongst Muslims.

Once again, I was struck by 3 aspects of this history. First, following the death of the Prophet Mohamed, the survival of Islam was very fragile. Some tribes had pled their allegiance more to Mohamed as a leader, than to the religion, and were wishing to return to their pre-Islamic beliefs and tribal allegiances. Others were genuinely caught up in what they thought was best for the succession--to the point of jeopardizing the survival of the religion. Second, that while accounts differ depending on the allegiances of those writing them, there are historical facts and artifacts to be found and studied. Third, that issues of succession remain critical in a region characterized by dynasties, monarchies, union of the religious and political functions of the leader, and where the divisions between Sunni and Shia remain contentious, even as all Muslims are united in their belief in Allah as one indivisible God, and the Prophet Mohamed as his Messenger

*This post has been lightly edited for grammar and punctuation; a subtitle added to clarify its content; and, the 3 aspects which struck me most about reviewing the events leading to the Battle of Karbala added retrospectively--on December 10, 2010.

One may conclude then, that this December 8, 2010, on which major religious dates in the history of the 3 Abrahamic faiths, has symbolic value of representing unicity among the faiths, and reminding of the beliefs holding each together despite internal divisions.

Related Posts:
Ras As-Sana رأس السنة‎ New Year: 1 Muharram 1432 AH/ December 7-8, 2010 CE
Ras As-Sana--Happy Islamic New Year

Your comments, thoughts, impressions?


ellen557 said...

I was just thinking, mashaAllah your posts are always so objective ^_^ I don't know why but it just popped into my head :D

Susanne said...

Thanks for the brief histories of these three events. I especially enjoyed your "three aspects" parts of the first two. :)

Chiara said...

Ellen and Susanne-thank you both for your comments.

Ellen-thank you especially for you comment regarding objectivity. I try to take an approach that is accurate and fair to all "sides".

Susanne-I am happy you liked my signalling the 3 aspects that struck me most about the Judaic and Christian celebrations. It inspired me to reflect more on what most struck me about the Islamic one, and to add it.

My thanks again, and my apologies for the linguistic "infelicities" which have now been corrected. :D


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