In all our sanctuaries we sit at risk

What is this world? What asketh men to have ?


There was once a teacher whose words had unusual power. Crowds gathered wherever he spoke.  But somehow and at the same time, his mere presence seemed to threaten all order and decorum in the city.  With wonderful persuasiveness, he seemed to be calling a whole way of life into question. He was advocating change, astonishing change.

He taught that the quality of your life and your significance as a human being were not to be measured by which gods you worshipped as compared to other gods, or which possessions you owned as compared to other possessions.

He proclaimed that there was just one central truth, one light, that stood before all of humankind. It was not for mere humans to choose between gods, different gods for each tribe, or region, or tradition, or aspect of life. It was a plain fact from which no human could escape that. just as there was but one Creation, so there was but one Creator and all of humankind derived from that one source, that one beginning.

And this in turn called into question the value of material gain as an aim in human life, once you had enough for your own needs and those of your family. In fact, any way of life which aimed at pampering self, in competition with others, was a distraction and even a wickedness. Human beings were born not for the world to serve them, but for them to serve the will of their Creator, in step with the dance of Creation. So the teacher preached against acquisition and accumulation for its own sake and, instead, urged and prescribed generosity towards the poor and the needy, kind treatment and emancipation of slaves, and equality between men and women before God. For all human beings were made common by a plain and irrefutable fact that there was but one Creator and all being is derived from that one source.

The teacher said that what mattered was not what you possessed in your own walled spaces, distinct from others, but how you behaved in the space between yourself and others, as a fellow-citizen and neighbour ; so that an over-riding urge to wealth and comfort was actually an anti-social and destructive force ; and any wealth and comforts you possessed that were superfluous to your needs, you should give away to those who lacked a sufficiency.

The longer he spoke, the more the city walls shook and trembled. The wealthy and privileged who lived in their palaces and behind their high walls, plotting together on how to avoid paying the taxes required for the community’s use and betterment, how to curry favour with the local rulers and their entourages, how to climb the prestige ladder, saw that their world was about to collapse around them. They were proud of feeling better than and different from all the poor people outside their high-built walls. And this teacher seemed about to blow those walls down.

So they went to the teacher’s uncle and guardian and sought to threaten and bribe him. Give us the teacher so that we may kill him, they said. Otherwise he will bring chaos to the city.

But the teacher’s uncle refused.

They said, we will give the teacher treasure if he complies with us, such treasure that he won’t be able to refuse. Look at it. Now pass it to him. They thought this would persuade him. But still the uncle refused. He said that while this treasure might mean a great deal to the rich people who were offering it, it would mean nothing at all to the teacher. They were trying to silence him by means of their own bankrupt currency. Their bribes had no meaning, no weight and no value.

So with guile, good fortune and through the courage and wisdom of his supporters, the teacher continued his preaching and his witness. He preached and proclaimed in the city and far beyond. He died many deaths along the way.

His name was Muhammad.


(NB the title of this piece has nothing to do with what is a traditional Muslim story. The title comes from one of Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” Specifically, the words can be found in Part IV, lines 1919 – 1921, of “The Knight’s Tale” and are spoken by the knight Arcite, as he lies dying).