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Mohammed and the mountain.
July 16, 2009 7:16 AM   Subscribe

Using the phrase 'If Mohammed won't come to the mountain, the mountain must come to Mohammed.'

First of all, please excuse my rank ignorance of all things Islamic.

I work for a company which produces publications in the UK.
An article contains the well-worn phrase 'If Mohammed won't come to the mountain, the mountain must come to Mohammed.'

I understand this is an old idiom, but is it at all offensive to Muslims?

Finally, is there a preferred spelling for 'Mohammed'.

Thanks for your help.
posted by Blackwatch to Religion & Philosophy (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Wiktionary

That doesn't quite answer your question, but it does suggest that the saying was (originally at least) the other way around. It also seems that it comes from Francis Bacon attributing it to Mohammed. Also, AFAIK there are numerous spellings of Mohammed and I don't believe that any of them are necessarily incorrect.
posted by anansi at 7:49 AM on July 16, 2009


There is no set standard for transliteration of Arabic, however, so usage varies, mostly according to region. According to Wikipedia "The name is also transliterated as Muhammad (primarily in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan), Muhammed (Arab World, primarily in North Africa), Mohamed (Arab World), Muhammed (Arab World), Mahommed, Muhamed, Mehmed (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina), Mehmet (Albania[2], Turkey, and Bosnia and Herzegovina), Mohand (Algeria)."

The phrase originates from Francis Bacon: "Mahomet made the people believe that he would call a hill to him, and from the top of it offer up his prayers for the observers of his law. The people assembled: Mahomet called the hill to come to him again and again: and when the hill stood still, he was never a whit abashed, but said, "If the hill will not come to Mahomet, Mahomet will go to the hill."

So the phrase references a somewhat demeaning story. I would leave it out. There are adequate substitute phrases such as "one must accept the impossible and work around it."
posted by jedicus at 7:53 AM on July 16, 2009


Matthew 21:21 seems relevant for context.
posted by smackfu at 8:30 AM on July 16, 2009


I am missing the demeaning aspect of the story, jedicus. It seems to me that Mohammed was shrewdly illustrating to his followers that they have the power to control events in their lives, and not to expect the impossible to happen, even if one is the Prophet of God. I think it's pretty powerful, to be honest.

Of course it is also entirely possible that other people or cultures just don't see it this way and will be offended. Some folks are just never satisfied. That's why the intent of the speaker is so important.

As far as the common usage being backwards, that just happens to certain expressions over time. Take the common phrase, "I could care less." Everyone knows what is really meant, which is to say that one actually couldn't care less.

I've actually wondered about the specific usage of this phrase before.

From www.phrases.org.uk

IF THE MOUNTAIN WILL NOT COME TO MOHAMMED, MOHAMMED WILL GO TO THE MOUNTAIN - "If one cannot get one's own way, one must adjust to the inevitable. The legend goes that when the founder of Islam was asked to give proofs of his teaching, he ordered Mount Safa to come to him. When the mountain did not comply, Mohammed raised his hands toward heaven and said, 'God is merciful. Had it obeyed my words, it would have fallen on us to our destruction. I will therefore go to the mountain and thank God that he has had mercy on a stiff-necked generation.'

The saying has been traced back in English to 'Essays,' (1625) by English philosopher Frances Bacon (1561-1626). It was included in John Ray's book of English proverbs in 1678. First attested in the United States in 'Jonathan Belcher Papers' (1733). In German, the phrase translates as 'Wenn der Berg nicht zum Propheten kommt, mu?der Prophetzum Berg kommen." From "Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings" (1996) by Gregory Y. Titelman (Random House, New York, 1996).

posted by Xoebe at 9:45 AM on July 16, 2009


I am missing the demeaning aspect of the story, jedicus. It seems to me that Mohammed was shrewdly illustrating to his followers that they have the power to control events in their lives, and not to expect the impossible to happen, even if one is the Prophet of God. I think it's pretty powerful, to be honest.


The demeaning aspect is...it NEVER happened.

As someone who has studied arabic and islam every day after school for 2 hours till 6th grade, then every sunday for 8 hours till the end of my senior year in high school, and then in college...I have NEVER EVER EVER heard of a story in which Mohammed (whatever spelling you use) tried to performed a MIRACLE to convince followers. Given that, you can understand how dumbfounded I was when I first heard that saying about Mohammed bringing a mountain to him.

I don't necessarily think its offensive (although it might be construed as so. But Muslims are pretty adamant about insisting that the Quran has never been changed from inception to the current day.

Making up a story regarding Mohammed...which totally contradicts what is written in the Quran...is kinda offensive.

Sure, it demonstrates a great "moral of the story". But this ain't no Aesop...taking artistic license with Mohammed means you are treating it like a piece of art...not the truth. THAT is how it can be offensive.

I hope that makes sense as how some would see it as offensive.
posted by hal_c_on at 10:09 AM on July 16, 2009


I agree with hal_c_on, but Xoebe your own quote indirectly points out how it could be offensive:

"If one cannot get one's own way, one must adjust to the inevitable. The legend goes that when the founder of Islam was asked to give proofs of his teaching, he ordered Mount Safa to come to him. When the mountain did not comply, Mohammed raised his hands toward heaven and said, 'God is merciful. Had it obeyed my words, it would have fallen on us to our destruction. I will therefore go to the mountain and thank God that he has had mercy on a stiff-necked generation.'"

The story amounts to this: 'Mohammed makes a bold claim to supernatural power and then invents a lame excuse after his alleged powers fail to work.' It's demeaning in that it implies that he's a charlatan or huckster. Perhaps one that believed his own stories, but a charlatan nonetheless.

For contrast, imagine an extra-biblical story of Jesus saying 'You think turning water into wine was impressive? Well watch this next one! Oh, crap, well, it's for the best it didn't work. God knows best, I guess.'

Of course, the issue of whether it would cause offense is different than the question of whether it should cause offense (e.g., because maybe the Qur'an isn't accurate or because Muslims are too sensitive) or whether a publication ought to publish or at least ought to be able to publish such a thing despite any offense it might cause.
posted by jedicus at 10:53 AM on July 16, 2009


jedicus: My interpretation of the story has always been that Mohammad wasn't literally trying to move the mountain, but was demonstrating that he was a prophet, not a magician; he can't command God to do stuff for him.

I'm not sure how the Quran figures into it, hal_c_on?
posted by hattifattener at 12:30 PM on July 16, 2009


A potential way out: I always heard this phrase with "the prophet" instead of a name. No transliteration troubles, and might as well refer to one of the other billion prophets around.
posted by themel at 1:06 PM on July 16, 2009


I'm not sure how the Quran figures into it, hal_c_on?

Maybe it doesn't. I probably went the wrong way in trying to explain it.

Its like making up stuff about Jesus like:

When Jesus tried to prove the existence of God by walking on water, he fell in...and decided to swim the rest of the way.

I'm not a Christian, but even that kinda offends me.

Making up stuff about people who are held in high esteem by a religion or faith is kinda offensive, no?
posted by hal_c_on at 3:58 PM on July 16, 2009


I don't necessarily think its offensive (although it might be construed as so. But Muslims are pretty adamant about insisting that the Quran has never been changed from inception to the current day.

Correct me if I'm wrong, hal_c_on, but in my course on Islamic Law I've encountered other accounts of Mohammed's actions and words, called hadith, and used by Sunni legal scholars to derive propositions on law. Could this story have occurred in a hadith instead of the Quran?
posted by nihraguk at 9:02 PM on July 16, 2009


Thanks very much for all your replies - they're very much appreciated.
posted by Blackwatch at 2:13 AM on July 22, 2009


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