The cloak, mantle and authority of the Prophet

[ by Charles Cameron — the symbolic importance of Mullah Omar with the cloak of the Prophet, comparative, frankly long, and IMO worth it ]


Mullah Omar in Kandahar; Elijah & Elisha from the Nuremberg Chronicle


I would like to give you a sense of the significance of an apparently insignificant detail, which I was reminded of today while skimming Charles Kurzman‘s The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists, page 74:

To gain legitimacy as he was taking over Afghanistan,Taliban leader Mulla Muhammad Umar literally wrapped himself in the cloak of the Prophet Muhammad, a cherished relic stored for two centuries at a shrine in Qandahar. He ordered the custodians to unlock the sanctuary, then stood on the roof of a nearby mosque and placed his hands in the cloth as a crowd of supporters chanted “Commander of the Faithful,” a title associated with the first caliphs to succeed the Prophet Muhammad.

To better grasp the significance of the situation, I will first quote from the Jewish and Buddhist scriptures to illuminate the symbolic power that can be vested — interesting word — in a cloak or robe.


John Daido Loori is a zen master in whose teishos or teachings I often find insight and delight. Here’s his description of the original transmission of “bowl and robe” in Buddhism, from the Buddha to his disciple Mahakashyapa:

After Buddha died, Ananda became the attendant of Mahakashyapa. One day he asked, “That time on Mount Gudhakutra, when the World-Honored One gave you the bowl and robe, and transmitted the Dharma to you, what else did he give you?” Mahakashyapa called out, “Ananda.” Ananda responded, “Yes, Master?” Mahakashyapa said, “Take down the flagpole.” At that point, Ananda finally had a realization. He realized what Mahakashyapa had realized. So it has been, down through successive generations, mind-to-mind for 2,500 years.

The Buddha’s teaching later passes from India into China, where the transmission continues. Here’s how Hui Neng, in the Platform Sutra, describes his own enlightenment and reception of the teachings:

At midnight the Fifth Patriarch called me into the hall and expounded the Diamond Sutra to me. Hearing it but once, I was immediately awakened, and that night I received the Dharma. None of the others knew anything about it. Then he transmitted to me the Dharma of Sudden Enlightenment and the robe, saying: ‘I make you the Sixth Patriarch. The robe is the proof and is to be handed down from generation to generation. My Dharma must be transmitted from mind to mind. You must make people awaken to themselves.’


There’s a remarkable story told in 2 Kings 2.8-15 that concerns the transmission of prophetic gifts by similar means, when the prophet Elijah is carried up into heaven:

And Elijah took his mantle, and wrapped it together, and smote the waters, and they were divided hither and thither, so that they two went over on dry ground. And it came to pass, when they were gone over, that Elijah said unto Elisha, Ask what I shall do for thee, before I be taken away from thee. And Elisha said, I pray thee, let a double portion of thy spirit be upon me. And he said, Thou hast asked a hard thing: nevertheless, if thou see me when I am taken from thee, it shall be so unto thee; but if not, it shall not be so.

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