By Kenny Smith & Heather Abraham
In his superb book, The Muslim Jesus (2001), Tarif Khalidi observes that Jesus of Nazareth plays an important role in Islamic religious worlds. As is well known to students of Islam, within the pages of the Qur’an, Jesus (Isa) is “the word and spirit of God,” a prophet sent by Allah (in 7th century Arabia, Allah was the Arabic term local Christians used when speaking of God) to call humankind back to the proper religious path, one who demonstrates his spiritual authority by performing numerous miracles, including the healing lepers and the blind, and raising the dead. Although the Qur’anic Jesus is not crucified and resurrected, nor is he understood as God himself in human flesh (in traditional Islam, Allah transcends the world entirely and thus nothing in the world could be Allah), he was born of a virgin (Mary), fulfilled important messianic prophecies of the Hebrew Bible, and was physically taken up into heaven by God at the end of his life.
A “Muslim Gospel,” Khalidi points out, even overflows the pages of the Qur’an: for nearly a thousand years (from the 8th-18th centuries CE), stories and sayings attributed to Isa continued to emerge in Islamic written and oral traditions. While this Jesus is Islamic in tone, a clear Biblical voice is evident. In one of the earliest of these, “Jesus said to his people,”
Do not talk much without the mention of God, lest your hearts grow hard; for the hard heart is far from God, but you do not know. Do not examine the sins of people as though you were lords, but examine them, rather, as though you were servants. Men are of two kinds: the sick and the healthy. Be merciful to the sick and give thanks to God for health. (52)
Similar arguments could be made for a vast number of important Biblical figures. Noah (Nuh), for example, is the first of five super-important prophets in Islam (along with Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad). Noah, the Qur’an explains, spent centuries preaching to the sinful, begging them to mend their ways or face the wrath of God. His efforts attracted some willing to embrace the strict monotheism of Islam, and it was with resignation that Noah builds the ark and awaits the coming deluge, able to save only a small number.
Moses (Musa), like Jesus, appears in both the Qur’an and in hadith (sayings and stories about the Prophet Muhammad that have come down from the time in which he lived, 7th century Arabia). In one of these stories, Moses steps out of Biblical history and intercedes on Muhammad’s behalf. As Huston Smith re-tells the story, one night the arch-angel Gabriel visits and takes Muhammad into the seven heavens to the presence of God, who instructed [Muhammad] that Muslims were to pray fifty times each day. On his way back to earth [Muhammad] stopped in the sixth heaven, where he reported the instruction to Moses, who was incredulous. “Fifty times a day!” he said in effect. “You’ve got to be kidding. That will never work. Go back and negotiate. (245) Muhammad accepted Moses’ counsel and appealed to God successfully decreasing the mandated daily prayers from fifty to five.
The figure of Mary (Maryam) is also a highly revered figure, recognized for her devotion and obedience to God, and belongs to an exclusive group of women who are considered ‘Perfect’ because of their strength of faith and their unquestioning submission to God’s will. Aliah Schleifer, in Mary the Blessed Virgin of Islam, points out that, “Mary’s position is not just that of the most exalted category of women, but she is ranked in the highest category of all human beings,” with a degree of spiritual development equal to that of Jesus and approaching that of Muhammad. (95) In what is perhaps the most well-known Qur’anic story about Mary, the young heroine retreats to the desert for an extended period of prayer and meditation. When she returns home, villagers are scandalized when the unwed Mary returns with her infant son, Jesus. As they accuse her of deep sinfulness (sex outside of wedlock), the infant Jesus speaks up and defends her!
We have struggled with the implications of this discussion for the current climate of intense, anti-Muslim sentiment within a still largely Christian America, epitomized especially well by recent “Qur’an burning campaigns,” and by the larger numbers of Americans that (we suspect) tacitly support such actions.
On one hand, we would hope that the stories discussed above would provide compelling illustrations of “common religious ground” that would give pause to those who might otherwise support the social marginalization that Qur’an burnings (or the quiet support of such actions) suggest.
At the same time, while ecumenically-minded Christians may be intrigued by, and appreciative of, these shared religious resources, religious conservative are likely to find them irrelevant, if not spiritually deceptive and dangerous. “If it is not of the Bible,” this perspective often insists, it is simply not from God. Little is accomplished by demonizing conservative perspectives. More, as Russell McCutcheon has astutely pointed out (in recent Facebook communiqués), to insist that religious conservatives become more ecumenically-minded is to insist that they practice a very different kind of religion, one that gives up a “Bible-only” perspective for one that sees other religious traditions as cousins rather than antagonists. Just as religious pluralists (like us) insist from a kind of transcendent, God’s-eye view, that overlapping Qur’anic and Biblical stories represent resources to be celebrated and explored, Bible-only religious conservatives may adopt this same transcendent perspective to authoritatively declare precisely the opposite!
Still, as history amply demonstrates, cultural boundaries are never static, and American history especially displays all sorts of exchanges between communities that had little to celebrate in common. Thus, while it may appear exceedingly naïve to expect that the above discussion has any chance of persuading those who support Qur’an burnings to re-think their position, it is at least possible that such discussion might, by who knows what unexpected and counter-intuitive paths, arrive at positive ends.
- Tarif Khalidi ,The Muslim Jesus (2001)
- Aliah Schleifer, Mary the Blessed Virgin of Islam (Kentucky: Fons Vitae, 1997)
- Huston Smith, The World’s Religions (New York: HarperCollins, 1991)