For reconciliation to ever occur between Muslims and Christians, surely one of the tasks set before us is to understand Jesus through Muslim eyes as this article attempts:
In the year 630 A.D, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) achieved one of his most cherished goals: the occupation of Mecca and the subsequent cleansing of the city from idol worship: it was at once a political and a religious victory of immense symbolic importance. Mecca had been declared the center of the new faith; its conquest was therefore the fulfillment of a divine promise.
Entering the Ka’ba, the square structure which housed the city’s idols, Muhammad (pbuh) ordered all its icons cleansed or destroyed. One of the icons in what must have been a very mixed gallery of divinities was a Virgin and child. Approaching the Christian icon, Muhammad (pbuh) covered it with his cloak and ordered all the others washed away except that one.
Fact or fiction? The question is immaterial. The report I cited is at least 1200 years old and therefore belongs to some of the earliest strata of Muslim historical writing.
What this episode illustrates is the fact that between Islam and the figure of Jesus Christ there exists a literary tradition spanning a millennium and a half of a continuous historical relationship — a preoccupation with Jesus that may well be unique among the world’s great non-Christian religions.
So, Islam respects Jesus more than many Christians realise! But who is the ‘Jesus’ we meet within Muslim tradition?
Approximately one third of the Quranic text is made up of narratives of earlier prophets, most of them Biblical. Among these prophetic figures, Jesus stands out as the most puzzling. The Qur’an rewrites the story of Jesus more radically than that of any other prophet, and in doing so it reinvents him. The intention is clearly to distance him from the opinions about him current among Christians. The result is surprising to a Christian reader or listener. The Jesus of the Qur’an, more than any equivalent prophetic figure, is placed inside a theological argument rather than inside a narrative. He is very unlike his Gospel image. There is no Incarnation, no Ministry and no Passion. His divinity is strenuously denied either by him or by God directly. Equally denied is his crucifixion. A Christian may well ask, what can possibly be left of his significance if all these essential attributes of his image are gone?
But the author doesn’t leave it there. He goes on to recount in what ways Jesus is significant to Muslims, concluding with this comment:
So: I think it can safely be shown that Islamic culture presents us with what in quantity and quality are the richest images of Jesus in any non-Christian culture. No other world religion known to me has devoted so much loving attention to both the Jesus of history and to the Christ of eternity. This tradition is one that we need to highlight in these dangerous, narrow-minded days. The moral of the story seems quite clear: that one religion will often act as the hinterland of another, will lean upon another to complement its own witness. There can be no more salient example of this interdependence than the case of Islam and Jesus Christ. And for the Christian in particular, a love of Jesus may also mean, I think, an interest in how and why he was loved and cherished by another religion.
We may not agree with everything about the Muslim portrayals of Jesus, or even the above author’s differentiation between the Jesus of history and Christ of eternity, but surely we should taken an interest in Muslim responses to Jesus and try to come to grips with them.