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.
3 thoughts on “Jesus Through Muslim Eyes”
“The Jesus of the Qur’an, more than any equivalent prophetic figure, is placed inside a theological argument rather than inside a narrative.”
I think that’s true of the Jesus of “Christianity” and the New Testament, too. Orthodoxy has always tended to approach Jesus and the “Gospel” story as a theological argument rather than a path to grace and enlightenment. Islam has appropriated the symbol and in some ways “cleaned” it. But as always happens with religion, the meaning of the myths is quickly overwritten with a new shallow theology and dogma. And almost unfailingly every religion unknowingly becomes its own antithesis.
But such is the way of people. Pre-packaged identities are easier to take on that knowing one’s self and finding the meaning in one’s own journey.
You seem to be conflating the New Testament and Christian theology here.
The gospels are inherrantly narrative in form. The fact that some branches of Christianity have subsumed Jesus almost completely within theological constructs does not alter the fact. So there needs to be some distinguishing between the New Testament and what we make of it. The Reformation was itself premised on this observation and the need to critique the traditions we create about him.
The Emerging Church, in its better moments, seeks to be a continuance of this reformation process and places a heavy emphasis on narrative theology.
I don’t think Islam has ‘cleaned’ up the situation at all as the Qaran quite demonstratably draws on later legends which Mohammed encountered through his travels and preferenced them somewhat over earlier, more reliable texts. Hardly clarifying.
What we need to do is re-examine the New Testament narratives without preconceptions and let them critique us anew, breaking down the pre-packaged identities and self-protection strategies.
I don’t think I’m conflating the two, though I appreciate what you are saying. I agree that the Gospels are written in the style of a narrative. But the narrative really is a “theological argument,” first. At least it certainly is as it is regarded by Christianity. For example, the events of the Passion track, almost to the letter, the lines of Psalm 22. While it looks at first blush like a narrative, a careful examination suggests that it was written deliberately as a theological argument to bolster the status of Jesus as a fulfillment of prophecy.
In the case of the Gospel of John, the entire narrative is reformulated from the Synoptics with a twist to create a more solid theological argument. The Jesus of John is God and the author goes to great lengths to expunge any fear or doubt from the Hero, even putting him completely in charge of the Passion and Resurrection.
They are theological arguments in the style of a narrative.