By Amin Dagher
Sarah Joseph, CEO and Editor of Muslim lifestyle magazine emel and commentator on British Muslims, discovers the possibility of the man that both Muslims and Christians call the Messiah have the potential to be a bridge between the two religions.
Joseph starts by indicating the status Jesus had in her life: growing up, Jesus was the third person in my life, along with my mother and grandmother. Every night I would pray, “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, look upon this little child,” before launching into my long list of things I needed help with. I knew with Jesus in my life I was going to be OK.
Even after converting to Islam, Joseph explains that the figure of Jesus still exists in her life; which is something that not all Christians nor Muslims comprehend: Now a Muslim, I still have Jesus in my life. I realize that this confuses many people. Some Muslims think I may have some Christian hangover. Whilst many Christians cannot fathom how I can be a Muslim and still love Jesus. But I do love Jesus, and I could not be a Muslim unless I did.
With Christians and Muslims forming half the world’s population, and with there being so much misunderstanding between these two faiths, could it be possible that Jesus can become a bridge between those that believe in him, despite their differences?
The Muslim understanding of Jesus is simple. He was a man, born of a virgin. He was given prophethood by God from birth and performed miracles during his life by God’s leave. Muslims do not believe in the crucifixion. In a nutshell, that is it. But there is more.
How is it possible to accept his virgin birth and yet reject him as divine? The Muslims say it begins with Mary, who was dedicated to God from the time she was in the womb. Such was Mary’s grace and piety; she was protected in the temple by God for what was to behold her-a visit by the angel Gabriel with some extraordinary news. The account in the third chapter of the Quran is very similar to the account in the gospels. Gabriel says to her, “O Mary! Behold, God sends thee the glad tiding, through a word from Him, of a son who shall become known as the Christ, Jesus son of Mary.”
Mary is naturally stunned by this news and wonders, “O my Sustainer! How can I have a son when no man has ever touched me?” Now appears the fundamental difference in the two accounts, for in the Quranic narrative the angel answers Mary, “Thus it is: God creates what He wills. When He wills a thing to be, He but says unto it ‘Be’-and it is.” The Muslims say this shows God’s majesty, not Christ’s divinity. Elsewhere in the Quran God says that the parable of Jesus’ virgin birth is that of Adam. Adam was of course brought into being without man or woman, purely because God willed it.
Mary returns to her people after the birth, whereupon she is scandalized. She points to her newborn baby and he speaks to the accusers from his cradle, “Behold, I am a servant of God. He has vouchsafed unto me revelation and made me a prophet, and made me blessed wherever I may be; and He has enjoyed upon me prayer and charity as long as I shall live... Hence, peace was upon me on the day I was born, and will be upon me on the day of my death, and on the day when I shall be raised to life again.” (19:30-33). This is Christ’s first miracle.
From this amazing beginning, Christ grows up to be a noble man. He establishes his mission as an apostle to the Children of Israel. And God’s promise that he would perform other miracles is fulfilled. He heals the blind and the leper, and brings the dead back to life. He performs these miracles “all by God’s leave,” according to the Quran. God gave Jesus the power to perform miracles, as opposed to the miracles being evidence of Jesus’ divine status.
Jesus is mentioned more in the Quran than is Muhammad. He is called the Word of God and the Spirit of God, but most often, the son of Mary. In the Quranic narrative he is not crucified. In the Christian account, Christ is betrayed and crucified. The crucifixion is so that man can be saved. As it says in the Bible, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son; that whomsoever believed in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) God gives Jesus as a sacrifice out of His love to take on the sins of the world, so that humans may be saved. The Muslim view of salvation is different. God decrees, as we are told in a Hadith Qudsi, “When God decreed the Creation He pledged Himself by writing in His Book which is laid down with Him: ‘My mercy prevails over my wrath.’” As such, when Adam and Eve sinned and then repented, they were forgiven by God. And whilst all individuals sin, there is no essential human evil that only a divine sacrifice can heal. Rather, each human being will stand before God; and God, through His Rahma, Divine Mercy, will forgive all those who have believed in Him, so long as they have not ascribed partners to Him.
So, for the Muslim there is no theological need for Christ to have been crucified. The Qur’an says, “They did not kill him, and neither did they crucify him, but it seemed to them as if it had been so.” (4:157)
The two differing accounts of the crucifixion are irreconcilable. To a Christian it is fundamental that Christ died for our sins and rose again, conquering death, so that we might have eternal life. To a Muslim the idea that God, the Creator of the Universe, can have a son, who shares in His Divinity, and that the Creator becomes part of the creation and dies is heresy of the highest order.
How, then, is it ever possible to imagine that Christ could be a bridge between us? I would contend that though the two traditions will not agree on his death, it is his life where common ground is to be found.
In both traditions Christ calls people to the service of God through service to humanity. His call to love our neighbor as ourselves is echoed in each of the faiths. We know he led a simple lifestyle, rejecting material possessions as a pathway to happiness. The Islamic tradition says Christ had only three items: a robe, a bowl and a comb. He gave away his bowl and comb believing these to be unnecessary. In this modern world, where consumption is a driving force of so much that what we do, where possessions have become part of who we actually are, Christ’s teaching that peace and contentment can be found in giving up things is salutary. This message can surely be a unifying force. Where Christmas has become a commercialized spending spree, surely Muslims and Christians can unite to find a modern narrative that focuses on giving to others less fortunate, as well as giving up excessive consumerism for ourselves.
Christ fumed against the moneylenders, overturning their tables in the temple. What would Christ say to the bankers of today with their inexcusable risk and leverage, their enormous salaries and bonuses; who have misused their position, and then been bailed out by the money of ordinary taxpayers?
Christ spoke out against violence, rebuking a follower who drew his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane saying, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who live by the sword will perish by the sword.” Yet in our world today we spend billions on militarization and are capable of destroying the world many times over.
These messages are relevant and pertinent today for all people. Christ, like Prophet Muhammad and the other prophets before him, brought a message that was vocal and strong. He forced his followers to look at their lives. He upset the religious and political status quo. I am not calling for a social revolution, but I do believe that Christ can unite Muslims and Christians to look within their hearts to have a personal revolution.
Muslims do not believe that Muhammad came to change Christ’s message. Rather, Muslims believe that Muhammad came as a seal of his teaching and his ministry. For Muslims, the Qur’an is the fulfillment of previous revelation not an overturning of it. The Qur’an, as it often says, is bringing “nothing new”. Rather, it is the culmination of the prophetic message since Adam.
However, the different expressions cannot be ignored. Muslims and Christians deeply disagree about the nature of Jesus. But perhaps we can look beyond the differences and examine together Christ’s life, to learn together and learn from each other. Both traditions recognize that his life’s narrative was one of surrender and service, beauty and compassion. Perhaps we can re-discover these things together, and heed the words of the Grand Mufti: “Go back to the origins of your religion and you will discover that God is our God and we are all brothers.”