Chapter 5: Islam and Christianity
The Gospel According to Islam is an attractive little book that I was given some time ago. In it, Ahmad Shafaat presents the material about Isa (Jesus) which is to be found in the Qur’an in the style of one of the Synoptic Gospels. He supplements this with material from the Gospels, but only where such material fits the basic Islamic presuppositions about Jesus. Thus, the purification of Jesus, as told by St. Luke is included, but not the birth narratives, as there is already a rather different account of his birth in the Qur’an. Several of Jesus’ sayings are included, but no mention of the claim that he was Son of God.
The presuppositions of the Gospel According to Islam reflect Islam’s attitude to Judaism and Christianity. It is accepted that both religions are "Religions of the Book", but that where they differ from the teaching of Qur’an this is because Jews and Christians have corrupted the original message of their prophets. The claim is that Islam is the one true religion -- the eternal message of God to humanity, which has been declared by all past prophets, but which is now proclaimed again in its final and incorruptible form in the Qur’an. The claim is strikingly similar to that made for Jesus Christ at the beginning of the Epistle to the Hebrews -- a passage often read at the Christmas communion service.
"When in former times God spoke to our forefathers, he spoke in fragmentary and varied fashion through the prophets. But in this final age he has spoken to us in the Son whom he has made heir to the whole universe, and through whom he created all orders of existence: the Son who is the effulgence of God’s splendor and the stamp of God’s very being, and sustains the universe by the word of power." (Hebrews 1, 1-3 NEB).
It is understandable that believers will claim that theirs is the final truth. Absolute truth is often thought to be the concomitant of the total dedication that faith requires. There are those, however, today, with whom I sympathize, who question the possibility of absolute truth and who adopt a "pluralist" position which accepts that different faiths have particular insights into Truth, but that the Ultimate Divine Mystery is beyond full comprehension by the human mind.
Indeed, long ago the Sufis pointed to this transcendent unity of religion. The great Sufi mystic and original thinker Ibn (al-Arabi (1165-1240) wrote,
"Within my heart, all forms may find a place, the cloisters of the monk, the idol’s place, a pasture for gazelles, the Ka’ba of God (to which all Muslims turn their face), the tables of the Jewish law, the Word of God revealed to his Prophet true. Love is the faith I hold, and whereso’er His camels turn, the one true faith is there."
Dr Seyyed Hossein Nasr explains that the Sufi is one who seeks to transcend the world of forms, to journey from multiplicity to Unity, from the particular to the Universal. He leaves the many for the One and through this very process is granted the vision of the One in the many. For him all forms become transparent, including religious forms . . . Sufism or Islamic gnosis is the most universal affirmation of that perennial wisdom which stands at the heart of Islam and in fact of all religion as such. It is this supreme doctrine of Unity . . . that the Sufis call the "religion of love." This love is not merely sentiment or emotions, it is the realized aspect of gnosis. It is a transcendental knowledge that reveals the inner unity of religions.
The majority of Christians have claimed an absolute truth for their religion -- even for their branch of that religion. They should, therefore, be able to understand the traditional Muslim position. The question, however, we shall have to consider is whether this means that there will inevitably be a clash between followers of these two great religions.
It is possible to make the claim for final truth in an absolutist manner. For example, the Catholic Council of Florence in 1438-45 declared that "no one remaining outside the Catholic Church, not just pagans, but also Jews or heretics or schismatics, can become partakers of eternal life, but they will go to the "everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels", "unless before the end of life they are joined to the Church." A somewhat similar attitude is shown by the, perhaps apocryphal, reply of the second Caliph, Umar, to a question, after the Egyptian city of Alexandria was captured, about what to do with the great library there. He is reported to have replied, "If the books are in agreement with the Qur’an, they are unnecessary and may be destroyed; if they are not in agreement with the Qur’an, they are dangerous and should certainly be destroyed." In fairness to Caliph Umar it should be added that he permitted Jewish families to resettle in Jerusalem, despite protests from some Christians and that he personally supervised the cleansing of the Temple Mount.
A more irenic approach acknowledges that there is truth in other traditions, although the final truth is that of the tradition to which the believer himself belongs. Paul in Acts 14, 17, says that "God hath not left himself without witness" (AV) and many Christians today would adopt an "inclusivist" position which recognizes that God is revealed in all the great religions, but that God’s final definitive revelation is in Jesus Christ. In a similar way, many Muslims recognize the God’s has declared his will in past generations, but that the authoritative message is that given to the Prophet Muhammad. According to one of the Prophet’s sayings, every human being is a Muslim, in the sense that his or her true purpose is to serve God. "Every child is born in the fitrah (the natural state) and it is his parents who make him into a Jew or a Christian. Just as a camel is born whole -- do you perceive any defect?" In this context the word parents has the wider meaning of social influences or social environment. So, in the words of Professor Ismail al-Faruqi, ‘the historical religions are out growths of din al-fitrah, containing within them differing amounts or degrees of it."
The Qur’an states that
We assuredly sent
Amongst every People a Messenger,
(With the Command), "Serve
Allah, and eschew Evil" (16,36).
It says also that "For every nation there is a messenger." Traditionally the number of prophets is said to be 124,000. Again it is stated, "Nothing is said to thee that was not said to the messengers before thee." (41, 43). Mention is made of Noah and Abraham and Moses and Jesus and other prophets (6, 84-86),
Since only some of God’s apostles are mentioned in the Qur’an (40, 78), the Buddha and the avatars of the Hindus are not necessarily excluded. Certainly the Qur’an denounces idolatry and Muslims when they reached India attacked idolatry verbally and then physically. But it is now recognized by some Muslim scholars that, like early Christian missionaries, the first Muslims did not understand role of ‘idols’ or ‘images’ in Hinduism. I once heard a lecture at a conference in Delhi by the African Muslim scholar Professor Dawud O S Noibi who said that the phrase ‘People of the Book’ is better translated as ‘followers of earlier revelations’, which is the term used by Muhammad Asad in his translation of the Qur’an. He stressed that the Qur’an teaches that God has sent every people a prophet and he suggested that Rama, Krishna and Zoroaster might be seen as prophets of Allah. Later on the same day as I had heard the lecture, I visited the great Jama Masjid in Old Delhi. The guide mentioned that Islam teaches that every people has been sent a prophet, such as Moses or Jesus or Krishna or Rama or Zoroaster. Perhaps the Professor from Africa was only acknowledging what many Muslims who have lived for centuries in a religiously plural society have known for a long time.
The Qur’an makes a number of references to Isa (Jesus) and also refers to John the Baptist and Mary. Geoffrey Parrinder was right when he said that ‘the Qur’an gives a greater number of honorable titles to Jesus than to any other figure of the past.’ Jesus is mentioned in 93 verses, although Job or Aiybu is mentioned in over 200 verses. Ibrahim (Abraham) and Musa (Moses) are also given great importance. Jesus is always regarded with reverence by Muslims, who add, "May God bless him", whenever they mention his name. As Seyyed Hossein Nasr says, "For the Muslim, within the firmament of Islam, in which the Prophet is like the full moon, the other great prophets and saints are like stars which shine in the same firmament, but they do so by the grace of Muhammad - upon whom be peace. A Muslim can pray to Abraham or Christ, not as Jewish or Christian prophets, but as Muslim ones, and in fact often does so, as seen in the popular "prayer of Abraham" in the Sunni world and the Du’a-yi warith in Shi’ite Islam. This respect for those of other faiths was shown by the Prophet himself who when a delegation of sixty Orthodox Christians of Najran came to make a pact with the Prophet, were received by Muhammad in the Mosque. He allowed the Christians to pray there, which they did facing East. It is on this occasion that the revelation was received which says: "The similitude of Jesus before Allah is as that of Adam."(3, 59).
The Qur’an speaks of the Virgin birth and of Jesus’ miracles and teaching. There is also an appeal by God that Christians should return to the proper path of faith and cease to exaggerate the status of Jesus. But, as I said at the beginning, where the Qur’an and the Bible disagree, the Bible has to be wrong, because the Qur’an is God’s final revelation. As Imam Abdul Jalil Sajid says, "For us Muslims, the only true version can be the Qur’anic account." He speaks, however, of the confusion caused for young Muslims by school celebrations of the nativity. He recounts that a few years ago a teacher in a Madrasa (religious school) asked his students whether they thought that Jesus was the Son of God. Most of the children in the class put up their hands to indicate that they thought he was.
The Qur’an accepts the "Virgin Birth" of Jesus. It is easy for God to do this as God can accomplish his purposes in the way he wishes ( 19, 21; 45, 7). But it is made clear that Jesus is the son of Mary, a sign to men and a mercy from God, but not the "Son of God."
"It is not be fitting
To (the majesty) of Allah
That He should beget
A son. Glory be to Him!
When he determines
A matter, He only says
To it, Be" and it is. (19, 35).
The Qur’an always refers to Jesus in respectful terms. He is called a ‘sign’, a ‘mercy’, a ‘witness’ and an ‘example’. He is called by his proper name and by the titles Messiah and Son of Mary and by the names Messenger, Prophet, Servant, Word and Spirit of God. The Qur’an, however, as we have seen, denies the doctrine of the Trinity and rejects the belief that God had a Son. There are many Qur’anic denunciations of the idea that God has male or female offspring or has acquired a son, but at least some of these should probably be taken as referring to pagan gods and goddesses. There are three clear denials of Jesus’ divinity.
‘Say, "He is Allah,
Allah, the Eternal; Absolute;
He begeteth not,
Nor is He begotten;
And there is none
Like unto Him (Surah 112).
O People of the Book!
Commit no excesses
In your religion: nor say
Of Allah aught but the truth.
Christ Jesus the son of Mary
Was (no more than)
A Messenger of Allah . . .
Say not "Three": desist:
It will be better for you:
For Allah is One God:
Glory be to Him:
(Far exalted is He) above
having a son. (4, 171).
‘The Jews call Uzair [Ezra] a son
Of Allah, and the Christians
Call Christ say the Son of Allah;
That is a saying from their mouths;
(In this) they but imitate
What the Unbelievers of old
Used to say. Allah’s curse
Be on them. . . .
And (they take as their Lord)
Christ the son of Mary;
Yet they were commanded
To worship but One God:
There is no god but He.
Praise and glory to Him. (9, 30-31).
Muslims deny the divinity of Jesus because they reject all idea of God’s physical paternity, which, of course, Christians also reject. They also think that the teaching of the incarnation threatens the unity of God, although the doctrine of the Trinity is intended by Christians to guard against this danger.
In part the disagreement is a matter of language and of a failure to go beyond what is said to what is meant. Many Christians react with defensiveness and even hostility if someone denies that Jesus is the Son of God. But perhaps Christians are not always aware that the language can be misleading. As the American Catholic theologian Monika Hellwig has said ‘The serious and apparently intractable difficulties in Christology begin in a simplification in Gentile context and language of the elusive Hebrew way of speaking about the mystery of God and of God’s dealings with creation and history.’ In my book Christian-Jewish Dialogue, I suggested that the early Christians were cautious about speaking of Jesus as God and that "it could be said of second-century Christology that Christ was still the incarnate Logos, God’s revelation become flesh and blood. Christ was not yet the third person of the Trinity." In time, the teaching that God is Three Persons in One God came to be understood in a way that increased the distance between Jews and Muslims, on the one hand, and Christians on the other. In the book, I also asked whether there is other language which will more effectively communicate what Christians really believe. "To communicate the mystery of God’s presence in Jesus Christ today may mean starting again, as the language of the creeds may be a hindrance rather than a help. . . It is the living experience of faith behind the formularies that we need to discover. True Christian continuity is in sharing that experience, not in repeating ancient catch-phrases. We can affirm the reality of God in Jesus Christ without a particular time-bound metaphysic."
A few Muslims have also suggested that some of the difficulty is a matter of language. Sayyid Ahmad Khan tried to understand the language in its historical setting. ‘In the Western world, ‘father" is a term applied to the originator of something . . . the son is he whom God has formed with his hands. . . If we would express it in Arabic idiom then father means rabb (Lord) and "son" al-’abd al-maqbul (the chosen servant) and these meanings agree exactly with the application of these terms in the Old and New Testaments’. With reference to ‘Son of God’, he says, Amongst the Greeks it was commonly held that a very holy and reverenced person should be called "Son of God" . . . When the disciples intended to spread the Christian religion by means of the Greek language they had to give Christ such a title of honor.
The Persian writer Shin Parto, in his life of Jesus, Seven Faces, writes, "Christians say that Jesus is Son of God, but it is better to call Him Son of Love, one who was born in love, taught men love and was crucified for love and liberty." The Egyptian Khalid M. Khalid quotes the Gospel titles ‘Savior of the world’ and ‘Bread of Life’ and speaks of God as ‘Father’ and says ‘God is love.’ In a review of Kenneth Cragg’s The Call of the Minaret , M. Hamidullah wrote that "Muslims also admit the exalted position of Jesus, who saw with the eyes of God, talked with the tongue of God, and was absorbed (fana) in God, a position which is not incompatible with his not being God but remaining a man, a very exalted man." As we have seen, Muslim devotion also gives an exalted position to Muhammad whilst insisting that he too remained a man.
Professor S. Vahiduddin, of the Indian Institute of Islamic Studies in New Delhi, gave me an article of his "What Christ Means to Me." He wrote that "the vision of Christ in Muslim experience is indelibly associated with the Virgin Mother and consequently he is referred to as Ibn Maryam, not only in the prophetic tradition but in secular literature. The Qur’an accords pre-eminence to the Virgin Mary among the women of creation." Professor Vahiduddin, having drawn attention to Jesus Christ’s miracles and healing touch, went on to say, "Christ reflects in every act of his God’s Jamal in all its fullness; in other words He is the embodiment of that tender aspect of the divine which the Qur’an calls rahma. And this is what Rudolf Otto calls mysteriosum fascinosum. The Muslim scripture is fully alert to this aspect of Christ’s life and bears witness to the fact that it is in virtue of Christ’s tender disposition that God "instilled soft-heartedness and mercy in the hearts of those who followed him (57, 27)."’
In rejecting the divinity of Jesus, Muslims also, as we have seen, reject the doctrine of the Trinity. Here, however, especially language more than content seems to be in dispute. Geoffrey Parrinder argues that ‘although commentators have taken its words as a rejection of orthodox Christian doctrine, it seems more likely that it is heretical doctrines that are denied in the Qur’an.’ Parrinder refers to the heresy of Patripassianism that so identified Christ and God as to suggest that God the Father had suffered on the cross. There seems also to have been a tendency by some to treat Christ and Mary as separate gods - teaching rejected by the Qur’an ( 4, 169/171).
Both religions speak of a God who is in relation to the created world and to humanity, rather than a remote Deity. In his Call of the Minaret, Kenneth Cragg suggested that when Christians speak of ‘God the Son’ they mean ‘God in the act of revelation.’ To this, S. M. Tufail, who was a good friend to me in my early years with the World Congress of Faiths, replied that "the change of persons into attributes is nothing which is derogatory to the internal character of God." Here is a discussion which needs to be pursued by theologians. At least it suggests that Christians and Muslims could come closer in understanding and in their witness to the One God.
The other main area of dispute is about the death of Jesus. Traditional Muslim teaching is that the Jews (not the Romans!) tried to kill Jesus, but were unable to do so. God would not let the Messiah suffer a shameful death so it was only in appearance that Jesus was crucified. In reality, he was raised to the presence of God. This denial is out of respect for Jesus who is regarded as a prophet. It reflects the dominant Muslim view which we have already discussed that God’s cause is guaranteed ultimate success in this world
The key passage, in Richard Bell’s translation of the Qur’an is:
"So for their [Jews’] violating their compact, and for their unbelief in the signs of God, their killing the prophets without justification, and for their unbelief, and their speaking against Mary a mighty slander; and for their saying : "We killed the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, the messenger of God", though they did not kill him and did not crucify him, but he was counterfeited for them; verily those who have gone different ways in regard to him are in doubt about him; they have no (revealed) knowledge of him and only follow opinion; though they did not certainly kill him. Nay, God raised him to himself. God is sublime, wise. And there is no people of the Book but will say they believe in him before his death, and on the day of resurrection, he will be regarding them a witness."(4, 156-7)
There are various translations of the phrase that Bell translates as ‘he was counterfeited for them.’ One reads ‘it appeared to them as such’; another as ‘only a likeness of that was shown to them.’ Sometimes it is suggested that someone else was substituted for Jesus -- perhaps Simon of Cyrene or Judas or Pilate -- and was crucified in his place. Similar suggestions were already current in some apocryphal gospels. It has also been suggested that Jesus fell into a coma and revived. One heretical sect claims that Jesus after his eventual death died and was buried in Kashmir. The orthodox Muslim view is that Jesus was a true servant of God and that no one could kill the soul. A note in the Saudi Arabian translation observes ‘The end of the life of Jesus on earth is as much involved in mystery as his birth. . . It is not profitable to discuss the many doubts and conjectures among early Christian sects and among Muslim theologians.’
Muslims also reject Christian teaching about the Atonement. Ulfat Aziz-us-Samd in his Comparative Study of Christianity and Islam says the doctrine is unsound for three reasons. Man is not born in sin; God does not require a price to forgive the sinner and the idea of a vicarious sacrifice is unjust and cruel. Further, the Qur’an says that no one can take upon himself or herself the sins of another person, because each person will be rewarded or punished according to his or her deserts. In part, I agree with him, and by no means all Christians accept the substitutionary theory of the atonement which holds that Jesus’ blood paid the price which humans deserved to pay for their sins. Traditional theories of the atonement stress the objective work of Christ that by his sacrifice the relationship of God and humankind has been changed. Some modern Christians hold, as I do myself, to a more subjective view and say that the Cross shows up the nature of human sin and evil and reveals more powerfully than any other event the nature of God as self-giving love. It is a message that can transform a person’s self-understanding and their relationship to God.
A few Muslim writers have tried to go beyond disputes about what happened to Jesus on the cross to reflect upon the meaning of his passion, thereby opening up a new and potentially fruitful area of discussion between Muslims and Christians.
In his book City of Wrong, Dr Kamel Hussein says that ‘God raised him [Jesus] unto Him in a way that we can leave unexplained among the several mysteries which we have taken for granted on faith alone. Dr Hussein rejects the idea of a substitute and recognises that the intention of the Jews was to kill Jesus. For Dr Kamel Hussein, the meaning of the crucifixion is not dependent on what actually happened. The City of Wrong is Jerusalem which stands for all humankind. The events of Good Friday illustrate what happens when people sin against their conscience. The book ends with the words, "He was the light of God upon the earth. The people of Jerusalem would have nothing to do with him except to extinguish the light. Whereupon God has darkened the world around them."
Professor Vahiduddin also writes with sympathy of the events of Good Friday.
What greater ignominy and disgrace is there which Christ has not been made to suffer. But here it is that Christ appears in all his glory, and the world and all that it stands for is exposed in all its vanity. Whether we see the end and the culmination of his earthly course in the Christian or the Muslim perspective, death is not allowed to prevail and Christ appears to be ascending to supreme heights defying death. Perhaps it is due to my Muslim background that what strikes me most is not the suffering through which he passes but his triumph through suffering.
What looks like defeat, subjection to mortality, the brute success of worldly power and of hard-headed priesthood lose their relevance. Death is vanquished once for all, Christ’s life serves as a beacon to those who are laid low, who "labor and are heavy laden" (Matthew 11, 28). Whenever attempts are made to conceptualize that which by its own nature passes all understanding, interminable controversies and disputes arise. But Christ remains an unphenomenon which will defy conceptualization.
Such attempts by Muslims sympathetically to enter into the meaning of the cross are still rare. Yet if our emphasis is more on the meaning of the death of the Cross than on historical questions about what actually happened, there is room for Christians and Muslims to bring new insights to each other and to co-operate in the relief of suffering.
Professor Vahiduddin ends his brief article in this way:
The Qur’anic account of Christ’s address to His disciples and their response is highly interesting and deeply significant: "But when Jesus became aware of their disbelief he cried: who will be my helpers in the cause of God? The disciples said: we will be helpers to God" (3, 52).
And how else can we help God, poor mortals as we are, but to promote good and to resists evil and to illumine our life with that all over-riding love which embraces friends and foes alike.
[Editor’s note: The original manuscript contains no reference numbers for the following notes:]
See my Faith and Interfaith in A Global Age, CoNexus and Braybrooke Press, 1998, passim , but especially pp. 46-48.
Ibn (al-)Arabi in Tarjuman al-Ashwaq, E.T. by R A Nicholson.
Denzinger, 714, The Church Teaches, Documents of the Church in English Translation, B Herder Book Co., 1955, p. 165.
Ismail R Al Faruqi, Islam Argus Communications 1979.
Seyyed Hossein Nasr, p.114.
Daud O S Noibi, ‘O People of the Book: The Qur’an’s Approach to Interfaith Co-operation’. a paper given at the New Delhi Colloquium of the Inter-Religious Federation for World Peace. See also Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Living Sufism, pp. 121-126.
E. G Parrinder, Jesus in the Qur’an, Sheldon 1976, p. 16
Seyyed Hossein Nasr, p. 113. See Martin Lings, Muhammad, p. 324.
Abduljalil Sajid, ‘The Islamic View of Jesus’, Pamphlet published by Brighton Islamic Mission, n.d..
See Geoffrey Parrinder, Jesus in the Qur’an, Sheldon Press 1976 Edtn (First published by Faber and Faber in 1965), gives a detailed discussion of these titles.
Monika Hellwig, ‘From Christ to God: The Christian Perspective’ in Jews and Christians Speak of Jesus, Ed Arthur E Zannoni, Fortress Press 1994, p. 131.
Marcus Braybrooke, Christian-Jewish Dialogue: The Next Steps, SCM Press 2000, chapter 8, especially pp. 76-7.
Ibid, pp. 79-80.
Reforms and Religious Ideas of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, pp. 80f. quoted by Geoffrey Parrinder, p.130-1.
S. Parto, Seven Faces, Teheran, n.d., quoted by Geoffrey Parrinder, p. 131.
K M Khalid, Together on the Road, Muhammad and Jesus, Cairo.n.d. , quoted by Geoffrey Parrinder, p. 131.
M. Hamidullah in The Islamic Quarterly, 1956.
Geoffrey Parrinder, op. cit., p. 133.
Quoted by Geoffrey Parrinder, p. 140 from K Cragg, The Call of the Minaret, p. 290 f and from S M Tufail, Forum, World Congress of Faiths, June 1960.
The Gospels also put the responsibility for the death of Jesus on to the Jewish leaders, but modern Church statements emphasise that the crucifixion was carried out on the orders of the Roman government. The Passion story should not be an excuse for antiSemitism. Many Muslim scholars emphasise the close religius links betweenJews and Muslims, who both recognise Abraham as their forefather.
Richard Bell, The Qur’an Translated, T and T Clark, Edinburgh.
Saudi Arabian translation, p. 267
Ulfat Aziz-us-Samd, Comparative Study of Christianity and Islam. Noor Publishing House, Farashkana, Delhi, 1986 See also Ismail R Al Faruqi, Islam, op.cit., pp. 9-10.
City of Wrong, p. 222
Kamel Hussein, City of Wrong, ET Kenneth Cragg, Amsterdam 1959, London 1960, p. 183.
S Vahiduddin, What Christ Means to Me.