Cover story -- Essay
This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  June 3, 2005

The Jesus of Islam

Christians have more in common with Muslims than they realize


Despite the growing number of Muslims in the United States, for many Americans Islam remains profoundly foreign. A nationwide survey conducted last year by the Pew Research Center and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported that the percentage of Americans with an unfavorable view of Islam increased to 37 percent, up from 33 percent in 2002. The percentage responding that Islam was more likely than other religions to encourage violence nearly doubled, from 25 percent in March 2002 to 46 percent in July 2004. These opinion trends come despite continued efforts by political leaders to downplay the cultural and religious differences between Christians and Muslims and to counter suggestions that a “clash of civilizations” is inevitable.

Perhaps inspired in part by an anxiety over this religious and cultural divide, books such as Bruce Felier’s Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths have invited consideration of Islam’s spiritual kinship with Judaism and Christianity. In a global conflict in which images from the mass culture -- from McDonald’s Golden Arches to a tranquil Osama bin Laden fingering his Kalashnikov -- are so powerful, common religious figures can provide symbolic counterweights. While the reverence that Muslims, Jews and Christians share for such scriptural figures as Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses is commonly underappreciated, perhaps even less recognized is the role in Islam of another biblical figure: Christ himself.

Arguably the most important prophet of Islam after Muhammad, Jesus was already a well-known figure throughout the Middle East when Islam was born nearly 1,400 years ago. This was a time when there were many disparate communities within Christianity, with competing conceptions of Christ. As Islam arose in what is now Saudi Arabia and surrounding areas, Muslim understandings of Christ emerged under the particular influence of Eastern Christianity and were probably shaped in part by the apocryphal accounts of Jesus’ life that were abundant in early Christian tradition.

While it is not possible to identify with any precision the myriad mechanisms through which Christianity affected the development of the Muslim Christ, there is little question that those mechanisms were internal as well as external. Like Christianity, Islam is a convert religion. Just as Christianity was shaped by the Judaism of its first adherents, Islam was influenced by the Jewish and Christian traditions from which many of its first converts were drawn. Hence, Christianity had an extensive, multifaceted influence on the Muslim writings that describe who Jesus was -- and who he was not.

The Quran is the most significant of these writings, but the Muslim answer to the question of who Jesus was is derived from other works as well: devotional texts, works of Adab (which offer guidelines on conduct and manners in various spheres of life), the Muslim mystic tradition, histories of the prophets and saints, and collections of Muhammad’s sayings and events in his life, known as the hadith. From these various Muslim writings emerges an approach that affirms Christ’s special humanity: Though Christianity and Islam diverge on the paramount question of Jesus’ divinity, both faiths understand Jesus to be fully human and reserve a singular privileged place for him among human beings.

The various terms applied to Jesus in Muslim tradition each capture a different aspect of his identity. “Son of Mary” is the designation most often applied to Jesus in the Quran. This highlights his miraculous birth and the very fact of his existence, in contrast to the progressive theme of the Gospels, which steadily build toward Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. Other Quranic titles for Jesus will be familiar to Christians as well: Christ or messiah, servant, word and spirit. Taken together, the Quran sketches Jesus as a humble, ascetic servant of God, a miracle worker, and the son of a virgin. As Oddbjorn Leirvik notes in his 1999 Images of Jesus Christ in Islam, the Acts of the Apostles and the third Christian Gospel, both attributed to St. Luke, may be the most amenable of the Christian scriptures to the Quranic vision of Christ. Both emphasize Christ’s obedience to God (Acts 2:22, Acts 3:18, Luke 9:20, Acts 3:13 and 4:27), while references to the experience of Pentecost and the relationship of Father, Son and Spirit are elaborated fully as the doctrine of Trinitarianism -- which Muslims firmly reject -- only several centuries after the Gospel was written.

Though direct references to the Bible are rare in the Quran, there exist notable links between the Quranic and Judeo-Christian scriptural traditions. The Quran alludes to the “eye for an eye” vision of justice, referring to it as the law God laid down for the Jews. In another case, the Quran says that to those who deny revelation, “the gates of heaven will not be opened nor will they enter the Garden until the camel goeth through the needle’s eye.” The allusion of the needle’s eye is a familiar one for Christians, based on Jesus’ admonition in the New Testament that “it will easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Also notable is the reference to the Lord’s Prayer of the Christian Gospels, evident in the following hadith text from the collection of Abû Dawûd:

When any one is in suffering, or his brother suffers, then let him pray this prayer: Our Lord God who is in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom is in heaven and on earth, and even as Thy mercy is in heaven, so may Thy mercy also be upon earth. Forgive us our debts and our sins, for Thou art the Lord of the good.

References in the Quran to Jesus’ own teachings are few. There are none of the parables that mark the New Testament, nor is there any clear analogue to the Sermon on the Mount. Instead, Jesus is characterized with statements made by others, conversations he has with God or with the Israelites, and descriptions of his life and followers. God’s oneness is at the center of his message, consistent with Islam’s prophetic tradition. Humility is also a common theme in describing Jesus -- both in the attitudes he cultivates among his followers and in his own attitude toward his mother. Jesus has also been characterized in some Islamic traditions as a wandering ascetic and as one of very few “perfect” men in history, with a superlative relationship to both God and man.

Essential differences

These commonalities between the Muslim and the Christian understandings of the human Jesus are not commonly appreciated. Yet they should in no way obfuscate the mutually exclusive answers given by Christianity and Islam on the question of Jesus’ divinity. The doctrine of Jesus’ two natures -- divine and human -- is a defining point of Christianity, while the essence of Jesus’ person in Islamic tradition is shaped by his own consistent upbraiding of those who would attribute to him divine characteristics. The dialogue between Christianity and Islam comes through in a passage from the Quran in which God asks Jesus whether he told mankind to take himself and his mother, Mary, as two gods beside God. Jesus responds firmly, saying: “Glory be to you! It cannot be that I would say that which is not mine by right” (5:116). This comment captures a consistent message of Islam: No man shares divinity with God.

Mr. Leirvik rightly asserts that the crucifixion and concomitant question of redemption constitute the essential difference separating Christianity and Islam, from which other differences flow. Christians see the crucifixion as a revelation of the divine itself, through Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection. In contrast, Muslims believe that through divine intervention Jesus was rescued from the cross before he died. This can be interpreted as a sign of Jesus’ helplessness and his status as a lesser prophet not able to effect the massive political change wrought by Muhammad. This difference is not merely one of emphasis. It highlights the fundamental opposition of Islam to the notion of a triune God, and the inability of Christians to question Jesus’ divinity without ceasing to be Christian.

This theological divide between Muslims and Christians is real; it is not going to be filled in by threading together bits of Christian and Muslim scripture to concoct a Jesus lite. Yet controversy about the nature of Jesus is not new. Christianity had been around for several hundred years before the Council of Chalcedon definitively proclaimed the doctrine of Christ’s two natures. The Muslim Jesus is no more radical from a Christian perspective than any one of a number of heresies that embroiled the early church, and innumerable theologians and philosophers have since continued to ponder Jesus’ being. Notable among these for Americans is Thomas Jefferson, who, even as he was authoring the Declaration of Independence, was known for his notably low Christology. His writings offer ample evidence that he saw Jesus as a great moral teacher rather than as God, placing one of America’s icons closer to Islam in this respect than to his Christian friends and colleagues.

What are we to draw from this? Both Christians and Muslims can be rightly wary about sacrificing their spiritual or intellectual integrity in the effort to build shaky ecumenical bridges. Yet while faith differences are often portrayed as exacerbating a broader social and cultural gap between the primarily Muslim countries of the Middle East and Asia on the one hand and the largely Christian United States and Europe on the other, a full understanding of the role of Christ in both faiths reveals commonalities that are no less real than the differences. It may be that a poor grasp of the shared role of Christ in both faiths is the greater threat. Were Jesus to reappear today, after all, both Christians and Muslims would be true to their own faiths in gathering around to listen and wonder.

Brian Brennan is a graduate student in politics at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, England. He was a 2003 Pew Charitable Trusts CIVITAS Fellow in Faith and Public Affairs.

National Catholic Reporter, June 3, 2005

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: