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Gabriel Said Reynolds

Jesus Through Muslim Eyes

Sayings and stories

In the crash course in Islam offered by the media over the last six months, many Christians will have heard it said that Muslims regard Jesus as a great prophet—not divine, and superseded by Muhammad, but nonetheless a figure of respect. For the reader who wants to go beyond such bland generalities, there is a surprisingly large literature on Jesus in Islam, including a number of well-written, informative works on many aspects of the topic.1

Tarif Khalidi's The Muslim Jesus is the latest addition to this genre. Khalidi, a Lebanese Sunni Muslim professor at Cambridge University, has a limited agenda in this work, one which his predecessors did not take on: to introduce the non-Qur'anic Jesus, the one who appears in later Muslim piety. Unlike the more general books, The Muslim Jesus—although its title seems to indicate more—is basically a collection of, and commentary on, the sayings and stories about Jesus in medieval Islamic works in Arabic.

As such, the book might appear as a bit of a disappointment. For one thing, Khalidi neglects other Islamic languages (most importantly Persian). Moreover, he never brings up the big questions that are essential for the Christian reader, i.e., the origins of and reasons behind the Islamic rejection of Jesus as crucified, savior, and divine. The author's assimilation of this fascinating material does not go too much beyond appealing yet meatless statements such as "it is salutary to remind ourselves of an age and a tradition when Christianity and Islam were more open to each other" or that here we have "a unique record of how one world religion chose to adopt the central figure of another."

Despite this, The Muslim Jesus is a very good book. Khalidi writes in eloquent yet never pompous English (which he modestly attributes to his son's help with the translation), always striving to be comprehensible to the nonspecialist. Moreover, he has done valuable work simply in collecting, annotating, and translating this material. Thereafter, he lets the material about Jesus speak for itself, in order (I think) to make an important point: that the Jesus of Islam is a creation of Islam. In Khalidi's words, the Muslim Jesus is "a compound image," a figure "resurrected in an environment where he becomes a Muslim prophet." Thus, Khalidi explains, a wide range of Muslim authors used the figure of Jesus as a spokesman for their cause, be it asceticism, quietism, Shi'ism, or anti-Christian polemic. This point, too, is a critical one, and a welcome counterbalance to those polemical Muslim writers who insist, in the face of 150 years of scholarly research to the contrary, that all Islamic dogma was revealed in the lifetime of Muhammad. Refreshingly, Khalidi firmly rejects the idea that "Islam [sprung] fully developed from the womb of history."

The Muslim Jesus, which is never dogmatic in tone, begins with a basic 45-page introduction and continues with a presentation of 303 sayings attributed to Jesus or stories about him. Khalidi refers to this material as "the Muslim gospel." The phrase is a curious one, seeing that the Qur'an itself frequently speaks about the "gospel" as God's revelation to Jesus (as the Torah to Moses and the Qur'an to Muhammad). What Khalidi refers to as "gospel," however, is a collection of traditional sayings and stories that he has gathered from Muslim authors who wrote between the eighth century (the second Islamic century) and the eighteenth century (overlapping the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in the Islamic reckoning).

This material then, cannot be regarded as authentic to Jesus in any historical-critical sense, and Khalidi is more than willing to accept as much. He even goes so far as to suggest that the "Islamic Jesus of the Muslim gospel may be a fabrication." Yet the material will prove fascinating to the Christian reader for a couple of reasons: it provokes one to question how this material entered into the Islamic tradition, and it undermines the simplistic Muslim understanding of Jesus as a prophet like any other.

Khalidi presents the traditions chronologically, that is, beginning from those that first appear in Islamic works. He follows up each tradition with precise references to its Arabic source (or its appearance in Western translations) and then provides a short discussion of its importance and possible origin. He could have chosen to divide the material topically, which likely would have been more convenient for the nonspecialist. A topical organization would also highlight some important trends: most notably, that a large number of the traditions are clearly parallel to biblical passages. Thus an Islamic tradition reports Jesus saying "Place your treasures in heaven, for the heart of man is where his treasure is." Elsewhere a ninth-century Muslim tells the story that the disciples found Jesus "walking upon water. One of them said to him, 'Prophet of God, shall we walk toward you?' 'Yes,' he replied. As the disciple put one foot forward and then the next, he sank." In another place, a thirteenth-century Sufi writes that Jesus said, "he who has not been born twice shall not enter the Kingdom of heaven."

Also prominent among the traditions in The Muslim Jesus are those which depict Jesus as an ascetic, encouraging self-deprivation: "Jesus used to say, 'Truly I say to you, to eat wheat bread, to drink pure water, and to sleep upon dunghills with the dogs more than suffices him who wishes to inherit paradise.'" Elsewhere, "Jesus would say to the world, 'Away from me, you pig!,'" and "Jesus used to eat the leaves of the trees, dress in hair shirts, and sleep wherever night found him. He had no child who might die, no house which might fall into ruin." This is the Jesus of whom Muslim mystics and ascetics were especially fond. They used these traditions to justify their lifestyle (and criticize that of others). At times, this pious Jesus seems even to call into question the legalism of orthodox Islam: "A pig passed by Jesus. Jesus said, 'Pass in peace.' He was asked, 'Spirit of God, how can you say this to a pig [an unclean animal]?' Jesus replied, 'I hate to accustom my tongue to evil.'"

Yet elsewhere, Jesus appears as the epitome of Islamic orthodoxy, as when he is pleased with the man who has been off on religious warfare, or when we see him performing the Islamic prayers, or when he gives a description of the Qur'anic paradise complete with rivers of "milk, water, and honey. Its inhabitants are comely maidens, alike in age, chaste, and living in pavilions." And if, as we've seen, some of the traditions in The Muslim Jesus mirror biblical passages, others contain a very unbiblical Jesus. Thus a tradition reports that Jesus referred to food saying, "nothing that is born into this world is ever without pollution." Elsewhere an eleventh-century Sufi reports that Jesus said, "He who fears [God] does not laugh."

Finally, certain traditions seem to have the distinct purpose of arguing against Christian doctrine regarding Jesus (who better to do the job?). This comes through in the tradition that "whenever the Hour [i.e., the Final Hour] was mentioned, Jesus used to cry out in anguish like a woman." In another story, intended to emphasize that he was not divine, Jesus is confused by someone who did not respond to his words. God tells him, "How can [that man,] whose heart has half an atom's weight of love for me, hear the words of human beings?"

In short, the Jesus of the "Muslim gospel" takes on a number of different identities, some of them sharply contradictory. This is (in my opinion) a product of the Christian roots from which Islam sprung and its subsequent efforts to separate itself from those roots.

Whatever the case may be, Khalidi is to be congratulated for collecting this material and presenting it in a clear and accessible manner. He has also included a complete bibliography of Arabic sources for the specialist and detailed endnotes with the most important secondary literature for the specialist and nonspecialist alike. Khalidi might also be thanked for writing a book remarkably free of the arrogant tone and the gratuitous attacks on earlier scholars that seem to plague the field of Islamic studies. On the contrary, The Muslim Jesus reflects the humility and sincerity of its author.

—This article concludes a two-part series. The first part considered "Muhammad Through Christian Eyes."

1. Among these, I would draw attention to Michel Hayek's Christ de l'Islam (1959), Geoffery Parrinder's Jesus in the Qur'an (1965), Olaf Schumman's Der Christus der Muslime (1988), and Neal Robinson's Christ in Islam and Christianity (1991), which carefully details the most important Islamic writings on Christ from the Qur'an to the modern era.

Gabriel Said Reynolds is a doctoral candidate in Islamic studies at Yale University.

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