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Jesus and Mary hold an honoured place in Islam

William Eichler - The Tablet - Fri, Jan 4th 2019

Jesus and Mary hold an honoured place in Islam

An Orthodox church alongside a mosque in the Palestinian city of Ramallah Photo: Reuters, Osama Silwadi

Although it is not the custom for Muslims to celebrate the birth of their prophets, Jesus – and his mother – have an honoured place in Islam

While teaching English at a university in Turkey a few years ago, I was often drawn into theological discussions against my better judgement. Keen to derail the lessons, my students – 99 per cent of whom were devout Muslims – would ask me why Christians did not accept Muhammad as a prophet. Muslims revered Christ, they pointed out – so why wouldn’t Christ’s followers revere Muhammad? Desperate to get back to discussing how an English tourist might reserve a table for dinner in Istanbul, I would mumble something about Christians believing John the Baptist to be the last of the prophets, and Jesus the fulfilment of all the prophecies. Unconvinced, they would return to listing adjectives that could describe the Bosphorus.

While the answer to my students’ question might be clear enough to theologically savvy readers of The Tablet, their insistence on the important place of Jesus in Islam may be surprising. So, who is the Muslim Jesus?

Within the Islamic tradition, Jesus is part of a long line of prophets stretching all the way back to Abraham and forward to Muhammad, the last of God’s messengers. Isa al-Masih (Jesus the Messiah) is for Muslims a bearer of revelation; a messenger of God whose role was to remind an erring humanity of what he had already told the Jewish people: there is no god but God.

The Qur’an is explicit on this point. “We caused Jesus, son of Mary, to follow in [the biblical prophets’] footsteps,” it states in 5:46, “and We bestowed on him the Gospel in which there is guidance and a light, confirming that which was [revealed] before it in the Torah.” Islam’s holy book also notes Jesus was tasked with liberalising Judaism. He was sent, it says, “to make lawful some of that which was forbidden unto you” (3:50). Neither Jesus nor Muhammad founded new religions, according to Islamic teachings. 

As professor of Islamic studies Asma Afsaruddin writes, they both preached an “unchanging divine message of monotheism”. Their aim, she argues, was to bring humanity “back to the primordial religion of Islam, understood in a non-confessional sense of surrender to the one universal God.” As “people of the book”, Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all saved. 

During the medieval period a number of Muslim theologians rejected this ecumenical interpretation of Islamic texts. Figures such as Ibn Taymiyyah articulated the doctrine of supercessionism, which argued that Islam was superior to its Abrahamic predecessors. Jews and Christians, in this view, had no hope of salvation, as they were following corrupted versions of the divine message. 

Ibn Taymiyyah’s thought has helped shape the world view of groups like Isis. But such exegesis ignores the Qur’an’s repeated assertions to the contrary: “Lo! those who believe [in that which is revealed unto thee, Muhammad], and those who are Jews, and Christians, and Sabaeans – whoever believeth in Allah and the Last Day and doeth right – surely their reward is with their Lord” (2:62).

What, according to Islam, is Jesus’ position vis-à-vis other prophets? The Qur’an calls on believers to “make no distinction between [the prophets]” (3:84) but, at the same time, says “some of them He exalted [above others] in degree” (2:253).
I asked Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, an imam from Leicester and assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, to explain this apparent contradiction. “There is no room for any diminishing of the honour and respect for any of the prophets,” he explains. “However, some had special things about them that were unique to them. In that sense, it makes one special in one way and another special in another way, but they’re all held with equal regard and in high esteem by Muslims.” Different but equal, in other words – which doesn’t wholly explain the tension between the two verses. (The Shi’a tradition follows 2:253 to the letter. Jesus is regarded as one of the five “Prophets of Power.”)

For Muslims, Jesus was flesh and blood and nothing more. “Allah hath not chosen any son, nor is there any god along with Him,” Qur’an 23:91 states, rejecting the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. And in case there was any doubt, the Qur’an insists that believing God had a son would see the earth “split asunder and the mountains fall in ruins” (19:90).

While Muslims do not view Jesus as God incarnate, Islamic tradition still treats him – and his mother – with nothing but reverence (this is particularly the case for Sufis). Legend has it when Muhammad entered the Ka’aba on his return to Mecca and destroyed the idols, two frescoes were left unharmed. They portrayed Jesus and Mary. True or not, this story gives us a sense of the regard for the two central figures of Christianity in the pre-modern Islamic literary tradition.

The only woman named in the Qur’an is the mother of Christ, and she has an entire chapter dedicated to her. “Maryam”, along with “The family of Imran”, sets down the basic template for the Islamic Mary. “The presentation of Mary in the Qur’an shapes and informs the way Muslims across the centuries have revered her and thought of her,” Suleiman Mourad, a specialist in Islamic history at Smith College, Massachusetts, tells me. 

In these chapters, we learn of the Virgin Birth. Mary is visited by Gabriel who informs her she is to give birth to a son. “How can I have a son when no mortal has touched me?” she asks. It is God’s will the angel tells her. Mary gives birth to Jesus in the desert, sustained by dates and a stream sent from God. The new mother then returns to her people who shun her until the baby Jesus miraculously speaks in her defence. “See! I am the servant of God,” he calls out. “He has given me the Book and has appointed me a Prophet.” 

This prophet – the “son of Mary” as he is frequently referred to in the Qur’an – is empowered by the “Holy Spirit” and performs many miracles. He cures lepers and brings the dead back to life. However, the Qur’an also states that Jesus gives life to clay birds – a miracle shared by no other prophet. “Jesus in the Qur’an is a ‘super’ prophet,” explains Mourad, suggesting there may be a hierarchy between God’s messengers after all. “The Qur’an describes him in ways that do not apply to any other prophet.”

The Muslim Jesus does more than perform miracles. The “Spirit from God” and the “Word of God”, as he is also called, announces the coming of Muhammad. Qur’an 61:6 quotes him as saying he is “bringing good tidings of a messenger who will come after me, whose name is the Praised One (Ahmad).” This verse is widely interpreted to be a reference to the prophet Muhammad, whose name also means “Praised One”.

If Christians and Muslims disagree on Jesus’ crucifixion, his final days on earth also divide the faiths. The prevalent view within the Muslim world is that Jesus was not killed but was in fact rescued by God and taken to heaven before his crucifixion. “We slew the Messiah,” states the Qur’an, referring to the Christian view of Christ’s death, before adding: “They slew him not nor crucified him, but it appeared so unto them” (4:157). According to Muslims, Jesus is beside God and will return to earth for the End Times. 

Eschatology is not a big part of the Qur’an, but the hadiths (reports of Muhammad’s life) go into remarkable detail. There will be a final battle between Christ and al-Masih al-Dajjal (“the false Messiah”), they say. The Dajjal – or anti-Christ – will emerge in Syria to wreak havoc. Jesus will then descend “on the top of the white minaret at the east of Damascus” and will defeat Satan in a final showdown. The triumphant Christ will also “break crosses, kill swine, and abolish the poll-tax” before starting a family. 

The end of the world will follow. Before that, however, Christ will die a natural death and be taken to one of the holiest cities in Islam. Shaykh Ibrahim explains: “[He] will be buried in Medina in Saudi Arabia next to the grave of Muhammad – Peace Be Upon Him – where even today a space has been reserved for Jesus. No other prophet but he has been given that honour.”

There is a lot of talk about the need to “liberalise” Islam today. Some suggest the figure of Jesus may be able to play a role in this process. Mustafa Akyol, author of The Islamic Jesus, argues Jesus’ teachings were intended as a remedy for the ills of division, rigid literalism and zealotry that surrounded him – the same problems facing Muslim societies today. For this reason, Akyol tells me, Muslims should use Jesus as a model for developing a “more sober and self-confident” rereading of Islam. “Our current troubles are the very troubles that Jesus dealt with,” he explains. “So, let’s look at him as our guiding light.”

William Eichler is a freelance writer on Middle East affairs.

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