Christians, perhaps because they call themselves Christians and believe in Christianity, like to claim ownership of Christ. But the veneration of Jesus by Muslims began during the lifetime of the Prophet of Islam. Perhaps most telling is the story in the classical biographies of Muhammad, who, entering the city of Mecca in triumph in 630AD, proceeded at once to the Kaaba to cleanse the holy shrine of its idols. As he walked around, ordering the destruction of the pictures and statues of the 360 or so pagan deities, he came across a fresco on the wall depicting the Virgin and Child. He is said to have covered it reverently with his cloak and decreed that all other paintings be washed away except that one.
Jesus, or Isa, as he is known in Arabic, is deemed by Islam to be a Muslim prophet rather than the Son of God, or God incarnate. He is referred to by name in as many as 25 different verses of the Quran and six times with the title of "Messiah" (or "Christ", depending on which Quranic translation is being used). He is also referred to as the "Messenger" and the "Prophet" but, perhaps above all else, as the "word" and the "Spirit" of God. No other prophet in the Quran, not even Muhammad, is given this particular honour. In fact, among the 124,000 prophets said to be recognised by Islam--a figure that includes all of the Jewish prophets of the Old Testament--Jesus is considered second only to Muhammad, and is believed to be the precursor to the Prophet of Islam.
In his fascinating book The Muslim Jesus, the former Cambridge professor of Arabic and Islamic studies Tarif Khalidi brings together, from a vast range of sources, 303 stories, sayings and traditions of Jesus that can be found in Muslim literature, from the earliest centuries of Islamic history. These paint a picture of Christ of the Gospels. The Muslim Jesus is the patron saint of asceticism, the lord of nature, a miracle worker, a healer, a moral, spiritual and social role model.
"Jesus used to eat the leaves of the trees," reads one saying, "dress in hairshirts, and sleep wherever night found him. He had no child who might die, no house which might fall into ruin; nor did he save his lunch for his dinner or his dinner for his lunch. He used to say, 'Each day brings with it its own sustenance.'"
According to Islamic theology, Christ did not bring a new revealed law, or reform an earlier law, but introduced a new path or way (tariqah) based on the love of God; it is perhaps for this reason that he has been adopted by the mystics, or Sufis, of Islam. The Sufi philosopher al-Ghazali described Jesus as "the prophet of the soul" and the Sufi master Ibn Arabi called him "the seal of saints". The Jesus of Islamic Sufism, as Khalidi notes, is a figure "not easily distinguished" from the Jesus of the Gospels.
What prompted Khalidi to write such a provocative book? "We need to be reminded of a history that told a very different story: how one religion, Islam, co-opted Jesus into its own spirituality yet still maintained him as an independent hero of the struggle between the spirit and the letter of the law," he told me. "It is in many ways a remarkable story of religious encounter, of one religion fortifying its own piety by adopting and cherishing the master spiritual narrative of another religion."
Islam reveres both Jesus and his mother, Mary (Joseph appears nowhere in the Islamic narrative of Christ's birth). "Unlike the canonical Gospels, the Quran tilts backward to his miraculous birth rather than forward to his Passion," writes Khalidi. "This is why he is often referred to as 'the son of Mary' and why he and his mother frequently appear together." In fact, the Virgin Mary, or Maryam, as she is known in the Quran, is considered by Muslims to hold the most exalted spiritual position among women. She is the only woman mentioned by name in Islam's …