The Figure of Jesus in Popular Islam

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 3, 2001 | Go to article overview
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The Figure of Jesus in Popular Islam


"I have an axe to grind," said Tarif Khalidi, professor and fellow of the faculty of Oriental Studies at Cambridge University. Speaking at a June 9 panel on religion during ADC's 18th National Convention, Khalidi addressed the topic of Jesus in the Islamic tradition, which he considers "an historical record that has been unfairly neglected." Declaring that he would like to nominate Arab-Islamic civilization for the Nobel Peace Prize of the Middle Ages, Khalidi emphasized that classical Islam's cultural pluralism and sectarian coexistence was "no doubt the jewel in its crown."

A prime example, said Khalidi, is the importance of the figure of Jesus in Islamic piety. He was careful, however, to distinguish between the Qur'an's "purified Jesus," who conforms to Islamic concepts of prophecy and eschatology, and the Jesus of popular Muslim myth and folklore. The latter, said Khalidi, has hardly been touched upon in scholarship on Islam.

The Muslim fascination with Jesus is a unique phenomenon: no other prophet in Islam is given such rapt attention. "Such an instance is unusual in the history of religion in general," said Khalidi, "when one religion reaches out to adopt the spiritual founder of another in order to expand and reinforce its own piety."

Images of Jesus abound in Persian Sufi poetry, and he is frequently depicted in Mughal and Safavid art. "The Sufis viewed Jesus as the prophet of the heart par excellence," Khalidi said. "He typified the struggle between law and spirit in his frequent condemnation of worldly scholars."

Further, there is a body of sayings in classical Arab-Islamic literature from the 8th to the 18th centuries that Khalidi termed the "Muslim gospel." These sayings, attributed to Jesus, show up in mystical works and works of popular piety, adab, history, and geography, among others. Outside of Christian works, in fact, the "Muslim gospel" is the largest collection of material on Jesus in any classical culture. Interestingly, Khalidi pointed out, most of these sayings have no parallel in the Qur'an, Hadith or New Testament, but have been widely circulated in the Muslim world.

The popular figure of Jesus extends beyond the Muslim scriptural pattern, even incorporating non-Muslim elements into its narrative. Khalidi quoted several 20th century Arab Muslim poets who use the imagery of Christ's crucifixion in their poetry, despite Islamic teachings to the contrary.

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