The Jesus of Islam: Christians Have More in Common with Muslims Than They Realize

Article excerpt

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 Odd-bjorn 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. …