The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature

By Raisanen, Heikki | Journal of Biblical Literature, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature


Raisanen, Heikki, Journal of Biblical Literature


The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature. Translated and edited by Tarif Khalidi. Convergences: Inventories of the Present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001. Pp. viii + 245. $22.95 (cloth).

Tarif Khalidi, professor of Arabic at the University of Cambridge, has assembled a very valuable collection of sayings and stories-303 in number-of Jesus in Arabic Islamic literature. The sources scanned reach from the second to the twelfth Islamic centuries (eighth to eighteenth centuries C.E.). The book consists of a comprehensive and illuminating fifty-page introduction, the 303 items in chronological order of their sources, and brief helpful comments (on sources, parallels, and function in Islamic discourse) appended to each item. Notes, bibliography, and two indexes close the volume.

The Qur'anic references to Jesus form the basis of his later manifestations in Islamic literature. The Qur'anic Jesus is a "controversial prophet," "deliberately made to distance himself from the doctrines that his community is said to hold of him" (p. 12) who has "little in common with the Jesus of the Gospels, canonical or apocryphal" (p. 16). In subsequent Muslim literature, however, a much richer picture is found, owing to increasing contacts between Muslims and Christians. In the authoritative Hadith collections Jesus comes to play a part in the scenario of the last things, but in this role he remains "a somewhat distant figure of no immediate or pragmatic moral relevance to Muslim piety" (p. 26). This portrait of Jesus is deliberately ignored by Khalidi, who includes none of the eschatological material in his collection. he focuses instead on another Muslim Jesus who is encountered in works of popular piety and asceticism and in a genre called "Tales of the Prophets," where he was "a living moral force" (p. 26).

The sayings and stories of this Jesus are called "the Muslim gospel" by Khalidi. The designation is not inappropriate. A reader with some knowledge of the Synoptic Gospels will find a lot of familiar stuff, especially sayings related to the Sermon on the Mount, though mostly with an Islamic twist; for some, the combination of familiar and "alien" elements in the Gospel of Thomas will come to mind as an analogy. Concern with the poor and opposition to scholars who compromise their religious calling are in focus; Jesus plays a role in intra-Muslim polemics, being subtly used by early ascetics against religious scholars who had allied themselves with worldly power (pp. 31f). Increasingly Jesus comes to be portrayed as an extrarigorous ascetic (from a NT perspective he seems to have switched roles with John the Baptist, who also puts in an appearance, often being the more relaxed character of the two). Another popular role for Jesus is that of a miracle worker (which includes curious cases of casual resurrections), but he also appears as a doctor who helps people by giving them rational guidance in matters of health.

It is obvious that a large part from the material has its origin in Christian sources (though much that is rooted in "Hellenistic civilization" in general is also present), but it has been molded in an Islamic environment. Jesus is always identified as a Muslim prophet, on occasion reciting the Qur'an, praying in the Muslim manner, and going on pilgrimage to Mecca. …

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