In “The Muslim prophet born in Bethlehem” in The Guardian (thanks to all who sent this in), predictably enough, lauds Muslims for their alleged openness to Christianity, and scolds Christians for not being similarly open to Islam.
In 632, after five years of fearful warfare, the city of Mecca in the Arabian Hijaz voluntarily opened its gates to the Muslim army. No blood was shed and nobody was forced to convert to Islam, but the Prophet Muhammad ordered the destruction of all idols and icons of the Divine. There were a number of frescoes painted on the inner walls of the Kabah, the ancient granite shrine in the centre of Mecca, and one of them, it is said, depicted Mary and the infant Jesus. Immediately Muhammad covered it reverently with his cloak, ordering all the other pictures to be destroyed except that one.
This story may surprise people in the west, who have regarded Islam as the implacable enemy of Christianity ever since the crusades, but it is salutary to recall it during the Christmas season when we are surrounded by similar images of the Virgin and Child.
It will come as no surprise to anyone in the West who reads my book The Truth About Muhammad, as I mention this incident on p. 149. But there is a great deal more about Islam’s view of Christianity and Jesus that will surprise many in the West, because they are getting their information about Islam from Karen Armstrong, and she doesn’t tell them about it, either in this article or anywhere else. For some specifics, read on.
It reminds us that the so-called clash of civilisations was by no means inevitable.
Right. It wasn’t at all inevitable — as long as Christians acquiesced in their delegitimization and appropriation of their identity by Muslims, which Armstrong slyly endorses here. Again, read on.
For centuries Muslims cherished the figure of Jesus, who is honoured in the Qur’an as one of the greatest of the prophets and, in the formative years of Islam, became a constituent part of the emergent Muslim identity.
There are important lessons here for both Christians and Muslims – especially, perhaps, at Christmas. The Qur’an does not believe that Jesus is divine but it devotes more space to the story of his virginal conception and birth than does the New Testament, presenting it as richly symbolic of the birth of the Spirit in all human beings (Qur’an 19:17-29; 21:91). Like the great prophets, Mary receives this Spirit and bears Jesus, who will, in his turn, become an ayah, a revelation of peace, gentleness and compassion to the world.
The Qur’an is horrified by Christian claims that Jesus was the “son of God”, and depicts Jesus ardently denying his divinity in an attempt to “cleanse” himself of these blasphemous projections. Time and again the Qur’an insists that, like Muhammad himself, Jesus was a perfectly ordinary human being and that the Christians have entirely misunderstood their own scriptures. But it concedes that the most learned and faithful Christians – especially monks and priests – did not believe that Jesus was divine; of all God’s worshippers, they were closest to the Muslims (5:85-86).
Here is the heart of the matter: the Qur’an radically redefines Jesus, and then declares its redefinition to be the genuine article. It is an act of religious imperialism, of religious colonialism: Jesus is expropriated as a Muslim prophet, and a central element of the Christian understanding of him — that he is the Son of God — is declared illegitimate.
Armstrong doesn’t mention the harshness of this operation, which culminates with Christians who believe in Christ’s divinity being called “unbelievers” (Qur’an 5:17), and those who call him the “Son of God” being placed under Allah’s curse (Qur’an 9:30). The result is that orthodox Christianity has always been considered by the Islamic mainstream as being not an object of respect, as Armstrong suggests, but as a renegade entity of which the true version was Islam. For Armstrong’s statement that the Qur’an “concedes that the most learned and faithful Christians – especially monks and priests – did not believe that Jesus was divine” is true as regards the Qur’an, but false as regards fact — unless one posits, as she may, that “the most learned and faithful Christians” were never found within the pale of orthodox Christology.
She may indeed think that, despite the overwhelming dominance of that orthodox Christology throughout the history of Christianity, for she then attempts to establish that that Christology is based on a misunderstanding:
It has to be said that some Christians have a very simplistic understanding of what is meant by the incarnation. When the New Testament writers – Paul, Matthew, Mark and Luke – call Jesus the “Son of God”, they do not mean that he was God. They use the term in its Jewish sense: in the Hebrew Bible, this title was bestowed upon an ordinary mortal – a king, a priest or a prophet – who had been given a special task by God and enjoyed unusual intimacy with him. Throughout his gospel, Luke is in tune with the Qur’an, because he consistently calls Jesus a prophet. Even John, who saw Jesus as God’s incarnate Word, usually made a distinction, albeit a very fine one, between the eternal Word and God himself – just as our own words are separate from the essence of our being.
So in essence what Armstrong is saying is that Christians have for centuries misunderstood their own Scriptures, and that Islam is closer to the truth about them than is orthodox Christianity. And then she scolds Christians for not realizing that.
The Qur’an insists that all rightly guided religions come from God, and Muslims are required to believe in the revelations of every single one of God’s messengers: “Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob … and all the other prophets: we make no distinction between any of them” (3:84). But Jesus – also called the Messiah, the Word and the Spirit – had special status.
Jesus, it was felt, had an affinity with Muhammad, and had predicted his coming (61:6), just as the Hebrew prophets were believed by Christians to have foretold the coming of Christ. The Qur’an, possibly influenced by Docetic Christianity, denied that Jesus had been crucified, but saw his ascension into heaven as the triumphant affirmation of his prophethood. In a similar way, Muhammad had once mystically ascended to the Throne of God. Jesus would also play a prominent role beside Muhammad in the eschatological drama of the last days.
“…just as the Hebrew prophets were believed by Christians to have foretold the coming of Christ.” There is a fundamental difference, however: Christianity never charged Jews with corrupting their holy texts. Rather, Christians interpreted those texts in a manner that differed from the Jewish interpretation. Both Jews and Christians recognized — and recognize — those texts as holy. For this and other reasons, replacement theology and its attendant delegimization of the other, which is mainstream Islam vis-a-vis both Judaism and Christianity, is not the dominant view of Jews and Judaism among Christians, having been thoroughly repudiated in numerous ways.
The influence from Docetism on the Qur’anic view of the crucifixion is in fact very strong. The earliest paper I wrote about Islam was one around 1981 in graduate school, comparing the traditions about the crucifixion in Gnostic Gospels with those in the Qur’an and Hadith. There are numerous strong similarities.
Anyway, Armstrong doesn’t bother to detail Jesus’ “prominent role beside Muhammad in the eschatological drama of the last days.” Maybe that’s because Muhammad explains it thusly: “By Him in Whose Hands my soul is, son of Mary (Jesus) will shortly descend amongst you people (Muslims) as a just ruler and will break the Cross and kill the pig and abolish the Jizya (a tax taken from the non-Muslims, who are in the protection, of the Muslim government)” (Bukhari, 3.34.425). By breaking the Cross, this Muslim Jesus will demonstrate the illegitimacy of orthodox Christianity, and by killing the pig (which Christians eat, but Muslims don’t) and abolishing the jizya, he will end the limited protection — dhimma — that Christians are to enjoy under Islamic rule, and Islamize them entirely. How un-ecumenical.
During the first three centuries of Islam, Muslims came into close contact with Christians in Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Egypt, and began to amass a collection of hundreds of stories and sayings attributed to Jesus; there is nothing comparable in any other non-Christian religion. Some of these teachings were clearly derived from the gospel – the Sermon on the Mount was particularly popular – but were given a distinctively Muslim flavour. Jesus is depicted making the hajj, reading the Qur’an, and prostrating himself in prayer.
Here again, this is not ecumenical generosity, but triumphalist expropriation. Imagine if George W. Bush, in retirement, published a book in which he declared that John Kerry was a secret Republican operative, who threw the 2004 election on the instructions of Karl Rove. Would Armstrong then hail Bush’s openness and generosity toward the Democratic Party?
In other stories, Jesus articulated specifically Muslim concerns. He was a great model for Muslim ascetics, preaching poverty, humility and patience. Sometimes he took sides in a political or theological dispute: aligning himself with those who advocated free will in the debate about predestination; praising Muslims who retired on principle from politics (“Just as kings have left wisdom to you, so you should leave the world to them”); or condemning scholars who prostituted their learning for political advancement (“Do not make your living from the Book of God”).
Jesus was becoming internalised by Muslims as an exemplar and inspiration in their own spiritual quest. Shias felt that there was a strong connection between Jesus and their inspired imams, who had also had miraculous births and inherited prophetic knowledge from their mothers. The Sufis were especially devoted to Jesus and called him the prophet of love. The 12th-century mystic Ibn al-Arabi called him “the seal of the saints” – deliberately pairing him with Muhammad, the “seal of the prophets”. Some Sufis went so far as to alter the shahadah, the Muslim profession of faith, so that it became: “I bear witness that there is no God but Allah, and that Jesus [not Muhammad] is his prophet.”
But of course, the Jesus they were revering was not the Jesus of Christianity, but Jesus the Muslim Prophet, who acquiesced in the denigration of orthodox Christianity (cf. Qur’an 5:116). To adduce all this as evidence of Muslim respect for Christianity ignores the fact that the Muslim Jesus is offered in the Qur’an as a rebuke to and corrective of Christianity.
The Muslim devotion to Jesus is a remarkable example of the way in which one tradition can be enriched by another. It cannot be said that Christians returned the compliment. While the Muslims were amassing their Jesus-traditions, Christian scholars in Europe were denouncing Muhammad as a lecher and charlatan, viciously addicted to violence. But today both Muslims and Christians are guilty of this kind of bigotry and often seem eager to see only the worst in each other.
Here all that needs to be said has been said by a commenter at The Guardian site: “The Baha’i Faith stands to Islam much as Islam stands to Christianity (i.e. they claim Muhammad as a prophet, reinterpret him a bit, add a couple of extra prophets). How do you suppose Muslims react to this? They react in just the way that Christians react to Muslims’ claim that Jesus was a prophet (and not the son of God). So it’s not the case (as you suggest it is) that Christians have been less tolerant than Muslims in relation to one religion’s claim to have incorporated the insights of another. Christians have no reason to be tolerant of Islam, nor Muslims of Baha’i – it’s not complimentary, but condescending, to tell someone that central features of their religious beliefs are a confused version of your own. If you tell someone that, you should not be surprised when they don’t ‘return the compliment.'”