‘When Jesus met Muhammad …’

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It’s good to have you here at today’s event on Reflections or Distortions of Jesus and Muhammad (pbut). I didn’t expect to be the opening speaker, our original speaker, who is much more qualified than me, would, I am sure, have been excellent, with a solid academic grounding in both faiths, including their source languages. However, I remember floating the idea with Saeed (Shehabi) as we thought about this year’s conference, on the theme of how do we put in practice what our founders taught us – because if we did inter faith would come very naturally and would be an integral part of our own religious practice – what would it be like if Jesus and Muhammad met? It’s a question which intrigues and excites me, even while I am not sure if I can answer it. Nevertheless, given my role and my experiences over the last ten years or so I am well-placed to wrestle with this conundrum.

Inevitably, I must begin with some caveats. I represent an organisation which comprises a diversity of Christians and Muslims across the spectrum. While my colleagues don’t have to agree with me, we are well used to harmonious disagreement, they should at least be able to see that I have neither sold out nor been unfair to one or both religious traditions.

Caveat 1 – Conscious of the belief in the Islamic tradition that this question almost does not need an answer as Jesus and Muhammad have already met on the Prophet’s Night Journey (Miraaj). This tradition includes the recognition of Muhammad as both brother and prophet. This reflects a number of characteristics of Islam – that it came later, is self-consciously in a line of succession from Biblical characters and is explicit in describing the links between the revelation through Muhammad and the earlier revelations, including where there is a dispute with the contemporary followers of those revelations.

Caveat 2 – That a Christian answer to this question can never match up with an Islamic answer, at least not when we get down to some theological or dogmatic details. Anyone who has read the Qur’an {show of hands?} will know that there is deep difference between the Jesus of the Bible and the Jesus (or Isa) of the Qur’an. Though I should highlight, with a sub-caveat, that what Christians might describe as elements of a ‘high’ Christology are present in the Qur’anic account – Jesus is clearly presented as being ‘born of the virgin Mary’ (as it says in our creed), as the Word of God (Kalimatullah) and ‘strengthened by the Holy Spirit’ (Surah 5, Al-Maida v.110). Some have even used this to argue for the divinity of Jesus, and the Trinity, on Qur’anic grounds, which is tantalising but, in my estimation, as one who recognises and respects the Qur’anic text in its own right, as a textual subversion too far. Though textual subversion is a key aspect of both of our scriptures! So, after a little diversion, I would want to say that, although we have Jesus in common, but not Muhammad, and some aspects of the ‘theological Jesus’ we are talking quite differently about the same person.

Caveat 3 – Who is Jesus? Those of you who have studied Christianity may know something of the ‘Search for the Historical Jesus’ and the distinction between the historical Jesus of Nazareth and the ‘Christ of faith’, or the exalted Christ as he appears in the Christian scriptures. A purely historical figure can have theological characteristics and our faiths are predicated on this but these are largely outside the scope of historical study. A purely historical Jesus can look a lot like the ‘Muslim Jesus’ – teacher, sage, ascetic, healer, messenger – but I cannot limit myself to that. The Jesus who is fully described in the Christian scriptures is ‘the Word made flesh’ (John 1.14) and the Son of God (I will offer a Gospel text on this later). It is this Jesus who I will talk about when exploring the encounter between Jesus Christ and the Prophet Muhammad. Thus they both become controversial or divisive figures to each other, from a creedal perspective. I cannot say ‘la ilaha il’ Allah, Muhammadan rasul Allah’ and ‘Jesus is Lord’ in the same breath, even if I just did! This is the crux of the Christian-Muslim divide, or interface, if you prefer, and I do. But this has to be an invitation to dialogue, not an end to it. Muslims will continue to talk about Jesus and be interested to hear what Christians know of him from the Gospels and I, and other Christians, will still have a respectful interest in Muhammad and what he means to Muslims.

This leads me into an introduction, in the middle of my talk. I have no issue with Saeed being Muslim. I haven’t asked him what he thinks of me being Christian, but his warm hospitality and a productive partnership speaks volumes, plus I think he was doing inter faith long before I was. What I know of Muhammad, if I may, tells me that he wouldn’t have a problem with me being Christian, he would encourage me to develop my taqwa (mindfulness of God) rather than change my religious path. Likewise Jesus didn’t tell people that they should change their religion:

Jesus said to the centurion, "I will come and heal him." But the centurion said, "Lord, I am not worthy for You to come under my roof, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, 'Go!' and he goes, and to another, 'Come!' and he comes, and to my slave, 'Do this!' and he does it." Now when Jesus heard this, He marvelled and said to those who were following, "Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel’ (Matthew 8.7 – 10)

So if we know this about each other, which is challenging for some, and about our Masters then think how they would be with each other. In terms of the inter faith encounter we are just beginners, we are limited, not by how much of our religion we can give away, but by how in tune with Jesus and Muhammad we are. I have felt the challenge of Muhammad’s example, in the middle of what I understand to be a rather disputatious dialogue, when he encouraged Byzantine Christians to hold their congregational prayers in his own masjid in Madinah, not just any masjid, but the archetypal masjid. I don’t think any of us would get very far if we tried that in the UK, either as a group of Christians or a group of Muslims seeking a space for prayer in the other’s house of worship. Yet, I think, in the lands of Jesus and Muhammad, and neighbouring countries, it may still happen. Jesus quotes the Hebrew Scripture (Isaiah 56.7) to tell his people that their own place of worship, the Temple, is intended by God to be a ‘house of prayer for all nations’. He doesn’t mean Jews from around the world, or Christians (he is not talking about Christians), but anyone, which means any religion. This is also the meaning of the inclusive verses in Malachi 1.10, 11, if they are translated properly. By a process of subversion (thinking outside the box) this is ‘fulfilled’ when Muhammad opens up the prayer space of the very new faith community.

[10 “Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you,” says the Lord Almighty, “and I will accept no offering from your hands. 11 My name will be {is} great among the nations, from where the sun rises to where it sets. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to me, because my name will be great among the nations,” says the Lord Almighty.]

Part of the challenge of our question, at least from a Christian perspective, is that we cannot answer it! This partly explains why I am taking so long to do so, but in asking my own subversive question I have to do some spade work, and not fall over the creedal stumbling-block that the Apostle Paul talks about {1 Corinthians 1:23, ‘but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’}. Unusually, the problem is on my side, if I have a difficulty relating to Islam, or Muslims, or the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) then it isn’t a problem with any of those things, I can’t change Islam, Muslims or Muhammad. But I need to reflect, if Jesus wouldn’t have had any barriers, and the evidence of the Gospels is that he wouldn’t have, then how can my religion get in the way. It is as odd as the Muslim who is not open to inter faith, as a new Muslim friend told me on Friday, all the ingredients are there in our scriptures.

So, after another diversion, Jesus had his own Miraaj where he met the prophets who came before him. I wonder if Muslim colleagues are aware of this? {pause}

After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.) 7 Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (Mark 9.2 – 8)

In my mind, if Jesus and Muhammad did meet they would have to meet as equals. Now in both of our religions they cannot strictly be seen as equals. Islam talks about making no distinctions between the prophets, though even in Islam it does look as if Jesus is a higher status figure, taking note of the Qur’anic Christological characteristics that I referred to earlier. Yet the reason that Islam states that there is no distinction between the prophets is that they all, even Jesus, are nothing else than human. For the Christian this immediately creates a difficulty, as Jesus is presented as on another level, the same as other human beings in his physical characteristics, but metaphysically on God’s level. So their equality in meeting is hypothetical but provides a framework in which they meet.

It might be tempting for some to see Muhammad asserting against Jesus, ‘I’m the Final Messenger’ or Jesus countering with ‘I’m the Son of God’. But we would all be disappointed by that, their real status for us, their followers, would be cheapened, tainted, brought into question in fact. And if we can see that, and not everyone would, they might relish that level of confrontation, then we can’t see our Founders doing it either. What would God say? Another impossible question, I’m not going to try to answer that one.

Our implicit answer at this event is that Jesus and Muhammad have so much in common. Often we hear this from Muslim speakers and for many Christian hearers it doesn’t work. People are thinking, ‘No, Jesus is radically different, we’re not even speaking about the same person.’ So few of us are familiar with both figures and both scriptures and traditions. I opened this question up in the Forum’s Facebook group a few days ago and got some great responses from too many people to mention, except Zahra Kazmi who is speaking later and Ali Amla who is doing similar work in Preston. I was struck by the number of comments suggesting that they would bemoan the state of their followers, including the difficulties they have getting on with each other. Surely they would say to each other, ‘I know how you feel, this isn’t what I had in mind, when we don’t have a problem with each other’. Would they argue about theology? They might open up a dialogue about distinctives and differences. But neither of them did much theology in their lifetimes, they were more concerned with orthopraxy – right action. Jesus might say, ‘I like your variation on my command, “Love God and love your neighbour as yourself”’. To which Muhammad might reply, ‘I would never have said, “No one is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself” if I hadn’t known your saying first.’ But this is the language of love, they wouldn’t even need to say these things to each other.

One of my own favourite sayings of Jesus is, ‘You have heard it said, but I say …’ This is echoed in the Qur’an’s account of Jesus’ words, ‘And [I come] to confirm [the truth of] that which is before me of the Torah, and to make lawful for you some of the things that were forbidden you. I have brought you a sign from your Lord; so be wary of Allah and obey me. Indeed Allah is my Lord and your Lord; so worship Him.’(Surah 3, Al-Imran, v.50,51). Which itself is echoed in the words of Jesus at the end of John’s Gospel, ‘Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (John 20.17)
 
We have God in common, so did Jesus and Muhammad, I can imagine them turning to us together and saying, ‘What are you going to do about it?’

Julian Bond
Director, Christian Muslim Forum
16 June 2014
#jesus_muhammad

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