Review: The Muslim Jesus By Tarif Khalidi Essay, Research Paper
Jesus the prophet The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature
224pp, Harvard Fatehpur Sikri is the ruined Mughal capital built by the emperor Akbar just outside Agra at the end of the 16th century. At its centre lies the Buland Darwaza or Gate of Victory, one of the great masterpieces of Indian architecture and the most imposing monument in the city. A towering archway topped with lines of minars and chattri cupolas, it exudes the sort of refined arrogance that defines Muslim architecture at its most self-confident and imperial. It is about the last place on earth you would expect to find an overtly Christian inscription. But emblazoned all the way around the arch is a panel of kufic script which reads: “Jesus, Son of Mary (on whom be peace) said: The World is a Bridge, pass over it, but build no houses upon it. He who hopes for a day, may hope for eternity; but the World endures but an hour. Spend it in prayer, for the rest is unseen.” Sixteen years ago, as a backpacker on my first trip to India, I remember standing in front of the panel, puzzling over the translation given in my dog-eared Lonely Planet. It was doubly surprising: not only did it seem odd to find an apparently Christian quotation given centre stage in a major Muslim monument, but the quotation itself was totally unfamiliar. It sounded like the sort of thing Jesus might have said, but I certainly couldn’t remember hearing any reading in which Christ had said the world was like a bridge – which I thought was a shame because it was a nice image, and certainly one that appealed to an itinerant backpacker. But even if the quote was authentic, why would a Muslim emperor want to place such a phrase over the entrance to the main mosque in his capital city? Weren’t Christians always regarded as the enemies and rivals of the Muslims – and vice versa? A copy of Tarif Khalidi’s The Muslim Jesus would have answered all those questions. For as Khalidi makes clear, the aphorism is only one of several hundred sayings and stories of Jesus that fill Arabic and Islamic literature. There is no one source. Some derive from the four canonical gospels, others from now rejected early Christian apocrypha like the gnostic Gospel of Thomas, others again from the wider Helleno-Christian culture-compost of the near east – possibly authentic sayings and stories, in other words, which Islam has retained but which western Christianity has lost. There are also some aphorisms that were clearly written much later in a Muslim environment – probably eighth-century Iraq – which portray Jesus reincarnated in the somewhat surprising garb of a Muslim prophet who reads the Koran and goes on hajj to Mecca. Whatever their origin, these sayings of Jesus circulated around the Muslim world from Spain to China, and many are still familiar to educated Muslims today. They fill out and augment the profoundly reverential picture of Christ painted in the Koran, in which Jesus is called the Messiah, the Messenger, the Prophet, Word and Spirit of God, though – in common with many currents of heterodox Christian thought in the early Christian period – his outright divinity is questioned. Nevertheless, the Koran calls Christians the “nearest in love” to Muslims, whom it instructs in Surah 29 to “dispute not with the People of the Book [that is, the Jews and Christians] save in the most courteous manner”, and to tell them: “We believe in what has been sent down to us and what has been sent down to you; our God and your God is one.” The Jesus of the Sayings – or what Khalidi calls the Muslim Gospel – is a figure subtly distinct from the Jesus of the Gospels. As in the Gospels, he is seen as a healer and a miracle-worker as well as a model of good conduct, renowned for his gentleness and his compassion. But he is also portrayed as the Lord of Nature, a sort of souped-up St Francis figure who can talk with animals and command the hills and stones to obey him. First and foremost, however, the Muslim Jesus is the patron saint of asceticism, who renounces the world, lives in abandoned ruins, identifies with the poor and champions the virtues of poverty, humility, silence and patience. “Jesus was a constant traveller in the land,” reads one saying, “never abiding in a house or a village. His clothing consisted of a cloak made of coarse hair or camel stub. Whenever night fell, his lamp was the moonlight, his shade the blackness of the night, his bed the earth, his pillow a stone, his food the plants of the fields.” “Jesus used to eat the leaves of the trees,” reads another, “dress in hair shirts, and sleep wherever night found him. He had no child who might die, no house which might fall into ruin; nor did he save his lunch for his dinner or his dinner for his lunch. He used to say, ‘Each day brings with it its own sustenance.’” In this ascetic role, he is seen as a sort of Sufi grandmaster, what Khalidi calls “the Prophet of the Soul par excellence – understanding the mysteries of the heart and its innermost nature beyond the reach of human intellect”. The Muslim Jesus is as fascinating as it is timely. The sayings are remarkable and often beautiful literary artifacts in their own right; but more importantly, they demonstrate that the links that bind Christianity and Islam are much deeper, more complex, and far more intricately woven, that most of us would expect. Indeed, the relationship between these two Middle Eastern religions as portrayed in these sayings seems at times so porous and syncretic that the occasional confrontations between the two begin to appear more like a civil war between two different streams of the same tradition than any essential clash of incompatible civilisations. When the early Byzantines were first confronted by the Prophet’s armies in the seventh century, they assumed that Islam was merely a variant form of Christianity. In many ways, they were not far wrong: Islam accepts much of the Old and New Testaments, obeys the Mosaic laws about circumcision and ablutions, and venerates both Jesus and the ancient Jewish prophets. The early life of Muhammad relates how, when Muhammad entered Mecca in triumph and ordered the destruction of all idols and images, he came upon a picture of the Virgin and Child inside the Kaíba. Reverently covering the icon with his cloak, he ordered all other images to be destroyed, but the image of the Madonna to be looked on as sacrosanct. It was a tradition that was carried on by his successors. When the first caliph, Abu Bakr, stood on the borders of Syria, he gave very specific instructions to his soldiers. “In the desert,” he said, “you will find monks who have secluded themselves in cells; let them alone, for they have secluded themselves for the sake of God.” As late as AD649 a Nestorian bishop wrote: “These Arabs fight not against our Christian religion; nay, rather they defend our faith, they revere our priests and saints, and they make gifts to our churches and monasteries.” Sadly, the recent demonisation of Islam in Christendom, and deep and growing resentment felt in the Islamic world against the Christian west, has created an atmosphere where few on either side are still aware of, or even wish to be aware of, this deep kinship between Christianity and Islam. As Khalidi says in his thoughtful introduction: “Amid the current tensions between Christianity and Islam, it is salutary to remind ourselves of an age and a tradition when Christianity and Islam were more open to one another, more aware of and reliant on each other’s witness.” The Muslim Jesus, reminding us as it does of Islam’s “intense devotion, reverence and love” for Christ, goes a long way also to remind us of the profound links between these two Middle Eastern faiths. Now of all times, it should be welcomed as a book of the greatest importance.