through Muslim eyes
In the year 630 A.D, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) achieved one of his most
cherished goals: the occupation of Mecca and the subsequent cleansing of the
city from idol worship: it was at once a political and a religious victory of
immense symbolic importance. Mecca had been declared the centre of the new
faith; its conquest was therefore the fulfillment of a divine promise.
Entering the Ka'ba, the square structure which housed the city's idols, Muhammad
(pbuh) ordered all its icons cleansed or destroyed. One of the icons in what
must have been a very mixed gallery of divinities was a Virgin and child.
Approaching the Christian icon, Muhammad (pbuh) covered it with his cloak and
ordered all the others washed away except that one.
Fact or fiction? The question is immaterial. The report I cited is at least 1200
years old and therefore belongs to some of the earliest strata of Muslim
What this episode illustrates is the fact that between Islam and the figure of
Jesus Christ there exists a literary tradition spanning a millennium and a half
of a continuous historical relationship -- a preoccupation with Jesus that may
well be unique among the world's great non-Christian religions. To do full
justice to this record, I would need a far larger canvas than the one available
to me today. Instead I can only hope to draw a sketch of the contours of that
relationship; to point to only a few of its highest peaks, its defining moments.
The Qur'an is the axial text of Islamic civilization, and it is of course where
we must begin for Islam's earliest images of Jesus. Approximately one third of
the Quranic text is made up of narratives of earlier prophets, most of them
Biblical. Among these prophetic figures, Jesus stands out as the most puzzling.
The Qur'an rewrites the story of Jesus more radically than that of any other
prophet, and in doing so it reinvents him. The intention is clearly to distance
him from the opinions about him current among Christians. The result is
surprising to a Christian reader or listener. The Jesus of the Qur'an, more than
any equivalent prophetic figure, is placed inside a theological argument rather
than inside a narrative. He is very unlike his Gospel image. There is no
Incarnation, no Ministry and no Passion. His divinity is strenuously denied
either by him or by God directly. Equally denied is his crucifixion. A Christian
may well ask, what can possibly be left of his significance if all these
essential attributes of his image are gone?
Jesus reinterpreted by the Qur'an is singled out, again and again, as a prophet
of very special significance. Uniquely among prophets he is described as a
miracle of God, an aya; he is the word and spirit of God; he is the prophet of
peace par excellence; and , finally it is he who predicts the coming of Muhammad
(pbuh) and thus, one might say, is the harbinger of Islam.
How did these earliest images of Jesus grow and develop inside Islamic culture?
The Hadith or Prophetic Tradition of Muhammad (pbuh), depicts him as a figure
who will come at the end of days to help bring the world to its end. He can now
be said to bracket the era of Islam, standing right at its beginning and right
at its end. But it is the rapidly growing literary tradition of Islam which now
began to embrace the various images of Jesus current in the lands that Islam had
conquered. There came together a corpus of sayings and stories attributed to
Jesus which in their totality one could call the Muslim Gospel (a collection of
these I have just published under the title The Muslim Jesus). Let me quote a
few of these sayings and stories: "Jesus said, Blessed is he who sees with his
heart but whose heart is not in what he sees". Here's another: "Jesus said, The
world is a bridge; cross this bridge but do not build upon it". And here's a
short exchange: "Jesus met a man and asked him, What are you doing? 'I am
devoting myself to God,' the man replied. Jesus asked, 'Who is caring for you?'
'My brother,' said the man. Jesus said, 'Your brother is more devoted to God
than you are'." And so it goes on, some three hundred such sayings and stories,
which Muslim culture was to ascribe to Jesus across a millennium of continuous
fascination with his images and manifestations. At times he is a fierce ascetic,
at other times he is the gentle teacher of manners, at yet others the patron of
Muslim mystics, the prophet of the secrets of creation, the healer of the wounds
of nature and of man.
But back now to my sketch, to just a few other illuminations inside this lengthy
historical record. In the tenth century A.D. we have the great Baghdad mystic
al-Hallaj, whose life and crucifixion was called "The Passion of al-Hallaj" by
the celebrated French Orientalist Massignon. If you want to take my word for it,
you would regard him as one of the most Christ-like figures in human history, up
there with Socrates, Gandhi and one or two of the greatest saints of mankind.
What made al-Hallaj a Christ-like figure was total absorption in the life of the
spirit, a realm lying beyond law, and an exploration of a reality that led him
ultimately to claim identity with the divine. But at the same time, there is in
him the unshakable willingness to submit to the law, even unto death. So he dies
under the law, as it were, in order to rise above it, in order to triumph over
the law. Thus, at one time he used to advise his disciples: "Why go on
pilgrimage to Mecca? Build a small shrine inside your own house and
circumambulate it in true faith, and it is as if you have performed the
pilgrimage." The tension between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law
endows the life of Hallaj with a Gospel-like aura, culminating in his trial, his
tragic last days and his heart-rending crucifixion. The model of sanctity
prefigured by al-Hallaj was to survive most notably inside Muslim mysticism
where Jesus was to become a patron saint of Muslim sufism.
But let me move now to later times. The era of the Crusades, a two-hundred year
war, pitted European Christian against Western Asian Muslim armies. And here was
a chance for Muslim scholars to point to the glaring disparity between Jesus,
the prophet of peace, and the barbaric conduct of his so-called followers. In
the twelfth century, Jesus was once again reclaimed by Muslim polemics, once
again reinvented, if you prefer, in order to stand shoulder to shoulder with the
Muslims against his alleged followers. In the battle for the legacy of Jesus,
there was no doubt whatsoever in Muslim eyes that the true Jesus belonged to
Islam. It was in a sense a replay of the Qur'anic scenario, this time more
urgent and dangerous.
As we approach our own days, we observe that many of his earlier manifestations
continue to dominate the spiritual horizons of contemporary Islam. Let me speak
of only two major images: Jesus the healer of nature and man, and Jesus the
Crucified. To encounter Jesus the healer, I invite my listeners to take a trip
to to the Monastery of Sidnaya north of Damascus or to the Iranian city of
Shiraz. The Monastery of Sidnaya was founded by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian
in the 6th century AD. It sits on an outcrop of rock high above a valley. To
this Monastery travels an endless stream of men and women seeking the blessings
and healing of our Lady and her infant son. The vast majority of visitors are
Muslim, who come to this Christian shrine as did their ancestors for a thousand
A visit to Shiraz might come next. Here, the celebrated city, a treasure house
of Muslim art and architecture and a garden-city of poets and mystics, is home
also to a living Muslim medical tradition of healing, the tradition of the
Masiha-Dam, the healing breath of Christ. This theme is already reflected in the
poetry of the great Persian poet Hafiz, some seven hundred years ago. Thus, in
both the literary as well as medical tradition of contemporary Iran, there runs
a continuous preoccupation with the healing Christ figure. For Shii Islam, which
dominates Iran, the martyrdom of Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh),
in 682 A.D. is a central spiritual event. And for Shii Islam in particular, the
life and death of Christ is a parallel spiritual event. The Christ/Husayn
analogy is ever present in the religious sensibility of Shi'i Islam.
I should now make mention of another poet, widely considered the greatest Arab
poet of the twentieth century: the Iraqi Badr Shakir al-Sayyab. His life was one
of exile, imprisonment, ill health and of total commitment to the cause of the
oppressed; his was a poetry utterly Modernist in form but utterly classical in
diction. In his verse one will find what is probably the most memorable impact
of Christ on modern Arabic/Islamic literature. One poem in particular, entitled
Christ after the Crucifixion is a Passion, a vision of Christ as lord of nature
and redeemer of the wretched of the earth. At the risk of doing violence to its
tight structure, I will give only its first and its final stanzas:
After they brought me down, I heard the winds
In a lengthy wail, rustling the palm trees,
And steps fading away. So then, my wounds,
And the Cross upon which they nailed me all afternoon and evening
Did not kill me. I listened. The wail
Was crossing the plain between me and the city
Like a rope pulling at a ship
As it sinks to the sea-bed. The dirge
Was like a thread of light between dawn and midnight,
Upon a grieving winter sky. And the city, nursing its feelings, fell asleep.
I was in the beginning, and in the beginning was Poverty.
I died that bread may be eaten in my name; that they plant me in season.
How many lives will I live! For in every furrow of earth
I have become a future, I have become a seed.
I have become a race of men, in every human heart
A drop of my blood, or a little drop.
After they nailed me and I cast my eyes towards the city
I hardly recognised the plain, the wall, the cemetery;
As far as the eye could see, it was something
Like a forest in bloom. Wherever the vision could reach,
there was a cross, a grieving mother
The Lord be sanctified! This is the city about to give birth.
Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, Christ after the Crucifixion
This is a poem of salvation, political and theological, a poem that interweaves,
in a apocalyptic voice, the Jesus of the Gospels and the risen Christ
triumphant, a Jesus who is lord of the wretched of the earth and a Christ who is
lord and healer of nature. It is a poetic gospel in miniature, a vision of
Christ in suffering and ultimately in victory.
So: I think it can safely be shown that Islamic culture presents us with what in
quantity and quality are the richest images of Jesus in any non-Christian
culture. No other world religion known to me has devoted so much loving
attention to both the Jesus of history and to the Christ of eternity. This
tradition is one that we need to highlight in these dangerous, narrow-minded
days. The moral of the story seems quite clear: that one religion will often act
as the hinterland of another, will lean upon another to complement its own
witness. There can be no more salient example of this interdependence than the
case of Islam and Jesus Christ. And for the Christian in particular, a love of
Jesus may also mean, I think, an interest in how and why he was loved and
cherished by another religion.