By Karen Armstrong
December 23, 2006
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 reminds us that the so-called clash of civilisations was by no means inevitable. 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).
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
The Muslim devotion to Jesus shows that this was not always the case. In the past, before the political dislocations of modernity, Muslims were always able to engage in fruitful and stringent self-criticism. This year, on the birthday of the Prophet Jesus, they might ask themselves how they can revive their long tradition of pluralism and appreciation of other religions. For their part, meditating on the affinity that Muslims once felt for their faith, Christians might look into their own past and consider what they might have done to forfeit this respect.