Jesus (peace be upon him): A Prophet In Islam
Mark Hamza Dougherty
Blacksburg, VA – Dzul-Qa’idah 1420 A.H. – February 2000 C.E.
In the Name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful – Peace be upon him who is rightly guided.
I have been given a topic of some importance to both Christians and Muslims, namely, the teachings of Islam regarding the life, mission, and death of Jesus (peace be upon him). Before entering the topic, I would like to address the doctrines of Christianity against the backdrop of modern Western thought. My perspective is one who was brought up as a Christian in the US. I am not a scholar of either Islam or Christianity. In fact, my only qualification for standing in front of you is that I was once a Christian and now I am a Muslim. I would like to share selected passages from another Westerner, the former Leopold Weiss, statesman, journalist, and author, an Austrian Jew who converted to Islam. He wrote a book called “Islam at the Crossroads” under his adopted Muslim name, Muhammad Asad. Although the book was originally written in 1934, Mr. Asad’s comments regarding the historical background of Christian thought within the Western framework are insightful.
Muhammad Asad (from “Islam at the Crossroads”):
“Perhaps the most important intellectual factor which prevented Europe’s religious regeneration was the current conception of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. Philosophically-minded Christians, of course, never took this idea of sonship in its literal sense; they understood by it a manifestation of God’s Mercy in human form. For the overwhelming majority of Christians [however] the expression “son” had and has a very direct meaning, although there was always a mystical flavor attached to it. …This belief naturally led to an anthropomorphisation of God Himself who assumed the shape of a benignant old man with a white flowing beard…this shape, perpetrated by innumerable paintings….remained impressed upon European’s subconscious mind. …With the intellectual shackles of the Middle Ages….broken, the thinking among the Europeans could not reconcile themselves to a humanized God/Father.….After a period of enlightenment [at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century], European thinkers instinctively shrunk back from the conception of God as presented in the teachings of the Church; and as this was the only conception to which they had been accustomed, they began to reject the very idea of God, and with it, religion.”
I would now like to move from Europe to America. Thomas Jefferson, the great proponent of religious freedom, was a child of this period (late 18th and early 19th century), having ties to enlightened European thinking through France. According to the 1983 book, “Jefferson’s Extracts from the Gospels,” which is the second in a published series called “The Papers of Thomas Jefferson,” Jefferson reached a religious crisis at some point during the 1760’s, and came to denounce the Anglican doctrine of his heritage. His personal views on religion were kept strictly private, except for members of his immediate family and close correspondents, for the most part, until after his death in 1826. According to the book’s 39-page introduction, written by Eugene Sheridan, foremost among Jefferson’s reasons for denouncing the Christian doctrine of his upbringing was the concept of the Trinity, which he found non-compatible with reason. A letter written by Jefferson in 1788 recounts his inability “from a very early part of my life” to accept the Christian doctrine of the Trinity owing to the “difficulty of reconciling the ideas of Unity and Trinity.”
Based on Jefferson’s correspondence and personal compilation of the four Gospels in an attempt to demythologize the man, Jesus, the following outline is offered by the authors about his religious beliefs. (And of course only God knows what is in men’s hearts). Thomas Jefferson was, according to his writings, an unwavering monotheist, who believed that God created the universe and all that is in it, sustaining it with mathematically precise natural laws. He also believed that God benefited man with an innate moral sense, as well as the intellectual capacity to rationally explain and deduce all that he needed for successful life on earth and hopefully in the next life. Jefferson did not accept the divinity of Jesus (pbuh), nor did he accept the belief that revelation from God to man is a part of God’s plan. Rather, he believed that God revealed Himself through the natural and majestic wonders of the universe. He accepted Jesus (pbuh) as the greatest of moral reformers, and devoted a great deal of time to critical examination of the four Gospels. At the end of his life, in retirement, after two terms as President of the United States, he produced a critical analysis of the Gospels by cutting and pasting together, in Greek, Latin, French, and English, a concise compilation called the “Life and Morals of Jesus.” A copy of Jefferson’s little book is presently housed in the Smithsonian Institute.
The reason I am relating this information about Thomas Jefferson is not to expose his religious views. God Alone knows what resides in any man or woman’s heart. I am relating this information, ostensibly from verified sources of Jefferson’s own writing, because it provides to me an example of a man who had the courage to disavow himself of doctrines that he found incompatible with the reason he believed his Creator had endowed him with. He rejected the religious doctrines of his upbringing, yet at the same time rejected the so-called enlightened rationalist’s outright denial of God. I personally see Thomas Jefferson as a man who struck his own path, trying to seek the truth somewhere between two extremes. In the end, according to the authors of the book “Jefferson’s Extracts from the Gospels,” Jefferson probably best described his own faith when he observed, somewhat somberly in my opinion, “I am a sect by myself, as far as I know.”
Although I see Jefferson as a man of strong faith and principle, it appears to me from what I have read that he didn’t hold a belief in Jesus (pbuh) that was wholly satisfying. What do I mean by this? In Jefferson’s day, I believe, much as in our day, two choices were offered to many people concerning Jesus (pbuh);
1. he was who he said he was, (according to the words attached to him in the Bible) God, and son of God, human, yet divine, sent to save the world from sin, or
2. he was, (God forbid), a madman or worse, a liar.
Thomas Jefferson refused both choices. In the end, he concluded that Jesus (pbuh) as a young person was the greatest moral teacher in history, a man who believed he was divinely inspired by God, but who never himself claimed to be God. Because of Jefferson’s twin beliefs that Jesus was merely a man, and that God does not speak to man through inspiration, Jefferson felt obliged to excuse Jesus’ claim to divine inspiration as the inevitable result of his having been brought up among superstitious people who regarded “fumes of the most disordered imaginations…as special communications of the deity.” May God protect all of us from this type of error. I only relate this story as an example of how one man, and only God knows, appears to have reconciled himself to one of the most passionately debated personalities in the history of religion, the one we are discussing tonight, Jesus, the son of Mary, peace be upon him.
I was presented with the two above choices concerning Jesus (pbuh) some 20 ago when I read the book “Mere Christianity,” by C.S. Lewis. My response, unlike Thomas Jefferson, was to accept the whole of the Christian doctrine (choice number 1). How could I do otherwise given the alternative that Jesus was, (God forbid), a madman, or worse, a liar? The point I would like to make is that many people it seems simply aren’t presented with any other choice but these two rather stark “all-or-nothing” alternatives regarding the person of Jesus (pbuh). We who have taken part in discussing these issues have tried to present a third choice regarding the life and mission of Jesus (pbuh). This is the Islamic alternative. As the Qur’an tells us in the 75th verse of Surah Al-Maidah (“The Table Spread”):
In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful
“The Messiah (Jesus), son of Mary, was no more than a Messenger; many were the Messengers that passed away before him. His mother (Mary) was a believer. They both used to eat food (as any other human being). Look, how We make the Ayat (proofs, evidences, verses, lessons, signs, etc.) clear to them, yet look how they are deluded away (from the truth).”
In one sense, this verse from the Qur’an is really all that need to be said concerning the Islamic belief regarding the person of Jesus (pbuh).
Dr. Maneh Al-Johani (from his article “The Truth About Jesus (pbuh)”), which is available on the internet, states: “The controversy about the personality of Jesus Christ is the major difference between Islam and Christianity. This difference keeps the followers of the two religions apart. Muslims look at Jesus Christ as a great Prophet of God and love and respect him as much as they love and respect Abraham, Moses and Muhammad (peace be upon them all). Christians on the other hand consider Jesus (pbuh) as God or son of God, a concept that Muslims cannot accept. Islam teaches that Jesus (pbuh) never made such a claim for himself. As a matter of fact all the cardinal doctrines of Christianity that are rejected by Islam center around the personality of Jesus (pbuh). Specifically these are:
1. The Trinity
2. The Divinity of Jesus
3. The Divine Sonship of Christ
4. Original Sin, and
Dr. Al-Johani continues, “Unfortunately, the differences focusing on the personality of Jesus (pbuh) have overshadowed the many similarities between Christianity and Islam. Some examples are the emphasis on the moral system and on human principles [shared by both Islam and Christianity], Muslim beliefs affirming the Virgin Birth of Jesus (pbuh), being able to speak in the cradle, performing miracles, and [his] second coming.”
“The Islamic view of Jesus (pbuh) lies between two extremes. The Jews, who rejected Jesus (pbuh) as a Prophet of God, called him an impostor. The Christians on the other hand, consider him to be the son of God and worship him as such. Islam [as we have stated] considers Jesus (pbuh) as one of the great Prophets of God …”
“Although the Qur’an does not present a detailed life-account of Jesus (pbuh), it highlights the important aspects of his birth, his mission, his ascension to heaven and passes judgements on the Christian beliefs concerning him.”
“The Unitarian concept and the humanness of Jesus (pbuh) is not only held by Muslims but also by Jews and by some early groups of Christianity such as the Ebonite’s, the Corinthians, the Basilidians, the Capocratians and the Hypisistarians to name several early sects. The Aryans, Paulicians and Goths also accepted Jesus (pbuh) as a prophet of God. Even in the modern age there are churches in Asia, in Africa, the Unitarian church, and others who do not worship Jesus (pbuh) as God.”
In present Christianity, Dr. Al-Johani continues, “the personality of Jesus (pbuh) … is completely misunderstood. Jesus’ (pbuh) nature, mission and claimed death and resurrection, have all been challenged by studies in the field. One of those is a book entitled “The Myth of God Incarnate,” which appeared in 1977 (edited by John Hick) and written by seven theological scholars in England. Their conclusion is that Jesus (pbuh) was “a man approved by God, for a special role within the divine purpose, and … the later conception of him as God incarnate … is a mythological or poetic way of expressing his significance for us.”
Continuing to read from Al-Johani’s article, “The best George Carey could say in his attempt to refute the findings of those theologians is that unless one takes Jesus (pbuh) as God Incarnate one won’t be able to understand Jesus’ (pbuh) mission or explain its impact on people. This definitely is a very weak argument because all great prophets such as Abraham, Moses, and Muhammad have had a tremendous impact on people and none of them claimed that he was God or a son of God.”
Dr. Al-Johani cites a January 5, 1978 article in the Washington Post, reporting that Dr. Robert Alley lost his post as the chairman of the Department of Religion at University of Richmond because of his view that Jesus (pbuh) never claimed to be the son of God. Reportedly, Dr. Alley’s conclusions were that: “The (Bible) passages where Jesus (pbuh) talks about the son of God are later additions…. what the church said about him. Such a claim of deity for himself would not have been consistent with his entire lifestyle as we can reconstruct. For the first three decades after Jesus’ (pbuh) death Christianity continued as a sect within Judaism. The first three decades of its existence of the church were within the synagogue. That would have been beyond belief if they (the followers) had boldly proclaimed the deity of Jesus (pbuh).”