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The Muslim Jesus By Tarif Khalidi

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The Muslim Jesus

Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature

Collected, Edited and Translated by Tarif Khalidi

Introduction: The Muslim Gospel (1-5)

“The Arabic Islamic literary tradition of the pre-modern period contains several hundred sayings and stories ascribed to Jesus.” This book is a collection of those sayings and stories. “As a whole they form the largest body of texts relating to Jesus in any non-Christian literature.” In reference to this body of literature, Khalidi uses the phrase ‘Muslim Gospel.’ (3) Khalidi’s collection of the ‘Muslim Gospel’ comes from several works, and could not be found in one Arabic Islamic source.

The book offers an image of Jesus that people outside Arabic Islamic culture will be unfamiliar with.  Those who wish to understand how Jesus was perceived by a religious tradition, Islam, which reveres him greatly but rejects his divinity, will find these texts to be of great interest.

“If we ask about the significance of this gospel for the contemporary and ongoing dialogue between Christianity and Islam, we might point to its relevance to historical and theological reconciliation and to the long-enduring search for a community of witness. In its totality, this gospel is the story of a love affair between Islam and Jesus and is thus a unique record of how one world religion chose to adopt the central figure of another, coming to recognize him as constitutive of its own identity.” (5 – 6)

The Background (6-8)

“The Islamic image of Jesus first took shape in the Qur’an, and it is from here that the Muslim gospel emanates…It is commonly recognized that Islam was born in a time and place where the figure of Jesus was widely known. From inscriptions, from Syriac, Ethiopic, and Byzantine sources, from modern analyses of pre-Islamic Arabian poetry, from newly discovered early Islamic materials, a picture is emerging of a pre-Islamic Arabia where diverse Christian communities, in Arabia itself or in its immediate vicinity, purveyed rich and diverse images of Jesus.” (6)

A Sketch of the Qur’anic Jesus (9-16)

  • “One may argue that whereas a devout Jew of the present day would find nothing theologically objectionable in the manner in which Moses, Joseph, and David are presented in the Qur’an, the same cannot be said for a devout Christian reading of the treatment of Jesus. Clearly, there is something about Jesus which makes his Qur’anic image so utterly different from the Jesus of the Gospels…The difference lies not so much in the narrative tone…Rather, Jesus is a controversial prophet. He is the only prophet in the Qur’an who is deliberately made to distance himself from the doctrines that his community is said to hold of him.” (11-12)
  • “The term the Qur’an employs in this regard is “‘cleansing’ (3:55): Jesus will be cleansed from the perverted beliefs of his followers, and furthermore he himself plays an active role in the cleansing process. IN answer to God, Jesus explicitly denies any responsibility for advocating tritheism. God meanwhile denies the Crucifixion. With Jesus, as with no other prophetic figure, the problem is not only to retell his story accurately. There are major doctrinal difficulties with the Christian version of his life and teachings, to which the Qur’an repeatedly returns. In sum, the Qur’anic Jesus, unlike any other prophet, is embroiled in polemic.” (12)
  • “In denying the Crucifixion, the Qur’an is in fact denying that the Jews killed him, and elevates him to God as part of his vindication as prophet, thus reconciling him to the general typology of Qur’anic prophesy. It is the Ascension rather than the crucifixion which marks the high point of his life in the Qur’an and in the Muslim tradition as a whole.” (12-13)
  • References to Jesus in the Qur’an can be divided into four groups (14):

1.       Birth and infancy stories

2.       Miracles

3.       Conversations between Jesus and God or between Jesus and the Israelites

4.       Divine pronouncements on his humanity, servanthood, and place in the prophetic line which stipulate that “fanatical” opinions about him must be abandoned. (the bulk of references to Jesus are these)

  • “There is no Sermon on the Mount, no parables, no teachings on the law and the spirit, and of course no Passion. Instead, he has his faithful disciples who believe in him, he is humble and pious toward his mother, and he bears a message of God’s unity which confirms earlier prophetic messages.” (15)
  • In the Qur’an Jesus and Christian communities are approached in a variety of moods: conciliatory, reassuring, diplomatic and menacing. (15)

Jesus in the Muslim Gospel (17-21)

The Early Context (22-28)

Emergence and Development (29 – 31)

“Amid the literature as a whole, Jesus stands out for the quantity and above all the quality of his sayings and stories. Whereas the sayings and tales of other prophets tend to conform to specific and narrowly defined moral types, the range and continuous growth of the Jesus corpus has no parallels among other prophets in the Muslim tradition.” (29)

  • “The Qur’an was primarily concerned with rectifying a certain doctrinal image of Jesus and had little to say on his ministry, teachings, and passion. The Muslim gospel probably arose from a felt need to complement and expand the Qur’anic account of his life. In this respect, the process of formation of the Muslim gospel can be compared to the formation of the apocryphal and other extracanonical materials in the Christian tradition, and probably for the same reasons.” (29)
  • “The overall process by which the Muslim gospel came into being must be thought of not as a birth but more as an emanation, a seepage of one religious tradition in another by means textual and nontextual alike. The overwhelming Christian presence in central Islamic regions such as Syria, Iraq, and Egypt in the first three centuries of Islam meant intimate encounters with a living Christianity suffused with rich and diverse images of Jesus.” (29-30)

o   Iraq – city of Kufa – was in all likelihood the original home of the Muslim gospel. Kufa was also the home of the earliest traditions and interpretations which eventually led to the rise of Islam’s two great wings: Sunnism and Shi’ism. (31)

The Earliest Sayings: Character and Function (32-37)

The earliest sayings and stories mostly belong to two major collections of ascetic literature. These sayings fall into four basic groups (32):

1.       Sayings with an eschatological import

  • Reflect and expand the role of Jesus at the end of time

2.       Quasi-Gospel sayings

  • Consists of sayings and stories that have a Gospel core but that have expanded or changed in such a way as to acquire a distinctly Islamic stamp. (33)

3.       Ascetic sayings and stories

  • Establish the outlines of Jesus as a patron saint of Muslim asceticism. (34)

4.       Sayings which appear to echo intra-Muslim polemics

The Later Sayings and Stories (38 – 42)

Conclusion (43 – 46)

In the Muslim gospel, Jesus is always identified as a Muslim prophet – “and this must be constantly borne in mind, for he is, after all, a figure molded in an Islamic environment. As if to emphasize the fact, several stories depict him reciting the Qur’an and explaining it, praying in the Muslim manner, and going on pilgrimage to Mecca.” (44)

The Sayings and Stories (47 – 220)

Khalidi then quotes 303 references/stories/sayings of Jesus that constitute his Muslim gospel and follows each with insights on their origin, meanings, etc. Here is just a sample of the Islamic texts Jesus is portrayed in:

  • 36. Jesus used to say, “charity does not mean doing good to him who does good to you, for this is to return good for good. Charity means that you should do good to him who does you harm.”

~A recasting of Matthew 5:46 (73)

  • 91. 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,” replied the man. Jesus said, “Your brother is more devoted to God than you are.”

~”In this saying, the ethics of social solidarity and compassion transcend individual, solitary worship. Jesus is no longer the lone ascetic but a caring attendant upon those in need; no longer the patron saint of those who escape their faith intact but a more socially committed figure, lauding the virtues of communal responsibility.” (102)

  • 97. Jesus said to his companions, “If you are truly my brothers and friends, accustom yourselves to the enmity and hatred of men. For you shall not obtain what you seek except by abandoning what you desire. You shall not possess what you love except by tolerating what you hate.” (105-106)
  • 98. “Blessed is he who sees with his heart but whose heart is not in what he sees.”

~ “An elegant saying, with no exact parallels in the Gospels but nevertheless Jesuslike in its terse profundity.” (106)

  • 125. “They asked Jesus, “Show us an act by which we may enter paradise.” Jesus said, “Do not speak at all.” They said, “We cannot do this.” Jesus replied, “Then speak only good.”

~ “The virtue of silence is a common theme in the wisdom literature of the Near East. This saying is taken from a work of Ibn Abi’l Dunya devoted entirely to this subject. Similar sayings are also ascribed to Muhammad. (121)