Teaching About the Jesus of Islam
Recently I tried out on my students a new upper-level undergraduate course entitled "The Islamic Jesus." As a Catholic whose research interests range from the Middle East to Pakistan and Indonesia, I am drawn to opportunities for creative forms of interfaith dialogue. This new course certainly provided these - in ways I had not entirely expected. I began the course with a general introduction to the Islamic faith and Koranic scripture (although several of those enrolled in the course were Muslim, most students came from Christian backgrounds and appreciated the overview).
Three weeks into the academic quarter, we began to focus on Koranic portraits of Jesus. Many students were surprised to learn that Islamic scripture reveres Jesus, referring to him as the son of the Virgin Mary and as a prophet second in rank only to Muhammad. Muslim guest speakers from local mosque congregations whom I invited to class emphasized that Islam, as an Abrahamic tradition, honors a number of figures familiar to Jews and Christians from the Bible, including Noah, Moses and Solomon.
Up to this point, I had emphasized primarily what Islam and Christianity have in common in their understandings of Jesus. Things became more interesting, and a bit more contentious, when we began our field trips.
These trips were linked with the research papers I assigned. I gave students a range of choices involving textual analysis and ethnography. One option was to investigate the significance of Jesus for individuals who undergo the experience of religious conversion, either from Christianity to Islam or from Islam to Christianity.
Well over half the class selected this project to work on. The field trips included visits to places of worship where a large percentage of the congregation is made up of converts. For the initial visit to each site we went as a group. Follow-up visits and subsequent one-on-one interviews were left to each individual student’s initiative.
Our first visit was to a San Francisco Bay Area church where most of the parishioners are converts from Islam to Christianity. For me this was quite a discovery. I have been involved with Islamic studies since the 1970’s, and this was the first time I had come upon a church made up of people who describe themselves openly as ex-Muslims. Most of the congregation members we encountered were Iranian immigrants who had felt dissatisfied with Islam while in Iran and then explored Christianity after arriving in the United States. Given that Islamic law mandates the death penalty for apostates, I expected a certain defensiveness or desire for anonymity on the congregation’s part. We found just the opposite. The individuals interviewed by my students were eager not only to talk about their spiritual encounters with Jesus but also to share stories of what it had cost themharassment, ostracism and death threatsto become Christian.
Our second trip was to a Bay Area mosque affiliated with a Sufi association (SufismIslamic mysticismis a discipline involving ritual exercises designed to facilitate a person’s direct and immediate experience of the divine presence). Here the students interviewed a dozen or more converts to Islam, almost all of whom were from American Christian backgrounds.
Virtually all the Sufi converts interviewed by my students had something else in common: the Christian affiliation with which they had grown up as children and young adults was so weak that they could best be characterized as unchurched. A consistent pattern in the spiritual journey of the Sufi adherents we met was that these persons, although from nominally Christian families, had grown up with little sense of the significance of such essential Christian teachings as the Incarnation, the Crucifixion or the Trinity. It was easy, as one Sufi convert put it, to abandon doctrines that had never meant much to begin with.
I mention this because so many of my students also are unchurched and come from backgrounds that they themselves consider no more than vaguely Christian. For this reason I structured the course to include a comparison of Christian and Muslim Christologies. We read passages concerning Jesus from both the Koran and the New Testament and discussed the theological implications of these texts.
I deliberately arranged these readings to emphasize the significant differences between Christian and Islamic Christologies. Certainly the Koran honors Jesus, but it speaks of him largely to refute what Muslims regard as faulty Christian understanding. Thus the Koran denies that Jesus was actually crucified, and it asserts that Jesus is not divine, not the son of God and not a member of any Trinity.
The Christian New Testament presents Jesus differently. He weeps, parties, enjoys wine, eats fish and occasionally feels the need to get away from the crowds. The Koranic Jesus, although always mentioned reverently, has the static and emotionally faceless quality of a tiled Arabic inscription: majestic, but remote.
Precisely because of Islam’s emphasis on Jesus’ majestic rank as Allah’s prophet, Muslim theology rejects the possibility of his suffering on the cross. To countenance such a thing, as the Pakistani-American Muslim scholar Fazlur Rahman once argued with regard to the Islamic concept of prophethood, would be to say that God’s prophetic message could be exposed to humiliation and defeat.
But Christian theology, as I reminded my students in our scriptural comparison, argues that Jesus, fully divine yet also fully human, really did die on the cross. Insisting on the reality of the crucifixion keeps in view the Christian understanding of the divine nature. Through the person of Jesus, a God is revealed who experiences the vulnerability, suffering and uncertainties of our human condition.
I discussed my pedagogy with local Muslims when we undertook the mosque field trip. At this point a certain degree of contentiousness entered our interfaith encounters. Some Muslims expressed appreciation for my efforts. Others said that, given current Christian-Muslim tensions nationally and internationally, I should pay more attention to what the faiths share in common.
In reply I tried to reassure them that in all the courses I teach I always emphasize the two faiths’ shared Abrahamic heritage. But glossing over substantive theological differences does a disservice to both traditions. Only when differences are acknowledged and understood can the theological resources of each religion be appreciated. That is the point at which real dialogue begins.
One day, for example, during a classroom discussion of Chapter 112 of the Koran (which articulates a rejection of the doctrine of divine sonship), a Muslim student asked me to help her understand the concept of the Trinity. I confessed, first of all, that for me as for other Christians the Trinity is a mystery (nods of agreement, at this point, from various Christian students in the room). But one implication of this Trinitarian teaching, I went on to say, is that it posits a God who is relational by nature, a God who wants relationship with humankind, who in fact hungers for such relations.
The student who had asked the question seemed puzzled at first and simply reminded me that the Koran describes Allah as al-Ghani, the One who is free from any wants or needs. Such a One, she said, could not hunger for anything from humans. But she did not leave things at that. When I suggested to her that the Sufi tradition might offer parallels, even if not entirely orthodox or accepted by all Muslims, to the Trinitarian notion of divine relationality, she did some research on her own.
At our next meeting she reported to the class on a medieval Sufi adage that ascribes the following hadith qudsi (sacred utterance) to Allah: I was a hidden treasure, and I wanted to be known, and so I created the world. Later in the quarter she and several other students continued their investigation of this theme, discovering (in literary works such as Farid al-Din Attar’s 13th-century poem Conference of the Birds) mystical verses that describe God and the individual Sufi devotee as a pair of lovers who yearn ardently for each other. Parallels to this concept abound, of course, in Christian mystical literature.
Our last project of the quarter was to investigate how differing theological understandings of the divine nature and divine-human relations could be brought to bear on contemporary social issues. The example involved environmentalism.
For an Islamic perspective I assigned an essay by the Malaysian scholar Farish Ahmad-Noor which was published in a volume entitled Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism. Edited by Omid Safi, this book is one of the best and most constructive books in recent years on contemporary Islamic thought. Ahmad-Noor asserts that God commands Muslims to avoid focusing on exclusively parochial issues involving a narrowly defined Islamic community. Rather, this author argues, Muslims should engage urgently universal issues, like globalization and ecological degradation, that affect us all, regardless of faith, as members of humankind. This, he concludes, is the social-justice implication of the universality of the Islamic message.
For Christian perspectives on environmentalism I assigned essays on ecological Christianity by Sallie McFague and Mark Wallace. McFague and Wallace describe a God who suffers along with his creation, who is wounded whenever the earth and its wildlife and its human inhabitants are subjected to pollution and other forms of environmental degradation.
What emerged from these readings, and what I attempted to convey to my students, is that divergent understandings of the divine can be applied to issues that concern Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Comparative theology, in short, is something that matters, something that can mobilize intellectual and spiritual resources. It was worth teaching this Islamic Jesus course just to make that point.