In Dialogues Concerning Jesus Christ the Messiah
By Shabir Ally
Jesus is one of the greatest persons ever to have walked the earth. Two world faiths hold him in high regard. Islam holds him to be God’s Messiah, Prophet, and Righteous Servant. Christianity holds him to be all of the above and even more. Some Christians believe that Jesus is God the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Some believe that he is the Son of God. Some take this title to mean the Divine Son of God. Others think that ‘Son of God’ is a title that can refer to a person who is especially favoured by God; and that it refers to Jesus more so because he was favoured by God to a remarkable degree.
Hence belief in Jesus is an element of faith that is common to Christianity and Islam even though the two faiths believe in him differently. Both faiths hold Jesus in high esteem. Muslims and Christians believe that Jesus entered the world in a miraculous manner; that he worked mighty deeds on earth; that his exit was mysterious; and that his second coming will be spectacular. His miraculous entrance is hailed by Christians as the virginal conception, as is mentioned in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The Quranic story of Jesus as found in chapters 3 and 19 has many elements in common with Luke’s Gospel, leading to the common interpretation and belief among Muslims in the virginal conception as well.
Jesus’ powerful deeds, especially during the last few years of his ministry, are detailed in the four Gospels in the New Testament. Likewise the Quran informs us that God supported Jesus with the Holy Spirit and that Jesus healed the leper, cured the blind, and even raised the dead back to life, all with God’s permission.
According to the Gospels, Jesus’ exit from the world was at first a mystery to his disciples. But the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John show that Jesus later appeared to his disciples and confirmed for them that God had raised him alive to heaven. The Quran, without describing the event in any detail, confirms for Muslims that “God raised Jesus to Himself” (Quran 4:157). The belief that Jesus is alive with God, then, is common to Muslims and Christians.
Muslims also generally believe that Jesus will return to earth before the Day of Judgment. This belief is not clearly stated in the Quran although two verses (4:158 and 43:61) have been interpreted as possible references to this event. This belief is, however, stated in many sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad and found in the most authentic collections of his sayings.
In short, Muslims and Christians share a common reverence for Jesus, and this can serve as a starting-point for dialogue leading to greater levels of mutual understanding, tolerance, and respect.
Focusing on our commonalities, however, should not prevent us from being honest about our differences, for only in understanding our differences as well can we truly understand each other.
One area of difference is on the scriptural authority that settles questions for Muslims and Christians. For Christians the Bible is the Word of God. Some Christians add that the Bible is the Word of God and the word of man—that it is through the word of man that the Word of God is mediated. Many Christians believe that the authors of the Bible were basically free to write according to their knowledge and experiences, and that God controlled the process such that the result is in fact His Word without ceasing to be the words of the human authors. Some Christians believe that the process by which God inspired the writings that make up the Bible guarantees their inerrancy. Others believe that the Bible is free of error only in those matters on which human salvation depends.
Muslims believe in principle that any revelation from God must be accepted. Thus they believe in the Biblical prophets, especially as they are presented in the Quran. The Quran itself mentions some parts of the Bible as being based on scriptural revelations from God. In this way the Quran mentions the Torah of Moses, the Psalms of David, and the Gospel of Jesus. But Muslims see no reason to believe that the Bible is the final revelation from God. They believe that after the Old and New Testaments God revealed a final testament: the Quran. For Muslims, therefore, the ultimate authority is the Quran itself. They believe it to be the final revelation from God confirming the truth of the previous scriptures and yet acting as a quality control on the previous scriptures (Quran 5:48).
Hence in principle Muslims accept as Divine revelation those parts of the Bible which are in agreement with the Quran. They hesitate, however about those parts which are in disagreement. For them, if the disagreeable part refers to the practices of the faith then the Quranic practices abrogate the old, and they follow the new. If the differences are matters of history or theology Muslims may consider these due to something lost in the translation or transmission of the Bible over the ages. Often in dialogue Muslims point to some passages which are noted in many modern Bibles as having been changed over time. An example of this is The First Letter of John, chapter 5, verse 7 which used to say, “There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and that these three are one” (1John 5:7). These words, however, have been removed from the verse in most modern versions because Biblical scholars have discovered that it is absent from the earliest and most reliable manuscripts of John’s first letter.
Because Muslims and Christians accept different scriptural authorities, they may be expected to arrive at different conclusions about what to believe. This is why Muslims do not believe that Jesus died on the cross as depicted in the Gospels. The Quran does not describe in detail what happened, but insists that Jesus’ enemies did not manage to kill him. In response to those who said, “We killed the messiah, Jesus Son of Mary, the Messenger of God,” the Quran says:
They killed him not, nor crucified him, but it was made so to appear to them. And those who differ about him are in doubt about him. They have no knowledge of him except the pursuit of a conjecture. They killed him not for certain. But God raised him to himself. And God is Mighty, Wise” (Quran 4:157).
The Quran does not say specifically how Jesus managed to escape the plot of his opponents. But Muslims believe that the Quran, though very brief, gives God’s viewpoint on the story of Jesus.
But the main point of difference on the question of Jesus’ crucifixion is about the purpose of his purported death. For Christians, his death was not merely caused by sinful people, but was for the cause of sinful people. Jesus laid down his life for the sins of many, or, in an alternative view, for all people. There are various ways of explaining the efficacy of Jesus’ death. Some believe that God accepts the death of Jesus as a substitute for sinful people who are henceforth spared their deserved penalties. Others believe that the death of Jesus appeased the wrath of God and made it possible for people to be forgiven.
Muslims, however, believe that the matter is simple. God is Gracious. He can forgive his servants if he chooses; nothing impedes him. His promise is that he will forgive those who turn to him in repentance. If we sincerely repent of our sins against him, and do our best to repair the harm we have done to his creatures, his forgiveness is assured. On this point Muslims and Christians seem to agree. For even on the view that Jesus died for our sins Christians also insist on the need for repentance and a return from sinful ways. Moreover, Muslims find it difficult to understand how a just God can punish an innocent person in order to free the guilty.
Finally, despite their agreement about Jesus, Muslims and Christians also disagree about him. Muslims find it puzzling to think of Jesus as God and man at the same time, for this seems to combine two contrary features in the same person. If he was God he only appeared to be a man. And if he was really a man with some of the imperfections this entails then he was not the perfect God in whom Muslims and Christians believe.
Even more perplexing for Muslims is the doctrine that Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity. For Muslims, there is only one God, and Jesus is one of his greatest creatures. Christians agree that there is only one God. But they add that the one God subsists in three persons: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. To Muslims, however, the Holy Spirit is the angel Gabriel; and of the three persons only The Father, whom Muslims call Allah, can be truly God. Hence the simple Muslim declaration of faith: “There is no god but God.”
The dialogue between Christians and Muslims must continue, and this will, we hope, lead to a greater level of understanding, tolerance and mutual respect. We have only sketched here some of the main issues that need to be discussed as starting points for the achievement of such mutual appreciation. These two world faiths together are followed by half of the world’s population. If they work together they can combat many of the ills that plague our world at present.