Can Jesus Save Islam?
The Promising Effects of Christ on Other Cultures
by David Marshall
Since the attack on the World Trade Center, two questions have troubled public consciousness. First, what ails Islam? And second, what can set it right?
We have come to recognize, in retrospect, that the problem is not a matter of one or a dozen isolated incidents. Much of the Muslim world has been revealed as a mosaic of “failed societies” that suffer from poverty, dictatorial governments, and feudal power structures that oppress women and religious minorities. Furthermore, as Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington infamously pointed out, “The borders of Islam are bloody”: These problems are not retained within Islam but have sparked a series of clashes from Nigeria to Indonesia, Mindanao to Xinjiang.
Observers have offered a variety of explanations and suggestions. Oddly, though, the simplest and most obvious answers to these two questions have seldom been mentioned: the names of the two great Muslim prophets, Mohammed and Jesus.
In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, a consensus quickly became evident that Mohammed would not be implicated in the problems of modern Islam. At heart, Islam is “good and peaceful,” said George Bush, “incredibly tolerant,” claimed Tony Blair, and “a religion of peace and moderation,” according to Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad. Following the lead of scholars like John Esposito and Edward Said, journalists agreed. Terrorists “warp the words of Islam’s founding texts to channel noble thoughts into ghastly deeds.”1 Mohammed “reiterated the need for tolerance to people of all denominations.”2 In fact, “Nothing in the Koran, Islamic theology or Islamic law in any way, shape or form justifies ramming two airliners into civilian buildings.”3 Even conservative scholars like Bernard Lewis and Bat Ye’or shied away from blaming Mohammed himself, preferring publicly to ascribe the militant interpretation of the doctrine of jihad to later Islamic jurists. Huntington saw high birth and unemployment rates as the problem, contemptuously denying that “seventh-century religious doctrines” could affect how folk behave today.4
Others claimed that the West was the real culprit, for the Crusades, colonialism, support of Israel, or indifference to democracy in the Middle East. Anak Agung Banyu Perwita argued in the Jakarta Post that conflicts in the Muslim world were the fault of the United States for its support of “friendly tyrants.”5 Dr. Yuzo Itagaki, who heads the Islamic study group in the Japanese Foreign Ministry, claimed that the Muslim world had only been held back from democracy by “adroit regional control maintained by Western powers” for the past hundred years.6 Some Westerners have also spoken quietly, or not so quietly, of how the continued vitality of Israel is proving inconvenient for international relations.
“He who thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall,” is always good advice. If the cat scratches, it may be that someone has stepped on her tail. No one denies that America has big boots and often walks clumsily. Wrong actions by Western or Israeli governments may indeed contribute to Middle Eastern trouble, as Western actions have hurt other parts of the world. Looking further back, one could also argue that, with Mohammed’s jihad, Constantine’s twisted theory of the cross, “Conquer by this!” came home to Christian lands to roost.
But the tone of much of the discussion so far strikes me as unbalanced. Surely the claim that Islam has no effect on how Muslims act is neither realistic nor fair even to terrorists. It is absurd to think that middle-class Middle Easterners fly airliners into skyscrapers because of a slump in the GNP, or that the West is so monolithic, powerful, and sly that it can manipulate dozens of sovereign and hostile states behind the scenes, so as (for example) to place the Ayatollah Khomeini in power to ruin Iran, or control the Arab uprising in the West Bank from behind the scenes, as has been alleged in some quarters in the Middle East. And what should we make of the desire to blame Jews for the troubles of the Arab world?
The name of Mohammed, by contrast, has been remarkable by its absence.
While he was seldom more violent than necessary to further his ends, it is unfair to his many victims to describe Mohammed as a man of peace. According to the Qur’an and Muslim traditions, he personally led dozens of raids, retaliatory strikes, pre-emptive attacks, and invasions against neighboring peoples. He invented the doctrine that all holy warriors go to heaven. “No one who fights this day . . . with steadfast courage . . . shall meet his death without Allah’s bringing him to paradise!”7 When expedient, he had prisoners tortured. Once, he was about to execute a man for too publicly expressing doubt about his prophetic abilities. The man asked, “Who will take care of my sons?” “Hell!” was the prophet’s cold reply.8 After surviving a siege, the prophet had all 700 or 800 Jewish men of the tribe of Banu Qurayza murdered as potential rebels, selling the women and children as slaves (but keeping one comely widow for himself).
In The Scapegoat, Rene Girard argued that every society gains a sense of community by unified violence against the innocent. A town or nation gains cohesion and closure in troubling times by joining together for a good, therapeutic murder. Girard found evidence of scapegoating both in historical writings (of the persecution of Jews during the Middle Ages, for example) and in the founding myths of various cultures (such as the deaths of Romulus, Zeus, and Balder). Girard argued that in times of stress, society seeks cohesion by justifying the ritual murder of those in its midst who stand out in some way. In the same literature, he found evidence of post-mortem cover-ups. He concluded: “Human culture is predisposed to the permanent concealment of its origins in collective violence.”9
In the modern era, the world is forming a single civilization, an “international community” or “global village.” Girard’s theory, it seems to me, helps explain the public (mis)education program since September 11 about the origins and nature of the faith Mohammed taught, and perhaps the intense interest in Israel of late as well. In the interest of world peace, it becomes tempting to paper over the original nature of Mohammed’s movement and to look for a common, ritual enemy on whom to focus collective and coalition-building blame. Perhaps it is possible to strengthen Western-Islamic solidarity by the ancient and proven ritual of scapegoating the Jews.
The simplest answer to why the Islamic world is in trouble is obvious but unwelcome. Mohammed modeled one-man rule in the name of God. Why be surprised to see dictators in the Arab world he did so much to shape? The prophet sometimes killed the innocent. Should we feel shocked if terrorists acting in his name do likewise? Mohammed promised that “the way to Paradise is lit by the flash of the swords.” Can we be sure terrorists who blow themselves up are acting in an impious manner? When threatened by an Arab army from Mecca, Mohammed had the Qurayzah Jews of Medina slaughtered. Is it then surprising when Saddam Hussein, beleaguered by American and Arab forces, launches SCUD missiles at Israel? The prophet took the wives of his enemies, kept his women under de facto house arrest, married a nine-year-old child, and allegedly said that hell was filled with women who did not respect their husbands. Should we be shocked to find the status of women low among his followers today?
The theory that the life of Mohammed really does influence those who follow him appears to be too simple, and too dangerous, for orthodox consideration. We make historical allowances for Mohammed, as we did for Marx and his followers, as for all successful revolutionaries with innocent blood on their hands.
What is the solution to the problems of contemporary Islam?
Apart from an occasional salute to the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, most solutions offered to the dilemma the Muslim world faces have involved an institution or historical era, rather than a person or idea. Many point to the Golden Age of Islam, from the rise of the Abbasid caliphate in the eighth century to the Mongol sack of Bagdad in 1258, during which Muslims established a creative and dynamic empire. Others say that what Islam needs is a Reformation or Renaissance.
One of the most thoughtful suggestions of hope for the Muslim world came from Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times. He noted that other non-Western societies had also gone through periods in which they radically rejected the values of the West. Yet Asia did transform itself, beginning in Japan in the nineteenth century with the Meiji reforms. “The Islamic world today is ripe for its own Meiji period, and it should find the experience of Asia reassuring,” Kristof argued. “The lesson of the Far East is that it is possible for a troubled civilization to regain its footing only by integrating sweeping change into its society, and that this embrace of modernity does no dishonor to a national heritage.”10
While the kind of civilizational change Kristof suggested certainly is possible, the question of “natural heritage” is more complex in the case of Islam than with East Asian societies. For one thing, Islam is not a nation. For Muslims, honor means fidelity to divine words, not treasured traditions set among sacred mountains and streams. Also, as Kristof pointed out, Japan closed itself to the outside world for over 200 years, boiling Christians in hot springs, before the Meiji reforms. And after Meiji came the cataclysm of World War II. For both China and Japan, the path to modernity tracked twice across totalitarianism. And much of Asian heritage and beauty were lost through the process of modernization. Few who endure the drab, artificial ugliness of a modern Japanese city will wish the Meiji solution on the rest of the world with wholehearted enthusiasm.
But more importantly, what did the Golden Age of Islam, reforms in China, Japan, and India, and the European Reformation share in common? A specific and surprising common theme, to the best of each of those reforms, was the person of Jesus.
I think I am justified in speaking of Jesus as an answer to this question for two reasons, aside from my own Christian faith. First, apart from his divine status in Christianity, Jesus has shown signs of a healing touch even within Muslim culture. And second, his example and teachings have been instrumental in the reform of non-Christian cultures that have been promoted as models for Islamic reform.
A strict bifurcation between “Islam” and “Christendom” is too easily assumed. In reality, Mohammed influenced medieval Christianity. “Medieval” can almost be defined as the period of European history when the cross lay in the shadow of the crescent. When we say that such and such a Muslim regime is “medieval,” we mean it resembles the West at the period when the West most resembled Islam. The war-like Germanic tribes tended to interpret even Jesus’ fishermen followers as warriors: They hardly needed Mohammed to teach them to fight. But the Crusades did represent a European breakthrough of sorts, prompted by Islamic practice. Historian Edward Peters notes, “Before the late eleventh century, no one had worked out a doctrine whereby fighting itself might be considered a penitential and spiritually meritorious act.”11 Moors in southern Europe and Turks in Palestine provided inspiration for the Christian discovery of such a device, with the pope plagiarizing, for example, Mohammed’s promise that holy warriors go to heaven.
Muslim Interpretations of Jesus
Just as Mohammed influenced Christianity, Jesus had a deep and possibly redemptive effect on Islam, even when he was only partially understood and ambivalently accepted. Called “Messiah,” or “Breath of God,” Jesus is depicted in the Muslim holy book as a miracle-working messenger of God. The Qur’an emphasizes that it is “not for God to take a son.” But it speaks of Jesus in strikingly exalted terms:
Like the Buddha of legend, the Quranic Jesus spoke from the cradle, answering those who rebuked Mary for her out-of-wedlock pregnancy:
The Qur’an emphasizes the kindness of Jesus:
It also depicts him as a great miracle-worker:
One Arab Christian scholar argues that the Qur’an even sets Jesus above Mohammed:
In the centuries after the birth of Islam, Muslim thinkers nursed this tradition into a core of extra-canonical teachings. Tarif Khalidi, fellow of King’s College at Cambridge and director of the Centre of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, notes that “the range and continuous growth of the Jesus corpus has no parallels among other prophets in the Muslim tradition.”14 In his fascinating and elegant book, The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature, Khalidi collected more than 300 sayings, or logia, ascribed to Jesus in the Muslim community. Many of these sayings had been collected by famous scholars: the influential pietist theologian Ahmad ibn Hanbal, and early Sufi apologist, Abu Nu’aym al Isbahani, and the naturalist and scholar Abu Uthman al-Jahiz, who influenced the early Bagdad court.
While in some of these sayings the words of Jesus could have come from a stern Mohammed, or even a Middle Eastern Confucius, in many early logia there was an emphasis on aspects of Jesus’ personality and teaching that will be familiar to readers of the New Testament. Many emphasized his poverty and servant-hood: “Jesus used to prepare food for his followers, calling them to eat and wait upon them, saying: ‘This is what you must do for the poor’” (logion 49). They described how he answered evil with good. Some developed the Quranic reference about Jesus bringing the dead to life through his prayers. In one apocryphal story, a woman was in hell, until she was raised to life and found salvation, thanks to Jesus. A later story reported Jesus affirming—but only in a dream—that he was crucified, contrary to Muslim dogma. Khalidi notes, “It is as if, even though he is a Muslim creation, the Islamic Jesus, once created, maintains some distance from the strict orthodoxy of his creators.”15
Jesus & Islamic Culture
The Muslim empire conquered Persia, North Africa, most of Byzantium, and much of India by the sword. But having founded a mighty empire, the new community required gentler methods of social cohesion. Mohammed himself, having justified his teaching in terms of Jewish and Christian revelations, pragmatically affirmed those revelations and the people who followed them, thus allowing the basis of a multi-ethnic, pluralistic empire with room (sometimes congested) for Jews and Christians to contribute. Unlike the Huns or Franks, the Arabs began their conquests with a book in their hands, a book that affirmed other books.
Early Sufis found in Jesus a counterpoint to blind subservience to the state. Many were especially attracted to the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus-sayings provide an oracle from within Islam that contrasted with the prophet Mohammed’s own example. One collected by Abu Uthman al-Jahiz spoke, for instance, against aggression:
Attacking and carrying away was precisely how the early Muslim community, under Mohammed, sponsored its vast expansion. But according to the prophet Jesus, such actions betray lack of faith. Similarly, couldn’t one argue from within the Islamic Jesus tradition that the harsh enforcement of Islamic law in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia betrays a lack of confidence in God?
The Muslim Jesus commented obliquely on family life:
Mohammed had fourteen wives. One gets a taste of harem politics from how A’isha described her husband’s first wife: “Why do you have to be always remembering that toothless old Qurayshite with her red mouth? Fate made her die and God has replaced her with a better!”16 Of course, Mohammed held the trump card in domestic affairs: divine affirmation. “If he divorces you, perhaps his Lord will give him instead better wives than yourselves.”17 The second-rate wives, the jealous, the complainers, would then be out the door. V. S. Naipaul has written acerbically about the effect sanctified “tom-catting rights”18 has had on families in countries like Indonesia and Pakistan:
Huntington has a point when he argues that an excess of unattached young men in the Arab world encourages violence—as it did in the time of the caliphs. Warfare was the solution then and is an obvious solution today for social unrest resulting from the rage of the “half-orphans.”
The Muslim Jesus favored the poor:
Poverty, of course, does not cause violence. It is patronizing to assume the poor cannot make wise spiritual choices. In fact, many of the “best” terrorists have come from the “best” families, as did bin Laden.
Chinese philosopher Lin Yutang once described Jesus and Lao Zi as “spiritual brothers,” both of whom “built their kingdom upon poverty of spirit.” The same could not be said of Mohammed, who built his empire on military expansion. Even between Jesus and Lao Zi there was a difference. Showing, not telling, is the deepest form of teaching. Lin noted, “Jesus showed what [poverty of spirit] meant by washing his disciples’ feet. That may be something Lao Zi planned to do, but there is no record that he ever got around to doing it.”20
Jesus & India
As the early twentieth-century scholar J. N. Farquhar argued in The Crown of Hinduism, as did Vishal Mangalwadi more recently in many books, Jesus has inspired much reform in India. Indian society seems to have been fairly egalitarian, and certainly was inventive, in very ancient times. But whether due to defensiveness after Muslim invasions or to the logic of new religious doctrines such as karma and caste, Indian society grew steadily more oppressive. Lower castes and untouchables were treated as less than human. From about the sixth century, girls were married before ten years of age, often to much older men. When young upper-caste ladies were widowed, they were encouraged to throw themselves on the funeral pyre of their deceased husbands or were confined indoors for the rest of their lives.
Followers of Jesus in India, both the famous “Clapham sect” of Evangelical reformers within the British government and East India company, and missionaries like William Carey, helped to largely put a halt to the burning of widows, pioneered education for men and women, founded orphanages and homes for widows, rehabilitated lepers, and introduced education for untouchables. A Hindu newspaper described the impact of the best missionaries:
The Hindu poet, Satyendranath Datta, felt Jesus himself belonged in India:
In Modern Religious Movements of India, Farquhar described new sects that emerged in India up to the turn of the last century and beyond. He described the wide-ranging influence Jesus had on contemporary Indian religious movements, overtly (as in the Christian-influenced reform society, the Brahma Samaj) and covertly (in nationalistic reactions, like Vivekinanda’s Ramakrishna Mission). He concluded that even sects that had no use for missionaries and claimed that the West knew nothing it hadn’t learned from India adjusted to the Christian challenge by affirming such untraditional teachings as the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of men, social reform, missionary zeal, and, especially, the person of Jesus. He concluded: “While most of the material used in the reconstruction is old, Christian principles have guided the builders.”
Jesus & China
In China, too, modernization involved, in great part, coming to grips with Jesus. The first and most radical attempt to bring China into the modern world was made by the Tai Ping cult, an eclectic and revolutionary blend of Christianity, Confucianism, and traditional Chinese spiritualism that almost overthrew the Qing Dynasty. Many of the second wave of reformers, in the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, considered themselves followers of Jesus, including Nationalist presidents Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kaishek, and Li Denghui.
What role did missions play in raising the status of women in China? Hu Shi, the great Chinese educator and reformer, wrote with bitter hyperbole:
The missionaries didn’t learn to “look at women as people” from Marx, Rousseau, or Jefferson. They learned it from the man who spoke gently to the woman at the well, restrained men with stones in their hands, and, as scholar Walter Wink has pointed out, radically challenged the patriarchal social mores of his day in regard to women in “every single encounter with women in the four Gospels.”24
Jesus & Japan
The figure of Jesus has also had a sweeping effect on Meiji and modern Japan. Christian teachings affected Japan indirectly through their influence on the West (from which Japan borrowed), more directly through missionaries (like the “American Samurai” Leroy Janes) and the students they taught, and through a remarkable and influential series of converted samurai and sons of samurai, who, in effect, took Jesus as their new feudal lord. One samurai convert, Kyoto-based educator Niijima Jo, whose students included a number of influential post-war thinkers, said, “I love Jesus more than anything else. I cast my whole self to him and try to do right before him.”25
In essence, Jesus reformist movements in Japan provided reformist and highly patriotic alternatives to the Japanese version of jihad for thoughtful young samurai. The students of Niijima and other “Christian samurai” not only involved themselves in practical reforms—schools, hospitals, disaster relief and reconstruction, labor and peasant unions—they also provided a radical intellectual counterpoint to imperial absolutism.
In popular magazines, public lectures, and books by a series of essayists and novelists, followers of Jesus argued for a middle class, the autonomy of the individual, and in later years, the duty of individual Japanese to take responsibility for war crimes. University of California historian Irwin Scheimer notes:
Scheimer describes how Christianity “for the first time” allowed Japanese a sense of social identity independent of, and sometimes critical towards, the state. He quotes Motoda Sakunoshin, president of Rikkyo University in the first decade of the twentieth century:
The government, reacting against such pernicious ideas, eventually relapsed into totalitarianism, using the power of economic modernization to conquer its neighbors. With defeat, Japanese society underwent a second baptism in Christian tutelage under General McArthur (at which time Christian and Christian-influenced students of Niijima and Uchimura Kanzo became especially prominent).
A month after the attack on the World Trade Center, I met one of my Japanese students in our school library. She said she was preparing a report on women and religion. “What in particular?” I asked. “The Taliban,” she said. “That’s an interesting topic,” I replied, innocently. “By the way, do you know how long women have been educated in Japan?” She hemmed and hawed, and guessed, “Since the war?”
In fact, improvement in the status of, and education for, women largely began with the return of Jesus to Meiji Japan. (Catholic missionaries had shown Japan a similar face of Christian compassion three hundred years before.) The Salvation Army played a major role in liberating Japanese prostitutes. Like their Lord, nineteenth-century missionaries felt that a woman who wants to learn has chosen the “better part.” They introduced women’s education, including the first women’s college in the city of Nagasaki, where I live.
Jesus the Answer
If, as Kristof points out, the Meiji restoration brought renewal to Japanese civilization, and if Jesus played a vital role in that renewal, what is to stop him from playing an equal or even greater role in the reformation of a religion that already affirms him as “Messiah” and “Breath of God”?
The Muslim Jesus spoke of divine love:
The Christian gospel, “wherein,” says the Qur’an, “is guidance and light” (5:46), shows how Jesus modeled that forgiveness. What better hope for reconciliation can there be than the example of the one who not only spoke the Sermon on the Mount (from which this logion is clearly adopted), but forgave his enemies from the Cross?
The last words spoken by the first of their followers to be martyred dramatically define the examples offered to the world by the two great Muslim prophets. Echoing the hot temper of his teacher, Khubayb ibn ‘Adi, the first Muslim martyr, pointed at his enemies and thundered: “Allah! Count them well. Kill them all, one by one, and let not one escape!”28 By contrast, as Stephen was dying, he repeated the words Jesus had spoken a short time before from the Cross: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).
We have been reminded that Christians have not always lived up to that example. True enough. But there is no denying the impact that example ultimately had on world civilization. As Girard put it, “Jesus’ victory is thus, in principle, achieved immediately at the moment of the Passion, but for most men it only takes shape in the course of a long history secretly controlled by the revelation.”29 The seed of Jesus’ life has taken two thousand years to take root and grow in world consciousness. Important aspects of that example have sometimes been understood more quickly by non-Europeans and even non-Christians, like Gandhi.
The greatest challenge for the Muslim world, as for other civilizations today, is to find a way to adopt the best of modern, liberal freedom, while preserving the best of true spiritual tradition. Certainly in the quest for a solution to this puzzle, Muslim reformers would be wise to look at anything that works—the Turkish model, the Malaysian model, the medieval caliphate, the East Asian model. But considering the role Jesus played in the rise of Europe, in the Meiji renewal of Japanese civilization, in China and India, and within Islam, let us not forget him. Is it unreasonable to hope, given the power the example of Jesus had in the Far East, that even qualified faith in the “Breath of God” might breathe life, not into a single Muslim woman, as in the apocryphal Muslim story, but into all of Islamic civilization?
1. The Economist, September 22, 2001.
2. Birhan Wazir, Japan Times, October 2, 2001.
3. Theresa Watanabe (Los Angeles Times), then quoting Dr. Hamid Dabashi, chair of the department of Middle Eastern Languages and Culture at Columbia, Japan Times, October 2, 2001.
4. Newsweek, December 2001–February 2002, p. 9.
5. Asahi Shimbun, September 24, 2001.
6. Asahi Shimbun, November 24, 2001.
7. Maxine Rodinson, Mohammed (Penguin, 1961), p. 167.
8. Ibid., p. 168.
9. Rene Girard, The Scapegoat (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), p. 100.
10. “Islam’s Arc Is Ripe for a Meiji Period,” International Herald Tribune, January 9, 2002.
11. Edward M. Peters, The First Crusade, the Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres and Other Source Material (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1979), p. 8.
12. This and subsequent quotations are from The Koran, translated by Arthur J. Arberry (Oxford University Press, 1955), p. 51. Chapter and verse references in parentheses are the standard references in most translations.
13. Anis A. Shorrosh, Islam Revealed: A Christian Arab’s View of Islam (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1988).
14. Tarif Khalidi, The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 29.
15. Khalidi, op. cit., p. 44.
16. Rodinson, op. cit.
17. Ibid., p. 283.
18. V. S. Naipaul, Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples (Vintage Books, 1999), p. 251.
19. Ibid., p. 95.
20. Lin Yutang, Xin Yang zhi Lu, p. 243.
21. J. N. Farquhar, The Crown of Hinduism (Oxford University Press, 1913), p. 279.
22. Vishal Mangalwadi, Missionary Conspiracy (OM Publishing, 1996), pp. 96–97.
23. Gu Weiming, Jidujiao Yu Zhongguo Shehui (Peoples’ Publishing Co., 1996), p. 313.
24. Walter Wink, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1984) p. 129.
25. Inwin Scheimer, Christian Converts and Social Protest in Meiji Japan (University of California Press, 1970), p. 146.
26. Ibid., p. 112.
27. Ibid., p. 121.
28. Rodinson, op. cit., p. 190.
29. Girard, op. cit., p. 207.
David Marshall teaches in the Multicultural Exchange department of Siebold University, a small state school in southern Japan. He is the author of Jesus and the Religions of Man and True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture (both published by Kuai Mu Press).
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