By Lesley Hazleton
March 3, 2017
The Islamic Jesus
How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims
By Mustafa Akyol
275 pp. St Martin’s Press, $26.99
How did a Jewish preacher who became the Christian Messiah also become one of the most admired figures in the Quran? Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish journalist and contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times, sets out to explore this apparent conundrum.
The result will come as something of a revelation to many non-Muslim readers, since Jesus is revered in Islam’s sacred text as a great teacher and prophet, while his mother, Mary, gets more ink — and praise — than in all four New Testament Gospels put together.
If the Quran’s portrayal of Jesus is familiar in outline, however, its details are sometimes not, especially to Western Christians used to a single canonical version. The Quran is more ecumenical, dipping into the rich mélange of Middle Eastern traditions contained in the apocryphal and “gnostic” gospels and still very much alive in the popular lore of Eastern Christianity. It shows Jesus making clay birds and then breathing life into them, for instance, or Mary giving birth not in a Bethlehem stable with Joseph in attendance but alone under a palm tree, deep in the desert.
Akyol makes good use of both canonical and non-canonical sources, tracing where and why the Islamic approach agrees with Christian tradition (yes to Jesus as the messenger, prophet, word and spirit of God), and where it disagrees (no to the Resurrection, and no to divinity). Along the way, he ups the ante by finding what he calls “astonishing” parallels between the Quran and early Christian texts, though such astonishment seems unnecessary to this reader. Given the fertile interchange of ideas and lore in the multiethnic Byzantine Middle East, such parallels were not only likely, but even inevitable.
No new religion comes into being fully made, like Venus on her half-shell. And the Quran is quite open about this, as Akyol notes. It fulsomely acknowledges its debt by declaring that it comes to confirm both the Torah and the Gospels — to renew their ethical traditions. And since that was also part of the Jesus message — a renewal of Jewish tradition, not a break with it — Akyol presents the Islamic Jesus as more of a Jewish prophet than a Christian savior.
To bolster his argument, he delves into the split within the early Jesus movement: between the non-Jewish Hellenic church founded by Paul, which lasted and flourished, and the Jewish “Jerusalem Church” under James, which did neither. The idea is that remnants of these “Jewish Christians” might have survived into the seventh century to influence the Quranic concept of Jesus, though this seems something of a Dan Brownian stretch.
But Akyol excels in the last chapter, which will doubtless raise some eyebrows with its title alone: “What Jesus Can Teach Muslims Today.” In it, he makes a forceful argument for Jesus as the expression of the spirit instead of the letter of the law, and against the soulless legalism of both first-century Pharisees and 21st-century Islamic fundamentalists.
Is that too big a leap in both time and theology? Maybe not. Akyol frames it this way: “The three great Abrahamic religions of our battered world, despite all the past and present tensions between them, come together” in the story of Jesus. “Whether we are Jews, Christians or Muslims, we share either a faith followed by him, or a faith built on him, or a faith that venerates him.”
That’s about as interfaith as you can get. And whatever quibbles one might have with Akyol’s reasoning, it’s a welcome expansion of the fragile territory known as common ground.
Lesley Hazleton is the author of “The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad” and, most recently, “Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto.”