Centuries of confrontation with the Christian West followed by a period of intense missionary activity, which still continues in certain regions of the Islamic world in new forms, have created among some contemporary Muslims an aversion not only to Christianity but, in the case of some of the modernised classes, even to the Islamic conception of Christ and Mary. In response to the aggressive attack made upon Islam by so many Christian sources during the past, certain modernised Muslims have tried to forget or push into the background the clear teachings of Islam concerning Christianity. There have been even more extreme reactions among the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. As a result, they have created a Christology in certain quarters that is, to say the least, completely removed from the traditional Islamic teachings on the subject.
In this short exposition, it is not with such recent reactions but with the traditional Islamic teachings concerning Jesus that we shall concern ourselves. It might appear unconvincing to certain Christians that Islam places such an emphasis on the role of Jesus, but to understand the total perspective of Islam this emphasis is of significance. Moreover, in the secularised world of today it might be of spiritual comfort for Christians, besieged by a corrosive atmosphere which seeks to eat away the very sinews and bones of religion, to realise that millions of Muslims on earth bear witness to the Divine origin of Christianity and revere its founder, although naturally in a different perspective.
Islam does not accept the idea of incarnation or filial relationship. In its perspective, Jesus the son of Mary, ‘Isa ibn Maryam, was a major prophet and spiritual pole of the whole Abrahamic tradition, but not a God-man or the son of God. Nevertheless, his miraculous birth from a virgin mother, who is in fact referred to in the Qur’an as the woman chosen above all the other women of the world, is explicitly mentioned. So is the fact that he was “the Spirit of God” (ruhallah). His special function as the bringer of a spiritual way rather than a religious law is also basic to Islamic teachings. The Qur’an, however, does not accept that he was crucified but states that he was taken directly to heaven. This is the one irreducible “fact” separating Christianity and Islam, a fact, in reality, reality placed there providentially to prevent a mingling of the two religions. All the other doctrines, such as the question of the nature of Christ or the Trinity, can be understood metaphysically in such a way as to harmonise the two perspectives. The question of the death of Jesus is, however, the ‘fact’ that resists any interpretation which would be common to the Christian and Islamic views of the event. It could be said that this event was greater than any single description of it. In any case, the meaning of the crucifixion and the idea of redemption it signifies are perhaps the most difficult of all aspects of Christianity for an ordinary Muslim to grasp.
The Prophet of Islam held Christians in special esteem and emphasised the function of Christ within Islam by referring to Christ’s second coming at the end of the world. Islamic eschatology, therefore, although not identical with the Christian, is related to the same central figure of Jesus. Through the eschatological role assigned to Jesus in Islam as well as the many references to him and the Virgin Mary in the Qur’an, Jesus plays a role in the daily religious consciousness of Muslims equal to that of Abraham and following, of course, the role of the Prophet. Moreover, in Islamic esotericism, he plays a major function to which the many writings of Sufis such as Ibn ‘Arabi, Rumi and Hafiz attest.
If the Qur’anic description of Jesus is closely analysed, it will reveal Jesus as possessing three aspects, pertaining to the past, the present and the future, and corresponding respectively to his function of preserving the Torah, celebrating and perpetuating the Eucharist and announcing the coming of the Prophet of Islam. The Muslims interpret the perikletos (meaning “The Illustrious”) as parakletos (The Praised), which corresponds to one of the names of the Prophet of Islam, Ahmad (from the root h‑m-d meaning “praise”). The Qur’an states :
‘And when Jesus son of Mary said : O Children of Israel ! Lo ! I am the messenger of Allah unto you, confirming that which was (revealed) before me in the Torah and bringing good tidings of a messenger who cometh after me, whose name is the Praised One (Ahmad)’ (LXI, 6)
For Muslims, it is inconceivable that such a major religious manifestation as Islam should have been passed in silence by Christ, and they see in his announcement of the reign of the Paraclete a reference to the coming of Islam. His function in the future is in fact, as stated in the above Qur’anic verse, to announce the coming of the Prophet of Islam and of course also to bring the present human cycle to its end.
In the traditional Islamic religious consciousness, Jesus joins with Moses and Abraham to represent the ternary aspect of the monotheistic tradition whose summation is to be found in the Prophet of Islam. In this perspective, Abraham represents faith, Moses law and Christ the spiritual way. The Prophet of Islam as the final Prophet, ‘the seal of prophecy’, is the synthesis of all these aspects. Also in the same way that the Prophet is the ‘seal of prophecy’ Christ is considered by most Sufis as the ‘seal of sanctity’ in the Abrahamic tradition. There is, in fact, a special type of ‘Christic wisdom’ (hikmah ‘isawiyyah) within Islam, consisting of elements of inwardness, anteriority and a kind of Divine elixir or nectar which can be seen in certain forms of Sufism. Moreover, this wisdom, as well as the spiritual personality of Jesus, are closely related to the Virgin, and the Qur’an refers to the two as a single reality. It states, for instance,
‘And We (Allah) made the Son of Mary and his mother to be a (miraculous) sign’ (XXVI, 50)
Despite differences which exist, and which in fact must exist if each religion is to preserve its own spiritual genius and authenticity, the Islamic conception of Jesus provides a firm basis for an understanding of Christianity by Muslims if they only refrain from reacting to the intimidations caused by modern attacks against Islam and return to a close study of their own traditional sources. But this conception can also aid Christians to grasp better what Islam really means to those who breathe within the universe it has brought into being. Perhaps the Islamic conception of Christ can serve as a basis for a better understanding of Islam on behalf of Christianity. It could enable Christians to realise that the sun of their spiritual world which they so love is also a shining star in the firmament of another world and plays an important role in the religious and spiritual economy of another human collectivity.
This article was taken from its online version and edited accordingly.