Since 911, the rhetoric has been dialled up to piercing levels when it comes to the relationship between religion and violence. The constant noise has numbed us to the realities of history as many of us accept the judgments of the endless cacophony of popular voices proclaiming that violence is a natural consequence of religion. Karen Armstrong’s meticulous research challenges the popular doctrine of both atheists, theists, and all those who would lay claim to the notion that religion is responsible for violence, terrorism, and war. Armstrong surveys a wide sweep of history, beginning 3000 years before the Common Era with the kind of vigour that has lead readers of her previous epics to trust her conclusions. Adept as Armstrong is when it comes to revealing her encyclopedic knowledge of world religions, Fields of Blood is a must read for all those who work in the field of religion as well as an enlightening read for all those who find themselves on the receiving end of modern pundits of both the religious and political varieties.
In the video below, Karen Armstrong provides an overview of her work which will no doubt compel you to add Fields of Blood to your reading list. Filmed at Chautauqua in August of 2014.
I have featured Lesley Hazleton on this blog before. Hazleton’s insights into faith come from her unique perspective as an agnostic Jew whose fascination with Islam has produced two biographies of the Prophet Mohammad.
In her latest TED talk (June 23/13) Hazleton looks to the doubts experienced by the Prophet Mohammad to explore the relationship between faith and doubt, calling for a new appreciation of doubt as pivotal in the struggle to end the fundamentalism of all religions. It is well worth a listen!!!
“The Qur’an gives a greater number of honourable titles to Jesus than to any other figure of the past. He is a ‘sign’, a ‘mercy’, a ‘witness’ and an ‘example’. He is called by his proper name Jesus, by the titles Messiah (Christ) and Son of Mary, and by the names Messenger, Prophet, Servant, Word and Spirit of God.” [i]
The Qur’an shows Jesus as a prophet, and “just as in the New Testament John the Baptist is Jesus’ precursor, so in the Qur’an Jesus is the precursor — and highly encouraging example — for Muhammad. To be sure, the Qur’an says that Jesus (in contrast to the Prophet) was directly fashioned by God”. [ii] “The Qur’an leaves no doubt about the fact that Jesus preached the truth; but the language that it has him speak is altogether different from that of the gospels.” [iii]The story of the birth of Jesus in the Qur’an seems to draw from the stories found in the gospels. The Qur’an refers to Jesus as the Son of Mary. “Mary, the mother of Jesus, is the only woman who is called by her proper name in the Qur’an. Other women are mentioned but not named.” [iv] The Qur’an includes stories of the Immaculate Conception, the Presentation in the Temple, the Annunciation and the Virgin Birth. [v] Mary is revered as the mother of Jesus.
And when the angels said,
Mary, God has chosen
thee, and purified
thee, He has chosen
thee, above all women.
Mary, be obedient to
thy Lord, prostrating
and bowing before Him
whose name is Messiah,
Jesus, son of Mary;
high honoured shall he be
in this world and the next,
near stationed to God.
He shall speak to men
in the cradle, and of age
and righteous he shall be (Surah 3:37-41)
The story of the annunciation and birth is detailed further in Surah 19 and Surah 3. Mary is visited by an angel who tells her that the Lord will make her a “sign” and she will bear a son who will be a great prophet. The story resembles those told in the gospels of Luke and Matthew and includes elements found in the early apocryphal writings (The Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of the Childhood in Arabic). There is however, an emphasis in Surah 112, that denies that God is the father of the child. God is responsible for the birth, but in the same way as he is responsible for the creation of Adam.
When Mary presents her child to her family, the baby silences any reproaches toward Mary by speaking directly to them, “Lo, I am God’s servant: God has given me the Book, and made me a prophet. Blessed has he made me.” (Surah 19:16-33)
The Qur’an depicts Jesus as a prophet of God:
And when Jesus came with the
clear signs he said, ‘I have
come to you with wisdom, and
that I may make clear to you
some of that whereon you are
at variance; so fear you God (Surah 43:63-4)
The signs of Jesus’ prophecy were the miracles that he preformed. Although Muhammad’s only miracle was the Qur’an itself. The Qur’an attributes many miracles to Jesus, beginning with the miracle of Jesus speaking from the cradle (Surah 19:30; 3:41). As in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, the Qur’an includes the story of the young Jesus breathing life into clay birds (Surah 3:42). The Qur’an attributes miracles of healing to Jesus who cures a man, blind from birth and a leper (Surah 4:110), and states that Jesus raised the dead (Surah 3:43). In the Qur’an, Jesus brings down a great table from heaven on which is a meal (Surah 4:115). This story has been compared to the gospel accounts of the Last Supper, the miracle of the loaves and fishes as well as Peter’s vision in Acts.
According to the Qur’an, Jesus came to confirm the Torah:
Likewise confirming the
truth of the Torah that
is before me, and to make
lawful to you certain
things that before were
forbidden unto you (Surah 3:43)
The Qur’an does not go into detail about the teaching of Jesus but seems to refer to the Gospel or “Injil” as confirming the Torah, through which God entered into a covenant with Abraham. Jesus indicates in the Qur’an, that while confirming the Torah he is also expanding upon it:
I have come to you with
a sign from your Lord;
so fear you God, and
obey you me. Surely
God is my Lord and
your Lord; so serve Him.
This is a straight path. (Surah 3:44)
The Qur’an does refer to Jesus as “Messiah”, but the meaning of this word must be understood not in it Christian translation as “Christos” or Saviour, but in its original Jewish context of an anointed one. “So Jesus was one whose touch purified from faults, being himself provided with the protection of the divine blessing anointed with the blessed oil with which former prophets were anointed. Jesus himself anointed the needy, healing the blind, laying hands on the sick, and using oil for blessing.” [vi] The Qur’an clearly states that “the Messiah, son of Mary, is nothing but a messenger” (Surah 4:79), and as such “The Messiah will not disdain to be a servant of God” (Surah 4:170). This subordination of Jesus to the supreme God is important in the Qur’anic references to Jesus as “Word”. Jesus came into being because God willed him to be (Surah 3:522-59). In the Qur’anic annunciation the Angel announces “good tidings of a Word from Him” (Surah 3:40). Unlike the Word or Logos of the Gospel of John, the Word in the Qur’an is not equal to God but exists because God willed it to exist.
As God’s messenger Jesus announced the coming of Muhammad:
And when Jesus son of
Mary said, ‘Children of
Israel, I am indeed the
Messenger of God to you,
confirming the Torah
that is before me, and
giving good tidings of
a Messenger who shall
come after me whose
name shall be Ahmed. (Surah 61:6)
Although this resembles Jesus’ promise of the Paraclete in the Gospel of John, Islam asserts that the name of Ahmed is a direct reference to Muhammad. Various revisions to the text suggest alternate readings, such as the rendering of “bearing the name Ahmed” as “god will put a seal on the prophets” [vii] or reading the word Ahmed not as a proper name but as an adjective meaning worthy of praise. [viii] Regardless of this debate, Islamic tradition sees Jesus as the Prophet who foretold the coming of the Seal of the Prophets, Muhammad.
Concerning the death of Jesus, the Qur’an maintains that Jesus did not die on the Cross but was raised to heaven by God. The Qur’an states that the Jews did not kill Jesus but a likeness that had been shown to them (Surah 4:156). Since Jesus did not die on the cross but was raised up to heaven by God (Surah 4:155-7), Islamic tradition has suggested many possibilities regarding his return or second coming. Islamic tradition holds that Jesus will return and reign as a just king and that the second coming will be a sign that the end of this world is near. However this is not found in the Qur’an.
The Qur’an describes Jesus as being close to God, but cautions against the Christian Trinitarian belief in Jesus as a manifestation of God. The Christian concept of the Triune God was anathema to the strongly monotheistic Muslims. The Qur’an speaks directly to Christians when it warns them against seeing Jesus as more than just a prophet:
People of the Book, go not beyond the bounds
in your religion, and say not as to God
but the truth. The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary,
was only the Messenger of God, and His Word
that He committed to Mary, and a Spirit from
Him. So believe in God and His Messengers,
and say not, ‘Three’. Refrain; better is it
for you. God is only One God. Glory be
to Him — that He should have a son! (Surah 4:169)
Early Christianity had problems in defining their orthodox position on the Trinity and it is not difficult to see how the worship of a Triune God could have appeared as worshipping three gods. Even today the concept of the Trinity is difficult for the average Christian to understand or explain. The Qur’an was written against a background of Arabian polytheism and Muslims struggled to maintain the supremacy of Allah against this backdrop and the concept of the Trinity was too easily confused with the worship of three gods. The Qur’an described Jesus as a creature created by the will of God, to be honoured as a prophet but not worshipped as God.
According to the Qur’an God bestowed “the Book” upon Jesus who passed its messages on to the Christians. Christians are referred to as fellow People of the Book and, “There is no suggestion in the Qur’an that the Gospel given to Jesus was different from the canonical Gospels held by Christians.” [ix] The Qur’an does speak of the Gospel in the possession of the Christians (Surah 7:156-7) and advises the Christians to follow the messenger spoken of in it. [x]
Christians, or followers of Jesus are referred to in the Qur’an as Nassara. The term is thought to have originated from the word Nazarene or Nazareth. The Qur’an says that “all who truly believe in God, Jews, Christians and others will be rewarded on the Last Day.” [xi]
Those who have believed, those who have judaised,
the Nassara and the Sabi’in, whoever has believed in God and
the Last Day, and has acted uprightly, have their reward
with their Lord; fear rests not upon them, nor do they
grieve. (Surah 2:59-62)
The Qur’an address the problem of disputes among the various People of the Book:
The Jews say, “The Christians stand not on anything”;
the Christians say, “The Jews stand not on anything”;
yet they recite the Book. So too the ignorant
say the like of them. God shall decide between them
on the Day of Resurrection touching their differences
The exact nature of the Jewish and Christian communities in and around Arabia at the time of Muhammad is not known. It is clear however that much of Muhammad’s revelation was influenced by these communities. We do know that various Christian sects were present in the area and Muhammad’s encounter with them explains many of the Qur’anic warnings to Christians concerning what the Church now sees to be heretical concepts about the nature of the Trinity, the veneration of Mary, and the worship of saints and relics. “The Qur’an denies Christian heresies of Adoption, Patripassionism, and Mariolarty.” [xii]
The Qur’an differentiates between the various types of Christians explaining that:
“The Messiah is the Son of God”
That is the utterance of their mouths, conforming
with the unbelievers before them. God assail them!
How they are perverted!
They have taken their rabbis and their monks as lords.
The Qur’an seems to call Christians back to the original Gospel message, warning against the perverted teachings of theologians and yet it also recognizes that there are among them priests and monks, who are “nearest in love to those who have believed” (Surah 5:85)
The history of tension and violence between Christians and Muslims is a long one. More often than not the differences between the off-spring of Judaism have prevented each from exploring the Jesus of the Qur’an. Perhaps a closer adherence to the words of their founders would help to ease current world tensions. The Qur’an admonishes Muslims to:
Dispute not with the people of the Book
save in the fairer manner, except for
those of them that do wrong; and say
We believe in what has been sent down to you;
our God and your God is One, and to Him
we have surrendered. (Surah 29:45)
The Qur’an explains that:
Had God so willed, he would have made you
one community but (he hath not done so) in
order that he might try you in regard to
what has come to you; so strive to be
foremost in what is good. (Surah 5:53)
The Christian theologian Hans Kung has written that: “If contemporary Christians and Muslims want to understand each other better, they have to go back to their origins (and apply a discriminating critique to later developments). At our origins, all of us — Jews, Christians, and Muslims — are closer to one another.” [xiii] If this is true then perhaps through careful exploration of the scriptures the “People of the Book” can together, gain a better understanding of one another and perhaps begin to solve some of the political problems that plague the globe.
([i]. Geoffrey Parrinder, Jesus in the Qur’an (London: Sheldon Press,1965), page 15.[ii]. Hans Kung, Christianity and the World Religions, (New York: Doubleday, 1985), page 110. [iii]. Parrinder, page 60. [iv]. Parrinder. page 98. [v]. Anawati. page 81. [vi]. Parrinder, page 31.[vii]. Parrinder, page 96. [viii]. Parrinder, page 99. [ix]. Parrinder, page 145. [x]. Parrinder, page 145. [xi]. Parrinder, page 153. [xii]. Parrinder, page 137. [xiii]. Kung, page 122)
As one who seeks to encounter the Divine by following Christ, I am often astounded and saddened by the ways in which many of my sisters and brothers misunderstand those who seek God by following the teachings of Islam. I offer this PBS documentary series as a window into the ways of our Islamic sisters and brothers.