The Muslim Jesus Is Neither Meek Nor Mild
I’ve read quite a lot of books on Islam. No, not as a young religious “seeker.” I never was one. I developed an interest in the world’s second largest religion for the same reason as many other New Yorkers, right after 9/11. Because of its impact on the rest of us.
Islam seemed till relatively recently a stable, sleepy religion. What if you’d told people in 1964, when I was born, that today we’d see violent conflicts all around the world with resurgent Islam? They wouldn’t have believed you. Islam was a faith that captivated peasants in “Third World” countries which had only just escaped being literal Western colonies. The younger, more educated people in those nations had shunned it for nationalism, socialism, or heady cocktails of the two. Even the terrorists and regimes trying to wipe out the state of Israel claimed to do so in the name of “the Arab nation.”
But all that has changed, in only my lifetime. Suddenly, the crusty British Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc stands vindicated. He was one of the only major figures to predict Islam’s resurgence. And warn us against it. I don’t think even foresaw that millions of Muslims would move to Europe. Then bully their way to influence, and threaten to outbreed and subjugate the natives.
It’s comforting but false to focus on Muslims’ respect for Jesus and Mary.
Just typing those words brings home to me how enormously strange that fact really is. For instance, if you want to see the most exquisite stained glass in France, at Sainte Chappelle in Paris, you need to pass through a banlieu of hostile Arab-speakers. And you shouldn’t go there at night. Multiply that fact by a hundred cities, a thousand towns. Look up the most common male name in one European capital after another. You guessed right. It is “Muhammad.” Britain is now considering (and will surely, sullenly pass) a law criminalizing criticism of Islam as (insanely) a form of “racism.”
A Scholar Who Loves Muslims Tells the Truth About Their Faith
Which means that the book I recommend today might well end up outlawed in Britain. All the more reason to read it. It’s The Crucifix on Mecca’s Front Porch: A Christian’s Companion for the Study of Islam, by David Pinault. What sets it apart from most of the books I’ve gratefully read on Islam is its author. He’s not a worried conservative, a disillusioned ex-Muslim, or a Christian refugee from some intolerant Muslim country. Instead, he’s a professor of Islamic studies at a nominally Catholic college. His students divide pretty evenly between believing American Muslims, and curious kids from nominally Christian families. So Prof. Pinault spends his life on the front line of the current civilizational struggle. That is, between Muslims who really do believe in their faith’s tenets, and Western Christians who don’t.
Pinault is no bomb-thrower, activist, or even alarmist. He’s a sober and even sympathetic student of Islam. (Why else would a scholar build a career studying something?) He has many Muslim friends. As part of his courses he ferries students to attend services at mosques. He has read in depth the authoritative religious and scholarly literature on Islam, in its original languages.
But his message is not very different, in the end, from more popular books by conservative journalists and activists. It’s simply not truthful to say that the acts of Islamist terrorists or brutal sharia enforcers are “perversions” of their religion. It’s comforting but false to focus on Muslims’ respect for Jesus and Mary. And it really isn’t that meaningful to say that Islam is (like Judaism and Christianity) a fellow “Abrahamic religion.”
Two Very Different Jesuses
Pinault unpacks these points in depth, in a sophisticated but finally devastating take-down of most interreligious dialogue. What finally sets Islam so firmly apart from Christianity, he explains, appears at just this point of alleged commonality: the figure of Jesus.
Yes, Muhammad taught his followers to call Christians “people of the Book.” And early in his career he called for tolerating Christians. He even chose Jesus as the last and greatest prophet of true religion before … himself.
Take comfort, Pinault explains, in none of that. Because later on, when Muhammad was not a wandering, unpopular reformer but a warlord, he revised his teaching. Or rather, he claimed that Allah had “annulled” large parts of it. Christians were now to be seen as almost as bad as pagans, since their Trinity amounted to a form of a polytheism. They might be tolerated, but only insofar as they were conquered, heavily taxed, and publicly humiliated, such that they felt their “submission” to Muslims. And Jesus (for Muslims, “Isa,”) is a very different figure. Apart from a few details Muhammad borrowed from Christian folklore or gnostic “gospels,” Isa would be almost unrecognizable to Christians.
If You Suffer, You’re Not God’s Servant
There’s one key reason why. As Pinault explains, Islam has no such category as “persecuted prophet” or “suffering servant.” For Muhammad, the key to recognizing an actual prophet of God is that the Lord assures his triumph. Whatever trials he suffers, he is vindicated and victorious in the here-and-now. In this life. He doesn’t suffer, endure humiliation, and end up on a cross. For Muhammad (and the Muslim apologists Pinault cites) such a prospect is repugnant. That is why, perhaps, Muhammad borrowed from gnostic accounts to paint a Jesus who never got crucified. Instead, God took him up to heaven, and left behind a look-alike who died instead on the cross. Some Muslim accounts even say it was Judas—who after his betrayal received this divine comeuppance.
No, Jesus didn’t suffer and die, to redeem our sins and meet us on the common ground of human weakness and sadness. He rode to heaven on a cloud, and will return at the end of time, Muhammad teaches, to “break all the crosses” and pour out judgement on … Christians. Punish them for at once degrading him as a victim, then idolatrously worshipping him as the Son of God.
What Makes Christians Different
In one of the most telling passages in the book, Pinault indicts renegade Catholic theologian Hans Küng. That Swiss priest wrote an Islamophile book that falsely asserts Muhammad got his picture of Jesus from Jewish Christians in Jerusalem — who held, allegedly, to the most ancient Christology, whereby Jesus was merely human. The belief that He is divine, Küng asserts, is a later invention of philosophy-sotted Hellenizers. To point up what scholarly nonsense this is, Pinault points to no less a figure than … Saint Paul. A learned Jew of the Pharisee party, he met and mixed and debated with all the Jewish apostles. But his epistles effervesce with explicit, assertive claims of Jesus’ divinity. Paul condemns all sorts of heretics and backsliders. If James and other apostles had denied Christ’s divinity, Paul would have denounced them for it.
Pinault uses his analysis of Islam, in the end, to capture what’s so precious, poignant, and durable about the Christian spirit, which we learn first-hand in prayer to the actual Jesus. Ours is a suffering savior. And that is what gives meaning to our earthly sufferings. If we only could feel we reflected Him in our moments of triumph and conquest, then our characters and our culture would be truculent and aggressive. We’d see weakness and failure as signs of divine disapproval. And we would be the mirrors not of Jesus but of Isa.