The following essay by, inter-faith pioneer ,the late Professor Syed Hasan Askari is used here by the kind permission of the publisher Orbis Books and Gregory A Barker from the 2005 book, “Jesus in the World’s Faiths”. Barker is a published author with Oxford University Press, an Educator, Consultant & Visiting Research Fellow, University of Winchester. Orbis Books have been involved in religious based publishing since 1970.
“Islam is the only religion, outside Christianity, where Jesus is again really present. In other religions Jesus is not a part of their sacred scriptures, but may appear quite substantially in recent eclectic reflections. In Islam Jesus is the “Word of God” and “a spirit from Him” (Q 4:171) and is revered highly as a unique Apostle and sign of God. I disagree when Christians say that Jesus in the Qur’an is not the same Jesus who is in the Gospels. It is the same Jesus – with a different interpretation. After all, you can find different interpretations of Jesus in the canonical and apocryphal Gospels. In Islam he is really present in the life of the people primarily through the Qur’an – that is extended and enriched by theosophical thought, mystical poetry, folklore, and a widespread love in the Muslim world for the names of Jesus and Mary.
Jesus and the Central Tenet of Islam
Before one can appreciate Jesus in the Qur’an one must grasp the central witness of Qur’anic faith: the oneness and transcendence of God. Muslims trace this witness back to Abraham and see it uniting the greatest prophets in the world’s faiths. One way to express this truth is to say, “Do not worship the sun or the moon, but worship God who created them.” The sun in the sky, or the moon, a hero here or a prophet there – these are not gods – they are signs of God. That is the Qur’anic temperament.
This central thrust is not, in itself, a polemical argument because within the Qur’an the critique of Christian Christology is co-present with an affirmation of the miracle of the birth and ascension of Jesus. The Muslim interpretation of Jesus did take on a hard polemical edge with the arrival of Protestant missionaries to India and Iran in the nineteenth century. For nearly thirteen hundred years before this, a serenity and respect marked Islamic appraisals of Jesus: Jesus was a great prophet to be listened to and honoured. Then, when missionaries arrived with their exclusivistic message about the superiority of Christian faith, this serenity eroded into an argument. Many Muslims demanded from Christians the same level of respect for Muhammad that they had for Jesus. When this respect was refused, Muslim arguments about the role and place of Jesus became more pointed than they had ever been before. Perhaps now that Christians themselves critique their own creeds, we can return to a mutually critical and informative dialogue about identity and meaning of Jesus.
Mutual Mission and the Teaching of Jesus
Islam has a mission for Christianity: reminding Christians that God transcends both number and image. And Christians have a mission to Muslims: reminding Muslims that even a strict monotheist could be self-righteous. Both Christianity and Islam will become arrogant if they do not listen to each other’s critical witness. Each mission is a moment when there can be an opportunity for growth. When both moments are joined together, each influencing the other, an engagement occurs! This engagement between Muslims and Christians needs to happen now more than ever before.
In addition to this moment of engagement, the Muslim need not shy away from the area of mutual learning. The Sermon on the Mount, which sums up the teaching of Jesus, should occupy a primary place.
Is Jesus experienced only by Christians? In other words, is Jesus the same Jesus experienced by this or that group? Further, if Jesus is “love,” is love experienced so differently as to contradict one experience and another? Beliefs about experience may be conflicting, but not the experience itself. What is the Jesus experience? Can one refer to it through ones theological and religious self-consciousness? One of the reasons to study the Sermon on the Mount from an Islamic point of view is to examine whether the experience of Jesus and his teaching could be expressed outside the Christian fold. But again, whether Christian or Islamic, the Jesus experience, apart from the theological testimony of Christianity and Islam, can best be had if one brings to bear upon it the spiritual life of both Christians and Muslims, and not merely their beliefs about Jesus.
In our time everything is broken: families, sexes, generations. In our time everything is fragmented: knowledge, imagination and feeling. In our time everything is polarized: men and women, parents and children, teachers and pupils, experts and laymen. In our time, man is broken, fragmented, polarized. The Sermon is a promise of the wholeness of man. The Sermon is therefore a very grave critique of our institutions and organisations that capitalise over our brokenness. The Sermon says: be the whole man again, for wholeness is love, grace, Godfulness.
The Sermon on the Mount has a mystical root and ethical branches. By mystical route I mean that foundation upon which one is transformed or reborn. By the ethical branch I mean the spontaneous act of such a transformed person. It must be kept in mind that the type of actions that Jesus calls for in the Sermon on the Mount are based on an inner transformation already having happened. Without this understanding the Sermon on the Mount is reduced to a set of moral injunctions that oppress the disciple. Transformation must precede action.
The hint that the Sermon on the Mount is a witness to the transformed life is found in the Lord’s Prayer. In Christianity the Lord’s Prayer is sometimes called a “postbaptismal prayer”; only a baptized Christian is allowed to pray like this because he has already had the transformative experience of knowing that he is the child of God. This is the moment of deep experience. Now one knows that he is from a source far beyond this world: God. This knowing is perhaps an immediate reminiscence of a vision seen by him a long time ago. He sees it again in a passer-by, in a Jesus, in a child; he has the same vision. He has seen it again. It is all here. He is reborn – for each encounter of such a magnitude is also a rebirth.
Jesus himself experienced this transformation, this encounter with a transcendent God. This spontaneity to call God “Father” springs from the course of one’s being; namely God himself. It must be obvious that the Lord’s Prayer is not saying “Father” in the familial sense. This is reinforced by the full address of the calling; “Father in heaven” and also by the words which follow: “hallowed be thy name.” The immanence of the Lord’s Prayer (God as “Father”) is immediately balanced by transcendence (God is holy). Both the intimacy and the awe concerning God, as found so beautifully placed side by side in the Lord’s Prayer, is also part and parcel found in Islam. The following Qur’anic verse sums up the beauty and love of this dimension: “Call on me, I shall answer your call” (Q 40:60).
A Plea for Unity
In Denver I was teaching one morning and I saw a man in shorts standing, waiting for me. He introduced himself, “I am a Christian preacher from Alaska. Can I walk with you?” Then he said to me, “I just want to thank you. Until I heard you speak I was a very dogmatic Christian, but you have changed me. I am not that any longer. That morning in your session, I felt I was in the presence of Almighty God – God was everywhere; no religion, no culture, no race can possess it.”
Religious and doctrinal formulations are like rivers, each crossing unique lands. Some of those rivers dry up before they reach the sea. But others make it to the ocean and when they merge with the ocean they leave their name and form behind. They have then become one with the One. It is my belief that the Christian and Muslim perspectives on Jesus are two such rivers. They are different from each other, crossing different lands. But now they are nearing the end of their journey. When they finally reach the ocean, what divides them will be lost. If we don’t understand this lesson, then the ocean will walk towards us and there will be a deluge. We will then need a Noah’s ark. Not even the highest mountain of exclusivism will save us. So we have a choice. We can refuse to engage in the common life that we share, or we can learn from it and move toward the ocean, merging with it and becoming new spiritual beings.
I beg Christians and Muslims to listen, as they never have before, to their complementary witness about Jesus.”
Recommended: Hasan Askari’s interviews with : Karen Armstrong and Rev Earl Hanna. Hasan Askari’s speech from 1995 on “Spiritual Humanism”. Gregory Barker’s book review of “Towards A Spiritual Humanism” and his “Spiritual Human” interview.
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