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Christians, Muslims and Jesus

Clare Bryden

RSiddiqui.jpgMona Siddiqui

Yale University Press

This book has been widely welcomed as a serious attempt by a Muslim to understand the person and work of Jesus. Siddiqui has read widely in Muslim and Christian sources and tells us that she has gone back to primary material. As a western-based academic, she has a natural interest in what western Christian theologians are saying about Jesus but there is not enough commensurate discussion on Christians writing from within the world of Islam. Perhaps this is to be expected.

Jesus is often mentioned in the Qur'an, of course, where he is referred to not only as 'Son of Mary', but as prophet (nabi) and messenger (rasul) but also as God's word (kalima or qawl) as a spirit from him, as his servant and as the Messiah. There has been a long debate, which Siddiqui recounts, about the meaning of these terms in the Qur'an and in Islamic usage but the biblical resonances are also palpable. Adam is spoken of as having been created by the divine word but it is only Jesus who is identified with this word. Similarly, the Qur'anic description of him as 'a spirit from God' is consistently understood in later Islam to mean that he is ruh Allah (or Spirit of God). Siddiqui is content to note both the sense that Jesus is more than just a prophet and the constant need to reduce his significance in comparison with the Prophet of Islam.

One title that is denied him in Islam is 'the Son of God'. There are historical reasons for this (such as Muhammad's earlier denial that Allah could have daughters) and there is also much about what Christians actually believe. The author records the Gospel testimony of Jesus' sense of an intimate relationship with his Father. Indeed, without this, it would be difficult to understand much in Jesus' ministry. On the other hand, she is unable to resist the temptation to quote liberal Christian theologians who seek to reduce the force of divine sonship by referring to it as 'metaphorical' and as not implying eternal existence with the Father.

Siddiqui is quite correct to point out that even if Muslims come to accept the death of Jesus by crucifixion, this would not have any atoning significance for them. While Islam believes in human weakness and the capability to do wrong, it also believes in human perfectibility by following divine law, even if that is with divine help. There is little sense that humanity needs rescue from actual and inherited sinfulness - though for the Sufis, the cross is a revealer of divine love and of the human obedience necessary for responding to such love.

As far as the resurrection is concerned, Hamilton Gibb is quoted to show that Islam repudiated the 'nature cults' that had survived in the Christian Church. Against this, the Islamic philosopher Allama Iqbal, remarks that the Qu'ran does not base its teaching on the resurrection, as Christianity does, on the actual resurrection of an historic person, but on the phenomena of nature, true even of birds and animals.

It is, perhaps, surprising that while the Greek background to a Christology is mentioned and criticized, the Hebrew and Aramaic background is not. Referring to the valuable work of Sydney Griffith it is claimed, with some truth, that western Christians have not taken enough notice of the intellectual tradition of the eastern Christians who lived in the Islamic world. Two qualifiers need to be entered here: one, that there is, nevertheless, a long list of those who have. Secondly, this is a living tradition and what is going on in eastern Christianity today also needs to be kept in mind. All Christians have taken from Greek, Roman and Oriental civilisations, but also resisted their worst features such as infanticide, abortion, gladiatorial contests, sexual permissiveness and many others. A proper evaluation of the contribution of eastern Christian communities would show their immense contribution, along with Jews, Zoroastrians and others, to the emergence of polity, to architecture and above all to the translation and transmission of Greek learning in the sciences, philosophy, medicine and other areas. At the same time, as Siddiqui points out, they were engaged in well-informed, respectful but also firm dialogue with their Muslim interlocutors. In this matter too we have something to learn from them. She plays down the difficulties and persecutions of the dhimma (the discriminatory system under which non-Muslims were supposed to live) and refers to an unworthy point made by a British scholar that Christians were persecuted because they regarded themselves as socially and intellectually superior. Such thinking pays hardly any attention to the basis in Shari'a for such systemic treatment of non-muslims.

An attempt is made to make the Qur'anic word for Christians 'nasara' mean 'Jewish Christians' who may have had a reduced Christology and would, therefore, have been closer to Islam. But this distinction is untenable. The Qur'an condemns the nasara for their Christology and the veneration of their priests and monks.

Siddiqui's reference to Ismail Faruqi well sums up the essential difference between Christianity and Islam: the latter emphasising justification and salvation by works, whereas the former lays emphasis on justification and salvation by grace through faith. While God's love for humans and the possibility of our love for him are mentioned in the Qur'an, Siddiqui is right to say that the tension between Law and Love is largely absent in Islam. Here God may be said to love the righteous (muhsin) but not the sinner (mu'tad). How then can a sinner find forgiveness? How are we to escape the false notion of cheap grace and is forgiveness only a balancing of good deeds against the bad? As a Muslim young man said to me, 'We are ready to love God even to death but he cannot love us to death.' The Christian answer, of course, is that he can and does but this is the Muslim dilemma; what exactly is the cost of divine love? The Sufis made love much more central to faith, but as with Paul, this resulted in a rejection of legalism, an affirmation of the interior life, of complete trust (tawakkul) in God. Will the body of Islam follow them or the legalists? In any case, the question remains for them, as for other Muslims, how do we know that God loves us in an unconditional, sacrificial and ultimate way?

It is most welcome that a Muslim scholar should feel free to offer her assessment of Jesus and of Christian origins. We can learn much from her perspective and critique. Alas, this cannot yet be a symmetrical relationship. As recent cases have shown, Islamic laws against blasphemy and apostasy make even moderate attempts at research about Islamic origins fraught with difficulty. Let us hope that Siddiqui's foray into the world of Christian origins will give Muslims confidence that there can be Christian engagement with Islam that is both respectful and truthful.


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