May 15, 2012 By Savad

Jesus: A Reading on Islam


There is Jesus walking on water.

‘And he was asked: ‘How can you walk on water?’ He replied: ‘Through certainty of faith.’ He was told: ‘We too have certain faith.’ Jesus asked: ‘Do you believe that stones, mud and gold are all equal in your sight?’ ‘No,’ they replied. He said (or I think he said): ‘They are all the same in my sight.’ Jesus again said: ‘If the son of Adam had a grain of atom’s weight of faith, he would walk upon water.’

It is only in the Gospel of Mathew (14:22-33) that there is reference to why St Paul could not walk on water. In 14:31, Paul is addressed by Jesus as ‘Thou of little faith.’ But Christian traditions are silent on the particulars of this faith. But Jesus ahadith quoted above, that are transmitted by Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, Ibn Abi al-Dunya and Ibn Asakir clearly show that the ‘certainty of faith’ is detachment or abstinence from wealth. It is that wisdom from the God (ilm min ladunhu) which helps one not to differentiate among stones, mud and gold.

In Tarif Khalidi’s The Muslim Jesus (Published by Harvard University Press): a book full of traditions transmitted by Muslim scholars and saints (called Muslim Gospellers), there are passages galore which bear out the asceticism of Jesus:

“Jesus said to his companions: ‘If you are truly my brothers and friends, accustom yourselves to the enmity and hatred of men. For you shall not obtain what you seek except by abandoning what you desire. You shall not possess what you love except by tolerating what you hate.’ (Reported by Abdullah Ibn Qutayba (d. 271/884); Ibn Abi al-Dunya; Ibn Askar.”

Jesus said to his disciples, “I would have you eat barley and bread and escape from the world in safety and peace. Truly I say to you, the sweetness of this world is the bitterness of the world beyond and the bitterness of this world is the sweetness of the world beyond. The true worshippers of god are not those who live in comfort. Truly I say to you, the most evil among you in act is a scholar who loves this world and prefers it to right conduct. Could he do so, he would have all people act the way he does.” (Reported by Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (d.241/855); Ibn Abi al-Dunya; Ibn Asakir)



There is Jesus, an unyielding celibate.
They asked him: ‘Will you not take a wife?’ He replied: ‘What do I do with a wife who might die.’
Celibacy is the pinnacle of Jesus’ asceticism. But is it not hard to imagine a celibate Muslim Jesus, especially since Islam does encourage one to remain celibate? Tarif Khalidi links this widely celebrated aspect of Jesus’ personality with the veneration of celibacy in Sufi literature. Khalidi says: The anti-marriage sentiment, though incongruous with early Islamic ethics, is nevertheless not uncommon in certain Sufi writers- e.g., Abu Talib al-Makki.

And there is Jesus, the wise

And he said: ‘Just as kings have left wisdom to you, so you should leave the world to them.
The very first hadith itself is wise anecdote:
‘Jesus saw a person committing theft. Jesus asked: ‘Did you commit theft?’ The man answered, “Never! I swear by Him than whom there is none worthier of worship.” Jesus said: “I believe God and falsify my eyes.’
Khalidi neatly links the wisdom of Jesus in his description of house as something to be built in the path of flood with the Arabic wisdom literature. Khalidi comments:
‘See al-Mubashshir ibn Fatik, Mukhthar al-Hikm, p.75: He was asked: ‘Why do you not acquire a house where you can be at ease?’ He answered: ‘A house is needed because one can feel at ease in it. But I am at ease because I don’t have a house.’


Jesus has been identified in many ways in the collective sub-conscious of Islam, of which Jesus as harbinger of Prophet Muhammad came to be foregrounded for purposes of missionary activities. There is ahadith in Muslim Jesus which enunciate this identification. Khalidi notes the thrust of Islamic theology on the identification of Jesus in the following manner:
‘Jesus is always identified as a Muslim Prophet-and this must be constantly borne in mind, for he is, after all, a figure molded in Islamic environment. As if to emphasise the fact, several stories depict him reciting the Quran and explaining it, praying in the Muslim manner and going on pilgrimage to Mecca.  Several sayings underline not only his human nature but his helplessness as well.’
In the context of Islam, Jesus can’t help being configured as part of larger theological questions. But, beyond that, Muslim Jesus has succeeded in depicting Jesus as a persona who stands on his own feet. Because, the purpose of the book, as well as that of the codifiers of ahadith collected in the book, is not to proselytize. But in due course, and because of a major chunk of  codifiers being Sufi mystics, it’s the asceticism or zuhd of Jesus that has come to be foregrounded in the text.



Another important factor to be noticed in the book is Jesus’ representation as part of the movements in Islamic history. Khalidi says:
‘On the question of sins (ma’asi), closely associated with the predestination of in the early polemics, the Islamic Jesus is again emphatic in counseling that God’s mercy is infinite-that while sins are hateful and reprovable, the remedy lies not in rebellion but in private devotion. Above all, one must not set oneself up as a moral judge: “Jesus said, ‘Do not examine the sins of the people as though you were lords (arbab), but examine them, as though you were servants (abid). Here we might detect a veiled critique of the Kharijite Movement, one powerful wing which
was responsible for a hundred-year war against imperial authority in the name of the moral integrity of the ruler. If we were to argue that there was a distinct early divide in Islam between those who emphasized the legitimacy and integrity of leadership as the most urgent political and moral necessity and those who emphasized the unity of the community as being the most urgent, the early sayings of Jesus can be seen as tending to support the latter side.’
He says further: ‘The Muslim Jesus of our sayings was no more a distant model of ethics but a figure who seems at times to lend his support to certain factions and against others in internal Muslim polemics, and to take sides on such stormy issues as the role of scholars in society and their attitude to government, the dispute over free will versus predestination (qadar), the question of faith and sin, and the status of sinful believer or ruler.’
‘Bearing these qualifications in mind we can fairly describe the overall mood of the early Islamic Jesus as consistent with a number of Muslim doctrinal positions.’

First, this mood was consistent with irja, a term of broad significance denoting an early Muslim movement which generally avoided becoming involved in civil wars and refrained from branding any Muslim an unbeliever because of doctrinal differences, provided faith in the one God was not abandoned.’
So Muslim Jesus is not only an Islamic reading of Jesus and a reading of Islam in the light of Jesus.

About the author

Tarif Khalidi is Sir Thomas Adams’s Professor of Arabic, Director of the Centre of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, and Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge. He is the author of numerous books, most recently Classical Arab Islam: The Culture and Heritage of the Golden Age and Arabic Historical Thought in the Classical Period. His translation of the Quran published by Penguin Classics has been received well by critics, including Ziauddin Sardar

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