‘Jesus Through Muslim Eyes’ – In Conversation with Richard Shumack

Dr Richard Shumack’s latest book, “Jesus Through Muslim Eyes” investigates the Islamic view of Jesus. He spoke to Gavin Matthews from Solas about what he found.

Gavin: Hi Richard, it’s great to speak to you, thanks for joining me.

Richard: Great to see you in person, at last!

Gavin: Most Christians probably know that their Muslim friends have a respect for Jesus – but they don’t know where Muslims draw their ideas from.

Richard: Fundamentally the ultimate source of authority and religious knowledge for Muslims is The Qur’an. The Qur’an is for Muslims the word of God, revelation from heaven, and that’s their starting place for understanding Jesus. Jesus is mentioned 25 times in the Qur’an, that’s not 25 individual places – there are a couple of chunks which are significant, as well as a few other mentions in the text. So that’s the most significant source.

Then there was a scholar named al-Tabari, the first major Muslim historian who put together a history which contains a range of traditions about Jesus. Then you have the Hadith, the sayings and oral traditions around what happened in Muhammad’s life, and things he said – and we find Jesus referenced there as well. Then the Sira, the biography of Muhammad is another early source for Muslims, which again contains references around Jesus, and interestingly the stories of the Apostles heading out as well. The other major source is the Qisas Al-Anbiya the stories of the prophets and that is much later, mystical writing. It contains stories, parables and narrative teaching about what a whole range of prophets did and said, and Jesus has a very major place in that writing. Now that source is much later, and sits in the mystical traditions (which wouldn’t be highly regarded by conservative Muslims); but all of these things are what informs the Muslim imagination about Jesus.

Gavin: Could you then give us an overview of the picture of Jesus which emerges from these sources – a picture which is very important for Muslims..

Richard: Well, the Muslim tradition starts with the Qur’an, but the picture you get of Jesus there is a bit “thin”, I suppose you could say. Muhammad, when he was reciting the Qur’an and mentions Jesus, had this expectation that his listeners would know who he was talking about. So they knew who Jesus was, they knew he was a prophet at least. He was even aware that his audience had encountered Trinitarian Christianity, so he was clear in his message that some people believe that Jesus is the Son of God – but he decisively rejected that idea.

So Muhammad didn’t give a huge amount of details about Jesus, but he drew on their shared knowledge; and insisted that Jesus didn’t do many of the things Christians claim. Rather Muhammad wants to say that Jesus affirmed the same message as him. So Muhammad insists that he stands in the same prophetic line as Jesus, but offers a correction to the Christian understanding of him.

Yet in the middle of that there are some affirmations that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he did miracles, that he was called the ‘Word of God’ and ‘the Spirit of God’, that he ascended into heaven and that he will return on judgement day and judge the world – dividing between those going to heaven and those being punished. That much is completely in line with Christian teaching, but then he says that Jesus is not divine, and that Jesus did not die on the cross. And that’s about all the Qur’an says about Jesus. There is strong focus on Jesus’ birth and the end of his life; but nothing of his teaching, or his apostles. Actually there is more about his Mother and his Grandfather than about him.

Now that pattern continues into the traditions. Al-Tabari for example, includes lots of stories about Mary and the birth of Jesus, and lots more about the judgement day when Jesus will return. But again, there is very little about his life or teaching. When you get to the Stories of the Prophets – only then do you start to get a bit of flesh put onto the story of Jesus’ life. However even there, there are no names, no places, – but there is a bit more about his miracles. Jesus is presented here as being a good believer who was ascetic, didn’t cling onto the world, lived simply, prayed a lot. He was portrayed there as never settling down, but constantly moving from place to place; but with no sense of where he was going.

Gavin: So the Muslims and Christian have some overlap in their views of Jesus’ biography, but key differences in terms of his identity?

Richard: Yes, I think that’s right. Although I think it’s worth emphasising that the Muslim traditions don’t bring anything new to the table. There are one or two flourishes around the start and end of his life, but they are not theologically significant. However, the main focus in Muslim sources is on correcting Christians and saying, ‘We honour Jesus, but no divinity and no death on the cross.’

Gavin: I’m fascinated by the titles ascribed to Jesus in the Qur’an, “Word” “Spirit” “Judge”. It seems extraordinary that they are used. In the book you suggest that those terms are used for Jesus in the Islamic tradition but then not explained or given any theological weight…

Richard: Yes, and “The Messiah” is even more significant. The two most common titles for Jesus there are “Son of Mary” and then he is very strongly identified as “Messiah”. So yes, in the Christian tradition all of those titles “Messiah”, “Word of God”, “Spirit of God” have a lot of theological substance – especially in terms of fulfilling Old Testament prophecy. So when Jesus turns up in the Gospels, so much of what he does is pregnant with the expectations of what the Jewish people expected of a Messiah. Now the terms have come across into Islam, but they don’t seem to be theologically significant in there. So for instance, while they call him “Messiah”, Islam doesn’t seem to have any need or space for a Messiah. There is no expectation within Islam that a Messiah will be required. We know what a prophet does – he brings messages, but if you ask someone in Islam, “Well, what is a Messiah, and why do we need one?” there is very little that they say. And that’s not just ‘in the street’, even within the Islamic scholarly tradition there are huge debates about what a Messiah is, and many, many definitions. But no one seems to agree, and of course the Qur’an itself is silent on it – and Islamic theology doesn’t seem to require one.

Gavin: So, in the book you’ve described this “thin” picture of Jesus in Islam, with these remarkable titles with undeveloped content to them. You also suggest that many Muslims are absolutely fascinated by Jesus, this character who lurks in their tradition. Why is that?

Richard: Well the first thing is that in Islam you are supposed to honour the prophets. So the fact that he has been granted prophetic status means that they are obliged to honour him in that sense – and that’s a theological reason. And a practical reason is that while there is very little about what he taught, the stories of Jesus are fascinating to Muslims. They are aware that he is a prophet, but they often don’t know what he taught, so that creates an interest. They are also told that the gospels, the Injil, are “scripture”. Now most Muslims would believe that these documents have been corrupted, but yet still contain a kernel of truth and are worth taking a look at.

So when you put these things together: Jesus is a prophet, the gospels contain at least a remnant of what he said; then add to that the fact that most Muslims are from traditional cultures that love stories, (and there are great stories about and by Jesus) that adds to the fascination.

There have been times when I’ve sat and told stories about Jesus, and recounted the stories Jesus told, to Muslims, and they’ve been in tears – at the power of the story, the power of his words and the beauty of his life. Jesus himself is an incredibly attractive figure, and Islam insists that he is someone worth honouring and listening to and that opens conversations.

Gavin: So you’ve sketched a picture of a Jesus who emerges from the Islamic tradition which many Muslims find absolutely fascinating, Which aspects of this Muslim view of Jesus do you find compelling and which do you find problematic? Because you tease a lot of that out in the book…

Richard: I find the later traditions completely fascinating and really appealing. So, I mentioned the Qiṣas al-‘Anbiyā’, the Stories of the Prophets, which were actually a form of devotional literature (which is why it’s hard to classify them, they are not scripture, more like poetry). And some of those draw quite directly from biblical material, and they present a very appealing ascetic view of Jesus. Not like he’s a monk sitting on a pole in the desert (!), he’s very engaged with his communities. I find that figure really very interesting. There’s a quest for personal intimacy, not a legalistic approach found there in some forms of Sufism which is fascinating.

I think the most problematic thing though is the cross, a point I make in my book. In the more orthodox Muslim conception of Jesus, he definitely did not die on a cross – and I think that’s problematic historically. Even if you ignore the Jesus of Christian faith, the death of Jesus is one of the few uncontested historical facts of his life. A major historical problem that Islam can’t seem to wrestle with is why all the eyewitnesses and non-Christian sources say that Jesus died on the cross. So while you might have an appealing ‘Jesus of Faith’ in Islam, he doesn’t seem to be strongly connected to the ‘Jesus of History’.

Gavin: It struck me while I was reading your book, while Christians engage with first-century eye-witness reports, the Apostles, document history (you cite Richard Bauckham on this), Islam makes very clear statements about Jesus, that don’t seem to be connected to historical sources – but that this gap doesn’t matter to Muslims…?

Richard: That’s right. And this really moves away from my book and into my research area! But very roughly, traditional Muslim thinking (and some fundamentalist Christian thinking too) says that (i) some knowledge is from God, and (ii) some knowledge is human, that we work out ourselves. Knowledge from God is direct, infallible and you can’t question it. Whereas human knowledge is questionable, so divine knowledge trumps human knowledge every time, and there is an impermeable barrier between those two things. So for a Muslim the Qur’an is ‘divine knowledge’. It is not even seen as a human document but is entirely divine. So whatever that says about Jesus just is true and if history doesn’t marry up with that, then the problem is with history, because that’s human knowledge which is fallible. That’s de facto, you can’t critique that, because that’s just the way it is. You can neither critique God’s knowledge, nor put human knowledge above it. That’s the mindset, the Qur’an trumps everything. Which if the Qur’an is the word of God, is fair enough, that’s a sensible thing to think. The question is whether the Qur’an really is the word of God.

Gavin: And one of the things you raise is that the Muslim view of Jesus, even the Qur’anic view of Jesus, raises more questions than it answers. What are some of the questions that get generated by the Islamic view of Jesus which are not adequately answered from within Islam?

Richard: There are things like, “Why have a Messiah?”, then why should Jesus be called “The Word of God?”, and “The Spirit of God”. That doesn’t seem to be a requirement for any other prophet- why then this one? And there is no explanation given. Another one is the virgin birth. God can do anything of course, but why was Jesus virgin-born, when no other person since Adam was born without a human father. In Christianity, we need a “new Adam” (it’s part of the theology, we were expecting a ‘new Adam’), but Islam has no space for that, so why a virgin birth? Mohammad wasn’t born of a virgin. Then why is it Jesus who comes back to judge on the ‘last day’? Why not Muhammad? And it is really hard to overestimate just how significant ‘the last day’ is in the Qur’an. Muslims literally live their life under the awe or fear of the coming judgement. It’s one of the three main things in the Qur’an, and it is just so striking that Jesus is the one we meet there, not Muhammad. Now God can do what He wants, but for me that raises questions. Why Jesus? I would have expected Muhammad to have had the higher honour.

Gavin: Then you suggest that some people want to develop a kind of blended view of Jesus, drawing on the Christian and Muslim traditions – and mushing them together – something that you resist quite firmly. One of the striking things at the very end of the book is that you say that we need to hold onto, and respect the differences. So why is that? You even push back on the idea that this might be a route to more peaceful relations between Christians and Muslims…

Richard: The first thing I want to say – and say this really strongly is that I am all on board with the longing behind that. The idea that there has been too much conflict between Muslims and Christians over the years is true. There has been too much antagonism, at times even fighting – and we need to do whatever it takes to be able to at the very, very least co-exist. Then we need to learn how to not just coexist, but far more than that, actually flourish and have meaningful, close friendships and be able to live together, So I love that longing.

What I question is the need for us to have a common understanding of Jesus to make that happen. It seems to me that it is a poorer model for harmony that says ’I’m only going to tolerate you – or be friends with you, if we can agree on all these things together.’ Or, ‘I can only be friends with you if I agree with you’ which sounds almost totalitarian! Only accepting people who agree with you doesn’t seem to me to be genuine tolerance or genuine friendship. The real challenge, (and what is really fruitful) is learning to live well with people you disagree with! That’s what we all need to do.

Also, Islam accepts nearly everything about the ‘Christian Jesus’, except what Christians would say are the two most important things, which are his divinity and his redeeming death on the cross for us. So for Muslims to say ‘let’s just agree on the things we have in common’, Muslims don’t have to compromise anything – we’re just getting the ‘Muslim Jesus’. So the Muslim saying to the Christian, ‘we can only be friends if you let go of the most important things you hold about Jesus’, is not a good recipe for friendship. If I were to say to you, ‘We can be friends – but only if you let go of your most cherished beliefs’,  that doesn’t seem to work.

What we really here need is a commitment to love each other through disagreement.

Gavin: And that’s not just around Christian-Muslim relations, that’s a problem across society in today’s world – this idea that you can love people if they agree with you, and if they don’t agree with you they hate you… actually learning to love people you disagree with is a different language than people often speak today

Richard: Absolutely, which means that what we end up with is that whoever shouts the loudest wins, and you have to agree with them. And that is totalitarian, it’s not tolerant, or loving or capable of building society.

Gavin: So learning to love people, engage with them and have genuine community not predicated on the basis of mashing up what you actually believe…

Richard: Yes – and here’s a good example. In my family, we have Communists, Catholics, Protestants, Atheists. Does that mean I can’t get on with them? Of course not! We have a familial bond which holds us. So we need to find a bond in society, which doesn’t depend on us believing the same things about God. It comes down to a commitment to build society, and to care for each other though disagreement.

By the way in the book, the book was written in response to a particular Muslim journalist called Mustafa Akyol, who suggested that devotion to Jesus is a good thing for Muslims and Christians – which will lead to that heart of wanting to be generous to one another. So I at least agree with that. So I am happy for a Muslim to follow the Muslim Jesus because he was peaceful, loving, God-focused, humble, non-materialistic, a servant… and if that helps Muslims to embrace peace that’s brilliant. But I also think that if Christians properly follow ‘their Jesus’, the Jesus who came to bring peace, who was the Prince of Peace, then Muslims shouldn’t say to Christians, ‘stop believing in your Jesus, because that will lead to conflict’. if Christians believe in ‘their Jesus’ and that Jesus fills them with the Holy Spirit who can empower them to be a peacemaker, then surely that’s a way to build society as well.

Gavin: So you wrote in response to Akyol. But tell us why you wrote it, who you wrote it for, what you hope to achieve through?

Richard: Well, this might not sound very romantic, but I wrote it for SPCK (the publisher) who asked me to! But there were a couple of reasons why I said ‘yes’ to them!

I can’t think of another book about Jesus, written for Muslims. There may be some in Arabic that I’m not aware of, but certainly not in English – so there is a real gap here. I thought that was a problem, and one I could address. The other thing is that if there is one thing I want Muslims and Christians to talk about well, to understand each other about, to listen well and have a productive conversation about: it’s Jesus! Christians and Muslims have apologetic arguments about all sorts of things, and there’s a place for all that; but if Muslims want to talk about Jesus – that’s great, because that’s who I want to talk about. If I can create a book which facilitates that kind of conversation, and does it in a way that “gets” the Muslim mindset, as well as the Christian one, then that’s the goal. I just want to Christians and Muslims to talk profitably about Jesus.

Gavin: That’s fascinating, I enjoyed the book – and learnt so much. So it’s been great to speak to you in person. Thankyou!

Richard: Great to speak to you!

Dr. Richard Shumack is a philosopher of religion specialising in Muslim and Christian belief. He is the Director of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology and a Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX) in Sydney, Australia.

Jesus Through Muslim Eyes by Richard Shumack is available here.