Symposium Introduction

In the introduction to her book Christians, Muslims, and Jesus, Mona Siddiqui contends, “that to be religious today, one has to be aware of the inter-religious.”1 If this is true broadly, it is all the more accurate in the case of the two largest world religions: Christianity and Islam.  Since the beginnings of Muhammad’s prophetic ministry in Mecca, Muslims and Christians have engaged in philosophical dialogue, been locked in heated theological debate, and lived alongside in a variety of social and political contexts.  Given this complex and often acrimonious history, recent studies of and dialogue between these two religions have often avoided the most contentious theological topics—Muhammad, the Trinity, and Christology.  Instead, studies of Christian-Muslim relations have largely favored more conciliatory conversations that opt to focus on areas of overlap — a shared Abrahamic heritage, social justice, the formation of the secular, love of God and neighbor, ritual practice or the One God.2 This strategy risks circumscribing the complexity of Christian-Muslim relations and overlooking the ways that sociological, ritual, and ethical commitments are intertwined with theological and scriptural claims.  Christian-Muslim relations are by their very nature pluriform and cross-disciplinary; as such, attention to the broadly inter-religious nature of our world also demands openness to specific religious claims of others. Fortunately recent theological and ethical reflection such as the work of David Burrell, John Renard, Kate Zebiri, Felix Körner, and Mahmoud Ayoub—just to name a few—are beginning to chart alternative approaches beyond what Clinton Bennett terms the dominant motifs of either conciliation and dialogue or confrontation and polemics.3 These new trajectories of scholarship aim to account for the genuine overlap and shared learning between Christian and Islamic thought and practice around themes such as creation, justice, God, prophecy, and politics, but they also consider how these very same shared common themes also often produce the most contentious debates and disagreements.

Siddiqui’s work on Christology is a welcome intervention into the current terrain of Christian-Muslim Relations and interfaith dialogue; she models a disposition of dialogue that is simultaneously particular and inter-religiously open. Her work does not regurgitate old arguments or polemical accusation against Christians, but nor does she ignore this history of debate.  Instead, without denying the real differences in Christian-Muslim ideas about Jesus, Siddiqui enters the conversation as a person of Muslim faith open to learning from Christian claims and practices, even as she critically speaks back to them as a Muslim theologian.

Siddiqui’s book is marked by two fundamental commitments or methodologies, which bring together two distinct approaches, and often competing approaches, to Christian-Muslim relations. The first, as Klaus von Stosch’s opening contribution argues, is akin to developments in comparative theology; it involves an attentive listening to the importance and place of Jesus in Christian life, piety, Scripture, and theology.  Siddiqui gives space for Christians, past and present, to speak for themselves and from this posture, she is able to clearly articulate how and why Christians say and believe the diverse things that they do about Jesus.  Such listening, however, not only aims to clear up misunderstandings, but is leveraged in order to enrich her own Muslim commitments and gesture toward a constructive Islamic theology of Jesus, God, sin, the law, Mary, and Muhammad. On these points, Nancy Roberts and Mark Beaumont both press Siddiqui to consider further the implications of her thinking for theologies of Mary and Jesus.  Roberts, for instance, evaluates the shared traditional Muslim and Christian position on the virgin birth and wonders what it would mean to both traditions and for interfaith relations if Jesus’ conception and birth was as human as any other. She asks, “Is it possible that, contrary to all expectations and despite the violent controversies down the ages between Islam and Christianity over matters of both theology and historical fact, Christianity and Islam might founder together on the same historical rocks?” While Roberts focuses on the beginning of Jesus’ life, Mark Beaumont examines the contentious issue of Jesus’ earthly end. The dominant Muslim position, following interpretations of Sura al-Nisa’ (4:157), is that Jesus was not killed or crucified (wa mā qatlōho wa mā ṣalabōho). For theological, scriptural, and historical reasons, Christians have long contested this Muslim interpretation of Jesus’ death. Beaumont commends Siddiqui’s work, particularly the final chapter, where she offers a moving personal theological reflection on the meaning of the cross and why it both draws her in but also seems unnecessary for understanding God’s mercy. “Siddiqui’s desire to understand the Christian commitment to the death of Jesus on the cross is a testimony to her generous spirit, and a very fine example both to her fellow Muslims and to Christians like me of how to engage in conversation over the deepest divisions that exist between Christians and Muslims.”

The second commitment, grounded in methodologies drawn from the the history of Christian-Muslim relations and classic approaches to interfaith dialogue, is to offer readings or glosses on key figures, theologians, and periods of debate.  Thus, Siddiqui’s work probes classical philosophical conundrums and theological discourse by engaging figures such as al-Ghazali and Thomas Aquinas, Karl Barth and Ibn Taymiyya, Theodore Abu Qurra and Ibn Sina.  The book, then, is also something of an introduction to and commentary on the rich theological, textual, ethical, and philosophical resources in Christian-Muslim relations, with a particular focus on the insights and work of Arab Christian thinkers. In the final contribution to the symposium, Mun’im Sirry engages this rich theo-philosophical debate and considers again the question of how a shared commitment to the One God is expressed so differently. He draws from Siddiqui, Vatican II, Christian Troll, and mostly Ibn ‘Arabi to argue that the “different ways in which God is conceived by both Muslims and Christians are the consequence of His merciful radiance, rather than the source of misguidance.” This argument opens up a host of questions around God’s unity, mystery, revelation, and prophecy; these send us back to the other contributions to the symposium, but also beyond to the work of comparative theology and philosophy.

By bringing together both Christian and Muslim thinkers to constructively and critically evaluate Christians, Muslims, and Jesus, the symposium attests to the vitality and complexity of current interfaith dialogue, comparative theology, and studies of Christian-Muslim relations.


  1. Mona Siddiqui, Christians, Muslims, and Jesus (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 1.

  2. See for instance, Hans Küng’s Global Ethics project, Nostra Aetate 3, A Common Word Between Us and You.

  3. Clinton Bennett, Understanding Christian-Muslim Relations: Past and Present (New York: Continuum, 2008), 1-13.

Klaus von Stosch

Response

The Differences That Matter

Some Reflections on Mona Siddiqui’s Book from a Christian Perspective

Let me first of all say a few things on the book in general. I appreciate a lot that Siddiqui is engaged substantially in reading Christian theologians and in learning from them (1, 225). Her idea of dialogue is not the exchange of fixed ideas, but it is a means in the pursuit of truth. She wants to come to a “greater depth how to talk of God” through dialogue (225). The insights of the other religion are not used to build up some general theories (such as pluralism) or to show why the own account still is the better one. But she really wants to learn from Christianity and at the same time bring forward Muslim thinking. She discusses the central creeds and dogmas of Christianity and Islam (96) and she is ready to be challenged in her own Muslim faith (1).

If you take a closer look at her theology, you will see a lot of passages which show how she is making sense of Christian theological ideas in her Muslim approach. Most obvious and very fruitful is this approach when she is theologizing through dialogue in her chapter on the dialectics of love and law (171–223). This chapter opens up possibilities of understanding God’s love from a Muslim perspective in a very inspiring way. On the one hand, it challenges the idea of modern Christian theology of a bilateral relationship of love between God and human (217) and contemporary Christian concepts of Divine love (221). In this respect it is worth mentioning that she helps us to see aspects of the Divine love which are sometimes neglected in Christian thinking, for example the human costs when God returns our love (209). On the other hand, the chapter is responsive to Christian worries and obviously learns from Christian insights.

Siddiqui’s open-mindedness and her way of using Christian insights constructively in her own theological work invites me as a Christian to learn from her as well and to turn away from apologetic movements or superficial show acts. Her book helps us to come to the central challenges of Christian-Muslim encounters and she shows a way of dealing with these challenges in a constructive way. In this essay I would like to concentrate on the very last chapter of Siddiqi’s book which is dedicated to some reflections on the cross. For me this conclusion is the most moving and also the most fruitful part of the book which deserves great attention through Christian scholarship.

To understand why her appreciation of the cross is so important you have to remember that Muslims traditionally understand the Qur’ān as denying the historical fact of Jesus’ death on the cross. Siddiqi is completely aware of this tradition and she starts her chapter on the cross with a little overview of the Christian and the traditional Muslim views on the cross. At the same time she refers to latest interpretations of Q 4:157 which show to us that there is no necessity to interpret this verse as denying the historical fact of the cross (229–31). But she does not go into the details of this debate because she is aware of the fact that this question is not the crucial point: “The issue is that even if Muslims came to believe that Jesus did die on the cross before he was raised, in the Qur’ānic frame of references this death has no atoning significance and would not be seen as the decisive event in the redemptive plan for humankind” (231). I think that she is giving a very important hint here. Belief in the cross really is the central difference between Muslims and Christians, and Christians have to be aware of the fact that Muslims who take the Qur’ānic framework seriously cannot appreciate the cross in the way that Christians do this. The struggling point is not the question of the historical fact of the cross but the problem is that the cross for Christians shows how God is touched and changed through the suffering of Christ. It makes clear how God cares for us. It reveals how God turns to the opposite of himself, how he is himself in emptying himself. For Siddiqui is clear that the “self-emptying of God has no real place in Muslim theology” (233).

However, from a Christian perspective, it is more important whether Muslims accept the historical fact of the cross than Siddiqi seems to admit. If one considers the Muslim denial of the cross to be definite, it becomes practically impossible for Christians to acknowledge the Qur’ān as possible Word of God and to appreciate its talk of Jesus. The difficulty is not only that the Christian belief in redemption is based on the cross. Even more striking is the insight that the crucifixion of Jesus is a hardly deniable historical fact having posed difficulties for Christianity itself for centuries. Thus, it absolutely makes no sense for a Christian—even for a very liberal and modern one—to say that historically speaking Jesus did not die on the cross. This is not only against Christian faith but also against our understanding of historical facts which is sometimes even worse for modern and liberal Christians. On the other hand, Christians can accept that people from other religions do not see any salvific significance in the cross. This is somehow what Christians expect from non-Christians because believing in the salvific power of the death of Jesus is a kind of definition of Christianity.

Thus, it is very important that Siddiqui leaves the door open for the historical fundament of Christianity and that she does not attack Christians as Muslims have traditionally. Moreover she even tries to see whether the cross makes any sense for her as a Muslim. This means she tries to find a way of appreciating the main difference between Muslims and Christians. As far as I know only Navid Kermani has done something similar until now and he was criticized a lot in Germany because of this attempt.1

In my point of view what Siddiqui and Kermani are doing here is the core of what I would call comparative theology, and it shows well why this enterprise is so challenging. Comparative theology does not try to say that different religions have similar ideas or at least a similar value, as pluralists tend to do. It also does not claim that another religion can be acknowledged because of its similarity with Christianity, as inclusivists seem to do. Comparative theology as I understand it is not so much interested in similarities but more in differences. It tries to develop hermeneutical tools which can help us to see, to understand, and to appreciate differences. Thus, a comparative theologian wants to look especially at those points where we continue to contradict each other, and she tries to appreciate those contradictions without giving up her own truth claims.

This is exactly what happens in Siddiqui’s book. She sees the remaining difference of the cross and then as a Muslim she tries to approach the cross and she tries to find ways which allow her to appreciate it. Her method is quite promising. She is not so much looking at the old apologetical debates of the subject and she is not concentrating on the cognitive differences which cannot be harmonized easily. But she is looking at the “regulative-expressive level of religious beliefs” as I call it,2 i.e., she asks a number of her Christian friends to tell her briefly “what they think and feel when they look at a cross or a crucifix” (234). And then she quotes those friends for several pages (234–37), and she tries to make sense of what they are saying. In comparative theology it is very important to look at the expressive and emotional dimension of religious beliefs and to understand how those beliefs rule the lives of religious persons. Thus, what Siddiqui is doing is a decisive hermeneutical move. And it is also a sign of hospitality. She gives plenty of space for the crucial point of Christian belief in her own reflections and she tries to understand it—not only intellectually but also emotionally. And it is true that friendship is the most important key for this kind of understanding.

As I tried to show elsewhere the emotional, expressive, and regulative dimensions of religious belief are quite important also for its propositional and cognitive dimension.3 That’s why I think that Siddiqui’s move is not only moving emotionally, but also convincing intellectually. Through her humble gesture of invitation of Christian friends and through her reconstruction of Christian approaches she understands a lot of Christian beliefs. And in the end the cross starts to speak to her “personally, emotionally and intellectually” (246). However, the fact that the cross is speaking to her does not make her accept or even adopt Christian beliefs. She is drawn to the cross but does not desire it. She insists that there still is the remaining difference that she cannot understand the necessity of God’s revelation for the act of redemption (242). She also does not understand the radical nature of a love which makes God man and man God (246).

When reading those passages I hesitate whether I agree with her way of expressing the difference between Christianity and Islam. At least I do not think that Christians should say that there is a necessity of God’s revelation, although St. Anselm and his followers always tried to show this to Muslims. I would say that God is not obliged to anything and his omnipotence opens up different ways for him to have communion with us. As I would define redemption as communion with God, I also admit that there are different possibilities for God to redeem us. Nonetheless the logic of love easily leads to the idea that God wants to show his love to us in human “body-language”—to borrow a notion of Daniel Madigan.[Madigan, “People of the Word: Reading John with a Muslim,” Review and Expositor 104 (2007) 81–95.[/footnote] Thus, I am a bit confused why Siddiqui says that she does not understand this radical nature of love. I could understand that she does not agree with it, and I could even agree if she does not want to reduce God’s power to his power within the borders of human love. But I would defend the idea of incarnation and redemption as very rational ones, which makes me a bit unhappy with Siddiqui’s last thoughts.

Moreover, I am puzzled by her understanding of transcendence. She points out that the Qur’ān has the concern to lift “God back to the transcendent, not in the sense of a distant God but a God who chooses to retain the secrets of his Self” (245). In the doctrine of Islam, not in its experience, there always remains “a separation between God and man” (245). In experience it is the voice of God in the Qur’ān which is the bridge between God and us and which gives us the possibility to have communion with him. In experience it is clear that God is desperately waiting for our prayers and that he is able to feel our pains. But intellectually God remains the being beyond (247). I have to admit that I cannot follow this kind of reasoning. In my way of understanding theology the intellectual efforts try to put into language our experiences. They try to protect them and to share them with others. If Siddiqui admits that God cares for us and that we can communicate with him in prayer and that he is present in the recitation of the Qur’ān, I will expect that she develops an understanding of God’s transcendence which is not incompatible with his immanence anymore. Such an understanding of God is also necessary for many other reasons—especially since the criticism of classical theism through scholars like Spinoza. In any case I would be interested to get a better understanding of how she makes sense intellectually of those experiences she is referring to in the conclusion of the book. I have the impression that there is plenty of space for more intellectual attempts of mutual understanding.


  1. Cf. Klaus von Stosch, “Mit Gott ringen: Eine theologische Auseinandersetzung mit Navid Kermani,” in Michael Hofmann and Klaus von Stosch, eds., Islam in der deutschen und türkischen Literatur (Paderborn: Schöningh 2012), 267–78.

  2. Cf. Klaus von Stosch, “Wittgensteinian Fideism?,” in Ingolf U. Dalferth and Hartmut von Sass, eds., The Contemplative Spirit: D. Z. Phillips on Religion and the Limits of Philosophy (Tübingen: Mohr, 2010), 115–34, here 127.

  3. Cf. ibid.

  • Mona Siddiqui

    Mona Siddiqui

    Reply

    Response to von Stosch

    I am grateful to Klaus for his kind words about what he thinks I am trying to do in this book. He goes to some lengths to explain my development of hermeneutical tools which can help the reader “to see, to understand and to appreciate differences.” For Klaus, a comparative theologian “wants to look especially at those points where we continue to contradict each other” and he sees me to be trying “to appreciate those contradictions without giving up her own truth claims.”

    I would say first that while I appreciate that most people will see much of my engagement with Christianity within the discipline of comparative theology, I myself am not convinced that comparative theology follows any particular methodology. For me this book is largely a journey into meaning, into researching those concepts which Christians and Muslims seemingly share but when inspected at closer range, can mean quite different things. I refrain from using the language of “truth claims” or “contradictions” because this book is not about me holding onto my beliefs but rather my attempts to understand in greater depth someone else’s belief.

    Klaus focuses in particular on my last chapter on the cross and the event of Jesus’s death on the cross as a historical fact as well as an essential aspect of Christian belief. For Klaus it is important for Muslims to recognize this death even without its salvific significance for Muslims. As has been shown in this section on the cross, there were disagreements between Muslim scholars as to whether Jesus died on the cross or whether he was raised by God. My point is that whether he died physically or was substituted, there is no redemptive significance to this event. In other words, in Islam, redemption through the God-man event through the incarnation, through the new life in Christ, is not part of God’s plan. I would still argue that the nature of this radical love is incomprehensible to me, that the “body language” of the incarnation is not rational but that precisely because it is not rational, it is powerful. I am helped here a little by the thoughtful comments of my friend Dr. Harm Goris from Tilburg University, who in 2014 wrote in his response to this book,

    Maybe Christians don’t understand it very well either, that’s why they keep talking about it and writing complex theological volumes. But somehow this transformation is a reality in their lives. And it is also from the reality of somehow being saved and recreated by God, that they look backward and develop stories about the Fall, original sin and about humanity being lost by sin. It is very important to keep that order straight. We have to start with being saved by God and from there by way of contrast understand our previous condition. We should not reason the other way around, although this has often been done in Christian theology and preaching. We should not start with the observation how wicked people are and then conclude that Christ must come and must die in order to overcome our wretchedness. The right perspective is the reverse.1

    Muslims do not tend to see Jesus’s life in reverse, from the cross to his birth. But maybe then I am mistaken in asserting that the fall became the paradigm of human life, whereas it is the new life in Christ and the Spirit which should be seen as the real paradigm.

    Klaus also questions my understanding of divine transcendence/immanence. How God is present in our lives has been the subject of intense debate in both religions. In Christianity of course God is present in the unique singular way in Jesus Christ. This is the theological core which is absent in Islam. Islamic thought has always wrestled with those verses in the Qur’an which speak of God’s nearness to humankind and yet maintain his distinction and otherness rather than his distance. But Christianity has also tried to maintain this distinction between Creator and creature. This has not deterred the followers of both religions trying to feel God’s presence in their lives, have communion with him in some way. This sentiment, this desire cannot be explained in the paradox of transcendence and immanence. I am not sure that our intellectual efforts can encapsulate this tension. Maybe this is why so much of Sufi literature and love poetry which spoke of a desire to bridge this divide between the human and the divine became such a seductive and powerful method of drawing people to the faith.

    I would argue that the cross and Christian emphasis on suffering and redemption have not been ignored by Muslims who have seriously reflected on Christianity. After all, human suffering and hope are part of being human and part of our earthly existence.  But the complexities of the incarnation could also speak of the end of God’s transcendence, as Thomas Altizer has argued. Altizer’s challenge is that after the incarnation there is no transcendent God. Christians do not take the incarnation seriously as long as they combine the doctrine of the incarnation with a belief in a “transcendent, a sovereign, and an impassive God.” When it comes to Islam, Muslim theologians could not confine their understanding of God to his sovereignty and power but always aligned it with his mercy. The Sufis added divine longing, that God wants to be known, to be worshipped. We humans need God and while we are always careful to add that God does not need humankind, it is said that when we stand to pray, God commands, “Remove the veil between me and my servant.”  This too is as incomprehensible as it is powerful.


    1. Harm Goris, “Response to Mona Siddiqui”, Annual Lecture Master Christianity and Society, Tilburg University, unpublished manuscript, 20 February 2014.

    • Klaus von Stosch

      Klaus von Stosch

      Reply

      Struggling to Make Sense of God’s Word

      I am grateful to Mona’s very helpful comments which help me to see her contribution clearer. However, there is still an issue I am struggling with. I do not understand why a faith becomes more powerful in her point of view when it is not rational. Catholics usually think that everything within Catholic belief is rational and I always thought that this is a strength of Catholicism. I also thought that Muslims want to be rational in their theology as well. If Sufis are not explaining their ideas in a rational way, I think that theology should offer coherent theories to make their powerful beliefs coherent and understandable. The same is true for the Christian idea of incarnation.

      If Dr. Harm Goris says that we have to start with being saved by God in our theology, I agree with him. But nonetheless, we have to make our beliefs understandable for reason. We can start with salvation but we cannot immediately stop after starting. Fides quaerens intellectum as Anselm put it. Thus, theology is starting with revelation and in the Christian case it is starting with the reflection of salvation. But at the same time it has to give a coherent understanding of the question what it is talking about. And this account has to be accessible from a non-Christian point of view. That’s why I am not happy with Mona’s talk of sentiments and desires which cannot be explained at the ground of theology.

      I agree with her that theology cannot explain everything. Sometimes we simply have to stabilize tensions. We cannot encapsulate them. I also agree that faith is not starting with reason and that it has a very emotional side. But I still think that in theology we have to struggle with God’s word and try to make sense of it by making up coherent theories. Otherwise, I do not really understand what theologians are doing at universities.Thus, Christians have to make understandable how God can be present in Christ and how this is coherent with his transcendence. If incarnation meant that there was no transcendent God anymore, we would just have given up the traditional understanding of God – which is probably no good idea if you do not want to turn to God-is-dead-theology.

Nancy Roberts

Response

Reflections on the Virgin Birth of Jesus

A response to Mona Siddiqui's book Christians, Muslims, and Jesus

First of all, I’d like to thank Dr. Siddiqui for her earnest and considerate engagement with issues central to the history of the interactions between Muslims and Christians in relation to the person of Jesus. She is to be commended for her heartfelt attempt to empathize with Christian belief and experience, and her ability to present the perspective of each party to the conversation/debate in a way which that side would acknowledge as accurate.

The chapter that most drew me in as I read Christians, Muslims, and Jesus was the one entitled “Reflections on Mary,” as it brought to mind issues that have occupied my thoughts in the past but which I’ve never had an opportunity to write about or discuss with others. Siddiqui opens this chapter with the observation that while the figure of Jesus has been at the centre of most exchanges between Muslims and Christians down the centuries, Mary has been “a more conciliatory figure between the two religions”(149). “a meeting point, a bridge between Islam and Christianity.” (151) In both Islam and Christianity Mary is “the virginal mother of Jesus” who serves as a model of irenic submission to the will of God and a symbol of purity, goodness, and harmony with God. For Christians in particular, Mary has also been a symbol of courage, the willingness to stand up to unjust powers, and a passion for justice. These virtues are reflected in the Magnificat, or “Mary’s song,” in which, in response to her cousin Elizabeth’s cry, “Bless are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” (Luke 2:42), Mary sings, “My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. . . . He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich empty away” (Luke 2:47–48, 51–53).

Siddiqui draws attention to the fact that Mary is mentioned more often in the Qur’an than she is in the New Testament. Indeed, an entire surah is named after Mary, and it is in this surah that we find the Qur’anic account of Jesus’ birth (Surat Maryam, 19:16–34). To be honest, I have long been bothered by the Qur’anic birth narrative for a number of reasons. First, it bears so little resemblance to the birth narratives in the New Testament that I see almost nothing in common between them. Second, it makes no mention of Joseph, even as the titular father of Jesus, which has made me wonder: How, in first-century Jewish society, could Mary have possibly gotten away with showing up pregnant out of wedlock without being stoned as an adulteress? It is clear from the Qur’anic account that people think of Jesus as “illegitimate” (“O Mary, you have done something terrible . . .”), but oddly, nothing more is made of it. Jesus then proceeds to speak from the cradle about being a prophet, and we are left to assume that this miracle renders him legitimate in the people’s eyes.

I’m reminded of an experience that brought home to me this contrast between the Qur’anic and New Testament accounts. When my two daughters, who were raised in an Islamic context, were around seven and nine years old, I began reading them the birth narratives from the gospels of Matthew and Luke on Christmas Day. The first time I did so, one of them asked, “Who’s Joseph?” The question stopped me up short at first (like, what do you mean, who was Joseph?). Then it hit me—Joseph doesn’t even exist in the Islamic narrative! It struck me as a bizarre sort of omission, especially in light of the point I mentioned earlier concerning the mortal danger one would have expected Mary to be in had Joseph, her honourable betrothed, not concealed her shame, as it were.

In this contrast I see some unexpected ironies and symbioses in the relationship between Christianity and Islam. A debate has long raged between Christians and Muslims not only over Jesus’ status—was he divine or merely human, saviour or simply messenger?—but equally and ever so centrally over the historicity of the crucifixion, since Surat al-Nisa’, 4:157 is generally understood as denying that the crucifixion took place, whereas there has been agreement between Christians and Muslims that Jesus was conceived without the agency of a human father. By contrast, however, New Testament scholar Marcus Borg casts doubt on the historicity of the virgin birth, whereas he has no doubts whatsoever about the historicity of the crucifixion. Borg states, “The stories of Jesus’ execution are closer to history than are the birth stories: he really was crucified under Pontius Pilate around the year 30.”1 It is thus ironic that while the Qur’an affirms the historicity of the virgin birth, which even some Christian scholars doubt, it denies the historicity of the crucifixion, which is doubted by virtually no one outside the Muslim community.

In his book The Jesus Dynasty,2 New Testament scholar James Tabor argues quite convincingly for the possibility that Jesus was not, in fact, born of a virgin.3 Indeed, the theological notion that Mary had somehow given birth to a divine being didn’t emerge until the Council of Ephesus held in AD 431, at which the Virgin Mary was declared to have been literally Theotokos (“mother of God”). When Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople, rejected what he thought of as a “reification of the metaphor” that Jesus was the son of God in a spiritual sense, he was exiled to die in an Egyptian desert. Entire Christian communities, primarily in Asia Minor and Syria, agreed with Nestorius, thus bringing the Nestorian tradition into being.4

Tabor notes that in Luke 1:32, the angel tells Mary that her son Jesus will “sit on the throne of his father David” (Luke 1:32), thereby pronouncing him an heir to the Davidic throne (cf. 2 Sam 7:12–16; Jer 33:25–26). In this way he introduces a discussion of Jesus’ lineage as we find it in the genealogies given by Matthew and Luke. Tabor notes that, breaking with the traditional practice of mentioning only males, Matthew includes four women in his genealogy, every one of whom had some ill repute attached to her (Tamar, v. 3; Rahab, v. 5; Ruth, v. 5; and Uriah’s wife, that is, the infamous Bathsheba, v. 5). “Each of them,” Tabor observes, “was a foreigner who had a scandalous sexual reputation in the Old Testament” (cf. Gen. 38;, Josh 2; Ruth 3; and 2 Samuel 11).5 Tabor writes, “Something very important is going on here. . . . The stories of these women in the Bible stand out because of their shocking sexual details. It is clear that Matthew is trying to put Jesus’ own potentially scandalous birth into the context of his forefathers. He is preparing the reader for what is to come.”6

Tabor notes that “the idea of humans being fathered by gods is quite common in Greco-Roman culture.” Heroes said to have been thus sired include Plato, Empedocles, Hercules, Pythagoras, Alexander the Great, and even Caesar Augustus. “In text after text we find the idea of the divine man (theios aner) whose supernatural birth, ability to perform miracles, and extraordinary death separate him from the ordinary world of mortals. . . . It is easy to imagine that Christians who believed Jesus was every bit as exalted and heavenly as any of the Greek and Roman heroes and gods would appropriate this way of relating the story of his birth.”7

However, Tabor proposes an alternative explanation. He notes that in contrast to the “legendary flavour” that marks the birth narratives of Greco-Roman literature, the New Testament accounts have an air of realism about them. In light of this observation, he suggests the hypothesis that birth narratives in the New Testament may have been “created, not to present Jesus as a divine Greco-Roman style hero, but to address a shockingly real situation—Mary’s pregnancy before her marriage to Joseph.” In support of this possibility, he reminds his readers that every one of the four women mentioned by Matthew in his genealogy “had sex out of wedlock,” and that at least two of them had become pregnant. “By naming these particular women Matthew seems to be implicitly addressing Mary’s situation.”8

We know, in part from the Gospel accounts and in part from other literature of the period, that a charge of illegitimacy had been circulating. We find that whereas Mark quotes the townsfolk as asking of Jesus, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James, and Joses, and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:3), Matthew, who uses Mark as his source, changes the text to read, “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? . . .” (Matt 13:55). By rewording Mark in this way, Matthew attempts to avoid the implication of an unknown father by referring to Jesus as “the son of Mary,” which was not common practice in first-century Judaism. We also have later Greek manuscripts of Mark which have altered the text to read, “the son of Mary and Joseph.” The charge of illegitimacy is also implied in Jesus’ opponents’ words, “We were not born of fornication” (John 8:41), an obvious allusion to a rumour of his illegitimate birth. John includes no birth narrative, and mentions Joseph only twice (1:45 and 6:42).

More specifically, we learn from other sources that Jesus’ father was rumoured to be a Roman soldier by the name of Pantera. The earliest version of the account is found in an anti-Christian work entitled On the True Doctrine, written around AD 178 by a Greek philosopher by the name of Celsus, who relates that Mary “was pregnant by a Roman soldier by the name of Panthera” and was repudiated by her husband on grounds of adultery.9 We also have evidence that Jesus was identified quite early in Galilee by the name “son of Panter.” There was once a dispute among rabbis over whether it was permissible for a certain follower of Jesus named Jacob to heal a snake bite in the “name of Jesus son of Panter” (see Palestinian Tosephta t. Hullin 2:22–23). Tabor cites evidence “that the early Christians took this tradition seriously and were not able to easily dismiss it as slanderous rumour.”10 Tabor notes that some who have set store by the “Jesus son of Pantera” tradition have suggested that Mary may have been raped by a Roman soldier. Given the violence and turbulence of the period that preceded Jesus’ birth, such a possibility could not be ruled out. Shocking though this suggestion might seem, Tabor observes that some have found in it a particularly moving “expression of acceptance and unconditional love” given Joseph’s willingness to wed Mary and adopt the child as his own.11

In conclusion, I would like to pose the following questions: What might be the implications, both intra-religiously and inter-religiously for Christians and Muslims, were they to envision a Jesus who had an earthly father just like everyone else? Is it possible that, contrary to all expectations and despite the violent controversies down the ages between Islam and Christianity over matters of both theology and historical fact, Christianity and Islam might founder together on the same historical rocks? And if this were to be the case, might they at last find peace with another, serendipitously, in this very fall?

I realize that in suggesting this possibility, I open a potential Pandora’s box theologically and doctrinally speaking. Even so, I consider it vital to raise such questions. Only by looking full-faced at what we—both Christians and Muslims—tend to view as infallible sources of divine truth can we free ourselves ultimately from the tyranny of absolutism that lies at the root of our history of painful and bloody conflict.


  1. Marcus J. Borg, The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 102.

  2. James D. Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006).

  3. Ibid., 50–71, 87–88, 140–48.

  4. Joseph Campbell, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion (Novato, CA: New World Library, 1986), 33.

  5. Tabor, Jesus Dynasty, 50.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Ibid., 60.

  8. Ibid., 61.

  9. Ibid., 344n6.

  10. Ibid., 64.

  11. Ibid., 70–71.

  • Mona Siddiqui

    Mona Siddiqui

    Reply

    Response to Nancy Roberts

    Nancy’s review focuses on Mary and her story and place in the Qur’an. Drawing on James Tabor’s book The Jesus Dynasty, in which Tabor argues “quite convincingly” for the possibility that Jesus was not, in fact, born of a virgin, Nancy poses a challenge at the end about envisioning a Jesus who had an earthly father “just like everyone else.” She is well aware that the possibility that Jesus was borne of a human father will be theologically and doctrinally controversial but might resonate with Christians and Muslims as a reconciling way forward.

    Nancy’s challenge is intriguing but I suspect will be more unsettling for Christians than for Muslims. Creeds and dogmas do not emerge in cultural and political vacuums, they take centuries to crystallize and form into orthodoxy as is evident with the Council of Ephesus in AD 431 at which the Virgin Mary was declared to have been literally Theotokos (“mother of God”). Thus, so much of what we associate with metaphysical truth or truths are the evolution of collective ideas and doctrines whose significance changes with time.

    It is clear from the New Testament that the virginal conception played no part at all in the earliest Christian teaching. It is described in the infancy narratives in the First and Third Gospels, but is not referred to in the sermons in the Acts of the Apostles nor in the epistles of Saint Paul nor elsewhere in the New Testament. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that it is a story which came to be meaningful for Christians after they had come to believe in the divinity of Jesus. Mary Thurkill says quite rightly that Marian devotion already existed as part of popular piety but “theologians also harnessed the image and popularity of Mary in their emerging orthodoxy regarding both Christ and his church.” Even though early Christians disputed whether divinity could be encapsulated in flesh, Thurkill states that “Mary’s greatest contribution to Christian theology is that she literally conferred flesh upon Jesus the Christ.” Mary’s significance therefore is completely different in Christianity, especially in the Roman Catholic church, than it is in Islam.

    It is correct that Joseph is not mentioned in the Qur’an in any context, but like so many Qur’anic narratives, the full story is fleshed out only within the layers of later traditions. For example, we learn from Qur’an commentaries that Joseph was the first to notice Mary’s pregnancy and being troubled, asked how this could have happened. Part of Mary’s answer was that God has created Adam without father or mother and this convinced Joseph that Mary’s pregnancy was also the result of God’s creative power and wisdom. In some of the Qur’anic commentaries, it is said that Joseph thought of killing Mary because he thought she had sinned. He only lets her be when the angel Gabriel tells him that the child is from the Holy Spirit. Even though the Qur’anic and biblical narratives around Jesus’ birth may offer little resemblance, the doctrinal position on the virgin birth and the miracles surrounding her pregnancy do not really present a problem for Muslims. Some have argued that the lack of Qur’anic detail as to who is Jesus’ father is doctrinally insignificant when viewed within the context of the Holy Spirit narrative. Mary is genuinely concerned about her reputation and accusations of unchastity but the Qur’an consistently holds reassurances for her because this pregnancy and birth are the consequence of God’s command and wish.

    The Qur’an and Muslim theology virtually dissolve the complexities of a virginal birth into a simple recognition of divine will and omnipotence. The Qur’an is full of stories which point to some kind of converging narrative between Christian and Muslims scriptures only for the two scriptures to part on the fundamentals of so many figures. Moses, Abraham, and Adam were all involved in the drama of a divine conversation but their stories overlap and differ. For the Qur’an, the moral of almost every story points to divine justice and mercy, a God who communicates through humanity by sending messengers who came with the same primordial message, that of the unicity of God and the sovereignty of God. Mary too carried such a person. His birth and vocation could have meant more than human prophecy but in Islam, Jesus the son of Mary remains the human prophet in the long line of human prophets. His virgin mother Mary and his miraculous birth invite the Christic element but the Christic element is not tied into the divine human matrix but simply a reflection of God’s will and power. Mary is the bearer of the Word but it is the nature of this Word and the significance of his life in the whole eschatological hope of human existence which remains the most decisive and the most contested area for Christian Muslim reflection.

    Islamic thought has already debated whether Gabriel came to Mary in the guise of a man or in the form of the holy spirit. In giving Jesus a human father, Muslims may well return to the Qur’an commentaries for further speculation but it would probably not affect their appreciation of Jesus in any significant way. Jesus is not God whatever his nature or origin. I suspect that for most Muslims, Jesus’s birth and prophecy are debated more as a result of interreligious dialogue with Christians than intra religious reflection. However much Muslims revere Jesus as a messenger and prophet, it is his message which remains important. For Christians, Jesus is the message.

    • Nancy Roberts

      Nancy Roberts

      Reply

      Further Thoughts

      I appreciate Dr. Siddiqui’s thoughtful response to my remarks, and I agree fully with her that the implications of the proposal that Jesus might not, in fact, have been conceived without human agency would be “more unsettling for Christians than for Muslims,” since, as she notes near the end of her remarks, for Muslims “Jesus is not God whatever his nature or origin.” In Christianity, by contrast, the doctrine of Christ’s virgin birth is inseparable from that of his divinity, which is in turn inseparable from that of vicarious atonement. Hence, to call the virgin birth into question is to risk bringing down the entire edifice of traditional Christian faith as we know it.
      As Dr. Siddiqui also aptly observes, religious doctrines invariably develop and crystallize over time, and in specific social and political contexts. Moreover, given the absence of the virgin conception from the gospels of Mark and John, the Acts of the Apostles, the Pauline epistles, and the remainder of the New Testament, it would be reasonable to conclude that the doctrine of Jesus’ virgin birth may well have emerged after, rather than before, Christians came to believe in Jesus’ divinity.
      I had not been aware until reading Dr. Siddiqui’s reflections here that the figure of Joseph is mentioned in Qur’anic commentaries. This was no doubt a result of Muslim scholars’ having been exposed to Christian scriptures in one context or another. It also reaffirms the importance of understanding the Qur’an against the background of biblical accounts and teachings, which often provide the assumed context for Qur’anic narratives.
      Lastly, there is a statement Dr. Siddiqui makes that I didn’t fully understand. She writes that Jesus’ “virgin mother Mary and his miraculous birth invite the Christic element.” However, she goes on, “the Christic element is not tied into the divine human matrix but [is] simply a reflection of God’s will and power.” I’m not sure what she means by “the Christic element” here, and I’m wondering if she might comment further on this.
      Thank you.

Mark Beaumont

Response

The Death of Jesus

A Dialogue with Mona Siddiqui

In her Christians, Muslims, and Jesus, Mona Siddiqui represents those Muslims who wish to understand Christians in terms they choose for themselves rather than by the picture that Muslims may have of them. At the end of a historical survey of Christian-Muslim interaction, she points out that the incarnation may not be acceptable to Muslims but they nevertheless need to understand, “What this belief and devotion means in Christian life and worship.”

The same desire to get to the heart of Christian faith and practice is seen in her exposition of Paul’s approach to law and grace. She quotes fellow Muslim Shabbir Akhtar’s interpretation of Paul: “We need grace to transform us, not only revelation to guide us: what we are by nature can only be rectified by what we may become by grace.”1 Mona presents Paul’s view as fundamentally at odds with a Muslim sensibility. From the Muslim perspective, guidance and grace work together not to transform our sinful status, as in the Christian view, but to lead us to God.

She explains the Muslim view of law and grace. Going against the law is part of being human, for human nature is recalcitrant. The believer will do wrong, for that is the divine expectation. But when the believer turns to God in repentance, God does not turn away. In continuing to worship God we continue to love him, and our sins, rather than any ontological sin, are cleansed by the good that we do. What matters is continued belief and hope in God, not the sins we commit. We don’t need to be saved from sin but rather from unbelief. She suggests that Islam’s biggest parting with Christian doctrine is that it does not have those defining moments of both alienation from God as in the fall and subsequent reconciliation with God, as in redemption through Christ, which shows that God’s love is spontaneous and has no expectations of us.

In her view there is a profound structural difference in the way love is conceptualised in both religions. By focusing primarily on its human manifestation in Christ, love in Christianity is a redemptive act and becomes visible on the cross, and its power is in the paradox of the weakness of the cross (2 Cor 13:4). Salvation does not come about through our best efforts; it is not some happy state to which we can lift ourselves; it is an utterly new creation into which we are brought by our death in Jesus’ death and our resurrection in his. In Islam, humanity is not damned by the impossibility of overcoming sin, for there is no sinless place to which we can return, only a better place which we can create, even though our ultimate salvation lies with God alone.

The conclusion to her book is entitled “Reflections on the Cross.” Here she testifies that in conversations with Christian colleagues and in her engagement with Christian theology, she has “learnt in greater depth how to talk of God.” In this last chapter she broaches the subject of the crucifixion of Jesus, which Christians believe is the crucifixion of God, and confesses that Muslims deny the validity of this faith, quoting Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 1209), “If the God of this world were this body, then when the Jews killed him they in fact killed the God of this world. How could the world survive without a God?”

She acknowledges that for Christians, the resurrection of Jesus affirmed the divinity of Jesus and the hope for the liberation of humanity. But Islam has no divine nature, redemption or salvation for humankind in Jesus. She writes of sitting in front of a cross in a local church wondering what it meant to her as a Muslim. She asked her Christian colleagues in the faculty of Divinity at Edinburgh University to share what the cross meant to them. While the reactions were diverse they all pointed to one central reality: “All the various meanings of the cross still point to one truth, which is that at the centre of the Christian faith is the passion and death of Christ on the cross, the very focus of its sacramental anamnesis in ‘the bread and wine’ of the Eucharist.” Nothing in Islam compares to this since “Muslims have either rejected or ignored the significance of the cross.” She writes that as she sits before the cross it does not draw her in. She cannot incline towards what it says about a God in human form, a God who undergoes this inexplicable agony for an inexplicable act of mercy.

She believes that there are other ways to come to redemption. The intimacy of human relations with God does not rest on an event that has occurred but on our constant movement towards him in the hope of events which are about to occur. Forgiveness is not a given, it has not happened yet, not because it needs to be earned but simply because we have not witnessed it.

Mona confesses that she is moved by the Christian theology of love, its radical implication of a God that dies so that humans can live. But she does not see how this is meaningful in her life. If the cross is about God’s love and forgiveness reaching out to all humanity, this is a message she cannot ignore. She wants to forgive others more easily. “It has taken me a long time to understand that the ability to forgive others is a precious gift because the inability to forgive damages your soul. The anger and the hurt never really goes, it just lingers. But I also need to pray for forgiveness for the wrong that I do because my faith resides not only in my hope in God, rather in his hope in me.” She believes that in spite of all the legalistic models found in the history of Islam, the language of divine mercy dominates.

It is rare to read a Muslim reflect so deeply on the cross of Christ as Christians perceive it. I was particularly struck by her drinking deeply at the wells of Christian writing on the significance of the cross as well as her conversations with Christian colleagues in the Edinburgh University Divinity faculty that exists to teach Christian theology. She is drawn to the belief that the love of God is manifest in the death of Jesus, but cannot bring herself to find the fullness of God’s love there. She remains convinced that God will be merciful to humans who do wrong, but she is not sure at this present time how he will do this. She is content to leave the outworking of mercy to wrongdoers for a future resolution. In other words, God does not need to be tied down to the cross as the means of forgiving wrong. A past act of mercy through the death of the Son of God does not work for her. Muslim theology then is future oriented, whereas Christian theology is focused on a past event in history.

This ambivalence towards a historical event guaranteeing the love of God for the one who exercises faith in Christ’s death as a means of coming into a love relationship with the Creator is characteristic of the whole history of Islamic theology, and is a faithful reflection of the message of the Qur’an. That Jesus was not killed by crucifixion is clearly taught in Q4:157–58. Perhaps it would be too much to expect that Mona Siddiqui could actually be emotionally connected to a cross on which Jesus was not actually hung. I find it very interesting that she does not say what she thinks about the Qur’anic denial of Jesus’ death by crucifixion. She might have agreed with Mahmoud Ayoub, the Lebanese Shi`i Muslim raised by Christian missionaries in an orphanage for blind children, that Jesus did die on the cross but that the Qur’an should be understood to be saying that they could kill the body of Jesus but not the word of God that he represented. According to Ayoub, “The Qur’an is not speaking here about a man, righteous and wronged though he may be, but about the the Word of God who was sent to earth and who returned to God. Thus the denial of the killing of Jesus is a denial of the power of human beings to vanquish and destroy the divine Word, which is forever victorious.”2 However, Mona does not offer a new treatment of the problematic ending of Jesus’ life according to the Qur’an.

Ayoub’s view that Jesus died a martyr’s death might also have been discussed. After all, Jesus laying down his life for his friends is a Johannine theme that Ayoub can integrate into his Islamic worldview. He believes that “Christ redeemed and continues to redeem us, not simply by his divine act but by his humanity, a humanity that cared.”3 The saints can empty themselves for the sake of others. Mona does appreciate the kenotic quality of the actions of Jesus during his life, but does not feel emotionally or intellectually connected to the self emptying of his death for others. But then, Mona does not value the Islamic tradition of saints who exemplify the love of God to a greater degree than others the way that Ayoub does. The notion that Jesus is like a Sufi master who initiates disciples into the love of God is not explored in this book.

From my Christian perspective, the self-giving of Jesus to “ransom many” (Mark 10:45), is at the heart of the earliest gospel narrative, and reflects closely the opening greeting in Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia, probably the earliest Christian writing in the New Testament, crafted within twenty years of the death of Jesus: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Gal 1:3–4 NRSV). Given the testimony of Paul that he had been violently antagonistic to his fellow Jews who had come to believe in the forgiveness of sin through the death of Jesus, this ardent love for Christ is all the more remarkable. It is not without irony that Paul came to be regarded by Muslims as the inventor of Christianity by perverting the teaching of Jesus. `Abd al-Jabbār al-Hamadhānī (d. 1025) in The Confirmation of the Proofs of Prophecy, written in 995, calls Paul “the Jew famous for his plots, lies, and baseness” who promoted the belief in the death of Jesus, but the truth is “that Christ was not crucified. . . . The one who was crucified was someone other than he.”4

Mona has no time for this ancient Muslim theory that God arranged for someone else to be put to death instead of Jesus. But it remains stubbornly popular among Muslims in our time as the most obvious answer to the predicament of a historical crucifixion in Jerusalem recounted in the gospels placed alongside the denial of the crucifixion of Jesus in the Qur’an. The vast majority of Muslims find the substitution story a lot easier to comprehend than Ayoub’s theory of the death of the human Jesus but the preservation of the divine Word.

In the final analysis, Mona Siddiqui’s desire to understand the Christian commitment to the death of Jesus on the cross is a testimony to her generous spirit, and a very fine example both to her fellow Muslims and to Christians like me of how to engage in conversation over the deepest divisions that exist between Christians and Muslims.

 


  1. Akhtar, The Quran and the Secular Mind (London: Routledge, 2008), 277.

  2. Ayoub, A Muslim View of Christianity, edited by I. A. Omar (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2007), 176.

  3. Ibid, 97.

  4. Abd al-Jabbār al-Hamadhānī, Critique of Christian Origins, Tathbīt dalā’il al-nubuwwa, edited and translated by G. S. Reynolds and S. K. Samir (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 2010), 78.

  • Mona Siddiqui

    Mona Siddiqui

    Reply

    Response to Mark Beaumont

    First, I am very grateful to all the reviewers for taking the time to engage with my book, Christians, Muslims, and Jesus. It takes a certain intellectual but also moral commitment to read, reflect, appreciate, and ultimately challenge an author in a work of comparative religion. And with all the contemporary global focus on political Islam, a discussion which is essentially located within theological boundaries is always a rewarding enterprise.

    I want to be clear first of all that I wrote this book in an attempt to understand and appreciate the multiple ways in which Jesus’ divinity lies at the heart of the Christian faith. I do this by drawing on certain theological themes and concepts which have been at the centre of Christian-Muslim theological engagement for centuries. Added to this, as a Muslim whose interest in Christian theology has challenged her approach to her own faith, I could not keep this a strictly historical, arcane, and thematic discussion—I had to bring a personal dimension which I do in the final chapter as I reflect on the meaning of the cross for both Christians and for me. Did I allow myself to become vulnerable as I sat in front of the cross in the church? Yes, I did because those moments completed my journey from intellectual discussion through to the event and emotion of the crucifixion and the cross. Being immersed in another religion requires “feeling” the faith as well as discussing the doctrines.

    On that basis, Mark’s challenge that “perhaps it would be too much to expect that Mona Siddiqui could actually be emotionally connected to a cross on which Jesus was not actually hung,” is the one I find a little surprising. Jesus was hanged on the cross in both Christianity and Islam but the controversy in Islam is whether he died as a result of the hanging. I do say that this controversy, originating in Q4:157, “They did not kill him and they did not crucify him, rather it only appeared to them,” the only verse that mentions the crucifixion of Jesus, has been interpreted in a variety of ways. The vast majority of Muslims find the substitution story a lot easier to comprehend. I recognise that Ayoub’s theory of the death of the human Jesus but the preservation of the divine Word is also a possible and powerful interpretation. He is not the first to point to this separation as Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida similarly rejected the view that Jesus was taken up from this world without dying. They maintained that Jesus did die on the cross but that his soul was taken up to heaven. The issue however, whichever interpretation one believes in, is that even if Muslims came to believe that Jesus did die on the cross before he was raised, in the Qur’anic frame of references, this death would be tantamount to another divine miracle, but one which has no atoning or redemptive significance. It is not as if once Muslims resolved how and when Jesus died, that his resurrection would be seen as confirming his divinity. While reference is made to Jesus’s death in the Qur’an, Muslim belief has tended to read this as a future death, after his second coming. For Christians, the Messianic hope was transformed by the crucifixion but the resurrection affirmed the divinity of Christ, for the genuine Christian faith lies in the post Easter phenomenon. In Islam, there is no paschal mystery and Christ is simply gone, however his ascension is understood. Ayoub himself writes that “the Jesus of Islam is not the Christ of Christianity.”

    Drawing on Tarif Khalidi’s work The Muslim Jesus, which are the collective sayings attributed to Jesus by various Muslim scholars and mystics, as well as the poetry of several Sufis, I try to show that even where Jesus is the perfect embodiment of love and asceticism, he still bears the stamp of human prophecy (nubuwwah) rather than any divinity. Mark writes that “the notion that Jesus is like a Sufi master who initiates disciples into the love of God is not explored in this book.” Actually, I do explore that for all the descriptions of Jesus, even that of martyr, Islam has little or no place for the salvific role of any of God’s elect, even Muhammad. Even Rumi, who more than most Sufi poets, saw the uniqueness of Jesus, wrote, “That idea the Christian carried abroad, the Muslim has not that idea, that he is slaying this Messiah upon the cross.”

    For me, it is not necessary to accept the totality of the Christian message, in order to appreciate its uniqueness. The God that dies so that man can live is a complex and powerful understanding of divine love but it is not the only understanding of divine love. Belief in Jesus as God incarnate or God crucified is not where the Islamic devotion of Jesus takes the Muslim. Karl Barth wrote that without Christ, we “utterly lack the fullness of God’s presence.” But as a Muslim, I believe God’s nature must always be full, it can never be less or more, it is not contingent on events in time or our belief in him, rather, it remains full irrespective of human recognition, worship, or indeed love.

    • Mark Beaumont

      Mark Beaumont

      Reply

      A Reply to Mona Siddiqui’s Response

      I would like to pick up on a couple of points in Mona’s response to my review of her thinking about the cross. Firstly, she says that Christians and Muslims equally believe that Jesus ‘was hanged on the cross.’ I must say this comes as a surprise to me. Most Muslims I have read have taken the view that Jesus was prevented from hanging there by God’s intervention. I recognize that there are a minority of Muslims who conceive of Jesus being put on the cross but taken down before he died. I don’t know whether Mona would be in agreement with them, or whether she thinks of Jesus being translated to heaven whilst hanging on the cross. Nevertheless, S.H. Nasr speaks for the majority of Muslims when he says ‘The non-crucifixion of Jesus is the one irreducible fact separating Christianity and Islam’ [Islamic Life and Thought, London: 1981, 210]. Mona herself accepts that the majority of Muslims are content to believe in the substitution theory. Z.H. Assfy is a modern exponent of the view first clearly stated in the eighth century that after Jesus was taken from prison to heaven, Judas, who betrayed Jesus, was ‘miraculously transformed to resemble Jesus in all his physical features’ and was crucified [Islam and Christianity, York: 1977, 56-7]. Secondly, Mona believes that the death of Jesus is ‘a future death after his second coming.’ She does not report the traditions that support this idea, since the Qur’an does not contain any references to Jesus’ second coming. This belief is found in eighth century writing in the commentary on the Qur’an by Muqatil Ibn Sulayman [d. 767], who held that Q3:55, “God said, ‘Jesus, I will take you back and raise you up to Me”, meant that God would raise Jesus to himself and then cause him to die after he returned from heaven to confront the Antichrist (al-Dajjal). Sulayman was also an early exponent of the theory that the image of Jesus was cast onto a man named Judas who was crucified in his place. But I find it very interesting that the ninth century stories about the return of Jesus from heaven include a detail not found in the eighth-century accounts, the destruction of crosses by Jesus after he returns to earth from heaven. The late ninth century commentator on the Qur’an, Abu Ja’far al-Tabari [d. 923], interprets Q4:159, “There is not one of the People of the Book who will not believe in [Jesus] before his death”, through a tradition passed on by a companion of the Prophet Muhammad, Abu Hurayra, who reported the following: “I am the closest among humans to Jesus, Mary’s son, because there is no prophet between us. He will descend, so recognize him when you see him…He will break the crosses, kill the pigs, and abolish the poll tax…he will die and the Muslims will pray over him and bury him.” According to al-Tabari, the death of Jesus will only happen after his return from heaven to which he ascended without going through death. The destruction of crosses by Jesus is a sharp reminder of the antipathy to the cross in the mainstream life of Islam. Mona does not comment on this scenario of Jesus showing the Christians that they have been misguided all along about his crucifixion.

Mun'im Sirry

Response

How Is the One God Expressed So Differently?

I read Professor Siddiqui’s Christians, Muslims, and Jesus with great enthusiasm as I myself have deep interest in Christian-Muslim relations. This book brings the readers into subtle and learned conversations about issues that need to be dialogued between the two religious communities. While most scholars strive to find commonalities as the starting point for inter-religious conversations, Siddiqui goes beyond such a common practice to address theological differences that have posed some difficulties to those who engage in dialogue. It is true that such contrasting perspectives have led Muslims and Christians to go through uneasy relations, but such “conversations have the potential to enrich the encounter between Muslims and Christians rather than diminish good relations” (96).

One of such difficult issues is the way in which the father of Jesus and the God of Muhammad is understood in a radically different manner. Siddiqui deals with this issue in chapters 2 and 5, on which my reflection is based. She argues that difference is so profound to the extent that any attempt to draw any comparison is flawed (222). This raises an important question about the problem of comparative evaluation. Scholars have for a while been discussing the usefulness of comparison without having a consensus on the use of key terms in such a way that we seem to compare apples and oranges. Although this issue is not the main concern of this essay, the question, it seems to me, is not whether comparison is possible, but rather what purposes it serves. In fact, comparative studies are not only concerned with finding commonalities, but also identifying differences.

I also do not take Siddiqui’s argument to mean that, because of their radical differences, Muslims and Christians believe in and worship a different God. Despite the fact that the Qur’an criticizes what seems to be Christian doctrines of the Trinity or the divinity of Jesus, it affirms that the God of Muslims and the people of the book is the same God. I would argue that it’s the time for Muslims to engage in serious theological reflections on how to treat the people of the book, including Christians, as believers not infidels.

Professor Siddiqui offers an insightful discussion on past opinions of Christians regarding Islam and of Muslims regarding Christianity in their early debates. Although it is unpleasant to talk about their views of each other in the past, this may help us to think more boldly about the need for robust theological reflections on the fate of the “other” in the modern context. Medieval Christian authors living in Islamic lands such as John of Damascus (675–753) looked to Islam as a breakaway from Christianity. John calls Islam a Christian heresy “because he does not distinguish between heresies and other religions” (66). In his letter to a Muslim interlocutor, ‘Abd al-Masīh ibn Isḥāq al-Kindī refers to the Qur’an as a deception, attributing it to the work of Satan.1 However, there are some positive appreciations of Islam expressed by early Christian theologians, including that of the Patriarch Timothy I (728–823). When asked by the ‘Abbasid caliph al-Mahdi to give his opinion about Muhammad, he said, “Muhammad is worthy of all praise by all reasonable people, O my Sovereign. He walked in the path of the prophets and trod in the track of the lovers of God.”2

One may ask why it is theologically difficult for Christians to accept Muhammad as a prophet and recognize the Qur’an as a divine revelation. To put it differently, can Christians speak of revelation after the New Testament? According to Christian W. Troll, “The Christian who seriously accepts Muhammad’s claim to be the true and final prophet is turning against the witness of the most important documents of the Christian faith.”3 Like Muslims, Christians believe in the oneness of God and therefore, following Troll’s logic, if Christians recognize the prophethood of Muhammad, they automatically become Muslims.

Troll’s argument reflects a broader issue raised by Siddiqui concerning different understandings of revelation and their impact on the conception of God. According to official Catholic teaching, “God chose to reveal Himself. . . . By this revelation then, the deepest truth about God and the salvation of man shines out for our sake in Christ, who is both the mediator and the fullness of all revelation.”4 It seems clear from this passage that at the center of revelation for Christians is the experience of salvation coming from God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus the fullness of revelation is Jesus, the God incarnate, while the Bible is understood as the normative witness to that revelation.

Here we can see how different are the Christian and Muslim conceptions of revelation. In Islam, God does not reveal himself, but rather his will through the Qur’an. “In developing the relationship between the divine and the human,” Siddiqui argues, “Muslims focused on God’s modes and purpose in revelation, the human obligation to submit to reading God’s presence in the Qur’an, and understanding and obeying God’s will in response to a revealed text” (177). So, the Qur’an occupies a central position in Muslim beliefs and practices as it reflects the Divine Word through which God communicates his will. The Qur’an refers to previous scriptures either by name (e.g., tawrā, injīl, zabūr) or by using a generic term such as kitāb, and confirms that they all come from God containing “guidance and light” (Q. 5:44, 6:154), “guidance and admonition” (5:46), and “the judgment of God” (5:43). The general impression one gets from the Qur’an is that all the prophets were sent forth with the same message, namely, to worship the One God, the Creator, Sustainer and Sovereign. Each time this same message was corrupted God sent forth his messenger to set it right until the time when Muhammad was sent as the seal of the prophets (Q.33:40).

Just like it is difficult for mainstream Muslims to accept Ahmadis who believe that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad as a prophet after Muhammad, Christians also face some difficulty opening up to the possibility of accepting Muhammad as a prophet and recognizing his teaching as a divinely revealed message. It is in this context that the Second Vatican Council can be seen as a major development which turns toward a genuinely positive appreciation of non-Christian religions, including Islam, and initiates a friendly dialogue with the “other.” It is true that both Lumen Gentium and Nostra Aetate, despite their positive view of Islam, do not go as far as recognizing Muhammad after Jesus or the Qur’an after the Gospels. However, it provides an opening to recognize that Muslims, just like Christians, believe in and worship of the same God of Abraham. Catholic leaders since then have expressed more appreciation for certain Islamic values.

It is worth noting that Pope Francis in his message to Muslims throughout the world who celebrated the day of Eid al-Fitr (July 10, 2013) said, “I wished to emphasize once more the great importance of dialogue and cooperation among believers, in particular Christians and Muslims.” For the highest Christian religious authority to call Muslims “believers” is undoubtedly significant. Would Muslim leaders be open to call Christians “believers” rather than “infidels” (kuffār)?

It can be argued that Muslims would find no difficulty in recognizing the legitimacy of Christianity since the Qur’an confirms the divine origin of the Christian scripture and regards Jesus and Mary in such a high status. Most Christians, on the other hand, may confront some theological obstacles, as they hold the conviction that the definitive revelation came to an end with the death of the apostles of Jesus. More difficult for both religious communities is the different conception of revelation, which has had a profound impact on their doctrine of God. As Siddiqui has rightly noted, “The tension between self-revelation and complete transcendence [of God] has exercised the minds of Christian and Muslim scholars for centuries” (177). She further argues that “in both faiths revelation is essentially about divine disclosure of creative desire or love, but these phenomena are located and expressed in different ways” (ibid.).

What is needed is a deeper theological reflection that goes beyond variant expressions to such an extent that differences are understood as the uniqueness of each religious tradition, without negating the shared divine origin. The Qur’an seems to reflect this position in the sense that it confirms that Christians worship the God of the Qur’an, while at the same it strongly criticizes them for their belief in the divinity of Jesus and the Trinity. When asking Muslims to debate the people of the book with the best way possible, the Qur’an also instructs them to say, “Our God and your God is one” (Q. 29:46). This is the one and same God whose name is invoked in monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques (22:48).

How is the one and same God expressed so differently? The thirteenth-century Muslim Sufi Ibn ‘Arabi (d. 1240), offers an interesting explanation as to the different human constructions of the divinity. According to the Shaykh Akbar, one should not confine God within one’s own belief because that one and same God can take a multitude of forms depending on certain viewpoints. This is reflected in a divine speech attributed to God (hadith qudsī), saying “ana fī ẓanni ‘abdī bī” (I’m to my servant as he thinks of me). In that sense God is an expression about God that one creates in one’s own belief. For Ibn ‘Arabi, this different expression of God is not God himself but rather “the God created in belief” (al-ilāh al-makhlūq fī al-i‘tiqād).5 Interestingly, he does not consider the variant expressions as a source of misguidance, instead they all radiate from one and the same Reality.

With this understanding of the believed God (al-ilāh al-mu‘taqad) as a God inserted or placed by people in their beliefs, Ibn ‘Arabi wants to explain that people must be aware of the fact that the God who revealed himself in a multitude of forms is one and same God. The problem arises when people claim to have adhered to the only true expression of God and reject the other.

One should not understand Ibn ‘Arabi’s explanation simply as some sort of relativist approach to human conceptions of God, because his main concern here is to show the mysterious nature of God. And God as such is unknowable. Based on the hadith qudsī cited above, he argues that God conforms to whatever form of belief his servant has of him. The Greatest Master goes even further, saying, “God’s existence in the conception (taṣawwur) of him who conceives Him does not disappear when that person’s conception changes into another conception. No, He has an existence in this second conception. In the same way, on the Day of Resurrection, he will transmute Himself in self-disclosure from form to form.”6

According to this perspective, the different ways in which God is conceived by both Muslims and Christians are the consequence of his merciful radiance, rather than the source of misguidance. This does not mean to downplay the significance of structural difference in the way key religious doctrines are conceptualized. As Siddiqui notes, “In Christianity and Islam the modes of God’s disclosure are radically different” (221). It can quickly be added, however, that such profound differences can also be found even within a single religious tradition. Therefore, given the unlimited forms by which God can reveal himself, comparing different religious beliefs with attention to their particularities will certainly enrich our understanding of the mystery of the Absolute Reality.


  1. See N. A. Newman, ed., The Early Christian-Muslim Dialogue (Hatfield, PA: Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute, 1993), 451.

  2. Ibid., 218.

  3. Christian W. Troll, Dialogue and Difference: Clarity in Christian-Muslim Relations (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2009), 117.

  4. See Dei Verbum, no. 2.

  5. Ibn ‘Arabi, Bezels of Wisdom, translated by R. Austin (New York: Paulist, 1980), 224–25.

  6. William C. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn ‘Arabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination (Albany: SUNY Press, 1989), 337.

  • Mona Siddiqui

    Mona Siddiqui

    Reply

    Response to Mun’im Sorry

    Mun’im raises various points relating to the purpose of comparative theology/studies as well as the traditional quest in this discipline to find commonalities rather than differences. The second half of his essay looks at the thirteenth-century Sufi Ibn `Arabi and his explanation of the different human constructions of divinity. To paraphrase the argument, Ibn `Arabi claims that one should not confine God within one’s own belief because that one and same God can take a multitude of forms. This is reflected in a divine speech attributed to God (hadith qudsi), saying “ana fī ẓanni ‘abdī bī” (I am to my servant as he thinks of me). In that sense God is an expression about God that one creates in one’s own belief. The God created in one’s belief can lead to variant expressions but they all radiate from the one and same Reality.

    First, I am pleased that Mun’im appreciates that comparative studies is not a singular nor even systematic discipline which should, as some would argue, either ignore or reconcile differences. In this book, my interest in Christian Muslim relations focuses on the centrality of Christology to the Christian faith and what that means when we speak of a shared vocabulary. Christology is rarely if ever discussed between Christians and Muslims and yet it is precisely because of Christology that Christians and Muslims mean different things when they refer to concepts such as God, prophecy, salvation, grace, etc. Our understanding of revelation is also part of this shared vocabulary but one which rests on structural differences as to how God hides and reveals. Self-revelation and revelation mean profoundly different things. In Islam, scripture and prophecy are tied to God’s revelatory process. By contrast scripture and prophecy play a secondary role in Christianity in the sense that through Jesus Christ, God no longer offers us a prophetic message pointing to an eschatological reality, but rather offers himself; the incarnation is central to Christian theology. All of God’s past wagers on previous prophets and messages culminate in this final act of his self-giving. If the life and message of Jesus is contained in the Gospels, the Gospels were written as testimonies to an event. Much of the Christian language about God affirms Jesus as God in self-revelation, and much of the Muslim language about God seeks exception to that Christian claim. Islam makes reference to Christianity in various ways but it lays emphasis on scripture and prophecy as defining modes of God’s revelation.

    It is true that the Qur’an makes several references to Christian and Christianity but many Christians would claim that they do not see themselves or their faith reflected in the Qur’anic narratives. Furthermore, as Mun’im points out, both Lumen Gentium and Nostra Aetate, despite their positive view of Islam, do not go as far as recognizing Muhammad after Jesus or the Qur’an after the Gospels. For some people, such positions are obstacles to further engagement. Others also stress that there is a political and social necessity in trying to draw together commonalities for more peaceful coexistence. But for me personally, such theological differences don’t need to be reconciled, they need to be appreciated and explored for deeper and more humble engagement. This book was not written to offer any remedies as to how Christians can accepts Muhammad’s prophecy or how Muslims can accept Jesus’s divinity. Even within one religion, there are various perspectives on these issues. This is not the aim of the book. The theological quandary reflected in Hasan Askari’s comment remains, namely that “Islam is the only religion outside Christianity where Jesus is again really present. In other religions, Jesus is not part of their sacred scriptures.” Askari is right to the extent that Jesus is present in the Qur’an in a way that is absent from any other religious faith. But Jesus is not central to Islam’s understanding of God in the same way as he is in the Christian faith. This poses a dilemma for both Christians and Muslims as to what they mean when they “accept” each other as believers and believers in the same God.

    Thus, Mun’im’s statement that “Muslims would find no difficulty in recognizing the legitimacy of Christianity since the Qur’an confirms the divine origin of the Christian scripture and regards Jesus and Mary in such a high status,” in some sense dissolves rather than resolves this theological problem. Over the centuries, Muslim have faced their internal intellectual struggle as to how one preserves God’s oneness while Christians have sought to define God’s uniqueness through various Christological perspectives. If we accept Ibn `Arabi’s claim that the same God can take multiple forms, that may chime to some degree with perennialists but it will do little to convince those for whom their religion and their theological understanding of that religion remains the singular truth. Christians have written about Islam and Islamic theology for many years, what is needed is more Muslims who are willing to engage critically and meaningfully with Christian theology—without this kind of scholarship, Christian-Muslim studies will reach an impasse.

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