by Martin Accad
My friend Peter believes that the Qur’ānic portrayal of Jesus stands in complete contradiction with the New Testament witness. He was once called Ahmad, but when he converted to Christianity after consistently watching polemical programs about Islam on satellite television, he became convinced that in order to follow Jesus he had entirely to deny his former Islāmic faith, even give up his birth name. The violent social repercussions that he experienced as a result of this decision further convinced him that Islam was entirely evil and did not align in any way with the God of the Bible and his message.
Samia, on the other hand, after much inner struggle about certain Islāmic practices and behaviors in her society, which she felt strongly conflicted with her personal values, immersed herself into an extensive comparative study of the Bible and the Qur’ān. It was primarily as a result of her meditation on the Qur’ānic portrayal of Jesus that she felt so attracted to him, to the point that she eventually decided to become his disciple. She was more attracted to Jesus than she was to Christianity, and she was able to express this newfound allegiance without alienating her family. Today, she and her brother, and one of their cousins, are discretely part of a small group that studies the Bible in a home. She is convinced of all Christian doctrines, but does not feel she needs to attack Islam or the Qur’ān to elevate Jesus in her life.
Amir is my third friend. He believes that much of the disagreements between Muslims and Christians were historically the result of misunderstandings. As far as he’s concerned, the Bible and the Qur’ān do not contradict each other in their portrayal of Jesus. Although he considers that certain Christian doctrinal beliefs have historically been excessive in their assertions about Jesus, he does not feel that this is sufficient reason for conflict and mutual exclusion. In fact, he has little patience for some of his Muslim coreligionists who speak aggressively against Christianity and Christians and has been able to carve for himself a group of like-minded friends. He considers himself a follower and disciple of Jesus, even as he feels comfortable attending both church and mosque. He feels called to be an ambassador of peace and unapologetically invites Muslims to become Jesus’ disciples.
Sumayya, my fourth friend, is quite feisty when it comes to Jesus! She is convinced that the Christian understanding of Jesus has entirely missed the mark and she regularly has lively arguments with her next-door neighbors who are Christian missionaries. She hosts Qur’ānic studies in her home, where she trains Muslim young people on how to debate effectively against Christian doctrines. To her, Islam is the only true religion and all others are in error. She feels called to invite people to Islam in order to save them from the fire of hell.
All four of my friends have a certain understanding of Jesus, which has formed as a result of their reading of both the Qur’ān and the Bible. But their beliefs are not simply the outcome of their own understanding of scriptures. They also derive from the interaction of their readings with their life experiences and social contexts. Though all four of them were born to Muslim families, they grew up as members of communities that were the recipients of diverse interfaith histories and narratives. Theologies always belong in multilayered contexts and it is at the intersection of all of them that our commitments and loyalties emerge.
Not only are beliefs about Jesus today diverse among Muslims, but traditional beliefs concerning him do not necessarily lead to loyalty for his teaching and life. Conversely, it does not automatically follow that those who claim to be his disciples hold Biblical beliefs concerning his true identity.
Muslim polemics against Christianity based on Qur’ānic verses about Jesus must be examined within their particular historical context, and I would suggest that they have been driven more by political power struggles than by disinterested theological overtures. But while there are less than a dozen verses in the Qur’ān upon which a polemical discourse against Christians can be built, there are nearly twice as many that serve as an affirmation of Jesus’ greatness.
One might ask: Why is Jesus such a central figure in the Qur’ān? Why did Muḥammad not simply proclaim his message of monotheism, calling pagan Arabs to the worship of the One God, leaving the Judeo-Christian tradition alone? If the prophet of Islam felt the burden, like Abraham, to break away from the religion of his fathers, and to venture into new territory in response to God’s call, why did he have to do so at the expense of the preceding covenants which he claimed to continue and complete?
My studies into the extensive references to Jesus in the Qur’ān lead me to believe that they were not primarily meant to be polemical, even though in historical retrospective they appear to be so. In fact, I have become convinced that the Qur’ānic narrative about Jesus only incidentally ends up emerging ‘at the expense’ of the Christian narrative. I believe that in its primary purpose, the Jesus metanarrative in the Qur’ān was in fact designed as proof of Muḥammad’s prophethood, and only incidentally became a counter-narrative, not to the Gospels themselves, but to the Christians’ interpretation of their texts.
If Muslim-Christian history would tend to hold our communities hostage of hard and obstinate deadlocks, the Qur’ān would seem to invite us instead into dynamic conversation. But, you might ask, have we not done so enough? What stone has yet been left unturned? It is my belief that every generation of Christians and Muslims has the right – even the duty – to return to the conversation table based on its sacred texts.
Historical and political circumstances change constantly. Knowledge and scholarship keeps evolving. Means and styles of communication are always on the lookout for new creative users. The religious nature of global conflict, at least in its current apparent manifestation, is at such a high, that it may feel deeply discouraging and distressing. Yet because of its intensity, it may also offer unprecedented levels of motivation within our communities.
Our primary approach to dialogue has traditionally been the affirmation of propositional truths, such as the Trinity and Christ’s divinity, the incarnation and the cross. But what if we focused instead on the significance of ‘presence’ and solidarity in suffering – the incarnation as ‘God with us’? What if our primary mode of living were love of friends and foes, to the point of being willing to lay down our life for them – the cross as self-giving? What if this Christlike life became the principal window into the nature of the Divine?
Our multi-faith and multi-layered communities today beckon us to approach dialogue from the angle of invested lives that lead to understanding, rather than from the starting point of propositional truths that seek rhetorical triumph. The outcome of such an approach would be no less propositional and no less truthful than the latter. It would, in effect, be more faithful to God’s approach to humanity in Jesus, from the cradle to the cross. His kerygma (Greek for ‘proclamation’) was a journey that blended perfectly living and conversation with us – presence and self-giving which, too, must become the crux of our own kerygmatic peacebuilding. The Qur’ān, with its rich and diverse testimony about Jesus, offers us a potent door to conversation. When our conversation is rooted into a robust life in the footsteps of Jesus, and integrated into the tapestry of the Biblical witness, theological dialogue with Muslims will be considerably strengthened and made more fruitful.
Dear Martin, I always appreciate your desire to call Christians to embrace a Christ-like attitude. This is very important and Biblical. I also admire your emphasis on peacebuilding as our world needs it so much these days more than ever before. Thank you for re-posting your article.
My concern about this article is, however, three-fold.
First, you exhort Christians not to focus on the affirmation of propositional truths in their dialogues with Muslims, but instead “on the significance of ‘presence’ and solidarity in suffering…”
But the Apostle Paul precisely did and wrote the opposite, didn’t he? His message had a laser-like focus: Jesus Crucified. He lived among people and loved them, but he was always precise about his message: The Cross of Jesus, not human “presence” and solidarity in suffering, which he definitely exemplified by his life. He did not shy away or deviate from the truth of the Gospel, as he preached the same message to the Greeks and to the Jews. His message was foolish to many, but he did not seek to change it. The message of the Crucified Jesus was foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom. “So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense” (1 Corinthians 1:23). He did not develop a different message as he was “present” among the Romans and the Jews. His message was always the same: We are sinners, Christ died for us, repent, and accept him and you will be saved. Indeed, as you rightly observe, “Knowledge and scholarship keeps evolving.” However, no matter how one tries, the message of the Cross will remain offensive. And, let me add, this very message brings Christians to trouble, and sometimes death.
Second, you state that “My studies into the extensive references to Jesus in the Qur’ān lead me to believe that they were not primarily meant to be polemical.” This does not make sense on two different levels.
On the one hand, are you trying to interpret the Quran for Muslims? I thought you always warned in your lectures against this tendency. Your statement simply destroyed at least twelve centuries of Muslim exegeses on their own scripture. On the other hand, your statement is not only implausible, but frankly counterfactual. In the 30+ verses about Jesus in the Quran, he is always a servant of the deity. Though noble in some characteristics and titles, he is never a god nor his son. If you don’t see this as polemical, most scholarship does; except some studies which attempt to create a new Quranic Jesus who appeals to modern discourse. But there is a deeper problem with this statement. You seem thrilled, brother Martin, that “a majority” of verses are positive about Jesus in contrast to “a minority” against him. So what? Are you calling Muslims and Christians to focus only on the positive and ignore the negative?
Can someone state 95 exceptional statements about Muhammad, and only five negative ones? I don’t think this can be helpful. Weighing positive and negative might be just a creative work to establish a new Quranic Jesus, or perhaps to force the Quran to tell story which it never accepted in the first place!! For what reasons or goals? Unclear to me. The few polemical verses about the Quranic Jesus are not only negative, but absolutely determinative about him, his character, and his deeds from a biblical perspective.
Third, you bring four of your friends as examples. There is a lot to unpack here, but I will focus on one element. What might be a Biblical evaluation of each of these stories? You provide them as illustration with no clear assessment of where Christian teachers should stand regarding them: Should we support these experiences? Should we simply rejoice at their results? Or, there is a Biblical evaluation we can give as teachers? In other words, are all the claims of these four friends equally commendable? Or, Christian teachers should evaluate practices and experiences in light of the overall witness of Scripture? For me, I think these stories are descriptive and not prescriptive in any way. They should be evaluated and discussed in light of a New Testament witness, in order to help serious ministers in Christian-Muslim witness.
I don’t read your article in any way as a denial of any Christian belief. You are a dear friend and admire you as brother. While I understand your commendable attitude, we will just have to disagree on some points. Loads of appreciation, brother.
Dear Ayman, thank you for taking the time to engage with my blog post. I didn’t find time to respond earlier, but as I have just noticed that a colleague of yours (Carol Ghattas) has also posted a response on your seminary website (https://jenkins.sbts.edu/2019/09/03/a-response-to-martin-accads-jesus-muslims-and-the-quran-in-search-for-kerygmatic-peacebuilding/), I figured it may be time for me to address some of your questions. I actually find your points not really “to the point” (excuse the pun – smile!). The answers to the issues you raise are actually found in my article.
First, you say that I “exhort Christians not to focus on the affirmation of propositional truths in their dialogues with Muslims, but instead ‘on the significance of “presence” and solidarity in suffering…'” In reality, I do not exhort Christians NOT TO focus on the affirmation of propositional truths. Rather, I challenge us, “What if our primary mode of living were love of friends and foes, to the point of being willing to lay down our life for them – the cross as self-giving? What if this Christlike life became the principal window into the nature of the Divine?” I am not offering a substitute to propositional truth, but rather a different starting point that does not exclude propositional truth. Sadly, as evangelicals, we are often too quick in stopping at propositional truth only… In fact, in the final paragraph, I affirm, “The outcome of such an approach would be no less propositional and no less truthful than the latter. It would, in effect, be more faithful to God’s approach to humanity in Jesus, from the cradle to the cross.”
And, note… How could I deny the importance of propositional truth when I have just written a 350-page book on theological engagement with Islam! It contains propositional truth ad nauseum!
Second, your critique of my approach to the Qur’an is surprising for a historian! I am not trying to interpret the Qur’an for Muslims. I am well aware how the tafsir tradition has read these verses about Jesus and my book surveys this material. However, having done that, it is my responsibility as a student of Islam and the Qur’an to explore alternative ways to read the text. You are of course familiar with Gabriel S. Reynold’s approach in his book, The Emergence of Islam. Half of his book is dedicated to the study of the traditional account of Muhammad’s biography in the Sira, and the other half is a revisionist historical-critical exploration of Islam’s prophet. Far from being illegitimate, the approach in the second part of his book earns the right to academic critique by demonstrating first familiarity with the classical narrative. My study of the verses about Jesus in the Qur’an has led me to the conviction that the Qur’an’s use of biblical prophetic narratives is very often paradigmatic and self-reflexive. In addition, I have come to a good deal of conviction that the Qur’an’s primary motivation in the Jesus narratives is to exonerate him from what the Qur’an’s author considered to be Christian “excesses” about Jesus. You may disagree with my reading, but I would encourage you to reread the verses in question with my lens in mind. You may find that your own conclusions as expressed in your response here are rather stuck to a primary superficial reading. We cannot ignore 1400 years of Muslim Qur’anic exegesis, of course, but if we do not also move beyond it then scientific research is dead!
Third, you say with regard to the 4 stories I open up my blog with: “Should we support these experiences? Should we simply rejoice at their results? Or, there is a Biblical evaluation we can give as teachers? In other words, are all the claims of these four friends equally commendable? Or, Christian teachers should evaluate practices and experiences in light of the overall witness of Scripture? For me, I think these stories are descriptive and not prescriptive in any way.” Come on! Of course they are descriptive and not prescriptive. I should think it straightforward enough for any of my readers to draw appropriate conclusions…
Let’s begin with my fourth friend, Sumayya. I conclude her story with, “To her, Islam is the only true religion and all others are in error. She feels called to invite people to Islam in order to save them from the fire of hell.” Surely you don’t think any reader would think I view her position as biblically defensible?
About mid-way, I make the following statement: “Not only are beliefs about Jesus today diverse among Muslims, but traditional beliefs concerning him do not necessarily lead to loyalty for his teaching and life. Conversely, it does not automatically follow that those who claim to be his disciples hold Biblical beliefs concerning his true identity.” I would have thought my reader would easily connect this statement with a critique of the position of my third friend, Amir. But I hope my Christian reader will also be challenged to think: “although I hold traditional beliefs concerning Jesus, does my life reflect loyalty for his teaching and life?”
Finally, my first friend represents the classic Muslim convert to Christianity who lives out of his/her hurt as a result of the persecution they have experienced. They need healing from bitterness in order to live out fully their freedom and joy in Christ. But my second friend, from my perspective, has been able to reach a place where she lives out of personal wholesomeness and healing and her life bears the fruit of it.
As you said, these are descriptive not prescriptive. Not all should be said in creative writing lest my reader feels I’m dumbing them down :). I believe our blog is engaging an intelligent readership.
PS: I hope my response to your third concern also addresses the points that your colleague, Carol Ghattas, raises in her blog response. Kindly pass this along to her as the comments section on your seminary website is closed.
What a tremendous conversation!
I appreciate reading the post and the comment. They are both very insightful. I love observing Dr. Accad’s congenial attitude and clear friendship with people from all different viewpoints. Combining that with his research on the Qur’an and primary commentators made for a thought provoking urge toward holistic love for the other.
It does feel, however, in the instances mentioned, that Dr. Ibrahim has driven straight to the points of contention with a single-mindedness on the Bible as authority. There is a tendency in the blog post toward creatively journeying forward in thrilling conversation where Scripture has already given contradicting clarity. I read Sacred Misinterpretation with many mixed emotions. I was constantly engaged by the depth of primary source references, but always a little confused by the pioneering desire that seemed to have outrun the apostolic clarity. Thank you, Dr. Ibrahim for bringing the Apostle Paul’s clear example of preaching the always-polarizing gospel to bear in this important matter. Thank you, Dr. Accad, for pushing the envelope and encouraging creative thinking and compassion.
Dear Russ, thank you for following this conversation, and thank you for reading my book!
I hope my response to Ayman will address some of your concerns as well.
Every blessing, Martin
Thank you Dr Accad for this very interesting article.I also enjoyed reading what Dr Ayman responded and your answer.
As a former Druze, I can relate to what you said. There is no need to attack another religion to reveal the truth about Jesus. Finding Jesus in their religious texts whether it be the Hikmah or Quraan and starting from there could prove more effective in bringing them to Christ than if we attack their beliefs. If we look for positive points, it does not mean we do not know the negative points but our goal should be clear and show them love without judgment . I believe everything we do must be done in love like Jesus did with us , and let them choose. If god respects our mind and gives us the chance to choose our life , so who are we not give others their space to choose their life what ever the choice may be.