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from issue no. 11 - 2003

Jesus and the Koranic ideal

Once again, Cardinal Angelini invited an Islamic Professor as one of the speakers at the annual International Congress on the Countenance of Jesus. His paper on “Jesus and the Koranic ideal”was listened to with great interest. Religious dialogue must begin by listening to the respective basic positions

by Hmida Ennaïfer

The Basilica of Santa Sophia constructed under Justinian (527-565), consecrated in 537, became a mosque after the Ottoman occupation in 1453, and is now a museum, Istanbul (Turkey)

The Basilica of Santa Sophia constructed under Justinian (527-565), consecrated in 537, became a mosque after the Ottoman occupation in 1453, and is now a museum, Istanbul (Turkey)

The difficulty
For a Muslim, reference to the figure of Jesus is reason for double difficulty. On the one hand, it has to do with presenting “another”, “different” vision of a subject which, for some, is the essence itself of their faith and, therefore, of their life. My intention is to explain the internal logic of the Koran especially for those listeners and readers who consider the life of Jesus and his destiny as the unique and universal representation of the prime truth. The difficulty lies in the fact of having to talk about this truth in a different manner. And this is the first aspect of the problem.
On the other hand, to speak about Jesus, for a Muslim who lives his faith in a critical fashion, involves a rereading of the Muslim interpretation of the Koranic verses dedicated to Christ. The Muslim patrimony is, in its present state, in my opinion, incapable of speaking of the other in a coherent fashion, so much so that it is, therefore, not in a state to initiate an Islamic-Christian dialogue which would cancel exclusiveness and isolation.
This is why to the question: “Who is Jesus for you?”, a double answer is required. On the one hand one must outline how Jesus is presented in the Koran, but He must also be situated at the center of the principal Islamic problematic which is that of the question of the other and of difference in monotheistic thought.
So Jesus, for a Muslim involved in inter-religious dialogue, is at the same time the other, the different, but he is also the non-eliminable other, because an integral part of its religious identity. Jesus is therefore the “other who is mine”.
But his image, in the Koran, cannot completely satisfy Christians because it does not correspond to theirs. It follows, therefore, that it is inconceivable in Islam to invoke the divine Unicity without evoking the figure of Jesus. But this same representation, in the classic Muslim version, was modified to such an extent by historical circumstances and political conflicts that it imposes the need to look at it again. It must however be considered inevitable that the figure of Jesus be reviewed in the light of Koranic discourse and historical and comparative approaches.
My intention is to locate ourselves in this double dimension with the purpose of emerging from this centuries old impasse in Islamic-Christian dialogue.
In reality this dialogue is a complex and delicate matter because it has to do with establishing communication between two religious identities which, even though sisters, have neither the same history nor the same dogmas nor the same ideal and which must therefore open up to one another.

The text and its context
I shall begin by briefly presenting the fundamenatal data about the presence of Jesus in the Koranic text. In the 6,236 verses which compose the Koranic text, Christ is mentioned 33 times both with his Arab name “Issa” and with his compound name “Jesus, son of Mary” as well as with his title of Messiah. Without doubt the Koranic text speaks of, and names, the elect who spread the message of divine revelation before the arrival of Mahommed. If their number is limited, only twenty five, it is nevertheless known that they were more numerous. Among those who are mentioned by name, some are mentioned only once and in passing, while others occupy an important position. So, for example, Abraham is named in 64 verses and Moses in 131. Remaining with the quantitative aspect it could be deduced that Jesus occupies a secondary place, but that would be a too hasty conclusion. If, in fact, one studies more attentively how much the Koran says about Jesus, one becomes aware that no other figure was endowed with miraculous power as extraordinary as was his. Not only that, the Koran also has recourse to a dozen attributes especially acknowledged to Jesus. He is in fact the prophet, the servant of God and the child cleansed of all impurity, but he is aso the sign, the example, the Word, the spirit come from God, the knowledge of Time, he who is sustained by the Holy Spirit, the straight path.
Starting from these first data it can be said that, for the Koran, Jesus is a notable figure in the pleiad of the elect, all invested with the same vocation: to combat idolatry by resposibilizing man, this unique creature and vicar of God.
The principal purpose of the conjoint efforts of these messages of divine grace is here. Dwelling on aspects of the life of some biblical characters, the Koran has no biographical pretension. And it is because of this that nothing is found in it about the life and doings of the elect, being more than limited in the extent with which it attends to the historical aspect of their life.
We find ourselves faced with an antecedent position taken in support of a thesis according to which humanity, even if different because of its historical evolution, shows its unity in its search for truth and in continuous divine support for this search.
A purely christological reading of the Koran evidences a certain number of points relating to Christian doctrine. There is on the one hand an unlimited respect for Mary, the mother of Jesus, who, free of all denigration, is presented as the purest of the figures of the faithful: «And there came the day in which the Angels said to Mary: “O Mary, God in truth has chosen you, He has purified you and among all the women of the universe He has elevated you to His glory”» (III, 42). With regard to Jesus, her Son, the verses intone these praises: «O Mary, God has made you a happy announcement, that of the Word of Him who will have as name Messiah, Jesus son of Mary. He will be illustrious in this world and in the next and will be among the elect» (III,45).
Other verses, however, do not hesitate to deny some dogmas, particularly those of the divinity of Jesus: «Force yourselves, in regard to God, to say only the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, is only the envoy of God, his Word deposited in the womb of Mary, a Spirit which emanates from the Lord! Believe in God and his prophets, but do not speak about Trinity» (IV,172).
Other verses assume, towards Christians, a tone of condemnation and warn the Muslim about them: «Believers! Do not make allies for yourselves among the Jews and the Christians. Are they not perhaps already allied among themselves against you? Whoever among you becomes their ally will be one of them!» (V,51)
Nevertheless this condemnation does not prevent the showing of respect for monasticism and priests: «It can be observed that the worst enemies of believers are Jews and pagans and that the nearest to love are the Christians because they number among themselves priests and monks and show themselves to be full of humility» (V,82). Elsewhere we read. «We have put sweetness and charity into the heart of his disciples (of Jesus)» (LVII,27).
How is one to harmonize these verses so as to get the sense of Koranic discourse about Jesus and his followers? Here it is important to remember that a large number of Muslim exegetes have referred specifically to the denigratory aspect of the christological verses in order to write tracts of anti-Christian polemic. Other theologians, on the contrary, have reflected particularly on the verses that celebrate the greatness of Jesus for his fight against vanity, false wisdom and attachment to earthly life.
It is indispensable to refer to a doctrinal point so as to be able to extract the elements of an objective christology from the Koranic corpus. In Islam, the Koranic corpus is the direct word of God (Allah) delivered in Arabic and revealed to Mahommed between 612 and 632 of the Christian era. Therefore the Koran, for every Muslim, is the Word, it is the truth par excellence.The subjects that it deals with have to do essentially with: the creation, the cosmos, nature, the afterlife and, finally, morality, worship and law. All in the line of a new conception of God and man.
At this first stage one can say that what is said about Jesus has doctrinal value, because it forms, along with what is said by the other stories of the prophets mentioned in the Koran, the basis of what can be called human unity in its identity. This unity which is an essential argument in favor of the unity of God does not in fact exclude the diversity of the particular circumstances of each message. And this explains why the Koran, speaking of Jesus, refers only to some episodes of his life to present an outline. In this way the Christ of the Gospels is, in some way, “arabized” and, in notable measure, reshaped. Thus, when the Koranic revelation leaves aside the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, the one who lived in the midst of sinners or, again, when it opposes his divinity and crucifixion, it does so only for the purpose of retreiving this unity of identity. It aims at avoiding that particular aspects of the specific ambient of Christianity should become a serious obstacle to the participation of a part of humanity (in actually the Arab part) in this communion in the wide sense.
This attitude may irritate Christians because it stands against their vision of the truth: but the Koran frequently challenges the pretension to possess the truth and, in this respect, warns Christians, Jews and Muslims: “[The truth] does not in fact depend upon your pure ideal [ on the word for Muslims] nor on that of the people of the book [Jews and Christians]. Whoever does evil must answer for it and, before God, will find neither ally nor protector” (IV, 123).
The Koranic journey, which consists in understanding the past through instances of the moment, is applied to all the biblical figures mentioned in the Koran. But this human unity of identity cannot exclude the diversity of these figures. Rejecting this Koranic dialectic between unity and diversity, one is condemned, according to the Islamic conception, to sustain that either the former revelation is the only “true” one or to say that the Jesus of the Koran and the one of the Gospels are two distinct people who have only the name in common.
Muslims reading the Koran in the  Mosque in Damascus

Muslims reading the Koran in the Mosque in Damascus

According to this perception, the divine inspiration is necessarily plural and the testimony of Jesus a confirmation of what some Muslim theologians call the living Unicity. And thus if Jesus is truly the Word and the Knowledge of Time, he is at the same time both permanence and contingence. The Spirit come from God can easily introduce itself into a well determined historical context on the condition of transcending it in such a way that the “Word” can achieve itself in an undetermined manner. This Koranic perception is taken up in different verses. I shall choose those in which the polymorphic conception is the most evident. «If the entire ocean were to become ink to transcribe the words of my Lord, all of its contents would finish without the words of God exhausting themselves because of this, even if another ocean equal to this were added to it». So the figure of Jesus opens within the heart of rigorous monotheism the passage of an innovatory historic process in which God is the mediator among men. It is in Him and through Him that man is recognized. The Koran does not cease to repeat– as is historically true – that the idea of God made the idea, so difficult to conceive for ancient humanity, of universal man (Insân) to emerge. Locating this at the heart of their teaching, monotheistic religions revealed man to man as entity. This brings us to another point of our thinking about the spirituality of Jesus in the Koran.

Word of God and human languages
If the set of Koranic verses relating to Jesus and His Mother condemn, from a dogmatic point of view, a Christianity well defined in time and space, this same set confirms, through the Messiah, Word and Spirit of God, the spirituality which the Koran wants to establish. In its desire to break with Arab paganism and with every form of anthropomorphic revival of the idea of God, the Koran, in referring to Jesus, initiates a spirituality in which man has no value except before an omnipresent God from whom he accepts everything. It is within these two pillars that the position of the Koran regarding Jesus needs to be. He is present when the reinforcing of the young Muslim community in the unicity of God is the issue. But the absolute transcendence of God (tanzîh) must be compatible with a spirituality that engages the believer in living the sense of eternity.
In the Koran Jesus is used to establish this dimension in which the sense of eternity approaches the needs of the moment. The Koranic discourse was forged precisely by drawing from the common fund of monotheistic religious knowledge and by taking inspiration from the great figures to follow its spirit and particular destiny. It is thus that the participation of Jesus in the birth of a Muslim consciousness is undeniable; but this is to be fulfilled in the sense of balance between transcendent Unicity and Proximity, between transcendence and the deepening of the divine breath which is in man.
At this point it should be remembered that, differently from Christianity which was inscribed within a monotheistic tradition, enriching and humanizing it, the Koran had to construct a new religious consciousness from both the dogmatic and from the spiritual point of view.
As for its ideal, hope, it forms the synthesis of the two bases of th religious consciousness: Unicity and Proximity. From this hope, which sets the believer before the mercy of God, is born the peace of the Muslim soul which trusts in the unalterable divine generosity.
It is precisely because of this that the Koran rejects the crucifixion of Jesus. This does not mean that the cross cannot give life to a spirituality and faith that are highly appreciable. But for that it is necessary to change the whole of beliefs, of history and especially of the ideal.
If the Islamic vision of Christianity contains its own doctrine of Christ, of his mission and of his eschatological role to bring to its conclusion the cycle present in human history, it is beyond doubt that the Koran integrates Jesus especially within the spirituality that it adopts and the ethic to which it intends to give life. It is also true that in the evolution of the Muslim mentality, put to hard trial by ancient and recent political conflicts, the figure of Jesus, as it was defined in the Koran, lost a certain number of its emblematic traits. Historical and especially medieval Islam, instead of explaining the Koranic vision, deformed it in some of its most important aspects. And this in regard not only to the teaching of Jesus, but sometimes even its own ideal and its own vision of the world.
As for Jesus, the most marked of the deteriorations of the original Muslim conception has to do both with its dynamic within its monotheism and its spirituality already mentioned and with its conception of man and of God. Between a global Koranic reading, based on a unitary vision of the history of humanity, and the historical works carried out by Muslim Arabs, precocious and destructive breaks can be seen. In any case, this does not prevent us from saying that the witness of Jesus is well anchored in the Muslim community and its future, compared to and notwithstanding every deviation. The presence of Jesus is a flame and a meaning: it is the unifying mercy of the powers of the individual, of the community and of humanity. Its fundamental datum is the responsibilizing of man and the enabling of him to be the vicar of God on earth. This vicariate cannot be achieved if not by faith and the conscience proper to each epoch and each country. On this basis the testimony of Jesus for believers (Muslims) is recent and unfailing. It considers them the permanent authors of civilization thanks to the conversion of divine adoration into a live force open to the reality which it reforms, constructs and develops indefinitely.
To conclude, one may say that if the figure of Jesus in the Koran makes a claim on us at a dogmatic, spiritual and ethical level, it does not prevent his contribution from being considered today from the standpoint of inter-religious relations. In fact it poses the question of the other in modern religious systems: to what extent does the word of God come to man through human languages conditioned by time? For Muslims and Christians the consequences of a change at this level are considerable for the future of humanity. For my part, I like to quote a passage from a modern Muslim thinker, Kamal Hussain, who, in my judgement, knew how to pose the problem of the other and at the same time the problem of Jesus in Islam. To those who, in the contemporary world, are in search of God and believe that man, inspired by God and decidedly open, is a certain guarantee for the survival of the human species, he writes: “If you do not perceive yourself, in the deeepest part of yourself, as called to good by your love of God and by your love for the men whom God loves; if you think that to avoid men is a crime against God [shirk] in his unicity, because God who loves them loves you also; if you think that you will lose your love of God if you do harm to your friends who are all men, then you are with Jesus, whatever religion you profess. If you are among those who are impelled to good by the hope they have in God, by the desire of a more abundant reward and of joys that do not pass, if you aspire to be next to God nearby who assures you eternal happiness, then you are with Islam, whatever religion you profess”.
This conception leads to an obvious conclusion: it postulates, on the one hand, an approach to revelation starting out from the multiplicity of meanings and the levels of analysis. On the other hand it makes imperatively clear that only dialogue can save contemporary man. This leads me to say that the differences between Christianity and Islam must not be minimized, but that it is also essential to remember that what unites them is greater than what divides them. Inter-religious dialogue remains the best way of overcoming the conflict of believers between the conviction of the truth of their religion and the recognition of other truths professed by other believers no less sincere than they.
This change can come about when the believer adheres to the mission founded on divine Revelation considering it above all a dynamic of change and a generation of the species in the service of both God and man together.

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