“A welcome expansion of the fragile territory known as common ground.” The New York Times
When Reza Aslan’s bestseller Zealot came out in 2013, there was criticism that he hadn’t addressed his Muslim faith while writing the origin story of Christianity. In fact, Ross Douthat of The New York Times wrote that “if Aslan had actually written in defense of the Islamic view of Jesus, that would have been something provocative and new.”
Mustafa Akyol’s The Islamic Jesus is that book.
The Islamic Jesus reveals startling new truths about Islam in the context of the first Muslims and the early origins of Christianity. Muslims and the first Christiansthe Jewish followers of Jesussaw Jesus as not divine but rather as a prophet and human Messiah and that salvation comes from faith and good works, not merely as faith, as Christians would later emphasize. What Akyol seeks to reveal are how these core beliefs of Jewish Christianity, which got lost in history as a heresy, emerged in a new religion born in 7th Arabia: Islam.
Akyol exposes this extraordinary historical connection between Judaism, Jewish Christianity and Islama major mystery unexplored by academia. From Jesus’ Jewish followers to the Nazarenes and Ebionites to the Qu’ran’s stories of Mary and Jesus, The Islamic Jesus will reveal links between religions that seem so contrary today. It will also call on Muslims to discover their own Jesus, at a time when they are troubled by their own Pharisees and Zealots.
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The Islamic Jesus
How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims
By Mustafa Akyol
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2017 Mustafa Akyol
All rights reserved.
THE KING OF THE JEWS
The first Christian preachers did not draw the conclusion that [Jesus] was himself God, but that he was a man chosen by God for a special role.
— John Hick, prominent theologian
On April 3, AD 33 — or perhaps three years before that — a quite dramatic event took place in the holy city of Jerusalem. The colossal Roman Empire, which then dominated large parts of what we call Europe and the Middle East today, executed an unusual Jewish preacher from Galilee, a region to the north of Jerusalem. This thirty-something-year-old man's name was Yeshua, which was thought to mean "savior" in his own Aramaic language (the Hebrew form is Yeshua or Yehoshua). He must have been a troublemaker, at least in the eyes of the authorities, for he was arrested, tried, and then given the cruel punishment that the Romans decreed for the enemies of the state: crucifixion.
The cruelty in fact began with Roman soldiers flogging Yeshua and then making him carry his own cross uphill. Then the victim was nailed by his hands and feet and left to die in agonizing pain. Once all these technicalities were over, the soldiers also put an inscription over his head:
"Yeshua of Nazareth, the King of the Jews."
Some prominent Jews who happened to be witnessing the execution objected to this title. To the Roman governor who decided upon the inscription, they said: "Do not write, 'The King of the Jews,' but, 'This man said, "I am King of the Jews."'" The governor, with little interest in that nuance, replied: "What I have written I have written."
This is, at the very least, what the collection of writings commonly known as the New Testament tells us about Yeshua — or Jesus, as his name is translated into English and as we will keep calling him. They also tell us that Jesus was not an ordinary human being, but the divine "Son of God," who existed before time and who came down to earth to "become flesh" and dwell among men. His crucifixion, we are also told, was an event with a cosmic theological meaning: Jesus died for our sins, as God offered salvation to all humankind through his sacrifice. We human beings can be saved forever only by following Jesus, for he is "the way, and the truth, and the life."
Today, about 2.2 billion people on earth believe in more or less what I summarized in the paragraph above. They are called Christians. I am not one of them, but I see many things about their faith that deserve respect. Even when one does not share the theology of Christianity, one can appreciate its moral teachings on modesty, compassion, and forgiveness. Moreover, quite a few Christians put these values into practice by an abundance of acts and institutions of charity, from soup kitchens to medical missions. For sure, Christianity has had its dark episodes throughout history as well, especially when it allied with self-righteousness and brute power. But that is true for almost all religions, as we see in the dark episodes of my religion, Islam, today.
This book is not meant to be a critique of, let alone an attack on, Christianity. It is just an effort to highlight a view of Jesus that is somewhat different from the one that lies at the heart of Christians' faith — and that can have its own claim to be "historical."
By the latter term, I refer to the historical Jesus, a concept developed by Western scholars who have been engaged in the "higher criticism" of the Bible since the nineteenth century. Their idea has been to read the Old and New Testaments independent of church dogma and in the light of textual, linguistic, historical, and archeological data. Thanks to them, we now have a much more detailed knowledge about the life and times of Jesus, his early followers, and the evolution of Christianity.
This does not mean that scholars of the "historical Jesus" have been able to map out the real Jesus with pure factuality and without any subjectivity of their own. Such an objective grasp of historical truth is probably impossible — at least for us, mortal humans. No wonder the seekers of "historical Jesus" have diverged from each other, based less on different findings than on different perspectives.
So, admittedly, this chapter will present you a reading of the historical Jesus from my perspective — a Muslim one. Yet the same perspective also necessitates a self-limitation that traditional Islamic scholars turned into an intellectual custom that I happily follow: share your view, but admit, "God knows the best."
The beginning of wisdom about the historical Jesus, as with any other historical figure, is to understand the world to which he was born. It was, in a nutshell, a troubled world, defined by a very unequal dichotomy: the mighty Roman Empire versus the tiny Jewish people.
Rome's occupation of the Land of Israel — Jerusalem and its surroundings, broadly called Judaea by the Romans — had begun some six decades before the birth of Jesus, in 63 BC. In that year, Roman armies first crushed the Kingdom of Pontus, which was then a significant power based in central Anatolia, and took control of Syria as well. For the glorious Roman commander, Pompey, it did not take much time to move from Syria farther south, to conquer the Jews — these strange people who believed in only one God. After three months of siege, the superior Roman army took Jerusalem, with very few casualties of their own, but some twelve thousand losses on the Jewish side.
The victorious Pompey wasted no time in visiting the magnificent Temple that lay at the heart of the city, including the most sacred interior part of the Temple, the Holy of Holies. This was the chamber in which the Ark of the Covenant, which preserved the Ten Commandments given by God to Moses, was once kept, before it was lost during earlier invasions. It was so sacred that only the Jewish high priest could enter once a year, on the day of Yom Kippur, humbly barefoot and only after intense ritual purification. Yet the pagan Pompey, enacting one of the famous crosscultural encounters in world history, walked into the Holy of Holies heedlessly, only to experience one of his life's major astonishments: there was no god there! For the pagan Pompey, the idea of a god was synonymous with the image of an idol. But the God of the Jews, quite perplexingly, was totally invisible.
To his credit, Pompey actually meant no disrespect to Jews with his visit to the Temple. He, in fact, was careful not to touch the treasures in it, including the golden table, the holy candlestick, and various spices. The first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, our key source for this era, noted this appreciatively in his chronicles, Antiquities of the Jews. "Pompey touch[ed] nothing of all this, on account of his regard to religion," he recorded, "in a manner that was worthy of his virtue."
Yet for other Jews, Pompey had still defiled the Temple, putting his filthy sandals on sacred ground. In fact, the very subjugation of God's chosen people by a pagan empire was enough of an affront. There was already the memory of a worse pagan onslaught, when Judaea was invaded a century earlier by the Seleucid Empire, which "abolished" the Jewish religion and blasphemously put up an image of Zeus in the Temple. Now the even more powerful Romans had come, to rule and tax the Jews, and also to bring with them their hedonist, seductive, sinful culture.
The Romans soon went for the easy way of imperial rule: setting up a client king — or, more precisely, a collaborating tyrant — known in history as Herod the Great. The man was "great" for his colossal building projects, including the reconstruction of the Temple, but he was also a brutal despot. He had several members of his own family and many rabbis executed, while overtaxing his own people. For many Jews, he was a decadent sellout to the despicable Romans. (The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Herod the Great also ordered the massacre of the innocents, intending to kill the baby Jesus in order to prevent any political challenge he might pose; yet there is no other historical record of this awful incident.)
Many other peoples in Europe and around the Mediterranean had succumbed to Roman rule before. But the Jews were different. Their uncompromising monotheism was not much satisfied by the relative religious freedom the Romans offered, which basically assumed that all "gods," including the emperor himself, were equally worthy of worship. Moreover, the very belief of Jews that they were the chosen people of the one true God made it hard for them to accept being ruled by the heathen. That is why most Jews detested Roman rule and why some tried to overthrow it with a series of revolts — the last of which ended disastrously in AD 135, when Rome turned Jerusalem into a pagan city named Aelia Capitolina and banned the Jews from living there, initiating a centuries-long era of exile.
However, throughout the centuries the Jews spent under Roman rule, their response to that rule was not uniform. As in most other similar colonial episodes in world history, some among the subjugated people decided to accept the political reality and work with it. Others despised foreign rule, but withdrew to a more spiritual realm. And still others decided to resist the occupation, with methods that modern governments would probably call insurgency or even terrorism.
We know about this Jewish diversity under Roman rule again thanks to the writings of the historian Josephus. In his chronicles, he listed three main parties. The first comprised the aristocratic, worldly Sadducees who presided at the Temple rituals and collaborated with the Romans to preserve their wealth and power. The second party was the Torah-focused Pharisees, who disliked Roman rule and focused on legalism, or the meticulous effort to live according to the smallest points of the Jewish law. The third party was the mystical Essenes, who withdrew from the world to live an ascetic life of piety and poverty in isolated communities — one of which probably left us the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, accidentally found in the Qumran caves in the Judaean Desert in 1947.
A fourth Jewish party was born after the year AD 6, when Romans abolished the divided remnants of Herod's client kingdom and established direct Roman rule in Judaea. Among the Pharisees, a more nationalist and fervent faction openly condemned this foreign rule, declaring, "God is to be [our] only Ruler and Lord." Called Zealots, they emerged as the most radical faction among first-century Jews. They even had a terrorist offshoot called Sicarii, or "dagger men," who carried out assassinations of both Roman officials and the "apostate" Jews who dared to collaborate with them.
Such differences among Jews were probably even more complex than what we have learned from Josephus and the New Testament. Some scholars now believe, for example, that neither the Sadducees nor the Pharisees had a uniform stance vis-à-vis Rome: there were rather collaborationist Sadducees versus opposition Sadducees, as well as collaborationist Pharisees versus opposition Pharisees. Similarly, the Pharisees who opposed Jesus and his message were probably not the totality of this party, as one could assume while reading the canonical gospels. No wonder even the Book of Acts speaks of "the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees."
Among the Jews who resented Roman rule, there was not only discontent but also hope. God's chosen people had been persecuted before, but the Lord did not leave them alone. He sent Moses to liberate them from Pharaoh's cruel reign, as He raised David to establish a Jewish kingdom in the face of hostile pagans. Now, many Jews believed, God would save them again by sending a savior from the bloodline of David — someone called the Messiah.
The term literally meant "the anointed one," for it was custom in ancient Israel to bless kings or the high priests of the Temple by anointing their heads with holy oil. The Jewish scripture did not explicitly promise the Messiah, but it included some implicit references to him, and the idea had become quite established among first-century Jews. According to this belief, at the Jews' darkest hour, the Messiah, a son of David, would appear, to unite Jews and save them from foreign bondage, give them a glorious kingdom, and initiate a global era of peace and justice.
No wonder several messiah-wannabes appeared during the Roman rule over Judaea. One was Judas of Galilee, the very founder of the party of Zealots, who led an armed rebellion against the Romans in the year AD 6. He had proclaimed "a republic recognizing God alone as king and ruler," or a perfect theocracy, as our modern political science would call it. But the Romans easily crushed the revolt and Judas perished. Two of his sons, Jacob and Simon, were crucified by the Roman authorities some four decades later for their ongoing sedition. Judas's grandson, Menahem, continued the resistance as a leader of the Sicarii, and even ostentatiously marched on Jerusalem as the Messiah in AD 66 — only to be killed by another Zealot leader in an intraparty struggle. Simon of Perea, another rebel leader who plundered Herod's palace in Jericho, was captured by Romans and beheaded in 4 BC. His contemporary Athronges, who was a shepherd just like King David, also led an attack against Roman and Herodian armies, only to be devastated. The First Jewish-Roman War of AD 66–73 also had its messianic pretender, named Simon bar Giora, or Simon, son of Giora, who was defeated, taken to the city of Rome, and executed by being thrown from a rock near the Temple of Jupiter. Finally, the most famous Jewish rebel of all, Simon bar Kokhba, who launched the final Jewish rebellion against Rome in AD 132 and established an independent state that lasted three years, was also hailed as the Messiah.
Jesus of Nazareth was born into such an agitated world. He, too, was hailed by his followers as the Messiah — and later as Christós, the Greek word for the same term. Moreover, Jesus ended up being crucified, which was a punishment the Romans deemed fit for rebels. These two simple facts have led some scholars of the historical Jesus to suggest that he was nothing more than yet another failed militant rebel against Roman rule. Jesus of Nazareth, in this view, was just another Judas of Galilee or Simon bar Kokhba, who aspired to become "the king of the Jews" through an armed campaign against the oppressors of the Jews.
This view, however, is not persuasive to me nor is it what the Islamic tradition suggests about Jesus. For one thing, imagining Jesus as just a militant Jewish rebel — say, a Zealot — leaves us with a major question: Why did all other messiah-wannabes of first-century Judaism fade in history, while Jesus' followers persisted as a religious community and ultimately formed the world's largest religion? Why do billions of believers in churches across the world today pray not in the name of Judas of Galilee or Simon bar Kokhba, but in the name of Jesus of Nazareth?
The New Testament, which is the basic source that gives us a detailed narrative of who Jesus was, suggests an answer to this key question. Even if Jesus' mission did include a political stance against Rome, and even if such a stance was played down by writers of the gospels in order to present their creed to Roman authorities as docile and harmless, as some argued, that political stance could not be the only definitive aspect of this peculiar Nazarene. All four gospels in the New Testament — and the "sayings" gospel that preceded them, which we will examine later — indicate that Jesus was intensely interested in something that is not directly political: reviving and reforming the faith of his people. The same sources also tell us that he was a wonder-worker, who healed the sick, raised the dead, and turned water into wine. Although our modern minds may be prone to reinterpret such miracles in less literal, and more naturalistic, terms, they still indicate that Jesus' contemporaries saw him as something more than an armed insurgent. All that powerful teaching and extraordinary work must be why Jesus "made a lasting impact on his disciples," and the impact "resonated down through history."
In other words, even if Jesus' mission included a political aspect as well, it was also intensely religious — even miraculous. Notably, a notion of such a spiritual Messiah, who would conquer Israel's enemies through "the word of his mouth," already existed among Jews, as we see in the Psalms of Solomon, a nonbiblical Jewish text dating from the first century BC. Here, the "Lord Messiah" was defined as "the son of David," who would save Jews from the Gentile yoke without a military conquest, for he would be "powerful in the holy spirit" and strengthened by "wisdom and understanding." This Messiah would especially revive the piety of Jews themselves, because the Roman occupation was nothing but a punishment for the unrighteousness of the rulers and people of Israel. He would "faithfully and righteously shepherd the Lord's flock," and would make sure that "there will be no arrogance among them."
Excerpted from The Islamic Jesus by Mustafa Akyol. Copyright © 2017 Mustafa Akyol. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Reza Aslan
Introduction: Meeting James
Chapter One: The King of the Jews
Chapter Two: The Jewish Christian ‘heresy’
Chapter Three: A Rebirth in Arabia
Chapter Four: The Missing Link
Chapter Five: Mary and Her Baby
Chapter Six: The Qur’anic Jesus
Chapter Seven: Islamic Christology
Chapter Eight: A Second Coming?
Chapter Nine: What Jesus can teach Muslims today