Tag Archives: Christians and Muslims

Submission, Faith, and Beauty – 1.5

Jesus عليه السلام and Christianity
The Qur’an and hadith bear no opposition to Christianity. They do, however, take issue with particular Christian creeds, claiming that the fundamental teachings of Jesus عليه السلام have been altered over time. Nonetheless, the foundational miracle of Christianity -the Virgin Birth- is as celebrated in the Qur’an as it is in the Gospels. The nineteenth chapter of the Qur’an, named after the Virgin Mary, gives a detailed account of this seminal event:

And mention in the Book [the story of] Mary,
when she withdrew from her people to an eastern place,
secluding herself from them.
Then We sent to her Our spirit 
[Gabriel]
who appeared to her as a man.
She said, “Truly I seek refuge in the All-Merciful from you,
if you be God-fearing.”
He said, “I am but a messenger from your Lord,
to give you a sinless son.”
She said, “How shall there be a son to me
when no men has touched me, nor have I been unchaste?”
He said, “Thus says your Lord, ‘That is easy for Me,
and We will make him a sign for the people and a mercy from Us.
It is a thing decreed.'”
 (19 : 16 – 21)

Because he was born from the spirit breathed into the virgin womb, Jesus عليه السلام is referred to in the Qur’an as the “Word of God”. While in Christianity this is believed to make him divine, in Islam this is considered to make him free of sin. He is thus another of God’s many messengers, but one whose entire life was a miracle. Whereas most other prophets began to receive revelations at the age of forty, Jesus عليه السلام spoke as soon as he was born, saying,

Truly I am a servant of God,
He gave me the book and made me a prophet.
He has made me blessed wherever I may be,
and has prescribed prayer and alms so long as I live.
(19 : 29)

For Muslims, Jesus عليه السلام is thus like Adam عليه السلام:

The likeness of Jesus before God is as that of Adam.
He created him from dust and then said to him “Be,”
so he was.
(3 : 58)

The incomparable event of the divine word manifesting itself in the life of Jesus عليه السلام is beyond the pale of rational understanding. It is no surprise that it sparks great debate both within Christianity and between Christians and Muslims. There is in fact no single position in Islam regarding the prophecy of Jesus عليه السلام that was not at some point or another held by particular Christian communities. The discussion of Jesus عليه السلام in the Qur’an can therefore be viewed as divine proclamations regarding an ongoing religious debate. Foremost among the disputes between Christians and Muslims are the divinity and crucifixion of Jesus عليه السلام, both of which Islam rejects.

The Christian trinity is a matter of debate as well, but here the Qur’an states that those who claim that God is one of three have disbelieved; however, traditional Trinitarian theology does not make God one of three but rather speaks of the triune God, who is both one and three in a manner that transcends human understanding. There are, nonetheless, Christian theologians, such as Meister Eckhardt, who have spoken of the Godhead beyond the trinity. By reflecting upon their understanding of the divine names and qualities, Muslims can attain a greater appreciation of the theological possibilities inherent within the trinity, while avoiding types of superficial, simplistic thinking that they would never accept as a basis for judging the veracity of Islamic doctrines.

While almost all of the theological differences between Muslims and Christians can be understood through theological or metaphysical explanations, the issue that most separates Christianity and Islam is the understanding of the death and resurrection of Jesus عليه السلام. For Christians, Jesus عليه السلام took on the sins of all humankind and was crucified for their salvation. Then he arose on the third day and was assumed into the havens, where he is now seated at the right hand of the Father. For most CHristians, denying this is akin to rejecting God’s sacrifice of His only son for all mankind and thus to rejecting salvation itself. But the Qur’an states,

They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him,
but it was made to appear so unto them.
Those who differ regarding it are in doubt about it.
They have no knowledge regarding it,
save following conjecture.
They certainly did not kill him
. (4 : 157)

Most Muslims now view this verse as a straightforward denial of the crucifixion. But the phrase “but it was made to appear to them” has produced centuries of debate among Qur’anic commentators. One famous commentator, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, even allows that the body may have been killed while the spirit was spared. There are in fact many positions within the Islamic exegetical tradition that could help Muslims and Christians reach a more common ground. Moreover, Nestorian and Melkite Christians have claimed that the outer nature of Jesus عليه السلام was killed but his inner nature was not. This is an aspect about which both Muslims and Christians must fully examine the possibilities of their own traditions before condemning one another because of a narrow understanding of doctrine and orthodoxy. Just as light can be seen as either particles or waves, but not both at the same time, so too can a historical event have two very different interpretations in different religious universes.

The Return
When asked, “Who is the most intelligent and noble of men O Messenger of God?” The Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم replied, “The most diligent in recalling death and the one who is best prepared for it.”[1] In another hadith he said, “The intelligent man is he who judges himself and acts for what follows death.”[2] Remembrance of death is considered a mark of intelligence because it implies that one is aware of his or her true human nature, the spirit that existed before this world and will continue in the world to come. From a religious perspective, to not be prepared for death is like failing to prepare for retirement or failing to prepare one’s children for the responsibilities of adulthood. However, the potential consequences of neglecting one’s spiritual responsibilities are far greater than any of those regarding the neglect of worldly responsibilities.

Because the end of our earthly existence is inevitable, the Qur’an continually reminds us that, Every soul tastes death (3 : 185, 21 : 35, 29 : 57) and that all humans will meet God:

O human being!
You are laboring laboriously unto your Lord,
and shall encounter Him.
(84 : 6)

It also reminds us that we will be judged based upon our behavior in this world:

Surely the death from which you flee will overtake you.
Then you will be taken back to the Knower of the Unseen and
the Visible, and He will tell you what you have been doing.
(62 : 8)

But death is not so much an end as it is a rebirth, a return to our original abode:

As He originated you, so will you return. (7 : 29)

Indeed, all that exists returns to God:

To God belongs everything in the heavens and the earth,
and all things are taken back to Him. (3 : 109)

The life of this world is thus viewed as a test that will determine the nature of our return and of our existence in the world to come:

He originates creation, then He makes it return,
so that He may justly compensate those who have faith
and do wholesome deeds. (10 : 4)

The aspect of death and return is alluded to in the Hadith of Gabriel عليه السلام through the mention of the Last Day. But it entails much more, for to believe in the Last Day is to accept that our earthly existence is but one stage of our immortal existence. The Last Day marks a passage from one stage of existence to another. These stages total five: pre-earthly, earthly, the grave, Resurrection and Judgment, and the final abode. They are all alluded to in the Qur’an:

How can you disbelieve in God
when you were dead and He gave you life?
Then He prescribes Death, then He gives you life.
Then you return to Him. (2 : 28)

The beginning and end of each of these stages is marked by a momentous passage. The end of our current stage appears as a death, but it will appear as a birth as we enter the next stage.

The Qur’anic discussion of our pre-earthly existence is brief and allusive, for it is not as important that we know where we have been as it is that we prepare for where we are going. One verse refers to a pre-temporal covenant (‘ahd) that all human beings are said to have made with God:

And when your Lord took from the children of Adam,
from their loins, their seed,
and made them testify against themselves,
“Am I not your Lord?”
They said, “Indeed, we testify.”
Lest you should say on the Day of Resurrection,
“Of this we were unaware.” (7 : 172)

This is referred to by some as the Day of the Covenant. To abide by this covenant in this world is to bear witness that there is no deity but God and that God is our Lord. All prophets have been sent to renew this covenant so no one will be able to say, “Of this we were unaware.” The nature of our passage from the life on earth to the next will be determined by the degree to which we have observed the covenant. As God says,

Be true to My covenant,
I will be true to your covenant. (2 : 40)

Those engrossed in worldly life often have an aversion to death because of their intuition of what is to transpire, while those who are aware of the larger scope of human existence accept, prepare for, and even look forward to death. In distinguishing between these dispositions, the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم‎ said, “The world is the prison of the believer and the paradise of the unbeliever.”[3]

Imam ‘Ali bin Abi Talib رضي الله عنه has said, “People are sleeping and then they awake.”[4] Upon death the first thing the human being becomes aware of its his or her good and bad deeds. No longer veiled by worldly distractions and conceits, one comes to know how he or she truly lived. Thus God says,

Sufficient for you today is your own soul as a reckoner. (27 : 15)

In knowing the nature of our deeds, we will know what reward or punishment is merited. After death and before burial, the soul remains attached to the body and aware of all that transpires around it. In anticipation of the rewards to come, one who has been relieved by the good witnessed upon death will hasten those who carry the funeral bier. All who are buried are said to experience the constriction of the grave (qabd al-qabr), after which two angels, Munkar عليه السلام and Nakir عليه السلام, will ask, “Who is your Lord? What is your way?” and “Who is your prophet?” Based upon the answers and what has been recorded of one’s deeds, the grave will become either “a meadow of the meadows of paradise, or a pit of the pits of the fire.”[5]

This period in the grave is the third stage of human existence. People will dwell there until the fourth stage, the Resurrection that occurs on the Last Day. Until that time they remain aware of some events in this world, even saying prayers for relations who have yet to die and awaiting loved ones as they too pass to the grave. Here some dwell in a quasi-paradisial state where they delight in expectation of the greater joy they will experience after the Last Day. The less fortunate suffer in a quasi-infernal state, imprisoned in their own conceits until the Day of Resurrection when they experience the fury of hell. The experience of the grave is thus referred to as the lesser resurrection while that of the Last Day is referred to as the greater resurrection. The latter is the point at which the whole of the earth ceases to exist:

On a day in which the earth shall be changed
to other than the earth, and the heavens,
and they come forth to God, the One, the Severe. (14 : 48)

In the Qur’an this event is often referred to as the Hour:

The hour is coming no doubt
and God shall raise up whosoever is in the graves. (22 : 17)

At this point, all of humanity will be gathered together as they were on the Day of the Covenant. Then all will cross a bridge (sirat) said to be as fine as a hair and as sharp as a sword:

The first to cross to safety, swifter than lightning, shall be seventy-thousand believers whose faces are as radiant as the full moon. Their privilege will be to enter paradise without having to submit to the Judgment. They shall be followed by others whose faces are as bright as the brightest stars in the night sky; they will cross as swiftly as the wind. Then others will arrive who shall cross as rapidly as birds fly, others as purebred horses, and others still slower, until those who shall crawl across, some of them slipping into the furnace. Those who reach the other side safely will then implore God, asking for mercy for their brothers who have fallen into the fire.[6]

All who remain are then judged -the good will be separated from the evil, the latter being sent to hell, the former to paradise. These two abodes are contrasted in the Qur’an:

This is the similitude of paradise
which the God-wary have been promised:
Therein are rivers of water incorruptible
rivers of milk unchanging in flavor
and rivers of wine -a delight to the drinkers
and rivers too of purified honey …
Are they as those who dwell forever in the fire,
such as are given to drink boiling water
that tears apart the bowels? (47 : 15)

Nonetheless, several hadith tell of God’s continuing mercy, for as God says, Truly My mercy encompasses all things (7 : 156).

In the most famous of these, the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم relates that God allows all of the prophets and pious believers to intercede on behalf of others. Then God tells the angels to save anyone with even “half an ant’s weight of good in his heart.” Then God will say, “The angels have interceded, the prophets have interceded, the believers have interceded. None remains save the Most Merciful of the Merciful.” Then God will take a handful from the fire, purify them of their sins and deliver them into paradise, declaring, “Henceforth, I will never be wrathful against you again.”[7]


NOTES

[1] Ibid. p. 620, no. 4259
[2] Imam Abu ‘Isa Muhammad b. ‘Isa al-Tirmidhi, Jami’ al-Tirmidhi (Riyadh: Dar al-Salam, 1999 CE / 1420 AH), p. 560, no. 2459
[3] Muslim, p. 1238, no. 2956
[4] See al-‘Ajluni, 2 : 312 for a discussion of this tradition.
[5] al-Tirmidhi, p. 560, no. 2460
[6] Most of this hadith is narrated by Imam al-Tabari commenting on the verse There is no one amongst them except he will atain to it… (Qur’an 19 : 71). See Imam Abu Jarir al-Tabari, Jam’i al-bayan fi ta’wil al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1977 CE / 1418 AH), 8 – 365 – 366, no. 23,846
[7] Imam Abu ‘Abd Allah Ahmad b. Hanbal, Musnad Imam Ahmad (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1999 CE / 1420 AH), 18 : 394 – 396, no. 11,898

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