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Jesus, Muslims and the Quran: Building Fruitful Dialogue

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My friend Peter believes that the Quranic 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 Islamic 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 Islamic 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 Quran.

It was primarily as a result of her meditation on the Quranic 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 Quran 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 Quran 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 co-religionists 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 QurÄnic 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 Quran 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 also 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 QurÄnic 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 Quran 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 Quran? 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 that he claimed to continue and complete?

My studies into the extensive references to Jesus in the Quran 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 QurÄnic narrative about Jesus only incidentally ends up emerging “at the expense” of the Christian narrative.

I believe that in its primary purpose, the Jesus meta-narrative in the Quran 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 Quran 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 keep 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 Quran, 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.

Martin Accad is director of the Institute of Middle East Studies (IMES) at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut. A version of this column first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @marzaatar and IMES @IMESLebanon.