Many Christians and other non-Muslims who want to understand the Christ of Islam turn to the Qur’an, yet the Qur’an won’t tell them much about Jesus. It mentions his miraculous birth. It refers to miracles such as raising the dead and bringing a clay bird to life. It speaks of his disciples, although it does not give them names.
Otherwise the Qur’an has precious little to say about Jesus’ life. There is nothing in the Qur’an, for example, of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, his confrontations with the scribes and Pharisees, his entry into Jerusalem, or the Last Supper.
As for his death, the Qur’an relates laconically that the Jews “did not crucify or kill Jesus” and in a following verse that “God raised him up to Himself.” Whether Jesus was killed by someone else and then rose again, or whether he escaped death entirely, is left for the reader to ponder. The Jesus of the Qur’an, in other words, is a figure shrouded in mystery.
Muslim scholars, however, have not left him that way. Instead they record a great variety of stories about Jesus, some of which describe episodes the Qur’an never mentions and others of which offer definitive explanations for things the Qur’an leaves ambiguous.
This history of storytelling, more than the Qur’an itself, shapes the common Islamic understanding of Jesus today, by which Jesus is a prophet who emphasized the spiritual life above all, who valued austerity, and who taught his disciples always to think about the fate of their souls on the Day of Judgment. Any serious appreciation of the Christ of Islam—and in particular of how Muslims think about Jesus today—must involve this history of storytelling. The Christ of Islam, in other words, is not simply the Christ of the Qur’an.
This is evident, for example, in The Messiah, a 2007 Iranian film directed by Nader Talebzadeh. Also titled Jesus, The Spirit of God, The Messiah was a considerable success in Iran and was later dubbed into Arabic and shown widely in the Middle East. It opens with a lone figure—Jesus—walking in a desolate landscape through the fog as an eerie soundtrack of acoustic guitar and female chanting plays in the background. Jesus is found next in front of his twelve disciples, looking a bit like Gandalf the White with long wavy hair and a white robe as he gazes off into the distance.
He preaches to them in a way that calls to mind the Beatitudes, yet which also reflects a special concern with self-denial: “Happy are the poor who truly turn their face away from worldly enjoyments, for they shall soon be blessed with enjoyments from the kingdom of God.” And: “Will the true wayfarer carry with him the heavy burden of what is afar? No; he carries with him what is light and useful. Take this as an example for your life.”
In The Messiah, the disciples of Jesus call their master “Spirit of God,” a title based on a verse in the Qur’an that calls Jesus “a messenger of God, a word which He cast into Mary, and a spirit from Him.” Jesus is so spiritual that he is only just barely on earth. He has no concern for the burdens of this world, and teaches those around him to think only about the next world. Self-denial aside, he seems to be something of a Muslim hippie.
The end of the film, or rather the two ends of the film, complete this portrait. The Messiah first presents a version of the crucifixion of Christ as recounted in the Christian gospels. It then presents an alternative ending offered by (post-Qur’anic) Islamic tradition, in which someone else—in the film, Judas—is transformed into the likeness of Jesus and killed in his place. Thus Judas is tortured, crucified, and killed, while Jesus ascends, like a spirit, into heaven.
For its part the Qur’an does not make Jesus a wandering guru. It never suggests that Jesus had a particular interest in asceticism, or that he taught his followers to meditate on the day of judgment. Nor does the Qur’an have Judas crucified; indeed, it does not mention Judas at all.
The Jesus in Talebzadeh’s film is recognizable instead from medieval Islamic traditions. Medieval Muslim scholars of all sorts, but especially those with mystical (or “Sufi”) tendencies, present Jesus as a spiritually enlightened master who taught renunciation of the world and its pleasures. They seem to have developed this idea about Jesus, on the one hand, because of the Qur’anic statement that he was “a spirit from God” and, on the other hand, because of the doctrine (accepted by Muslims though not explicit in the Qur’an) that Jesus was celibate.
Islamic tradition holds that the Prophet Muhammad prohibited Muslims from consecrating themselves to a life of celibacy. He is said to have declared on one occasion, “The monasticism of Islam is jihad!” However, most Muslim scholars accept the possibility that earlier prophets might have allowed, and practiced, the celibate life. The tradition that Jesus did just that seems to have inspired a certain fascination with Jesus among Muslims concerned with spirituality.
First among these are Sufis, Muslims dedicated to a spiritual practice that leads to mystical union with God. In order to advance, they live lives of prayer, self-deprivation, and obedience to their spiritual masters.
Medieval Islamic traditions make Jesus just such a master. One such tradition has him declare, “Blessed is he who guards his tongue, whose house is sufficient for his needs, and who weeps for his sins.” Another (with echoes of Matthew 7) has Jesus ask his disciples, “Which of you can build a house upon the waves of the sea? . . . Beware the world and do not make it your abode.”
A third medieval tradition suggests that Jesus indeed was wary of the world: “The day that Jesus was raised to heaven, he left behind nothing but a woolen garment, a slingshot, and two sandals.” Still other traditions relate how Jesus would forgive sinners of all kinds. The thirteenth-century Sufi writer Ibn al-Arabi notes how Jesus taught people to turn the other cheek and adds, “This aspect [of his teaching] derives from his mother, since woman is lowly and humble, being under the man, both theoretically and physically.” None of this—neither the spirituality of Jesus, nor his asceticism, nor the maxim of turning the other cheek—is found in the Qur’an.
Yet neither do these traditions reflect the Bible, even if they include biblical, or biblically flavored, material. In these traditions Jesus plays no particular role in salvation history. He does not fulfill prophecies. He does not transform the Passover meal into the Eucharist. He does not establish a new covenant between God and humanity. Like a sage or a guru, he offers timeless wisdom, but he does not really do anything meaningful at all.
This Jesus of medieval Islamic traditions is the Jesus of most modern Islamic representations of Jesus. The well-known 1959 novel Children of the Alley (or Children of Gebelawi, according to the first edition of the English translation), by the Egyptian Muslim Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, tells the story of a neighborhood in Cairo, its troubles, and the men who fix its troubles. At the same time, it is an allegory for the history of man and the prophets whom God sends to help him.
The first hero of the neighborhood is a man named Gabal (“mountain”—a reference to Sinai and therefore Moses), who deals with the neighborhood’s oppressors by collecting a chosen group of people who lead a rebellion and establish a just—yet severe—law. Next comes Rifaat (a name that means “lifting up” and is meant to call to mind the ascension of Jesus), who is gentle and prayerful. He preaches forgiveness to the people of the neighborhood. While some are attracted to his message, the troublemakers plot against him and kill him.
Finally, Qassem (an allusion to Abu l-Qasim, one of the Prophet Muhammad’s names) arrives. Qassem is a reliable and practical leader who drives out oppressors and hooligans alike, and establishes an equitable law.
While Rifaat is a sympathetic character in Mahfouz’s Children of the Alley, his role in the story is to highlight the excesses of Gabal and to prepare the way for Qassem. If Mahfouz’s story later led some Muslims to accuse him of blasphemy (in part because even Qassem has character flaws, including an unseemly love of women), it nevertheless reflects a standard trope of modern Islamic apologetics: Moses was a prophet of law, Jesus a prophet of mercy, and Muhammad a perfect combination of both.
According to this way of thinking, Muhammad is the only prophet who is both good and practical and Islam is the only religion that can lead to flourishing societies. Muslims find support for this notion in the Qur’an: “Thus We have appointed you a middle nation, that ye may be witnesses against mankind.” This notion, furthermore, explains the confidence with which the Muslim Brotherhood employs the slogan: “Islam is the solution.”
To Muslims who share this perspective, Jesus was a good prophet, a holy prophet, and yet his principal contribution to humanity was to correct the excesses in Jewish law and thereby to prepare things for Muhammad. Jesus taught his followers to focus on the next world because Moses taught people to focus on this world. Muhammad, on the other hand, taught his followers to focus on both. Jesus was the prophet of forgiveness because Moses was the prophet of justice. Muhammad was the prophet of both. Thus Muhammad, and only Muhammad, is the prophet who can set things straight.
The portrait of Jesus as a prophet of spirituality and gentleness is meant in part to distinguish him from Muhammad. The Jesus presented by Talebzadeh and Mahfouz, the otherworldly figure who preaches rather endlessly about otherworldly matters, is not the sort of prophet who could organize military campaigns and build a small empire.
The contemporary Islamic conception of Jesus is hardly a simple reflection of what the Qur’an says about him. Indeed, in many ways this conception developed despite the Qur’an, and not because of it.
Gabriel Said Reynolds is professor of Islamic studies and theology at the University of Notre Dame.