The Islamic Jesus:
How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims
by mustafa akyol
st. martin’s, 288 pages, $26.99
On September 25, 2017, Mustafa Akyol was arrested by the Malaysian religious police. He had given two lectures in Kuala Lumpur, including a lecture in which he argued against the traditional Islamic teaching that apostasy is to be punished by death. What most worried the authorities, however, was the topic planned for Akyol’s third lecture: a discussion of his new book, The Islamic Jesus. By Akyol’s account, agents of the religious police told him, “We heard that you will speak about commonalities between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. We don’t like that kind of stuff.” He never gave the third lecture.
The truth is that The Islamic Jesus is not only about commonalities.
Akyol argues in the opening section of his book that Christians are wrong about Christ. By his telling, the early followers of Jesus were divided in two: those who followed Paul and “divinized” Christ, and those who followed James the “brother” of Jesus, and did not. Akyol has a simple vision of how things went in the early Church: Two men, Paul and James, founded “two different branches of Christianity” (Akyol calls this a “historical fact”). Paul, who saw Jesus as a divine redeemer and founded the Church, was wrong. James, who saw Jesus as a Jewish reformer and founded the Jewish-Christian movement, was right. James’s teaching and his movement would largely disappear, but not forever. That’s where Islam comes in.
Yet it is more difficult to sort out who James was than Akyol lets on. A figure named James appears as one of Jesus’s “brothers” in Mark 6:3. Paul mentions an apostle named “James the brother of the Lord” in Galatians 1:19. A figure named James also appears in the “Council of Jerusalem” in Acts 15 and as the author of the epistle of James (James 1:1). But neither of these two latter characters is called the “brother” of Jesus, and it is not clear if they can be identified with each other or with the James of Mark 6 or Galatians 1.
Moreover, it is also by no means clear that the Letter of James, which Akyol admires since it reminds him of Islamic teaching, denies the divinity of Christ. After all, the James of this epistle speaks of himself as a “servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1) and calls Jesus “the Lord of glory” (James 2:1). Finally, there is little historical evidence to conclude that Paul and James, whoever he was exactly, clashed over the divinity of Jesus. There is no sign of this in the account of Acts 21 (they discuss only the law). And while Eusebius (d. ca. 340) mentions a “James brother of the Lord” as bishop of Jerusalem, he gives no hint that James was opposed to Paul or disagreed with Christian teaching.
In addition, Akyol’s vision of Christian division leaves no place for Peter. But Peter is the major figure in the account of the Church’s foundation in Jerusalem in the Acts of the Apostles. It is Peter who speaks on Pentecost on behalf of all of the apostles and Peter who speaks first (before James) at the “Council of Jerusalem” in Acts 15. Peter does not seem to have held a Jewish-Christian position—in Acts 10 he comes to see that all food is pure and that Gentiles are equal to Jews—and there is no hint of any conflict between him and James (even though the author of Acts was willing to speak of other conflicts, such as that between Paul and Barnabas).
While Akyol suggests that Paul invented the idea of Christ’s divinity, one wonders if he has fully taken into account all of the New Testament in reaching this conclusion. The synoptic gospels have Jesus forgive sins; the scene of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness (Matt. 4; Luke 4) is framed around whether Jesus is the son of God; Stephen in the Acts of the Apostles cries out at the moment of his death, “Lord Jesus, receive my Spirit”; the author of Revelation has Jesus say, “I am the First and the Last,” quoting Isaiah’s words about God. The fourth gospel simply calls Jesus “God” (John 1:1; 20:28), and even if this gospel is later than the others, it is not Pauline in style, and its high Christology cannot be attributed to (or “blamed on”) Paul.
In making Paul into the founder of Christianity, Akyol joins a long tradition of scholarship. Medieval Muslim scholars such as Abd al-Jabbar (d. 1025) blame Paul for corrupting the message of the Muslim Christ. A number of modern Western scholars blame Paul for separating the Christian movement from the practice of Jewish law. Akyol does a bit of both, and it is understandable why he does so. The larger arc of the argument in The Islamic Jesus requires that Akyol have a scenario by which the true teaching of Jesus was almost lost due to the pernicious influence of Paul but was preserved by obscure communities of “Jewish Christians” and then rediscovered by Muhammad. The principal problem with this argument is that evidence for the survival of Jewish Christianity in seventh-century Arabia is thin; Akyol points to Arabic rock inscriptions found in the Negev desert that speak of the God of “Moses and Jesus.”
Still, Akyol holds that connections with the teaching of Jewish Christians can be found in the Qur’an. At the heart of this argument is his observation that the Qur’an denies that Jesus is God (see, for example, Qur’an 4:171 and 5:72) but accepts that he is prophet and “Christ.” Thereby the Qur’an articulates, in Akyol’s opinion, a Christology which is neither Christian nor Jewish but rather Jewish Christian.
Akyol rightly notes that the Qur’an refers to Christians with an unusual term. Whereas Christian Arabs call themselves al-Masihiyya (“those who follow the Messiah”), the Qur’an refers to Christians as nasara, a name which he proposes is related to “Nazoreans,” a group which appears in Christian heresiographies (such as the Panarion of Epiphanius) for certain Jewish-Christian sects.
Still, The Islamic Jesus is not simply a work of Islamic apologetics. Because “Islam does not simply begin with the Prophet Muhammad in seventh-century Arabia,” Akyol argues that Muslims can look not only to Muhammad but also to the historical Jesus for insights on how to reform their religion. This argument distinguishes Akyol from other Muslim scholars. In principle, Muslims all acknowledge Jesus to be a prophet. In practice, however, Muslims take only the Qur’an and the traditions around the prophet Muhammad (the hadith) as authoritative revelation.
Akyol seems to be suggesting that the Bible might also be seen as authoritative. He makes the case that the New Testament might be particularly important because in some ways the current situation of Muslims is more like that of the New Testament than that of the Qur’an. In working out what this means, Akyol follows the British historian Arnold Toynbee, who argued the West’s dominance of the Islamic world today is like the Roman Empire’s dominance of Jewish Palestine in the first century. Akyol compares the Wahhabis of Arabia to “Zealots,” and sees authoritarian rulers such as Ataturk in Turkey as modern-day “Herodians” (those Jews who were compliant with Roman rule).
Thus Akyol holds that Jesus might reanimate Islamic societies and disrupt the appeal of radical groups. He offers two examples. First, in a section which he names “The Caliphate is within You,” Akyol argues that Muslims need not pursue the idea of re-establishing the caliphate (as ISIS has done) since the very idea of a “caliph” can be understood spiritually, much as Jesus emphasized that “kingdom” can have a spiritual meaning. To this end Akyol rightly points out that the Qur’an actually uses the term “caliph” (Arabic khalifa) for all humans as a way of emphasizing the high responsibility which God has given them on earth. Second, in a section which he names “The Shariah is Made for Man,” he argues against a literal understanding of the law which impinges on human freedom and encourages judgment of others (what he calls “soulless legalism”). He encourages Muslims to think about the intentions of law, not the letter of the law, as Jesus did when he defended his disciples’ collecting grain on the Sabbath.
By discovering the Jesus of the New Testament, Akyol argues, Muslims might learn to approach their religion in a new way: They will learn that they need not establish a political caliphate and need not follow the Shari’a with “soulless legalism.” The answer to Islam’s problems today, Akyol suggests, is Jesus.
Gabriel Said Reynolds is professor of Islamic studies and theology at the University of Notre Dame.
Follow the conversation on this article in the Letters section of our March 2018 issue.