ISA . . . JESUS ? a Muslim-Christian Dialogue

M Darrol Bryant is a professor of Religion and Culture at Renison College, University of Waterloo. His wife, Susan Hodges Bryant, is a part-time English lecturer a the same College. Darrol, Susan and two of their children, Lucas 15, and Emma 12, were on sabbatical in 1993-94, travelling to different religious communities in India, Sri-Lanka and Kenya. Dr Bryant’s research was centered on seeking to understand the religious practices, convictions, life and attitudes towards other faiths within those communities. The following appeared as a sequel in Cross Cultures magazine

Isa Jesus ? A Muslin-Christian Dialogue
Vol 7 1998

I. Introduction

In the Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s leading newspapers, on April 29, 1995 there was a special report on Islam written by its Middle East Bureau Correspondent, Patrick Martin, entitled “Islam: The Children of Allah”. It opened by quoting the Secretary-General of NATO, Willy Claes, saying that “the radical Islamic movement” is “the greatest treat to the West since communism” and wondered if NATO should “intervene to prevent it spreading any further”. It then went on to discuss “Islam, The Children of Allah” wholly in terms of some newer “radical” movements within the Muslim world. I found this alarming. This caricature of Islam-as-terrorism is not only inaccurate, it engenders hostility towards Islam. It does not reflect the truth of the Muslim world and its peoples who know that Islam is rooted in peace, that peace that comes from submission to Allah. But the appalling statement by the NATO Secretary-General is unfortunately all too characteristic of Western attitudes towards the great faith and tradition of Islam. It is rooted in a long history of perverse caricature of Islam within Christianity and the West and rests in a pervasive ignorance concerning Islam itself. Such statements only underline the need and necessity for new understandings of Islam in the West and the importance of inagurating a new history in the relations of Muslims and Christians.

Something of a possibility of a new history of relations between Muslims and Christians is beginning to emerge in the post-World War II efforts of Muslims and Christians to enter into dialogue with one another. While misunderstanding and religious antagonism still persists and is at the root of many encounters between Muslims and Christians, we have also seen efforts at dialogue between these two communities. In 1989, for example, Stuart Brown edited a volume entitled Meeting in Faith that documented twenty years of Muslim-Christian dialogue sponsored by the World Council of Churches [1]. But this movement is still small.

There are a host of important topics that need to be addressed so that Muslims and Christians might better understand one another. These two traditions make up more that fifty percent of the world’s religious population, but the relations betweem the traditions have seldom been positive. And it is imperative, as I’ve argued elsewhere, that the long history of mutual antagonism between Muslims and Christians, relieved by some wonderful moments of more positive relations, be overcome [1a].

In this essay I seek to focus on an issue that has surprisingly not been much addressed in the meetings of Muslims and Christians. This is the issue of Jesus in Islam and Christianity. Indeed, this is a topic which will challenge the very limits of dialogue.

Our topic is fraught with unusual difficulties. Neal Robinson in his study of Christ in Islam and Christianity [2] indicates that this topic has been burdened by polemical – – “you are wrong” – – and apologetic – – “I am right” – – attitudes over the 13 centuries of Christian-Muslim relations. Christians have impugned the Quran and its Prophet and disputed its portrait of Jesus, while Muslims have repeatedly charged and sought to establish that Christians betray the Oneness of God. And so there have been dramatic fireworks of antagonism between Muslims and Christians on this issue, but little of the warm glow of understandings between these “People of the Book”

Before turning to our topic, it is necessary to make clear something of the nature of interfaith encounter and dialogue [3]

The possibility of a new meeting of Muslims and Christian will depend on our ability to meet in dialogue rather than debate. It will require a spirit of mutual openness and respect rather than defensiveness. It will require a willingness to hear each other as they bear witness to their experience of God in their own terms. Interfaith dialogue is a new, post World War II possibility/development in the history of relations between people of different faiths. The purpose of dialogue in the meeting of men and women of different faiths is mutual respect and understanding [4]. This must be clearly understood. The point is that in our dialogue we should not make our first concern to prove that the Christian view of Jesus is the right one and that the Muslim view of Isa is wrong, or that the Muslim view is right and the Christian wrong. Our first task is to hear one another aright, to listen long and deeply. It is this listening that will allou us to move towards mutual understanding of one another’s faith. In the encounter and dialogue between Islam and Christianity, there are many different things that will emerge. Sometimes that dialogue may lead to mutual agreement but at others it may result in a deepened awareness of profound differences. In focusing on Jesus, we are entering an area of dialogue that will probably not lead to mutual agreement since this in a matter on which there is profound and probably unbridgeable difference. But hopefully it will issue in some increase in mutual understanding, and erase some of the misunderstandings on this issue that too much cloud Muslim-Christian relations.

With these preliminary remarks, then, let me turn to our topic. And in doing so I want to place over my discussion these words from the Holy Quran:

“Say: “O People of the Book! Come now to a word common between us and you, that we worship none but God, and that we associate no others with Him, and that some of us do not take others as lords, apart from God” (Surah 3:64) [5]

II. Jesus in Christianity

II. A. The Scriptures
Let me begin with Jesus in Christianity. This will necessarily be brief and schematic given the limitations of space. But we want to look at Jesus in the Christian Scriptures, in early Christian literature, and in the Ecumenical Creeds.

The Christian Scriptures are not contemporaneous with the life and ministry of Jesus. They were written after Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection. The earliest books of the New Testament were the writings of Paul, followed by the Gospels. But these writings contained the conviction that was central to the early Christian community, namely, that Jesus was the Messiah, the “annointed of God”. The term “messiah” and means, in Hebrew, “annointed” and is the equivalent of the Greek “Christos”. In the Jewish tradition, there were a variety of beliefs that surrounded the term “Messiah”. But the most common was to link the “Messiah” to a restoration of the Davidic kingship. (See A. Richardson, A Theological Wordbook, p. 44) Contemporary biblical scholarship points out that Jesus does not, in the synoptic gospels, use this word to describe himself. It is clear that Messiah comes to be used in a special way in the developing Christian tradition. But here we want to begin with its more traditional meaning as, simply, “annointed”

In the Gospels, then, Jesus emerges as the one who stands in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth and reads from the Prophet Isaiah: “‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.’ And he closed the book and gave it back to the attendant . . . and he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4: 18-21) [6]. Thus, according to Luke, began Jesus’ ministry. For the early Christians, then, Jesus was the long awaited Messiah and they heard and saw his ministry within the context of their Jewish world. He was “the anointed One”

Seen in this context, then, Jesus had a short ministry of one to three years. He gathered around himself a small group of disciples and followers including Peter, James, John and Mary Magdalene. He spoke in words that often astounded; he spoke with authority. In Matthew’s Gospel we find the “Sermon on the Mount” where Jesus said”, “‘You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven . . .” (Matt. 5:43-45) He often spoke in parables. In Mark we read Him saying, “‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs . . . with many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it . . .” (Mark 4:

30-33) He prayed to God – – often using the distinctive term “Abba” or “Father” to address God, as in the Lord’s Prayer that begins “Our Father, who art in heaven . . .” and he sought continually to do God’s Will.

This Jesus was also a healer. Many came to him and he healed many. Once in a crowd a woman touched Jesus’ garment and he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease” (Mark 5:34) But he is a healer not only of physical illness, but also of spiritual affliction. To the Samaritan woman at the well he offered “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). He was a voice of wisdom.

According to the Christian scriptures, Jesus’ life and ministry began to attract opposition. There were those who felt Jesus had blasphemed against the Way of tradition and the prophets, others that he was fomenting rebellion against Roman authorities. And it was in this setting that Jesus comes to Jerusalem for the last time. After, according to the Christian scriptures, a triumphant entry into the city, he is betrayed by Judas, one of his disciples. Jesus is then put to death by the Roman authorities. According to the Christian Scriptures, Jesus is raised from the dead by God, meets Mary Magdalene at the Tomb (John 20) and the disciples on the road to Emmaus who know Him ‘in the breaking of bread,’ (Luke 24). And after some time with his followers in his “Resurrected Body” (which is not a resuscitated corpse), Jesus then ascends into Heaven, is taken up into life with God [7].

For the early Christians, the resurrection is a surprise and a confirmation of Jesus’ messiahship. It is evidence that in Jesus Christ a mighty work of God was being unfolded. Likewise, Jesus’ miracles are not evidence of Jesus’ divinity, but that God was present to Jesus in a profound way. The Synoptic Gospels present Jesus as a wholly human Messiah, but the picture shifts in the Gospel of John. In John we find the crucial passages that begin to link Jesus in a very special way to the Heavenly Father. Within the Christian scriptures themselves we can see the emergence of the distinctive Christian convictions concerning Jesus. The Apostle Paul, for example, articulates this special work of God as “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself . . .” (II Cor. 5:19). And according to the Resurrected Christ, the disciples are given the Great Commission in the Gospel of Matthew, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit . . .” (Mt. 28:19). Thus, for Christians, Jesus is not only a Teacher and a Messiah but he is also, as Peter writes, “our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (II Peter 1:11)

My point here is that Jesus in the Christian scriptures is presented as the Messiah who is related to God in some remarkably special way. What is the appropriate way to answer the question of who Jesus was? Should he be seen as a Jewish Rabbi or Teacher? a charismatic Healer? a first century Prophet? the incarnate Word of God? The answer to this question is not a straight forward historical one. It is rather always answered in relation to the religious and theological convictions that one holds.

II. B. Jesus in the Early Christian Writers:
As I indicated before, the Scriptures of the first generation of Christians was the Jewish Bible. Though the letters of Paul and the Gospels circulated among the small communities of Christians, it was only in the late second century that the Christian Bible was in the form that we now know it. Thus in the early Christian writings (as well as Scripture) we can see how the Christian ways of speaking of Jesus were developing and growing. In, for example, the writings of Clement c. 100, “Jesus” is spoken of as “our Lord Jesus Christ” (p.43) and Clement affirms that we have “one God, one Christ, one Spirit of Grace” (p. 65) Ignatius of Antioch c. 110 speaks of the “New Man Jesus Christ” and the “one physician – – of flesh yet spiritual, born yet unbegotten, God incarnate, genuine life in the midst of death, sprung from Mary as well as God . . . – – Jesus Christ our Lord” (p. 90). Jesus Christ is, Ignatius writes, the one in whom “we shall get to God” (p.94). Polycarp (c.70-155) speaks of our destiny to “believe in our Lord Jesus Christ and in ‘his Father who raised him from the dead”. And Justin Martyr (c. 150) speaks of “that Christ” who “is the First-begotten of God” and “the Reason/Logos of which every race of man partakes” (p. 272) [8]

In these ways of speaking about Jesus, we see the development and growth of early gentile Christian understanding of Jesus as the Christ. Jesus as the Christ is emerging in Christian self-understanding and experience as more than, we might say, the historical Jesus. Increasingly, Christians are coming to see that Jesus is related to God in some special manner such that in Jesus Christ we meet, see, are led to, encounter God. This is already signaled in John’s Gospel when we read in John 1:1-4, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men”. It was then a process involving Christian experience of the Risen Christ and continued discernment of his life and message that led the majority of the early Christian community to the formulation, in the Ecumenical Creeds of Christianity, of the doctrines of the incarnation and the trinity, two doctrines that have been especially troubling in the relations between the Muslim and Christian worlds.

Thus the orthodox Christian Creeds that were to emerge are not a simple reflection of the historical life of Jesus of Nazareth, they are rather a symbol of the developing Christian belief that in Jesus a divine work unfolded that related Jesus to God in a special way.

II.C. Jesus in the Early Ecumenical Creeds
The Ecumenical Creeds of Christianity emerged after the social status of Christianity was dramatically transformed. Prior to 316, Christianity had been an outlaw religion and was subject to seasons of persecution. After 312, Christianity was tolerated and in 325, Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. And it was the Emperor who called the lst Ecumenical Council at his summer palace at Nicea in 325. From this Council emerged the symbol that was to mark the orthodox Christian confession: “in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father as only begotten, that is, from the essence of the Father, God from God, Light from Light . . .” (30, Creeds) And later in 381 at the Council Constantinople, we got this formula: “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into Being” (33, Creeds). Then in 451, we have the Council of Chalcedon which affirmed that “the one and Only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ . . . is perfect both in deity (theoteti) and also in human-ness (anthropoteti) . . . (Creeds, 35)” [9]. These are the formulas that stand at the heart of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, a doctrine that Muslims find compromises the absolute Singleness of God and that, it must be acknowledged, many Christians find incomprehensible. These doctrines were originally formulated in the language and assumptions of ancient Greek thought. And while they may be difficult to understand, they wish to affirm that Jesus as the Logos/Word is connected to God, is of God, in some very special way.

When these credal formulations are then used to re-read Scripture they lead to much confusion. How can the Jesus who seeks to do God’s will and prays to the Father that the cup of the crucifixion be removed, be “very God of very God?” Christians often gloss over this logical impossibility. They/we should acknowledge that the Christian witness to Jesus as the Incarnate Word is a religious/theological affirmation we have come to rather than a reflection of the historical ministry of Jesus.

This brief review of Jesus in Scripture, early Christian writings and the early Creeds should make us aware that the orthodox Christian understanding of Jesus as the Christ is quite complex. The anointed One or Messiah of the Synoptic Gospels becomes the “begotten from the Father before all time” of the Council of Nicea. Yet Christians want to affirm the full humanity of Jesus and thus we get these paradoxical formulations of the Creeds. Early Christian thinkers believed that the doctrine of the Trinity was necessary precisely in order to preserve the Unity of God not to compromise that conviction. But can that claim, difficult enough for Christians to grasp, even be heard within the Muslim world?

III. Isa in the Qur’an and Islam

It is important to be aware that our topic is not simply Jesus in Christianity but also Isa in the Quran and in Islam. This larger heading means that we should not restrict this dialogue to the Scriptural sources, but look more broadly within the Way of Islam as it has unfolded over the centuries. When the Prophet Muhammad burst unto the scene, Christianity was already more than 500 years old. It had moved through its formative stages and had come to its orthodox articulations in the early ecumenical Creeds of the Christian Church. But the attempts of historians to determine if Muhammad had any links to the Christian community and how well he knew it have not been very successful, though there are some intriguing suggestions that Jewish Christians in the Arabian peninsula may have always resisted the “ecumenical formulations” and maintained beliefs more consonant with what we find in the Quran. But such historical investigations do not get us to the heart of the question; they are not necessary. Since the heart of the Prophet’s Message is that “There is no God, but God” and that that is exemplified in the Quran, it is here that we must first look to see the Islamic Way.

And that means we must turn to the Quran. For Muslims, the Quran is a sacred scripture unlike any other. It is the “standing miracle;” it is, Muslims believe, the direct communication of Allah to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel. It is not, as in the Christian Scripture, a witness to God or to God’s Word, but it is the very WORD OF GOD. The nature and status of the Quran is a question for the dialogue of Muslims and Christians, but it is not one we can pursue here. But we have to at least note the difference between Muslims and Christians in regard to the status of their sacred scriptures. (And the differences among Muslims and among Christians too, but that is another story). Christians, by and large, do not understand their Scriptures as the Muslims, by and large, regard the Quran. While Christian affirm that Jesus is the Word of God, to which the Scriptures bear witness, Muslims use this same formula – – the Word of God – – to describe the Quran [10].

It comes as a surprise to most Christians to discover the honour given to Isa in Islam and the Quran. Most Christians are simply unaware that Muslims regard Isa as a Messanger and Prophet. The Quran accords Isa, within its perspective, the highest honour. Isa is a “Prophet” within the great tradition that now culminates in Muhammad. Isa’s dignity lies in the fact that he was chosen by Allah to proclaim God’s Message in his own time and to his people. Surah 2: 136 reads, “We believe in God and that which is revealed to us; in what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes; to Moses and Jesus and the other prophets by their Lord. We make no distinction among any of them and to God we have surrendered ourselves” [11]. (Dawood) Sometimes this respect for Isa is combined with a criticism of certain teachings concerning Isa. For example, “People of the Book, do not transgress the bounds of your religion. Speak nothing but the truth about Allah. The Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, was no more than Allah’s apostle and his Word . . . so believe in Allah and his apostles and do not say “three”. Allah is but one God. Allah forbid that He should have a son !” (Surah 4:171 in Kung article) [12] (or in Chittick’s trans”. The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only the Messenger of God, and His Word that He committed to Mary, and a Spirit from Him. So have faith in God and His messengers, and do not say, “Three” Refrain; better it is for you. God is only One God”) [13]

William Chittick in his Vision of Islam makes a crucial point when he writes that “Muslims see other religions in terms of Islam, which in their eyes is the perfect religion. Of course, followers of other religions also look from their own perspective; this is not a quality unique to Muslims” [13a] Indeed, it is not unique to Muslims, but this fact also helps us to pose the problem that Muslims and Christians face at this point, namely, can we see the understanding of Jesus/Isa that emerges in the sacred scriptures of the two traditions in the other’s terms?

Isa is, in the Quran, miraculously born of the Virgin Mary, and he proclaims with the Prophets the eternal Message that there is “No God but God”. The Quran denies the Crucifixion, but affirms that Isa is taken directly into Heaven by God. Kenneth Cragg summarizes the Qur’anic picture of Jesus in the following words, “”I have come unto you with a sign from your Lord. I create for you out of clay the likeness of a bird, I breathe into it and by God’s permission it is a bird. I heal the blind and the leper and I raise the dead by God’s permission and I proclaim unto you what you may eat and what you may store up in your houses” (3:37 esp) . . . Christ is, then, a prophet, a teacher, a healer of the sick, a spirit from or of God. To him is given the Gospel–not the good news about God in Christ, but a book of words or preaching, which the Qur’an does not anywhere reproduce . . .” [13b] such a portrayal of Isa is in line with the Qur’anic view of the Prophet as a Messenger of God but is very different from the salvic role of Jesus in the Christian Scriptures.

Dr. Badu Kateregga well summarizes the traditional Muslim view when he says, “Muslims have great respect and love for Jesus (Isa) the Messiah. He is one of the greatest prophets of Allah. To deny the prophethood of Jesus is to deny Islam . . . on the other hand, Muslims are genuinely opposed to the belief by Christians that Isa (PBUH) was Divine or ‘Son of God’ . . . this is the point where Muslims and Christians painfully part company. The issue is deeply theological and anthropological. The Christian view of incarnation seems to compromise God’s transcendence and sovereignty while at the same time exalting a mere man to God-like status . . . The gulf between Christians and Muslims is further widened by the Christian silence on and non-recognition of Muhammad (PBUH) as the Seal of Prophets, and the final guidance (the Quran) that was revealed to him by God” [14] we will have to let these few words on Isa in the Quran and the brief summary by Kateregga stand.

Does the Quranic view of Isa mean that Muslims must automatically reject Christian views of Jesus that relate Jesus as the Word of God to the “Trinity”? While it would seem so, there are some Muslims who see the issue in a more nuanced way. Seyyed H. Nasr, for example, allows that “Islam would accept an interpretation of the Trintiy which would not in any way compromise Divine Unity, one which would consider the persons of the Trinity to be “Aspects” or “Names” of God standing below His Essence . . .” [14a]. But this would lead us into a much longer discussion than is possible here. Here our brief look at Isa in the Qur’an and Islam should lead us to see that Isa is perceived in profoundly different terms – – those of prophet and messenger – – than the Jesus of the Christian scriptures. And now we will turn briefly to some almost concluding points, beginning with the conflicts.

IV. Points of Conflict

Even from this brief review, it is obvious that the issue of Jesus/Isa in Islam and Christianity is a controversial, complex and troubling one, touching issues that are at the very heart of the respective faiths. From this brief presentation of Jesus in Christianity and Isa in Islam there emerges three areas of clear difference. Each is too big to handle here. So my comments will be brief.

First, the very accounts of Jesus/Isa that we find in the Christian Scriptures and in the Quran clearly differ with one another in terms of the very events of Jesus’ life and ministry. At the heart of those differences is the issue, from the Christian side, of the death and resurrection of Jesus and, from the Muslim side, the issue of Isa’s status as a Prophet and as fully human.

Second, we find clear and perhaps irreconcilable differences in the interpretations of Jesus in Christianity and Islam. Most Christians have affirmed that Jesus is the Incarnate Word of God, the second Person of the Trinity. But not all Christians either historically or especially today hold this faith. If there is going to be any mutual understanding, it will be imperative for Christians to clarify the meaning of the doctrines of the incarnation and trinity since Christians that hold these doctrines do not believe that they deny the Unity and Oneness of God. Muslims seem often to hear Christian talk of the “Son of God” in literal terms that Christians should also reject. Likewise, I often find myself agreeing with the Quran in its criticisms of certain Christian formulations. Christians do not teach, for example, that God is “Three”. God is always and only One God. Nor, properly speaking, is it right to speak of “Jesus (the historical figure) as God” as many Christians do. And Muslims rightly see that the Christian way of speaking of Jesus as “Son of God” and of the Trinity are often more opaque than enlightening.

Muslims, on the other hand, interpret Isa as a “Prophet/Messenger”. This is an important witness to Jesus that Christians should, in my view, take much more seriously than they have up until now. Christians should be quick to agree that Jesus’ intention was to bear witness to God, the Creator of all. As the lawyer asked Jesus, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law? And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:36-37). It is God that we are called to Remember, to Heed, to Worship and none other. On this point Muslims and Christians should find themselves in agreement.

Thirdly, in the midst of the conflict and difference over Jesus/Isa stands the issue of the Quran as “the Word of God” and the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). While Muslims accept the Christian Scriptures, though with some theological qualifications, and accept Isa as a Messenger of God, there is no reciprosity from Christians concerning the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad. Christians have, by and large, rejected the Quran as spurious and caricatured the status of the Prophet. We Christians have misnamed the faith of Islam as Mohammadenism until recently and even now only some Christians have gotten it right. So, it is imperative, if we are to proceed in dialogue, that Christians reexamine and reassess their views of the Quran and the Prophet. I can just speak for myself when I say that I have read the Quran and I have great respect for its clear witness to God. I also respect the Prophet as a Messenger though perhaps not in the same way as Muslims do. But then it would be wrong to expect that out of dialogue I would become a Muslim, anymore than that I would expect Muslims to become Christians [15]. That is not the point. But it is to the point that we should advance through dialogue towards deepened respect for one another and our respective Ways to Allah/God.

The story of Muslim Christian encounter in relation to Jesus/Isa has largely been one of missing one another. While Christians have sought to witness to their belief that Jesus is the incarnate Word of God, Muslims have witnessed to their conviction that Isa is a Prophet. When these two beliefs concerning Jesus meet they seldon produce mutual understanding. We could, however, move in that direction if we were to realize that while we may not agree we can at least attempt to hear the other in their witness to Jesus/Isa in their own terms.

We will perhaps begin to move in that direction when Christians and Muslims meet in a spirit that reflects the text from the Quran I quoted at the outset: “Say: “O People of the Book! Come now to a word common between us and you, that we worship none but God . . .” This we can only do as we move beyond the polemical and apologetic attitudes that have characterized Muslim-Christian meeting in the past and begin to meet each other anew in a spirit of dialogue. In that new attitude of dialogue we must seek to understand that faith that leads the Muslim to find their way to God through the Prophet and the Quran and the Christian to find their way to God in Jesus as the Christ.

Jesus is spoken of in many different ways in the New Testament: “Son of Man”, “Lord Jesus Christ”, “Rabbi”, the “Messiah”. And while the earliest Christian community spoke of him as Lord, it was only in the 3rd and 4th centuries that there emerged the classical Credal statements about Jesus.

It is in this context that their emerged the doctrines that affirm that Jesus is the “Incarnate Word of God” and “the 2nd Person of the Trinity”

In this dialogue then it will be necessary to
1. be clear about dialogue,
2. unmask the misunderstandings that have often hindered the meeting of Muslims and Christians,
3. show respect for each other in the meeting of different faiths,

Some relevant Quranic verses:

“Every nation has its messenger” (10:47)

“We have sent no messenger save with the tongue of his people” (14:4)

“To every one of you [messengers] We have appointed a right way and an open road” (5:48)

“Say: We have faith in God, and in that which has been sent down on Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, and Jacob, and the Tribes, and that which was given to Moses and Jesus and the prophets by their Lord. We make no distinction among any of them, and to Him we have submitted” (2:136)

“And when Jesus son of Mary said, “Children of Israel, I am indeed God’s messenger to you, confirming the Torah that has gone before me . . .” (61:6)

“He has sent down upon thee the Book with the truth, confirming what was before it, and He sent down the Torah and the Gospel aforetime, as guidance to the people” (3:3)

“And those messengers – – some We have preferred above others. Among them was he to whom God spoke, and He raised some in degrees. And We gave Jesus son of Mary the clear explications and We confirmed him with the Holy Spirit” (2:253)

“Those who say, ‘God is the third of three’ have become truth-concealers” (5:73)

*** “Say: “O People of the Book! Come now to a word common between us and you, that we worship none but God, and that we associate no others with Him, and that some of us do not take others as lords, apart from God” (3:64)


Neal Robinson, Christ in Islam & Christianity, The Representation of Jesus in the Quran and the Classical Muslim Commentaries, London: Macmillan, 1991

Kenneth Cragg, The Call of the Minaret, 2nd edition, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1985

“To hold back from the fullest meeting with Muslims would be to refrain from the fullest discipleship to Christ” p. 164

“”I have come unto you with a sign from your Lord. I create for you out of clay the likeness of a bird, I breathe into it and by God’s permission it is a bird. I heal the blind and the leper and I raise the dead by God’s permission and I proclaim unto you what you may eat and what you may store up in your houses” (3:37 esp) This bare and somewhat enigmatic statement is almost all the Quran knows of the ministry of Jesus in the Gospels and of his parables . . . Christ is, then, a prophet, a teacher, a healer of the sick, a spirit from or of God. To him is given the Gospel–not the good news about God in Christ, but a book of words or preaching, which the Qur’an does not anywhere reproduce . . .” (pp. 233-234)

Badru Kateregga & David Shenk, Islam & Christianity, A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue, Nairobi: Uzima Press, 1980

pp. 131-132 “Muslims have great respect and love for Jesus (Isa) the Messiah. He is one of the greatest prophets of Allah. To deny the prophethood of Jesus is to deny Islam . . . on the other hand, Muslims are genuinely opposed to the belief by Christians that Isa (PBUH) was Divine or ‘Son of God’ . . . this is the point where Muslims and Christians painfully part company. The issue is deeply theological and anthropological. The Christian view of incarnations seems to compromise God’s transcendence and sovereignty while at the same time exalting a mere man to God-like status . . . the gulf between Christians and Muslims is further widened by the Christian silence on and non-recognition of Muhammad (PBUH) as the Seal of Prophets, and the final guidance (the Quran) that was revealed to him by God”

The Vision of Islam, Sachiko Murata & William Chittick, New York: Paragon House, 1995

p. 173-174 “The Koranic depiction of the role of prophets in human history is highly nuanced. On the basis of the Koranic text, we can neither claim that Islam has exclusive rights to the truth nor that other religions are valid without qualification. Rather, all prophets have come with the truth from God, but their followers do not always observe the teachings that the prophets brought. Hence, the Koran frequently criticizes the followers of the two religions with which the early Muslim community had contact, Judaism and Christianity. It maintains that many Jews and Christians have not lived up to God’s message to them, a point that has been made by Jewish and Christian reformers throughout history . . . There is, in short, no consensus among contemporary or past Muslims on the issue of Islam and other religions”

p. 174 “The key issue here, as should be obvious by now, is faith in God. In the Islamic view, faith in God demands tawhid, and tawhid is the message of all the prophets”

p. 174 “Even an elementary knowledge of any Christian catechism tells us that God is not “the third of three”. Rather, God is one and three at the same time. Inasmuch as he is three, he present himself to his creatures as three persons – – Father, Son, and Holy Ghost”

p. 179 “Muslims see other religions in terms of Islam, which in their eyes is the perfect religion. Of course, followers of other religions also look from their own perspective; this is not a quality unique to Muslims. Hence, Muslims expect other religions to have a book like the Koran and the Koran provides every reason for them to do so by referring to the Torah and the Gospel. But note that the Koran mentions Gospel in the singular, not in the plural. It states repeatedly that Jesus, God’s messenger, was given the Gospel as his message, just as Muhammad was given the Koran”

Story of two Iranian scholars discussing question of “who goes to paradise?” “Well, it is very simple”. “First, all religions other than Islam are obviously false, so we can exclude them”. That leaves Islam. But some are Sunnis and some are Shi’ites and we know that Sunnis have strayed from the straight path, so that excludes them. But among the Shi’ites there are the common folk and ulama. Everyone knows that the common folk don’t care about God so they will burn in the fire. That leaves the ulama. But we know that they became ulama to lord it over the common folk, so we have to exclude them. That leaves you and I and I’m not to sure about you”. (adapted p. 180)

For a good introduction to Islam see Frederick Mathewson Denny, An Introduction to Islam, New York: Macmillan Publ.Co. 1985

1. Stuart E. Brown, Meeting in Faith, Geneva: WCC Publications, 1989. According to this volume, the most troubling and divisive religious and theological differences between the two traditions have not, unfortunately, been addressed. See also Issues in Christian-Muslim Relations, Ecumenical Considerations, Geneva: Office on Inter-Religious Relations, 1992
1a. See M. Darrol Bryant, “Overcoming History: On the Possibilities of Muslim-Christian Dialogue,” Hamdard Islamicus, Vol. XVII, No. 2., Summer, 1994, pp. 5-15

2. Neal Robinson, Christ in Islam and Christianity, London: Macmillan, 1991. Robinson notes that like Muhammad, “the Qur’anic Jesus is called a ‘prohet’ (nabi), a ‘messenger’ (rasul) and a ‘servant’ (abd) of God. Like him too he is to said to have been sent as a ‘mercy’ (rahma). He received a revelation called ‘the Gospel’ just as Muhammad subsequently received the Quran . . . its central thrust was identical with the central thrust of the Qur’an – – the summons to serve and worship God” (p. 37). See also Kenneth Cragg, Jesus and the Muslim, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1985, who characterizes current Muslim attitudes in this way: “Through all we have reviewed there runs a great tenderness for Jesus, yet a sharp dissociation from his Christian dimensions. Islam registers a profound attraction but condemns its Christian interpretation. Jesus is the theme at once of acknowledgement and disavowal” (p. 278)

3. Two points need to be made at the outset. First, I participate in this dialogue as a Christian, and a student/scholar of religion and culture, who is deeply committed to dialogue with people of other faiths. I am not an expert on Islam. My knowledge of Islam is limited, indeed meagre, given the glorious history of this remarkable faith. But I have been able to meet many Muslims over the last twenty years. I have been a Visiting Scholar in the Indian Institute of Islamic Studies in New Delhi on two sabbaticals. And I have prayed in mosques in India and Turkey. [I have met Muslims from Indonesia, Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Morocco, Iran, and the former Soviet Union as well as Canada and the USA. These experiences and conversations have supplimented and enriched my reading about, and understanding of, the faith and tradition of Islam. They have made me aware that not all Muslims speak in the same tone, nor do they all hold exactly the same things. This is also true of Christianity. Indeed, I suspect that some of my strongest critics this evening will be fellow Christians who will feel that I have not got this or that right]. But I do think it is important that you understand that I am not an expert on Islam but I am trying to hear it and to understand this great tradition of faith aright. I ask to be corrected when I fail to do so.

Second, I do not speak Arabic, nor Hebrew, nor Greek. Thus I am not an expert on the sacred text of Islam, the Holy Quran, nor am I an expert on the Christian Scriptures either the Old or New Testaments. Thus I have been able to read and to study these scriptures only in translation. This is an especial problem in relation to Islam where, traditionally, there has been a pervasive conviction that the Quran is not to be translated, but only read in its original Arabic. And after pouring over different translations of the Quran I know what a real problem translation is since different translators translate the same texts in widely different ways. I have mainly used the “new revised edition” of The Holy Qur’an translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali. But I have also consulted the translations of N. J. Dawood, The Koran, (Penguin), Pickthall’s The Meaning of the Glorious Koran, and the excerpts translated in R. Zakaria, Muhammad & the Quran, and William Chittick & Sachiko Murata, The Vision of Islam. The differences in translation are certainly striking and sometimes convey very different meanings.

4. See M. Darrol Bryant, Religion in a New Key, New Delhi: Wiley Eastern Ltd., 1992

5. Ali translation

6. The texts quoted from the New Testament are from the Revised Standard Version

7. The new quest for the historical Jesus has resulted in some important perspectives on Jesus. See Marcus Borg, Jesus: A New Vision, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987

8. These quotes are all from the writings gathered in the Early Christian Fathers, Library of Christian Classics, Vol. I. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953

9. See John Leith, ed., Creeds of the Christian Churches, Garden City, NY: Anchor/Doubleday, 1963

10. This difference between Christians and Muslims in relation to the “Word of God” is explored in “The Christological Morphology of the Doctrine of the Qur’an”, in M. Darrol Bryant, ed., Pluralism, Tolerance and Dialogue: Six Studies, Waterloo: University of Waterloo Press, 1989, pp. 77-98. I am also aware that some fundamentalist Christians do speak of the Bible as the “Word of God” in ways very similar to how Muslims speak of the Qur’an as the “Word of God”. But even here the agency of revelation is, in the Christian case, the inspired writers rather than the direct transmission to the Prophet. For good introductions to Islam see W. Chittick & Sachiko Murata, The Vision of Islam, New York: Paragon, 1995. Also useful is Frederick Denny, An Introduction to Islam, New York: Macmillan, 1985. See also S. H. Nasr, Ideals and Realities of Islam, London: Allen & Unwin, 1966

11. Dawood, Surah 2:136

12. See article by Hans Kung “Christianity & World Religions: Dialogue with Islam”, pp. 192-209 in Leonard Swidler, Toward a Universal Theology of Religion, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1987

13. See Chittick

13a. William Chittick, op.cit., p. 179

13b. Kenneth Cragg, The Call of the Minaret, 2nd edition, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1985, pp. 233-234

14. See B.D. Kataregga & D.W. Shenk, Islam & Christianity, A Muslim & a Christian in Dialogue, Nairobi: Uzima, 1980, pp. 131-132

14a. See Seyyed Hossein Nasr, “The Islamic View of Christianity” pp. 126-134 in Paul J. Griffiths, Christianity Through Non-Christian Eyes, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990, p. 128

15. I discovered that my conclusions parallel those found in Kenneth Cragg in Jesus and the Muslim, op. cit. Cragg remarks that “it is fair to say that what divides Muslim and Christian – – how to recognize revelation, what constitutes ‘Scripture’, the measure of what humanity entails for God and God requires of man – – can all be seen as implicit in the question of Jesus” p. 289