The Jesus of the Qur’an
Just as significantly, Islam cannot account for suffering and sacrifice, and that is the crucial difference between it and Christianity. It is the choice between humble self-sacrifice and dominating power. It is the difference between peace and violence.
How could God’s prophet suffer defeat?
He couldn’t. God would protect him.
So goes conventional Muslim wisdom about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The Qur’an declares, “They slew him not nor crucified, but it appeared so unto them” (Sura 4:157). Or, as another translation has it, “They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but they thought they did.” And that, in a nutshell, is why Islam is not a religion of peace.
Superficially, this conclusion doesn’t seem to follow, but in fact it does in a way revealed only by exploring some essential understandings of Islam.
The idea that crucifixion is incompatible with a prophet’s God-given protection is deeply embedded in Islam. According to Muslim tradition, when the sacrilegious hands of the Jews and Romans reached for God’s prophet Jesus in order to punish Him as they would a common criminal, God made Judas Iscariot resemble Jesus, and let the wicked ones unaware nail him to the Cross instead.
This is just one divergence between the Christian and Muslim understandings of Christ. Muslims respect Jesus as one of God’s greatest prophets, but fervently deny that He was the Son of God. “God forbid that He should have a Son!” exclaims the Qur’an (Sura 4:172). Elsewhere, the divine Sonship is equated with crude polytheistic notions: “How could He have a son when He had no consort?” (Sura 6:101).
Yet at the same time, tantalizing traces of Christian truth here and there shine out brilliantly from the pages of the Qur’an: Jesus is the Word of God (Sura 4:171), although Muslims consider the Christian understanding of the Word as elaborated in the Gospel of St. John to be a grave error. Unlike Mohammed, Jesus worked miracles (including a few described in the Qur’an that seem to have been taken from apocryphal Gnostic “gospels” that also deny the crucifixion). The Qur’an affirms that Jesus was born of a Virgin. And Muslim traditions even hold that it is Jesus not Mohammed who will return on the Last Day.
To Muslims, however, all these unique attributes of Christ add up to precisely nothing. The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation is regarded as a blasphemous offense against the unity of God. This highly rigorous understanding of monotheism is a hallmark of Islam. The cross of Christ is to the Muslim mind not just a theological and historical error. It is as much of a “stumbling block” and “folly” (1 Cor 1:23) to Islam as it was to the Jews of St. Paul’s day.
Mahmud, an earnest young Palestinian Muslim whom I used to meet for lunch and debate in college, put it to me this way: God did not have to send His Son to earth to die for us in order to forgive sins. Jesus, as God’s prophet, deserved better than an ignominious death at the hands of His enemies. When Jesus comes back to this world, Mahmud warned me, he would “break all crosses”. After all, God was and is powerful enough to protect Him from such a fate. Or did we Christians not believe in God’s power?
Of course we do, but we understand the workings of that power in a way that is worlds apart from the common Muslim understanding. These differences get closer to the heart of why Islam is not a religion of peace and why present-day Islamic bellicosity is not simply a passing phenomenon, but a permanent feature of the religion.
The difference is revealed in two verses, one from the Qur’an and one from the Bible, so similar in content that one seems to reply to the other. (Yet in God’s mysterious providence, the reply was written six hundred years before the question!)
The question comes in the Qur’an. In the desolate desert night, Almighty God (in Arabic, He is called Allah) speaks to Mohammed to tell him of the error of those who came before him and to give him a response: “The Jews and the Christians say: ‘We are the children of God and His loved ones.’ Say: ‘Why then does He punish you for your sins?’”(Sura 5:18).
Throughout the Qur’an, God prompts Mohammed in this way. On more than one occasion He tells His prophet how to talk to Christians. This is one of the reasons why it’s so hard to talk about the Gospel to Muslims: Their holy book is full of answers to Christians’ arguments that every Muslim schoolchild memorizes. If and when he ever meets a Christian, he uses them.
The first time this happened to me, I was nonplussed. I was extolling Christianity to my college friend because of the close relationship with God it offered. “We call God our Father,” I explained, knowing that Muslims never do. “It is a wonderful thing to be a child of God.”
“You are a child of God?” Mahmud responded, no doubt elated: I was walking right into the Qur’anic trap. “Then why does He punish you for your sins?”
This response didn’t make sense to me, because I hadn’t yet read the Qur’an and I didn’t see how his question followed from my statement. The verse that had come to my mind wasn’t Sura 5:18, but rather Hebrews 12:7: “God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline?”
This is the great paradox of Christianity: The blessing of God is often found in not getting your own way. It is a message epitomized in the crucifixion of Christ.
When I tried out Hebrews 12:7 on Mahmud, he just snorted. In the Bible, you can be a child of God and suffer pain, setbacks, and reversals. In the Qur’an, you can’t. Islam makes scant room, if any at all, for the grand ideas of suffering and sacrifice that lie at the very heart of Christianity. If you suffer, it’s not because God is treating you as His beloved son and refining your soul so that you can live forever in His presence. It’s simply because you’ve done wrong. If you suffer and are innocent, well, it’s the inscrutable will of God.
Just as in Islam there is no crucifixion of Christ, so also there are none of the ideas that flow from it: that suffering can be redemptive or purifying for the sufferer. That the path to happiness and to obedience to God lies in repeating Christ’s words: “Not as I will, but as Thou wilt” (Mt 26:39).
Muslims will object, of course, that they do set aside their own wills and accept the will of God. After all, Islam means “submission” (not “peace”).
Power Over Love
But the Cross makes the meaning of setting aside one’s will very different for Christians. In order to understand more clearly how and why that is so, we must not look at the large-scale situation: terrorism, internecine wars, conversions at the point of a sword, and all the rest. For Christianity’s history is by no means unspotted, as anyone who’s tried to defend the Faith well knows. Sin makes it virtually impossible to see the essence of Christianity in its history, and this could well be true of Islam also.
The crucial difference between the two religions, however, is disclosed clearly on a smaller scale. Let’s consider it in the realm of the family.
As anyone who’s ever lived in a family knows, relationships can’t survive without forgiveness and self-sacrifice. Families are being torn apart all across the United States and the world these days because this key tenet of Christianity that to be a follower of Christ, you must take up your own cross and follow Him in His self-sacrifice has been largely forgotten. As an old grandmother in my parish, married over forty years, put it to me the other day: “To stay together, you have to put up with a few things.”
Here is the imitation of Christ, writ as small as the inscription on the widow’s mite: To stay together, you have to put up with a few things. Here is the way of the Cross, the only path to the Resurrection.
But what if you will have none of it? What if you believe it offends God’s majesty to have a Son, and challenges His power for this Son or even this prophet to be crucified? Then you have no great Example of sacrifice. Humility is not a prized virtue. Nor is self-emptying or self-giving.
There are millions of people in America today who are by no means Muslims, but who place no value on humility or self-giving. Most of them are divorced or were never married. I doubt there are any who have long-term relationships of any kind, unless those relationships are built on the only thing besides humility that can prevent the fragmentation of communities and the atomization of individuals: power.
In Islam, on the other hand, there are far fewer broken relationships. The Muslim world is not suffering the societal and familial breakdown that’s threatening the very lives of the post-Christian societies of Europe and the Americas.
But what’s the glue that holds these relationships together? Is it the self-sacrificing love preached and lived out by Jesus Christ? Or is it simply the pseudo-harmony that is enforced by violence, like the peace and quiet between combating ethnic groups that was militarily maintained in the Balkans during the long, dark night of Communism?
It’s one or the other, sacrificial love or dominating power. And as we have seen, Islam doesn’t prize self-sacrifice (except, perhaps, in the suicide of a terrorist). There may be a considerable number of cases among Muslims where the natural virtues win out and mutual self-giving takes place. But on the whole, the well-known Muslim treatment of women tells the tale.
Islamic marriage is nothing resembling a sacrament. It’s simply an agreement that gives a man power over a woman.
Polygamy is not only permitted, but encouraged not least by the example of the prophet Mohammed himself. In a polygamous household, of course, it would be impossible for a man and a woman to enjoy the kind of personal communion envisioned by the Church. But even when a Muslim man marries only one woman, it’s virtually impossible to find the splendor and beauty of interpersonal communion so magnificently articulated by Pope John Paul II in his Theology of the Body.
A Muslim wife is a servant, a possession, and not a partner. Her husband may divorce her at any time by simply declaring his intention to do so. Numerous Muslim authorities, including the Qur’an itself and traditions ascribed to Mohammed, prescribe corporal punishment for women who disobey or offend their husbands: “Men have authority over women, because God has made the one superior to the other. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them” (Sura 4:34).
These are not the symptoms of societal breakdown in the house of Islam. These are the bricks and mortar of the house itself. Domestic relationships in Islam in theory and in all-too-widespread practice are built on power. As models for human relationships in society in general, they illustrate why Islam cannot be a religion of peace.
If someone has no idea that he needs to sacrifice, he will press his advantage wherever he can. He may well become, as the Muslims’ forefather Ishmael was characterized long ago, “a wild ass of a man, his hand against every man and every man’s hand against him” (Gen 16:12).
The Secret of Peace
The Qur’an makes the ethos of violence explicit. Inside the house of Islam there may be peace, or at least the absence of war, but Islam declares perpetual war between believers and unbelievers:
“The true believers fight for the cause of God, but the infidels fight for the devil. Fight then against the friends of Satan” (Sura 4:76).
“Prophet, make war on the unbelievers and the hypocrites and deal rigorously with them. Hell shall be their home: an evil fate” (Sura 9:73).
“Those that stayed at home were glad that they were left behind by God’s apostle [Mohammed], for they had no wish to fight for the cause of God with their wealth and with their persons. They said to each other: ‘Do not go to war, the heat is fierce.’ Say to them: ‘More fierce is the heat of Hell-fire!’ Would that they understood!” (Sura 9:81).
The Muslim who does not fight is hardly worthy of the name of Muslim. Of course, Muslims explain that this concept of jihad, or holy war, has been distorted by Western commentators. It doesn’t refer merely to taking up arms against the enemies of Islam; it encompasses any action taken to defend or propagate the faith.
To a Muslim, my writing of this article is an act of Christian jihad. He would hasten to explain, of course, that there’s nothing holy about fighting for what he considers to be a false religion. But a Muslim apologist who replied to this article would most certainly be, in the Muslim view, a holy warrior.
Yet there is and has always been a martial element to jihad. From the time of the first “revelation” to Mohammed, up to today, Muslims have made no secret of this reality. Most students of history know that Mohammed himself began the spread of his religion through war, but few know how inhospitable he and his minions were to the conquered infidels.
Modern-day terrorists are the sons and heirs of the Islamic warriors who overwhelmed the ancient Christian lands of the Middle East and North Africa by the force of arms. They made it so humiliating and difficult for the Christians who survived the conquests to continue to live in their homelands that many gave up the struggle. They converted to Islam just to survive.
Christian citizens of the West, surrounded by material comforts and the ceaseless bleating of the mantra of “tolerance,” blanch to read about what life was like for our forefathers in the Faith who had the misfortune of falling under the heel of Islam.
Christians in the lands that gave birth to St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Athanasius of Alexandria, and St. Ignatius of Antioch were prohibited by law to build new churches or repair old ones. They were forbidden to try to prevent the conversion of a child to Islam, forbidden to hold authority over a Muslim, forbidden to ring bells or perform other acts of worship that offended Muslim sensibilities. They were made to pay prohibitive taxes and wear distinctive clothing. The testimony of a Christian was inadmissible in court.
The spiritual children of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great became a despised inferior caste. Most humiliating and outrageous of all was the Ottoman Empire’s hideous practice of devshirme: the Muslims’ practice of drawing their most formidable warriors against Christianity from Christian families themselves. Christian fathers were forced to appear annually in the town squares with their sons, the strongest and brightest of whom would be seized from their parents, converted to Islam, and trained up to be part of the Empire’s crack fighting force, the Janissaries.
Even in our own day, Christians in the Sudan, Pakistan, and other Muslim lands have lost their lives for “blaspheming” (that is, speaking in any way against) the prophet Mohammed accused by Muslims against whom they had no recourse. Pakistan’s blasphemy law is, in effect, a declaration of open season against Christians: “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible presentation, or by imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammed shall be punished with death and shall be liable to a fine.”
Ayub Masih, a Pakistani Christian, was arrested under this law in 1996 for making a simple reference to Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses a charge he denies. Masih has been sentenced to death and tortured repeatedly. Examples of this kind could be multiplied a hundredfold.
Secular commentators explain away such laws, and the arrests they justify on the grounds that Islamic societies are “still in the Middle Ages.” After all, it has now only been fourteen centuries since Mohammed. Fourteen centuries after Christ, the argument goes, Christians were killing the infidels. Islam is simply an immature religion that will eventually develop, as did Christianity, into a more tolerant, more expansive thing.
Maybe it will. But I doubt it. The Jesus of Islam, remember, will “break all crosses” when he returns. By denying the Crucifixion, Muslims have emptied the Cross of its power — the power to bring peace through self-sacrifice.
How can Islam recover this paradoxical power within the bounds of Qur’anic doctrine?
Unlike Christianity, Islam can only become a peaceful religion by denying its very essence. Unlike Christianity, Islam can only lay down its arms by renouncing something of what it has been since it began. Unlike Christianity, Islam can only find peace by going out of itself to find the secret of peace, which is sacrifice and self-denial.
It’s up to us up to Christians around the world to take up our crosses and follow Christ. If we don’t do this, the house of Islam and the world at large will never see the truth of Christianity. We will have obscured it by the bad witness of our lives.
If we don’t live lives of self-sacrifice, how will we show Muslims the value of the Cross? Until Muslims see in us the light of Christ crucified, which will be accomplished only by a great miracle of our merciful God, Christians should expect nothing from the house of Islam but wars and rumors of wars.
But miracles have been known to happen. Let us pray. Fervently.
Robert Spencer is an adjunct fellow of the Free Congress Foundation and a Board member of the Christian-Islamic Forum. His articles on Islam and a wide variety of other topics have appeared in Human Events, CNSNews.com, National Review Online, Chronicles, and Crisis. He has studied Islam for over twenty years. You may contact him through e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
(This article courtesy of Envoy Magazine.)