An insightful Muslim voice for reform suggests a way forward. Who is “the Islamic Jesus”? And why could Muslims and Christians both afford to know him and learn from him? These are some of the questions Mustafa Akyol addresses in his book The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims. A voice for freedom and reform from Turkey, Akyol is currently a senior visiting fellow at the Freedom Project at Wellesley College.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Why should Jesus’s saying “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” matter to Muslims?
MUSTAFA AKYOL: To me, that powerful expression by Jesus means that sacred law is not an end in itself, but a means to human happiness and flourishing. It is a key perspective against what I would call “blind literalism,” which is to make the implementation of the sacred law — in the Muslim case, sharia — the primary goal of religion. You can stone adulterers to death, for example, as is commanded in both the Jewish halakha and Islamic sharia.
But if you understand that the purpose behind that extreme punishment is to protect the sanctity of marriage and the family, you can find more-lenient, more-effective ways to serve the same goal. Of course this jurisprudential perspective implies a theology in which God is not a sinister autocrat who demands blind obedience but rather a lenient, reasonable lord who delegates agency to His creations. Whether the God of Islam is the former or the latter reopens some interesting theological debates in the medieval Muslim world, which I examined in my earlier book, Islam without Extremes.
LOPEZ: Do you actually think the statement “The shariah is made for man, not man for the shariah” could prod an Islamic revolution that is faithful but that won’t be seen as a surrender to the secular world?
AKYOL: If there was nothing in the Islamic tradition that sounds familiar to the Jesus approach — “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” — then my argument would be in vain. The inference I make from this to the sharia would be groundless. But luckily there is in the Islamic tradition an approach called “the theory of maqasid,” or “intentions.” It was devised by Imam Shatibi, a 14th-century legal scholar from Granada, or today’s southern Spain.
Shatibi argued that the whole sharia actually had five fundamental “intentions”: the protection of religion, life, property, intellect, and lineage. With a reference to Jesus, I am actually referring to this maqasid theory and calling fellow Muslims to look at the intentions behind religious law rather than being stuck in blind literalism. Jesus is a very inspiring teacher here, for he emphasized the gap between “intentions” and literalism more powerfully than any other figure in the whole Abrahamic tradition.
LOPEZ: “It is possible for Muslims today to abandon the commitment to the Caliphate as a political entity, but strive to be better caliphs on earth — as individuals with God-given faculties and responsibilities,” you write. “It is possible for Muslims to think, in other words, that the Caliphate is not here or there, but within you.”
AKYOL: It is of course possible, and that is indeed the case with many Muslims. Many Muslims living in the modern world believe that Islam is a spiritual connection between them and God. In politics, they just want decent states that will protect their rights. More-hardcore Muslims, on the other hand, believe that Islam requires a caliphate — a state of theocracy. We typically call them “the Islamists,” as a separate title from mere Muslims.
My argument in The Islamic Jesus is that the Koran does have a notion of caliphate, but it has nothing to with a theocratic state. The Koran uses the term “caliph” only to define human beings as God’s vicegerents on earth. It is a metaphysical and spiritual concept, in other words, not a political one. I found this distinction quite in tune with the wisdom of Jesus when he told his fellow Jews that the “Kingdom of God” they seek is not a theocratic state, but a spiritual realm.
LOPEZ: You tell a story about a misunderstanding involving Marine boots on the ground in a mosque in Fallujah. Is it possible that the “cross-cultural drama” between East and West, between Muslims and Christians, runs so deep that it is unfixable?
AKYOL: It is very deep — I will be honest about that. But we can take a course that will further deepen the fault lines and drive our world into a disastrous “clash of civilizations” or we can try to heal the fault lines and minimize the conflict by building channels of dialogue and understanding. I am personally trying to do the latter with all my work.
LOPEZ: Is part of our problem that most of the West thinks there are too few Christians in the Arab world, and some in the Muslim world would be happy to see them go?
AKYOL: Indeed, probably most Westerners hardly realize that there are large Christian communities in many Arab states, such as Lebanon, Syria, or Egypt. (There used to be large Jewish communities as well, but sadly they had to migrate after the beginning of the Arab–Israeli conflict.) The very presence of these non-Muslim communities in predominantly Muslim lands is a testimony to a key aspect of Islamic law: It has tolerated other religious traditions (with the exception of Arab polytheism) surviving under its rule.
In the Middle Ages, Islam was remarkably tolerant. It is also notable that non-Muslims of the Middle East faced the greatest tragedies in the “modern” era. In Turkey in 1915, Armenians, who had lived under Ottoman rule for centuries, were wiped out because of a modern ideology: Turkish nationalism. Indeed, nationalism of all sorts, rather than religion, is responsible for most tragedies in that part of the world.
The rise of Salafi-jihadism — a toxic combination of the most rigid school of sharia with political violence — is the latest threat to Christians and other minorities in the Middle East. Examples are the “Islamic State,” al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and similar bloodthirsty groups. They should be fought rigorously. But we should also not forget that this level of religious zealotry is quite new in the region. We should not forget, for example, that the Christian communities wiped out by the “Islamic State” from Iraq had existed there for 14 centuries under more-reasonable Islamic states.
LOPEZ: Would Muslims taking Jesus seriously help in their relations with Jews?
AKYOL: Probably yes. If Muslims take Jesus more seriously, they will look at sharia less literally and less militantly. This is good for everybody — including Jews. Looking at the Jesus story is also a good way to see Islam’s striking similarities to Judaism. These are both law-based religions with a similar view of God, scripture, and practice. Kinship, not enmity, must be the feeling between Muslims and Jews, while the Arab–Israeli conflict must be seen as what it is: a dispute over land, not a clash between religions.
LOPEZ: What might you say to skeptical secular people, who might worry that more people interpreting Jesus isn’t going to help moderate what they see as a dangerous force in religion that is crushing freedom?
AKYOL: If these skeptical secular people believe that the world will be a better place only when we get rid of religion, then I have bad news for them: That world will never come. Religion is a fundamental part of the human condition, and it will always be with us. So the question is how do we make religions more tolerant of difference, more appreciative of freedom. The best way — perhaps the only way — is to nurture the interpretations within any particular religion that value tolerance and uphold liberty.
LOPEZ: What’s your pitch to Muslims who worry that this understanding is a watering down of Islam?
AKYOL: If watering down means letting some of our rigidity go, yes, that is what we Muslims need. We need to calm down, relax, and take a more sober look at our religion. It has been our misfortune in the past two centuries to be in a strict, harsh, alarmed, and even furious mood, which has defined the way we look at our sacred texts. Muslim often take pride in the “golden age” of Islam, the medieval era when the Muslim world was more advanced than Europe in science, medicine, philosophy, and trade. They often miss, however, that this was made possible thanks to the cosmopolitanism of Islam. Muslims were not afraid to read Aristotle and synthesize him with the Koran, or to learn from Jewish or Christian literature. That era ended as we Muslims turned more insular and less open-minded. A renaissance of Islam will take place only when we become more open-minded.
LOPEZ: I love this: You write about how “different religious traditions should ‘compete with each other in doing good,’ while agreeing to disagree about their differences, deferring the ultimate judgment to God, to be given in the afterlife.” Do you see people doing this?
AKYOL: I wrote that sentence based on two key inspirations. The first one is the key Koranic verse 5:8, which reads: “Had God willed, He would have made you a single community.” It tells that the existence of different religions on earth is precisely what God has willed. The other inspiration is the theological doctrine of irja (“postponement”), which means that disputes should be deferred to the afterlife to be resolved by God. (ISIS hates that irja doctrine and has condemned it as “the most dangerous heresy,” as I explained here.) Do I see people following these pluralist perspectives? Yes, of course, many people, Muslims or others, intuitively leave the ultimate judgments to God and live and let live. Others, however, want to dictate in the name of God. One of the points I often make about them is that they are making God an instrument of their arrogance, their self-righteousness. And self-righteousness, I add, is not righteousness.
LOPEZ: Are there aspects of Islam that won’t allow for seeing pluralism as a good thing?
AKYOL: There are certainly schools of thought in Islam, and powerful strains among Muslims, that won’t allow for that. Then there are other Muslims who challenge them. That is why there is “a war of ideas” within Islam, as many outsiders have rightly observed.
LOPEZ: Is Mary a meeting point for Christians — maybe Catholics especially — and Muslims?
AKYOL: Indeed. She is highly respected by both Christians and Muslims — and, unlike the case of Jesus, there is no big controversy about her nature. Both faiths assert that she was a holy woman to whom God sent Gabriel to announce that Jesus had been miraculously conceived while she was a virgin. (There is only a difference on where Mary gave birth to Jesus. In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, it is Bethlehem. In the Koran, it is somewhere in the wilderness. But notably the Koranic narrative fits into an apocryphal gospel, the Protoevangelium of James, whose stories about the childhood of Mary are also present in the Koran.)
It is no accident that there are shrines in the Middle East devoted to Mary that are visited by both Christians and Muslims. The Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon, especially, is remarkable, as it is a place for both Christian and Muslim prayers. It tells us that, despite our bitter and frequent disputes, we really come from deeply connected theological roots.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review.