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Intro to Muslim Jesus


   WHEN Mohammad established Islâm in Arabia he insisted that he was not proclaiming a new religion, for he believed that all the prophets who preceded him had brought the same message. From time to time God had sent prophets and had revealed His will in sacred books; but men were rebellious, and so it was necessary for Him periodically to send a new prophet to lead them back to the truth. Mohammad had no sense of any gradual development in the knowledge of God, for he held that a knowledge of the true religion had been given to man from the beginning. The reason why God needed to send prophets with fresh revelations was because men had fallen away from the truth and required to be called back to it. Thus men like Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and himself had all the same task set before them, and none of them was essentially different from any other. God might authorise one to abrogate certain practices which had been commanded by a predecessor, but in essential matters they were all engaged in the same task, which was to proclaim the unity of God and summon men to worship Him alone.

   This being Mohammad's belief, it naturally follows that he was unable to accept what Christians taught regarding the person of Jesus. To him Jesus was no more than a prophet, even though He is accorded a dignity which is given to no other. The Korân speaks of the Virgin Birth; calls Jesus God's Word and a spirit from Him; declares that He is "eminent in this world and the next, and one of those who approach God's presence;" and attributes wonderful miracles to Him. But Mohammad could not admit that He was anything more than other men. He understood the doctrine of His Sonship in a carnal sense, and therefore he very naturally denied it vigorously. As an example of the Muslim rejection of this doctrine, one might quote the argument of Abû `Othman `Amr Ibn Bahr al Jâhiz, who lived in the ninth century of our era. He said that if God is a Father, He must also be a grandfather and an uncle; and insisted that the birth of Jesus was not so unique as that of Adam and Eve, for they had neither father nor mother.

   The purpose of this volume is to present an account of Jesus as He appears in the works of Muslim writers. I have collected the relevant passages from the Korân, of which I give my own translation, and I hope that it will not be found that I have inadvertently omitted any. I have confined myself to those passages which p. 9 make a definite reference to Jesus, omitting those which are merely directed towards Christians with no particular reference to Jesus. No attempt has been made to arrange these passages so as to give a chronological account of the life and teaching of Jesus; they are presented in the order in which they occur in the Korân. I have added a few selections from Tha`labî's Kisas al Anbiyâ´ (Stories of the Prophets), along with one passage from Abû al Fidâ's Universal History. The ultimate source of this latter work is Tabarî's history, but I have chosen Abû al Fidâ's account rather than Tabari's because it is shorter.

   The main part of this volume consists of sayings attributed to Jesus and stories about Him which are found in the writings of various Muslim writers. Professor Margoliouth collected 77 passages, 71 of which are from Ghazâlî's Ihyâ´ `Ulûm ad Dîn (Revival of the Religious Sciences), and 6 from other sources. These were published in five parts in vol. v of the Expository Times (1893-4). Michaël Asin y Palacios, the professor of Arabic in Madrid University, has published a work in two parts, entitled Logia et Agrapha nomini Jesu apud Moslemicos Scriptores, asceticos præsertim, usitata, which contains 233 passages. It is published in Patrologia Orientalis, vols. xiii and xix. The first volume deals with Ghazâlî's work referred p. 10 to above, with the addition of parallel passages from other writers; and the second consists of passages from various writers. Margoliouth's collection gives a translation of the passages with occasional explanatory notes; Asin gives the Arabic text of all but the last eight passages, with a Latin translation and notes in Latin. Asin includes some passages which refer to John the Baptist, Zechariah, and Mary which I have not translated, as they do not come within the purpose of this book. I have also omitted variants and the passages of which the Arabic text is not given. In both these collections the passages are given in the order in which they occur in the sources from which they are taken, but I have not followed this order. For the sake of showing various aspects of the Muslim representation of Jesus, I have attempted to group the passages under several headings.

   Both collections number the passages, so I have indicated the numbers for the benefit of those who care to refer to them. To save space, "A." is used for Asin's collection, and "M." for Margoliouth's. References are also given to the other passages. The numbers of the surahs and the verses in the Korân are given. "Th." stands for Tha`labî's stories, the pages to which reference is made being those in the edition which I used, that printed in Cairo in 1310 A.H. (1892 A.D.). "A.F." stands for Abû al Fidâ, the p. 11 edition referred to being Fleischer's, published in Leipzig in 1831.

   In the passages which are translated in this volume it will be seen that Jesus is treated as merely a prophet and teacher, who is not necessarily better than other pious people. One should beware of laying too much stress on the title "Spirit of God" by which He is frequently addressed, for this is merely an echo of words used in the Korân. He is represented as feeling Himself less worthy to pray for rain than a man who had plucked out his eye because it had looked at a woman (A. 10, p. 95); He is described as being gloomy in contrast to John the Baptist, who was cheerful, and whom God commends as being the more attractive (A. 121, p. 108); He is rebuked by God for failing to understand the piety of a simple man (A. 208, p. 125); He takes warning when He finds that Satan has discovered some evil in Him (A. 174 bis, p. 76). All this is quite in keeping with the Muslim conception of His person; but it naturally raises a question as to whether there can be any element of genuineness in such passages.

   The problem of determining the origin of the sayings and stories is a difficult one. In some instances it is obvious that the writer had access to the New Testament, or more probably had a second-hand knowledge of it, and so made a fairly accurate quotation, e.g. A. 55, p. 46, p. 12 A. 65, p. 47. In dealing with other sayings one hesitates to pronounce an opinion as to their genuineness or otherwise. It is important to notice that Asin is convinced that some of the sayings are genuine, although he does not commit himself absolutely to this position. When he comes to a saying which he feels is genuine, his favourite phrase is "Agraphum mihi videtur." The Rev. R. Dunkerley published two excellent articles in the Expository Times of January and February 1928, on "The Muhammadan Agrapha," in which he is inclined to support Asin's feeling that some sayings are genuine; and he gives four reasons for doing so. (1) It is reasonable to expect that unrecorded sayings of Jesus had long been cherished in out-of-the-way parts of Arabia and Mesopotamia. (2) When the ascription to Jesus is definite, unchallenged, and of early date, and when several witnesses agree, there are grounds for holding a saying to be genuine. (3) If a passage contains teaching alien to or opposed to Islâm it may be taken as coming from a Christian source. (4) If a saying has the aptness and precision characteristic of Gospel sayings, we may be disposed to accept it. These are sound principles of judgment, but there must always be a doubt.

   In many instances, however, one need have little doubt about rejecting the genuineness of passages. The wonderful stories of the raising p. 13 of the dead, a speaking skull, etc., are obvious fictions. Such a story as A. 148, p. 114, which speaks of a mountain bewailing the fact that idols had been hewn from it, is clearly of Muslim origin, as it is based on some words from the Korân. But A. 215, p. 93, is strange, for while it quotes words which are attributed to Jesus in the Korân, it adds to them something which would seem to have a Christian origin.

   The large number of ascetic passages may surprise some readers, but one must remember that the Nestorian Church in Mesopotamia laid great emphasis on asceticism, and that many of their monks secluded themselves in the deserts of Arabia. It may well be that one source of these sayings is to be found in this region. Another point to note is that there is a greater element of asceticism in the sayings of Jesus recorded in the New Testament than one commonly recognises. But even allowing for these considerations, one cannot help feeling that a great amount of this group of sayings is the growth of a later age when asceticism was regarded by many as necessary for salvation.

   As regards Tha`labî's stories, and also some passages in the Korân, one is able to suggest an origin for some of them in apocryphal Gospels. For example, the story of Jesus being sent to learn the trade of dyeing has a parallel in the Gospel of Thomas, where He is said to have p. 14 accompanied Mary on a visit to a dyer. The same Gospel has a story in which Jesus changed some children into goats, which suggests an origin for Tha`labî's story of their being changed into swine. There is a passage in the Book of James, or Protevangelium, which speaks of the priests using rods to see who should have charge of Mary, which corresponds to the Korânic story. In the same book Mary is rebuked for unchastity, but this differs from the Korânic passage in that it speaks of this as happening before the birth of Jesus. The Korân speaks of Jesus making a bird of clay, while the Gospel of Thomas speaks of His having made twelve sparrows of clay. The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew says that when Mary was on her way to Egypt, a palm-tree bowed down to let her pluck its fruit and a spring burst forth, which is reminiscent of the Korânic story where, before the birth of Jesus, a streamlet appears and Mary is told that if she shakes the trunk of a palm-tree it will drop fresh dates. The Gospels of Thomas and of Pseudo-Matthew have also a story similar to that found in A. 206, p. 92. These are only a few parallels which have come to my notice, but they suggest that many of the sayings and stories may have come through Christian channels, and have been accepted in good faith by Muslims, although such as the above are clearly apocryphal. But this indicates that p. 15 even if a Christian source can be found for many of the passages, it does not necessarily follow that they give us genuine words of Jesus or genuine stories about him.

   E. J. Jenkinson, in an article on "Jesus in Moslem Tradition" in the Moslem World of July 1928, gives a parallel from Jewish tradition of Tha`labî's story of the blind man and the lame man, which raises the question as to whether some of the passages are not to be attributed to Jewish sources; and in this connection it is interesting to note that Asin has here and there indicated that sayings which are attributed to Jesus are reminiscent of passages in the Old Testament. And again, it is not unlikely that certain aphorisms or moral stories which had come down for generations were attached to Jesus, although originally they had no connection with Him.

   While this discussion necessarily deals very indefinitely with the question of origins, it should be pointed out that Muslims had ample opportunity of coming into contact with Christians from whom they may well have learned some of their traditions. In the time of Mohammad Arabia was surrounded by a number of Christian communities. From Mesopotamia and Syria Christianity extended to the peoples of Hira and Ghassân in North Arabia, and to some of the tribes of the neighbourhood. In the south p. 16 Christianity had long been represented; and about the time of Mohammad's birth an attempt was made to divert the worship of the Arabs from the ka`ba in Mecca to a Christian church which had been built in San`â´ in the Yemen; but the expedition was a failure. In Nejrân there was a Christian church which had undergone severe persecution not long before this.

   When Islâm gained in strength, members of Christian tribes were gradually absorbed into the new religion, and before long Christianity was wiped out of Arabia. But as the conquests extended beyond the bounds of Arabia the Muslims came into contact with other Christian communities. Christians were given the alternative of accepting Islâm or paying tribute; and while many adopted Islâm, many others retained their religion. The Christians were commonly given very fair treatment, and, especially in the early days, many of them were employed in Government offices.

   Thus the Muslim community had in its midst two groups from whom it was possible to gather information regarding Jesus: the Christian communities and converts from Christianity to Islâm.


   Note.--In addition to the passages mentioned on p. 10, it has been found necessary to omit A. 218, 219, 224 owing to considerations of space.