The relationship between Christianity and Islam throughout history has been often characterized by misunderstanding, rivalry, and frequently hostility. As illustrated in the recent movie, The Kingdom of Heaven, these tensions reached their pinnacle of ugliness in Crusades. In today’s post 9-11 world, these same misunderstandings, rivalries, and hostilities are in danger of being ignited again as extremists on both sides attempt to persuade us that Christianity and Islam are fundamentally opposed to one another. Such claims can only be overcome by persistent efforts at dialogue that promotes understanding and reconciliation. Only such sincere and honest exchange can bring about the understanding that will enable Christians and Muslims, together with Jews, to coexist peacefully in the 21st century.
This article will focus specifically on Muslim-Christian dialogue by pointing out that in the inspired vision of our great and holy founders, Jesus and Muhammad, there is far more that we share in common than there is that divides us. If Jesus and Muhammad had lived at the same time and had actually known each other, it seems from what we know of them that they would have recognized each other not as rivals, but as friends. There are four themes that I find in the gospels and the holy Qur’an that convince me that their teachings were inspired by the same fundamental faith and vision for humanity.
First of all, it is clear from the New Testament and the Qur’an that both Jesus and Muhammad were the beloved of God. In Islamic tradition there are several titles of honor by which Prophet Muhammad is known. For example, he is known as Abdullah – “the servant of God;” he is also known as Mustafa, “the chosen one;” Ahmad, “the one who is praised,” is another commonly used title. Most often, he is known as rasool or “the messenger.” In addition to these titles, Muhammad is also known as habib or “the beloved of God.”
Likewise, Jesus in the New Testament is also referred to as the beloved of God. For example, in Matthew 3:16 as Jesus is being baptized by John, we read:
And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”
This same scene is repeated in the gospels of Luke and Mark, and it serves to reinforce the conviction that Jesus is indeed the beloved of God. So, for both Christians and Muslims, their founders are recognized as God’s beloved. It follows then that for those who love God, whether they be Muslims or Christians, it is important to love Jesus and to love Muhammad. For God, there is no rivalry between them. They are both the beloved of God. Those who would claim to be their followers must then have the same respect and love for both of them.
Historically, Muslims have shown much greater respect for Jesus than Christians have shown for Muhammad. Muslims are very knowledgeable about the life of Jesus, and he is spoken of with great respect throughout the Qur’an. The same has not been the case for the traditional attitude of Christians toward Muhammad in history. Sadly, some of those prejudices continue in some circles today. This is largely because of insufficient or inaccurate information about Muhammad and his life. A better knowledge of the life of Prophet Muhammad can serve well to help Christians understand why he also is known as “the beloved of God-al habib.”
Another similarity between Jesus and Muhammad is evident in their strong and uncompromising vision of social justice. They both recognized the inequalities and injustices that existed in their respective societies, and both of them were passionate defenders of the poor, widows, and orphans. For example, in the Qur’an, God speaks through his messenger, Muhammad, these words:
Alms are for the poor and the needy, and those employed to administer the (funds); for those whose hearts have been (recently) reconciled (to Truth); for those in bondage in debt; in the cause of Allah; and for the wayfarer: (thus is it) ordained by Allah, and Allah is full of knowledge and wisdom. (Qur’an 9:60)
It is on the basis of passages such as this one that the concept of zakat became one of the five pillars of Islam and thereby an obligatory act of devotion for all Muslims. The sense of equality of all people that is derived from this principle is one of the central tenets of Islam. It is also exemplified in the various sunnah and hadith of Prophet Muhammad; for example, the honor he gave to Bilal in inviting him to be the first to chant the words of the adhan calling Muslims to prayer. This gesture was nothing less than revolutionary for that time and place.
Another example from the sunnah, as recounted by Karen Armstrong in her book Muhammad, is the story of a poor man who had committed a minor crime and is told to give alms to the poor as a penance for what he did. Just as the man was telling the Prophet that he did not have anything to give away, a basket of dates was brought into the mosque by someone as a gift for Muhammad. The Prophet, in turn, gave the basket to the poor man and suggested that he use those dates to distribute to the poor. The man replied that he didn’t know anyone who was poorer than he was. Muhammad laughed at his response and suggested that he give the dates to his family as his penance.
Like Muhammad, Jesus spoke out frequently on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged. The famous teaching of the beatitudes, which were part of the Sermon on the Mount, are one example, and another is found in the Gospel of Luke, chapter four, where Jesus uses the words of Prophet Isaiah to refer to himself as he reads from the scroll:
“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, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” And he closed the book, …and began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Not only did Jesus preach this powerful message of love and justice for all the most marginalized members of society, but in his own actions he brought these words to life. The four gospels frequently make reference to Jesus’ special compassion for the sick, the poor, and the forgotten and neglected members of his society. In Matthew, 25: 31-46, he further suggests that his disciples will be known and judged by their actions of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and imprisoned. In fact, whenever one performs one of these actions to the “least” of his brethren, it is as if he were performing it for Christ himself. It is perhaps for this very reason that the Qur’an honors and respects Jesus. His sense of charity and justice, which is very much rooted in the justice proclaimed by the Hebrew prophets, is totally in sync with the vision of justice taught and practiced by Prophet Muhammad.
A third trait shared by both Jesus and Muhammad is their love for God. Jesus referred to God as abba, an Aramaic word which means “father” (or most closely translated, “daddy”), and Muhammad addressed God as Allah, the Arabic word for God. For both of them, God was the center of their lives. They lived their lives always deeply conscious of God’s power and presence and of themselves as the beloved of God. The gospels speak frequently of Jesus going off by himself to pray-either into the desert, or to a mountain, or to a garden (such as the Garden of Olives where he prayed the night before he died). The spiritual writer Anthony Padavano reminds us:
He prays at every turn, on any occasion, each day, during the night, while on the water, lost in the mountains, alone in the temple, forsaken in the garden, at supper with his friends, throughout the ordeal of the cross. (from his book, Dawn without Darkness)
The strength of Jesus’ ministry was the relationship that he cultivated with God in prayer. Jesus was a man of God because he was a man of prayer.
Likewise, Prophet Muhammad was recognized by all of his followers as a prayerful, deeply God-conscious person. The very revelation of the Qur’an came to Muhammad while he was praying on Mt. Hirat, and the two great moments of epiphany that Muhammad was privileged to receive, the Night of Ascent (laylat al- miraj) and the Night of Power (laylat al- qudr), are examples of his deep devotion to prayer and the deep intensity of his prayer. Indeed, of the night of power the Qur’an says: “The Night of Power is better than a thousand months.” The practice of salat five times daily is meant to keep each Muslim aware of God throughout the hours of the day, following the example of Prophet Muhammad in his deep devotion to God and all-encompassing God-consciousness. In addition to the five times of daily prayer, there is the prayer known as du’a, which corresponds more to the Christian understanding of prayers of petition. From the sunnah and hadith there are many traditions relating Muhammad’s devotion to prayer on many different occasions of the day and the long periods of time he often spent in salat. As with Jesus, the rhythm of Muhammad’s daily life was one of prayer and devotion to God-God-consciousness. Peace and praise be upon them both.
A fourth characteristic that Jesus and Muhammad shared was respect for the equality of women. Both of them lived in a highly patriarchal culture in which women were highly subjugated, had few rights, and were often treated unjustly and harshly. In speaking out on behalf of the rights of women, Jesus and Muhammad went against the prevailing norms of their respective cultural and religious heritage. We see, for example, in the ways that Jesus related to women a teaching that was quite revolutionary for his time. He would talk to women, and always treated them with the respect and dignity that they deserved. It is a woman, Mary Magdalene, who is recognized as one of his closest followers, and it was she to whom Jesus first appeared after his resurrection, entrusting to her the task of telling the other disciples that he had risen from the dead. In Jesus’ understanding of the Kingdom of God, men and women were equals.
Prophet Muhammad also courageously opposed the prevailing norms of his time with regard to women. In the fourth chapter of the Qur’an, Allah reminds believers:
“O mankind! Reverence your Guardian-lord, Who created you from a single Person, created, of like nature, his mate, and from them twain scattered (like seeds) countless men and women; reverence Allah, through Whom you demand your mutual (rights), and (reverence) the wombs (that bore you): for Allah ever watches over you. (4:1)
In addition to this ayat from the Qur’an, there is a hadith in which Muhammad says that “women are the twin halves of men.” These teachings taken together are compelling evidence of the essential equality that exists between men and women, as it was revealed to Muhammad. It is this recognition of equality that forms the basis for the various laws of the Shariah which protect the rights of women. There are, for example, laws that protect women’s right of inheritance, their right to divorce, their right to vote and run for office, their rights to alimony and palimony, and strict laws limiting polygamy. Indeed, one of the principle reasons for the limited conditions under which polygamy could be practiced was the protection of the many widows and orphans that lived without a husband or father in the often violent society of 7th century Arabia.
Though Islam is often criticized as being oppressive to women, the fact is that the teaching and example of Prophet Muhammad demonstrate something quite the opposite. Muhammad, like Jesus, was very counter-cultural in championing the rights of women. Yet it has often been the followers of Muhammad and Jesus who have misunderstood or misrepresented the true nature of their view of women and their rightful roles in society and in their respective religions.
Certainly, there are other convergences that can be pointed out between the lives of these two great messengers of God, and certainly there are some differences, but the four that we have mentioned-being the beloved of God and defenders of the poor, their devotion to prayer and speaking up on behalf of women’s rights-serve to highlight how much Muhammad and Jesus had in common. They lived several centuries apart, though they emerged from the same part of the world. One cannot help but wonder and speculate that if they lived at the same time and knew each other how they would have responded to each other. It is surely a hypothetical question, but the evidence would seem to indicate that they would not have seen each other as rivals, but would rather have had nothing but the highest respect for one another. The famous Night of Ascent in which Muhammad was mystically transported to heaven (laylat al-miraj) bears remarkable resemblance to the gospel account of Jesus’ Transfiguration, where he was joined by the prophets Abraham and Elijah. In Muhammad’s ascension he was also joined by Jesus. What a beautiful image. What would they have said to each other? It is a fascinating question to ponder.
It is not hard to imagine them being glad to see each other, embracing each other as friends, and becoming engaged in deep and genuine dialogue. Indeed, it is not hard to imagine Jesus and Muhammad as friends, linked by their love of God and their vision of a world characterized by justice, compassion, and equality-a world where people lived in awareness of and submission to God. They would have recognized each other as friends because they were friends of God. They would have the same hope and expectation for their followers. May we, their followers, learn from them.
Thomas Petriano, PhD, is a faculty member at Religious Studies Department, St. Joseph’s College, New York.