Early Modernity (1453–1789) arguably begins with the fall of Constantinople to the Osmanli Turks, but that would mislead us into thinking of that as its cause. Much more germane to our topic would be the life of Cosimo di Giovanni de’ Medici (27 September 1389 – 1 August 1464) and his heirs. Cosimo was a Christian but one with a guilt that plagued him. Heir to his father’s bank, he nevertheless was troubled by the knowledge that he was guilty of the mortal sin of usury. When this was confirmed by a cardinal who told him the only expiation would be to give the proceeds away, Cosimo decided to give ‘some’ of the proceeds away and to such illustrious figures as Michaelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci and more, thus launching the Renaissance. Among his achievements were to have Greek philosophical works, brought by Christians fleeing Constantinople, translated and studied, thus laying the bases for scientific and secular humanism.
A later scion of the dynasty, Pope Leo X (11 December 1475 – 1 December 1521), born Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici, would, through his scandalous exploitation of the Church as a money-making scheme by his sale of indulgences, provoke Martin Luther into beginning the Reformation. In the midst of the resulting schism, a new humanistic, scientific and secular worldview was to grow in which increasing numbers of concerned people took refuge from the dreadful theological, military and civil strife that was engulfing Europe. This new worldview would expand beyond its original function of uniting Catholics and Protestants to include Jews. Today it has engulfed the world including the Muslims. It makes a claim to be a universal worldview. This is arguably the sole religion that is actually operative today.
A part of that worldview, which has come to dominate it, is the world of techne which has given birth to the technique/technological culture in which we live today. Its essence, as Heidegger says, is gestell, a German word translated as ‘enframing’, which has been explained as the view that sees the world as a standing reserve. Man, in seeing the world thus, himself submits to being such himself. Thus we have a technical world, which we thought would give us mastery over nature and over our own nature, but which has in turn mastered us. Everywhere the technical world is confronting the natural world and subjecting it. Thus, all of us, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs and Taoists bow our heads before the technical imperative among whose most compelling forces is the technical money of the finance, the fiat money, and the set of contractual forms that taken together have been called usury capitalism.
The idea that we represent differing religions holding inter-faith dialogues, while commendable, is false. In this predicament it is as Heidegger said in his only newspaper interview, “Only a god can save us”.
To talk about The Muslim Perspective on Jesus, peace be upon him, would be to arrogate to myself something I don’t think I can undertake. Rather I would prefer to talk about A Muslim’s Perspective, mine. But to take my subjectivity out of the picture, I first need to introduce it properly and introduce myself, or at least that aspect of myself that pertains to this meeting of ours.
I was born in Belfast in 1949. One of my strongest experiences as a child was hearing Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus on the radio and earnestly longing to sing it. One of my next strongest experiences was as a chorister in St. Anne’s Cathedral Choir, Belfast singing that same work. I also sang, among a great many other pieces and after a great deal of practice and preparation, Brahms’ Deutsche Requiem, which I only recently discovered caused some controversy when composed, not only because it was not in the standard format of the Latin mass of the day but contained passages that Brahms had chosen personally from scripture, or because it was in German rather than in Latin, but because it had no passages relating to the Trinitarian thesis.
Because we don’t write our own destinies in spite of our retelling our stories as if we do, my story rather than continuing on this musical course came to be heavily coloured by maths and physics. In the years that were to follow, I was to study optics three times and mechanics twice – Newton’s particular contributions to the world – and Einstein’s Special Relativity three times, as well as Bohr’s model of the atom. Although I did not study quantum mechanics, I was always particularly influenced by Heisenberg’s and Bohr’s earnest desire to use physics to understand the nature of our reality, to answer the questions the philosophers had been asking. The answers they came up with were deeply unsettling to them. A science that had been predicated on the hitherto reassuring substantiality of the physical universe after the devastating theological and spiritual controversies of European history, had in fact demonstrated, after the death of God, that the universe and the matter from which it was built were not at all substantial, contrary to our everyday experience.
Confronted with a nagging lack of clarity about Christianity and in spite of asking for help from my old vicar in the Cathedral, who left me to my own conscience, I did proceed to confirmation as a Christian. When I saw the Bishop of Down and Dromore lay his hands on the head of the person before me, close his eyes and raise his face to heaven in prayer, I intuited that something was meant to come from Heaven through the Bishop and through his hands into the person being confirmed, and waited earnestly for that to happen to me. Nothing happened. The following Sunday, I went to my first communion and expected something to happen with the bread and the wine. Nothing happened. I denied nothing, but never went back to church.
The 60s and 70s brought an encounter with the many different matters that my generation were meeting, from rock musicians such as Captain Beefheart to the engineer and thinker Buckminster Fuller and exploration of Buddhism, among many other things. Why Buddhism? In retrospect, it was because Buddhism draws the veil of the Noble Silence over theology and thus has no sense of an anthropomorphic divinity whether remote above the heavens or incarnate here on Earth. But facing up to the fact that no matter how earnest and sincere one’s convictions, a life wrapped in two pieces of cloth and eating whatever people put in one’s bowl, while feasible in India, would be very short in Edinburgh, I returned to my own tradition and the Bible and read it, or a substantial part of it, carefully. But this was a reading as an adult. I read it with a sort of equanimity that the Germans would call gelassenheit, neither rejecting things that I could not understand nor embracing and grasping too eagerly those things that seemed to make sense. I was left with the feeling that I understood both the Old and New Testaments in general, but it was an understanding that there were still some elements that didn’t really add up for me, but which I resolved to leave for the moment.
And then I met Muslims and accepted Islam.
Islamic doctrine brought a great deal of clarity to things that I had been unable to articulate. I suspect, however, that most of you have possibly been over-exposed to that and there is not much benefit in my re-articulating it.
As a one-time Newtonian, it is clear that it is necessary to tackle things that break our ordinary understanding of how things work.
The prophets and messengers were sent with miracles, which are breaks in the ordinary run of events, in physical law, in causality, and are in effect as if God is saying, “This is My beloved messenger who is truthful in everything he conveys from Me”. This is of course difficult for people brought up in the tradition of causality and Newtonian mechanics to accept. Although the miracles have the purpose I cited, they serve also to show that causality is not a cast-iron rule but the customary way in which the creation works. But, when the Divine wishes, He lifts the customary mode and shows that He is always the direct cause of things, and that things do not cause each other. Jesus, peace be upon him, is said to have been sent at a time in which medicine had great prestige and so many of his miracles were of the nature of restoring people to health and raising the dead.
But, of course, he himself was the first of the miracles, the fact that he was born without a father. That miracle started not with his mother but with her mother who dedicated her daughter Mary to service of the Divine, making a prayer of protection for her child and her child’s progeny which, in being answered by God, would resonate over the generations.
But I want to take one single matter related to Jesus, one matter out of the plethora of extraordinary things one could tackle, and that is the matter of revelation and of speech in particular. Speech lies at the root of the human story. Adam, the first prophet, the first human being, was taught the names or, we might say, language. While the miracles are spectacular, they are really there to underscore the speech: listen to this man for everything he conveys from Me is true.
The agent in the birth of Jesus was Gabriel, the angel of revelation. It is thus as if, and Allah knows best, Jesus himself was revelation.
Ever after, throughout the Qur’anic discourse, whenever Jesus addresses the Children of Israel he uses that name for them ‘O Children of Israel!’, whereas all the other messengers addressed their peoples saying, ‘O my people’. That was because, lacking a father from among them, it was as if he was not one of them and was a stranger among them.
He spoke the revelation in two distinct periods of his life. The angel is cited in the Qur’an as saying:
He will speak to people in the cradle, and also when fully grown. (3:46)
As an aside, Jesus was one of three babies who spoke, another of whom is recounted in a story told by the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, about Saint George, who is known in Arabic as Jurayj.
In the cradle, Jesus spoke in defence of his mother when the Children of Israel understandably accused her of fornication because she appeared among them with a baby.
The second period when ‘he spoke to mankind’ was when he was ‘fully grown’ for which the word in Arabic – kahl – is said to indicate the age that begins when a person reaches thirty-three years. This was the age of his prophethood.
People have differed about what the nature of the book was that was revealed to Jesus, whose name in Arabic is Injil. No book, as such, has come down to us. The Gospels clearly contain a great deal of material, including much from this period of revelation and thus from this book. The period of revelation has been said to have lasted one or two years. Although clearly there is material from revelation, there is much else that is simply there as narrative and background.
Being himself a walking revelation, and the revelation is a manifestation in this world of the Speech of Allah, he said, as had other prophets before him, something that is cited in this ayat of the Qur’an:
We sent no Messenger before you without revealing to him: ‘There is no god but Me, so worship Me.’ They said, ‘The All-Merciful has a son.’ Glory be to Him! No, they are honoured slaves! (21:25-26)
When people experienced the revelation on the tongue of a prophet or messenger, ‘There is no god but Me, so worship Me’, people responded by saying, ‘The All-Merciful has a son.’
But this ascription of divinity to the man is a misunderstanding of the nature of the Divine. God is not the Supreme Being. He is the sole reality, the only true Being. We have metaphorical being. The self-identity of the man disappeared and the Divine spoke.
Indeed, this is a theme known to the people of knowledge among the Muslims and to the Sufis, people who are neither prophets nor messengers. Such a statement, ‘There is no god but Me, so worship Me’, even if said on the tongue of a human being other than a prophet, if done so while absent from self-identity and lost in the Divine presence, is excused. But such a statement made in the state of sobriety and the presence of selfhood is inexcusable.
And this same phenomenon was repeated with the Messenger of Allah, Muhammad, peace be upon him, but in this case the angel Gabriel came with the revelation over a period of twenty-three years. It contains something I also remember from my reading of the Gospels all those years before, citing Jesus, peace be upon him, as saying:
Allah is my Lord and your Lord, so worship Him. This is a straight path.
We might add that this is Islam.
The revelation has always been opposed in a number of ways: first, the simple enmity of those who deny it; second, those who deny it by turning into a thousand rituals and legalities; third, those who deny it by exalting the messenger and ignoring the message. With respect to Jesus, peace be upon him, the first was the response of the Children of Israel to him, who had already subverted the Mosaic revealed law by the second form of opposition. The third was the response of the ‘salvationist’ Pauline school to which the great majority of Christian clergy belong. The proper response is to follow the message while loving and honouring the Messenger since he brings the message from the Beloved Lord. This is Islam.