Just as sure as Easter coming on the first Sunday after the first full moon in Spring is the seasonal attempt to demythologize Jesus. This can come in various forms but usually involves someone claiming to have found His actual tomb or that He was married to Mary Magdalene. There is one myth however that seems to have no season and that should be debunked. It is the myth that Christians and Muslims both have much in common because of their love for Jesus. The argument goes that while the Muslims only hold Jesus, the Son of Mary, as a prophet, we ought to be able to use this as common ground. An investigation of the Koran and the New Testament reveals that the Isa of Islam is not the same Jesus of Christianity.
First of all, it is necessary to mention how we as Christians have made the wholesale acceptance of this myth possible. In fighting the rising secularist tide, Christians have sought out other “believers” to engage with them in the fight based on the principle that the “enemy of my enemy is my friend.” This however need not be so. It can equally be true that “enemy of my enemy may is also my enemy.” And if history is any indication then we ought to be extremely cautious in labeling Islam as somehow friendly to Christianity. The only thing that has stopped Islamic jihad in the past is a loss of political power. For the majority of the Twentieth Century for example, secular despots in the Middle East acted as restraining forces on the violent manifestations of Islam. Once these secular rulers (like Sadaam Hussein) were ousted (ironically with the help of the West) then it opened up the door to the mass persecution we are witnessing once again.
In the West there is more of a “stealth” jihad that happens by which various Islamic interest groups frame their grievances in terms of civil rights or diversity. Groups like the Council on American Islam Relations (CAIR) have become powerful lobbying groups that fight for civil rights of Muslims in the US. These groups have witnessed the success of the gay lobby associated with labeling anyone who opposes them a “Homophobe” and now apply to anyone who openly opposes Islam the label of “Islamophobe.” Any examination and criticism of Islamic doctrine that might occur is avoided because of the fear of this damning label.
But history also plays an important role in deconstructing the “same Jesus” myth. Jesus is not a mere idea, but a real person who entered into history. He truly was a man who walked the earth and made very specific claims that were well documented about where He came from and Who He was.
Islam may say He was merely a prophet, but this is just a different variation on CS Lewis’ “Lunatic, Liar, or Lord” argument against those who say Jesus was simply a “Good Teacher.” Jesus never claimed to be a prophet like Islam claims He did. Islam claims that He did, but then they must deal with the fact that He was killed because on His claim that He was God. Islam may deny the crucifixion of Jesus, but history confirms the fact that He was crucified. There is no reason to question the historical accuracy of the Gospels on this point especially since extra-biblical sources confirm his execution as well. The first to mention Jesus as being executed by Pilate in the reign of Tiberius was the Roman historian Tacitus in 68 AD. The point is that Christians need to be clearer when they portray Islam as merely misinterpreting Jesus’ role. Given the historical support Islam is misrepresenting Jesus.
On the other side it is important to understand Islamic doctrine. In particular, there is the doctrine of taqiyya which permits deception on the part of a Muslim in promoting their faith. In many ways Islam is a Machiavellian religion in which almost anything is permitted as long as Islam is spread and protected. They see no problem in promoting the “same Jesus” myth, especially in the West, if it suits their purposes.
It is worth examining as well the actual claim that it is the same Jesus whom both religions revere. While the Islamic portrait of Isa borrows much from Christianity, the differences are quite stark. In fact I would say that these differences are so vast that you cannot reasonably say they refer to the same person.
One might expect that as much as Jesus is spoken about by Muslims and Christians during their “dialogue” that the Koran would be filled with wisdom from Jesus. It contains no account of His life and only refers to Him as the “son of Mary” in order to de-emphasize His own claim that He is the “Son of God.” In one chapter of the Koran, Isa is presented at table with his disciples when they ask him for a miracle of a table-full of food from Allah. Allah consents provided that Isa answer clear up the confusion regarding Jesus’ divinity.
And when Allah will say, “O Jesus, son of Mary, didst thou say to men, ‘Take me and my mother for two gods beside Allah?’”, he will answer, “Holy art Thou. I could never say that to which I had no right. If I had said it, Thou wouldst have surely known it. Thou knowest what is in my mind, and I know not what is in Thy mind. It is only Thou Who art the Knower of hidden things. (Koran 5:117)
The point is that the only purpose the Koranic Isa serves is to discredit the claims of Christianity. He seems to be an anti- John the Baptist that says “I must decrease so that he (Muhammad) can increase.” Isa also is not a Jew, but a Muslim. He is not the Message but a Muslim who says he is the messenger that brings “news of an apostle that will come after me whose name is Muhammad” (Koran 61:6). Again this obviously presents some historical problems, but the point is that no one would read the accounts of these two men and think they are referring to the same person. Isa also is said to return to “break the Cross” at the Last Judgment which most Muslim scholars interpret to mean He will abolish Christianity.
Why is a proper understanding of this important? There has been an attempt in the Church to enter into dialogue with Islam based on the mutual esteem of Jesus (see Nostra Aetate 4 from Vatican II for example). But unless this point is made entirely clear, dialogue will really be something like negotiations. If Catholics would be willing to concede that Jesus’ salvific role is not unique then Muslims would be willing to admit that He may be the savior of Christians just not the savior of Muslims. Dialogue (dia-logos) can only occur within a context of a search of a mutual esteem for the truth. If one side condones lying or believes truth can change based on the arbitrary whims of their god then dialogue is very difficult. The truth is that esteem Islam has for Jesus is for Isa. They hold the Jesus of the Christians in contempt because He is guilty of the greatest sin in Islam, shirk, which is to associate oneself with Allah. The Word cannot become Flesh in Islam because their god is not a god of reason (i.e. Word) but instead a god of pure will. Perhaps rather than a commitment to dialogue, we need to be committed to preaching the God Who is both reason (Logos) and will, who became flesh to save us all from the capricious god of pure will.