Reflections: What Jesus Can Teach Today’s Muslims

By Mustafa Akyol

What is the trouble with Islam? Why are there so many angry Muslims in the world who loathe the West? Why do self-declared Islamic states impose harsh laws that oppress minorities, women and “apostates”? Why are there terrorists who kill in the name of Allah?

Many in the West have been asking these kinds of questions for decades. Answers have varied from claiming that there is no problem within Islam today, which is too defensive, to asserting that Islam itself is a huge problem for the world, which is unfair and prejudiced. Luckily, more informed observers offered more objective answers: The Islamic civilization, once the world’s most enlightened, has lately been going through an acute crisis with severe consequences.

One of the prominent minds of the past century, the British historian Arnold Toynbee, also pondered the crisis of Islam, in a largely forgotten 1948 essay, “Islam, the West, and the Future.” The Islamic world has been in a crisis since the 19th century, Toynbee wrote, because it was outperformed, defeated and even besieged by Western powers. Islam, a religion that has always been proud of its earthly success, was now “facing the West with her back to the wall,” causing stress, anger and turmoil among Muslims.

Toynbee, with the insight of a great historian, not only analyzed the crisis of Islam but also compared it with an older crisis of an older religion: the plight of the Jews in the face of Roman domination in the first century B.C. The Jews, too, were a monotheistic people with a high opinion of themselves, but they were defeated, conquered and culturally challenged by a foreign empire. This ordeal, Toynbee explained, bred two extreme reactions: One was “Herodianism,” which meant collaborating with Rome and imitating its ways. The other was “Zealotism,” which meant militancy against Rome and a strict adherence to Jewish law.

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CreditSébastien Thibault

Modern-day Muslims, too, Toynbee argued, are haunted by the endless struggles between their own Herodians who imitate the West and their own Zealots who embody “archaism evoked by foreign pressure.” He pointed to modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, as an “arch-Herodian” and the “Central Arabian Wahhabis” as arch-Zealots. He predicted that the Zealots would ultimately be defeated because they lack the sophistication to use modern technology. Had he lived today — and seen, for example, how effectively the Islamic State uses the internet — he might revisit that optimism.

These would-be Muslim reformers, like Toynbee, ignore that the first-century Jewish world wasn’t limited to the Herodian-Zealot dichotomy. There were other Jewish parties with intellectual, mystical or conservative leanings. There was also a peculiar rabbi from Nazareth: Jesus.

Jesus claimed to be the very savior — the Messiah — that his people awaited. But unlike other Messiah claimants of his time, he did not unleash an armed rebellion against Rome. He did not bow down to Rome, either. He put his attention to something else: reviving the faith and reforming the religion of his people. In particular, he called on his fellow Jews to focus on their religion’s moral principles, rather than obsessing with the minute details of religious law. He criticized the legalist Pharisees, for example, for “tithing mint and rue and every herb,” but neglecting “justice and the love of God.”

Christians, of course, know this story well. Yet Muslims need to take notice, too. Because they are going through a crisis very similar to the one Jesus addressed: While being pressed by a foreign civilization, they are also troubled by their own fanatics who see the light only in imposing a rigid law, Shariah, and fighting for theocratic rule. Muslims need a creative third way, which will be true to their faith but also free from the burdens of the past tradition and the current political context.

Would it be a totally new idea for Muslims to learn from Jesus? To some extent, yes. While Muslims respect and love Jesus — and his immaculate mother, Mary — because the Quran wholeheartedly praises them, most have never thought about the historical mission of Jesus, the essence of his teaching and how it may relate to their own reality.

A notable exception was Muhammad Abduh, one of the pioneers of Islamic modernism in the late 19th century. Abduh, a pious Egyptian scholar, thought that the Muslim world had lost the tolerance and openness of early Islam and had been suffocated by a dogmatic, rigid tradition. When he read the New Testament, he was impressed. As a Muslim, he did not agree with the Christian theology about Jesus, but he still was moved by Jesus’s teachings, which were relevant to a problem Abduh observed in the Muslim world. It was the problem of “being frozen on the literal meaning of the law,” he wrote, and thus failing to “understanding the purpose of the law.”

Some other Muslim scholars noted the same problems as Abduh. But no Muslim religious leader has yet stressed the crucial gap between divine purposes and dry legalism as powerfully as Jesus did. Jesus showed that sacrificing the spirit of religion to literalism leads to horrors, like the stoning of innocent women by bigoted men — as it still happens in some Muslim countries today. He also taught that obsession with outward expressions of piety can nurture a culture of hypocrisy — as is the case in some Muslim communities today. Jesus even defined humanism as a higher value than legalism, famously declaring, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

Can we Muslims also reason, “The Shariah is made for man, not man for the Shariah”? Or, like Jesus, can we also suggest that the Kingdom of God — also called “the Caliphate” — will be established not within any earthly polity, but within our hearts and minds? If Jesus is “a prophet of Islam,” as we Muslims often proudly say, then we should think on these questions. Because Jesus addressed the very problems that haunt us today and established a prophetic wisdom perfectly fit for our times.

First posted on nytimes

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