Myth #2: Muslims demean Jesus
This second myth is more widespread among the common Christian than among scholars. Because most Christians know that Muslims do not believe in the deity of Christ, and many are aware that Islam has rejected the crucifixion of Jesus, they often assume that Muslims therefore reject Jesus altogether and that the Qur’an is demeaning to him. Among Christian scholars, though most are aware that the Qur’an actually speaks very highly of Jesus, many still argue that the Qur’an is demeaning of the “real” Jesus, since it contains several polemical passages about Christian doctrines, including the divinity of Christ.
In my book, Sacred Misinterpretation (chapters 3-5), I argue that, far from being motivated by a desire to demean Jesus in its rejection of his divinity and possibly his crucifixion, the Qur’an’s desire is to vindicate him from the perceived excesses ascribed to him in the Christian tradition. The Qur’an is so emphatic about God’s absolute oneness and otherness that it construes any attempt at undermining this affirmation as arrogance that leads to shirk (ascribing a companion to God), and hence kufr (unbelief). In this spirit, while affirming that Jesus was a miracle worker, a healer, a life giver, and a great teacher, the Qur’an affirms that “the Messiah was never too proud to be God’s servant” (an-Nisā’ 4:172), and that Jesus’ affirmation of servanthood was a sign of his humility and lack of arrogance. The fundamental disagreement between the Christian and the Muslim view about Jesus is therefore not related to his greatness but to his function. In the Christian tradition, the primary function of Jesus is to be the savior of the world. Thus, Christian theologians have affirmed both his full divinity and his full humanity in equal measure. Church Fathers affirmed that “what Jesus did not assume on the cross was not healed.” In other words, if he had not borne our humanity fully at the cross, including a body that needed to be fed and rested and that could suffer, as well as a human will that needed to be brought into obedience to the Father’s will, then our salvation would not be complete. But Jesus Christ was also fully God, they affirmed, for only God in his fulness could initiate and achieve our salvation at the cross.
It is in the same spirit that the Qur’an seems to be rejecting, not so much the crucifixion itself, but the perceived arrogance of the Jews, who claimed that they had managed to overpower Jesus and to kill him by crucifixion (see an-Nisā’ 4:155-8). As a matter of fact, Muslims often affirm that they love Jesus more than Christians, because they cannot accept the possibility that he had been abandoned by God and given up to such a violent death. The obstacle, as it transpires, lies not so much in the fact of the crucifixion as in its soteriological (related to salvation) implications. Muslims love Jesus and this affirmation is a wonderful bridge and starting point in any conversation we have with Muslims about Jesus’ function as savior.
Myth #3: The Qur’an teaches Muslims that the Bible was corrupted
This third myth has been one of the most enduring ones in conversations between Christians and Muslims, both at popular and scholarly levels. The Qur’an has a number of passages that contain the verb ḥarrafa, usually translated as “corrupted” in connection with the Judeo-Christian scriptures. As a result, the belief that the Qur’an accuses Jews and Christians of corrupting and changing their sacred books often forms the foundation both of Muslim polemical as well as Christian apologetic arguments and rebuttals of each other.
Through my “history of ideas” approach, in chapters 6 and 7 of Sacred Misinterpretation, I follow the story of the Islamic usage of the taḥrīf accusation. What transpires clearly is that until the eleventh century, what Muslim theologians accused Jews and Christians of was taḥrīf al-maʿna (corruption of meaning). Only from the eleventh century onward did they start to accuse them of taḥrīf al-lafẓ, in the sense of corruption of text. In other words, during the first four centuries of encounter, Muslims believed that it was the Christians’ misinterpretation of their texts that had led them to unacceptable doctrines regarding Christ. But once the political situation changed, with the advent of the crusades in the East and the reconquest of Andalusian Spain in the West, the theological interaction between Muslims and Christians hardened due to political conflict.
In addition to the fact that Muslims up until the eleventh century did not consider the Bible to be corrupted, I show in chapter 6 of my book that many Muslim theologians held the Bible in the highest regard. Some, like the historian al-Yaʿqūbī in the 9th century, used it as a reliable source for historical information. Others went so far as to use verses from the Bible to support their intra-Islamic theological arguments, such as Ibn Qutayba’s citation of verses from the gospels during the same century to demonstrate the authenticity of certain ḥadīth traditions against the opinion of his muʿtazilī opponents. These are no small matters, particularly given the respected status of these scholars within the Islamic tradition.
These pieces of evidence, though they may not convince every Muslim today that the Bible was not corrupted, nevertheless show that the Bible at many points within their tradition was highly regarded and used as reliable scripture. This aligns with the vast majority of Qur’anic verses that commends the Judeo-Christian scriptures as precursors of the Qur’anic message and affirms that Muslims should refer to these scriptures as confirmation of what they have received. Certainly, affirming simplistically that the Qur’an teaches that the Bible was corrupted is a myth among both Muslims and Christians that must be debunked. And the enduring opinion among today’s Muslims that the Bible was corrupted may be confidently challenged based on overwhelming precedent to the contrary within their sacred text and their own tradition.
Myth #4: Muhammad intended to undermine Judaism and Christianity
As Christians have sought to make sense of the intent and purpose of Muhammad in founding the religion of Islam, they have embraced—sometimes unconsciously—the assumption that Muhammad set out from the start with a clear premeditated agenda to undermine Judaism and Christianity and bring their downfall, to the benefit of instituting his new religion of Islam. Qur’anic passages that affirm Judaism and Christianity, and those where Muhammad represents his message as a continuation and confirmation of preceding revelations, are viewed either as part of a greater polemical scheme, or as having been abrogated (i.e. corrected, changed, or replaced) by more negative verses revealed later in the chronology of the Qur’an’s delivery.
To debunk this myth, I advance in my book evidence that the entire scheme of asbāb an-nuzūl (the so-called “occasions of the revelation”) is based on unreliable ḥadīth, traditions ascribed to Muhammad which, as a result of twentieth-century western critical scholarship, can no longer be considered as historically reliable. The argument, therefore, that in later years (in the so-called Medinan period), Muhammad received revelations that abrogated (cancelled out) earlier verses that affirmed the continuity of his message with that of Jews and Christians, can no longer be substantiated.
Rather than having set out to create a new religion to replace Judaism and Christianity, it is my belief that Muhammad intended for his message to be a sort of commentary and reinterpretation of the Judeo-Christian tradition in the Arabic language that his Arab contemporaries could understand. The Qur’an, from this perspective, should be seen as a sort of Arabic Midrash of the Bible, not unlike the Jewish Midrash that was meant to bring contextual clarity to the Torah in changing times. Far from holding a desire to undermine Judaism and Christianity, Muhammad knew that his message would only make sense to his Arab contemporaries as a continuation and confirmation of the Judeo-Christian tradition. His disagreement was with certain doctrines within these traditions rather than with the traditions themselves.
Myth #5: True Islam is violent and wants to dominate the world
This final and fifth myth, whereby Christians are convinced that the only true Islam is a violent Islam, is one of the most challenging to debunk these days. The behavior of radical and violent Muslims during the first two decades of the twenty-first century has done nothing to dissuade many that Muslims are striving towards a common global agenda to dominate the world, set up a united global caliphate, and establish the rule of Islamic Law. Though the criminal acts of groups like ISIS or Al-Qaeda are most horrifying to all of us, there are some in Christian circles who are almost thankful that, through these groups, Islam has finally revealed its “true face.” Knowing the “true” nature of your enemy is better than harboring mere suspicions, they would argue. Many feel that they have finally been vindicated in their suspicions that they had always held regarding Islam’s true nature.
The problem with this argument is that it is based on a zero-sum logic. What do we gain from arguing that “true” Islam is a violent Islam and that Muslims who affirm that Islam is a peaceful religion are dissimulating Islam’s true face? If some Muslims commit violence in the name of Islam, we condemn their behavior. And if other Muslims condemn these violent acts as non-Islamic, we accuse them of lying. In effect, Christians who argue that the only authentic Islam is violent Islam are supporting the violent ideology of Muslim extremists.
What I argue in Sacred Misinterpretation is that religious doctrines always derive from religious scriptures and that religious scriptures are always subject to a specific interpretation at a specific time and place. It therefore transpires that political and social context plays a greater role in shaping religious discourse and behavior than does religious text. The role of the religious text in shaping discourse and behavior is always subject to limited and temporal interpretation.
I would conclude that no religion can be said to be absolutely violent or absolutely peaceful. All religions have gone through historical periods when they have manifested in violent acts. And conversely, every religion can be shepherded by its own theologians into manifesting into peaceful and loving behavior toward neighbor. This is the role of theologians in every day and age. And this is why Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians, as well as theologians of other faiths, have such an important responsibility to engage together in open and constructive theological dialogue for the common good of our global societies.
Read about the first myth: Allah is not the God of the Bible.