JERALD F. DIRKS’ slim 64-page volume, A Concise Introduction to Islam (Amana Publications, 2014) makes available a quick appetizer for the busy modern non-Muslim who knows about Islam only what is being propagated in the mainstream media. In Part 1 we appraised his beginning and end chapters which addressed the common ground held by Christians and Jews with Muslims, as well as dispelling the major myths commonly disseminated about Islam. Here we look at our differences in belief.
Historical Disagreement On Jesus
Chapter Four, the longest in this short volume, tackles in fair detail the differing positions taken by Islam—in contrast to Christianity—regarding Jesus in three areas:
- Jesus’ divine mission and ministry
- Jesus’ alleged crucifixion
- Jesus’ [human/ allegedly “divine”] nature
And derived from these above three, there springs the difference as to the nature of God. In the first chapter the author had noted that the “Islamic” position agreed with that of “several branches of ancient Christianity”—and generally with that of Judaism. This comes back to the concept that true religion—regardless of whether under Judaism, under Christianity or under Islam—has always held correct positions on basic beliefs. Core beliefs such as the nature of God and an understanding of prophethood are the starting point for true religion. We proceed to deal, in detail, with each point of disagreement, as Dr. Dirks covers them:
(1) Target Audience
First, regarding the target audience intended for Jesus: both the Quran (3:49) and the Gospel of Matthew (10:5-6; 15:21-28) indicate that Jesus was sent by God to Bani Israel (the “Children of Israel”)—first in Palestine and then (Acts of the Apostles 1:8) to the Jewish Diaspora throughout the world. This is in contrast to the Church’s teaching that Jesus’ ministry was for all ethnic groups of the world–as is deliberately implied in Mark 16:15: “Go throughout the whole world and preach the gospel to all mankind.” (Also Matthew 28:19: “to all peoples everywhere“; Luke 24:47: “to all nations“)
(2) He Didn’t Die
Secondly, regarding Jesus’ supposed death by crucifixion—so central to the Church’s theological teaching on “salvation” and the central event marked in her sacred ritual—the Quran simply but unequivocally states that they did not succeed in pulling it off.
…they suppressed (God’s truth), made unfounded accusation against Mary, and boasted, “We killed Jesus, the Messiah, the son of Mary.” However, they didn’t kill him, nor did they crucify him, but it was made to appear to them that they did. Those who argue about it are full of doubts and have no (concrete) information. On the contrary, they only follow theories, for they certainly didn’t kill him. Certainly not! God raised (Jesus) up to Himself, for God is powerful and wise. [Surat Al-Nisa’, 4:156-158]
Although the Bani Israel leadership were intent upon disparaging Mary’s chastity in regard to her conception of Jesus and intent upon doing away with the threat of Jesus once and for all, any talk about a successful crucifixion of Jesus is speculative and without evidence, says the Quran. The Quran accepts that the claimed death of Jesus at their hands on the cross, was made to appear to them to be as they said; no further details are divulged in the Quran except that God in His power and wisdom “raised Jesus up to Himself.”
There is to be no doubt as to the Qur’anic position, which directly contradicts the key belief of traditional Christianity in the barbaric death of Jesus by crucifixion. Dirks marshals historical evidence to demonstrate that there was a widely-known belief among various groups of early Christians that Jesus’ crucifixion event was something illusory:
- the Basilideans in 2nd century Egypt, who claimed to have gotten their inside story from Glaucus, purportedly a translator for Peter, the chief Disciple of Jesus
- several New Testament Apocryphal books maintain that Jesus was crucified only in appearance (Apocalypse of Peter 81:4-82:33; the Second Treatise of the Great Seth 55:10-56:25; Acts of John 97-101)
- the “Church Father” Ignatius, in his book Trallians confirms the existence of this belief. References to this occur also in the writings of other “Church Fathers”: Polycarp, Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian and Hippolytus
- the Gospel of Matthew (27:11-26, especially verse 17) records that Jesus Barabbas (translated as “Jesus, Son of the Father”!) was released from the death sentence of crucifixion by the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate – a story well-known to Christians, but seemingly disguised in the final text by leaving the identifying name, Bar-abbas, untranslated for the English reader!
Dirks brings to bear, also, the report of Jesus’ pre-Crucifixion prayer in which Jesus confirms that he has already completed the mission given to him (Gospel of John 17:3-4):
And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.
Accordingly, Dirks suggests that the Christian documents actually agree with the Quranic pronouncement, namely, that Jesus didn’t die in a crucifixion event. Jesus’ words imply that such an event was not part of his mission.
To add to Dr. Dirks’ evidence, here is what Jesus had to say about his mission when questioned by the Roman governor, Pilate:
Bible, Gospel of John 18:29-38: …Jesus said, “My kingdom does not belong to this world… So Pilate asked him, “Are you a king, then?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. I was born and came into the world for this one purpose, to speak about the truth. Whoever belongs to the truth listens to me.” “And what is the truth?” Pilate asked…
(3) How Wide Is “Divinity”?
The third disagreement between Qur’anic statement and Christian belief—as set by historic Church development—regards the human vs. the supposedly “divine” nature of Jesus.
QUR’ANIC STATEMENTS: Jesus is described as:
- Like Adam, created by God, not begotten
- A servant of God, an example for Bani Israel
- A human holding the elevated position of prophet
HISTORIC CHRISTIAN POSITIONS: Jesus was [variously] considered to be:
- God on earth (while only seeming to be human) [a “heretical” position]
- God and man simultaneously (bearing two natures, neither mixed nor separated) [the “correct” orthodox position in the Western Church]
- Human (in a special relationship with God, as with an “adopted” Son) [a “heretical” position]
Christian Dissent On “Divinity” Of Jesus
The third of the historic alternative positions, listed above, is “more or less consistent with Islamic thought.” Dr. Dirks traces the “Adoptionist” theory of “sonship” as applied to Jesus beginning in the first century CE with the Ebionites (who rejected any “divinity” in the nature of Jesus) and the Elkasites (who took Jesus as a “prophet”).
Other early Christians maintained that Jesus was a “mere man” though miraculously conceived (just as Theodotus the Tanner was said to be miraculously conceived); Jesus could be said metaphorically to be “Son of God” in that God had given him divine wisdom and power when he underwent John’s rite of baptism (Gospel of Luke 3:21-22).
The prolific writer and “Church Father” Origen (185-254 CE) contributed to the later “Arian” position [more below] when he insisted that “the Son [was] inferior to the Father.” The concept that Jesus did not exist before a certain time means that Jesus was not “eternal” (as Dionysius of Alexandria argued) and thus could not be said to be “divine.”
That Jesus was “divine” only to the extent of being a vehicle through which God spoke was a later wording (Paul of Samosata, 260 CE) roughly expressing what Muslims would see as the concept of prophethood. Later followers of this non-orthodox idea among eastern Christians evolved into the Paulicians of Armenia, a movement active into the 7th century CE. Also, Lucian of Antioch (240-312 CE) appears to have followed Paul of Samosata regarding his take on the nature of Jesus.
Dissent Goes Viral
The Adoptionist position culminated in the teachings of Arius (250-335 CE) in Alexandria, Egypt—a center of intellectual ferment. Beginning with the first premise of God’s absolute Oneness and uniqueness, Arius argued that Jesus could not be self-existent (as he grew up from boyhood and changed over time, following a normal human pattern of development). Rather, Jesus was God’s created being called into existence out of nothingness, of a different “substance” than that of the unique God, and he knew only what God chose to reveal to him.
Other versions of Arianism had their day in various areas:
- Macedonius (Bishop and Patriarch in Constantinople, 340’s-360’s CE): tried to repress the doctrine that Jesus and God were of one “substance”
- Aetius (priest in Antioch, 350 CE): denied that Jesus was “consubstantial” with God
- Anomoeist movement (found widely in the Middle East, 350’s CE): insisted that Jesus was “unlike” God and of a different substance
The popularity of the common sense Arianism or Adoptionist views was hard to stamp out completely and in fact influences some modern-day Christian groups.
Perhaps the most important observation in all of this Christian dissent from the “orthodox” belief in the divine nature of Jesus is that the lack of belief in this doctrine was wide-spread among Christian thinkers and writers.
(4) Then, Is God “Divine”?
Related to controversies over the nature of Jesus—whether he was human and/or “divine”—was the speculation over the nature of God. After all, if Jesus was to be considered “divine” in substance or essential nature, pre-existing with God before time, then theologians would have to define the relationship of two separate divine beings to each other. [And then, what about the other divine actor, the Holy Spirit?]
Jesus’ words show him to be a “strict” monotheist—in harmony with Judaism and with Islam. Christianity, in the form of the official Church, saw fit to squelch the dissenting voices in its drive to formulate eternal truth on the fiery anvil of ecclesiastical debate and council.
Bottom Line Evaluation
Dr. Dirks’ final word in this concise summary introduction to Islam:
In conclusion, the historical record is clear. Throughout the first several centuries of Christianity, one can trace an Islamic or near-Islamic trajectory through all four issues under consideration.
Dr. Dirks’ treatment of the Big Four departures of the Church from the Jesus narratives in Christian scripture is sandwiched between his fix of negative ideas held toward Islam and his positive presentation—that is, as a break between righting popular misconceptions and betwixt providing a quick picture of what the reader needs to know.
For the short modern attention span, this book “hits the bull’s-eye” for bringing Islamic literacy to today’s public. Unfortunately, in the modern West, Muslims are being forced to defend themselves against false interpretations—largely as a result of our not having made ourselves transparent. This book, Inshâ’Allah, picks up at least some of that slack. It’s a suitably concise first read, confronting the hype that blares daily from the mainstream news channels and sensational talk shows.
Our thanks to Dr. Dirks for doing, concisely and well, a job that we have neglectfully left undone for well too long.
In Part 3 we move to Dr. Dirks’ lengthy book, Understanding Islam: A Guide for the Judeo-Christian Reader (2003), looking into what the modern Western reader should know—in more depth, beyond the hot-button issues—about Islam.