We continue our reading of Dr. Richard F. Shedinger’s book, Was Jesus a Muslim? Page numbers herein refer to this book.
Jesus Was Not a ‘Religious’ Figure
After considering whether the term ‘religion’ as understood, in the stripped-down sense of its modern usages, is a useful term today, Shedinger gives us a preview of where he is taking us:
“Was Jesus a Muslim?” I will answer with a very qualified yes. I do think there is a sense in which one can say that Jesus spoke and acted in ways more consistent with a Muslim rather than a Christian worldview and that this idea has real implications for Christian-Muslim relationships in the world.…
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In a real sense, then, Jesus was neither Jewish, Christian, nor Muslim in the way in which we use those terms today, and so none of these modern religious traditions can lay exclusive claim to the historical figure of Jesus.
Rather, Jesus was embedded historically in the complex sociopolitical fabric of what we term first-century sectarian Judaism, which itself cannot be adequately understood through the lens of sui generis religion.
But the thought world of first-century sectarian Judaism itself seems to bear some striking resemblances to the thought world of Islam. In a very real sense, Jesus possessed no religious identity because religion had not yet been invented as a meaningful category in the first century. But the figure of Jesus was certainly to be co-opted by the later Christian and Muslim ‘religious’ traditions. (pp. 10-11)
Shedinger’s above statement is made, of course, from his own original Christian orientation, meaning that at the beginning of his thinking, as reflected in the first chapters of his book, he is not yet able to see the lay of the land from the ground, but only from the superimposed template which reconfigures the map’s outline from the air.
Submission, the Way of Jesus
For us, he directly contradicts the straightforward, un-convoluted stance of the Quran:
But when Jesus discerned from them [the Children of Israel, to whom he was sent] resolute unbelief, he said [to his followers]: Who will be my supporters [on the path] to God? The Disciples said” We are the supporters [of the religion] of God. We have indeed, believed in God. So bear witness that we are, indeed, muslims, in willing submission to God alone. (Sûrah Âli ‘Imrân, 3:52)
And remember when I revealed to the Disciples: Believe in Me and in My Messenger [Jesus]. They said: We believe! And bear witness that we are, indeed, muslims, in welling submission to God alone. (Sûrah Al-Mâ’idah, 5:111)
And, behold! Jesus, son of Mary, said: O Children of Israel! I am, indeed, the messenger of God [sent] to you, as a confirmation of [the truth] that has preceded me [in the law] of the Torah, and [as] a bearer of glad tidings of a messenger to come after me, whose name shall be A^mad. Then when he came to them with clear [and miraculous] proofs [confirming his truth], they said: This is manifest sorcery! Yet who does a greater wrong than one who forges lies against God, while being called to Islam, [a willing submission to God alone]. For God does not guide the wrongdoing people [who are godless in heart]. (Sûrat Al-Ṣaff, 61:6-7)
Whereas Jesus is one in a sequence of authentic prophets in Islam, our author notes that in Christianity the figure of Jesus—under the title ‘Christ’—was transformed to become the entire ‘Christian’ message (p. 11).
A New Christian-Muslim Relationship
As we are about to discover, Shedinger suggests that his central question has serious implications for both Christians and Muslims and that a quantum change is warranted in the way that Christians view ‘religion.’
It behooves us Muslims—living in a Western, Christian society—to make sure that we do not fall into the trap of thinking that our Islam is one ‘religion’ among religions, in the sense of religion as distinct from politics, economics, and other social structures. In fact, it is this very sense of the modern, default concept of ‘religion’ that Shedinger is trying to correct for his Christian readership:
The question then arises: If Jesus returned today and considered the way that Muslims and Christians have co-opted him as an authoritative [figure] or—in the case of Christianity—the authoritative figure in their respective traditions, how might Jesus react? Would he find more sympathy with his Muslim or with his Christian portrayal?
Christians generally will reply that the historical Jesus would find the Christian portrayal of him—the risen Christ sent to earth in the form of God’s unique Son to redeem the sins of humanity—as the one most consistent with his historical identity.
But I question this. Despite the fact that I myself bring a Christian perspective, I firmly believe that the life and work of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels resonate more with particular interpretations of the nature and essence of the Islamic tradition than with common Western articulations of the nature and essence of Christianity.
It is in this hermeneutical sense I conclude that Jesus was really a Muslim. Such an idea has profound implications for Christian-Muslim relationships in the contemporary world and moreover will raise the intriguing question of whether the concern so often expressed over the politicization of Islam in the contemporary world ought to be replaced by a concern with the ‘religionization’ of Christianity. (pp. 11-12)
Global Solidarity to Replace Clash
Our author believes that a new world order of justice and peace cannot emerge until a global movement of solidarity among Muslims and Christians overrides the ‘clash’ mentality of the neoconservative political movement’:
I am hopeful that such a movement is possible, but only if Christians and Muslims (but Christians in particular) are willing to rethink in fundamental ways long-held assumptions about the relationship between Islam and Christianity, and between religion and politics more generally. Positioning Jesus as a point of commonality between Muslims and Christians may be a first step towards this goal, and this book seeks to accomplish just that. (p. 12)
Islam Is, as Islam Frames Itself
As a first order of business in building Muslim-Christian solidarity, our author mandates that
We reframe Christian-Muslim dialogue so that we do not automatically subsume Islam under the category of religion but rather allow Islam to be defined by the discourse emanating from Muslim scholars themselves.…
Islam continues to be understood almost unanimously in the West as a religious tradition, which leads to a distorted understanding of Islam that, though unintentional in many cases, may actually be more intentional than many people realize.
It is this intentionality in the distortion of Islam that will raise the troubling question of whether Christianity in the West is based on a distorted understanding of Jesus and if so, why? (p. 14)
Shedinger will be addressing—see future installments—what he terms a religiously motivated ‘discourse of domestication’ by which ‘the development of comparative religion by Christian scholars in the nineteenth century served to advance the cause of colonialization…’ (p. 15)
He will also touch upon the failure of a secular American legal system to coherently define ‘religion’—since ‘religion’ is protected in the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution but is ‘a concept constantly being constructed and reconstructed by secular legal systems.’ (p. 15)
Regarding the functioning of ‘religion’ as a discourse of domestication, our author suggests:
“It is this idea that must become the focus of Christian-Muslim dialogue, an idea that will force Christians to consider the uncomfortable possibility that Jesus really was a Muslim.” (p. 15)
Shedinger will go on, subsequently, to honor the fact that:
Muslim self-definition resists letting Islam be categorized as a religion in the Western sense of something possessing a unique essence embodied in an institutional structure distinct from the political, economic, and social structures of the larger society.
We should not understate the great diversity characterizing Islamic thought throughout history, but I will suggest that underlying this diversity is a unifying tendency to view Islam as an inherently political movement designed to promote just and egalitarian communities in accord with divinely revealed principles. (p. 15)
Thus far, we have established the framework in which Shedinger—taken in fact from the modern study of religion—is going to proceed in fully answering his question, “Was Jesus a Muslim?”
To be continued, inshâ’ Allâh, in Part 28…