In the last segment we took up Robert R. Shedinger’s discussion of ‘religion-ization’ in his book, Was Jesus a Muslim? Questioning Categories in the Study of Religion, 2009 (Fortress Press: Minneapolis). He describes how Christianity has been ‘religion-ized’ in Western society.He noted that Western Christians are typically unable to see
Jesus (عليه السلام) as a muslim —one submitted to the prescribed rule (‘Law’) or Will of God. This is because for them ‘religion’ is separated from social, economic and political realities.
Separation of Church and State
Western civilization has had a negative experience with the Church interfering in, or controlling, the State —as well as vice versa: the State dictating which religious parties will be dominant and what orthodox belief is. So modern Western societies have drawn a legal boundary line between the Church and State, and they vigorously argue for maintaining this division, even misquoting Jesus to this effect. To be fair, at the same time, the various Christian denominations are equal before the law in many ‘democratic’ Western countries, and the same may be theoretically true for non-Christian religious groups.
A Christian proof-text for the separation of Church and State is the following incident from the Gospel narratives of Jesus, wherein Herod was the regional ruler of Roman-occupied Palestine at the time, and the Pharisees were one Jewish school of thought differentiated by their competing interpretations of the Law of Moses.
Bible, Gospel of Mark 12:13-17 Some Pharisees and some members of Herod’s party were sent to Jesus to trap him with questions. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you tell the truth, without worrying about what people think. You pay no attention to a man’s status, but teach the truth about God’s will for man. Tell us, is it against our Law to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor? Should we pay them or not?”
But Jesus saw through their trick and answered, “Why are you trying to trap me? Bring a silver coin, and let me see it.”
They brought him one, and he asked, “Whose face and name are these?”
“The Emperor’s” they answered.
So Jesus said, “Well, then, pay to the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor, and pay to God what belongs to God.”
And they were amazed at Jesus.
Of course, Jesus (عليه السلام) was a member of Banî Isrâ’îl and upheld the need to follow the Law of Moses in both letter and intended spirit. (Matthew 5:17-20)
In Islam the spiritual is intertwined with the fabric of social, economic and political structure since following God’s revealed way (our Dîn) impinges upon all aspects of one’s life.
Our Shared Mandate
Regardless of the prevalent philosophical foundation of modern Western society and in spite of the historical ‘lessons learned,’ Christians are generally aware of the ‘social’ teachings of Jesus (عليه السلام) and many take seriously their social responsibilities as his would-be followers.
Yes, a Christian-Muslim focus on brotherhood and charity as derived from prophetic teaching, Shedinger notes, can be the basis for joint global social justice efforts: in Christian terminology, ‘I am my brother’s keeper.’ Shedinger focuses on his discovery of Jesus as a ‘Muslim’—that is, as a person fully submitted to God as befitting a prophet— and this is a nod toward a tawHid in which the One God guides His one humanity to cooperate with one another in brotherhood and charity. This means the individual must be concerned for all his immediate community —and ultimately for the larger world; the richer must be oriented to meeting the needs of those lacking minimum provisions.
The Christian has the same concept as we Muslims do, that Allah will reward the believer who helps those in need. This is to be a normal part of the righteous lifestyle:
JESUS: (Bible, Gospel according to Matthew 25:34-36, 40)
[Jesus taught his followers about his Kingdom of God message]: “…Come and possess the kingdom which has been prepared for you ever since the creation of the world. I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you received me in your homes, naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me. … whenever you did this for one of the least important of these brothers of mine, you did it for me!”
MUHAMMAD (Hadith Qudsi):
Son of Adam, I was sick and you did not visit Me. The person will say, “How could I have visited You in Your sickness when You are the Lord of the worlds?” Allah will say, “Did you not know that My servant so-and-so was sick, but you did not visit him? Did you not know that had you visited him you would have found Me there?” Son of Adam, I solicited food from you, but you did not feed Me. The person will say, “How could I have fed You when You are the Lord of the worlds?” Allah will say, “My servant so-and-so solicited food from you, but you did not feed him. Did you not know that had you fed him, you would have found [the reward for] that with Me?” Son of Adam, I solicited a drink of water from you, but you did not give Me a drink of water. The person will say, “How could I have given You a drink of water when You are the Lord of the worlds?” Allah will say, “My servant so-and-so solicited a drink of water from you, but you did not give him a drink of water. Did you not know that had you given him water, you would have found [the reward for] that with Me?” (Saḥîḥ Muslim 2569; Mishkat al-Masabih 1528)
It is an obligation of those of us who believe in Allah, the One God, to live by His revealed Guidance. The unity of believers is anchored in our submission to our shared One God and in our collective allegiance to His Guidance as a society of those who would follow His ‘Law’—or, in Jesus’ words, ‘to do what God requires’ (Matthew 5:6).
We Muslims have been given a mandate (as members of one of various groups of human beings): to ‘know’ one another:
O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things). [Sûrat Al-Ḥujurât, 49:13]
One way that we can help fulfill that mandate is through Christian-Muslim cooperation —as Shedinger proposes— in feeding and clothing the poor, or, in any social-economic-political justice endeavor, for that matter. By this joint effort we come to understand and trust one another and to share our common desire to ‘do what God requires’ to use Jesus’ terminology, which is in compliance with our concept of pleasing Allah, subħanahu wa taCâla. Sharing charitable events with those of other faiths is beneficial for us all, especially when interfaith projects multiply the impact of our separate endeavors.
Jesus as a ‘Religious‘ Figure
But what else, besides separation of Church and State, results from what Shedinger refers to as ‘religion-ization’ of Christianity? Specifically, what happened to make Jesus became a ‘religious’ figure, rather than simply a human prophet? How has Christianity become ‘religion-ized‘ in Western culture? For one thing, according to Shedinger, Christian religion requires measuring everyone against the Church’s theology, historically hammered out over the centuries. As a result, only Christians can measure up because only Christians believe in a divinized Jesus figure who could die for the sins of the world.
For Muslims it would make sense for the Christian to follow Jesus if s/he were to stick with the message of Jesus, since Muslims, too, count Jesus as one of our major prophets. But the message of Jesus in the Gospel books is not really the focal teaching of the Christian Church. As we associate with church-going Christians, we notice qualities we admire; but we may wonder why Jesus was made a religious figure, somehow a partner to God, even though Christianity is said to be a monotheistic faith.
Virtual Deity and Virtual Prophet
Christians cannot, of course, reject the plain truth and logic of what they might consider our ‘strict’ monotheistic outlook. But, frankly, most would be at a loss to reconcile the common sense singularity of Deity with a Father – Son – Spirit (‘Trinitarian’) ‘godhead.’ What most Christians don’t realize is that their Achilles’ Heel continues to be their acceptance of Paul, whom Christianity has virtually made a ‘prophet’ speaking on behalf of Jesus!
Under Pauline influence, the human Jesus became the spiritualized, divine being, the ‘Christ,’ at some point —whether at his birth or before his birth, or at his baptism, or at his supposed ‘resurrection’ from the dead, or at his ascension to heaven. In effect, the Pauline teaching about ‘Christ’ makes a virtual ‘deity’ out of what was once a humble but divinely-guided Jewish teacher. Paul has survived twenty centuries as the self-selected interpreter of the ‘gospel of Jesus.’ Paul virtually stands in the place of ‘prophet’ in relation to the divinized Jesus —a virtual god according to Paul’s ‘gospel.’ It is this Jesus-made-Christ, whose amalgamated story Paul took great pains to theologize and proclaim.
True monotheism (tawHîd) does not allow for any shred or tinge of ‘god-ness’ other than in the case of the unique and singular, all-powerful Creator. It is only the One God who sends true prophets. Those self-sent or sent by other than Him are phonies: false prophets —whether widely-acclaimed or little-known to history or whether modern claimants (Matthew 7:21-23, 24:11; 2 Peter 2:1).
Jesus as Prophet
The ‘Gospel’ message (= injîl) of Prophet Jesus (عليه السلام) himself was meant to bring about what Jesus called a ‘Kingdom of God’ on earth: a community of people submitted to ‘what God requires of them.’ The outlines of such a ‘Kingdom’ are preserved down to our present day in Jesus’ well-known block of teaching, his ’Sermon on the Mount’ (Gospel of Matthew 5-7).
But nothing comparable to our shariCah remains intact in Christian scripture as part of the teaching of Jesus (عليه السلام). Why not? Was the shariCah of Jesus lost? Not at all. He was a Bani Isrâ’îl reformer, not a new ‘Law Giver’ subsequent to Moses (عليه السلام). For Jesus, the ‘Law’ was the same Law given through Moses; Jesus did not abolish it; he explicitly pronounced it as remaining in effect. (Matthew 5:17). Jesus submitted himself to the Law of Moses and taught his followers to do the same; he was a muslim in the functional sense. The ‘Kingdom of God’ teachings of Jesus, notably his numerous parables, are preserved in the Gospel books of Christian scripture. However, would-be followers of Jesus are in the un-enviable situation of having Jesus’ teaching overshadowed, even overturned. For the average Christian, the very teachings and words of Jesus easily become obsolete in their understanding, so as to be forgotten, once s/he reads Paul’s subsequent preaching about Jesus.
When the Church canonized Paul as her theological authority, acknowledging Paul as interpreter of Jesus’ message, they adopted Paul’s Jesus-Christ-gospel as an overlay onto Jesus’ Kingdom-of-God gospel. Teacher Jesus of the four Gospel books became the cosmic Christ of Paul’s writings (Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 2:5-11).
Followers of Jesus (عليه السلام) will be able to attain to Jesus’ ‘Kingdom of God,’ practically speaking, only when they are singularly committed to the monotheistic teaching of Jesus as their prophet, submitting themselves to the divine guidance relayed by Jesus. Centuries ago, the Church led her adherents to idolize Jesus as a ‘divine’ personage, God-the-Son, giving prominence to Paul and deferring to the subsequent Church apparatus, which would govern orthodox ‘Christian’ belief.
When Muslims and Christians ally themselves in unified commitment to fulfilling charitable goals in mutual respect and reciprocal aid, we all ‘win.’ What Christians stand to learn from Dr. Shedinger —and which Muslims need to bring to their exchanges with Christians— is that the Church has re-made Jesus into a ‘religious’ figure; if the Church is not able, from within, to retrace her steps back to the prophetic persona of Jesus —removing the ‘religous’ image of Jesus— then individuals who want to follow Jesus must find their own way, apart from the Church. Shedinger’s question—Was Jesus a Muslim?—might help open the way for them.
To be continued, insha Allah in Part 30…