“O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other. Verily the most honored 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).” As cited in the Qur’an-(Chambers :13)
I think it is safe to assert that when faced with significant adversity or uncertainty, human beings are, at times, guilty of simplifying a problem in order to escape the complexities that lie therein. In recent times, our modern world has been faced with the problem of religious extremism and fundamentalism that seems to influence those of the monotheistic faith communities to think that our religions fail to have much in common. Moreover, with the recent interaction our nation has had with the Arab world, we have been exposed to a barrage of opinions regarding the religion of Islam that could be characterized as simplified and generalized. Not only do such simplifications of the Islamic world have negative implications for the health of our nation’s relationships abroad, but it severely hinders any widespread effort to discover common ground amongst the Christian and Muslim faiths for the sake of mutual understanding, cooperation, and an illumination of significant areas of agreement. Luckily, there are those within both the Christian and Islamic faiths that are currently attempting to reverse this tide of simplification steeped in misunderstandings, and are doing so by acknowledging common ground, but also key differences within the religions that necessitate more dialogue and clarification. At Greenville College we are privileged to have among us one such person who is contributing to the realm of common ground apologetics in order to bring about more successful cooperation amongst two of the most influential religions in the world- Christianity and Islam. Entitled The Mission and Death of Jesus in Islam and Christianity, Mathias Zahniser’s latest book seeks to carefully find common ground between the two monotheistic faiths before exploring thoroughly the historicity of the cross and its meaning as represented in both the Biblical accounts and in the Qur’an.
Practically speaking, the book initially challenges the reader to consider significant moral values shared by both faith communities: “knowledge, faith, loyalty, communal solidarity, confession, forgiveness, family loyalty, social justice, economic security, and political order.” Moreover, Muslims and Christians not only share a similar belief in one God, but also a mutual respect for scripture that inevitably leads to a discussion regarding distinctive differences within such scriptures. However, as the book highlights, passages from the Qur’an emphasize not only the importance of mutual understanding between the faiths, but encourage dialogue acknowledging key distinctions in order to bring about greater mutual understanding. One key difference is the treatment of Christ’s crucifixion. For Christians, the story of Christ’s crucifixion is a relational event in which God, seeking to participate in the human story, identifies with us by experiencing all that is fully human, even to the extent of experiencing a sense of absence from God. On the cross, God illuminates the teachings and life of Jesus. However, Islamic tradition informs its followers that Christ did not die and was in fact spared by God and taken to heaven so as not to be shamed. Within the Islamic faith, Christ is viewed in a favorable light as one who served as a prophet of God in order to preach compassion and love to humanity. In tracing the origin of such tradition in the Muslim faith, the positive treatment of Christ and the apostles in the Qur’an, Qur’anic commentaries and the Hadith (collections of Muhammad’s life and teachings), Zahniser poses the question to his Muslim audience-“How could a person with the integrity both Muslims and Christians believe Jesus exhibited allow someone else to die for him when he made it clear that his death was certain and would be vindicated?” According to Zahniser, it is the Islamic tradition, or the Hadith, that is the main cause of the Muslim view that Christ did not die and was taken to heaven. Zahniser’s chapter addressing the Muslim tradition (Hadith) raises doubts based on Muslim sources about the reliability of the tradition used to support the interpretation of the Qur’an that Jesus did not die nor was crucified. As Zahniser stated in our interview, the chapter “is designed to raise questions about the authenticity of the sayings of Muhammad that Jesus has not died yet, but will return in the last days to live and then die.”
For those of you who keep track of current development within the intellectual circles of Islam, there is presently a movement underway in Turkey by Muslim scholars from Ankara University who are beginning to revise and explore the Hadith and analyze its authenticity. Though largely controversial, the scholars argue that perhaps some of the statements found within the Hadith uttered by the prophet were in fact forged and have worked to obscure the original values of Islam instead of enhancing them. Mathias approaches his critique of the Hadith carefully, seeking not only to be gently persuasive, but primarily to find common ground at every point in his discussion over the treatment of Jesus’ crucifixion and death in the Muslim tradition. He hopes to provoke questions within Islam about the common tradition that is widely accepted. Though Zahniser makes clear his hope that such dialogue that searches for mutual understanding between the two faiths will foremost seek to build relationships, root out double standards, recognize the primacy of persons, and ultimately built solid relationships between those followers of both monotheistic faiths, it is also evident that such a discussion must address the issues the book raises about Islam’s treatment of Christ’s death. According to Mathias, his hope for his Muslim audience is that their reviews of his book will suggest what sections of the book are suited for a closer look at a reinvented understanding of the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ.