What Jesus means to me as a Muslim
By Omar Suleiman
(RNS) — “So, what are you doing for Christmas? ” asked a pastor, a good friend of mine, after a recent interfaith panel discussion on Zoom that we’d both participated in. I responded, “Saving my money!”
He jokingly responded, “Oh, OK, I’ll make sure to hit you back up on Eid, and we’ll see how that money-saving is going.”
Then we had a nice conversation about holidays and rituals — why we Muslims don’t try having an Eid Santa (we agreed he could have the same beard!), and our favorite topic: Jesus (peace be upon him).
Jesus (peace be upon him) is truly special to Muslims, and not in any superficial or ambiguous sense. One of the highest prophets and messengers of God, Jesus is mentioned in the Quran 25 times, with an entire chapter named after his honored mother, the Virgin Mary, to whom he was born miraculously, and who some Muslim scholars have deemed a prophet herself.
For Muslims, Jesus is also the chosen Messiah to return to this earth in its final days (though the implications of the term Messiah differ between Muslims and Christians), and distinguished in the hereafter with a special place in paradise.
But in our talk this time, my pastor friend asked me something that I’d never been asked before: Do Muslims have any connection to Jesus beyond how he fits into Islam’s overall theological conception as a messenger of God? After all, Muslims don’t celebrate any holidays surrounding Jesus or pray to him. How often does Jesus come up in the average Muslim’s life?
It was a fascinating question that took me some time to answer.
It is not an exaggeration to say that I could not be a Muslim without believing in Jesus. Islam has six articles of faith: belief in God, the angels, the divinely revealed scriptures, the messengers of God, the day of judgment and divine decree. To disbelieve in any one of those articles of faith is to disbelieve in Islam, and to reject any messenger of God (from Adam to Noah, Abraham to Moses, Jesus to Muhammad) is to reject Islam.
So while we Muslims fundamentally differ with our Christian brethren on the Trinity, crucifixion and salvation, our belief in Jesus is fundamental to our faith.
But do I have a daily connection to Jesus?
One answer is strictly scriptural. The story of Jesus, his miraculous birth, his miracles, creedal beliefs, etc., are scattered throughout the Quran. Since Muslims recite the Quran daily in their five daily prayers — and ideally outside of their daily prayers either for the purpose of devotion or memorization — the name and story of Jesus are naturally recited often.
For example, the third chapter of the Quran is named “Ale Imran,” which means “the Family of Imran.” Many Christian traditions know Imran as Joachim, the father of Mary. The Quran’s fifth chapter, “Al Maida” or “the Table Spread,” refers to Jesus feasting with his companions. In these places, as well as in the chapter dedicated to Mary, Jesus is at the forefront of our thoughts.
There are also numerous moral stories of Jesus found in the hadiths (the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) and throughout the books of Islamic scholars and sages across history.
In the most authoritative hadith collection of the Persian imam and scholar Bukhari, the Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said that Jesus once saw a man stealing and asked him, “Did you steal? He said, ‘No, by God, other than Whom no one has the right to be worshipped.’ Jesus responded and said, ‘I believe in God and suspect my eyes.’” The lesson of the story is to assume well of people, and not indulge in suspicion.
A similar sentiment is conveyed in a saying collected by Imam Malik, one of the four great imams of Sunni Islam, who reported, “Jesus, the son of Mary, said, ‘Do not speak much without remembering God, for by doing so, you harden your hearts. Surely a hard heart is distant from God, though you are unaware. Do not, like lords, look at the faults of others. Rather, like servants, look at your own faults. In truth, humanity consists of only two types, the afflicted and the sound. So show mercy to the afflicted, and praise God for well-being.’”
The great Imam Al Ghazali, famous for his works on spirituality, wrote, “Jesus said, ‘You will never obtain what you desire except through patience with what you despise.’”
Our connection, though, goes beyond mentions of Jesus’ teachings in our sacred writings. Through numerous sayings like the above, various Islamic works discuss how to apply Jesus’ words so they have their intended impact on our daily lives.
So while we Muslims model our lives after the carefully documented life of the Prophet Muhammad, we believe that the creed and character of the prophets of God are one. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “I am the nearest of the people to Jesus the son of Mary in this life and in the Hereafter.”
It was said, “How is that, Oh Messenger of God?” The Prophet responded, “The Prophets are brothers from one father with different mothers. They have one religion and there was no other prophet between us.”
Image caption: The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is lit during the 86th annual Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting ceremony on Nov. 28, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)