Jesus through Muslim eyes

Shumack, Richard. Jesus through Muslim eyes. London: SPCK, 2020. 145 pp. Paper, ISBN 0-281-08193-6.

Look for the book here.


What’s the Issue?

Recently a Muslim friend asked me this question: “You seem to know so much about Islam and understand that Muslims also love and revere Jesus. So why haven’t you become a Muslim yet?” That certainly took the conversation to the heart level!

Indeed, any Christian who has spent much time engaging with Muslim friends may have led with a question of their own: “Since even the Qur’an attests to Jesus’ miraculous birth and sinless life, why wouldn’t you go to him for help in getting to heaven? Wouldn’t Jesus be up more help to you on judgment day than Muhammad?” And the answer comes back, “No, Muhammed is the final prophet and has brought to us the perfect religion. It is you who will have trouble on judgment day because you are seeking to make Jesus more than a prophet.”

For the Christian looking at Islam, the things that are utterly unique about Jesus, even as attested in the Islamic canon, end up being little more than historical curiosities. They just don’t seem to have any theological significance. In fact, to read anything into them is seen by Muslims as denigrating Jesus and blaspheming God.

This issue is at the heart of Jesus Through Muslim Eyes, a book that was short-listed for the 2021 Australian Christian Book of the Year. Now the author is not, of course, a Muslim looking at Jesus through Muslim eyes, but a Christian responding to the challenge of his Muslim friends. They challenged him to seriously consider and embrace the “Muslim Jesus,” that is, Jesus as he is seen in Islam. Author Richard Shumack is an academic who specializes in Islam and the defense of Christian belief, most notably as Director of The Centre for the Study of Islam at the Melbourne School of Theology, and a research fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. In his previous book, The Wisdom of Islam and the Foolishness of Christianity, Shumack presented a philosophical case for Christianity in comparison with Islam. Jesus Through Muslim Eyes is pitched at a more popular level.

Easy to Read

It may surprise people how easy this book is to read. The style is conversational, and pithy stories from the author’s life and experiences are used to illustrate abstract points and concepts. The book is clearly laid out in four parts, the chapters are short and to the point, and the flow of thought is easy to follow.

Part One: The Muslim Jesus

In the first part, Shumack introduces the Muslim Jesus. That is, the portraits of Jesus as he can be found in the various Islamic sources. These include: Jesus as he would have been known in Arabia at the time of Muhammad, the Jesus of the Qur’an and Islamic traditions such as the hadith, the Sufi (mystical) Jesus, and a contemporary presentation of the Muslim Jesus.

Already there were some new revelations for me. The contemporary version of the Muslim Jesus that Shumack describes for us comes from Turkish writer and journalist Mustafa Akyol. This was the first I had heard of Akyol and I am not sure how influential he is. Elsewhere, Schumack points out that famed early Muslim historian Al-Tabari mentioned reports stating that the flight to Egypt was a fulfillment of prophecy and that Jesus told his disciples he would sacrifice himself for them. However, again, the Islamic sources provide no further explanations or implications.

The rest of Shumack’s book goes on to test this rather variegated Muslim Jesus over against the Christian Jesus in terms of history, doctrinal controversies, and practical guidance on the ideal religious life.

Part Two: Christian Conspiracy?

Part Two, then, examines the questions: Is it the Muslim Jesus who is more at home in history? Have Christians therefore been involved in a conspiracy to corrupt the historical Jesus and fabricate a “Christian Jesus?” As Shumack explains, the Apostles, the Council of Nicea and Paul are the alleged conspirators; the Ebionites and “Jewish Christian” Gospels (such as the Gospel of the Hebrews) are the conspired against. But, like many conspiracy theories, while it may be very convincing to the believers, it cannot stand up to rigorous scrutiny. Along the way, Shumack observes that Muslims and Christians are in a similar position when it comes to verifying the reliability of their historical texts. In this respect, the Ebionite “Gospel of the Hebrews” would not even pass as an authentic hadith.

Shumack’s contention is that the Qur’an has essentially appropriated various oral traditions that were floating around in Arabia, in the process of “cleansing” them of any report that is unacceptable to the emerging Islamic faith. As such, Islam does not offer any new or independent information about the historical Jesus. Thus, “the Muslim Jesus appears to have emerged out of religious conviction, not out of the pages of history.” (p. 73)

Part Three: Is Jesus more at home in Islam or Christianity?

In Part Three Shumack goes on to question whether the Muslim Jesus is even at home within Islam! This perhaps illustrates how difficult it is to “cleanse” the reports about Jesus from all that is “offensive,” for so much about him is unique and remarkable. Shumack highlights features of the Muslim Jesus including the virgin birth, the titles given to Jesus (“Messiah”), his speech, his behaviour and the key role he is said to play on Judgment Day. Even references to the Last Supper and Jesus’ self-sacrifice have come through into the Islamic material. Yet all these features fit into Islam rather awkwardly:

However beautiful Islam might be Jesus doesn’t appear to fit comfortably into it. He is different to all other Muslims. He turns up mysteriously, identifies unusually, talks strangely and acts weirdly. Too many of his titles are anachronistic; too many of his words are dislocated from their context; too many of his actions are out of the box. He is accommodated but never quite accepted for who he really is. In short, we have seen that Jesus does not appear to be at home here. He feels too big for his limited role. Of course, just how much bigger is the key dispute between Christianity and Islam. (p. 99)

Shumack ends Part Three by arguing that “in the end, in Islam, Jesus is striking, but dislocated. In Christianity, he is gloriously, and religiously at home.” (p. 102)

Part Four: Following Jesus

Part Four brings the book home by looking at the practical outcome: what would it be like to follow the Muslim Jesus or the Christian Jesus? The issue here is that Muslims tend to understand Islam and Christianity to be the same kind of religion, and therefore feel that followers of both faiths should be able to find a common religious ethic that transcends different views of Jesus. However, for the Christian, the road that the Muslim Jesus walks is virtuous but impossible for us to walk because of sin. Meanwhile, for the Muslim person, the Muslim Jesus is not sufficiently Islamic – indeed he is quite dismissive of law (Shari’a) which is the very heart of Islamic guidance for the righteous life!

The question then arises: how is it that Christians can claim to be following the Christian Jesus? Here we come quite literally to the crux of the matter. The following that the Christian Jesus calls for is of a wholly different kind. For the road that Jesus walked led to a cross. And it is at this cross that the enigma of Jesus is resolved. It is through the transformational event of the cross and resurrection that sinful humans may become followers.

“The Qur’an describes a beautiful religious walk along a road smooth enough to traverse in your own strength. The Gospels portray a humiliating and mysterious journey in which God carries you over steep and insurmountable obstacles by his Spirit.” (p. 133)

Shumack contends that the most neighbourly approach is simply to be honest – to acknowledge and embrace the gulf between the two visions of Jesus. “The Muslim Jesus wants you to be a better person; the Christian Jesus wants you to be a whole new person,” and “only the true Jesus can get you to your eternal destination” (pp. 138-139).

That we are talking about entirely different conceptions of the relationship between God and people should come as no surprise to the thoughtful Christian. Yet it is the route by which we have arrived at this point that is important. Shumack’s work here provides an opportunity for a Christian to come alongside a Muslim in stepping through the issues surrounding the person of Jesus and clarifying just what is at stake.

Criticisms and Recommendations

I do have some small criticisms. I suppose anything written at a more popular level runs the risk of oversimplification. In chapter one Shumack concludes that the pre-Islamic Jesus of Arabia “was essentially the orthodox Christian Jesus.” Surely there were prominent non-orthodox Christian Jesus’ around too. Otherwise why, for example, would the Qur’an record Allah as saying,”O Jesus, Son of Mary, did you say to the people, ‘Take me and my mother as deities besides Allah ?'” Surah 5.116

Additionally, Shumack relies heavily on just a few authors, particularly Tarif Khalidi. This may be what leads him to conflate the kind of Islamic literature called “Tales of the Prophets” (Qisas al-Anbiya) with the Sufi Jesus. In fact, “Tales of the Prophets” material is far more complicated than that. The argument would be strengthened with a little more sophistication here.

I must admit to some enduring unease about the title of the book. It did not prepare me for something quite so polemical. A more descriptive (honest?) title would perhaps be: A Christian Looks at the Muslim Jesus (And Finds Him Wanting). To be sure, the disclaimer (if we can call it that) is made in the Prologue. But there is still an air of “bait and switch” about the title.

Is this, then, a book to give to Muslim friends? Certainly, as Peter Riddell says in his “blurb,” this book will be very helpful to Christian readers. But it has also won plaudits from some Muslim scholars for its contribution to Muslim-Christian understanding. So, I think it could also be given to a Muslim friend, though I would recommend telling them about the author and character of the book upfront.

Better still, digest it and use it as a guide to your conversations with Muslim friends about the person of Jesus.

Finally, there is evidence of a lack of attention to detail on the part of the editor/publisher. The book’s lone diagram, given on page 70, is unreadable. I also noticed some sloppiness in the spell-checking and compilation of the endnotes.

Last Word

So how did I answer the Muslim friend who asked me why I hadn’t converted? Basically by saying that I need a saviour, not just a series of prophets telling me how to live a better life. As Shumack writes of the Christian Jesus at the very end of this book, “I’m sticking with him.”

1 thought on “Jesus through Muslim eyes”

  1. Great review! Thanks.
    Your review has motivated me to get the book. It sounds like I would learn a lot, and it would equip me for explaining Jesus to my Muslim friends.

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