Beginning with this part, we move away from considering how the Christological aberrations with regard to ‘monotheism’ have come about within Christendom so as to overlay the teaching of Jesus. We move on to look at the difficulty that Western Christians have come to unwittingly suffer in their understanding of Islam—resulting from a mismatch of terminology fixed in their cultural heritage. Most notable is the academically indefinable term ‘religion.’

Series Recapitulation

In the previous twenty-five installments, we commented on two books by non-Muslim authors on subjects related to Christian beliefs about Jesus in the context of Jesus’ own clear statements of what we Muslims would label tawîd, or Oneness:

Lâ ilâha illa”Llâh, wadahu; lâ sharîka lahu:

There is no god but God, alone;

There is no partner for Him.

In Parts 1-7, we tagged along with British New Testament scholar, Professor James D. G. Dunn (Emeritus Lightfoot Professor of Divinity, University of Durham, U.K.) as he showed us how, according to Christian scholars, the earliest ‘Christians’ were those who ‘called upon Christ’ and who worshipped God exclusively— in, by and through ‘Jesus Christ.’ This remains a defining characteristic of those who today consider themselves followers of ‘Christ’—referring to a spiritualized Jesus. The ‘Jesus’ part of the Christian’s ‘Jesus Christ’ is to be recognized as our ‘Isa.

Then in Parts 8-12, we journeyed historically with author Richard E. Rubenstein through the fourth century Arian controversy which erupted in the Church at Alexandria (Egypt) and spread throughout Christendom. Arianism was an attempt to restrict the far-reaching and corruptive, theological implications of seeing Jesus as “divine.”

Christians of the 4th century C.E. accepted a ‘divinity’ category as applying to Jesus—because they had unquestioningly accepted the writings of Paul (prominent within Christian scripture) as the bona fides interpretation of the Jesus story. But Arius represented a dissenting voice that could understand a ‘like-God’ proposition for Jesus—if this was indeed to be required of Christians—only in a metaphorical or spiritual sense.

We concluded in these previous installments that this corrupted state of affairs among Christians was achievable because they lacked a proper concept of prophethood, against which to measure their theological misadventures.

‘Religion’ as a Mental Construct in the West

Our third author—in our quest to equip ourselves for suitable da’wah with Christians—is Professor of Religion at Luther College in rural Iowa, Dr. Robert F. Shedinger. His journeys into exploring the essence of Islam arose from university courses he had been advised to take during his student days so as to better his marketability in finding a teaching post in biblical studies. All quotations here come from Shedinger’s book, Was Jesus a Muslim? Questioning Categories in the Study of Religion (2009) Fortress Press: Minneapolis.

Typical of a Western Christian, he had assumed that all religion was to be measured through his own culturally defined experience, namely those propositions one believes and the spiritual experiences of the supernatural that one can feel—as distinguishable from other aspects of socio-cultural systems, like political or economic systems (p. 16). One could say that ‘religion,’ to a Western mind, is what one feels in one’s soul, rather than in one’s pocketbook or courts of justice, or banking system, for example.

This mismatch between Islamic categories and Western “Christian” assumptions, he lays out in detail within this book of his, which we are set to explore in the next dozen or so installments.   One cannot attempt to mix the ‘sacred’ and ‘profane,’ he assumed, since that would in some way pollute the purity of the sacred realm (p. 6). 

Shedinger’s Discovery

Once he found himself teaching Islam in his own classroom, Shedinger would find, however —in his encounters with Muslim students— quite a different way of approaching the world than through his Western-style category of ‘religion,’ something he had presumed was ‘universal’ and timeless. His Muslim students displayed a somehow different orientation and attitude toward life and their place in it than what he was used to.

So he set out to discover that whole other viewpoint which he knew belonged to a large segment of the world’s population. Until that point, this alternative concept had been beyond his awareness. Until then he had viewed Islam as a defective and handicapped version of perfect religion—probably a corruption of a true belief system. For him, of course, perfect [and therefore true] ‘religion’ meant [his own tradition of] Christianity (p. 13)—perhaps in the same way that a man might be inclined to view a woman as a defective and handicapped version of his own male species (or vice versa!).

We turn now to Shedinger’s refreshingly insightful book, Was Jesus a Muslim? Questioning Categories in the Study of Religion:

The idea that one might be persuaded to answer ‘Was Jesus a Muslim?’ in the affirmative has essentially forced itself upon me through a series of events largely beyond my control, and forced me to reconceptualize completely, almost against my will, how I understand Christianity, Islam, and the apparent conflict between them. (p. 1)

In short, I was forced to take what seemed at the time the radical step of questioning the utility of categorizing Islam as a religion, and I was forced to consider the even deeper question of whether religion itself a useful term for is categorizing any of the cultural traditions normally understood to be manifestations of religion. I intuitively knew I was beginning to tread down a path that would lead to a radical rethinking of my inherited worldview, and I was not sure I was ready to undertake such a journey. But in a very real way, I had no other choice. (p. 5)

Islam is More in Synch with Modern Study of ‘Religion’

Shedinger tells us that he is using established terminology in the modern academic study of Religion —not inventing concepts out of deference to Islam:

I am not saying anything particularly new to those familiar with the theoretical literature about religion or to adherents of ‘religions’ other than Western forms of Christianity, even if readers not so identified find some of these ideas disturbing.

My contribution here is to take this legacy of scholarship, synthesize it, and bring it to bear on a particular question: Whether it is meaningful to posit that Jesus might really have been a Muslim and, more importantly, to understand the implication of such an assertion for Christian-Muslim relations in a world of global injustice.

Given the long legacy of tension between Christians and Muslims and given the heightening of those tensions since the events of 9/11, conceiving of a relationship of Christian-Muslim solidarity against injustice is of crucial importance, though I believe it will only come about as a result of some rather bold thinking, especially on the part of Christians. In some small way, this is what I seek to offer here. (p. 8) 

Western Concept of ‘Religion’ is Lacking

Shedinger goes on to define what he has come to understand as a defective and subjective concept of ‘religion’ among Western Christians:

The understanding of religion as an entity with a unique essence distinct from the essence of politics, economics, and other social structures and institutions—an idea hereafter referred to as sui generis religion (from the Latin meaning ‘its own genus,’ thus ‘unique’ or ‘one of a kind’)—is a conception of religion lacking any clear evidentiary basis.

I will argue instead that sui generis religion should be understood as a subjective entity, a discourse, a way of talking about the world, or verbally structuring the world in a particular way. Religion in the sui generis sense is not an objective property of the world in which we live but the subjective creation of a particular human cultural context.

Thus while the discourse of sui generis religion certainly exists and promotes observable effects in the world that can be experienced, studied, and critiqued, in a very real way religion itself possesses no objective existence. Is this a radical proposition? Perhaps. But a new idea? Not at all. (pp. 8-9)

To be continued, insha’Allah, in Part 27…

Linda Thayer

Growing up Christian, Dr. Linda Thayer came to realize in her teens, that Jesus as 'divinity' and Jesus as the second 'person' of a 'Godhead' (the doctrine of the 'Trinity') were philosophical constructs, evolved later and not part of the New Testament Gospel books' portrait of the Son of Mary. In her 30's, when working as Bible translations consultant and linguistic advisor in West Africa, she had already added all things Islamic to her reading list, along with Biblical Studies. She has three university degrees in linguistic science (BA, MA, PhD), with a minor in anthropology. She believes that her fellow Muslims need to be current with the thinking and findings of modern Biblical Studies in order to meet Christians halfway in understanding the prophetic mission and personal nature of Jesus. To this end, she writes of the historical phenomenon of the Jesus movement from an interfaith perspective that dovetails with the Quran and ahâdîth.

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