We continue from Part 27 our look at the question, Was Jesus a Muslim?— as answered by Christian writer, Robert F. Shedinger, in his book by the same name. Page number references refer to this book.
Jesus Supported a Sharica-Based Religious Community
Earlier in this series, we zeroed in on the message of Jesus —according to the Gospel (referring to our injîl) writings of the New Testament (Christian scripture). We noted that this message was something that Jesus repeatedly termed the ‘Good News of the Kingdom of God.’
‘Good news’ was a term used in the ancient world to promulgate a message to the people by someone in authority, for example, by the Roman Emperor of Jesus’ time. A case in point is the good news of the divine Julius Caesar, to be followed by his successor Augustus Caesar who took the Latin title divi fili (‘son of a god’). In the case of the Jewish Jesus, his divinely-sent ‘goodnews’ was a new prophetic correction of the spiritual orientation under which his people were to conduct their lives, in accordance with the Covenant that God had concluded with Abraham, and in keeping with the shari’ah (‘Law’) brought through Moses.
We also explained that the ‘Kingdom of God‘ was a coded name for the ‘reign of God,’ that is, God’s revealed ways as applied to a community, whose individuals aim to live up to ‘what God requires‘ of them—to use Jesus’ expression (Matthew 5: 6, 10).
This kind of social organization (the ‘kingdom of God’) is what Shedinger refers to (See Part 23 of this series) as the “divinely revealed principles” which motivate “an inherently political movement designed to promote just and egalitarian communities…”. Using Islamic terminology, one can say that the ‘Kingdom of God’ taught by Jesus equates to a shariCa belonging to a community committed to living it. Shedinger thus will ask his [Christian] readers to readjust their categorization of Islam:
By transcending the depoliticized boundaries inherent in most Western definitions of religion, Islam, in the view of many Muslim thinkers, becomes a movement that resists the discourse of domestication, a movement that refuses to acquiesce to unjust political and economic structure, but rather seeks constantly to transform those structures in accord with a divine mandate toward just human relationships.
I argue that we consider viewing Islam not as a religion but as a type of social justice movement. By highlighting the political dimension of Islam, I do not mean to reduce Islam simply to the level of political ideology—as so often happens in contemporary neoconservative discourse—for Islam is much more than a political ideology.
Specifically, I will attempt to show how an Islamic worldview conceives of the political and spiritual as mutually reinforcing aspects of an overarching unity that cannot be adequately understood via the sacred-profane dualism that is so deeply entrenched in the Western worldview and that underwrites the Western concept of religion. (p. 16)
Shedinger approaches the Western vs. Muslim divide within a sociological framework and using terminology that is current in the academic study of Religion. Thus, even the term ‘religion’ has its own Western orientation that would be foreign to a Muslim or Jewish understanding. Emerging from Shedinger’s re-conceptualization of ‘religion’ to fit a non-Western/ non-Christian world of ideas comes the next question, “If Jesus was not experienced by his contemporaries as a ‘religious’ figure—[meaning ‘religious’] in the restricted spiritual sense—any more than was Muhammad, how was he experienced?” (p. 16). Shedinger will conclude that the historical Jesus was…
…more consistent with the later Islamic interpretation of him as a prophet of the Islamic message of justice than with the later Christian understanding that transformed Jesus into the central theological concept of an essentially depoliticized religious tradition that has in too many cases acquiesced to systems of global domination and injustice. It may be that Christianity has lost the spirit of Jesus by allowing itself to become “religionized.” (p. 16)
‘Religion-ization’ and Global Injustice
Having firmly exposed the distorted terminology, Shedinger will argue for a solution to the situation in which Christians—and many Western Muslims—find themselves (p. 17):
Metareligious dialogue has the potential to help Christians understand contemporary Islamist movements not as a threatening politicization of a normally peaceful Islam but as movements of struggle against systems of globalized injustice, a struggle that is entirely consistent with the fundamental nature of the mission of Jesus and therefore a struggle Christians must join.
Rather than being so concerned with the so-called politicization of Islam, I will argue that the primary issue Christians must face is the actual “religionization” of Christianity and the role our acquiescence to this “religionization” plays in the maintenance of systems of global injustice.
…I hope that arguing for a Muslim identity for Jesus may become a liberating lesson for Christians and a key piece in the struggle to improve relations between Christians and Muslims in a fractured and unjust world.
Shedinger admits that few Western Christians, in particular American Christians, will be able to question the religious worldview in which they have been so thoroughly socialized. Clearly it is Shedinger’s mission in this book to open that way. Solidarity based on Christian rethinking of Jesus will come slowly, he confesses —but a transformation of the present unjust world could not be more urgent. Authentic dialogue is powerful— but possible “only when both sides are heard and fully engaged.” (p. 18)
At this juncture, the reader may ask, “I’m all for Muslims teaming up with Christians —or with anyone else— for justice and peace, but how is this relevant to monotheism as an issue of interfaith mutual understanding? After all, gross misunderstanding often preclude heart-felt cooperation. My answer: As Shedinger notes, the need for social justice is urgent. Let’s face it: Muslims do not live comfortably in Western society when social injustices and political corruption cloud the picture such that they open the way for us to be bashed with impunity. Our understanding of justice for all is part and parcel of Tawhîd (monotheism).
In Islam the sacred and profane are intertwined. It has always been our ‘business’ to ensure the social, economic and political justice of the societies in which we have a stake and to the degree that we are able. Grameen Bank and Muhammad Yusuf”s Microfinance is a high-profile modern-day attempt to implement Islamic values in Muslim majority areas —even though he does not tout this movement as aligned with ‘Shari’ah-compliant’ Islamic financing. Social justice efforts cannot succeed anywhere if limited to single-handed Muslim efforts. When we come across those who can work with us in correcting social ills, we should welcome them and find a way to make best use of their talents and experience.
If we follow the example of our beloved Prophet (ﷺ), our lifestyle is part of our daCwah. When we team up with others for accomplishing our long-term goal of universal justice, it is a win-win situation. When we share our belief system with others, simple monotheism is our first topic; it is the sine qua non of our worldview, that which orients us to all else in our experience.
Their Understanding of Us Can Stem from Our Understanding of Them
The historical Jesus was a pure monotheist. Not even ‘Christological Christians’ (See Part 1 through Part 7 of this series) can question the strict monotheistic statements of Jesus to this effect. But they may need for this to be pointed out to them in their own scriptures, maybe repeatedly —just as we repeatedly remind ourselves— until simplicity dawns. Challenging, indeed, are the paradoxical incongruities between the simple, straightforward monotheism of Jesus and the complex, mystery-laden ‘Christological monotheism’ inherited by mainstream Christianity.
Official Christianity as a world ‘religion’ has lost the sense of simple, pure monotheism as a primary concept and has moved beyond the teaching of Jesus —since the time when the Church authorized Paul as interpreter of Jesus” mission.
The Church went to great lengths over the centuries —on a grand detour, claiming to build upon the recorded words of Jesus— to define the Pauline-inspired ‘divine’ nature of Jesus. (See Part 8 through Part 12 of this series.)
Has this brought Christianity unity? Hardly. Even modern ‘ecumenical‘ movements have not brought wholeness to a theologically-divided Christendom. The personal example of Paul (Bible, Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 1: 6-2:14) is decidedly not a model of brotherly understanding, I would point out. Christians have been “socialized” not to question Paul. After all, his writings were ‘canonized‘ as holy scripture by the time of the fourth century CE.
In stark contrast, the example and ‘Kingdom ethics’ [the terminology used by modern Christian scholars] of the absolutely pure monotheism of Prophet Jesus were such a model of brotherhood. (See the Gospel according to Matthew, chapters 5-7.) And for us Muslims the life and message of Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) is the definitive model of brotherhood and mutual cooperation —preserved in the most verifiable and undeniable manner.
It is the “religion-ization” of Jesus’ way, as described by Shedinger —using terminology from the academic study of religion— that has made ‘Christians’ unable to see Jesus as an honored Prophet of God.
To be continued, Insha Allah, in Part 29…