Jesus didn’t die on the cross. He was born of a virgin, but he isn’t the son of God. He did not redeem the sins of humankind. He healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, and raised the dead. He spoke complete sentences even as an infant in t
he cradle, announcing to his mother, Mary, that God had granted him the scripture and made him a prophet. Jesus is neither almighty nor eternal. Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus is a Muslim.
This is the Jesus of the Koran. Ninety-three of its verses refer to him—more than any other prophet save Muhammad—and the Koranic account of Jesus’ life harmonizes with the Gospels in more particulars than even many Muslims realize. My wife is a Muslim with years of madrassa education behind her, but when I mentioned Jesus’ virgin birth to her she was skeptical. “Does the Koran really say that?” she asked. I started to look it up, but five seconds later she waved me off. “Don’t bother,” she said, “I found it on Wikipedia.” And so it was written.
With Easter on the way, I became curious about what the Koran has to say about the crucifixion. I called an imam I know, Ibrahim Sayar, and we got together over glasses of Turkish tea. Sayar does a lot of interfaith work, much of which involves getting people from different religions together to eat kebabs. In the company of Christians, he said, mentioning the status of Jesus in Islam can be a great icebreaker. “I always tell people, there are millions of Muslims named after Jesus and Mary—we call them Isa and Mariam,” he said. “Nobody names their children after someone they don’t like.”
In Islam, he emphasized, “believing in Jesus is an absolute requirement. If you don’t believe in him, you’re automatically not a Muslim.” According to the hadith—sayings of the Prophet, second only to the Koran in Islamic authority—Jesus was assumed into heaven, and will return at the end of time in the east of Damascus, his hands resting on the shoulders of two angels. When it sees him, the Antichrist will dissolve like salt in water, and Jesus will rule the earth for forty years. What Muslims don’t believe, though, is that Jesus died on the cross. It’s spelled out quite clearly, Sayar said, in the Koran’s fourth Sura, verse 157: “They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him.”
The Bible is considered a holy book in Islam. How then, I asked, can this verse in the Koran be reconciled with the accounts of Jesus’ death in the Gospels? Sayar said the key is in the phrase that follows “nor did they crucify him”: “though it was made to look like that to them.” Muslim scholars, he explained, interpret this passage in a range of ways. Some believe that someone was, in fact, crucified, but it was not Jesus; maybe it was Judas. Whoever it was, they say, God changed his face to resemble Jesus, and Jesus himself was spared. A slight variation posits that God changed the vision of all those who witnessed the crucifixion to make them think they were seeing Jesus. Others argue that it wasJesus who was nailed to the cross, but that he survived it; what happened on Easter Sunday was not a resurrection but a resuscitation. Some say that no one was crucified at all. “Of course,” Sayar said, “they all have their own proofs.”
For Muslims, the specifics of the crucifixion are largely academic. The disagreement between Christians and Muslims on the nature of Jesus, though, is fundamental, no matter how many ways their understanding of him may correspond. To Muslims, Jesus is not, and could not possibly be, divine. He is a prophet but he’s still a mortal, and God is not his father. “I understand that if you believe someone to be God, and others say he’s not God, it’s like an insult,” Sayar said. “But if you look at it from the Muslim perspective, there’s no difference between Jesus, Abraham, Mohammed.” The Koran mentions twenty-five prophets, and nearly all of them are familiar from the Bible: Adam and Noah, Moses and Abraham, David and Solomon, Lot and Job, John the Baptist. “They’re all messengers,” Sayar said. But to Christians, the message of Jesus is inseparable from his crucifixion and resurrection.
When Muslims and Christians meet, Sayer said, the Jesus connection can only take them so far. Getting into a deep conversation about exactly what happened to the Jesus in the Gospels versus the Jesus in the Koran only ends up emphasizing the gulf. “We try to learn from each other as we are,” Sayar said. “We are not doing this for the afterlife. We are doing it for this life. In the afterlife we’ll see anyway who is wrong, who is right, what is Jesus—we will learn everything there.” Until that time comes, it might be best to focus on the kebabs.
This Article is written by Author Rollo Romig in Newyourker.com in 2012