Mustafa Akyol believes that Jesus’ teachings can help Islam overcome its extreme elements.
Mustafa Akyol is a brave man, smart and sincere. His ideas deserve to be aired.
In The Islamic Jesus (St. Martin’s Press, N.Y., 2017), he encourages Christians and Jews to understand what he and many scholars believe to be the influence of “Jewish Christian” communities of late antiquity on the Qur’an. He contends that offshoots of the “Jewish Christian” faith, which he traces to the apostle James in the Jerusalem church, survived in small sects.
Some of these sects were condemned by Christians as heretical — notably the Arians, Nestorians and Ebionites. These groups taught that Jesus was without sin. And they taught that he was the Christ, the Messiah. But they did not embrace the Trinity or, in most cases, worship Jesus as a member of the Godhead. In the 17th century some of their teachings reappeared in the West as Unitarianism.
Christians will question Akyol’s estimation of James’ differences with Paul. But Akyol is not evangelizing. Nor does his irenic message to Christians (and Jews) radically break new grounds of scholarship. In that sense, Akyol, a Turkish writer on faith, politics and economics, can be said to popularize some less noticed works of scholars.
Christians who read his book may be surprised to learn of the high opinion that Muhammad and the Qur’an have of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Of course, Muslims do not accept the “good news” of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross to save sinners. But Akyol separates from the traditional Muslim view that denies the historical reality of the Crucifixion. He suggests an alternative reading of the Qur’an — arguing that Jews did not crucify Jesus, but that Romans did.
What could do more to change a dialogue between Muslims and Christians is not Akyol’s message to Christians, however, but his message to Muslims.
Akyol’s Message to Muslims
Akyol, who earlier wrote Islam Without Extremes, believes that the teachings and example of Jesus — to the extent that they are compatible with the Qur’an’s accounts — can help Islam to overcome extreme elements in its midst. It is these elements, he believes, that have blocked economic and political progress, not to mention peace.
Akyol appreciates the teachings of Judaism. He also acknowledges the modern nation of Israel, though he objects to the West Bank settlements. Jewish history is more prominent in the Qur’an than Christian history, he points out.
He also notes the remarkable and creative way that Jews and Christians cooperate in politics and culture in our day.
But it is Jesus who speaks most to the needs of contemporary Islam. In some ways, the Qur’an elevates Jesus above all prophets. “We agree that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he was the Messiah, and that he is the Word of God.” Muslims also expect Jesus to come again in the last days. “Surely we do not worship Jesus, like Christians do,” says Akyol. “Yet still, we can follow him. In fact, given our grim malaise and his shining wisdom, we need to follow him,” Akyol declares.
Political Outreach Alone Won’t Work
These must have been tough sentences to write and to publish. There are Muslims who would shun or even kill Akyol for such expressions. He was an early supporter of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. He had believed Erdogan was an explicit and devout Muslim leader who could also be a strong supporter of human rights and economic freedom. In recent years, however, his hopes have been dashed. Just this year, he moved, at least temporarily, to Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
Most serious Christians know that a merely political outreach to Muslims is not enough for the cause of world peace, let alone for prosperity and scientific progress. What if Muslim reverence for Jesus could do what politics has failed to do?
Akyol praises the “non-literalists” among Muslim intellectuals in their approach to law, pitting them against what he sees as the “Pharisees” in contemporary Islam. “But,” he goes on, “for more impact, perhaps we can recall that Jesus, a great prophet of Islam, called for the exact same kind of reform in Judaism at a time when Jews were exactly like us. Jesus can, in other words, become a source of inspiration in Islam.”