How can two different religious traditions embrace such different views of Jesus? Professor Mona Siddiqui of Edinburgh University looks at how Christianity and Islam understand Jesus from both an academic and a personal standpoint.
[Siddiqui] makes no secret of the various strains of thought that inform her study of Christians, Muslims and Jesus. Parts of her book are rigorously academic and arcane, other parts are very personal. Unlike Mr Aslan, she does not confine her meditations on her own faith to an introduction. Rather, she ambitiously weaves her personal and scholarly views throughout.
She presents certain basic facts: Muslims revere Jesus as a uniquely inspired prophet who was born of the Virgin Mary, ascended to heaven and will come again. Yet Muslims cannot accept that Jesus was the son of God. This, they believe, reflects a flawed view of both Jesus and God. As Ms Siddiqui shows, Christians and Muslims sparred with one another intensely during the early centuries after Islam’s rise, with each side vying to be the ultimate revelation of God. But the two faiths did at least grudgingly acknowledge one another as monotheistic, despite Islam’s firm rejection of the Christian view of God as a trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The most compelling passages are the personal ones, in which the author sets out some of her own dilemmas. A Muslim, she describes herself as fascinated by Christianity. But she remains committed to an Islamic belief in a God who is utterly transcendent and so could not have taken human form, as Christians say of Jesus.
The challenge when looking at religion is that the traditions within both Christianity and Islam are complex and inter-woven. So just when we think we understand the tradition in its totality, we find faithful adherents who don't meet our mold.
To her credit, Ms Siddiqui perceives the dilemmas faced by the early Christian church better than many contemporary liberal Christians do. After all, she shares with the church fathers an uncompromisingly God-centred view of the world—one that is foreign to most modern Westerners, even those who practise a religion. She senses why the idea of God becoming man seemed to the church fathers to be at once outrageous and also true.
Still, however deep her intuitive connection with Christianity, she ends the book by pinpointing why she is unable to accept the Christian understanding of God. She cannot submit to the idea that humanity was estranged from God before Jesus came; or that as Jesus God walked on earth and made a supreme sacrifice (the crucifixion), which somehow ended that estrangement. For her the Christian deity is both too far away and too close.
That is a personal choice, not an intellectual position. But some readers may conclude that Ms Siddiqui’s study of the Christian church fathers, diligent as it is, falls short. It is true that Augustine, a pioneer of Christian thought, stressed man’s alienation from God before Jesus. It is also true that in the last millennium or so the idea of Christ’s death as a necessary sacrifice has been stressed by Catholic and Protestant teaching. But there have always been Christian thinkers who feel that Augustine exaggerated human sinfulness. Plenty more reject the view that the crucifixion was a way of assuaging an angry God. Ms Siddiqui’s dialogue with Christianity will get even more interesting if she engages with the many Christians who agree that Augustine’s God is too remote.