This is the “Preface” to the book The Mystery Of The Historical Jesus: The Messiah in the Qur’an, the Bible, and Historical Sources
My interest in Jesus is not new. It started as far back as I can remember. I was born to an Iraqi Christian family — a Catholic father and Orthodox mother. My parents were not particularly religious and by no means regular Churchgoers, but they had a strong awareness of their Christian identity, as did their three children.
With religion rarely a topic of discussion at home, my Catholic primary school ensured that I was influenced by Christian teachings and the stories of Jesus. I was around 8 years old or so when my fascination with Jesus led to an encounter with him in a dream which I still remember vividly. I saw myself walking with him hand in hand on an endless beautiful green plain. He looked like his images. He did not speak to me, nor I to him. That dream left me with a special feeling of satisfaction.
In my last year in the Catholic school, I received the Sacrament of the First Eucharist. I considered that day to be the best and happiest of my life. Someone — possibly one of my parents — then told me that this is how Napoleon Bonaparte also felt about his first Eucharist. This reassured me that although I was only 12 years old, this feeling was unlikely to change. I continued to attend church and take the Holy Communion regularly for a couple of months before my interest started to wane.
Leaving the Catholic school and joining a state run intermediary school marked a significant change in my contact with Christian practices and teachings. There was not much of a Christian atmosphere at home — apart from the icons on the walls, attending the church for social functions each now and then, and, of course, celebrating Christmas and Easter — and now there was no Christian teaching at school either. Those three years were marked by more of a loss of interest in religion than any change in my religious views. I still considered myself a Christian, but did not really care much as to what that meant.
But things were to change at high school, where I became friends with someone who held Marxist views and, expectedly, did not believe in the existence of God. The fact this friend came from a Christian family must have made it easier for me to examine my Christian faith. We used to spend many hours discussing various topics of interest. I did not find myself particularly interested in this friend’s political views, although socialism appealed to me, but I found myself gradually getting closer to his dismissive views of religion. By the time I joined university, I had labeled myself an “atheist.”
In my second year at university I befriended a very different person. He was a very liberal Muslim with a strange mix of intelligent insights and outlandish views supported by an unenviable amount of self-righteousness. This friendship gave me another opportunity to reexamine my beliefs. I had never considered Islam seriously. What I knew about Islam was largely the myths that I was taught at home, which were popular among other Christians. One of these claimed that Muhammad was taught the Qur’an by a renegade Christian priest called Bahira. Later I discovered that the oldest surviving biography of Prophet Muhammad presents this priest as a solitary monk whom the young boy Muhammad met when he was in the company of his uncle on a commercial journey to Syria. Bahira identified Muhammad as the awaited future Prophet.
My close friendship with this person, which replaced my friendship with the Marxist, made me take Islam, and more specifically the Qur’an, seriously and study it, although not in a systematic way. In the first year of this friendship I read the four Gospels critically and wrote a critique of them. This short revisit of Christianity confirmed to me the unreliability of the Gospels and my earlier decision to reject it. But this time I was not to go back to atheism but to enter reassuringly the new world of the Qur’an.
This is how my gradual conversion to Islam started. By the time I was 23 years old or so, I could describe myself as a Muslim, although more so intellectually than in practice. The Qur’an took center stage in my life and, among other things, renewed my interest in Jesus. While it speaks highly of all prophets, it paints a particularly venerable picture of Jesus and presents him as a unique prophet, but this image is very different from the divine Jesus of the New Testament. This book is an expression of my lifelong fascination with Jesus.
But I did not write this book only because of my personal interest. True, I enjoy writing books, but I can motivate myself to write a book only if I believe it can be a genuinely new contribution to the available literature. And this book is no exception. Let me explain why I believe that this book is a new addition to the literature on the historical Jesus and not a rewrite of something already available.
Numerous books and articles have examined the historicity of the Jesus of the Gospels. Some endorse his image in the New Testament, others accept parts of it and reject others, and yet others draw completely different pictures of this intriguing man. There is even a small minority of writers who have gone as far as suggesting that there was never a Jesus in history! Depending on the backgrounds, goals, and trainings of their respective authors, these works relied on the New Testament, Christian sources, Jewish writings, or other historical sources, or on combinations of these writings. The Qur’an is rarely mentioned, let alone seriously considered, by the mainly Western authors of these writings. The explicit or implicit reasoning for this neglect is the perceived historical worthlessness of the Qur’an.
There have also been a few studies that considered the Qur’anic Jesus from a Christian point of view. One such study is Jesus in the Qur’an, which was first published in 1965, by Professor Geoffrey Parrinder. This Methodist minister had the commendable goal of bridging the gap between the Qur’an and the Gospels and wrote a very sensitive and sympathetic book. But his method was to show that the differences of the Qur’an with the Gospels are either due to misunderstanding Qur’anic verses or such passages targeting non-canonical or “apocryphal” Christian concepts not what the New Testament says.
Another study that may be worth citing is Kenneth Cragg’s Jesus and the Muslim: An Exploration, first published in 1985. Bishop Cragg focused on clarifying for Muslims the misunderstanding of their scripture of Christian theology.
In addition to the fact that both of these studies are written from a Christian perspective, both of them are religious studies that do not consider independent sources. Reading the Qur’an from the New Testament’s point of view is interesting, but what history says about the New Testament is at least not less so.
Muslim scholars have also written quite a lot about Jesus. But, contrary to their Western counterparts, they focused mainly on the Qur’an and other Islamic sources. The Christian image of Jesus is often cited to be dismissed, usually on the basis of what Islamic sources say, but at times because of its incoherence and internal discrepancies. Like Western scholars who have ignored the Qur’an, Muslim writers have ignored independent historical sources.
This book fills a gap in the literature on the historical Jesus by considering simultaneously the Qur’anic account of Jesus’ life, its counterparts in the Gospels, and historical sources. As I explain in more detail in Chapter 1, the book sets out to show that, unlike the New Testament stories, the Qur’anic statements about Jesus are consistent and can be reconciled with what we know from history. Put differently, this book is an attempt to know the historical Jesus by studying both the Qur’an and history.
My original plan for the book was to focus on studying the Qur’anic account in the light of history and to cite the New Testament as little as possible. I thought there were already numerous studies that examine the Gospel accounts in their own right and in the light of history. But as I started writing the book I found it difficult to adhere to the original plan. One reason is that presenting the accounts of the Gospels alongside that of the Qur’an is itself useful in showing significant differences between the two. It would make the message of the book clearer to the Christian, Muslim, and other readers.
Of course, it is the reader who will ultimately judge how much this book has succeeded in what it set out to do. But I sincerely believe that the attempt was more than worth doing. I also hope that others will follow suit and study the historical Jesus from the Qur’anic perspective.
I mentioned earlier the critique of the Gospels that I wrote about 26 years ago. It was useful to me then, but I did not do much with it until 6 years later when I used it to impress my future wife, Shetha. Neither she nor I had any idea at the time that 20 years later I would be presenting her with a much more substantial study to read and critique. This book has benefited immensely from Shetha’s extensive comments on two earlier drafts. She has also given me a lot of editorial help with the book. As ever, she has given me all the help I asked for. Her contribution to this book, as it is to my other works, is invaluable. I cannot thank her enough.
My close friend Howard Hall has also kindly acted as a reviewer on the book. His thoughtful comments and suggestions helped me spot and remedy gaps in the book. He also highlighted weaknesses that I needed to address. I am indebted to Howard.
I have also got used to the help of my close friend Tariq Chaudhry with reviewing my writings. Tariq read thoroughly an earlier draft of the book and added many comments. These comments allowed me to make the text read better and clearer. I would like to thank Tariq for his help.
These three generous reviewers have helped me to greatly improve the book. Any oversights and mistakes that are in the book are mine, and mine alone.
Copyright © 2007 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved