Please note: what follows is a personal Christian perspective on this question
I am writing this post in response to the – often heated – debates I encounter on this subject on social media. I try not to get involved with such debates, partly because I have fairly scant knowledge of Islam and partly because I do not want to bring offence to any of my Muslim friends, or indeed to to Islam in general.
So what did Jesus have to say about Muslims? The short answer is that in his earthly life Jesus said nothing about Muslims. How could he? Jesus predated Mohammed by approximately 600 years.
Jesus did however lay down some principles by which we can address this question. Let us look at the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 27: 25-37):
25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Jesus is approached by a religious expert. A Pharisee. The Pharisees were a religious party within first century Judaism. The term Pharisee means ‘ones set apart’. An expert in Jewish religious law, this Pharisee may have also been a priest, although the text doesn’t tell us this.
Jesus is taking questions from a religious separatist and legalist. Its not the first time. Jesus had a real problem with the Pharisees, mainly because their religiosity (set apartness) was preventing ordinary folk from getting to know God. The Pharisees were continually hounding Jesus. In their mind He was a threat to their religious control. They hated Him for it. Eventually they would plot His downfall and death.
Get this. Jews didn’t kill Jesus. Religious fundamentalists did. They are still trying to kill Him (His influence) today, and many of them belong to the Church. In fact there’s a Pharisee lurking inside every person. I know. I used to be one. Sometimes I still am.
A Pharisee comes to Jesus with a question. Its a trick question, because the Pharisee already knows the answer. Religious fundamentalists always know the answer.
The question: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Its a religious preoccupation to be preoccupied with who who might – or more pointedly who might not – get into heaven (inherit eternal life). For the record, I believe there’s a heaven. I also believe there’s a hell (that’s another post, yet to be written!). However, I am not heaven’s gatekeeper. Nor should I ever be. Jesus never asked this of me. Neither does He require me to dwell on the afterlife. Jesus asks me to proclaim His Kingdom, and to live in its present reality. Heaven is here. Now. Among us. Within us. Eternal life begins today.
Religious fundamentalist (Pharisee): “…what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
Or to put it another way, “What is is written in the Law, and how do you interpret it?”
That’s the other thing about religious fundamentalism. It doesn’t do interpretation, rarely looking beyond the surface of the text. Interpretation (the posh word is hermeneutics) is important, because interpretation is about praxis/practice. What does the text say? What did it mean at the time of its writing? How do I apply it today?
The stuff of interpretation is the question behind the question. Within the answer is always another question. In answer to Jesus’ question, the Pharisee quotes the biblical Shema, the greatest commandment of all and for the observant Jew a daily prayer of devotion to God. To paraphrase: ‘Love God with all you’ve got and love your neighbour as you love yourself’. Perfect answer.
“Do this and you shall live”, replies Jesus. Read it. Ponder it. Live it out.
Yet this Pharisee can’t leave it there. He wishes to ‘justify’ himself. Religious fundamentalism always needs to justify itself. To be seen to be right.
Fundamentalism is a facet of the human condition. For some to know is to be sure, and to be sure that those who don’t know are wrong. Fundamentalism is a blight on all faith traditions, and most if not all belief systems – religious, political, etc.
“Who is my neighbour?”
“Who is my neighbour?” Here we get to the rub of my original question, ‘What does Jesus have to say about Muslims?’
The earthly Jesus doesn’t say anything about Muslims (because he predates Mohammed and Islam), but He does have a thing or two to say about Samaritans. Jesus appears to like the Samaritans. He values them.
You can google ‘Samaritans’ and find out for yourself about this ethno-religious people group. In view of my original question, what I want to draw attention to is the similarities between the way in which some Christians today view their Muslim neighbours and the way in which the religious fundamentalists of Jesus day treated their near neighbour.
The Samaritan people were near neighbours of the Jewish people. Today we might say ‘Near East near neighbours’, in the same way as the Muslim nations are near neighbours to the State of Israel and visa versa. Too close for comfort, perhaps?
The Samaritans held similar views about God to their Jewish neighbours. They were monotheists and worshipped Yahweh as the One True God, but their beliefs differed sufficiently enough from the Jews to be considered suspect. To the first century Palestinian Jew the Samaritan was ethnically and religiously impure.
See the connection? One religious group ‘othering’ another. Jesus never othered anyone. For Him there was no ‘us and them’. Simply us.
Jesus upturned the classic Pharisaical view of Samaritans. In John’s Gospel (chapter 4) we see how Jesus engages with a morally impure Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well, recognising the validity of Samaritan worship of Yahweh in that very place, whilst revealing that ‘salvation is from the Jews’, meaning Himself (from the lineage of).
Who is ‘my neighbour’ in the Story of the Good Samaritan? Everyone. The man walking the Jericho Road (ethnicity and religion not specified), the priest and the lawyer, the Samaritan and the innkeeper. Even the robbers.
They’re all neighbours. Of each other. And so are we. Of each other.
Elsewhere Jesus extends the Shema to include our enemies:
27 “I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.Luke 6: 27-31
Love. Do good. Bless. Pray. Offer. Give.
In life, as in the Story of the Good Samaritan, we are all neighbours. In friending our enemy we make them our friend, even if they do not reciprocate. I try not to view my Muslim neighbours as my enemy – even the small minority who may themselves view me as their enemy and who may wish to hurt me; taking note of what Brother Andrew said about Yasser Arafat (a Muslim) when he was asked why he called Arafat his friend: “What do you want me to call him – my enemy?”
I have always received respect and generosity from my Muslim neighbours and friends. I have been welcomed into their homes and mosques. Served great food. As have got to know Muslim people I have discovered that our religious traditions have far more in common than (in my ignorance) I first presumed. As an example, Muslims worship Allah (Arabic for God and related to the Hebrew term Elohim) and for them Jesus (Isa) is a prophet.
Do we (my Muslim neighbours and I) always agree on everything? No. There’s quite a bit we disagree on, but that shouldn’t be a cause for division. More a cause for robust discussion, challenge and mutual discovery.
As for ‘Christian’ suspicion that Muslims are out to destroy us, like I’ve said already this might apply to a very small minority. As Christians we need also to attend to our own history, removing the log from our own eye before turning our attention to the speck in that of others. A lifetime’s work.
Do I wish that my Muslim neighbours might come to know Isa as their Lord and Saviour? Of course I do. The Risen Christ tasked His followers with making “disciples of all nations [people groups]”. Yet, any disciple made through fear, threat or coercion is less likely to continue in ‘The Way’. My experience is that people who are manipulated (not discipled) into a faith stance soon drop out disillusioned.
Fear breeds hatred. Love gives birth to mercy. Mercy is a better way.
The Merciful One
The three ‘Abrahamic’ faith traditions all speak of God as One who is merciful in character.
The account of the Good Samaritan closes with this exchange:
Jesus to the religious fundamentalist (Pharisee): “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
The Pharisee: “The one who showed him mercy.”
Jesus: “Go and do likewise.”
The one who showed mercy. Mercy is known by its deeds.
What does showing mercy look like for us in light of the Story of the Good Samaritan? It looks like compassion (meaning ‘to suffer with’). Unexpected, life-saving compassion. Compassion in the face of fear and danger.
Today the Jericho Road runs from the Palestinian territories through Israel to Jerusalem, a city considered Holy by each of the three Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. A Pilgrim Road? The traveller on the Jericho Road, is he a Pilgrim? One seeking after God. Preyed upon by those who might rob him of his purpose and destination. Ignored by the pious and the religiously fearful. Saved by a merciful neighbour.
One final thought. What if the Good Samaritan is Jesus Himself? His religious rule-breaking certainly put Him beyond the pale in the eyes of the Pharisees. And maybe we – all of us – are ‘everyman/woman’ – the ordinary pilgrim walking the road of life. Beaten down, robbed and left for dead. Abandoned by religious institutions and rescued by One least expected.
“Go and do likewise.”