Given that in some parts of the world you find violent conflict between Christians and Muslims, you might think that skirting around religious difference would be all to the good. The Muslim theologian Mona Siddiqui would disagree. Only by properly engaging with other traditions, she argues, can we avoid a mere “dialogue on the surface”. In this fascinating book she touches on a central doctrinal difference between the two largest monotheisms: the true nature of Jesus of Nazareth.
When Mohammed announced his new religion in the early seventh century, he claimed to be walking the same path as Old Testament prophets such as Abraham, Moses – and Jesus. The Koran relates that Jesus was born to a virgin called Mary, preached God’s word, gathered disciples and performed miracles. He was condemned to death by crucifixion, the Koran says, but was saved through divine intervention and ascended to heaven without dying. Jesus will return to Earth, according to Islamic tradition, as al-Masih – the Messiah.
The crucial difference from the Christian narrative is that for Muslims, Jesus is emphatically not the Son of God.
Christians were initially confused by Mohammed’s new faith. Were the Muslims a pagan Arab cult or a Christian heresy? Though some converted, large pockets retained their faith and there were civilised inter-religious debates. In 780, the Caliph al-Mahdi called the Nestorian Patriarch Timothy I to his court in Baghdad. If Jesus was really God, the caliph asked, why do the Gospels show him praying? Timothy replied that when conjoined with the Father and Spirit, Jesus was indeed God; but away from them on Earth, he “prayed as a man”. The debates clarified what is a mysterious issue even for Christians.