How did a Jewish preacher who became the Christian Messiah also become one of the most admired figures in the Quran? Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish journalist and contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times, sets out to explore this apparent conundrum.
The result will come as something of a revelation to many non-Muslim readers, since Jesus is revered in Islam’s sacred text as a great teacher and prophet, while his mother, Mary, gets more ink — and praise — than in all four New Testament Gospels put together.
If the Quran’s portrayal of Jesus is familiar in outline, however, its details are sometimes not, especially to Western Christians used to a single canonical version. The Quran is more ecumenical, dipping into the rich mélange of Middle Eastern traditions contained in the apocryphal and “gnostic” gospels and still very much alive in the popular lore of Eastern Christianity. It shows Jesus making clay birds and then breathing life into them, for instance, or Mary giving birth not in a Bethlehem stable with Joseph in attendance but alone under a palm tree, deep in the desert.
Akyol makes good use of both canonical and noncanonical sources, tracing where and why the Islamic approach agrees with Christian tradition (yes to Jesus as the messenger, prophet, word and spirit of God), and where it disagrees (no to the Resurrection, and no to divinity). Along the way, he ups the ante by finding what he calls “astonishing” parallels between the Quran and early Christian texts, though such astonishment seems unnecessary to this reader. Given the fertile interchange of ideas and lore in the multiethnic Byzantine Middle East, such parallels were not only likely, but even inevitable.