“Jesus addressed the very problems that haunt us today and established a prophetic wisdom perfectly fit for our times,” Mustafa Akoyl, a Muslim journalist from Turkey, wrote recently in the New York Times. Considered a prophet in Islam, Akoyl suggests in his book, The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims, that Muslims today take a closer look at Jesus in the Koran for a more peaceful approach to conflicting visions of Islam. Akoyl, Senior Visiting Fellow at the Freedom Project at Wellesley College, talks about the idea and the book with Kathryn Jean Lopez.
Lopez: What’s the vicious cycle “between Western-secularist Muslims and their nativist rivals?”
Akoyl: It is the vicious cycle of dictatorship. In the Middle East, the state is a Leviathan with unlimited powers, and rival groups battle with each other to take control of it. (A bit like in Game of Thrones, if you watch that series!) When secular powers take hold, they typically oppress Islamic groups. When Islamic groups come to power, they become the new dictators, oppressing their rivals and imposing their values.
Iran is a good example. The two subsequent Shahs in the 20th century were secularist dictators. The earlier one, Reza Shah (1925-41) went as far as banning women from wearing the Islamic headscarf. When Ayatollah Khomeini toppled his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, this time the headscarf became compulsory by law. The Iranian society, in other words, never experienced freedom. It rather oscillated from one form of authoritarianism to another one.
I was hoping that we finally broke that vicious cycle in Turkey. But, well, in the past few years, I got disillusioned with that hope. Now I see a light in Tunisia.
“Son of God” is one of the clash points you consider. But it doesn’t need to be as much as it has been? Is this another misunderstanding?
This is one of the bones of contentions between Christians and Muslims about which I want to bring some understanding. Typically Muslims find the term “Son of God” scandalous, because it is condemned in the Qur’an as an affront to God. When you look at the Qur’an’s relevant verses carefully, however, there is a nuance. The verses that condemn “those who say God has a son” use the Arabic walad, which is a biological son, rather than ibn, which can be a metaphorical son. What the Qur’an denounces, in other words, is the idea that God sired a child through sexual intercourse.
When you look at the Qur’an’s context, this makes a lot of sense. Pagan Arabs, just like pagan Greeks, believed in carnal deities who had sons, daughters and wives. The Qur’an seems to be condemning their beliefs, rather than the Christian faith, in which Jesus’ sonship to God is certainly metaphorical, not biological. A few medieval Muslim scholars noted this nuance, which was later forgotten.
Who is Muhammad Abduh and could his observations really catch fire?
Muhammad Abduh was the late 19th century Egyptian Muslim scholar who was one of the pioneers of what we today call “Islamic modernism.” He admired achievements he saw in Europe, criticized the dogmatism and rigidity he saw in Islamic tradition, and argued for Islamic reform. Reform-minded Muslims still respect him, whereas ultra-conservatives see him as a heretic.
For me, he is also critical, because for the reform he wanted to initiate in Islam, he pointed to Jesus as a source of inspiration. Jesus called the Jews of this time to look at the moral purposes of law rather than its literal meaning, Abduh wrote, and that is what Muslims exactly need today.
At one point in the book, you suggest “different religious traditions should ‘compete with each other in doing good,’ while agreeing to disagree about their differences, deferring the ultimate judgment to God, to be given in the afterlife.” What would that mean for evangelization/proselyting? We should be free to make the invite?
Of course we should be free to make the invite — that is a part of religious freedom. But, theologically speaking, should we evangelize with the claim that only our faith represents the truth, all other traditions are in utter falsehood?
My answer is “no.” I find a better answer in a maxim that the great Turko-Kurdish Islamic scholar Said Nursi (d. 1960) said about different sects within Islam. “You can say my school is the best one,” he wrote, “but you should not say it is the only good one.” I extend that to religions. We can all believe that truth shines in our religion more than in others. But we shouldn’t think others are in pitch dark.
How much of an audience is there for the idea of Islam taking Jesus more seriously – especially among clerics and scholars with clout?
On the one hand, Jesus is highly respected by all Muslims, for he is venerated in the Qur’an. On the other hand, most Muslims are unaware of the teachings of Jesus. The novelty in my book is to call fellow Muslims to learn those teachings by reading the New Testament Gospels.
Is this a heresy? No, because the Qur’an itself praises the Gospels and refers to them. No wonder a few Muslim scholars in the past took that approach and studied Jesus by reading the New Testament. But it is an uncommon approach; hence I am trying to popularize it.
You talk about Jesus and mercy. Pope Francis has emphasized this mercy, seemingly to the world. Do you feel a kinship with him in this effort?
I do. Honestly, I like Pope Francis and his effort to make the Catholic Church more open and embracing. I also know the conservative argument against that: If you become too liberal, then you lose your essence and maybe your distinctive charm as well. But the opposite risk is to be too rigid and to push people away from the faith.
In Islam, we are certainly on the more rigid side of this spectrum today. We would not lose but only gain by embracing more liberal theologies — and liberal jurisprudential reforms as well. I wish, therefore, we had more leaders in the Islamic world like Pope Francis.