Most Christians I know are very pious people, who if not for the overriding authority of their churches and their ridiculous dogmas, would love to live the way Jesus had wished them to live, worshipping God and God alone, keeping the commandments and doing good to their fellow men.
This is in sharp contrast to the Jews, many of whom are to this day a proud, arrogant lot, thinking of themselves as the chosen people and looking down on the rest of humanity. If you read the Bible you might find the answer to that. When Sarah saw Ishmael, the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham playing with her son Isaac, she ordered Abraham: “Drive out that slave and her son! No son of that slave is going to share the inheritance with my son Isaac!”. Little doubt much of that arrogance would have rubbed off on her descendants.
However Jesus would have none of it. Did he not defend his cure of a woman on the Sabbath on the plea that she was a ‘daughter of Abraham’ and befriend the tax collector Zacchaeus because he too was ‘a son of Abraham’. Although at first sight it would seem that Jesus wished to single out the Jews for special treatment, reading deeper into his words, it seems that he was preparing his people not to think just in terms of the tribe of Israel founded by Jacob, but in terms of a larger cause represented by Abraham, the friend of God and the common ancestor of both Jew and Arab in spite of the fact that the Jews of his time looked down upon their Arab cousins as children of a slave woman. By calling his people children of Abraham rather than of Israel he was preparing them for the higher mission to come in the person of Muhammad who was himself a descendant of Abraham.
Likewise those who followed Christ including his earliest Jewish followers however did not have the racial pride and spite for others the rest of their tribe tribe had. They were pure men and women and wished all well in their desire to earn the Grace of God. Did not his closest disciple Peter say that God would pour out His spirit “On all people” (Acts 2:17) and that “He accepts anyone who worships Him and does what is right. It is immaterial what nation they come from” (Acts 10:35). Thus while the Christian wishes to share his message of love, the Jew jealously keeps his faith to himself; while the Christian wishes well for all, the Jew wishes evil to those not of his kind; while the Christian is sincere, the Jew is conceited; while the Christian is generous, the Jew is tight-fisted and while the Christian is willing to lend an ear to another, the Jew remains firm as a rock.
This is why we see the Qur’an referring to Christians in very endearing terms, while condemning the Jews as the enemies of the believers in the strongest possible terms:
Strongest among men in enmity to the believers will you find the Jews and Pagans; and nearest among them in love to the believers will you find those who say “We are Christians”. Because among them are men devoted to learning and men who have renounced the world, and they are not arrogant. And when they listen to the revelation received by the Messenger, you will see their eyes overflowing with tears, for they recognize the truth. They pray: “Our Lord, we believe. Write us down among the witnesses. What cause can we have not to believe in God and the truth which has come to us, seeing that we long for our Lord to admit us to the company of the righteous?” And for this their prayer has God rewarded them with Gardens with rivers flowing underneath – their eternal home
This genuine love for God was seen even in the days of the Prophet, like when the Negus, the ruler of Abysinnia (present day Ethiopia) heard the words of the Qur’an regarding Mary from a companion of the Prophet. He wept so hard that his beard was wet and the tears that poured down the cheeks of his bishops were so copious that their scrolls were soaked in it. In the Qur’an, God tells us Himself that He has out compassion and mercy into the hearts of Christians:
Then We sent after them Our Messengers, and We sent Jesus, son of Mary, and gave him the Gospel. And We put in the hearts of those who followed him compassion and mercy. But We did not command monasticism. Rather they invented it for themselves to please God with it
The disciples of Jesus are called by God Al Hawariyyun ‘the Purified Ones’, which can also mean ‘the white ones’ as they were not only pure in heart, but were always seen dressed in white. They are also called God’s Helpers: “O ye who believe! Be ye helpers of God. As said Jesus, the Son of Mary, to the Disciples “Who will be my helpers to God?” Said the disciples: “We are God’s helpers!” (The Battle Array:14). The Arabic word used here for God’s helpers is Ansarullah and it is this word that gives us the Muslim term used for a Christian, which is Nasara meaning ‘helper’. In contrast, the very word Christian, by which we know the followers of this great religion was given not by the friends of the early Christians, but by their foes, the Jews and Pagans.
The first mention of it is found long after Jesus had left this world, in Acts 11:26 where we read: “the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch”. Jesus never used the word Christianity for his teachings or Christian for his followers. In fact, what Islam teaches us was that his disciples were Muslims, meaning those who surrendered to God. We read in the Qur’an that when Jesus found unbelief on the part of his Jewish compatriots, he asked “Who will be my helpers to (the work of) God?” and the disciples answered: “We are God’s helpers. We believe in God and bear witness that we are those who surrender (to God)” (Family Imraan:52). The Arabic word used here for ‘those who surrender’ is Muslim.
The Prophet of Islam always had a soft spot for the Christians, many of whom were also Arabs. In fact, it was a Christian priest named Bahira who noticed the signs of prophethood in the young Muhammad and told his uncle Abu Talib: “Take your nephew back to his country and guard him carefully against the Jews, for by God, if they see him and know about him what I know, they will do him evil. A great future lies before this nephew of yours. So take him home quickly”. Bahira was a good Christian who did not like the idea of a Jewish Herod hunting down the young Arab boy who would follow in the footsteps of Jesus. His name which has come down to us is actually the Syriac word bhira meaning ‘reverend’.
And who can forget Addas, the young Christian boy from Nineveh who gave a plate of grapes to Muhammad after he was set upon by a mob in the walled city of Taif. Muhammad who had then commenced his mission had been met with hostility in his hometown of Mecca and as if that were not enough was now set upon by urchins in this beautiful town where he fondly believed the folk would listen to him. He was in such despair that he cried out: “O God to Thee I complain of my weakness, little resource and lowliness before men. O Most Merciful, Thou art the Lord of the weak and Thou art my Lord. To whom wilt Thou confide me? To one afar who will misuse me? Or to an enemy to whom Thou hast given power over me? If Thou art not angry with me, I care not. The Favour is more wide for me. I take refuge in the light of Thy countenance by which the darkness is illumined and the things of this world and the next are rightly ordered”. It was then that Addas appeared before the Prophet as if a ‘Sign’ that his prayers were answered.
When he saw the Arab prophet blessing the meal in the “name of God’ before he ate, he was astonished.He was elated when the prophet told him that he, like the Prophet Jonah of his hometown Nineveh, was also a Prophet and therefore a brother of Jonah. Addas was so overcome with Joy that he kissed the Prophet’s hands. The Prophet was overjoyed at the kind reception he got from one of the People of the Book, giving him hope to continue his mission.
And which Muslim can ever forget that it was a Christian King, the Negus of Abyssinia in present-day Ethiopia who first gave refuge to the early Muslims fleeing the persecution of the Quraysh in Mecca. Eighty Muslims thus forsook their homes and emigrated to Abyssinia where the Negus gave them protection, in spite of the pleadings of the emissaries of the Meccan chiefs to send them away. Said he: “Nay, by God, they shall not be surrendered, a people that have sought my protection and made my country their abode and chosen me above all others! Give them up I will not”
The Prophet, when he emerged victorious against the Pagans and Jews, reciprocated the kindheartedness of the Christians who had been so kind to him and his followers in their most difficult days. Once, when a delegation of Christians from Najran near Yemen visited the Prophet in Medina, he warmly welcomed them and even let them pray in his mosque. He even entered into a covenant with them, guaranteeing their religious freedom:
The people of Najran and their dependents shall remain under the protection of God, and Muhammad the Prophet, the Messenger of God. Their persons, their religion, their lands, their possessions and their churches shall remain safe. This treaty holds good for all people of Najran, whether present or not. No bishop shall be removed from his bishopric, no monk from his monasticism and no devotee from his devotions
(Tabaqat al Kubra, Ibn Sa’d)
That’s not all. The early Muslims did their best to win the hearts of Christians, demonstrating that Islam was merely a continuation of the teachings of Christ, like when the Prophet’s envoy Hatib Ibn Abi Belta had this to say to the Christian ruler of Alexandria named Muqawqis:
We invite you to Islam, the faith that God most High chose for his people. Muhammad invites not only you, but all of mankind. The people who were the harshest and cruelest to him were the people of Quraysh. And the people that were the most hostile to him were the Jews. However, those who are the closest to him are the Christians. Just as Moses heralded Jesus, so too Jesus gave good news of the coming of Muhammad. Our calling you to the Qur’an is like you calling to the Gospels those who follow the Torah. Everybody should follow the Prophet who was sent in his own time. You too are living in the time of Muhammad. As such, by calling you to Islam, we do not want to separate you from the religion of Jesus. On the contrary we propose that you do what is in accordance with the message he brought.
The fact is that despite the obvious dogmatic differences between Islam and the established Christian churches, Christians come closest to Muslims in their piety, love of God and liking to do Good. Indeed, in many ways, Jesus’ teachings of love and compassion some close to the Islamic ideal as taught by our Prophet. Did not Jesus, upon whom be peace, teach men not to make a show of their good deeds, but to do it for the sake of God and God alone?
“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them”
“When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting”
“When you give alms. Do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and the streets to win the praise of others. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret”
Jesus could certainly not brook the hypocrisy that had taken hold of the Jews of his time, like when he overturned the tables of the money changers in Jerusalem, crying out that it was written: “My house shall be a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of thieves” (Matthew 21:12-13). He pointed out that despite the commandment of God to Moses to ‘Honour your father and mother’ they claimed “If a person says to father or mother “any support you might have had from me is qorban (dedicated to God)” you allow him to do nothing more for his father or mother. You nullify the Word of God in favour of your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many such things” (Mark 7:10-13). Like any good prophet, he exposed the futility of erecting tombs and monuments for prophets and righteous men to make a show of it:“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous” (Matthew 23:27–29).
Besides expecting his followers to follow the law to the letter, he also expected them to follow it in spirit, like when he said: “You have heard that it was said: “You shall not commit adultery”. But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has committed adultery in his heart” (Matthew 5:27).
And if that were not enough, he expected a very high moral standard for his followers, such as when he pronounced: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better to lose one of your members, than to have your whole body go into Gehenna” (Matthew 5:29-30).
And if even that were not enough, he expected his followers to be detached from the world as much as possible and to trust in and depend on God absolutely, like when he said: “Do not worry about your life and what you will eat, or about your body and what you will wear. For life is more than food and the body more than clothing? Notice the ravens. They do not sow or reap; they have neither storehouses nor barn, yet God feeds them. How much more important are you than birds! Can any of you by worrying add a moment to your life-span? If even the smallest things are beyond your control, why are you anxious about the rest? Notice how the flowers grow. They do not toil or spin. But I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of them” (Luke 12:22-27).
Indeed, when you read the Bible you will find that the moral teachings of Jesus were higher than any found in the Old Testament such as when he advised:
“When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, crippled, the lame, the blind. Blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:13-14)
In like manner, Muhammad, upon whom be peace, told his followers how helping God’s creatures was related to Godliness in a very powerful narration:
God will say: “I asked you for food and you did not feed Me’. He (Man) will say: ‘Lord, how could I feed You when You did not ask me for food and You are the Lord of the universe?’ He will say: ‘Do you not know that My slave so-and-so asked you for food and you did not feed him? Do you not know that if you had fed him, you would have found that action with Me? Son of Adam, I asked you for water and you did not give Me water.’ The man will reply: ‘O Lord, how could I give you water when You are the Lord of the universe?’ He will say: ‘My slave so-and-so asked you for water and you did not give him water. Do you not know that if you had given him water, you would have found that action with Me? Son of Adam, I was ill and you did not visit Me.’ He will say: ‘O Lord, how could I visit You when You are the Lord of the universe?’ He will say, ‘Do you not know that My slave so-and-so was ill. If you had visited him you would have found Me with him” (Adab Al Mufrad).
Another very important moral teaching of Jesus was God’s love for the repentant sinner and the need to move away from a ‘holier than thou’ attitude’ like we see in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector:
Two people went to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer: “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income”. But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast and prayed: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner”. I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former, but everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted (Luke 18: 10-14).
Jesus stressed on repentance that much, why, because man is prone to sin, though he may not even know it. That is why he said, again speaking in parable:
What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy, and upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbours and says to them: “Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep”. I tell you, in just the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance”(Luke 15:4-7).
In similar vein did Muhammad declare:
God is more delighted with the repentance of His slave when he repents, than any of you would be if (he found his) camel, which he had been riding in a barren desert, after it had escaped from him carrying his food and drink. After he despaired of it, he came to a tree and laid down in its shade. Then while he was despairing of it, the camel came and stood by his side, and he seized its reins and cried out in joy, ‘O God, You are my servant and I am your Lord!’ – making this mistake (in wording) out of his excessive joy”
Such teachings of Jesus are closer to that taught us by Muhammad than the Jewish view and way of life that stressed more on following the letter of the law than its spirit. Still, there are a few teachings of Jesus that must be viewed in the context in which they were uttered. One such is the other worldliness which Jesus preached, like when he said: “Whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33) or when he advised his followers to make themselves eunuchs “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:12). What all this shows is that what Jesus preached was in diametrical opposition to the vulgar materialistic worldview of the Jews of his day who exceeded all other nations in their love for gold and the pleasures of the flesh. Islam took a middle path, teaching moderation in all things, allowing one to enjoy the delights of this world while at the same time exercising control with regard to both wealth and sexual pleasure and being mindful to one’s duties to God and grateful for his blessings, so that you don’t find the extremisms you find in Christendom today, the abstemious celibate lives of monks and nuns and the wordly if not licentious lifestyles of their flock.
The same holds true about what he preached about non-resistance to evil: “But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil, but whoever that shall smite theee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39). What Jesus wished to drive home was to be forgiving, especially in view of the overly literal observance of the Mosaic Law of eye for an eye which could lead to a very vindictive and hard-hearted attitude if the circumstances are not considered. In all these respects, Islam took the middle course more compatible with human nature. It gave its followers the option to avenge oneself, like for like as stated in the Mosaic law, while at the same time urging them to be forgiving, bearing in mind that God is watching over them. Indeed, even the best of Christians find it hard to observe this teaching of Jesus as a general rule for all occasions, especially if such evil affects not just one’s self, but others or humanity as a whole. Yet still the Qur’an agrees with the moral principle that Jesus sought to teach his followers when it declared: “The good and the evil are not alike. Repel (evil) with what is better, then he between whom and thee there was enmity will become as though a bosom friend” (Expounded:34).
Thus while Moses brought the Law and Justice, Jesus brought Grace and Flexibility. Muhammad showed us the middle way between the Law of Moses and the Grace of Jesus. As much as it focused on ritual as the Old Testament did, it also stressed on piety and doing good to others as the New Testament does.
Among other things that unite us, Christian and Muslim, is our common belief in the virgin birth of Jesus, and in his ministry and his second coming to pave the way for a better world, a bright future which we both equally look forward to.
Finally, all I can say is that we Muslims are closer to Jesus than most of those who profess Christianity today. Jesus was circumcised, and so are we. Jesus fasted, and so do we. Jesus prayed, falling on his face before the Almighty, and so do we. Jesus was bearded and so are a good many devout Muslim men. He dressed modestly in long robes much like most Arab Muslim men. Even in nativity plays in Christian lands today, you will see Mary and her friends dressed in typical Arab fashion with Mary with her hood or headscarf and the men around her in typical Arab robes and headdresses. Nay, even our greeting is the same, for did not Jesus, standing in the midst of a gathering, say unto them: Peace Be Unto You (Luke 24:36). This very likely took the Aramaic form shlama lokhum ‘Peace Be Upon You’. This is exactly what we Muslims do when we greet somebody. We say Assalam Alaikum which means the same thing ‘Peace Be Upon You”. Thus in a sense we Muslims are more ‘Christian’, in the sense of being followers of Christ, than those in the West are. Indeed we’re more like the ‘Jesus freaks’ people in the West today look down upon!