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The Muslim Jesus in a Danish Context 1

Marie Juul Petersen, translator of the Danish edition of Tarif Khalidi’s The Muslim Jesus

In the pamphlet "Jesus in Islam", the Danish professor Jes Asmussen 2  brings a story told by a Danish vicar, Ove Bruun Jørgensen, who served as army chaplain for the Danish UN soldiers in Gaza in 1961. Ove Bruun Jørgensen spent much of his time talking to the locals and he was surprised to find how popular stories about Jesus were among Muslims in the area. He wrote down one of them – a story told to him by an old Palestinian farmer:

In a town near the Dead Sea lived a wise man who could read the stars. One night, when looking at the stars, he saw that a special child was to be born in Bethlehem. It was a child that would become greater than any other human being, but the king of Jerusalem and Bethlehem would want to hurt him. When he saw this, the man decided to go to Bethlehem to find the child and his parents. He walked all the way to Bethlehem where he found Joseph and Maria and their child. He kissed the child’s feet and told him that he would be greater than any other human being, and that he would be the saviour of the world. But, the man said to Joseph and Maria, people want to hurt you, and you have to leave this place. Go to Egypt and stay there until your boy grows up. Joseph packed his mule with their few belongings, and then the little family left – heading for Egypt. They walked through Gaza, Khan Yunis and Rafah, and whenever they were lost, they looked at the stars for direction. This way, they found Egypt in the end. Today, the stars they followed are called Jesu path to Egypt.

When he had told the story to the chaplain, the Palestinian man said: “Every time I tell this story, I feel so strange, so strongly. We Muslims often think about Jesus – much more than people do in your Christian Europe”.

This story is an example of the role that Jesus plays in modern Islam. Another example is the fascinating poem about the crucifixion of Jesus, written by the poet Sayyab in the 1960s. In Islamic history and traditions, we find numerous of such stories, sayings and anecdotes, testifying to the important role that Jesus has played and still plays for many Muslims. Each in their way, the stories show that the relationship between the two religions is much more complex and nuanced than often assumed, and that there are many bonds binding them together.

Tarif Khalidi has collected many of these stories in his book, The Muslim Jesus. We are happy and proud to present the Danish translation of this wonderful book today. The Muslim Jesus consists in a collection of 303 short stories about Jesus’ actions and sayings – what Khalidi calls the Muslim gospel. The stories show how Muslims throughout time, in different places and in different ways have adopted the figure of Jesus to their own religious traditions, finding in him expressions of their own beliefs.

Khalidi has collected the stories from 8th to 18th century Islamic literature, and they have their origins in an area stretching from Spain to India. The stories were told and written down in Arabic, but have been translated into English by Tarif Khalidi. With a thorough and very informative introduction and comments to each story, Khalidi places this unique collection in a broad cultural, theological and historical context.

Even though the Muslim Jesus is an Islamic invention, the Jesus we meet in these stories does not always reflect the strict orthodoxy of his creators, as Khalidi says in his introduction. There is an important distinction between the Quranic Jesus and the Jesus we meet in the Muslim gospel. Whereas the Quran Islamizes Jesus by detaching him from specifically Christian concepts, the stories in Khalidi’s Muslim gospel present a more diverse, vivid and narrative image of Jesus. Some of the stories reflect Jesus’ sayings in the new Testament gospels, especially the Sermon on the Mount – others stem from pre-Islamic ascetics and are part of Near Eastern traditions of wisdom literature. Some stories are ascetic and strict, others philosophical and deeply spiritual, and yet others full of humour. One of my personal favourites is the story of Jesus and the quarrelling couple:

A couple is arguing in loud voices when Jesus walks by. What is wrong with you two, he asks. Look at her, the man says and points at his wife with disgust. When we married, she was young and beautiful, the skin on her face was smooth and without wrinkles. Now she looks like an old woman. Listen, Jesus says. When you eat, don’t stuff yourself, but eat slowly. This way your face will regain the smoothness of your youth. The woman follows his advice and the couple lives happily ever after.

Despite their differences, all the stories and sayings express a sincere joy of narration. They are written in a vivid and lucid language, and they have a short and concise form with easily understandable and clear points. In one story, Jesus is asked: “Which of your deeds is the best?” He answers: “Leaving alone that which does not concern me”. Another saying is “Be in the middle, but walk to the side” and “The world is a bridge, cross this bridge but do not build upon it” – this latter one is actually inscribed in one of the buildings of the mughal emperor of India

The Muslim Jesus has been translated to more than 20 languages, something which reflects its relevance and topicality all over the world. In a Danish context, we hope that the book can contribute to a focus on new topics and research fields within theology and the history of religion. Theologians often talk about a common Jewish-Christian history, Jewish-Christian culture or traditions, and the study of Judaism has for many years been an obvious object of study for theology. But Islam is also a part of this relationship – the three religions are historically connected and for all three of them, the concept of creation has a central position. Despite this, the study of Islam has only recently been allowed its rightful place within theology. Tarif Khalidi’s book about the Muslim Jesus introduces a wide range of interesting topics to embark on in studies of Islamic theology and the relations between Christianity and Islam.

On a different level, the book illustrates the significance that popular hand down has for the development of a religion. Previously, texts about Jesus were measured on their value as historical sources, which often lead to a rejection of popular traditions as irrelevant fiction. But recent years have witnessed an increasing interest in popular hand downs.

Proverbs and anecdotes as the ones we find in the Muslim gospel and in the Christian apocryphal traditions play a significant role in the development and handing down of religious traditions, ideas and practices and as such, they are important objects of study. The stories and sayings of the Muslim gospel might not bring us closer to an understanding of the historical Jesus, but they can tell us something about the people who told the stories and about their understanding of Jesus.

The Muslim Jesus is not just interesting to theologians – it is an interesting book for everybody who wants to know more about Islamic culture, thought and ideas. And as such, the book is highly relevant in a Danish context. More than 200.000 Danes are Muslim, and Islam has become an important part of Danish society. We are a part of each other’s life and we have to start getting to know each other.

The Danish philosopher and theologian Knud Ejler Løgstrup described his age as dominated by what he called an all-encompassing logic of duality – what Americans call ‘the tyranny of the Or’ – the tendency to organize everything according to binary oppositions and mutually excluding categories: Either you are for something or you are against it. There were only these two possible standpoints, incompatible and hostile towards each other, but at the same time living on each other’s biases and prejudices. This logic also seems to dominate the Danish debate on Islam today. Are you for Islam or are you against Islam? Are you for freedom of religion, anti-discrimination and multi-culturalism? Or are you against jihad, terrorism and the suppression of the freedom of speech?

The Muslim Jesus can, as Khalidi writes in his introduction, remind us that relations between Islam and Christianity have been different than this. There have been times when Christianity and Islam were more open to each other, more aware of and reliant on each others witness – and times when conversations between thee two reached further and deeper than today’s narrow and simplistic discussions on veils and cartoons.

Just like Christianity, Islam is not a monolithic block made of concrete, immovable and unchangeable. It is a religion with multiple traditions and expressions – a religion which develops, moves and changes throughout history and in dialectic interaction with the local traditions and communities in which it is embedded. Khalidi’s Muslim Jesus gives us an insight into this development.

And just like the book can teach us something about Islam, it might also teach us something about Christianity. Islam’s views on Jesus can remind us of hitherto overlooked or forgotten aspects of Islam or they might present what is well-known in a new light.

With the Danish translation of The Muslim Jesus we hope to contribute to an open and engaged conversation about religion, based on a curiosity and genuine interest in what divides and unites Islam and Christianity.

K. E. Løgstrup once said: As important as it is to live with each other in a pluralist society, as important is it not to settle for this pluralism and spiritual idleness, but continue to do what we can to find and convince each other of shared connections and commonalities. There is something common that is worth talking about, there are some common human conditions – we live the same life, albeit in different ways.

As Grundtvig said: Whether we are Christians or atheists, Muslims or Jews, what we have in common is the mysterious enigma of life and human existence.

These common conditions of human life are what the small publishing firm Mimer focuses on in their publications which include Martin Buber, Knud Ejler Løgstrup and Knud Hansen. We are proud to add Tarif Khalidi’s book to our publications – and thrilled that you would come to Copenhagen to visit us. We look forward to hearing you speak about the Muslim Jesus. Before I give the floor to you, on behalf of Mimer I would like to thank Professor Jørgen S. Nielsen for his excellent foreword to the Danish edition of the Muslim Jesus. Also, a big thanks to you and your staff at Center for European Islamic Thinking for taking the initiative to this event and for organising it. Finally, let me thank Grundtvigsfonden for their economic support to the publication.

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