What Jesus can teach today's Muslims

Christians, of course, know this story well. Yet Muslims need to take notice, too. Because they are going through a crisis very similar to the one Jesus addressed: While being pressed by a foreign civilization, they are also troubled by their own fanatics who see the light only in imposing a rigid law, Shariah, and fighting for theocratic rule. Muslims need a creative third way, which will be true to their faith but also free from the burdens of the past tradition and the current political context.

Would it be a totally new idea for Muslims to learn from Jesus? To some extent, yes. While Muslims respect and love Jesus — and his immaculate mother, Mary — because the Quran wholeheartedly praises them, most have never thought about the historical mission of Jesus, the essence of his teaching and how it may relate to their own reality.

A notable exception was Muhammad Abduh, one of the pioneers of Islamic modernism in the late 19th century. Abduh, a pious Egyptian scholar, thought that the Muslim world had lost the tolerance and openness of early Islam and had been suffocated by a dogmatic, rigid tradition. When he read the New Testament, he was impressed. As a Muslim, he did not agree with the Christian theology about Jesus, but he still was moved by Jesus’s teachings, which were relevant to a problem Abduh observed in the Muslim world. It was the problem of “being frozen on the literal meaning of the law,” he wrote, and thus failing to “understanding the purpose of the law.”

Some other Muslim scholars noted the same problems as Abduh. But no Muslim religious leader has yet stressed the crucial gap between divine purposes and dry legalism as powerfully as Jesus did.