I am the product of a Jewish-Christian marriage. Following the religion of my Jewish father, I began life as a Jew. But the marriage ended bitterly after a few years, and I was raised from then on as a Christian.
I was an enthusiastic Christian as a child, especially in regard to my love of Jesus. So when a charismatic fundamentalist minister moved to my small town during my teenage years, I gravitated to his exciting message that Christ was returning soon.
Every night at my bedside I begged Jesus to accept me into his coming kingdom and waited for the trumpet of the apocalypse. But the end of days never came, and I began to feel worn out by all the anxiety. I also began to be repelled by that particular church's increasing insistence that the Jews, along with other non-believers (which by its definition included many Christians), were damned.
By then, I was completely convinced by my church that it represented the only true interpretation of Christian theology. So when I finally rejected it, I rejected all of Christianity as well.
After years of being essentially an atheist yet yearning for a return to religion, I was introduced to Islam. I was immediately attracted to its message of compassion and tolerance-though to listen to both Christian and Muslim fundamentalists talk about Islam today, you wouldn't know that such a message exists in it at all.
And that is my own point of personal departure for "The Passion of the Christ." These last few years have been emotionally taxing for most American Muslims. From abroad, we are stunned by religiously justified violence that defies everything we believe about our faith. At home, we feel attacked by hostile rhetoric about Islam that would never be accepted in the public square about any other faith.
Most distressing to me has been how highly respected Christian leaders have often equaled Islamic demagogues abroad in feeding mutual fear and loathing. Where is the love in these two self-professed religions of peace? Where is the compassion?
During my wait for it, I ignored the growing furor about the film's alleged brutality and its taint of anti-Semitism. On opening day, I settled into my front-row seat, still hoping for spiritual epiphany.
It did not come.
Within a few minutes, and for the rest of the movie, my stomach was clenched, as it became clear why many have expressed worry about the film's portrayal of the Jews. At one point, I found myself remembering an incident from childhood when a group of children once taunted me by throwing pennies at my feet, somehow knowing, I guess through their parents, that my father was Jewish.
Anti-Semitism is not ancient history. And knowing how much harm has come to the Jews by the same kind of emphasis on their alleged role in Jesus' death as in "The Passion" makes their feelings of alarm about this film completely understandable.
Deeply disappointed, I dismissed the film on those grounds alone. But I couldn't get its unflinching portrayal of Jesus' suffering out of my mind. And I realized that for me, as for most Christians, it would be Jesus' passion, not any caricatures of the Jews, that would have the lasting impact. Christians aren't flocking to the film to point fingers; they're going in search of some deeper spiritual connection with Jesus. Just as I was.
Yet, how can I, as a Muslim, even one who once prayed fervently for Jesus' return, hope to find anything transcendent from his story?
It is a surprise to many-it was to me when I first encountered Islam-that Jesus holds an exalted place in the faith. "Peace is on me, and on the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day that I shall be raised up to life again," says Jesus in the Qur'an.
The Qur'an refers to Jesus as the Messiah and calls him the living "Word of God." It says he was born of a virgin, performed miracles, and raised the dead. So great is the reverence for him that when Muhammad conquered Mecca and ordered the destruction of all the idols and images, he spared a small mural of the Virgin and Child, covering it with his cloak, and ordering all other images to be wiped out except that one.
All that said, Muslims do not consider Jesus divine. It is an article of Islamic faith that God has no partners or children. Muslims also reject the idea that Jesus was crucified.