Excerpted with permission of Ulysses Press.
In the New Testament, Jesus cryptically alludes to someone who will follow him. "I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Counselor to be with you-the Spirit of truth" (John 14:16).
While Christians believe that Jesus was referring to the Holy Spirit, Muslims insist that Jesus was alluding to Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, born in Arabia some 540 years after the death of Jesus. An illiterate yet pious camel-driver, Muhammad frequently retreated to a cave on Mount Hira, just outside his native city of Mecca, to meditate in solitude. Around 610 c.e., the forty-year-old Muhammad, sleeping in the cave, found himself awoken by an overpowering presence. He claimed that the angel Gabriel (the same angel who heralds the birth of Jesus in the New Testament) enveloped him in a tight embrace, forced the breath from his body, and commanded him to "recite" in the name of God. Terrified, the unschooled Muhammad insisted he could not recite anything. Gabriel squeezed tighter and tighter until the word of God spilled from between Muhammad's lips in Arabic.
Muhammad received these divine revelations from the angel Gabriel at many different intervals until his death in 632 C.E. He dictated these eternal verses to his followers, who memorized them and wrote them down on scraps of paper, palm leaves, and animal skins. Within twenty years of Muhammad's death, his followers, assembled the Qur'an (Arabic for "proclamation" or "recitation"), loosely organizing its 114 surahs (or "chapters") from longest to shortest, in no chronological order, but instead creating a timeless stream of divine consciousness. Muslims consider the words of the Qur'an to be the word of God Himself, not the words of Muhammad, just as Christians consider Jesus to be the word of God made flesh.
Like Jesus before him, Muhammad preached and prophesized God's word, becoming a living embodiment of God's will on how man should live his life. To Muslims, the certainty that Muhammad never learned to read or write, never attended school, never read the Bible, and never had the Bible read to him proves beyond any doubt that the revelations he received which make up the Qur'an are indeed God's word. Believers also point to the flowing poetry of the Qur'an, considered the most beautifully written book in the Arabic language, as testimony to its divine origin. (Muslims regard translations of the Qur'an into other languages to be inadequate interpretations that fail to capture the intricacies, poetic grace, and intimacy of God's revelation in Arabic.)
At first, Muhammad expected Jews and Christians to embrace the Qur'an as the natural continuation of their ancient heritages. The Qur'an affirms that God revealed his word to the Jews and the Christians: "Say, We believe in God, and in what has been revealed to us, and what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and in what was given to Moses, Jesus, and the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and to God do we submit" (Qur'an 3:84). But the Qur'an declares that these "People of the Book," in writing down these revelations, altered the words and neglected portions of what they were taught, incorporating factual inaccuracies and fabricating other messages into the Bible. God revealed the Qur'an to Muhammad "to make clear to you much of what you concealed of the Book, and to pass over many things" (Qur'an 5:15)--in other words, to set the record straight once and for all. While both Judaism and Christianity reject this claim and the Islamic belief that the Qur'an supersedes the Bible, the different stories presented in the Qur'an, deemed by Muslims to be the absolute word of God, provide fascinating and inspiring departures from the biblical accounts.
In his revelations, Muhammad reveres Jesus as a prophet, retelling his story with great respect. The Qur'an tells us that God "made [Jesus,] the son of Mary, and his mother as a sign for mankind" (Qur'an 23:50), caused Jesus to follow "in the footsteps of the prophets," and "gave him the Gospel with its guidance and light, confirming the Torah [the Five Books of Moses]" (Qur'an 5:46).
According to the Qur'an, however, Jesus began his life much differently from the story told in the Gospels. In the New Testament, the angel Gabriel visits the engaged Virgin Mary in Nazareth and tells her that she will, through God, conceive a child who will be the Son of God. The expectant Mary and her husband Joseph travel to Bethlehem to participate in a census. Unable to find a room at the inn, the couple stays in a stable, where the baby Jesus is born. In the Qur'an, the Virgin Mary, having been supported financially and educated by her uncle Zachariah, moves to the wilderness to continue her studies in solitude. There, the angel Gabriel comes to her and announces that she will give birth to a holy child. More than a year later, the Virgin Mary returns to her family, carrying her newborn baby. When the family accuses her of wrongdoing, the baby Jesus speaks, informing the angry mob that he is a miracle from God and a prophet. The Qur'an never mentions Joseph, the journey to Bethlehem, the wise men, the star of Bethlehem, or the nativity scene in a manger.
Like the New Testament, the Qur'an tells us that Jesus preached to Jews, taught a progressive version of Judaism based on reforming religious laws, recruited disciples to help him spread the word of God, and performed miracles. The Qur'an also attributes miracles to Jesus that are not recorded in the Gospels. The Qur'an reports that Jesus molded clay into the shape of a bird and then breathed life into it. At the request of his doubting disciples, Jesus makes a table full of food appear. Neither story appears in the New Testament, but both affirm that the Qur'an holds Jesus in high regard as a messenger of God.
Both the New Testament and the Qur'an also claim that Jesus was the Messiah, the savior of the Jewish people. However, the Qur'an flatly rejects the notion that Jesus is the Son of God, calls the concept of the Trinity polytheistic, and denies that Jesus is a god or God Himself. The Qur'an also contends that Jesus was never crucified, killed, or resurrected. Muslims maintain that God would never endow Jesus with the power to perform miracles and then allow him to be humiliated, tortured, mocked, and killed by his rejoicing enemies.
Instead, God rescued Jesus from this fate, raising him to heaven to await his triumphant return at the end of time. God did, however, make Jesus appear to die on the cross, creating the illusion that he had been crucified. (Some Muslims have suggested that the Romans crucified an apparition or a look-alike, possibly even Judas Iscariot.)
Some non-Muslim scholars question how the illiterate Muhammad acquired his knowledge of the Bible and its prophets. They suggest that he crafted many of Islam's doctrines, traditions, and laws from the Jewish and Christian legends he heard told by the Jews of Medina and the Christian communities he visited. Muslims, however, insist that the Qur'an is the infallible word of God and that the unlettered Muhammad obtained his understanding of the Bible solely through divine revelation. The same can be said of Jesus. While some biblical scholars claim that Jesus acquired his intimate familiarity with the Hebrew Scriptures through extensive study during the many years of his life unreported in the Gospels, many devout Christians believe that Jesus inherently possessed this wealth of information due to his divine nature as the word of God made flesh.
While the theological differences between Christianity and Islam remain vast, the life stories of Jesus and Muhammad teem with distinct parallels.
In perhaps the most beautiful parallel between the two men, both Jesus and Muhammad insisted that their spiritually enriching messages were for all humanity. "I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen," Jesus told his disciples (John 10:16). He would have undoubtedly agreed wholeheartedly with the words recited by Muhammad in the Koran: "All those who believe, and the Jews and the Sabeans and the Christians--anyone who believes in God and the Last Day, and does good--will have nothing to fear or regret" (Koran 5:69).