These two stories underscore the support Christians gave Muhammad in times of trial. The Qur'an distils the meaning from the drama:
Those who feel the most affection
For us (who put our faith in the Qur'an),
Are those that say, "We are Christians,"
For priests and monks live among them
Who are not arrogant. When they listen
To what We have shown Muhammad,
Their eyes brim over with tears
At the truth they find there....
Even today, when a Muslim mentions Jesus' name, you will hear it followed by the phrase "peace and blessings be upon him," because Muslims still revere him as a prophet.
We believe in God
And in what has been sent down to us,
What has been revealed to Abraham and Ishmael
And Isaac and Jacob and their offspring,
And what was given to Moses and to Jesus
And all the other prophets of the Lord.
We make no distinction among them.
As these lines from the Qur'an make clear, Muslims regard Jesus as one of the world's great teachers. He and his mentor John the Baptist stand in a lineage stretching back to the founder of ethical monotheism. Moreover, among Muslims, Jesus is a special type of prophet, a messenger empowered to communicate divinity not only in words but by miracles as well.
Muslims, it must be said, part company with some Christians over the portrait of Jesus developed in the fourth and fifth centuries. Certain fictions, Muslims think, were added then. Three of these come in for special mention: First, Muslims consider monastic asceticism a latter-day innovation, not an original part of Jesus' way. Second, the New Testament suffers from deletions and embellishments added after Jesus' death by men who did not know him. Third, the description of Jesus as God's son is considered by Muslims a later, blasphemous suggestion.
Muslims venerate Jesus as a divinely inspired human but never, ever as "the son of God." In the same vein, we treat the concept of the Trinity as a late footnote to Jesus' teachings, an unnecessary "mystery" introduced by the North African theologian Tertullian two centuries after Jesus' death. Nor do Muslims view his death as an act of atonement for mankind's sins. Rather, along with the early Christian theologian Pelagius, Islam rejects the doctrine of original sin, a notion argued into church doctrine by St. Augustine around the year 400.
It might almost be said that Islam holds a view of Jesus similar to some of the early apostolic versions condemned by the fourth-century Byzantine Church. Once Constantine installed Christianity as the Roman Empire's state religion, a rage for orthodoxy followed. The Councils of Nicaea (325), Tyre (335), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451) were official, often brutal attempts to stamp out heterodox views of Jesus held by "heretical" theologians.
Rulings by these councils led to the persecution and deaths of tens of thousands of early Christians at the hands of more "orthodox" Christians who condemned them. Most disputes centered on divergent interpretations of the Trinity. For this reason, historians of religion sometimes see in these bloody divisions one of the root causes for early Islam's firmly unitarian outlook.
Then and now, no more dangerous religious mistake exists for a Muslim than dividing the Oneness of God by twos or threes.
Despite these important differences, however, the Qur'an repeatedly counsels Muslims not to dispute with other monotheists over matters of doctrine. People, it says, believe differently for good reasons. In fact, that is a part of Allah's will.
Michael Wolfe is the author of books
of poetry, fiction, travel, and history. His most recent works are a pair of
books from Grove Press on the pilgrimage to Mecca: "The
Hajj" (1993), a first-person travel account, and "One Thousand
Roads to Mecca" (1997), an anthology of 10 centuries of travelers writing
about the Muslim pilgrimage. In April 1997, he hosted a televised account of the
Hajj from Mecca for Ted Koppel's "Nightline" on ABC. He has also
produced an extensive documentary on the life of Prophet Muhammad for PBS called
Legacy of a Prophet about.