The New York Times carried a very Christian op-ed recently, penned by a Turkish Muslim.
Mustafa Akyol is one of Turkey’s leading journalists, and argues that the crisis in the Muslim world today can be solved by turning to Jesus as example.
But first, a primer for those who don’t know the basics:
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.
Here is the historical comparison. The Jews of Jesus day, he said, were frustrated by their domination by Rome. Remembering well their former political golden era and ongoing religious claim of God’s favor, they found it very hard to adjust to their status as an oppressed client state in a global empire.
There were two primary reactions: the Zealots who resisted and the Herodians who collaborated. And these patterns mirror the current Muslim world:
The Islamic world has been in a crisis since the 19th century … because it was outperformed, defeated and even besieged by Western powers. Islam, a religion that has always been proud of its earthly success, was now “facing the West with her back to the wall,” causing stress, anger and turmoil among Muslims.
Modern-day Muslims, too … are haunted by the endless struggles between their own Herodians who imitate the West and their own Zealots who embody “archaism evoked by foreign pressure.” He pointed to modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, as an “arch-Herodian” and the “Central Arabian Wahhabis” as arch-Zealots.
Into the divide steps Jesus, he said, but also the Pharisees who are well represented in Islam today:
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.
And here, Jesus is necessary:
No Muslim religious leader has yet stressed the crucial gap between divine purposes and dry legalism as powerfully as Jesus did. Jesus showed that sacrificing the spirit of religion to literalism leads to horrors, like the stoning of innocent women by bigoted men — as it still happens in some Muslim countries today.
He also taught that obsession with outward expressions of piety can nurture a culture of hypocrisy — as is the case in some Muslim communities today. Jesus even defined humanism as a higher value than legalism, famously declaring, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
And Akyol’s closing plea:
Can we Muslims also reason, “The Shariah is made for man, not man for the Shariah”? Or, like Jesus, can we also suggest that the Kingdom of God — also called “the Caliphate” — will be established not within any earthly polity, but within our hearts and minds?
If Jesus is “a prophet of Islam,” as we Muslims often proudly say, then we should think on these questions. Because Jesus addressed the very problems that haunt us today and established a prophetic wisdom perfectly fit for our times.
The wisdom of Jesus transcends Christianity. Gandhi is perhaps the best example of successful application outside of faith. There is no reason Muslims cannot also benefit.
But can wide transformation come through Jesus’ teaching alone, apart from his equally weighty assertions of his (and through him, man’s) unique relation to God? Can those who rightly see themselves as God’s slaves advance in Jesus’ mission of civilization and spirit, unless also seeing themselves as his sons?
All success to Akyol and other Muslims who walk this path. May they find Christians to be an encouragement along the way.