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Classics

A Muslim Looks at the Cross

‘Fortune favours the brave’ seems to have been a saying in the mind of Muhammad Kâmil Husayn (1901-1977), who in 1954 became the first modern Muslim writer to tackle the thorny subject of the crucifixion of Christ, with the publication of his City of Wrong. For virtually all of Islam in fact, the death of Jesus was only apparent: a double is believed to have taken his place on the cross. We can see then how unusual was the choice made by Kâmil Husayn to set an entire novel in Jerusalem on Good Friday.

 

 

The intuition that provides the starting-point for the author is that the personal story of Christ as understood by Islam does not undermine the drama of the other actors in the Passion, who are in the dark about the divine intervention. For them it is as if Christ really did die on the cross. Thus Good Friday becomes the occasion for an Islamic meditation on the theme of justice and injustice.

 

 

Historical accuracy should not be looked for in the City of Wrong. The Jesus who is described has many features of the reformist preacher as imagined by the liberal exegesis of the early twentieth century, and various episodes sound rather odd to the Christian reader.

 

 

This applies to the person of Caiaphas too. He sounds more like a philosopher than the High Priest of the Gospels. He is an uncompromising defender of non-violence, echoing in this the convictions of the author, a well-known pacifist. Nonetheless, Caiaphas comes to the conclusion that the preaching of the Nazarene represents a danger: not because of its content but because of the division that it is liable to spread among the people, just at the moment when they most need to remain united against the Roman occupier. The High Priest comes to the same conclusions as did the mufti of Jerusalem a few pages earlier, for he too was worried about fitna, civil discord. The Islamic vocabulary which is employed here is evidently the result of a deliberate anachronism: the passion of Christ is not in fact utilised in this novel with an anti-Jewish purpose, but for a critique whose main target is a certain type of legalistic approach to Islam.

 

This point emerges particularly from the way in which the decision to kill Jesus is presented in the novel. It appears to be the fruit of a consensus, technically one of the sources of the Law, expressed by learned men (ahl al-‘ilm, the ‘ulamâ’) after an informed consultation (shûrà, another term very dense with meaning).

 

 

While at the start Caiaphas feels certain about the guidance that religion and reason together can provide in moral dilemmas, the process of reflection that he goes through leads him into a morass of doubt about this initial conviction. There remains only the logic of the fait accompli. However, to reach this conclusion Caiaphas has to sacrifice the voice of his own conscience. He believes he is doing this for the good of religion, but he will soon discover that it has devastating effects.

 

 

The City of Wrong ends with a defeat: while the voice of conscience yields to ambition and to reasons of state Christ approaches Calvary. It was just this defeat, as Anglican Bishop Kenneth Cragg so shrewdly noted, that could make comprehensible the Christian theme of redemption, traditionally so difficult for Muslims. However, leaving aside a brief reference to the ‘weakness of God’, Kâmil Husayn’s concern is rather to emphasise the irreplaceable role of the individual conscience in ethical choices. The alternative is, for Caiaphas, a failing that the adherence to the general will does not suffice to justify. Not even in his eyes.

 

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