A great prophet in Islam, Jesus preached reform of the religious law in a non-literalist sense that can become a source of inspiration for today’s Muslims

This article was published in Oasis 26. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:57:19

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. A great prophet in Islam, Jesus preached reform of the religious law in a non-literalist sense at a time when Jews were going through a crisis very similar to the one experienced by today’s Muslims. He can become a source of inspiration for the much longed-for reform of Islam.


What is the trouble with Islam? Why are there so many angry Muslims in the world who loathe the West? Why do self-declared Islamic states impose harsh laws that oppress minorities, women and “apostates”? Why are there terrorists who kill in the name of Allah?


Many in the West have been asking these kinds of questions for decades. Answers have varied from claiming that there is no problem within Islam today, which is too defensive, to asserting that Islam itself is a huge problem for the world, which is unfair and prejudiced. Luckily, more informed observers offered more objective answers: the Islamic civilization, once the world’s most enlightened, has lately been going through an acute crisis with severe consequences.


One of the prominent minds of the past century, the British historian Arnold Toynbee, also pondered the crisis of Islam, in a largely forgotten 1948 essay, “Islam, the West, and the Future.”[1] The Islamic world has been in a crisis since the nineteenth century, Toynbee wrote, 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.


Toynbee, with the insight of a great historian, not only analyzed the crisis of Islam but also compared it with an older crisis of an older religion: the plight of the Jews in the face of Roman domination in the first century B.C. The Jews, too, were a monotheistic people with a high opinion of themselves, but they were defeated, conquered and culturally challenged by a foreign empire. This ordeal, Toynbee explained, bred two extreme reactions: One was “Herodianism,” which meant collaborating with Rome and imitating its ways. The other was “Zealotism,” which meant militancy against Rome and a strict adherence to Jewish law.


Modern-day Muslims, too, Toynbee argued, 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 Atatürk, as an “arch-Herodian” and the “Central Arabian Wahhabis” as arch-Zealots. He predicted that the Zealots would ultimately be defeated because they lacked the sophistication to use modern technology. Had he lived today – and seen, for example, how effectively the Islamic State uses the internet – he might revisit that optimism.


Over the decades, a few Muslim intellectuals have taken note of Toynbee’s analogy and argued that Muslims should find a third way, something between Herodianism and Zealotism. It’s a reasonable argument, but it neglects a lot of history.



The Details of the Law

These would-be Muslim reformers, like Toynbee, ignore that the first-century Jewish world wasn’t limited to the Herodian-Zealot dichotomy. There were other Jewish parties with intellectual, mystical or conservative leanings. There was also a peculiar rabbi from Nazareth: Jesus.


Jesus claimed to be the very savior – the Messiah – that his people awaited. But unlike other Messiah claimants of his time, he did not unleash an armed rebellion against Rome. He did not bow down to Rome, either. He put his attention to something else: reviving the faith and reforming the religion of his people. In particular, he called on his fellow Jews to focus on their religion’s moral principles, rather than obsessing with the minute details of religious law. He criticized the legalist Pharisees, for example, for “tithing mint and rue and every herb,” but neglecting “justice and the love of God” (Luke 11:42).


Christians, of course, know this story well. Yet Muslims need to take notice, too. Because they are going through a crisis very similar to the one Jesus addressed: 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, sharia, 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.


Would it be a totally new idea for Muslims to learn from Jesus? To some extent, yes. While Muslims respect and love Jesus – and his immaculate mother, Mary – because the Qur’an 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.


A notable exception was Muhammad ‘Abduh, one of the pioneers of Islamic modernism in the late nineteenth century. ‘Abduh, a pious Egyptian scholar, thought that the Muslim world had lost the tolerance and openness of early Islam and had been suffocated by a dogmatic, rigid tradition. When he read the New Testament, he was impressed. As a Muslim, he did not agree with the Christian theology about Jesus, but he still was moved by Jesus’s teachings, which were relevant to a problem ‘Abduh observed in the Muslim world. It was the problem of “being frozen on the literal meaning of the law,” he wrote, and thus failing to “understanding the purpose of the law.”


Some other Muslim scholars noted the same problems as ‘Abduh. But 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 – 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.


Such key teachings of Jesus, I believe, can today give us Muslims guidance for reform especially in two key matters. The first is the Kingdom of God, which Muslims would call the Caliphate. The second is religious law, which Muslims would call the sharia. Let’s see, in a bit more detail, them one by one.



“The Caliphate Is within You”

Many Jews at the time of Jesus were eager to see the coming of Malkuta de-Adonai, or the Kingdom of God. This would have been a sovereign polity of Israel ruled by the divinely guided Messiah, who would defeat and expel the much-despised Empire of Rome. Native theocracy, in other words, would smash foreign occupation.


The Pharisees were eagerly awaiting and praying for the Kingdom of God. Their radical offshoot, the Zealots, had taken the more active step of fighting for the same goal – by rebellions and assassinations, or, as we would call today, insurgency and terrorism. Jesus, however, brought a new interpretation to the notion of the Kingdom of God. As we read in the Gospel of Luke: “When he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21).[2]


This famous passage in the New Testament has become the basis of one of the key themes of Christianity: the transformation of the political kingdom into a spiritual kingdom. The latter, as a Christian commentator put it, was a kingdom that would be “erected in the hearts of men, consisting in the subjection of their wills to the will of God, and in the conformity of their minds to his laws.”[3]


Now, if we move on from the Judaea of the first century to the Muslim world of today, we will see that the latter also harbors a powerful anticipation for the Kingdom of God – it is called rather the caliphate. This native theocracy, some Muslims believe, will defeat and expel the modern-day Romans and their collaborators and bring glory to the umma.


Some Muslims are merely hoping to see the caliphate established as a distant utopia, and they can be classified as “conservatives.” Others are more engaged and actively work for the utopia through political action, which earns them the label “Islamists.” Then there is a small minority that opts for armed struggle, which makes them “jihadists.” And among these jihadists, only the most radical fringe, ISIS, declared a “caliphate” in 2014, something that looks too militant for the overwhelming majority of Muslims.


But is a caliphate really necessary for Muslim? For most Islamists and jihadists, the answer is absolutely yes. In fact, they see the reestablishment of the caliphate not only as a hope to anticipate, but a duty to fulfill. “The establishment of a Khaleefah is an obligation upon all Muslims in the world,” asserts a contemporary Islamist source. “Performing this duty, like any of the duties prescribed by Allah upon the Muslims, is an urgent obligation in which there can be no choice or complacency.”[4]


However, other Muslims think that the caliphate – a term implying the “successorship” to the Prophet Muhammad for the political leadership of Muslims – was merely a historical experience of the Muslim community, not an integral tenet of Islam. This argument was powerfully made in the early twentieth century by the Egyptian scholar ‘Alī ‘Abd al-Rāziq and the Turkish scholar Seyyid Bey, and has been advanced by reformist thinkers since then. Islamic energy, according to these reformists, should be focused not on establishing a specific form of state, but rather on advancing Islamic values under any state that grants Muslims security, dignity, and freedom. And Muslim societies should be governed by democratically elected leaders and parliaments.[5]


This reformist argument may be at odds with certain texts of the Islamic tradition, but it has a basis no less greater than Islam’s scripture – the Qur’an. Here, the term “caliph,” which is often translated as “vicegerent,” is used nine times in different verses, but not as the definition of a political entity among Muslims.[6] It is rather used, most significantly, to define the nature of human beings. In a memorable passage of the Qur’an, God Himself decrees this ontological “caliphate” during a rhetorical conversation with angels:



When your Lord said to the angels, “I am putting a khalif on the earth,” they said, “Why put on it one who will cause corruption on it and shed blood when we glorify You with praise and proclaim Your purity?” He said, “I know what you do not know.” He taught Adam the names of all things. Then He arrayed them before the angels and said, “Tell me the names of these if you are telling the truth.” They said, “Glory be to You! We have no knowledge except what You have taught us. You are the All-Knowing, the All-Wise.” He said, “Adam, tell them their names.” When he had told them their names, He said, “Did I not tell you that I know the Unseen of the heavens and the earth, and I know what you make known and what you hide?” (Qur’an 2:30-33).[7]


In this fascinating story about the origin of man, Adam, the first human, appears as God’s khalif, or vicegerent, because he is taught “the names of all things” and also bears the potential to “cause corruption on [earth] and shed blood.” Some Muslim thinkers have interpreted these as man’s faculty to learn and reason, and his freedom to chose between good and evil.


Yet Adam is not the only vicegerent – all his children, in other words the whole human race – also are. “It is He who appointed you khalifs on the earth and raised some of you above others in rank,” a Qur’anic verse reads, “so He could test you regarding what He has given you” (Qur’an 6:165). Another verse declares: “It is He who made you khalifs on the earth. So whoever is an unbeliever, his disbelief is against himself” (Qur’an 35:39). So, unbelievers are vicegerents as well, for they have the God-given faculties of reason and free will, which they just use in the wrong way.


In short, the Qur’anic concept of khalīfa is a metaphysical notion that puts humankind in a special place within God’s creation. No wonder the early Muslim exegetes saw no connection between this metaphysical notion and the political institution called the caliphate, which was first led by the Prophet’s close companions but was soon dominated by hereditary monarchy.[8]

Hence it is possible for Muslims today to abandon the commitment to the caliphate as a political entity, but strive to be better caliphs on earth – as individuals with God-given faculties and responsibilities. It is possible for Muslims to think, in other words, that the caliphate is not here or there, but within you.



“The Sharia Is Made for Man”

The other passion of Jews at the time of Jesus was for the Jewish Law, or halakha, which literally means “the path.” Rooted in the detailed injunctions of the Torah, halakha was an extensive set of rules that regulated every aspect of Jewish life from prayers to dietary laws to the penal code. The latter, from the perspective of our modern standards, included some pretty harsh measures, such as the stoning to death of adulterers or blasphemers.


As we can understand from the canonical gospels, Jesus brought a radically new interpretation to the halakha, for he rightly realized the negative consequences of blind literalism. The first of these was the equation of piety with the outwardly visible religious practice, which inevitably gave way to hypocrisy. This was especially true for the self-righteous clerical class, which included the priests, the scribes, and the Pharisees. “Beware of the teachers of the law,” Jesus said: “They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely” (Luke 20:46-47, New International Version).


The very fact that the clerics looked down upon the sinners testified to their arrogance, which was a greater sin than most. Jesus explained this by comparing an observant Pharisee with a tax collector, whose job was then seen by most Jews as a treacherous collaboration with Rome:



Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).


Soulless legalism not only nurtured hypocrisy and arrogance, as seen in the above parable, but also caused injustice or cruelty in the name of law. The adulteress the Pharisees brought to Jesus was a case in point. The halakha demanded that she should be stoned to death, but Jesus called for mercy. “Let any one of you who is without sin,” he famously called, “be the first to throw a stone at her” (John, 8:7). It was another case of defending humble sinners from the wrath of the self-righteous puritans.



“The Same Problems as Today”

Similarly, when Jesus was questioned on why his disciples collected grain for food on the Sabbath, during which Jews are forbidden from doing any work, he gave quite a reflective answer: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The law, in other words, did not exist for its own sake. It existed for the sake of humans – and could be reinterpreted for them.


Now, if we again move on from the Judaea of the first century to the Muslim world of today, we will find a very similar situation regarding religious law. The Muslim version of the Jewish halakha is the sharia. It not only has the same literal meaning – the path – but also has very similar injunctions covering all aspects of life, from prayers to dietary laws to the penal code. And while Jews have long abandoned implementing their halakhic penal code, some modern-day Muslims are passionate about implementing the sharia’s penal code, with chilling aspects such as stoning the adulterers and executing heretics and blasphemers.


The Muslim devotion to the sharia often comes from a sense of justice, but its literalist nature may rather cause horrendous injustice. Such are the cases, for example, of Muslim women, including very young girls, who are first raped by men and then stoned to death by other men for “adultery.” The pattern, which took place repeatedly in Nigeria, Somalia and Afghanistan, is that first the victim gets raped in secret. Consequently she gets pregnant, only to be questioned soon by her kinfolk and ultimately by a court. At the court, she can’t prove that she was raped, because the sharia demands “four eyewitnesses” to penalize any sexual offense. Yet the pregnancy itself proves that she somehow committed “adultery,” so she is publicly stoned to death.[9]


Such appalling cases of judicial murder would not have occurred if the sharia-imposers cared about the intention of the verdicts that they only literally carried out. The Qur’an, which has nothing to say about stoning, does indeed decree the requirement of “four eyewitness.” However, it says this only in the context of protecting women from the libel of adultery. “Those who make accusations against chaste women and then do not produce four witnesses,” a verse commands, “flog them with eighty lashes and never again accept them as witnesses” (Qur’an 24:4).


So, “four witnesses” are necessary, because the Qur’an intends to protect innocent women from false accusations. In the literalist practice, however, this noble intention can be utilized to serve a cruel pattern of misogyny.


The way forward for Muslims is to understand that just like the halakha, the sharia is made for man – and women, of course – and not the other way around. Luckily, such an interpretive approach to law exists in the Islamic tradition, only waiting to be rediscovered. Its origin goes back to medieval scholars such as the al-Shātibī (d. 1388), the Andalusian thinker who focused on the maqāsid, or intentions, of Islamic law, and formulated them as the protection of five fundamental values: religion, life, intellect, lineage, and property. Only the realization of these intentions, al-Shātibī reasoned, could infuse “spirit into the dead body, and real substance into the external shell (of the law).”[10] In the modern era, pioneering Muslim thinkers such as Fazlur Rahman Malik (d. 1988) tried to revitalize this nonliteralist approach to Islamic law with admirable intellectual effort for reform, yet only with limited impact.


For more impact, perhaps we can recall that Jesus, a great prophet of Islam, called for the exact same kind of reform in Judaism at a time when Jews were exactly like us. Jesus can, in other words, become a source of inspiration for the much-sought reform in Islam.


If Jesus is “a prophet of Islam,” as we Muslims often proudly say, then we should think on these matters. Because Jesus addressed the very problems that haunt us today, and established a prophetic wisdom perfectly fit for our times.


[This article is party adapted from the book, The Islamic Jesus, by Mustafa Akyol – St. Martin’s Press, 2017]



[1] Arnold J. Toynbee, Civilization on Trial (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1948). All quotes are from the same chapter in this book, “Islam, the West, and the Future.”

[2] This translation is from the King James Bible. The phrase “within you” has been translated in more modern versions such as the New International Version or the New American Standard Bible as “in your midst.” I used the King James version, because it has been quite powerful in establishing the Western Christian understanding of a spiritual kingdom.

[3] This is from a commentary on Luke 21 by Joseph Benson, Commentary of the Old And New Testaments (T. Carlton & J. Porter, New York, 1857). Fully available on http://biblehub.com.

[4] “The Re-establishment of the Khilafah Is an Obligation upon All Muslims,” editorial,  www.khilafah.com, June 24, 2007. This website advocates the views of Hizb ut-Tahrir, “a political party whose ideology is Islam.”

[5] For a good evaluation of the caliphate and other political concepts in Islam and the discussions about them, see Asma Afsaruddin, Contemporary Issues in Islam (Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2015), pp. 54-85.

[6] The only Qur’anic verse that seems to use the title caliph for the leadership of a human being rather than humanity as whole is 38:26, which speaks to (King) David, and says: “O David! We did indeed make thee a vicegerent on earth: so judge thou between men in truth.” Yet there is common agreement among the modern commentators and translators that this verse concerns David alone and that “the Qur’an does not give clear guidance on the position of the Caliph as the supreme leader of the ummah.” Sean Oliver-Dee, The Caliphate Question: The British Government and Islamic Governance (Lexington Books, Lanham, UK, 2009), p. 16.

[7]All the Qur’anic quotations are taken from Aisha Bewley’s translation with Arabic words anglicized.

[8] “During the Umayyad period, the exegetes made no connection between the Qur’anic term khalifa and the politico-religious reality of the institution of the caliphate. This tendency began to change about the middle of the second/eighth century when a more comprehensive interpretation started to appear.” It was scholars such as Tabarī who “created a complete merger between the Qur’anic khalīfa and the head of the Islamic caliphate.” Wadad Kadi, “Caliph,” Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an (Brill, Leiden, 2001-2006), vol. 1, pp. 277–78.

[9] This horrible pattern has been reported in various instances in Nigeria, Somalia, and Afghanistan, especially under the rule of extremist groups such as al-Shabab or the Taliban, or extrajudicially in the tribal areas of Pakistan. For an overview of such incidents, see Justice for Iran, “Mapping Stoning in Muslim Contexts,” February 2012, http://www.wluml.org/sites/wluml.org/files/Mapping%20Stoning%20in%20Muslim%20Contexts_Final.pdf.

[10] Al-Shātibī, Kitāb al-Muwāfaqāt, ed. Abū ‘Ubayda Mashhūr Ibn Hasan Āl Salmān, Dār Ibn ‘Affān, Cairo s.d., vol. 1, introduction by the author, pp. 7-12, as paraphrased by Fazlur Rahman, Islam (Anchor Books, Garden City, NY, 1968), p. 136.