x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Jesus's message should unite us all

The narrative of his life to be found within Christianity and Islam could provide a healing balm for the whole world, and not just Muslims and Christians.

Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

I was brought up a Christian. I took my faith seriously, and at one point thought about becoming a nun. Then I made the decision to become a Muslim. That decision, 21 years ago, has given me the privileged position of authentically knowing and loving two religious traditions. Christians and Muslims constitute more than half of the world's population. Sadly, there is a long history of misunderstanding and mutual hostility. Recently there has been talk of a clash of civilisations. Yet there is so much that unites the two traditions; first and foremost being a belief in the oneness of God. Yet I believe it is the shared narrative of the life of Jesus which can really help provide a bridge between us.

Jesus is mentioned more in the Quran than the Prophet Mohammed. He is called the Word of God and the Spirit of God, but most often, the son of Mary. Christmas is a time when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. And although most of the traditional Nativity story is not in the Quran, Muslims believe profoundly in the Virgin Birth of Christ. In the third chapter of the Quran, the Angel Gabriel visits Mary and says, "O Mary! Behold, God sends thee the glad tiding, through a word from Him, of a son who shall become known as the Christ, Jesus, son of Mary." Mary is naturally stunned by this news and wonders, "O my Sustainer! How can I have a son when no man has ever touched me?" And the angel replies, "Thus it is: God creates what He wills. When He wills a thing to be, He but says unto it 'Be' - and it is."

From this amazing beginning, Christ grows up to be a noble man. God promises that Jesus will perform miracles; and he does - healing the blind and the leper, bringing the dead back to life. He performs these miracles "all by God's leave", according to the Quran. For Muslims, the miracle of Christ's birth and the miracles Christ performs during his life are all examples of God's absolute majesty and omnipotence. God can do anything that He wills - He created the whole cosmos from nothing; He created Adam with neither a man nor a woman, thus to create Jesus without a father was not difficult. However, the Virgin Birth and Christ's miracles do not indicate to Muslims that Christ is divine.

Muslims do not believe in the crucifixion either. To a Christian it is fundamental that Christ died for our sins and rose again, conquering death, so that we might have eternal life. To a Muslim the idea that God, the Creator of the Universe, can have a son, who shares in His Divinity, and that the Creator becomes part of the creation and dies, is heresy of the highest order. Indeed, the Biblical and Quranic accounts of Jesus's death are irreconcilable.

How, then, is it ever possible to imagine that Christ could be a bridge between people? I would contend that, although the two traditions will not agree on his death, it is in his life where common ground is to be found. Indeed, the narrative of his life to be found within Christianity and Islam could provide a healing balm for the whole world, and not just Muslims and Christians. In both traditions Christ called people to the service of God through service to humanity. He called us to love our neighbours as ourselves. He helped and loved the poor, the sick and the outcasts in society. We can all strive to do the same. And in reaching out to those less fortunate than ourselves, and in our service to others, we can be united by our common endeavours.

Christ led a simple life: he rejected the acquisition of material possessions as a route to happiness. The Islamic tradition says Christ had only three possessions: a robe, a bowl and a comb. He gave away his bowl and comb believing these to be unnecessary. In today's world, where our cars, computers and gadgets can become part of who we are, Christ taught that peace and contentment are to be found in having less, not more. Given the pressing needs of the planet vis-à-vis climate change, and the call by environmentalists for us to consume less, Christ's message seems of vital importance. The lifestyle changes necessary to halt global climate meltdown will be hard, but if we re-educate ourselves in the path of the Prophets to realise that our role is as stewards of the Earth not as consumers of the Earth's resources, then maybe we will be able to make a positive difference.

Christ spoke out against violence, scolding a follower who drew his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane saying, "Put your sword back into its place; for all who live by the sword will perish by the sword." Yet in our world today violence is often the first, not the last, resort in the way we deal with each other. We spend billions on weapons that can destroy all of us many times over. Maybe Christ's narrative can help us find a common voice to resist our dependence on war and violence to solve our problems.

In both traditions, Christ spoke out against excessive signs of outward religious ritual. He taught that the most holy place is our heart, for it is in our heart where the holiness of God and our dignity as human beings is to be found, no matter what our beliefs, or our race. Yet we have reduced our religions so that we judge each other not by the quality of our hearts but on the clothes we wear or which building we worship in. Can we not recognise each other's fundamental human dignity?

Muslims do not believe that Mohammed came to change Christ's message. Rather, Muslims believe that Mohammed came as a seal of his teaching and his ministry. For Muslims, the Quran is the fulfilment of previous revelation, not an overturning of it. However, there is no denying that Muslims and Christians deeply disagree about the nature of Jesus. I believe, though, that if we look beyond the differences and chose to examine Christ's life together and to learn from each other, then his life's narrative of surrender, service and sacrifice; love and compassion can provide the most amazing starting point for a life-, even world-changing discourse.

As an article of faith, Muslims must believe in and love Jesus Christ. And the best form of love is to see his message active in our lives. He asked us to look at and inside ourselves and see what changes we could make for the good of all. Christ, like the Prophet Mohammed, brought a message that is relevant for us today. A message which has the potential to spread hope and harmony. As we near the end of 2009, and as I look back over the past decade, it is one that seems scarred by violence, financial meltdown, environmental problems and discord among peoples.

I believe that Christ's life can provide a framework for people to imagine another future. Other worlds are possible - but we need to have the imagination and the courage to forge them. Sarah Joseph, OBE, is editor of the lifestyle magazine Emel. She was a member of the Muslim delegation invited to 10 Downing Street after the London bombings of July 7, 2005