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The Values of Jesus and Muhammad

Auther : By Robert Houghton
Under category : Articles
3983 2010/03/14 2024/04/25

the moral value — or virtue — fundamental to the three monotheistic religions is faith. this was the value of abraham by virtue of which judaism, christianity, and islam are traced back to him. we can see in abraham what this virtue consists of: abraham believed in god, believed in him because he is god, and abraham acted on this belief, even though everything indicated that god's promise could not come true.

as g. e. m. anscombe indicates, faith is believing god because he is god. note that it would be absurd to believe that god exists because he says so, for you have to believe that someone exists before you can believe what he says. faith therefore assumes a belief in the existence of god (14). herein lies a difference between the approaches of jesus and muhammad to their ministries.

jesus addressed his gospel to the jewish people, who had already believed in god — with backslidings — since the time of abraham 1600 years before, and who had had the book of moses for 1200 years. cultural habits meant that they did not need persuading of god's existence. jesus preached the coming of god's kingdom, which the hebrew prophets had taught the jews to expect.

but muhammad was confronted by pagan ignorance of god and a culture of idolatry. thus, he first had to preach the existence of god and, in the quran, we see the prophet confronting unbelief:

[do they who disbelieve not look with reflection at the form of camels — how wondrously they are created; and at the sky — how majestically it is raised; and at the mountains — how firmly they are set erect; and at the earth — how smoothly it is spread? so remind the people, o prophet, of the blessings and oneness of their creator. for you are but a reminder sent to them.] (al-ghashiyah 88:17)

here we find, so beautifully set out, the signs, so prominently adverted to in the quran, of god's existence, and not just signs of god's existence but also of his bestowal of blessings, his beautiful creativity, his majesty, his power, and his oneness.

[now, all through the earth there are wondrous signs of god, for those who are firm in faith. and they are within yourselves as well. can you not then see?] (adh-dhariyat 51:20-21)

nowhere does jesus persuade his listeners of the existence of god; this is taken for granted. but it is not for nothing that the first words of the shahadah are: "there is no god but god", which is an assertion of his existence as much as it is a repudiation of polytheism. the first belief muhammad had to enforce was the existence of god; the first truth the muslim reminds himself of is the existence of god.

the verse from the chapter called al-ghashiyah, quoted above, has a philosophical aspect: they implicitly argue from the existence of the world to the existence of its creator, from its createdness to the creator, from the majesty, wonder, and goodness of the world to the nature of god. this verse invitesreflection, which is philosophical, as a prelude to religious belief. this philosophical mode is absent from both the old and new testament: the existence of god is not an issue.

nevertheless, the cardinal truth is that in the abrahamic religions god reveals himself, to and through prophets, men who speak for him with his authority, and mankind is challenged to respond to their revelation. however, when the question of existence is settled — itself a moral test — there remains the question: am i to believe in muhammad, am i to believe injesus? in this, muhammad and jesus are in exactly the same position.

christians approaching the quran are struck by its apparent harshness compared with the new testament, though not, perhaps, with the old. this is because one resource muhammad and the quran had in bringing arabs to belief in god, was to impress upon them the facts of judgment and hell, and these are prominent:

[no indeed! rather you deny judgment. yet lo! there are above you watchers noble, writers, who know whatever you do. indeed the pious shall be amid bliss, and indeed the profligates shall be in hell-fire, entering it on the day of judgment, and they shall not be absent from it.] (al-infitar 82:9)

jesus does not explicitly threaten. rather, he invites. however, there are in the gospels references to hell, and a careful reading of the account of the beginning of jesus' ministry reveals an implicit warning. the very first words of jesus's ministry, as recounted in matthew's gospel, are "repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (4:17, revised standard version).

here, jesus is taking up the theme of john the baptist's ministry in john's very words (matthew 3:2, revised standard version). john announced the coming of someone greater than himself, evidently a prophet (jesus), saying, threateningly, "his winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire" (4:12, revised standard version).

whereas jesus invited the jews to repent, this being a precondition of entering the kingdom of heaven, john expressed the consequences of failing to repent: hell. implicitly, jesus and muhammad adopt a similar approach: the sanction is the same eternal perdition in hell. however, the stress in the quran on the warnings of hell, which gives the impression of harshness, is explained by the culture of the pagan arabs: a direct forceful approach to wanton paganism was needed.

jesus announced the coming of the kingdom, and just as the hebrews had received a law from god when they were constituted as god's people, so the kingdom, under the new covenant, would have a law which superseded and subsumed the law of moses; this was the law of love as expounded in (matthew 22:34,
revised standard version).

but when the pharisees heard that he had silenced the sadducees, they came together. and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. "teacher which is the great commandment in the law? [i.e. the law of moses]" and he said to him, "you shall love the lord your god with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. this is the first and the great commandment. and a second is like it, you shall love your neighbour as yourself. on these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets."

although the quran does not teach that the law of love subsumes the moral law, the law of moses, it does teach the love of god. we find this in the chapter called al-maidah 5:54:

[o you who believe! should any of you turn back from his religion, then (know that) god shall bring forth (instead) a people he will love and who will love him...]

we also find in al-baqarah 2:165:

[yet there be people who take to themselves compeers besides god, loving them as god is loved; but those who believe love god more ardently; if he were to see those who did evil, when they see the chastisement, that the might altogether belongs to god, and that god is terrible in chastisement.]

jesus's sermon on the mount (matthew 5:1, revised standard version) is a summary of his teaching on the ethics of the kingdom and is to be seen in relation to the mosaic law. it begins with the beatitudes:

"blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.
blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.
blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied..."

jesus is enumerating those who will enter the kingdom. the poor in spirit are those who have a sense of spiritual poverty and who will enter because, in their poverty, they know they are absolutely dependent on god; they have no other resource. this, surely, is the condition of being a muslim, and it leads to perfect obedience, just as it did in abraham. in christianity and islam the idiom is different but the concept is the same.

many of the moral precepts of the quran can be matched by those of jesus. jesus condemns hypocrisy. in the quran, we read,

[the hypocrites seek to trick god, but he is tricking them. when they stand up to pray, they stand up lazily and to be seen by people, and they do not remember god save a little.] (an-nisaa' 4:142)

similarly, in matthew 6, jesus condemns the insidious corruption of religious hypocrisy, and in particular "practising your piety before men in order to be seen by them." regarding the giving of alms, jesus teaches that it should be done in secret: the left hand should not know what the right hand is doing (6:2, revised standard version). interestingly, in a hadith, muhammad uses the same idiom in enjoining secrecy in alms giving:

seven people will be shaded by allah under his shade on the day when there will be no shade except his. they are ... (6) a person who practices charity so secretly that his left hand does not know what his right hand has given... (al-bukhari)

the concentration of moral precepts in the sermon on the mount produces in the reader a unique sense of soul-piercing spirituality. the christian reader misses such an atmosphere when first reading the quran. its precepts are mostly brief and scattered, lost in the mass of surahs, but when gathered together, as muhammad abdullah draz has gathered some in the moral world of the quran, they are soberly impressive. many parallels can be drawn with jesus's teaching, for example with his instruction to overcome evil with good (draz 322):

[good and evil cannot be equal (o prophet), repel evil with what is better and your enemy will become as close as an old and valued friend.] (fussilat 41:34)

jesus's teaching that a man who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery in his heart is paralleled by:

[tell believing men to lower their gaze and master their senses...] an-nur24:30)

it is not surprising that there should be such consonance between the gospels and the quran. draz argues not just that morality is governed by reason, but that the quran says this in its own words when it says (16):

[do they follow the command of their reason, or is it that they are an unjust people?] (at-tur 52:32)

here is the point of concurrence between islam and the catholic church: the rationality of morality, expressed on the catholic side in its aristotelian-thomist tradition of moral philosophy. thus, we can see that the consonance in values and morality of the quran and the gospels is not coincidental but is rooted in their common rational origin — the rationality of god himself.


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