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'When Jesus Met Muhammad ...'

17/06/2014 13:31 BST | Updated 15/08/2014 10:59 BST

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A shortened version of a speech delivered at 'Jesus and Muhammad, Reflections or Distortions', 16 June 2014

How do we put in practice what our founders taught- if we did inter faith would come naturally and be an integral part of our own religious practice. So what would it be like if Jesus and Muhammad met? It's a question which intrigues and excites me.

A Christian answer will never match up with an Islamic answer, not when we get down to theological or dogmatic details. Anyone reading the Qur'an will know the deep difference between the Jesus of the Bible and Jesus (Isa) in the Qur'an. So we must ask 'Who is Jesus?' A purely historical Jesus can look a lot like the 'Muslim Jesus' - teacher, ascetic, healer, messenger - but I cannot limit myself to that. The Jesus fully described in the Christian scriptures is 'the Word made flesh' (John 1.14) and 'Son of God'. It is this Jesus who I will talk about in the encounter between Jesus Christ and the Prophet Muhammad, both controversial, divisive figures to each other, from a creedal perspective. I cannot say 'la ilaha il' Allah, Muhammadan rasul Allah' and 'Jesus is Lord' in the same breath. This is the crux of the Christian-Muslim divide, or interface (my preference). This is an invitation to dialogue, not an end to it. Muslims will continue to talk about Jesus and be interested in what is in the Gospels and Christians, will still have a respectful interest in Muhammad and what he means to Muslims.

What I know of Muhammad tells me that he wouldn't have a problem with me being Christian, he would encourage me to develop taqwa (mindfulness of God) rather than change my religious path. Likewise Jesus didn't tell people to change their religion:

Jesus said to the centurion, "I will come and heal him." But the centurion said, "Lord, I am not worthy ... but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, 'Go!' and he goes, and to another, 'Come!' and he comes ..." When Jesus heard this, He marvelled and said to those who were following, "Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel' (Matthew 8.7 - 10)

If we know this about each other, which is challenging for some, and about our Masters then think how they would be with each other. In terms of the inter faith encounter we are just beginners, limited, not by how much of our religion we can give away, but by how in tune with Jesus and Muhammad we are. Muhammad's example, in the middle of a rather disputatious dialogue, is of encouraging Christians to hold congregational prayers in his masjid in Madinah. Jesus quotes the Hebrew Scripture (Isaiah 56.7) to tell his people that their place of worship, the Temple, is intended by God as a 'house of prayer for all nations'. He doesn't mean Jews from around the world, or Christians, but anyone, which means any religion.

The challenge of our question, from a Christian perspective, is that we cannot answer it! Unusually, the problem is on my side, if I have a difficulty relating to Islam or the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) then it isn't a problem with any of those things, I can't change Islam, or Muhammad. If Jesus wouldn't have had any barriers, and the evidence of the Gospels is that he wouldn't have, then how can my religion get in the way. It is as odd as the Muslim not open to inter faith.

In my mind, if Jesus and Muhammad met they would do so as equals. Yet in our religions they cannot be seen as equals. Islam makes no distinctions between the prophets, because they are all, even Jesus, nothing else than human. For the Christian this immediately creates a difficulty, Jesus is the same as other human beings in his physical characteristics, but metaphysically on God's level. So their equality in meeting is hypothetical.

It might be tempting to see Muhammad asserting against Jesus, 'I'm the Final Messenger' or Jesus countering with 'I'm the Son of God'. But we would be disappointed by that. And if we can see that, and not everyone would, then we can't see our Founders doing it either. What would God say? Another impossible question.

The implicit answer is that Jesus and Muhammad have so much in common. Though some would say, 'No, Jesus is radically different, we're not even speaking about the same person.' Few of us are familiar with both figures and both scriptures. Surely they would say to each other, about their followers, 'This isn't what I had in mind, when we don't have a problem with each other'. Would they argue about theology? Neither of them did much theology in their lifetimes, they were more concerned with orthopraxy - right action. Jesus might say, "Love God and love your neighbour as yourself"', and Muhammad might reply, "No one is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself."

We have God in common, so did Jesus and Muhammad, I can imagine them turning to us together and saying, 'What are you going to do about it?'