Mustafa Akyol is a journalist and public intellectual in his native Turkey and for many years has also had a presence in the New York Times op-ed section. In 2011 he published Islam without Extremes, a memoir-cum-essay that addressed how a faithful Muslim can be at ease with life in a secular society. One might have looked for a new book by Akyol to offer an update on unfolding developments in the Islamic world, but Akyol heads in the opposite direction in The Islamic Jesus – to the very beginnings of Islam and even further back in time, to the very beginnings of Christianity. In the latter part of the book Akyol explains how a fresh look at these beginnings can shape constructive dialogue between Islam and the West in future.
Akyol is a close reader of the Koran. His starting point is what the Koran has to say about Jesus and his mother Mary. It may be surprising to learn: quite a lot. In fact, there are more mentions of Mary in the Koran than in the Gospels. The reason for the Koran’s frequent references to Jesus and Mary is because, as Muhammad insisted, the narrative in the Gospel was tweaked and it needed to be set right. Akyol looks into early Christianity and double-checks sources to determine whether the Koran has a case.
There is a familiar storyline of earliest Christianity.
Accordingly, Paul had disputes with fellow Christians as well as with fellow Jews over the key question how Christianity and Judaism stood in relation to one another. The issue whether Christianity was a fit with or a break from Judaism turned on the position of Jesus as the messiah, or, as he is called in the Gospels, as Christ. Christians claimed Jesus was the son of God albeit conceived with a mother who was human; Jews refused to accept this.
So far, so clear. But as Akyol points out, this dispute mainly is told from Paul’s point of view. There was another narrative that was crowded out in the process.
This alternative narrative matters because Paul – whatever his impact on Christianity – was never a leader of Christians in Jerusalem. There the leader of the community was a brother of Jesus, James, succeeded by a cousin of Jesus, Simon. Within Jerusalem’s Christian community, succession to the messiah was dynastic in character.
Paul and James disagreed on the status of Jesus. James agreed with Paul that Jesus was the messiah, however, James held that Jesus had a human father, which implies he did not accord divinity to Jesus and did not elevate the status of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
James reflected the teaching of Jesus in a nuanced way not found in the synoptic Gospels, something New Testament scholars have noticed and debated for a long time. The story of early Christianity was a story of competing Christianities (to find out just how intensely they competed, listen to Yale’s New Testament scholar Dale Martin’s lecture.)
Christianity as we know it was shaped by Paul and his followers. Jewish Christianity in Palestine, on the other hand, had an afterlife that went on for centuries and left a rich legacy of legends. Akyol points out that these legends tally in unexpected ways with versions of the life of Jesus as told by the Koran.
The question how Muhammad might have come to know these legends is not on Akyol’s agenda. Indeed it would be impossible to connect the dots that lead from Jerusalem to Mecca, from Jesus in the first century to Muhammad in the seventh. Akyol does not pretend he is in a position to solve questions that have defeated scholars for centuries.
What Akyol does offer, however, is an invitation to reflect on how narratives about Jesus branched out amongst the creeds of Abraham’s children, where the status of Jesus and of Mary provides a key discussion point for Muslims and Christians to pursue.
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It is pertinent to note this suggestion is anything but far-fetched, but rather something that places Akyol in very good company.
In 1844, the Heidelberg orientalist Gustav Weil published An Introduction to the Koran where the final chapter stated:
“Would historical-theological studies convince Muslims that Christianity in its current form is different from the one that Muhammad knew … that Christians also believe only in one God who alone created heaven and earth, that one need not believe the mother of God was a bride of God, and Jesus was not the son of God conceived in this union with God, then the barrier dividing them and Christians would break down.”
Weils’ book was published in English in 1895 after his death and appeared in the The Biblical World, a journal published by the University of Chicago Press that later merged into the Journal of Religion.
Oddly, the English translation edited out the passage quoted above.
What a shame the editors of The Biblical World in 1895 airbrushed out Weil’s suggestion, and hat tip to Mustafa Akyol for picking up in 2017 the trail mapped out by Gustav Weil in 1844.
The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims. Mustafa Akyol, St. Martin’s Press, 2017