- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 10, 2006

With the advent of the Christmas season we two friends — a Christian and a Muslim — find our thoughts turning to the relationship between Christianity and Islam, which looms so fatefully on the global stage. From Nigeria to Indonesia, conflict erupts along the faultlines of these two great missionary religions, threatening to expand to a civilizational conflagration. Together Christians and Muslims make up half the world’s population, and the planet cannot sustain a war between them.

Despite mutually hostile perceptions, the two contending faiths share more in common than many of their followers appreciate. And one thing that could unite Muslims and Christians is, ironically, veneration of Jesus.

This may surprise Christians unaware of the fact that Muslims view Jesus as a great prophet. Unfortunately, the historic Islamic reverence for Jesus is also in danger of being lost among Muslims who associate Christianity with the crusades and Western imperialism and thus find it difficult to see a link between the West and Jesus. His message of love tragically is thus marginalized among Muslims who see America’s war on terrorism as a campaign against Islam.

What is the source of Muslim reverence for Jesus, and how might it speak to us today? For Muslims, Jesus is esteemed in a special way that Christians can appreciate.

Jesus holds a unique place in the Koran, the holy book of Islam: He is miraculously born of the Virgin Mary. As no other figure in Islamic history he can perform miracles, such as breathing life into a figure of clay, giving sight to the blind, curing the leper and bringing the dead to life (Chapter 3, Verse 49). He is mentioned more often in the Koran than even the Prophet Muhammad and there is an entire chapter devoted to Mary, the venerated mother of Jesus. It is also well for Muslims to recall that the Prophet Muhammad said about himself that there is no one closer to Jesus in love and reverence.

Muslim Sufi mystics describe Jesus as “the spirit of God,” or Ruh Allah, because his spirit evokes God’s love for humanity and our mandate to love one another in return. Thus while not viewed in Islam as divine, Jesus is nonetheless understood in terms remarkably consonant with Christian sensibilities.

Because both Christians and Muslims revere and love Jesus, he is a natural bridge between them.

Sadly, some Christian and Muslim leaders seem to think there is an irreconcilable conflict between them. Franklin Graham referred to Islam as “a very evil and wicked religion.” Former Southern Baptist Convention president Jerry Vines said that Prophet Muhammad was “a demon-possessed pedophile.” Pat Robertson described him as a “wild-eyed fanatic” while Jerry Falwell termed the Prophet “a terrorist.”

In certain Christian circles the specter of aggressive Islam has replaced communism as the greatest perceived threat to the faithful. In one sense this is understandable because Christian minorities are often besieged in Muslim countries, especially under pressure by Islamist movements. Mr. Graham, for example, has seen health clinics built by his organization in southern Sudan bombed by forces of the regime in Khartoum which describes itself as Islamic.

But Mr. Graham and other Christians need to understand that inflammatory comments about Islam do not embody Jesus’ spirit of compassion and understanding. And they undercut those Muslims who are committed to peace and strengthen those hardliners who justify wanton attacks on Christians by depicting Christianity as a “crusader” force bent on subjugating Muslim people.

Christians who study Jesus to comprehend God’s will thus share with Muslims this sense that Jesus’ teachings come directly from God and are blessings of the benevolent creator of the universe. Muslims looking for what is common between these two religions should see in Jesus a powerful and legitimate bridge — an insight even overlooked by those desperately seeking ways of understanding our world in terms other than a clash of civilizations. Jesus may just be an answer to a world trembling at the brink. Appropriately, his message of compassion could well be a key to world peace.

Akbar Ahmed is Ibn Khaldun chair of Islamic Studies at American University. Allen Hertzke is professor of political science and director of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma.

Suzanne Fields is on vacation. Her column will resume in this space on Dec. 14.

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