Same name, different face

The Jesus of Islamic literature has rough words for those who collude with government

This short book contains a millennium's worth of sayings and stories of Jesus drawn from Islamic literature. The title may seem paradoxical; we are not accustomed to thinking of Jesus in Muslim contexts. Enter Tarif Khalidi, Sir Thomas Adams professor of Arabic and director of the Centre of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at King's College, Cambridge. Khalidi proves to be an expert guide to this wealth of material. As a result, "The Muslim Jesus" is a book of spiritual connoisseurship with a timely and seductive appeal.

In his ample introduction, Khalidi says, "The legacy of Jesus is gentleness, compassion, and humility." For Christian readers, this is reassuring. But the Muslim holy book, the Koran, recognizes that "man is contentious," and the Muslim Jesus addresses his wayward followers with strong insinuating speech.

In Muslim writings, Jesus has a life of his own. His miraculous birth is emphasized, but there's no mention of the Passion. Here Jesus companions with ascetics rather than with sinners, as in the Gospels. The Muslim Jesus has hot words for scholars who advance themselves by working with the government. In general, this Muslim Jesus is for community over against the leadership. Of all the prophets, we learn, Jesus appealed to Muslims as an example of purity of heart, "constantly on guard against the temptation of haste and heedlessness."

The sayings and stories are presented in 303 segments. Each segment contains a translation and a short commentary. These sayings and stories are always instructive and frequently moving.

"Jesus said," goes No. 122, " 'God likes His servant to learn a craft whereby he can become independent of people, and God hates a servant who acquires religious knowledge and then adopts it as a craft."

No. 128 has an apocalyptic humorous twist. "A pig passed by Jesus. Jesus said, 'Pass in peace.' He was asked, 'Spirit of God, how can you say this to a pig?' Jesus replied, 'I hate to accustom my tongue to evil.' "

The commentary tells us what we need to know - if we didn't know it already - about the distastefulness of pigs in Muslim society and notes that this saying would itself be distasteful to Muslim readers. One Muslim commentator traces it to a "Buddhist origin." Mr. Khalidi finds no basis for that. So this Jesus has much to say to Muslim readers.

Reading this delightful book, we become more attuned to the current vocabulary of "jihad," which our newspaper editorials are likely to translate as "holy war."

Here we learn the root meaning: "pious exertion." "Jesus said, 'I have two loves - whoever loves them loves me, and whoever hates them hates me: poverty and pious exertion." Enough said.

One of my favorites goes like this: "Jesus met a man and asked him, 'What are you doing?' 'I am devoting myself to God,' the man replied. 'Who is caring for you?' 'My brother,' replied the man. Jesus said, 'Your brother is more devoted to God than you are.' "

And finally, "an elegant saying, with no exact parallels in the Gospels but nevertheless Jesus-like in its terse profundity." To wit: "Blessed is he who sees with his heart but whose heart is not in what he sees."

"The Muslim Jesus" is handsomely produced. Its pages are well designed and spacious. They invite the eye to linger and the mind to ruminate. Tarif Khalidi has not only risen to the occasion of our present discontents, he has transcended it and lifted the heart beyond sorrow and distraction to delight.

• Thomas D'Evelyn is an editorial consultant in Providence, R.I.

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