Friday Sermon: What are the different narratives about Prophet Jesus (a)?

Contributed by The Muslim Vibe

In this part we will introduce the idea that the way a historical individual is remembered evolves with time. That is to say the narrative around a person may change, and what is popularly known about him can shift both with time and space. This is a particular study elucidated on by scholars by Bart D. Ehram in Jesus Before The Gospels and Barry Schwartz in Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory.

The Qur’an in particular seeks to ground the narrative of the [prophetic] individuals it refers to. This is because one of its reasons of revelation was to correct the narratives that had been falsified over time and also to ensure it preserves the accurate understanding of these great individuals going forward. The following verses mention not only that we should remember certain personalities by recalling their stories but also that they provide characteristics that root their narrative around its pivot.

????????? ??? ?????????? ?????? ??????? ????? ????????? ??????? ???????? ?????????
19:51 And remember through this divine writ, Moses. Behold, he was a chosen one, and was an apostle [of God], a prophet.

????????? ??? ?????????? ???????????? ??????? ????? ??????? ????????? ??????? ???????? ?????????
19:54 And remember through this divine writ, Ishmael. Behold, he was always true to his promise, and was an apostle [of God], a prophet.

????????? ??? ?????????? ????????? ??????? ????? ????????? ?????????
19:56 And remember through this divine writ, Idris. Behold, he was a man of truth, a prophet.

????????? ??? ?????????? ???????? ???? ?????????? ???? ????????? ???????? ??????????
19:16 And remember through this divine writ, Mary. Lo! She withdrew from her family to an eastern place.

????????? ??? ?????????? ???????????? ??????? ????? ????????? ?????????
19:41 And remember to mind, through this divine writ, Abraham. Behold, he was a man of truth, a prophet.

As you can see the mentioning of the figure is immediately followed with a particular set of descriptions. Why did the Qur’an link Prophet Ismail (a) with his truthfulness? Because that was a central aspect to his mission and response to his time, central to his eternal legacy. Similarly why mention Lady Maryam (a) as withdrawing from her family for servitude of God? Because though against the norm of her time and some characteristic gender norms, Lady Maryam’s fulfilment of her potential could not be proscribed by culture, also something central to her eternal legacy.

Although the Qur’an seeks to ground the narrative, the way people remember an individual indeed evolves. That may be down to the availability and accessibility of information on that person, or how a culture evolves its ethics or needs and so engages in a collective ‘historical revisionism’.

Bart Ehram provides examples of Abraham Lincoln and Christopher Columbus. The former has come to be known as the great champion of equality and freeing of slaves. Whereas historically there was a long period when he demonstrated great racism. Lincoln believed ‘blacks’ could not serve on jury’s or should be deported to colonies. In a debate with Stephen A. Douglas he said:

“I am not, nor ever have been, in favour of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races. There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of equality.”

Why is Lincoln so well known for championing equality but less known for such earlier beliefs? Because as abolitionists and civil rights movements grew it projected Lincoln’s later beliefs only as evidence of his support ignoring other elements of his personality. This is what would become known of him.

The same evolution, Ehram points out, is how people ‘remember’ Christopher Columbus. Having a day named after him, he was initially celebrated for his ‘finding’ the Americas. As the true history of the United States was written, people have come to realise the terrorism Columbus performed. He is no longer celebrated but loathed. This is because colonisation is now also loathed and so what people remember of Columbus has changed too. James Loewen states:

“Columbus introduced two phenomena: the taking of land, wealth, and labor from indigenous people in the Western Hemisphere, and the transatlantic slave trade.”

The same shift in remembering can be said for so many people: Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Tony Blair and so on.

How then is Jesus (a) remembered by Christians? Indeed this too has changed with time and space. What the earliest Christians knew of, championed and celebrated is very particular. Once the Gospels were written some 60 to 100 years after Jesus (a), the stories of Jesus shifted. This occurred again with non-canonical books being compiled and from the events at The First Council of Nicea, with the first consensus on Christianity occurring in 325 AD.

Of course today, the way Jesus (a) is remembered, celebrated, emphasised, and transmitted is very different to all those previous periods. How Jesus was remembered and his earliest known narratives is what this series will look at.

How do Muslims ‘remember’ and speak of Prophet Isa (a)? Let us mention three narrations that ‘ground’ the Muslim understanding of who Jesus (a) was:

1) Jesus (a) said: “My servant is my hands and my mount is my feet; my bed is the earth and my pillow, a stone; my blanket in the winter is the east of the earth and my lamp in the night is the moon; my stew is hunger and my motto is fear; my clothing is wool and my fruit and my basil is what grows from the earth for the wild beasts and cattle.

I sleep while I have nothing and I rise while I have nothing, and yet there is no one on earth more wealthy than I.”

2) One of the Imams is reported to have said: “It was said to Jesus the son of Mary (‘a), ‘How did you begin the morning, O Spirit of Allah?’ He said, ‘I began the morning with my Lord, the Blessed and Supreme, above me and the fire (of hell) before me and death in pursuit of me. I have not obtained that for which I wished and I cannot keep away the things I hate. So who of the poor is more poor than I?’”

3) Jesus (‘a) said to the disciples: “Be satisfied with a little of the world, while your religion is safe, likewise the people of this world are satisfied with a little of the religion, while their world is safe; love Allah by being far from them, and make Allah satisfied by being angry with them.”

The disciples said, “O spirit of Allah, so with whom should we keep company?” He said, “He the sight of whom reminds you of Allah, his speech increases your knowledge and his action makes you desirous of the other world.”

In this part we will introduce the idea that the way a historical individual is remembered evolves with time. That is to say the narrative around a person may change, and what is popularly known about him can shift both with time and space. This is a particular study elucidated on by scholars by Bart D. Ehram in Jesus Before The Gospels and Barry Schwartz in Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory.

The Qur’an in particular seeks to ground the narrative of the [prophetic] individuals it refers to. This is because one of its reasons of revelation was to correct the narratives that had been falsified over time and also to ensure it preserves the accurate understanding of these great individuals going forward. The following verses mention not only that we should remember certain personalities by recalling their stories but also that they provide characteristics that root their narrative around its pivot.

????????? ??? ?????????? ?????? ??????? ????? ????????? ??????? ???????? ?????????
19:51 And remember through this divine writ, Moses. Behold, he was a chosen one, and was an apostle [of God], a prophet.

????????? ??? ?????????? ???????????? ??????? ????? ??????? ????????? ??????? ???????? ?????????
19:54 And remember through this divine writ, Ishmael. Behold, he was always true to his promise, and was an apostle [of God], a prophet.

????????? ??? ?????????? ????????? ??????? ????? ????????? ?????????
19:56 And remember through this divine writ, Idris. Behold, he was a man of truth, a prophet.

????????? ??? ?????????? ???????? ???? ?????????? ???? ????????? ???????? ??????????
19:16 And remember through this divine writ, Mary. Lo! She withdrew from her family to an eastern place.

????????? ??? ?????????? ???????????? ??????? ????? ????????? ?????????
19:41 And remember to mind, through this divine writ, Abraham. Behold, he was a man of truth, a prophet.

As you can see the mentioning of the figure is immediately followed with a particular set of descriptions. Why did the Qur’an link Prophet Ismail (a) with his truthfulness? Because that was a central aspect to his mission and response to his time, central to his eternal legacy. Similarly why mention Lady Maryam (a) as withdrawing from her family for servitude of God? Because though against the norm of her time and some characteristic gender norms, Lady Maryam’s fulfilment of her potential could not be proscribed by culture, also something central to her eternal legacy.

Although the Qur’an seeks to ground the narrative, the way people remember an individual indeed evolves. That may be down to the availability and accessibility of information on that person, or how a culture evolves its ethics or needs and so engages in a collective ‘historical revisionism’.

Bart Ehram provides examples of Abraham Lincoln and Christopher Columbus. The former has come to be known as the great champion of equality and freeing of slaves. Whereas historically there was a long period when he demonstrated great racism. Lincoln believed ‘blacks’ could not serve on jury’s or should be deported to colonies. In a debate with Stephen A. Douglas he said:

“I am not, nor ever have been, in favour of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races. There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of equality.”

Why is Lincoln so well known for championing equality but less known for such earlier beliefs? Because as abolitionists and civil rights movements grew it projected Lincoln’s later beliefs only as evidence of his support ignoring other elements of his personality. This is what would become known of him.

The same evolution, Ehram points out, is how people ‘remember’ Christopher Columbus. Having a day named after him, he was initially celebrated for his ‘finding’ the Americas. As the true history of the United States was written, people have come to realise the terrorism Columbus performed. He is no longer celebrated but loathed. This is because colonisation is now also loathed and so what people remember of Columbus has changed too. James Loewen states:

“Columbus introduced two phenomena: the taking of land, wealth, and labor from indigenous people in the Western Hemisphere, and the transatlantic slave trade.”

The same shift in remembering can be said for so many people: Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Tony Blair and so on.

How then is Jesus (a) remembered by Christians? Indeed this too has changed with time and space. What the earliest Christians knew of, championed and celebrated is very particular. Once the Gospels were written some 60 to 100 years after Jesus (a), the stories of Jesus shifted. This occurred again with non-canonical books being compiled and from the events at The First Council of Nicea, with the first consensus on Christianity occurring in 325 AD.

Of course today, the way Jesus (a) is remembered, celebrated, emphasised, and transmitted is very different to all those previous periods. How Jesus was remembered and his earliest known narratives is what this series will look at.

How do Muslims ‘remember’ and speak of Prophet Isa (a)? Let us mention three narrations that ‘ground’ the Muslim understanding of who Jesus (a) was:

1) Jesus (a) said: “My servant is my hands and my mount is my feet; my bed is the earth and my pillow, a stone; my blanket in the winter is the east of the earth and my lamp in the night is the moon; my stew is hunger and my motto is fear; my clothing is wool and my fruit and my basil is what grows from the earth for the wild beasts and cattle.

I sleep while I have nothing and I rise while I have nothing, and yet there is no one on earth more wealthy than I.”

2) One of the Imams is reported to have said: “It was said to Jesus the son of Mary (‘a), ‘How did you begin the morning, O Spirit of Allah?’ He said, ‘I began the morning with my Lord, the Blessed and Supreme, above me and the fire (of hell) before me and death in pursuit of me. I have not obtained that for which I wished and I cannot keep away the things I hate. So who of the poor is more poor than I?’”

3) Jesus (‘a) said to the disciples: “Be satisfied with a little of the world, while your religion is safe, likewise the people of this world are satisfied with a little of the religion, while their world is safe; love Allah by being far from them, and make Allah satisfied by being angry with them.”

The disciples said, “O spirit of Allah, so with whom should we keep company?” He said, “He the sight of whom reminds you of Allah, his speech increases your knowledge and his action makes you desirous of the other world.”

Share Button
Avatar

About the author

%d bloggers like this: