Thursday, April 28, 2011

About the roles of Jesus and Muhammad

by Nasir Khan, 2006
NOTE: In 2006,  the Norwegian philosopher and sociologist Dag Österberg wrote me a letter (in Norwegian) asking a few questions about Jesus and Muhammad after seeing my article in response to Pope Bendict’s version of God and Islam in Klassekampen. Perhaps some readers may find my reply to his letter of interest; therefore, I am posting it on my websites.

Dear Dag Österberg

You had raised some important points regarding Jesus and Muhammad in your letter of 31 October 2006. I do appreciate your point of view, but apart from general historical information I have, I do not regard myself an expert on either of these two great men who (and their followers) have influenced the course of world history. My views on the matter should not be regarded anything more than a tentative attempt to understand the historical role and the ‘rational’ kernel of the teachings of the two men.

My reference to Jesus' saying: 'I did not come to bring peace but a sword' (Matthew 10: 34-36) was in reply to the Pope's views, which I found to be at a primitive level of theological and historical exposition of the two religions. I am aware that Jesus had also spoken about loving our enemies, etc. In my view, the two religions, Christianity and Islam are the branches of the same tree, and in this respect all mutual recriminations and polemical views, which their respective spokesmen and authorities come up with, are simplistic and uncalled for that need to be overcome.

How can the message of Jesus be interpreted? There are divergent views. I had used about two years to investigate the historical sources on Jesus and the emergence of Christian dogmas when I wrote Perceptions of Islam in the Christendoms: A Historical Survey. The result I presented in a summary form in the first two chapters. If you have time, please take a look at these once again. I find them interesting to read myself!

You see Jesus’ sayings/message in the context of Hegelian dialectics. In fact, when we look at some of his sayings, for instance, in the Gospel According to Mark, we come across many radical and innovatory ideas from a man who was a Jewish rabbi, an unconventional preacher and a radical young man in his late twenties or early thirties. He was very much a part of the Jewish cultural tradition who upheld the strict Mosaic Law. I believe you are well aware that there is a great controversy about the authentic sayings of Jesus. What is attributed to him in the Gospels has been the subject of serious disagreement amongst scholars; biblical scholars of the Jesus Seminar had narrowed down his sayings to only a few. In judging the teachings of Jesus, new research needs to be taken into consideration. But if we assume for the sake of argument what one gospel-writer, Mark, says about the sayings of Jesus is authentic then we are left with many otherworldly paradoxical teachings. I will quote a few lines from the Gospel According to Mark to illustrate the point:
  • Jesus feeds four thousand people from seven loaves of bread (Mk 8: 1-8). Well, this narrative and many others belong to the unending saga of miracles and I don’t see any need to comment; I agree with many other scholars who regard these as nothing more than fairy-tales narrated by the Pauline gospel-writers.
  • ‘If anyone should cause one of these little ones [!] to lose faith in me, it would be better for that person to have a large milestone tied round his neck and be thrown into the sea. If your hand makes you lose your faith, cut it off’ (Mk 9: 42-43). Not a bad prescription for the neck or the hand of a wavering follower!
  • About marriage and divorce: 'He said to them [his disciples], “A man who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against his wife. In the same way, a woman who divorces her husband and marries another man commits adultery”'  (Mk 10: 11-12). And we should keep in mind the punishment for adultery under the Mosaic Law.
  • Jesus cursed a fig tree because he was hungry and the tree bore no figs simply 'because it was not the right time for the figs. Jesus said to the fig-tree, “No one will ever eat from you again!” ' (Mk 11: 13-14). It is strange that a tree gets a curse for the rest of its life for not giving figs to the Teacher but it would have been obvious to Jesus that it was not the season for the figs in his homeland!
  • Indeed, there are great rewards awaiting those who follow Jesus: ‘Yes, ‘Jesus said to them, ‘and I tell you that anyone who leaves home or brothers and sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me will—and persecutions as well; and in the age to come he will receive eternal life’ (Mk 10: 29-30). The promise of eternal life may be too good an offer to ignore. Besides, in the Kingdom of God everything is in abundance and there is no shortage of anything.
  • The next verse says: ‘But many who now are first will be the last, and many who are now last will be the first’ (Mk 10: 31). What this really means is that those who enjoy wealth, power and prestige now and those who are poor, powerless and marginalised will change their roles. But when and where? Again, this is not going to take place in the material world inhabited by the people but in the Kingdom of God. However, in the Kingdom of God everything is possible; the haves and have-nots will simply swap their places. This is an interesting perspective, but is there any practical use of it? To my mind the answer is: None whatever. Thus nothing is changed and nothing is resolved in the real world for anyone.
  • Jesus by all accounts was an apocalyptic figure whose message was that the end of the world was near (Mk 1: 15a: ‘The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is at hand’ and that the kingdom of God/Heaven was within our reach). It is interesting to note that the Kingdom of God is more in the Platonic sense a perfect ‘kingdom’ as an ideal Form. It is both here and now (Luke 17: 21: ‘The Kingdom of God is within you.’), but it is also found in the world hereafter. In one way, this notion adds to the traditional Paradise of the Jewish faith by including our present life; and the location of the Kingdom of God is said to be within our own hearts (or our spiritual consciousness of it), but the old traditional Paradise and Hell in afterlife seem to be intact and fully operational.
Some of the paradoxical sayings of Jesus mentioned above show the mystical nature of Jesus’ teachings. His message is idealistic, utopian and otherworldly. There is no need for me to comment on any of the claims we come across about his supernatural powers. In my view everything within the material world is a result of the place of Matter in Space and Time and the role of cause and effect in bringing the change or transformation of Matter. We can explain what is within the realm of Nature by the study of natural phenomenon. I find the whole notion of super-nature, supernatural beings, supernatural powers and miracles to be utter nonsense. But the basic question for a thoughtful inquirer remains the question of the relationship of consciousness to being, of the spiritual to material. What we associate with the spiritual is in reality an aspect and manifestation of the material.

I do appreciate when you apply Hegelian dialects to some of the issues about which Jesus spoke. Seemingly Jesus resolves or dissolves some of the contradictions. But the fact remains that all his solutions are utopian and idealistic to the degree where they have no place in practical affairs of our life on Earth. If his message does not alter anything at the practical level of our life, what else does it achieve? I think the very impracticability of his teachings has also for many been attractive; it still continues to captivate many. Perhaps the root cause of it lies in our human situation. Man, the sentient being is also a suffering being, who needs an escape from the reality of being. And when it is delivered to him in the form of a full package of salvation and numerous lucrative rewards, he finds consolation and joy; this is for him the Good News. In Hegel the interplay of thesis and antithesis in the world is resolved by  the interplay of opposites; yet this resolution/negation is also the Aufhebung, the coming into being of new facet of reality in a new form that has taken place and transformed what was before. To this extent, I find Hegelian dialectics of interest in understanding the world. But I find it difficult to apply Hegel in the case of Jesus’ paradoxical sayings. In any case, I find such sayings refreshing that, at least, provide some temporary refuge or escape from the harsh realities of human existence.

Now I come to the last part of your question: Is Muhammad also a dialectician in the same way as Jesus is? I think we have to approach this question from a different angle that, first of all, takes into account the fact that these two religious figures in the world history belonged to different societies, different religious and cultural traditions. The control mechanism of religious power in their respective societies was different. But the message of Muhammad can be said to be the continuation and revival of the essential teachings of old Hebrew prophets as well as to re-establish the monotheistic tradition of Abraham. His teachings involve all the paraphernalia of the Judaic tradition, but they also introduce some new changes. Despite the persistent existence, as in the old religious tradition, of supernatural beings (God, Satan and angels, etc.,) and the rewards for our actions in the life-to-come, there is no ready-made package of salvation available if humankind does not make an effort. Man is not a sinner but a vicegerent of God on Earth, having a free will and capacity to change the world. At the same time, he is responsible and accountable for his actions. Only our actions—praxis—can lead us to the eternal bliss in the gardens of Paradise or the horrors of that other terribly undesirable place! There are no paradoxical utterances of Muhammad. No great merit is attached to miracles performed by anyone. Muhammad’s God is not a ‘Jewish’ or a ‘Christian’ God but a universal God, the creator of heaven and earth and the giver of life to inanimate matter. Jesus preached for less than two years about the Kingdom of God in the world of Spirit or the next world; Muhammad thought his mission was to establish the rule of God on Earth and he struggled for 23 years of his life to that end.

I hope I have not misrepresented any of the two great religious figures of history in this letter. Finally, believers’ dependence on the higher powers is beyond doubt, but it seems they expect too much from their God/gods and the holy men who may not be able to deliver all that is demanded from them.

Sincerely yours

Nasir Khan

10 November 2006
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