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Comments on: William E. Phipps, Muhammad and Jesus: A Comparison of the Prophets and Their Teachings 

By: Dr. Ahmad Shafaat

(2001)


   (Reproduced from the Journal of the Muslim Research Institute, January-June, 2001, Vol. 5, No.1)

There have been many scholars of Christian background who have extensively studied Islamic sources and written on the Prophet Muhammad. They have also made some brief statements comparing Muhammad and Jesus but without showing in detail how they used Christian sources to arrive at their view of Jesus underlying their comparative statements. Often it appears that they proceed from certain views of Jesus that they did not examine with the same type of critical approach to the Christian sources to which they subject the Islamic sources. The significance of this book lies in the fact that Phipps dares to set his views about the Prophets Muhammad and Jesus side by side, presents evidence for his views of both prophets, and handles that evidence with a critical approach and with the declared intention of being objective, honest, and fair. 

Yet Phipps’ work is only a modest beginning in this direction. His use of Islamic and Christian sources does not reach anywhere near the highest level of maturity of which scholarship is capable at the present time. And because of this, there are times when he is swayed by old Christian perceptions in interpreting the evidence, both in case of Muhammad and Jesus.

 

OLDER CHRISTIAN PERCEPTIONS MAINTAINED

 

 This may be illustrated by the following comparison between Muhammad and Jesus in the Conclusion to his book: 

“Within a century of Muhammad’s death, those whom he inspired subdued nations from Spain to India, more area than Christian missions gained after many centuries. Military force rapidly established outward control, but it was less effective in transforming the spiritual values of the peoples affected. Neither Machiavelli nor Muhammad grasped the paradox that failing to establish political control might in the long run win greater allegiance.” 

This statement repeats some very old Christian assumptions about Muhammad even though earlier Phipps in the Introduction to his book criticized similar statements by earlier Christians, including the following by Martin Luther: “When the spirit of lies had taken possession of Mohammad, and the devil had murdered men’s souls with his Koran and had destroyed the faith of Christians, he had to go on and take the sword and set about to murder their bodies.” 

There is a strong underlying correspondence between the statements of Luther and Phipps, despite a tremendous difference in style, language, and culture. For Luther, Muhammad establishes control over men by sword and murder, while for Phipps he does so by military force. For Luther, Muhammad kills men’s souls by his Koran, for Phipps he is less effective in transforming the spiritual values of people. For Luther, Muhammad is the instrument of the devil, for Phipps he can be bracketed with Machiavelli, a symbol of shameless pursuit of raw power and wealth, and hence a modern humanist/secularist equivalent of the devil. If Phipps’ statement were translated into the style and language of Luther’s time it would look remarkably similar. And, of course, it is similarly contrary to evidence. 

Muhammad is not at all unaware that failure to establish political control is not failure of the mission. The very strong emphasis on the hereafter, which runs throughout the Qur’an, means that what is important is not what happens in this life but what we do to prepare for the hereafter. Had Muhammad placed such value on earthly victory as Phipps contends, the Qur’an would not have so consistently and persistently called people to faith in the hereafter as it does. The Qur’an also teaches that it is necessary that in this life the prophets and their righteous followers undergo suffering (2:155, 2:214). Some prophets were actually killed unjustly, evidently before they established their “political control” (2:61, 2:87, 2:91, 3:21, 3:112, 3:183, 4:157, 5:70). There is also the concept of martyrs who obviously do not succeed in this world but do achieve everlasting life (2:154, 3:157, 3:169 etc). And Muhammad, though certain of his final victory, was also aware of the possibility of being killed before his victory in this world

“And Muhammad is but a messenger. Other messengers have already passed away before him. If then he dies or he is killed, will you turn back upon your heals (from the way of God)? And whoever turns back upon his heels, he will not do any harm to God whatsoever. But (know that) God will reward the grateful.  And it is not possible that a person die except with the permission of God, according to a term appointed. Whoever desires the reward of this world, We shall give him of it, and whoever desires the reward of the hereafter, We shall likewise give him of it. We will give the reward (of the hereafter) to the grateful” (3:144-145). 

A reference may also be made to passages like 61:10-13, where after exhorting the believers to struggle in the way of God, they are promised paradise and this success in the hereafter is called “truly great achievement”. Afterwards, as if as a concession to a human weakness, the believers are promised: “something else that YOU LOVE – help from God for a victory at hand, so give the good news to the believers.” Phipps could have given due recognition not only to such verses but also to the fact that Muhammad thought of himself from the beginning of his mission to the very end as the messenger of God, as one who delivers a message and calls people to God and belief in the hereafter, as a teacher of wisdom, as a Warner and bearer of good tidings, as a spiritual guide who purifies his followers (2:151, 3:164, 62:2, 33:45-46 etc). He never thought of himself as the king of the Arabs or of the world. 

Phipps says: “From Noah onward the theme is that God rescues the innocent. Regarding Abraham and Moses, the Qur’an states: ‘We gave them help so that they became victorious.’ … As Muhammad reflected on his own career, as well as that of God’s earlier spokespeople he had difficulty accepting that earthly defeat should be the destiny of any of the faithful.” (p. 218-219) This statement is amply refuted by the passages cited above. Moreover, the statement is not supported by the Qur’anic passages that Phipps has in mind. When the Qur’an relates how earlier prophets started from a position of weakness and then became victorious or that they were under serious threats from their enemies and were rescued, the purpose is not to encourage the pursuit of political control but to point to the exact opposite: complete ineffectiveness of any human power and political control. The Qur’an often states that the messengers of God are almost always opposed by the rich and powerful who expect that if there has to be a messenger from God it should be from among them: “We never sent a Warner to a town but those in it who led lives of ease said: ‘We are surely disbelievers in what you are sent with.’ They said: ‘We have more in wealth and in sons, and we shall not be punished.’ Say: ‘Surely my Lord amplifies the means of subsistence for whom He pleases and straitens (it for whom He pleases), but most men do not know.” (34:34-36; also 6:123, 14:13, 23:33, 25:31, 43:23, 56:45 etc). “They say: Why was not this Qur’an revealed to a man of importance in the two towns?” (43:31). The Qur’an often states that power and rule belongs to God and to God alone (2:165, 5:17, 12:40, 13:31 etc). Its references to the miraculous rescue of Noah, Abraham, Moses and other prophets from their enemies reinforce this point. Their message, when correctly understood is that man should not put much trust in the security of power and wealth, for no matter how much power and wealth he has he cannot resist God. 

That Muhammad and his followers had no “difficulty accepting that earthly defeat could well be the destiny of some of the faithful” is shown also by what is for Phipps and many Christian writers the second most reliable source for Muhammad’s life. In Ibn Ishaq we read the story of a man who came to Muhammad and after listening to his teaching requested him to send some of his companions with him so that they can explain his teaching to the people of Najd. When the companions went, the people of Najd, instead of listening to the message, killed the Muslims. One of the men who took part in the murder was Jabbār who later became Muslim and gave this account: “What led me to become a Muslim was that I stabbed one of them between the shoulders that day and saw the point of his spear come out of his chest, and I heard him say, ‘I have won, by God!’ I could not make out what he meant by the words seeing that I had killed him until afterwards when I asked others. I was told that it was (a reference to the meaning of) martyrdom, and then I said, ‘By God he has won’” 

These dying words of an early follower of Muhammad (and of many others after him as well as those of many Christians) rise in faith above those put in the mouth of Jesus as he reportedly died on the cross: “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?” (It is doubtful that Jesus said any such words, not just because the historicity of crucifixion itself is doubtful (as I have attempted to show in my book The Mysterious Disappearance of Jesus and the Origins of Christianity) but also because they come from a Psalm and Luke and John make him say completely different words derived from other, different Psalms. (This shows that later followers of a teacher can invent or distort stories so as to inadvertently bring the level of the teacher down closer to their own level. Ibn Ishaq therefore may not always be historical when he reports something that seemingly makes Muhammad appear less than perfect.} 

Earlier than Ibn Ishaq we read in the book of Musa bin `Uqbah, which may have been used by Ibn Ishaq, the following tradition that shows what was important for Muhammad: Seeing the reaction of the companions at the arrival of some poll tax from Bahrayn), the Prophet said: “Rejoice and hope for what will gladden you. By God it is not poverty that I fear on your account. I fear that you will become too comfortable and will be led astray like those before you.” 

Bukhari and Muslim record the following tradition in which `Umar bin al-Khattāb is reporting: “(During a visit to the Prophet) I looked around his house, and by God, I could not see anything of value in his house except three hides. So I said, ‘O God’s Messenger! Invoke God to make your followers prosperous, for the Persians and the Romans have been made prosperous and they have been given (the good) of this world, although they do not worship God.’ Thereupon the Prophet sat up while he was previously reclining and said, ‘Are you of such an opinion, O son of al-Khattab? These are the people who have received the rewards for their good deeds in this world.’ I said, ‘O God’s Messenger! Ask (God) to forgive me.’” There are many traditions showing that `Umar never forgot what the Prophet taught him and lived in extreme simplicity and in remembrance of God and the hereafter. Phipps ignores this evidence without giving any reasons why it should not be taken into account.

 

THE STUMBLING BLOCK

One of the stumbling blocks for Christians, including Phipps, in the proper assessment of Muhammad is that they look at the outward fact of his battles but not at inner reconciliation of the hearts that he was achieving. It should be obvious to even a casual reader of history that before the Prophet died he had successfully transformed the warring tribes of Arabia into a nation, as unified and reconciled as it is possible for human beings to be. This was the culmination of an ongoing process of reconciliation of hearts on which the Qur’an comments more than once: “And remember the favor of God upon you when you were enemies, then he reconciled your hearts and you by his favor became brothers. You were on the brink of a pit of fire, then he saved you from it. Thus does God make explicit his signs that you may be guided.” (3:103) “And he reconciled their hearts. Had you spent all that is in the earth, you could not have reconciled their hearts. But God reconciled them. Surely God is mighty and wise” (8:63). This reconciliation was being achieved on the one hand by spiritual and moral transformation of the people and on the other hand through treaties with varied parties. In many cases battles became necessary when these parties broke their treaties because treaties cannot forge good relations unless they are respected. The battles and the process of reconciliation continued after the death of the Prophet and Islam brought different nations, races, and classes of men in as close a brotherhood as it has ever been the case in human history. 

What Christians who are concerned to be honest and fair need to inquire is whether what Muhammad did was necessary for the reconciliation of the hearts of the people who were to be the first recipients of his message. If it were necessary, then it would have been wrong not to do it. 

It seems from the Introduction of his book that Phipps studied Islam only for a limited period of time to write this book; in the way journalists do research on a topic to write a topical book. He went to the library of a Christian seminary for a period and gathered material for his book there. It is therefore not surprising that he often errs in interpreting Islamic sources and voices the opinions of Christian readers of the Qur’an. I will discuss in some detail one of the more serious errors found in Phipps’ book (p. 234-235).

 

CONDITIONS FOR SALVATION MISUNDERSTOOD

Accepting the view of D. Margoliouth, whom J. Arberry once accused of sophistry and hesitatingly of dishonesty, Phipps thinks that Qur’anic utterances vary from “large-minded tolerance to extreme fanaticism” (p. 235). An example of the first is 2:136 while an example of the second is 3:85. Interestingly, 2:136 is repeated without much change just before 3:85. The two verses then read: 

(3:84) “Say! We believe in God and in what has been revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and in (the Books) given to Moses, Jesus, and the prophets, from their Lord: We make no distinction between one and another among them, and we are those who commit ourselves to him (muslimun)" (3:85). And whoever desires a religion other than al-Islam, it shall not be accepted from him, and in the hereafter he shall be one of the losers.” 

So according to Phipps the first of these two verses is an example of “large-minded tolerance” while the very next verse is an example of “extreme fanaticism”. But since the two verses are put together and they are the words of the same person, Phipps should have considered the possibility that they are meant to be understood in the light of each other rather than representing a psychotic move from tolerance to fanaticism. It is well known (and Phipps knows it, p. 228) that al-islam (a derivative of aslama) has two meanings in the Qur’an. Its primary meaning is: the universal religion of whole-hearted commitment to the one true transcendent God, belief in accountability and life of good deeds. This al-Islam is the substance of the religion of all the prophets. Hence they can all be described as “muslims” (those following al-islam). 

The secondary meaning of al-islam is the particular expression of the eternal/universal religion through the Prophet Muhammad. So 3:85, when understood in the light of the previous verse, is saying that any way of life that departs from the religion taught by all the prophets and is now being given a powerful and pure expression in the revelation received by Muhammad will not lead to salvation. This is simply the negative side of the positive statement made in 5:72 that Phipps quotes admiringly: 

Surely those who believe (in Muhammad), and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians, whoever believes in God and the last day and does good, they shall have their reward from their Lord, and there is no fear for them, nor shall they grieve (2:62, repeated in 5:69).

We may also quote the following passage: 

And they (the Jews/Christians) say: ‘None shall enter paradise except he who is a Jew/Christian’. These are their vain desires. Say: ‘Bring your proof if you are truthful’. On the contrary, whoever commits himself (aslama) wholehearted to God and he is the doer of good he has his reward from his Lord, and there is no fear for him nor shall he grieve (2:111-112). 

These passages, which Phipps considers as manifestation of the Prophet’s large-hearted tolerance, are saying that wherever al-islam is found there is salvation. The verse, which Phipps find a manifestation of fanaticism, simply states the same idea in a negative form: wherever al-islam is not found, there is no salvation.

 

The opposite of al-ilam is al-kufr. Like al-islam this concept also primarily has a universal sense. Just as al-islam may be found among followers of other religions such as the Jews, Christians, and Sabians, so also al-kufr may be found among any group. In particular, if Jews or Christians, after accepting the Torah or the Gospel as inspired by God, ignore them and lead their lives in disregard of them, then they commit al-kufr (5:44-47). Similarly, Christians who worship Jesus as God also commit al-kufr (5:72). Now wherever there is al-kufr there is damnation: 

98:5. And they (the people of the book) were not enjoined anything except that they should serve God, being wholehearted in devotion to him and being upright, and that they keep up prayer and practice regular charity, and that is the right religion. 98.6. Surely those who disbelieve (lit. do al-kufr) from among the followers of the book and the polytheists shall be in the fire of hell, abiding therein; they are the worst of creatures. 

The second verse in this passage is another example of “extreme fanaticism” in the eyes of Phipps because he did not try to understand the verse in the light of what precedes it. In the preceding verse the right religion is defined in universal terms as wholehearted commitment to the (one transcendent) God and a life of prayer and charity. This right religion is also the substance of the religion given earlier to the Jews and Christians (cf. Mark 12:28-34). Now the second verse is simply saying that those who reject this right religion in one form or the other whether they are the people of the book or the polytheists are heading towards damnation. In 5:72 we have a special case of this principle applied to Christians who deify Jesus. For such Christians paradise is prohibited.

 

PROMISE OF VICTORY MISUNDERSTOOD

 

Here is another verse that Phipps sees as a manifestation of extreme fanaticism: 

They attempt to extinguish the light of God with the words of their mouths, but God will perfect his light, no matter how much the disbelievers may dislike it. He it is who has sent his Messenger with the guidance to make the religion of truth prevail over all other types of religion (61:8-9). 

There is no hint here of any human force playing any part in the promised victory. The references to light and truth, in fact, makes it abundantly clear that the basis and source of any victory is the divine light and truth that Islam is believed to contain. The idea expresses a widely held belief that the truth does in the end win. The Qur’an states it elsewhere in different words. “Say, the truth has come and falsehood has vanished. Surely, falsehood is a thing that vanishes” (17:81). “We hurl the truth against falsehood and it knocks its head out and lo! it vanishes.” (21:18). This victory of truth comes by manifestations of signs that God shows to human beings within their own selves and in the world without (41:53). All these verses occur in Makkan surahs that were revealed before there were any signs of earthly victory. This shows that the victory here is the victory of truth not directly connected with any particular victory in the Prophet’s own earthly life. In any case, the victory that Muhammad did win was at best a partial fulfillment of the promised victory of truth, which is a process to continue after his earthly life. The Qur’an clearly envisages the mission of Muhammad to remain limited to the children of Abraham, the Arabs, during his earthly life and then to extend to the whole world. The Qur’an says: 

And strive in the way of God, as is His due. He has chosen you and has not laid upon you in religion any hardship, the religion of your father Abraham. He has named you Muslims before and in this (Qur’an) that the Messenger may be a witness (shahīd) over you and you may be witnesses over humanity. So establish regular prayer and practice regular charity and hold fast by God. He is your protecting friend, and what a protector and what a helper (22:78).

Here we are told that the Prophet is a witness over “you” and “you” are witnesses over humanity. The reference to “your father Abraham” suggests that “you” primarily refers to the Arabs who were the first recipients of the message of Islam. Thus movement of Islam in history takes place in two major steps: First the Prophet delivers the message to his people and then they take it to the whole world. The passage 61:8-9 is a prophecy looking towards the future beyond the Prophet’s life and perhaps even beyond history, since really complete victory of truth will come in the hereafter, as other parts of the Qur’an make clear. Even when limited to history, this prophecy is not a manifestation of fanaticism but of faith. Suppose Darwin or some other scientist after developing a theory that nicely explained the facts said that one day his theory would prevail over all rival theories, even though many of the detractors of the theory may detest the thought. Does such a confidence amount to fanaticism?  The case with the Qur’anic prophecy is similar, except that the truth of which the Qur’an talks is not arrived at by an intellectual process used in science but by revelation which in the last analysis is nothing but what is ingrained in the true nature of man (30:30, 91:7-10). 

In a way the prophecy is being slowly but surely fulfilled right under the eyes of those who can see and ironically Phipps is a part of the process of this fulfillment! The most important religious development of the past few centuries, to which Phipps has made a valuable contribution, is that a slow but gradual reassessment of the persons of Muhammad and Jesus are taking place in the West. This is preparing the way for the victory of the religion of truth that is the essence of the teachings of all the prophets. On the one hand, truth is bringing Jesus from the status of God, given to him by men’s imagination, will, and willfulness, down to the genuine status of a messenger of God. On the other hand, the truth is raising Muhammad from the status of the devil, given to him by men’s ignorance, narrow-mindedness, and hate, to the same status of a messenger of God. The process is presently slow but it must continue and reach its inevitable conclusion. As a result the two of the most important religious figures of human history will come close and as they come close, their followers will come close. In this way the process of reconciliation that Muhammad started in Arabia and Jesus in Palestine will embrace most of humankind. This is the victory of the religion of truth taught by the Prophet Muhammad and other true prophets of God. This will happen even though many of those who reject the truth (kafirun) by closing their eyes to both the real Jesus and the real Muhammad hate the prospect. They will at one point wage a fierce resistance to the process but they will fail.

 

UNCRITICAL USE OF HADITH

Phipps also quotes some ahadith to further support his view of the fanaticism of the Prophet. Here is one such hadith: “Do not greet Jews and Christians with salam before they greet you, and when you meet one of them on the road force him to go to the narrowest part of it.” Phipps quotes the hadith from Mishkat al-Masabih (which is a late fifth or early sixth century compilation from various earlier books). Its source is Sahih Muslim. Now normally one cannot blame a Christian writer to quote from a recognized Muslim source. However, the declared aim of Phipps is to bring out the historical truth even if Muslims or Christians dislike it. Under such a perspective a writer has the obligation to use traditions with the available critical tools. When we examine this particular hadith critically we find its authenticity highly doubtful. It is found neither in Malik’s Muwatta nor in Bukhari’s Sahih. These facts are significant. Bukhari’s book is a little earlier than that of Muslim, is more comprehensive and more respected. Its omission of the hadith means that either he did not know about it or did not accept it. In either case doubts are raised about its authenticity. Its omission from Malik’s Muwatta is even more significant. Muwatta has a chapter on greeting Jews and Christians but it does not mention this hadith there or anywhere else. Indeed, it takes a position against this hadith: 

Malik was asked whether a person who greeted a Jew or Christian with salam should apologize for it. He said, ‘No’. 

Mawatta is the earliest book containing ahadith governing Muslim conduct and law. It was written much before Bukhari and Muslim. Phipps (p. 13) and many other Christian writers put a lot of trust in Ibn Ishaq’s book because of its relatively early date (second quarter of the second Islamic century). Consistency in methodology demands that Muwatta be accorded the same priority. At the very least Phipps could have noted that the hadith was not accepted by earlier books. 

The hadith in question seems to have its origin in a much better attested and probably authentic story: In Arabic as-salām means “the peace” but al-sām means “the death”. Some Jews in Madinah came to the Prophet and said al-sām alayk (on you be death) but they tried to say this in a way that it would sound like al-salām alayk  (on you be peace). The Prophet understood their trick and simply said: wa alaykum (and upon you). This story is assumed in Muwatta and in Bukhari and Muslim it is found in many versions. Here is one such version from Bukhari: 

It related from ‘Aishah that a group of Jews came to God’s Messenger and said, “as-sām ‘alayk” (death be on you). I understood it and said to them, “ ‘alaykum as-sam wa al-la‘nah (on you be death and curse).” God’s Messenger said, “Be calm! O ‘Aishah, for God loves that one should be kind and lenient in all matters.” I said. “O God’s Messenger! Haven’t you heard what they have said?” God’s Messenger said, “(Haven’t you heard what I have said.) I said (to them), ‘alaykum (upon you).’” 

This is historically a more reliable tradition because of the multiplicity of its chains of transmission, as it is reported to go back to several companions whereas the hadith quoted by Phipps is said to go back to only one companion. We may therefore consider it more faithful to the real character of Muhammad. If so, then we can see how he was able to calmly deal with the hate and hostility of men and neutralize them or win them over with patience, humor, and wisdom. The hadith from Muslim used by Phipps is a later creation. It reacts to the fact that some Jews wished death for Muslims and their Prophet. The logic here is that since we do not know whether the Jews mean salam or sam when they greet you, do not begin with the greeting. Wait until they say salam or sam and then simply say “wa ‘alaykum!” The idea is expressed in a completely different way in another tradition found in Muwatta, Bukhari, and Muslim: “God’s Messenger said, When the Jews greet you, they usually say, al-sam ‘alaykum (death be on you); so you should say (in reply to them), wa ‘alaykum (and on you).”  In the original version of the hadith quoted by Phipps the Jews were called ahl al-kitab (people of the book) and since Christians are also ahl al-kitab they were included in the rule as well. This analysis shows that any fanaticism in this hadith is a reaction to the hate and hostility that first started from the Jews towards Muslims. 

 

JESUS AS AN IDEALIZED FIGURE OF LOVE AND PEACE

 

As in his treatment of historical Muhammad, so also in his picture of the historical Jesus Phipps fails to meet the best existing standards of historical criticism. In some matters he has boldly faced the evidence and taken positions against the traditional views. But in other matters he naively repeats prevalent clichés. Thus he presents Jesus as a prophet of perfect love and peace. He is certainly not wrong in doing that but he seems to have been misled by the assumption that to be a prophet of peace and love means to reject all use of physical force and all attempts for political control and that Jesus must be a prophet of love and peace in this sense. But the evidence for this as the position of Jesus is nowhere near as clear as Phipps seems to think. In what follows I will present only part of the evidence to the contrary that Phipps does not duly take into account. Realizing that reconstruction of history from the gospel traditions is a complex matter, I will not make any such attempt here. I have presented my historical reconstructions in my book referred to earlier. Here my purpose will simply be to very briefly show that there is certain arbitrariness with which Phipps selects gospel texts to develop his picture of the historical Jesus. 

It is said in the gospels that Jesus was crucified as king of the Jews. This is a very political charge on the basis of which several writers have argued that Jesus was indeed engaged in a military struggle as a royal pretender for the political control of Palestine. He was caught by the Roman occupiers, like so many other Jewish rebels, and put on the cross according to their law. This view may justifiably be rejected, but then we find it difficult to make sense of the crucifixion, a punishment reserved for the most violent criminals or militant rebels. 

Even if we grant that Jesus did not engage in any use of military force to gain political control, we still have to ask whether this was because of an absolute rejection of all use of force at all times or because of the fact that in the face of overwhelming Roman power it was not possible to achieve anything by physical force. To be sure there were some zealots who did not hesitate to take up arms against the overwhelming might of the Romans, but we can all agree that Jesus was far more advanced in wisdom and intelligence than those zealots and was therefore able to see that the use of force will not achieve anything. 

Not only the absence in Jesus’ short ministry of a military activity is explained by the extent of Roman power but also this same power might have motivated the gospel writers and other New Testament writers, most of whom were working outside Palestine among the Gentiles, to present Jesus much more peaceful than he actually was in order to assure Rome that their movement posed no threat to its power and interests. 

We also need to ask: Suppose Jesus` ministry was not so short (several months to a year) but rather lasted something like Muhammad’s for 23 years. How would have Jesus behaved in the changing circumstances? Could there have been no situation when he found the use of force necessary? In this connection, a number of facts suggest that he would not have been as opposed to the use of physical force as Phipps would like to think: 

1)                  Jesus violently overturned the tables of the traders in the temple. No doubt a relatively harmless action in which no body was physically hurt, but this was an act of physical force. There is no basis to assume that in other situations he would not have used greater force.

2)                  Jesus is himself quoted in the gospels as saying that his coming is not meant to bring peace to the earth: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth, I have not come to bring peace but a sword.” (Matt 10:34). Phipps refers to this saying (p. 173) but does not draw from this the obvious conclusion that Jesus did not see himself as a prophet of peace in the sense Christians view him, especially when they compare him with Muhammad. This saying shows that had he lived long enough there is every possibility that his mission would have involved the use of sword.

3)                  At the arrest the disciples of Jesus carried some arms. One of them used a sword and cut the ear of the servant of the high priest. In the later gospels Jesus condemns the act but in the earliest gospel he says nothing. In another situation, there is every possibility that his disciples might have cut more than just an ear. 

Does this mean that Jesus was NOT a prophet of love and peace? Not at all! What this means is that love and peace is not always inconsistent with the use of physical force. An important part of a mission of love and peace is to contribute to the creation of a just order and this does often require the use of force, first to establish such an order and then to maintain it. True prophets therefore cannot eliminate the use of physical force but they do minimize it and completely subordinate it to the demands of love and peace. 

That Jesus was not as opposed to force and to political control is suggested by another set of traditions firmly established in the Gospels. These are the traditions according to which Jesus thought of himself as the Messiah/Son of Man. Phipps does not do full justice to this set of traditions and puts a somewhat one-sided stress on the suffering servant (p. 201ff.). He, and the other scholars whom he follows, never satisfactorily answer the question that if Jesus, in his own perception and in that of his Galilean disciples, was primarily a suffering servant, then why did he and/or his disciples choose the concept of the Messiah/Son of Man to define his role, a concept which is nothing if not a creation of the concern for political power and control. In any case, if the traditions presenting Jesus as the Messiah/Son of Man are accepted as historical -- and Phipps seems to accept some of them, e.g. Mark 14:61-62 (see p.78) -- they would make Jesus in his own perception far more political than Muhammad ever was in his. For, Muhammad primarily thought of himself in terms of a Messenger of God, a teacher of wisdom, and a spiritual master, and not any figure similar to the Messiah/Son of Man. 

To be sure Jewish traditions about the Messiah/Son of Man show a great deal of diversity, but what is common to all traditions is the concern for political power and control and the belief that this political power will be established by a great deal of physical destruction of one type or another. The variations in Jewish traditions mostly concern the degree to which Messiah’s power and glory belongs to history and the degree to which its establishment is miraculous and cosmic. 

Many of the Jewish concepts of the Messiah/Son of Man are accepted in the reported sayings of Jesus concerning his second coming, which is sometimes pictured in apocalyptic terms: 

“Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26).

At other times it appears more earthly and political like the kingdom of David:  

“I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom so that you may eat and drink at my table, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Luke 22:29-30). 

Peter began to say to him, “Look we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly, I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or … or children or fields who will not receive a hundred fold in this age … and in the age to come eternal life (Mark 10:30).

But what is common to these pictures like the Jewish pictures of the Messiah/Son of Man, is power and glory. In order to maintain their conception of Jesus as a suffering figure of love and peace, with love and peace understood in their own idealistic sense, Christians have sharply separated the roles of Jesus during his two comings. The first coming is said to be in lowliness and meekness and the second in power and glory. This separation, however, is somewhat artificial and is the result of the fact that Jesus` (possibly messianic) mission did not proceed as expected. Had Jesus lived long enough there would have been only one coming and all the use of force and power associated with the second coming would have been seen in that one coming. 

Finally, an issue not having a direct connection to the subject of historical Jesus may be briefly touched here. It may be argued that even if it is not true that Jesus was a figure of love and peace in an idealistic sense, it may be helpful for the world to hold on to such an idealized figure to promote the very precious values of love and peace. A glance through the centuries of Christian history shows this to be an erroneous view. This history presents no evidence that stressing an idealized version of love and peace is the best way to enhance love and peace. Much more effective, it seems, is an emphasis on love and peace balanced by a concern with justice and truth.

 

EVIDENCE ABOUT JESUS AND MUHAMMAD NOT ASSESSED CONSISTENTLY

 

Phipps also ignores some of the early sayings of Jesus that are similar to the Qur`anic verses in which Phipps sees evidence of Muhammad’s “fanaticism”. Thus, a saying common to both Luke and Matthew (Q) reads: 

Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But at the judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you…. (Luke 10:12-15 = Matt 11:20-24). 

Here those who rejected the message of Jesus are threatened with damnation, and yet Phipps finds no trace of fanaticism here. He does refer to these sayings but only as evidence that Jesus was tolerant to homosexuality, since Jesus “did declare that the people of Sodom would fare better on Judgment Day than the Galilean towns that had not responded well when the Gospel was proclaimed” (p. 175)! Why the judgment woes against the towns that rejected Jesus are not a manifestation of fanaticism while Qur’an 2:85 and 98:5-6 are, even though these Qur’anic verses state general principles without connecting the judgment with the rejection of Muhammad? In failing to address such questions Phipps has fallen short of his objective of objectivity and fairness.

 

IN CONCLUSION, while Phipps makes a very good beginning, we have a long way to go before we can have comparative historical works on Muhammad and Jesus that are based on sound methods applied to the two figures with due consistency and integrity. When Christian writers will finally do that, they will find that both these prophets, in the respective circumstances in which they were operating, did the very best to reconcile people to each other and to God. They will see that Muhammad is Jesus doing the work of reconciliation in the seventh-century Arabia of warring tribes while Jesus is Muhammad doing the same work in the first-century Palestine occupied by an overwhelmingly powerful Rome.

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