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Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- A Trialogue

Sir Chaudhry Zafrullah Khan
Review of Religions, July 1997

Reprinted from the 'Muslim Herald' of May 1975, Vol. 15, No. 5.

The three great Semitic faiths all hark back to Abraham and even farther. For our purpose, we can make a start with Abraham.

For what follows, I propose to rely mainly on the scriptures of the three faiths; the Holy Bible and the Holy Qur'an. The Qur'an is the record of the verbal revelation vouchsafed by God to Muhammad (sa), the Prophet of Islam, over a period of approximately 22 years (610-632). It is the very words that God put in the mouth of the Prophet as had been promised:

I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren like unto thee and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him. And it will come to pass that whosoever will not hearken unto My words which he shall speak in My name I will require it of him. (Deut., 18:18-19)
It contains all truth for the guidance of mankind as was foretold:
I have yet many things to say unto you but ye cannot bear them now'. Howbeit when he, the spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you unto all truth: for he shall not speak for himself: but whatsoever he shall hear that shall he speak: and he will show you things to come. (John, 16: 12-13)
This is duly affirmed by the Qur'an:
He does not speak out of his own wish, it is pure revelation sent to him. He is taught by the Lord of mighty powers. (Ch. 53, vs. 4-6)
The message of the Qur'an is universal:
Proclaim O Prophet: O mankind verily I am Allah's Messenger to all. To Him belongs the kingdom of the heavens and the earth. There is no God but He. He bestows life and He causes death. So believe in Allah and His Messenger, the Prophet, the divinely instructed, who believes in Allah and His words, and follow him that you may be rightly guided. (Ch. 7, v. 159)

We have sent thee as a bearer of glad tidings and as a warner for the whole of mankind but most people know not. (Ch. 34, v. 29)

Blessed is He Who has sent down the Discriminating Book to His servant that he may be a warner to all the peoples. He if is to Whom belongs the kingdom of the heavens and the earth. (Ch. 25, vs. 2-3)

The Qur'an is a source of honour for all mankind. (Ch. 12, v. 105)

The Qur'an is a Reminder for all peoples and you will witness the fulfilment of its warnings after a while. (Ch. 38, vs. 88-89)

The Qur'an affirms the truth of all previous revelations and the righteousness of all prophets:
Who will turn away from the religion of Abraham but he who has ruined his soul? Of a surety We exalted him in this world and in the next also he will be among the righteous. When his Lord commanded him: Do thou submit thyself to Me; He responded: I submit myself to the Lord of the worlds. The same did Abraham enjoin upon his sons and also Jacob: Sons of mine truly Allah has chosen this religion for you so live every moment in submission to Allah so that death whenever if comes should find you in a state of submission to Him. Were you present when Jacob faced the hour of death and asked his sons: Who will you worship after I am gone? They answered: We will worship thy God and the God of thy fathers Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac the One God and unto Him have we submitted ourselves. (Ch. 2, vs. 131-134)

The Jews and the Christians invite you: Be ye Jews or be ye Christians that you may be rightly guided. Tell them: Nay not so. Let us agree to follow the religion of Abraham; who was ever inclined towards Allah and was not one of those who set up partners with Him. Affirm: We believe in Allah and in that which has been sent down to us and that which was sent down to Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and his children and that which was given to Moses and Jesus and that which was given to all other Prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them and to Him do we wholly submit ourselves. (Ch. 2, vs. 136-137)

Proclaim: We adopt the faith revealed by Allah and who is better than Him in teaching the faith? (Ch. 2, v. 139)

Ask them: Do you dispute with us concerning Allah when He is our Lord and also your Lord? We are responsible for that which we do and you are responsible for that which you do. To him alone are we devoted. (Ch. 2, v. 140)

People of the Book do you say that Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and his children were Jews or that they were Christians? Do you know better than Allah. Who can be more unjust than one who conceals such testimony as he has from Allah? Allah is not unaware of that which you do. (Ch. 2, v. 141)

Previous revelations were limited in their scope. Each was designed to meet the requirements of the people to whom it was directed during the stage of development upon which that people was about to enter. Each contained fundamental truths, valid through the ages in respect of the whole of mankind. But it also contained guidance, directions, commandments and prohibitions which were of a local or temporary character. Moreover, in course of time, portions of these revelations were lost or forgotten. That which was of universal and permanent application in previous revelations has been reaffirmed in the Qur'an. Such portions as had been lost or overlooked or forgotten but were still needed, have been revived. That which was of purely temporary or local application and was no longer needed has been omitted. That which was not contained in previous revelations, the need for it not having yet arisen, but which would henceforth be needed by mankind, was added (Ch. 2, v. 107, Ch. 3, v. 8).

This does not mean that the Qur'an makes obligatory upon Muslims all the commandments and ordinances contained in today's version of previous revelations and scriptures. Indeed it emphasises repeatedly that these versions have suffered grievously at the hands of some of those who profess to be their supporters (Ch. 2, vs. 79-80). What the Qur'an affirms is the actual revelation vouchsafed to previous prophets. Thus:

Surely We sent down the Torah wherein is guidance and light. By it did the Prophets who were obedient to Us judge for the Jews, as did the godly people and those learned in the law. (Ch. 5, v. 45)
'We caused Jesus son of Mary to follow in their footsteps fulfilling that which was revealed before him in the Torah; and We gave him the Gospel which contained guidance and light, fulfilling that which was revealed before it in the Torah as an admonition for the God-fearing. (Ch. 5, v. 47)
Not only are today's versions of previous revelations open to serious question on the score of authenticity of text and accuracy of translation and interpretation, many of the details concerning commandments and ordinances and even doctrine which were of a temporary or local character are now out of date or inapplicable. Today's doctrine is also in many cases based on subsequent interpretation and formulation which appear to have little connection with what was contained in the revelation and even contradict it. Attention is drawn to all this in the Qur'an, and yet the Qur'an emphasises the unity of the fundamental teaching contained in all previous scriptures and insisted upon by all the prophets, namely, belief in the Existence of the Unity of God and the hereafter, and conformity to God's will through righteous action:
We bestowed upon Abraham Isaac and Jacob; each did We guide aright and Noah did We guide aright aforetime and of Abraham's progeny did We guide aright David and Solomon and Job and Joseph and Moses and Aaron. Thus do We reward those who do good. We also guided Zachariah and John and Jesus and Elias, each of them was the righteous; and Ishmael and Elisha and Jonas and Lot each one did We exalt above the people and of their fathers and their children and their brethren; We chose them and We guided them along the straight path. (Ch. 6, vs. 85-88)
The Qur'an fulfills that which was revealed before it and is a guardian of it. (Ch. 6, v. 49) The Qur'an, therefore, while affirming the truth of all previous revelations, itself comprises all truth for the whole of mankind for all time. It is 'pure scriptures comprising lasting commandments (Ch. 98, vs. 3-4). It is thus a universal possession and inheritance.

The Qur'an sets forth a much loftier concept of prophethood than does the Bible -- and clears the prophets of all charges levelled against them in current versions of previous scriptures. It affirms that it is not possible for a prophet to be false to that for which he is divinely commissioned (Ch. 3, v. 162).

Regarding Abraham it is affirmed that he was indeed 'a righteous person and a Prophet' (Ch. 19, v. 42). Concerning Lot, it is affirmed: 'We gave him wisdom and knowledge ... We admitted him to Our Mercy; surely he was of those who worked righteousness (Ch. 21, vs. 75-76). Of Moses it is said: 'He was indeed a chosen one of God and was a Messenger and a Prophet' (Ch. 19, v. 52) and Allah cleared him of all the calumnies that were alleged against him and distressed him and that he had a high standing with God (Ch. 33, v. 70).

Of David it is said that God bestowed His grace upon him (Ch. 34, v. 11) and he is described as 'Our servant David, a man of great power, who turned constantly to Us' (Ch. 38, v. 18). Of Solomon it is said: 'It is not Solomon who disbelieved; it was the rebellious ones who disbelieved, teaching people falsehood and deception' (Ch. 2, v. 103). 'Solomon was an excellent servant of Ours; he turned to Us constantly' (Ch. 38, v. 31).

Mary, mother of Jesus (as), is mentioned in the Qur'an with more reverance than in the Gospels. 'The angels said to Mary: Allah has exalted thee and purified thee and chosen thee from among all the women of thy time' (Ch. 3,v. 43). 'Allah cites as examples for believers ... Mary, the daughter of Imran, who guarded her chastity and We sent Our Word to her and she fulfilled the words of her Lord and His Books and was of the obedient' (Ch. 66, v. 13).

In the case of Jesus (as) it is said that he was a Messenger to the children of Israel (Ch. 3, v. 50). 'The angels said to Mary: Allah, through His words, gives thee glad tidings of a son named the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, honoured in this world and the next, and of those who are granted nearness to Allah' (Ch. 3,v. 46). 'The Messiah son of Mary was but a Messenger, many Messengers had passed away before him' (Ch. 5, v. 76).

In the gospels Jesus (as) has been called son of God. That this was only by way of metaphor was affirmed by Jesus himself:

Then the Jews took up stones again to stone him. Jesus answered them, Many good works have I showed you from my Father; for which of those works do ye stone me? The Jews answered him saying, For a good work we stone thee not; but for blasphemy; and because that thou, being a man, makest thyself God. Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said ye are gods? If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken; say ye of him whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, thou blasphemest because I said, I am the son of God? (John, 10:31-36)
This receives further confirmation from St. Paul:
For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God ... The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit that we are the children of God: and if children then heirs; heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ'. (Rom., 8:14-17)
Jesus (as) was a prophet within the Mosaic dispensation:
I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. (Matt., 15:24)

It is not meet to fake the children's bread and to cast it to dogs. (Matt., 15:26)

If thou wilt enter into life keep the commandments. (Matt., 19:17)

It is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one title of the law to fail. (Luke, 16:17)

The Qur'an sets out:
Keep in mind when Allah will ask Jesus son of Mary: Didst thou say to the people: Take me and my mother for two gods besides Allah? and he will answer: Holy art Thou. It behoves me not to have said that to which I have no right. Had I said it, Thou wouldst surely have known it. Thou knowest what is in my mind and I know not what is in Thy mind. It is only Thou who possessest full knowledge of all that is hidden. I said naught to them except that which Thou didst command me that is: Worship Allah my Lord and your Lord. I watched over them as long as I was present among them but since thou didst cause me to die Thou hast been the One to watch over them. (Ch. 5, vs. 117-118)
This is reminiscent of: 'While I was with them in the world, I kept them in Thy name' (John, 17:12).

The Qur'an does not support the notion that Jesus (as) died on the cross:

Allah reassured Jesus: I shall cause thee to die a natural death and shall exalt thee to Myself and shall clear thee of the calumnies of those who disbelieve. (Ch. 3, v. 56)

The Jews claim: We did slay the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah; whereas they slew him not, nor did they compass his death upon the cross, but he was made to appear to them like one crucified to death; and those who have differed in the matter of his being taken down alive from the cross are certainly in a state of doubt concerning it, they have no definite knowledge about if but only follow conjecture. They certainly did not compass his death in the manner they allege. (Ch. 4, v. 158)

There are numerous indications in the gospels which lend support to the thesis that Jesus (as) did not die on the cross.

To begin with, there is no indication whatsoever that the very purpose of his advent was to lay down his life on the cross and thereby to atone for the sins of mankind. Had that been so, he would have been conscious of that purpose and would have looked forward eagerly to its consummation and welcomed it cheerfully. Of this there is no evidence.

His earnest supplications in the garden of Gethsemane (Matt., 26:39,42 and 44) not only excluded any such possibility but constitute irrefutable proof that he was not destined to suffer death on the cross. He was, like all righteous prophets, confident that God heard his prayers. That this is so in the case of all prophets is borne out by the entire history of religion. Indeed, far from his petition being rejected it would seem that he had received reassurances of deliverance from an accursed death. His agonised cry: Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani (Matt., 27:46) was wrenched from him by his perplexity that despite divine assurance he did not, in his estimation, perceive any chance of deliverance. Yet the creeping up of unconsciousness upon him, which took on the semblance of death, was the very device that God had devised for his deliverance whereby 'he was made to appear to them like one crucified to death' (Ch. 4, v. 158). 'They devised their plans and Allah devised His plan; Allah is the best of planners' (Ch. 3, v. 55).

It will be recalled that when Pilate 'was set down on the judgement seat, his wife sent unto him, saying, Have thou nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him' (Matt., 27:29). In consequence of this divine warning, Pilate, who was already predisposed in favour of Jesus, made every effort to persuade the chief priests and elders that they might agree to his releasing Jesus (as), but they would not hear of it.

The Roman soldiers had no doubt heard the message that Pilate's wife had sent him and had taken note of Pilate's attitude towards Jesus (as). They might even have been directed not to deal too harshly with him, though they would have to be careful not to provoke the multitude or to arouse their suspicions. When Jesus became unconscious they were ready to assume that he had died, and forbore breaking his legs, though the Jews had besought Pilate that his bones should be broken notwithstanding his having supposedly 'given up the ghost' (John, 19:30,31,33). 'But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came thereout blood and water' (John, 19:34): proof positive that life was not extinct.

At the request of Joseph of Arimathaea, a secret disciple of Jesus (as), Pilate directed that the body of Jesus (as) be delivered to Joseph, who took it; and Nicodemus and Joseph smeared it with a mixture of myrrh and spices and wound it in linen clothes and laid it in a sepulchre which Joseph had had hewn out of the rock for himself and which was nigh at hand (John, 19:38-42).

Jesus (as) had foretold that he would not die on the cross:

Then certain of the scribes and the Pharisees answered saying, Master we would see a sign from thee. But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it but the sign of the Prophet Jonas: for as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matt., 12:38-40)
Now the sign of the prophet Jonas was not that he entered the whale's belly dead and came out of it alive; his sign was that he entered the whale's belly alive, bided there alive and came out of it alive. So would Jesus (as) enter the sepulchre alive, bide therein alive and emerge therefrom alive.

After his deliverance from the cross, Jesus (as) met his disciples three times, always in secret, and then departed from them in search of his other sheep in the countries in which they were by then scattered, and into which it is not necessary for our present purpose to follow him.

Being rejected in Judaea, Jesus (as) warned them the kingdom of God (that is, the vineyard of Prophethood) would be taken from them and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof (Matt., 21:43). When they heard this they said: God forbid (Luke, 20:16). But thus it has been. There has not arisen in Israel a prophet after Jesus (as).

Further, Jesus (as) gave a clear indication of the people to whom the vineyard would be committed. 'Did ye never read in the scriptures. The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes? And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder' (Matt., 22:42,44). This was a prophecy that Prophethood would pass to the house of Ishmael and would find its consummation in Muhammad (sa) who would be equipped with the perfection of beauty and power.

Ishmael was the first born of Abraham. Sarah gave her maid Hagar to her husband Abraham to be his wife, and she bore Abraham a son and Abraham called his son's name Ishmael (Genesis, 16:3,15). God made a covenant with Abraham and established it between Himself and Abraham and his seed (Genesis, 17:7) and as a token of the covenant laid down that every male child among them shall be circumcised (Genesis, 17: 10). 'Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before Thee' (Genesis, 17:17), and God responded: 'As for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation' (Genesis, 17:20). 'In the self-same day was Abraham circumcised, and Ishmael his son' (Genesis, 77:26). All this was before the birth of Isaac. For fourteen years Ishmael was the only son of Abraham, and then Sarah bore Isaac, who was thus the second son of Abraham.

The Bible and the Qur'an both describe Abraham's readiness to sacrifice his only son in obedience to what he conceived to be a divine Command; but while the Qur'an implies that the son concerned was his only son, that is to say, Ishmael; the Bible speaks of his only son as Isaac, while Isaac was at no time Abraham's only son. The Qur'anic account runs:

Abraham prayed: Lord grant me righteous progeny. So We gave him glad tidings of a gentle son. When the boy began to run about with him, Abraham said to him: Son I have seen in my dream that I am slaughtering thee. So consider what thou thinkest of it. The boy replied: Father do what thou art commanded; thou wilt find me if Allah pleases steadfast. When both were ready to submit to Allah's will and he had laid him down on his forehead, We called to him: Abraham thou hast indeed fulfilled the dream. Thus do We reward those who do their duty to the utmost. That was surely a manifest trial. We ransomed the boy with a great sacrifice and We preserved for Abraham a good name in succeeding generations. Peace be upon Abraham. Thus do We reward those Who do their duty to the utmost. Surely he was of Our believing servants. We gave him the glad tidings of Isaac a Prophet and one of the righteous. We bestowed blessings on him and on Isaac. (Ch. 37, vs. 101-114)
The ransom referred to here as a great sacrifice was the settling by Abraham of Hagar and Ishmael in the barren wilderness (Ch. 14, v. 38) of Paran (Genesis, 21:21) so that the great design of God might, in due course, be fulfilled.

That was the advent promised in Deut., 18:18 of the Prophet like unto Moses, of the Spirit of truth who was to guide mankind into all truth (John, 16:13), of the one 'Altogether lovely' (Mahmaddem) as described by Solomon in his song (5:16); who long before he received the divine call was acclaimed by his people as Al-Ameen, the faithful and the True.

For ponder the following:

I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True and in righteousness he doth judge and make war. His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns; and he had a name written that no man knew but he himself. And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood; and his name is called The Word of God. And the Armies which were in heaven followed upon white horses clothed in fine linen white and clean. And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the wine-press of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Revelations, 19:11-16).
Yet a very man withal: 'Tell them: I am but a man like yourself; it is revealed to me that your God is One God. So let him who hopes to meet his Lord work righteousness and let him associate no one in the worship of his Lord' (Ch. 18, v. 111). It is only a man like ourselves who could be an exemplar for US, not a superman, or an angel, or a son of God or a God. 'You have in the Messenger of Allah an excellent exemplar, for him who hopes to meet with Allah and the Last Day, and who remembers Allah much' (Ch. 33, v. 22).

'He was sent as 'a mercy for the universe' (Ch. 21, v. 108).

O Prophet We have sent thee as a witness and a bearer of glad tidings and a warner and as a summoner unto Allah by his command and a light-giving sun (Ch. 33, vs. 46-47).

Obedience to him is the way of winning the love of God: 'Announce: if you love Allah, then follow me, Allah will then love you and forgive you your sins. Allah is most Forgiving, Ever Merciful' (Ch. 3, v. 32).

The way to eternal life is through responding to Allah and His Messenger: 'O ye who believe, respond to Allah and His Messenger when he calls you that he might bring you to life, and know that Allah supervenes between a man and his mind and He it is to whom you shall be gathered' (Ch. 8, v. 25).

In conclusion attention might be drawn to a standing invitation to accord and understanding between the faiths extended fourteen hundred years ago:

Say to the People of the Book: Let us agree upon one matter which is the same for you and for us namely that we worship none but Allah and that we associate no partner with him and that some of us take not others for lords beside Allah. Then if they turn away Say unto them: Bear ye witness that we have submitted to Allah. (Ch. 3, v. 65)
The end of our discourse is: All praise belongs to Allah, the Lord of the worlds (Ch. 10, v. 11).