I sometimes teach courses in the night school where the students are mostly middle-aged. In this particular class we were discussing a twelfth-century work by a Persian Muslim poet: Attar’s Conference of the Birds. The story relates how a bunch of birds (stand-ins for the human soul) overcome their worldly attachments so that God might reside within them. But along the way the story recounts tales of the prophets. One of my students was surprised to find references to biblical prophets, which he saw as evidence of extraordinary openness. “It speaks of Jewish figures, like Moses, and Christian ones, like Jesus.” But his surprise turned to confusion when I informed him that Moses and Jesus are mentioned in the Qur’an, making them Muslim figures. He was flummoxed. “How could they be if they lived before Islam?”
History for Islam is a cycle of ups and downs. Prophets are sent to their peoples, but most do not heed, only a righteous remnant. The cycle began with Noah, but Abraham was a special case. God took him as His friend, making of Abraham a community unto himself. The cycle continued through Moses and Jesus, ending with the mission of Muhammad in seventh-century Arabia. All prophets, according to Islam, came with essentially the same message: Obey the one God. But if it was the same message, why did God keep sending prophets? And why did He send Muhammad in particular? Was there need for yet another prophet? And why was he the last? If humans tend to forget God’s message, even once it’s written down, wouldn’t it make sense for God to keep sending prophets, even to this day, to call us to repent and obey?
According to the Qur’an, God made a covenant with all of humanity and not with any chosen people (although the Qur’an does speak of God favoring the Children of Israel). The covenant occurred before creation on what is known in Islam as the Day of the Covenant when God brought forth the souls of all the Children of Adam. We were all there. And God asked us, “Am I not your Lord?” We all responded affirmatively, and so the covenant was made. But as the Qur’an states, humans are weak and forgetful. They need reminders. And so God sent prophets with a single message. Turn back to the one God who is Lord of Judgment Day.
As the Qur’an presents it, God sent Abraham. He sent Moses. He sent Jesus. Each came with a book containing a single message: There is no god but the God who alone will determine your fate on Judgment Day. But the message got corrupted. Jewish and Christian leaders, Islam teaches, distorted the Torah and the Gospel as a way to get people to submit to them rather than to God alone. Still other communities, tribes in Arabia, began to worship idols, imagining that their noble forebears were partner deities alongside God. They ended up introducing graven images into the Ka‘ba, which, as the Qur’an narrates, Abraham had built with his son Ishmael for the exclusive worship of God. The upshot was that Jews and Christians no longer adhered to the original message sent to Moses and Jesus, while the tribes of Arabia had polluted the pure faith of their ancestor Abraham with idolatry.
All of this necessitated a final and decisive message that would be communicated with such clarity as to make it immune to distortion. It would be a message addressed to all humans, in contrast to previous messages, which, according to Islam, were meant for particular peoples, each prophet being sent to his own people. This includes the message of Jesus, which, according to Muslims, was meant only for his fellow Jews and not for all peoples.
On one hand, the biblical past offers a lens through which Muhammad delivered his message, and yet the Qur’an rejects this biblical past as a developing tradition. It’s as if it’s saying, “You got the message but no longer grasp it.” It’s not clear there was a Bible in Arabic at the time of Muhammad, but Jewish and Christian communities were not foreign to Arabia. The followers of Muhammad would have understood the Bible through the lens of Jewish and Christian commentary, but the Qur’an still claims they’ve fallen short. In other words, as with prophets of Ancient Israel who denounced wayward Israelites, Muhammad appears as a prophet calling his people to repent and turn back to God. His followers become the righteous remnant that perseveres in God’s ways and so avoids the destruction that will surely fall upon those who do not heed the message of Muhammad.
The message of the Qur’an, presented here in brief, raises questions about the relation of Islam to the biblical past. Scholars increasingly find links. Muhammad was certainly not without prophetic precedent in leading a revivalist movement that looks to the covenant while criticizing those who claimed to follow it. The Qur’an accuses Jews and Christians of religious exclusivity. They pretend to be God’s beloved apart from others even if not living up to God’s message. In response, the Qur’an presents the idea of a primordial covenant. All peoples, Gentile Arabs included, can enjoy God’s favor if they obey Him. Jews and Christians have no monopoly. Ironically, today, some Muslims admit that many of their fellow Muslims have fallen into the trap of religious exclusivity. We’re saved because we’re Muslims, you’re not because you’re not. However, the Qur’an is very clear that communal affiliation alone is not enough to earn one divine favor. You can’t stake your salvation on your group.
Muslims today have different views about Jews and Christians. Some see them as People of the Book, while others seem them as infidels despite the common biblical heritage. Still, however a Muslim might view Jews and Christians, the fact remains that the Qur’an criticizes Jews and Christians. Why? Does such criticism still make sense in this age of pluralism? The answer Muslims give to this question depends in part on the way Jews and Christians revisit their own past and acknowledge its relation to Islam. But recognition of a common past cannot come from pleasant exchanges. Is there a common past or not? If so, what does it mean? The way in which the message of Islam intertwines with that of Judaism and Christianity has to be based on knowledge. Only then can we hope that mutual recognition will take hold in people’s hearts. If we can see the common heritage, divergences notwithstanding, we can find room to move forward together.
“How can they be if they lived before Islam?” Thus did my student express his own historical assumptions when told that Moses and Jesus were Muslims. It is a conundrum: Moses and Jesus as Muslims? In the eyes of my student, Islam had hijacked biblical history. But let’s step back for a minute. Jews and Christians also have a particular understanding of biblical history that others do not share. Jews might recognize the fruits of the Christian message but do not see it as the fulfillment of biblical history. In other words, the biblical heritage is best seen as a wide river with varied currents. Judaism and Christian emphasize distinctive elements within the biblical heritage that Islam does not, notably the idea of God as redeemer. But there are other elements in the biblical heritage that Islam does emphasize, making Islam coheir to that heritage along with Judaism and Christianity, even if the inheritance is not the same. The strand of the biblical heritage that Islam represents is that of the prophet who seeks to call people back to God and gather together a righteous remnant at a time of spiritual neglect, moral decline, and social injustice; that of the prophet who reminds people of their ultimate commitments to God and to the poor, the widow, and the orphan; and that of the prophet who calls people to abandon devotions to powers other than God—devotions that not only constitute a grave affront to God but that also serve to justify exploitation of the weaker members of society who are also under God’s care. This is the message of many a biblical prophet. Read the book of the Prophet Amos and you’ll find something not unlike the message of Muhammad: Return to God. He alone is Lord of all. Indeed, the message of Muhammad has a distinctly biblical echo. Don’t think you’re special just because you belong to a particular community. All of us—Jews, Christians, and Muslims—can be guilty of theological snobbery, atheists too. And at the same time all of us struggle to remember our ultimate commitments.