The Word of God: Wisdom in a Wonky World

2 April 2024

m rizal abdi

Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies

The end of March 2024 becomes an important week for religious communities in Indonesia. During the week, we experience several holy days in sequence: Nuzulul Qur’an Day for Muslims and three holy days (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday) for Christians. The unique event is not merely a coincidence due to the rare meeting of two calendar modes that will not happen for many years to come. For Muslims and Christians in Indonesia, this is a momentous opportunity to deepen interfaith understanding and re-learn from one another.

It goes without saying that this type of "dual commemoration" is not new. In 2015, we also experienced Christmas and Mawlid celebrations that came together. However, this year is more challenging. Although there are annual polemics among the general public about whether Muslims may wish Christians a “Merry Christmas”, Muslims generally welcome the Christmas celebrations. In fact, several commentators, including Quraish Shihab, underlined that the Qur'an also recorded the greetings of the birth of Jesus. Saying “Merry Christmas” can be compared to congratulating the birth of Prophet Isa in Islamic tradition. However, Easter is a different case.

Crucifixion at the Crossroads

One of the crucial points that separates Christian and Islamic beliefs is the recognition of Jesus' status—whether he is the son of God or simply an apostle (rasul) who brought a teaching (risalah). In the Christian tradition, without ignoring other narratives of Easter as a pass-over, the Easter holiday is closely related to the event of the crucifixion. At this point, Christian and Islamic traditions interpret the crucifixion in different ways. The majority of Islamic traditions believe that it was not Jesus who was crucified, but rather someone else on whom God has bestowed the likeness of Jesus. This view refers to Q.S. An Nisa: 157–8, which states, "They did not kill him and they did not crucify him, rather, it only appeared so to them." Meanwhile, almost all Christian traditions state that it was Jesus himself who was crucified.

Out of the numerous references to Jesus found in the Qur’an, only one verse—An-Nisa 157—discusses his crucifixion. However, the existence of this only verse has been a central topic of relations between Muslims and Christians for centuries. The differences in the figures who were crucified were not just differences in identity, such as in the case of Isaac and Ishmael during the sacrifice of Abraham's son. These differences have deep theological consequences. For Christians, the crucifixion of Jesus is one of the core events in Christian salvation history. The death and resurrection of Jesus is a redemption for human sins as well as a medium to restore a good relationship with God. Several other Christian traditions interpret Jesus' sacrifice as God's act to "understand" our suffering, a solidarity action (Gorringe, 2004: 373). In other words, Jesus plays an important role in God's involvement throughout history in the world.

In contrast, Islamic tradition holds that the events of the night before the crucifixion demonstrate God’s might in saving his beloved prophet while at the same time refuting the hubris of the Jews, who believed they were capable of killing their prophet. Most Islamic traditions hold that Jesus was saved by ascending to His side rather than being executed. He will come back on Judgement Day and show the truth. Thus, the absence of Jesus' crucifixion becomes an important and distinguishing narrative. In other words, Isa or Jesus is a great prophet born of the virgin Mary, not God or the son of God—because God, unlike humankind or any other creature, neither begets nor is begotten. Therefore, there is a barrier for Muslims to accept the series of Easter events, from the crucifixion to the resurrection of Jesus three days later. However, this does not mean that the door of dialogue is closed.

Qur’an and Jesus as the Word of God

Many people draw parallels between the Qur'an and the Christian Bible due to their status as sacred texts. As a result, these two are often compared, both dialogically and confrontationally. However, this comparison is not fully accurate. Based on each tradition, the Qur'an is the word of God revealed to Muhammad, while the Christian Bible comprises the words and deeds of Jesus Christ. In other words, the Bible is a collection of words about God, not a collection of God's words to us. In line with Sayyid Hussein Nasr's opinion, what is more appropriate to correspond to the Qur'an is Jesus himself, not the Christian Bible.

Whereas the Qur’an is considered the word of God in Islam, the Body of Christ is regarded as the word of God in Christianity. The existence of Jesus as the word of God is laid out in the familiar opening words of the Gospel of John: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." It is made clearer in verse 14: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” This verse can be interpreted simply textual as God speaking to his creatures through Jesus. Some others interpret the verse by elaborating on the term “Logos”, Greek’s vocabulary for “word”. In Greek philosophy, logos refers to the intermediate agency by which God created material things and communicated with them. Therefore, Jesus became a bodily embodiment of God, just as a spoken word is a physical manifestation of our inner thoughts.

A similar view is also seen in Q.S. Ali Imran 3:34 and Q.S. 4:171. These two verses state the existence of Jesus as kalimatim min Allah (a word from God) or kalimatuhu (His word). As shown by Muhammad Legenhausen, although the Qur'an did not use the specific phrase word of God (al-kalimah Allah), we can reasonably argue that God refers to Jesus as the Word of God in the Qur'an. This is because, among all human beings, the expressions mentioned above are used exclusively for Jesus.        

In the same parallel, Muhammad's existence is more accurately correlated with Maryam. The Prophet Muhammad was the medium for the presence of the Qur'an, just as Maryam was also the medium for the presence of Christ. It is perceived in Islam that the Prophet Muhammad had to be illiterate (ummy) to eliminate the impression of the Koran as His word. Correspondingly, virgin Maryam is a perfect vessel to purify Christ as His word. If the “word” is in the form of something verbal, then its purity is symbolized by the illiteracy of Muhammad. Should the “word” take the form of a man (Christ), his purity is symbolized by Mary’s virginity. When Muhammad was such a proficient reader and writer, it cast doubt on the Qur’an’s authorship. At the same time, when Mary is not a virgin, it can invalidate Christ's purity as His Word.

The existence of the Qur'an and Jesus as the Word of God is a symbol that God never abandons us while living in this wonky world. God’s love is always present in human history and accompanies us in various forms and ways—whether in the form of merits or miracles, body or book.

Yet, having this common ground does not wash away the differences—in my opinion, such a practice would be devaluing of each believer. This article is an attempt to listen carefully and learn from each other. Finding common ground also means humbly realizing that even though we share the same cornerstone, we are standing at different points. If there are Muslims who sincerely wish Christians a happy Easter, that is something we need to respect. Likewise, when there are Muslims who do not want to say happy Easter because of their faith, it doesn't mean they are intolerant or less inclusive. Both of God's words teach us to be respectful, even when we do not agree.