First Among Saints – Dr. Zeki Saritoprak on Islam’s Jesus

By Andrew Kosorok

(From my review on Amazon.com)

“So Peace is on me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day that I shall be raised up to life (again)”!  Such (was) Jesus the son of Mary: (it is) a statement of truth, about which they (vainly) dispute.

–Qur’an 19:32, 33

First Among Saints – Dr. Zeki Saritoprak on Islam’s JesusThe book Islam’s Jesus came to me by way of background information – I had been invited to introduce Dr. Zeki Saritoprak (humorous, generous, unassuming, and completely brilliant) and his Islam’s Jesus presentation to an interfaith audience, hosted by my Turkish-American friends.

I figured I would skim the book here and there and do my best to pretend I had read it; once I started, however, my cunning plan utterly dissipated.  His book is amazing.

Dr. Zeki’s presentation was very well attended, and by a large percentage of well-educated people from a multitude of backgrounds.  He began by asking a series of questions directly confronting various media-sponsored stereotypes, and opened the eyes of most every attendee.  “My hope in these presentations” he shared “is that people understand how much we have in common.”

Luckily, I was able to spend a substantial amount of time visiting with Dr. Zeki before and after his presentation.  I asked him what drove him to write the book.  “My dissertation was a study of the Anti-Christ in Islamic Theology,” he told me, “and I felt compelled, after that, to write on this much more positive topic.”  And the subject of Jesus is the most unhappily misunderstood figure in the Western (mis)conception of Islam.

The Birth of Jesus Christ by Kamal al-din Bihzad (1450-1535)
The Birth of Jesus Christ by Kamal al-din Bihzad (1450-1535)

“Jesus is pivotal to both Muslims and Christians,” Dr. Zeki asserts in the introduction to his book, “[and] the discussion of Jesus’s descent [“Second Coming” for Christian audiences] necessitates a discussion of the future of interfaith cooperation, particularly between Christians and Muslims, who together constitute more than half of humanity.”

As Christians approach Islam it can be very difficult to separate our poorly-informed preconceptions with the doctrinal reality as observed by so many millions of Muslims around the world.

I remember shepherding a group of Christian college students to an area mosque for services on Good Friday, and their shock in hearing the imam testifying to the miracles Jesus performed under the guidance of our Creator.  Tearfully, the students expressed their surprise and happiness to the cleric, and the experience affected each of them deeply.

Yes, Muslims believe in Jesus – although the word “belief” is inadequate; unlike even some Christians with whom I have spoken, Muslims accept the person of Jesus as a historical reality.  My imam friend of the Good Friday sermon told our group that many Muslims refer to Jesus with the title “First Among Saints”, and his name is never pronounced without asking God to bless him.  From Dr. Zeki’s book: “Muslims cannot be considered Muslims if they do not believe in Jesus as a messenger of God who brought the revelation of God to humanity.”

“In an atmosphere where people were drowned in materialism and hypocrisy, Jesus came as a spirit from God” the author states.  And Dr. Zeki shares throughout his work the vital importance this message has for our present day: “The world today needs spirituality, moral values, justice, mercy, love, altruism, forgiveness, and peace now more than at any other time in history.”

He describes that in discussions of the Second Coming [Christian term], or descent [Muslim term] there are a number of different views Muslim scholars have examined over the centuries.  And these varying views are similar to Christian discussion of the same event.

Sermon on the Mount by Carl Bloch
By Carl BlochSermon on the Mount by Carl Bloch p. 313 Public Domain

First, there is a specific reason for the difference of terms in Christian and Islamic theology.  From the Christian perspective, Jesus died and was resurrected on the third day (1 Corinthians 15:4).  From the Muslim perspective, when those who crucified Jesus boasted of their deed, the Qur’an clarifies “so it was made to appear to them” (Qur’an 4:156), and God took Jesus into “occultation” and away from the mortal experience.  This difference of perspective leads directly to the difference in terms used to describe Jesus’s return to the earth – for Christians the resurrected Jesus arrives in a Second Coming, and for Muslims Jesus descends from the sheltering state of occultation.

The three historical perspectives on Jesus’s descent reviewed are the literalist, the symbolic, and the allegorical.  Although Dr. Zeki examines these from historical discussions by Muslim scholars and clergy, I have read parallel views from the Christian perspective: that Jesus returns to the earth in physical body, floating down from heaven; that prophecies of his return are meant to be understood as the return of his powerful unifying spirit; and that the descent of Jesus refers to the generation of an overall brotherhood of man.

What impresses me is Dr. Zeki’s clarity and strength of conviction – he strongly supports the doctrine of Jesus’s descent, that it is a literal event, but this event describes the influence and power of Jesus’s unifying, compelling message of peace rather than the return of his physical body.  This requires strengthening compassion through mutual understanding, support, and respect.  “Compassion is the beginning of being; without it everything is chaos.”

Isa bringing heavenly food
Jesus bringing heavenly food. Public Wikimedia Commons

To this end, Muslims around the world support a wide array of interfaith initiatives and projects, to revitalize one of the most timely and important messages of the Qur’an, “O humankind, we have created you from a male and a female and have made you nations and tribes that you may know one another” (Qur’an 49:13, italics added).

And Dr. Zeki’s book emphasizes a point vital not just to a Christian understanding of Islam, but a concept which members of all faiths can take to heart as we share in the building of a brighter future – “Islam does not accept the idea of waiting for the coming of Jesus without the participation of individuals to make the world a peaceful place.”

All of us have a stake in the outcome; each of us need to help bring it to pass.

 

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Author: ismailimail

Independent, civil society media featuring Ismaili Muslim community, inter and intra faith endeavors, achievements and humanitarian works.

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