Jesus Christ in the Traditions of Islam - The View of Christ in Folk Islam

III. The View of Christ in Folk Islam

1. The Unapproved Traditions

Now that we have become acquainted with some of the recognised, approved traditions about Christ and Christianity, we would also like to concern ourselves with the unapproved and fictitious sayings of Muhammad that deal with the same subject. Within the sphere of Islam, there are numerous collections of such stories which are dearly loved, especially in Sufi circles.

Because the approved traditions deal mostly with legal themes, being available only to a minority of jurists and scholars, owing to their linguistic peculiarity, this fictitious Hadith literature has gained influence down the centuries and has contributed toward the making of so-called "folk Islam." In contrast to the "genuine" collections of traditions, these collections consist of innumerable legends about Christ and can be traced back either to Muhammad or Jesus himself, proceeding always with an educational aim.

What distinguishes these questionable traditions from the others is their Sufic-ascetic nature which betrays their authors. As the model ascetic, Jesus surpasses Muhammad in these legends, appearing next to him, the seal of the prophets, as "The seal of holiness," always performing unconventional, god- like feats. We find the following story from Damiri:

Anas relates that the Messenger of Allah said: "Two sisters came to Jesus and asked him to resurrect their father who had died two days earlier. Deeply moved, Jesus said to them: `Let us go to the cemetery; I will bring him back to life.' When they came to the cemetery, Jesus asked them where the grave of their father was to be found. They showed him a grave; Jesus drew near and called out, `O you who have died, come forth!' Then someone came out from the grave. But the two sisters said to him, `Lord (or Sir), this is not our father.' Jesus bid the man to go back again into his grave. Then they showed him another grave where the same thing happened. At the third grave, Jesus called out with a loud voice, `O you dead man, come out!' Then the father of the two sisters came up out of the grave. But after he had stood awhile before the sisters, Jesus bid him again to go back into his grave - an action causing the sisters extreme shock. They asked Jesus what that meant. Jesus answered: `Be comforted! The span of life has been determined for every person. When this time is passed, death is unavoidable. Therefore, your father shall not live any longer'" (29).

The Sufi scholar, Hallaj (b. AD 858), who represents the acme of Islamic mysticism, agrees to Jesus' divine nature, for his second main teaching is:

Everyone who denies the world and humbles himself through fasting and worship changes into a spiritual being. He who steadfastly continues in this manner until the end of his life will ultimately be permeated by the Spirit of Holiness and receive immortality. From then on he is no longer a mortal son of Adam but a part of God, in the same way as Jesus (30).

In one tradition, we find that not only Jesus but also his disciples are semi-divine saints who, "since the days of their Lord," are regarded as having no longer sinned. Sahl b. Abdullah met one of the disciples of Christ:

He wore a wool coat (sufi) that appeared entirely new. But he said to me, "I have worn this coat since the days of Christ." As I pondered this surprising statement, he said, "It is not the body that wears out clothing, but rather the stench of sin and forbidden sustenances" (31).

The Christ of Sufism is first and foremost the great ascetic, the archetypal saint, freed from all earthly necessities and constraints, roaming and sleeping under an open sky, with a stone for a pillow:

Jesus never kept the remains from an evening meal until morning, nor the rest of a morning meal until evening. He ate of the leaves of trees and drank rainwater, clothed himself with sackcloth or animal skins, and spent the night at the place where He happened to be when the sun set. Then he remained standing and prayed until dawn (32).

Jesus always acknowledged the good in those whom others treated with contempt:

Jesus and his disciples went past a dead dog. The disciples said, "It stinks repulsively." But Jesus said, "Its teeth are so white." In this way, He taught them never to say anything bad about anyone (33).

Above all, Jesus in Sufism is merciful to sinners:

Someone once saw him coming out from the house of a prostitute and said to him, "O you Spirit of Allah, what are you doing with such a woman?" But He said, "The doctor must visit the sick!" (34)

For Jesus, humility is the most important virtue:

He said to the children of Israel, "Where does the seed grow?" They answered, "In the dust." He said, "Truly I say to you, `Truth can only grow in the heart that has been crushed like dust'" (35).

Jesus does not pay back evil with evil:

Jesus, son of Mary, once passed some people who reviled him. He continued on His way and met others who also treated him with reproach. But every time he heard bad words, he answered with good ones. Then, one of His disciples said to him: "The more bad that someone says to you, the more good you answer in return. It is as if you yourself wanted to incite and rouse the people against you, to revile you." But Jesus answered, "A person gives to others that which he has in himself" (36).

One also finds the basic Arabic-Islamic views about Jesus in numerous popular stories. For example:

Jesus went past a woman who said, "Blessed, blessed is the womb that bore you and the breast that stilled you." But Jesus said, "No, blessed is he who reads the Qur'an and follows what is written therein" (37).

A word of judgement from Jesus to the Jews is almost a literal quote from Matthew 23:

...You filter and strain insects out of your draught but swallow mountains of that which Allah has forbidden. You make religion heavy like stones for the people and then refuse to lift a finger to help them. You make your prayers long and your clothing white, in order to gain the possessions of widows and orphans. I swear by my omnipotence, I will allow a visitation of affliction to come upon you which will confound the intellect of the intelligent and the wisdom of the wise (38).

Finally, we will quote the following, showing how some Muslims imagine Jesus' form:

He was a man of moderate stature, reddish with a touch of white. His hair was smooth, and he held his head tilted (39).

Now that some of the traditions in folk Islam - not directly traceable to Muhammad - have been mentioned, it still needs to be said that more Muslims know and love these fictitious accounts about Jesus than the reliable ones from Muhammad. Many unschooled Muslims think that the Bible has been falsified and that the traditions they cherish have been removed from it. For that reason, these are highly honoured as genuine accounts, whereas educated Muslims from all schools of law reject these false episodes as human inventions. Official Islam classifies these stories as Jewish attempts to falsify the original truth about Jesus and to make Islam appear ridiculous.

One notices that many splinters of truth are included in the different traditions, but also that through them the account of Jesus has been fundamentally altered. The traditions add many supplementary and conflicting statements to the Qur'anic texts that mention Jesus; yet in the end they too remain bound in their Islamic spirit and reject the crucified Son of God.