Was Jesus a Muslim?

By Dr. Ahmed Afzaal
I f asked this question, Muslims
would immediately and emphatically
respond in the affirmative. Of course
he was a Muslim, they would say, since
he was a noble prophet and a messenger
of Allah (SWT). Indeed, they
would see this question as a typical “nobrainer,”
for even a Muslim child could
answer it correctly without too much
thinking. But what if this question
was aimed not at Muslims but at Christians?
How would contemporary
American Christians respond to the
question “Was Jesus a Muslim?” While
many Christians won’t even understand
the question, there is at least one
Christian scholar who clearly says that
the answer is “yes.”
Prof. Robert Shedinger is a scholar of
religion who teaches at Luther College
in Iowa. He earned his Ph. D. in religious
studies from Temple University,
specializing in Biblical Studies. While
doing his graduate work, Shedinger
took two courses on Isl┐m with Prof.
Mahmoud Ayoub, not because he had
any personal interest in Isl┐m but only
in order to strengthen his job prospects.
Shedinger thought that taking
those courses will allow him to teach
an introductory course on Isl┐m, an
ability that will improve his chances of
getting a teaching position. He was
proven right when he was hired soon
after graduation by Luther College.
Immediately after 9/11, however,
Shedinger found himself in a new
situation. In the small Iowa community
where he lived and taught, he was
seen as the only local “expert” on
Isl┐m; he became, rather reluctantly, a
much sought-after speaker on a subject
that was, in fact, well outside of his
field of expertise. Shedinger responded
to this challenge by developing a new
and genuinely deeper interest in Isl┐m.
Shedinger’s subsequent research led
him to make fresh discoveries not only
about Isl┐m and Muslims, but also
about the very nature of religion. He
came to the conclusion that American
Christians have very little sense of
what Isl┐m is truly about, and that this
deficiency is at least partly responsible
for maintaining the image of Muslims
as a threat to Christianity and thereby
fueling the “clash of civilizations.”
Moreover, since they tend to have a
narrow view of the place of religion,
most Christians lack a true appreciation
of Jesus’ own revolutionary teachings,
as recorded in the Gospels.
Shedinger is now a man on a mission:
while maintaining his own Christian
faith, he wants to educate his fellow
Christians about the teachings of
Isl┐m, explaining to them that their
fear of an “Isl┐mic threat” is seriously
misguided. He wants to show them
that some aspects of the Isl┐mic view of
Jesus are actually closer to the historical
truth than what is often taught by
the Christian denominations as official
Christian dogma. Shedinger argues
that if Isl┐m is understood as a religiously
inspired movement for
social justice, a thesis for
which there is ample evidence,
then it would become much
easier for Christians to appreciate
the many commonalities
that exist between the teachings
of Jesus and Muhammad
(peace be upon them).
At the same time, Shedinger
wants to accomplish a radical
change in the Western understanding
of religion. He
agrees with many Muslims
who claim that Isl┐m cannot,
and should not, be seen as a
“religion” in the commonly
understood sense. By studying
the works of several modern
Muslims, particularly
those who emphasize the
importance of social justice as an essential
part of faith, Shedinger has reached
the conclusion that a sharp separation
between the public and the private
spheres is incompatible with the
Isl┐mic ethos. If this is so, he argues,
then Isl┐m represents a challenge to the
narrow and truncated understanding
of religion that is prevalent in the modern
Western academia as well as in the
minds of most Christians.
Outside the academia, Shedinger
feels that there is much room for cooperation
between Christians and Muslims
in the area of social justice. The
Christian-Muslim dialogue will tremendously
improve in both quality
and effectiveness if the emphasis is
shifted from doctrinal issues (e.g.,
whether or not Jesus was the Son of
God) to issues of social justice and of
practical efforts for achieving it. He
contends that the differences in theological
doctrine have a very long history,
and it is not possible to resolve
them simply through an interfaith dialogue.
On the other hand, if attention
is focused on those teachings of Jesus
and Muhammad (peace be upon them)
that are of practical significance, particularly
those that unequivocally call
for the establishment of social justice,
then Christians and Muslims would
not only find a great many relevant
issues to discuss but also the motivation
to work together.
Shedinger’s book Was Jesus a Muslim?
is primarily addressed to Christians.
However, the importance of his
book for American Muslims cannot be
overestimated. Was Jesus a Muslim?
not only confirms and clearly articulates
the basic idea that animates our
efforts, it also provides much evidence
from Christian sources that the same
idea is the central message in the teachings
of Jesus (peace be upon him) as
well. This book, therefore, provides
the tools necessary for building bridges
between Muslims and Christians, more
specifically between those Muslim and
Christian groups that are involved in
faith-inspired struggles for social justice.
Such groups could increase their
effectiveness many fold by pooling
their resources and developing close
partnerships. By doing so, they would
also contribute to defeating the fear mongers
who are trying to promote
the “clash of civilizations.”
Before we could get to that point,
however, we need to cultivate a greater
and deeper understanding of each
other’s religious traditions. As Muslims,
we already know that the Christian
tradition originated from the same
divine reality that is the source of our
own Isl┐mic tradition; this is true even
though there are many aspects of the
Christian tradition that we Muslims
find unacceptable. And yet, the
Qur’an frequently speaks about Christians
in highly approving terms, indicating
that outside of their faith community
Muslims will find the greatest
affinity with Christians. This means
that religious disagreements do not
preclude respect and cooperation.
The differences between Muslims and
Christians are real and considerable,
and such differences are not going to
disappear overnight. In fact, Muslims
believe that it is only Allah (SWT) who
is going to bring all disputes and disagreements
among human beings to
their final end, and that this will happen
only on the Day of Judgment. We
should understand, therefore, that it is
not for us to try and eradicate all religious
differences in this world. Our
Isl┐mic duty is to invite, not to convert;
we are obligated to convey in the
most beautiful fashion, not to force
acceptance. We are supposed to represent
the truth of Isl┐m through our
lives and deeds, our behavior and etiquettes.
Guidance is in the hands of
Allah (SWT) alone; no human being
has the power to guide anyone, no matter
how sincerely or ardently he or she
may wish. This much is perfectly clear
to any serious student of the Qur’an.

Of course, Muslims and Christians
are not going to agree on everything,
just as Muslims do not agree with other
Muslims on all issues and Christians do
not agree with other Christians. Having
acknowledged our differences, however,
can we still find enough common
ground to cooperate in matters on
which we do agree? Can Christians
and Muslims join hands in matters of
piety and virtue? If yes, then what
could be more pious and more virtuous
than the struggle for social justice? If
the essential message of Jesus and
Muhammad (peace be upon them) is
the same, as Muslims have always believed
and as some Christians are now
beginning to recognize as well, then
nothing should prevent us from cooperating
with each other insofar as we
recognize that commonality. Of
course, we must set aside our egoistic
desires and our prides in order to build
such solidarity. All collective endeavors
require the sacrifice of the ego, and
a joint Christian-Muslim struggle for
social justice would be no exception.

Toward Christian-Muslim Solidarity for Social Justice
If Jesus returned today and considered the way that Muslims and Christians have co-opted him as an authoritative
or—in the case of Christianity—the authoritative figure in their respective traditions, how might Jesus react?
Would he find more sympathy with his Muslim or with his Christian portrayal? Christians generally will
reply that the historical Jesus would find the Christian portrayal of him—the risen Christ sent to earth in the
form of God’s unique Son to redeem the sins of humanity—as the one most consistent with his historical identity.
But I question this. Despite the fact that I myself bring a Christian perspective, I firmly believe that the
life and works of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels resonate more with particular interpretations of the nature
and essence of the Islamic tradition than with common Western articulations of the nature and essence of
Christianity. It is in this hermeneutical sense that I conclude that Jesus was really a Muslim. Such an idea has
profound implications for Christian-Muslim relationships in the contemporary world and moreover will raise
the intriguing question of whether the concern so often expressed over the politicization of Islam in the contemporary
world ought to be replaced by a concern with the “religionization” of Christianity.
Making such an argument will not be easy, and it is tempting to dismiss the question “Was Jesus really a Muslim”
as little more than a gimmick, not worthy of serious academic engagement. Let me assure the reader that
I take this question as a substantive and serious academic topic and urge consideration of the world in which we
now live. Tensions between the so-called Christian West and Muslim East show no sign of abating anytime
soon. Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington has even predicted (and possibly even advocated for) a
“clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West. International tensions like these inevitably spill over into
the lives of ordinary people, leading to local tensions and even acts of violence between Christians and Muslims.
Today more than at any time in recent history we need a global movement of solidarity to emerge between
Muslims and Christians, a movement with the promise to promote a just world order. But a new world order
of justice and peace will not arise from a “clash” between Islam and the West; the “clash” mentality of the neoconservative
political movement will lead only to greater levels of violence and injustice as it tends to create the
very clash that it seeks to analyze. Rather, the world is in dire need of a movement of Christian-Muslim solidarity.
I am hopeful that such a movement is possible, but only if Christians and Muslims (but Christians in
particular) are willing to rethink in fundamental ways long-held assumptions about the relationship between
Islam and Christianity, and between religion and politics more generally. Positioning Jesus as a point of commonality
between Muslims and Christians may be a first step toward this goal, and this book seeks to accomplish
just that.
Robert Shedinger. 2009. Was Jesus a Muslim? Questioning Categories in the Study of Religion, pp. 11-12.

Robert F. Shedinger Speaks About Jesus as a Political Figure
by Carter.

The mainstream media would have us believe that there are only two schools of thought: liberal and conservative. Conservatives are religious, they insist, and liberals are secular. Further analysis reveals that things aren’t so simple. There are hyper-liberal Christian anarchists, and even Christian atheists like Robert M. Price.

While there are some who insist Jesus never even existed, and others who think the bible should be taken completely literally, the mainstream academic consensus lies somewhere in between.

I had the honor of speaking with Robert Shedinger, a professor at Luther College, Iowa. With a doctorate of religious studies from Temple University, he has written a book with a seemingly controversial title: Was Jesus a Muslim? Questioning Categories in the Study of Religion. He argues that Jesus was as much a political figure as a religious one.

In fact, despite identifying himself as a Christian, he believes that people can abandon religion without abandoning God.
The Interview

I’d like to thank you for speaking with me, Robert.

It is a pleasure to be able to share my work with you and your readers.

I’m happy to hear it.

So you’ve written a book called Was Jesus a Muslim? Now, obviously, religion is a touchy subject for many people, and I would expect this to be one of those questions that sparks controversy. Would you say you encounter offense or intrigue more often when you talk about this subject?

This is an interesting question. You would think that a book with this title would spark controversy. In fact, the publisher was originally quite nervous about the title and wanted to change it, thinking that people would answer the question “Was Jesus a Muslim?” with a resounding “No!” and not buy the book.

But the reaction has actually been quite different. Muslim readers really like the book and don’t find the idea of Jesus being a Muslim at all controversial. The Muslim identity of Jesus is a standard article of faith for Muslims.

What does surprise them is seeing such an idea coming from someone who identifies as a Christian. But overall Muslim readers have embraced the book and I have had the opportunity to speak in nearly a dozen mosques from North Carolina to California as a result.

By contrast, the Christian reaction has been quite muted. I have received no invitations to speak in churches outside of my local community where people know me, nor have I received any emails or letters expressing concern about or objection to the book. The Christian reaction has been mostly silence, something that my Muslim friends find surprising.

I am grateful for the interactions with the American Muslim community that the book has made possible, but I would welcome more dialogue with Christians, who were, after all, the intended primary audience for the book.

I hoped the book would create renewed energy for positive Christian-Muslim engagement even though I realize its major premise can be a heavy lift for Christians. I know there are many open-minded Christians out there who could positively engage my ideas.

I’m a bit surprised by that. I would expect stronger reactions and more interest in the subject from Christians. Would you hazard a guess at why this is the case?

I know the thesis is provocative for Christians, and instead of responding maybe they are more inclined to just ignore the book and hope it goes away. But I really don’t know. The book has been adopted for use in a number of college courses, so students are reading it, some of whom are undoubtedly Christians. But without any significant response from the wider Christian community, it is hard for me to know how it is playing. This may simply be a sign of just how difficult it is to engender fruitful interactions between Christians and Muslims in this time of very public Islamophobia.

That’s an unfortunate state of affairs. I hope that this doesn’t hinder your efforts, and that you will be able to make some ground.