Turkish writer Mustafa Akyol’s book is just in time when the world’s biggest faiths must find ways to co-exist with peace
Walking in an Istanbul street nearly 15 years ago, Turkish writer Mustafa Akyol was approached by a smiling young man who asked: “Hello, sir, have you ever read the Good News?” He handed Akyol a small book titled ‘İncil’, which is the Turkish word for gospel.
“At night before I went to sleep, I opened my copy of the Good News and began reading it. It really sucked me in. I think I finished the Gospel of Matthew that very night. In the next couple of weeks, I read the whole New Testament, gospel after gospel, epistle after epistle, with great attention. Most of the teachings, especially those of Jesus, struck me with their admirable passion, devotion, sincerity, and godliness. As a faithful Muslim—and thus a believer in the all-compassionate God, the God of Abraham—I found much of the Christian scripture quite appealing and inspiring,” Akyol writes in his book ‘The Islamic Jesus’ which came out in February this year.
“Whether we are Jews, Christians or Muslims, we share either a faith followed by him, or a faith built on him, or a faith that venerates him.”
Akyol, a visiting fellow at the Freedom Project at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, has written a book whose time had come. When the two biggest religions of the world are seen in opposition to each other but increasingly have to find ways to co-exist, Akyol’s book explores common ground, that elusive piece of real estate in today’s increasingly intolerant world.
So what did Akyol find as he read on? Did he find the gospel was akin to his own faith as a Muslim? Not quite.
“The only passages not to my liking were those that emphasized the divinity of Jesus—a belief that Islam’s strict monotheism can never accept and, no wonder, the Qur’an explicitly condemns. To my Muslim mind, Jesus as a messenger of God was a very familiar, appealing theme. But Jesus as God was anathema,” Akyol writes.
Akyol devised a way to read the gospel as a Muslim. “That is why, at some point during my reading, I decided to use a method: I began underlining the passages of the New Testament that I liked the most with a blue pen while underlining the passages that I found objectionable with a red pen. It soon turned out that I had more blue lines in the gospels, especially in the first three, whereas the epistles of Paul got filled with many red lines. Paul’s “christology”—a term I would learn later—was just not working for me,” he writes.
But soon he stmbled on something that led to the writing of this book—it was the epistle of James.
“Then, toward the end of the New Testament, I came to an epistle that rekindled my ambiguous affection for this book. This particular document was both full of teachings that deeply resonated with my faith and, more importantly, contained nothing that contradicted my faith. My underlining turned out to be all blue, in other words, and no red.
“There were even passages in this epistle that I found strikingly similar to my own scripture, the Qur’an. I was awestruck, for example, when I read the passage below in this canonical epistle: ‘Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow let’s go into this city, and spend a year there, trade, and make a profit.” Whereas you don’t know what your life will be like tomorrow… You ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will both live, and do this or that.”
“I was astonished because this was so similar to a Qur’anic verse that I knew well: “Never say about anything, ‘I am doing that tomorrow,’ without adding ‘If God wills.’ ”
Very few people in the west know what the Qur’an says about Jesus, and also Mary, on whom there is one full chapter. It was this Christian lore in the Qur’an that had drawn Akyol to the New Testament.
“At this point, it might surprise some readers that the scripture of Islam says anything about Jesus. (Well, no one can blame them, for the content of the Qur’an is often misreported in our day and age. It does not decree, for example, that suicide bombers will get “seventy- two virgins” in heaven, or adulteresses should be stoned to death, or apostates from Islam should be killed.
“But, yes, the Qur’an says a lot of things about Jesus—and his mother, Mary. Its sura, or chapter, 19, a pretty long one, is even named “Mary,” and gives a detailed account of the virgin birth. In various chapters of the Qur’an, the teachings and the miracles of Jesus are narrated, and Muslims are even advised to imitate the apostles.”
So did Akyol read the New Testament and feel it was very much about his own religious truth? No. This is what he says:
“Most of these Qur’anic accounts are very similar to, or at least not in contradiction to, the gospels. However, there is one key point that the Qur’an repeatedly emphasizes, presenting a clear rejection of mainstream Christianity: Jesus, like Abraham, Moses, and Muhammad himself, was a human prophet of God— but certainly not himself God. He deserves to be praised, admired, and followed, but not worshiped as though he were divine.”
Well, that’s where Akyol’s interfaith meets its limit.
Akyol’s book is relevant because it tells both Christians and Muslims a lot about each other—something that the west urgently needs now as both the faiths must find ways to co-exist peacefully. The book ends with the chapter ‘What Jesus Can Teach Muslims Today’.
“Whether we are Jews, Christians, or Muslims, we share either a faith followed by him, or a faith built on him, or a faith that venerates him,” writes Akyol. He says he is writing about the New Testament because the Qur’an values the New Testament. And that’s why he values it, as a Muslim.