Note: This post accompanies the material for an online course in Christian-Muslim relations offered by staff at the University of Edinburgh. You can find more information about this course and its aims here.

Virgin Mary and Jesus, Old Persian Miniature (unknown) Wikimedia Commons, public domain

This week’s course readings focused on the differences and similarities between the roles of Jesus Christ and the prophet Muhammad, as well as how Christians and Muslims have approached them throughout centuries of dialogue and polemic.

Course participants read the differing accounts of Christ’s birth within Christian and Islamic texts, then read – and listened to oral renditions of – both Muslim and Christian engagements with the separate roles of prophet Muhammad and Jesus Christ. They also witnessed a contemporary discussion on the role of Christology in Christian-Muslim dialogue between Prof Mona Siddiqui and Dr Joshua Ralston. (You can see an extended version of their discussion on our YouTube page or listen in podcast form.) Some of these, course participants noted in discussion, were distinctly polemical and hostile in tone, while others sought to engage the other more respectfully.

Many readers who were more familiar with the Gospel accounts were particularly interested in the unique details offered by the Qur’anic story. The description of Mary’s pain in childbirth, for example, was identified by some as part of the Qur’anic argument that Jesus is special, but not divine, because Mary experienced a human birth. Others also commented on the absence of Joseph – who in the Bible is Mary’s husband – in the Qur’anic account. (You can read a more in-depth, collaborative Christian-Muslim discussion about Jesus in the Qur’an here.)

This brings us to the next discussion within the course, as many noted that one Muslim text that polemically expresses disbelief that God would allow his prophet/Son (depending on belief in Islam or Christianity) to be crucified. One of the only events that is universally described by all four Gospels is the public humiliation and death of Jesus by crucifixion. Meanwhile, the Qur’an preserves Jesus from this undignified end. (See our blog for a list of recommended reading on these topics.)

For many believing Christians who commented on this discussion in the course, the cross – and the suffering of Jesus thereon – is essential to faith, part of the mystery that expresses God’s work in the world. By contrast, many others in the course who do not profess belief in Christian doctrines expressed similar sentiments to that of the Muslim poet. The crucifixion is confusing, and while nonbelievers are less concerned with the implications for Tawheed – monotheism – than the Medieval Islamic world, they did wonder whether such a doctrine cast doubt on the power and goodness of God. As the course participants learned through encounters with poetry, the contention around the cross has been part of Christian-Muslim history for centuries.

To push this discussion deeper, I might ask what this implies about understandings of suffering, both within the original texts of Christianity and Islam, and within our own, 21st-century context? Course participants suggested that Mary’s suffering in childbirth (in the Qur’anic account) rendered her son human rather than divine, just as the Islamic texts questioned how Jesus – as either God or as a special prophet – could be permitted to suffer. By contrast, several of the Christian texts from Week 1 identified this very suffering of Jesus as a foundational Christian belief, that salvation was achieved, within the Christian view, because Jesus assumed – rather than avoided – human suffering.

The course discussion boards have acknowledged some of the diversity within established Christian belief, even on these central issues. Several more differences come to mind in addition to those that have been mentioned. The traditions of both Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, for example, have embraced a belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary, with some claiming that Mary never experienced any menstrual bleeding, never bore any additional children after Jesus, and – perhaps to the point made in the Qur’anic account – did not suffer pain in childbirth. While these points might be considered more tradition than dogma, they are generally rejected by most Protestants and other modern Christian traditions.

The diversity of belief within Islam has not been discussed as frequently in the discussion boards. Shia Muslims, for example, have been more prone than Sunnis to celebrate suffering, both their own and that of the great leaders that have gone before. The self-flagellations at the commemoration of the Karbala massacre (Warning: this video contains graphic images) are one dramatic example. Shiite history has also been more prone to veneration of key female figures in a similar way to the Christian traditions mentioned earlier.

Both of these ideas raise a few more questions for discussion:

  1. What might the implications of the suffering of 1) Jesus on the cross in the Bible, and 2) Mary in childbirth in the Quran be for believers in both faiths? Do Christianity and Islam offer comparable scriptural resources for understanding human suffering?
  2. While the course week title ‘Jesus and Muhammad’ suggests a comparison of the leading figures of both faiths, some scholars within Christian-Muslim studies have offered different comparisons. Prof Daniel Madigan has suggested different comparisons, including that of Muhammad and Mary, instead of Jesus. (Watch an interview with Prof Madigan on our YouTube page.) In a similar vein, Dr Jerusha Rhodes suggests a comparison of Mary with Muhammad might also be useful in a feminist theological reading. (See our discussion on her book here). What fresh fodder for understanding is offered by these different comparisons?