In 1989, the Iranian media called the showing in Istanbul of Martin Scorsese's blasphemous film, The Last Temptation of Christ, a plot "hatched by world arrogance and international Zionism"1 and soon after fundamentalist Muslims and fundamentalist Christians together protested the movie's screening. A decade later, the "Shari'ah Court of the UK" condemned Terrence McNally to death for his defamatory play about Jesus, Corpus Christi, and again the faithful of the two faiths together protested outside the theater. The man who issued this edict, Omar Bakri Muhammad, commented that "The Church of England has neglected the honour of the Virgin Mary and Jesus."2 Muslim groups also protested when the Brooklyn Museum mounted a scurrilous exhibit of the Virgin Mary.
What gives – don't the Islamists have the wrong religious figure? No: from the Qur'an on, Jesus has always had a special place in Muslim piety, as Khalidi (professor of Arabic at Cambridge University) shows in his exemplary study, The Muslim Jesus. In fact, he even writes about a "Muslim gospel" which, though emphatically denying the divinity of ‘Isa ibn Maryam, gives him an honored place as a prophet. The 303 snippets that Khalidi translates and comments on from a wide range of sources (hadith, belles-lettres, mystical works, etc.) do convincingly establish his point that "In his Muslim habitat, Jesus becomes an object of intense devotion, reverence, and love." In an introductory essay, Khalidi traces the origins of the "Muslim gospel" and concludes by observing that this cross-religious history offers some lessons for a time like the present, when Christian-Muslim tensions are rife.
The mostly Christian and British authors of ten fine chapters in Islamic Interpretations of Christianity have a decidedly less cheerful take on their subject. The book deals in roughly equal parts with the premodern and modern eras; in both, it finds that Islamic views of Christianity and Christians are generally harsh. The Qur'an is rather more friendly to an (Islam-receptive) ideal Christianity than the actual one that exists; the hadith literature consigns Christians to social and religious inferiority; the legal literature creates a binary Muslim vs. non-Muslim distinction that is "never" breached; even Jalal ad-Din Rumi, the favorite poet of mystically-inclined Americans, turns out to be less inclusive and more doctrinaire than they realize . In the modern era, Sayyid Qutb's aggressive attitude toward Christians amounted to an aggressive and "radical break" with traditional Sunni Islam; and while one can find enlightened attitudes among British Muslims toward Christianity, most of the views expressed fit into "an older anti-Christian-polemical tradition." There is a long way to go before adherents of these two faiths can achieve the maturity of the Christian-Jewish relationship.
1 Jomhuriye-ye Islami, 3 April 1989.