Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Syracuse, New York, was sold in December to a Muslim group and will be turned into a mosque. The Muslim organization requested that six stone crosses be removed from the top of the century-old historic church, and the Syracuse Landmark Preservation Board has complied. However, as Syracuse.com explains in an April 6, 2014 article, “Plans to turn a church into a mosque bring pain and hope to changing neighborhood,” everything evens out because the mosque will be named the Mosque of Jesus, Son of Mary “to build a bridge between the old and the new.”
So that’s all right then. Or is it? The news story is written to the theme that Islam and Catholicism share much in common—two sides of the same coin, so to speak. A diocesan spokeswoman is quoted as saying that “the building is once again being used to meet the needs of a growing population on the North Side, just as Holy Trinity did as it served the Catholic faithful.” In this telling, immigrant Muslims are just like immigrant Catholics of a hundred years ago. After all, both believe in Jesus, the son of Mary. “The Muslims could not keep the crosses on the church,” the Syracuse.com report concludes, “But they chose the mosque’s name to build a bridge between the old and the new: The Mosque of Jesus, Son of Mary.”
Why do the crosses have to come down? The reason, as explained by one of the Muslim organizers, is that “crosses are not an appropriate representation of the religion of Islam.” Why is that? Because the Koran maintains that Jesus was never crucified and therefore never rose from the dead (4:157).
In short, there are reasons to wonder if the Jesus, son of Mary that Muslims revere is the same Jesus that Christians revere. For instance, the Syracuse.com story reports that some of the Holy Trinity parishioners are worried that the massive stained glass windows which depict scenes from the life of Christ might be removed next. And well they might worry. Many of the scenes from the life of Christ do not pass the “appropriate representation of Islam” test. Naturally, the crucifixion scene would have to go, along with any representations of Christ’s resurrection, but so also would any depiction of Christ’s baptism or the Transfiguration. Both of these events identify Jesus not just as the son of Mary but as the Son of God, and from the Islamic point of view that is a blasphemous thought. On top of that, Islam prohibits the artistic representation of prophets. Have you ever seen a portrait of Muhammad? Probably not. And if you have any ideas about sketching one of your own, you’d be well-advised to keep it in your private collection. All things considered, the future of Holy Trinity’s rose-colored windows does not look too rosy.
The same Jesus? In places where religiously observant Muslims are in the majority and especially in places where they hold political power, there is much more emphasis on the differences between the two faiths than on the similarities. Christians are looked upon as inferiors, and they are well-advised to keep crosses, icons, and statues out of sight. When they are in power, observant Muslims seem less interested in building bridges than in desecrating churches and burning them down.
In the West, it’s a different story. When Muslims are first establishing themselves in a community, they tend to emphasize the commonalities between the two religions, and thus we get mosques named “Jesus, Son of Mary” and billboards that proclaim “Muslims Love Jesus Too.” Indeed, the supposedly shared love for Jesus is a primary recruitment tool for bringing Christians to Islam. A few years ago, Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, wrote an essay titled “Muslims and Christians: More in common than you think,” which is reprinted in many publications around Christmastime. Hooper writes: “It is well-known that Christians follow the teachings of Jesus. What is less well understood is that Muslims also love and revere Jesus as one of God’s greatest messengers to mankind” (Washington Post, 12/17/10).
Muslims love Jesus too? If so, why do Muslims [official disclaimer: not all of them, of course] display so much contempt for Christians when they gain power over them? Why are they so quick to charge Christians with blasphemy? To desecrate their churches and religious symbols? Could it be that the Jesus they believe in is not the same Jesus Christians worship?
While the Koranic portrait of Jesus borrows some elements from Christianity—the virgin birth, a handful of miracles—the differences are more striking than the similarities. The Jesus of the Koran is not a Jew or a Christian, he is a Muslim. He is not the Son of God, and to say that he is is the greatest of all blasphemies. He was not crucified. He did not rise from the dead. He is not the savior of mankind. And, although Ibrahim Hooper says that Jesus is “one of God’s greatest messengers,” his message differs markedly from that brought by Jesus of Nazareth. Other than the message that people should serve God, there is not much in common. The Muslim Jesus announces that he is a prophet sent by God; that he is not God and never claimed to be; and that he brings “news of an apostle that will come after me whose name is Ahmed [Muhammad]” (61:6). So, on the one hand you have the message, “I am the way and the truth and the life,” and on the other hand you have the message, “I am a messenger.” That’s no small difference.
Those who are looking for more from the Jesus of the Koran—more wisdom, more development of doctrine—will be disappointed. The Muslim Jesus has remarkably little to say about anything. There is nothing like the Sermon on the Mount in the Koran. In fact, that one sermon far exceeds in length the sum total of everything said by the Jesus of the Koran.
He also has remarkably little to do. When Christians hear that Jesus is in the Koran, they tend to assume that the Koran must contain some account of his life. But other than a strange and truncated account of his birth, there is nothing in the Koran that could remotely be called a life of Jesus. You will find considerably more scenes from the life of Jesus in the stained glass windows of Holy Trinity Church than you will in the Koran.
The Jesus of the Koran is nothing more than a disembodied voice. There is no information about where he lived or when he carried out his ministry or who his disciples were. In short, there is no attempt to portray him as recognizable human being. Judging by the cursory attention given to Jesus in the Koran, Muhammad seems to have had little interest in him as a person.
Nevertheless, Muhammad couldn’t afford to leave Jesus out of the picture. Why? Because if Christ is who Christians say he is, then there is no need for another prophet and another revelation. In other words, the claims made by Jesus of Nazareth, if true, would have put a major crimp in Muhammad’s prophetic career. Muhammad’s solution to this problem was to include Jesus in the Koran and recast him as a messenger, rather than as the Messiah, understood as the Son of God.
The reason Jesus is so frequently referred to as “son of Mary” in the Koran is to reinforce the point that he is not the Son of God. Likewise, whenever Jesus appears in the Koran or whenever he is mentioned by Allah, it is almost always for the purpose of denying his divinity. Take Chapter 5, verses 113 to 117. It is one of the few places in the Koran where the narrative about Jesus rises (well, almost) to the level of a scene:
“Jesus son of Mary,” said the disciples, “Can your Lord send down to us from heaven a table spread with food?”…“Lord,” said Jesus son of Mary, “send down to us from heaven a table spread with food…” (5: 113-114)
The interesting thing is what happens next. Allah agrees to send the table, but first he interrogates Jesus: “Jesus son of Mary, did you ever say to mankind: ‘Worship me and my mother as gods besides God?’” Jesus, the faithful Muslim, replies, “I could never have claimed what I have no right to. If I had ever said so, You would surely have known it” (5:117).
So, a demonstration of Jesus’ power to produce a tableful of food is used as an occasion to reject the central tenet of Christianity. As for the table of food, we are left guessing. Does Allah actually send down the meal? There is no further mention of it. Muhammad has made his point, and having made it, moves on to the next lesson.
Notice that the phrase “Jesus son of Mary” is used three times in the table scene. Was this because Muhammad had a deep Christian-like love of Jesus and his mother? Or was there another motive? Given that almost every page of the Koran contains reminders of Muhammad’s prophetic role, it seems highly likely that the Jesus-son-of-Mary motif was simply a device for enhancing his own importance by reducing the status of Christ.
The irony is that this self-serving stratagem has become the main plank for keeping Muslim-Christian dialogue afloat. One would think that Christians would be sore about Muhammad’s appropriation of Jesus and Mary for his own purposes—that is, to deny the Sonship of Jesus. Instead, this is sometimes put in positive terms that seem to overlook, for whatever reason, the problem at hand. For example, the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate says, “The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems,” and two of the five reasons given for the esteem is that Muslims “revere” Jesus and “honor Mary.”
But a close reading of the Koran suggests that its inclusion of Jesus and Mary may not be the sign of hope that many Christians take it to be. John the Baptist said of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). Muhammad preferred it the other way around. For him to increase, it was necessary that Jesus decrease. Thus, what we find in the Koran is a diminished portrait of Jesus, who is not completely repudiated, but used to bolster Islamic claims.
Up in Syracuse, some Catholics have apparently taken the transformation of Holy Trinity Church into Jesus, Son of Mary Mosque to be a sign of continuity between Christianity and Islam. They might be less sanguine on that score if they knew the rest of the story.