The Jesus of Islam Mustafa Akyol emphasizes theology over history to draw intriguing, but questionable, connections.

The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims

By Mustafa Akyol (2017, St. Martin’s Press) 275 pages including acknowledgments, endnotes, index.

In religious studies today few topics are more intensely discussed than the historical circumstances of the origins of Islam in Late Antiquity and the relationship of the contents of the Qur’ān to the preceding scriptures and religious traditions of the Jews and Christians. Most of the discussions of these matters appear in scholarly books and journals, which are published with an academic readership in mind. Mustafa Akyol, a journalist and lecturer on topics in Islamic history and thought, who has already published a widely read book on modern Islamic political thought,[1] has in his new book now turned his attention to a more popular, even personal, discussion of the historical relationship of early Islam to Christianity, and to the Qur’ān’s portrayal of Jesus the Messiah in particular. His book has already attracted the pre-publication praise of several well-known scholars of Islamic history.

Beginning with a personal account of his first reading of the New Testament, carefully noting passages, which in his estimation either agreed with or diverged from the teaching of the Qur’ān, Akyol first records his own perception of a divergence between the teachings of the apostles James and Paul that he supposes lie behind what he says is “the historical fact that the two men had become the originators of two different branches of Christianity.”  This idea is not original with Akyol; it reflects his agreement with the hypostases of a long line of modern scholars who have more carefully proposed the view that in its origins Christianity developed along two original trajectories. One course of development is said to have stemmed from the teachings of the apostles Peter and Paul and expressed its views primarily in Greek, eventually emphasizing the divinity of Jesus, while the other, following the lead of the apostle James the Great, is supposed to have remained in a closer continuity with the traditions of the Hebrew and Aramaic-speaking Jews of Jesus’ own day, considering him primarily as the culminating figure in the long Israelite tradition of fully human prophets whom God has sent to guide his people. Scholars have customarily called the latter group somewhat ambiguously, ‘Jewish Christians,’ and they have argued that at least some of their communities survived well into Islamic times in out-of-the-way places, including the deserts of Arabia. Several commentators have also called attention to what they have perceived to be continuities between ‘Jewish Christian’ beliefs about Jesus and the teachings about him expressed in the Qur’ān. Akyol excitedly accepts this scenario as reflecting the current scholarly consensus, one that allows him the opportunity to explore what he takes to be a genuine Christian tradition that anticipated the Islamic view of Jesus, while decisively rejecting the high Christology of the surviving mainline Christian communities flourishing almost everywhere in the world today. He says that his book is “an effort to highlight a view of Jesus that is somewhat different from the one that lies at the heart of Christians’ faith—that can have its own claim to be ‘historical.’”

In support of his claim about the historicity of a ‘Jewish Christian’ view of Jesus that prepared the way for the Qur’ān’s own distinctive view of him, Akyol ranges widely over the recent scholarly literature somewhat uncritically accepting any suggestion of ‘Jewish Christian’ influence that has been alleged. In fact, he presents a more coherent and comprehensive account of the actuality of a ‘Jewish Christian’ presence and religious sway in Arabia in the era of Islam’s origins than any one of his scholarly sources would or could endorse. One would not gather from what Akyol says that there is considerable scholarly controversy over the very existence of any ‘Jewish Christian’ presence in the milieu of the Qur’ān’s origins in the first third of the 7th century, let alone that the several communities of Late Antiquity usually dubbed ‘Jewish Christian’ shared a common and coherent confessional profile. The upshot of all this is that the evidence for the “claim to be ‘historica,’” which Akyol alleges for the existence of ‘Jewish Christianity’ and its influence on nascent Islam is not as sound as he maintains. As for the presence in the Qur’ān and in early Islamic thought of ideas and modes of expression, which some have described as characteristically ‘Jewish Christian,’ one must observe that in most cases the perceived congruence or coincidence of thought or expression has a more immediately plausible explanation than the allegation of influence from a postulated community of ‘Jewish Christians’ in the milieu, for whose presence there is otherwise no historical evidence at all. In other words, the Qur’ān has its own reasons for espousing views coincident with those of various earlier communities, reasons that preclude the need for or even the verisimilitude of positing earlier sources for its affirmations.

In support of his claim about the historicity of a ‘Jewish Christian’ view of Jesus that prepared the way for the Qur’ān’s own distinctive view of him, Akyol ranges widely over the recent scholarly literature somewhat uncritically accepting any suggestion of ‘Jewish Christian’ influence that has been alleged.

As it happens, for all that he says about the historicity of ‘Jewish Christianity’ and its significance for understanding nascent Islam, it turns out that in Akyol’s understanding of the connection between ‘Jewish Christianity’ and Islam it is not after all really a matter of history but rather it is a matter of theology; he thinks of ‘Jewish Christianity’ as a kind of theological praeparatio coranica or praeparatio islamica.  In this connection he quotes with approval the view of Samuel Zinner, who suggests that the evident parallels, congruencies, and coincidences between Islam and earlier Jewish and Christian traditions are not due to historical influences but that they issue “from a single transcendent archetype underlying the Abrahamic faiths.”[2] Akyol takes up this suggestion and he now says of the multiple connections he and others have posited between Islam and ‘Jewish Christianity’ that “the connection doesn’t have to be rooted in the Prophet Muhammad’s exposure to preexisting religious traditions. It can rather be explained as the rebirth of the Abrahamic archetype unto him—through intuition, if one prefers a secular concept, or through revelation, if one is open to a religious one.” This admission affords the reader an insight into the real genre of the book under review. It is not intended primarily to be a work of religious history; rather it is an exercise in comparative theology and interreligious apologetics, in which history has a subsidiary role.

Akyol’s adoption of the notion of an ‘Abrahamic archetype,’ which he suggests was present in ‘Jewish Christianity’ and which was reborn by intuition or revelation in nascent Islam evidently entails acceptance of the Qur’ān’s trademark concept of the ‘religion of Abraham’ (millat Ibrāhīm), itself a function of the Islamic scripture’s distinctive prophetology, vis-à-vis Judaism and Christianity. In the Qur’ān the ‘religion of Abraham’ is a theologoumenon that typologically defines the role of both Jesus the Messiah and Muhammad as fully human prophets and messengers of God, who on the model of Abraham make no claim to divinity or any other superhuman property. Accordingly, as Akyol frequently mentions, one can see in ‘Jewish Christianity’ as he portrays it a stream of thought, which by anticipation both affirms the same truth about Jesus the Messiah that the Qur’ān also endorses, and which simultaneously also counters and rejects the majority Christian view of Jesus as “Messiah and son of the living God,” as the Gospel according to Matthew puts it (Mt.16:16).

Mustafa Akyol’s purpose seems to be both an effort to show a positive historical connection between a form of early Christianity and Islam in its origins and thereby also to highlight the importance of Jesus the Messiah, God’s Messenger and Prophet, for Muslims, while at the same time reaffirming the Qur’ān’s critique and rejection of mainline Christianity’s central articles of faith, their doctrines of the Trinity and of the Incarnation of the son of God in Jesus the Messiah.

The main problem of the book for this reviewer is that the author’s theological, even apologetic purpose stumbles over the flawed history meant to substantiate it. Assuming the correctness of the several 19th-century accounts of the presence and influence of ‘Jewish Christianity’ in the milieu of the Qur’ān’s and Islam’s origins, which a number of recent scholars have reaffirmed and defended, and which Akyol styles as the “missing link” between ancient Christianity and the Islam of Late Antiquity, he proceeds to the discussion of accounts of Jesus and his mother Mary in a selection of texts that other scholars have identified as preserving ‘Jewish Christian’ teachings. He then describes the congruence and continuity that he perceives in these texts with Islamic teaching, finding in them in retrospect what he takes to be historical moments of theological development leading to the fuller truth of the Qur’ān. The trouble from a historiographical perspective is on the one hand with his portrayal of ‘Jewish Christian’ history and teaching as a comprehensive, historical current of thought and belief, and on the other hand his virtually subliminal insistence that putative ‘Jewish Christians’ were actually attendant upon Islam in its origins.

Albeit that in 1958 the historical theologian Jean Danielou could publish an account of what he called ‘the theology of Judeo-Christianity’,[3] in fact no surviving, supposedly ‘Jewish Christian’ text provides such a comprehensive or systematic account of the putative community’s theology; Danielou depended substantially on reports included in Christian heresiographical texts of the 4th and early 5th century and even earlier.  What is more, the texts that many scholars have identified as ‘Jewish Christian’ differ considerably among themselves and they emanate from movements of different names, none of which identify themselves as ‘Jewish Christian.’ More to the present point, as mentioned above, there is no evidence of the presence of any of these groups in the Arabic-speaking milieu of the first 3rd of the 7th century CE. As for the currency in Late Antiquity of what modern scholars have described as ‘Jewish Christian’ ideas, legal or ritual practices, and even texts, they have all circulated within the conventional and well known non-Jewish Christian communities of the period.

When it comes to positing historical connections and background influences of one community on another, one needs more evidence for the thesis than just the fact that one can think of it as a plausible explanation for the perceived congruity of ideas.

While one cannot pursue the matter in any detail within the scope of a book review, more recent scholars have increasingly been able to account for what have seemed to some to be comparable to ‘Jewish Christian’ teachings or practices in the Qur’ān as instances of the Islamic scripture’s articulation of its own distinctive views in counterpoint to the beliefs and practices of groups well known to have been within its historical frame of reference, namely the mainline Jewish, Christian, and even Manichaean communities of the time for which there is abundant historical evidence for their presence and interaction with the burgeoning Islamic community of believers in western Arabia in the early 7th century.

Akyol’s espousal of the idea that there is strong historical evidence for the persistence of a putative ‘Jewish Christian’ community well into Islamic times is in this reviewer’s opinion untenable. The evidence put forward by those scholars who have advanced the hypothesis of a ‘Jewish Christian’ presence in the immediate background at the time and place of Islamic origins is nowadays better explained by other hypotheses.  Nevertheless, in tracing religious beliefs from the perspective of the history of ideas, there is every reason to highlight the fact that later views often seem to be conformable with earlier ones held by different communities of people; it allows the possibility of tracing something like a development of religious thought over time in human history, a distinctly theological undertaking. When it comes to positing historical connections and background influences of one community on another, one needs more evidence for the thesis than just the fact that one can think of it as a plausible explanation for the perceived congruity of ideas. Akyol would seem to agree with this observation, to judge by remarks he makes about the views of the scholar of Islamic origins, Guillaume Dye, who has said, in words quoted with seeming approval by our author: “We have no evidence of Jewish Christian groups in Arabia in the early seventh century, and no evidence either that other putative Jewish Christian groups elsewhere in the Near East played a role in the emergence of early Islam.” The problem is that throughout his book, in spite of the reservation he expresses at the point of his comment on Guillaume Dye’s remark, Akyol nevertheless constantly calls attention to what he clearly supposes to be the ‘Jewish Christian’ subtext for the Islamic teaching he is discussing. That is even the intimation of the subtitle he chose for his discussion of the Islamic Jesus, “how the King of the Jews became a prophet of the Muslims.”

[1] Mustafa Akyol, Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty (New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011, 2013.

[2] Akyol quotes this passage from Samuel Zinner, The Abrahamic Archetype: Conceptual and Historical Relationships between Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Bartlow, UK: Archetype Boloks, 2011), p. vii.

[3] See Jean Daniélou, Théologie du judéo-christianisme (Paris: Desclée, 1958; English translation, John A. Baker (trans.), The Theology of Jewish Christianity (London: Darton, Longman & Todd & Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964 & 1978).