On August 13, two Islamic television networks were ordered by the Lebanese government to discontinue their broadcasts of The Messiah, an Iranian movie about Jesus originally released in 2008. The order was announced by the Lebanese minister of information, Tarek Mitri, at a gathering of Christian leaders that included Maronite Bishop Beshara Rai. The problem with The Messiah, Bishop Rai explained, is that by telling an Islamic story of Jesus, the film denies the Christian story of Jesus. The bishop’s remark captured a central problem of Christian-Muslim relations generally, a problem especially visible in countries like Lebanon, where both Christians and Muslims make up a large part of the population.
Jesus, much to the surprise of many Christians, is a figure of enormous importance in the Qur’an, where he is called the word and spirit of God. The Qur’an recounts a number of his miracles (including some not found in the New Testament, such as his bringing a clay bird to life). It emphasizes in particular his virgin birth, at one point declaring,“[Mary] is the one who remained chaste. Thus We breathed Our spirit into her and made her and her son a sign to the world” (Qur’an 21:91). In such verses the Qur’an seems to communicate something of the divine mystery in Jesus that lies at the heart of Christianity.
In other verses, however, the Qur’an makes Jesus an opponent of Christianity. “Jesus is the most controversial prophet in the Qur’an,” says Dr. Tarif Khalidi, professor at the American University of Beirut. “There is little in the Qur’an that would offend Jews, even if they might argue that some passages regarding Moses and other characters are based on legends. But the Qur’an turns Jesus into an anti-Christian figure.” Indeed, the Qur’an insists that Jesus was only a messenger (4:171; 5:75) and calls those who say “God is Jesus” unbelievers (5:17; 72). Elsewhere the Qur’an has God ask Jesus whether he taught people to worship him (and his mother) as a god. Jesus responds, “Praise be to you! I would not say what I have no right to say…. I said to them only what you commanded me to say, namely ‘Worship God, my Lord and your Lord!’”
Thus the Qur’an insists that Christians denied the true teaching of Jesus. Moreover, it has God announce the punishment already brought down upon them for their infidelity: “We made a covenant with them but they forgot some of it. So We put enmity and anger among them until the Day of Resurrection” (5:14). According to the Qur’an, in other words, discord among Christians is a divine curse that will not be lifted before the last day.
The Qur’an’s treatment of the crucifixion is especially intriguing. In the only passage where the subject is addressed, the Qur’an has the Jews claim they crucified Jesus, and then adds, “but it only appeared to them this way” (4:157). According to most Western scholars, this cryptic phrase means that Jesus was not crucified at all. Some hold that the Qur’an was influenced here by Docetism, the early Christian Gnostic heresy, which taught that the divine Logos left the human Jesus before the crucifixion. Other scholars contend that the Qur’an does not mean to deny the crucifixion at all; it means only to insist, as the church does, that the death of Jesus was ultimately due to God’s plan.
The great majority of Muslim traditions, however, relate that someone else died on the cross in place of Jesus. Most Islamic traditions on the crucifixion begin with Jesus in a room with his disciples on the day when the Jews planned to arrest him. He asks them, “Who will sell his life in exchange for heaven today?” When one of the disciples—often said to be Peter—offers to do so, he is immediately transformed into the likeness of Jesus. Moments later Jesus is taken up into heaven through a hole that appears in the ceiling of the room. The Jews arrive and arrest the disciple, mistaking him for Jesus, and then take him away to be crucified. In this version of the story, Jesus does not die for his friends; one of his friends dies for him. In other versions, however, it is his betrayer who dies. God punishes Judas Iscariot by transforming him into the likeness of Jesus, and Judas is taken away to be killed.
The latter version of the crucifixion is found in, among other places, the Gospel of Barnabas, a curious medieval text that recounts the life of Jesus from an Islamic perspective. According to the Gospel of Barnabas, “Judas was so changed in speech and in face to be like Jesus.” When Judas is crucified, he cries out from the cross, “God, why hast thou forsaken me, seeing the malefactor hath escaped and I die unjustly?”
The Gospel of Barnabas wasn’t published until 1907, when it appeared in an English translation. Today, however, it enjoys a remarkable influence in the Islamic world. Among those it has influenced is Nader Talebzadeh, the director of The Messiah, who chose to have Judas, and not Jesus, die on the cross in his film. In a 2008 interview with ABC News, Talebzadeh explained why: “In the Qur’an, God says Jesus was saved. Instead of having him hung and crucified, the person who betrayed Jesus was crucified. This is how the Qur’an sees it, through the Gospel of Barnabas.”
Yet the Gospel of Barnabas is not an ancient text. The oldest of the two manuscripts in which it is preserved is not in Greek or Latin but in Italian, and dates at the earliest from the late fourteenth century. Most scholars believe that the Gospel of Barnabas was written by a Spanish Muslim who had found refuge from the Reconquista in Venice. Whether or not this is correct, the author evidently wrote the work in order to refute the Christian Gospels. To this end, he chose Barnabas as his narrator. In the New Testament it is Barnabas who first brings Paul to the Christian community (Acts 9), but later leaves him in anger (Acts 15). Thus he is an appropriate character to give voice to the longstanding Islamic claim that Paul is responsible for the false teaching of Christianity. At the end of the Gospel of Barnabas the author has Barnabas declare, “Others preached, and yet preach, that Jesus is the Son of God, among whom is Paul deceived.”
Thus, the Gospel of Barnabas seems to testify to a period of sectarian strife in Europe. Many Muslims, however, maintain that it is an ancient witness to the truth about Christ. Some of them defend the authenticity of the text by referring to a preface in the second manuscript (written in Spanish), which tells the story of a Franciscan monk who is said to have discovered the Gospel of Barnabas in the Vatican library while the pope was sleeping. The Islamic Web site ummah.com neatly sums up the standard Islamic position: “The Gospel of Barnabas is the most authentic gospel available today.” For his part, the Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi handed out copies of the Gospel of Barnabas at a Muslim-Christian dialogue he hosted in 1976, despite the objections of the Vatican delegation.
The Christians who opposed the airing of The Messiah in Lebanon did so in part because of the film’s dependence on the Gospel of Barnabas. “If a film were made strictly on the Jesus of the Qur’an, Christians would not have objected, but this is a film on the Jesus of the Gospel of Barnabas, a text which was written to refute Christianity,” declared Salim Daccache, SJ, dean of the faculty of religion at St. Joseph’s University in Beirut.
Still, the demand of Christians to have the film banned—and their success in doing so—may seem surprising to Americans. Christians in the United States protested the 1988 release of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, but they had no hope of preventing it. Thus the case of The Messiah tells us something important about the interreligious dynamics of Lebanon, a country divided about equally into Christian, Sunni Muslim, and Shiite Muslim communities (with a small minority of Druze).
When the French established the borders of Lebanon after the First World War, they meant to make it a majority Christian state. In the years since, the percentage of the population that is Christian has gradually declined, yet the idea of Lebanon as a Christian state—symbolized by the biblical image of the cedar on its flag—has not disappeared. Various aspects of Lebanese society reflect the concern of Christians to assert their equality with Muslims. By law, the president of Lebanon and half the representatives in parliament must be Christian. Whereas conversions from Christianity to Islam are accepted legally and socially throughout the Middle East, Lebanon is one of the few countries in the region where conversions from Islam to Christianity are accepted. And whereas Muslim authorities throughout the Middle East regularly ban books deemed offensive to Islam, in Lebanon Christian authorities have also succeed in banning books (including The Da Vinci Code) deemed offensive to Christianity.
In the case of The Messiah, the stakes were even higher, for internal politics was involved. One of the two stations that was to broadcast the movie was al-Manar, a television station run by Hezbollah, the Islamic militia and political party whose influence in Lebanon has grown tremendously since its 2006 war with Israel. Still, the Christian Nadim Gemayel, son of the assassinated president Bashir Gemayel, was blunt in his opposition to the film: “This intrusion upon Christianity and our religion threatens national peace, and we are more than capable of taking this to the streets.” For leaders such as Gemayel, the question of Christian identity in Lebanon is evidently far more important than the idea of freedom of speech.
If Lebanon is the scene of intense Muslim-Christian rivalry, it is also the scene of extraordinary initiatives of Muslim-Christian dialogue. St. Joseph’s University in Beirut is home to the Islamic-Christian Institute, which sponsors classes jointly taught by one Muslim and one Christian professor for a mixed group of students. Fr. Daccache notes that an increasing number of Muslims are demonstrating curiosity about Christianity. The Bible Society bookstore in Beirut regularly receives requests from Muslims throughout the Arab world to purchase Christian literature in Arabic.
For his part, Professor Khalidi demonstrates in his book The Muslim Jesus that the Jesus of Islamic tradition became much more than an anti-Christian figure. In the mystical Sufi tradition, Khalidi notes, Jesus came to represent the ideals of charity and asceticism. And when the Muslim world became wealthy in the wake of the Islamic conquests, Jesus became a symbol for those reformers who warned of the danger of moral decadence.
Khalidi also notes the unique place of Jesus in Shiite Islam—the dominant tradition in Iran, where The Messiah was produced. In Shiite traditions Jesus is often presented as a healer, or as a sage who offers wisdom on how to live a holy life. Even more, he is inevitably associated with the last days. Shiites believe that a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad will return to establish justice at the end of time. But they also hold that Jesus will return with him. Thus, Shiite Muslims look with hope and expectation for Jesus’ second coming, just as Christians do. The Jesus they wait for, however, is not Christ crucified and risen from the dead, but rather the Muslim Jesus who escaped the cross and has not yet known death.
Related: Islam & Modernity, by Patrick J. Ryan
About the Author
Gabriel Said Reynolds is professor of Islamic studies and theology at the University of Notre Dame and co-director of the International Qur'anic Studies Association.