Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Jesus or Muhammad? A belated reply to Mario Joseph

Image © Shafiq Morton
I HAVE never been comfortable with debates between faiths. These exchanges often result in triumphalism, which is offensive. But there is the case of a YouTube video that has recently been circulated. It is about Mario Joseph, who was formerly Moulvi Sulaiman. I was asked to comment on it by some people who were concerned by his arguments, but unsure of how to respond to them.

Claiming to have been an “imam” from Kerala who converted to Christianity in 2013, Joseph is what we’d call a murtad fitri, a person born to Islam who has committed apostasy, or ridda. The opening question, the issue of juridicial punishment for apostasy (only applied in a genuine Islamic state), has been grossly misrepresented or decontextualised – especially by extremists, or Islamophobes trumpeting the barbarity of Islam.

Firstly, there is no mention of capital punishment for apostasy in the Qur’an. Secondly, there is no evidence of the Prophet ever ordering apostates to be executed if their apostasy was distinct from state treason. Space precludes further discussion, and suffice it to say that responsible scholars within our democracies and minorities today would never support the idea of capital punishment for apostasy.

If anything, I would suggest that Joseph is not of sound mind and is in need of our sympathy. His antipathy against Islam is, I believe, based on the psychological trauma of being forced (against his will) to leave home and study at an “Arabic school” when he was eight. Surat ul-Baqarah (the Chapter of the Heiffer) proclaims that there should be no compulsion in faith, and if one listens to Joseph’s accounts, his father failed him on that count.

Joseph claims his epiphany was triggered by a member of his congregation asking about Jesus. This, he says, led to him “reading (sic) the Qur’an” and being puzzled by what he discovered. There were only four mentions of the name “Muhammad”, but there were 25 of Jesus. Ironically, Moses is mentioned 136 times in the Qur’an and the Pharaoh, an evil man, over 70 times.

This, in turn, led to a reading of Surat ul-Maryam, where he claimed to have “discovered” evidence of Jesus’ apparent “superiority” over Muhammad due to his miracles and other references to him being called “Kalimatullah”, the word of Allah, and “Ruhullah”, the spirit of Allah.

Joseph’s first assumption, that because the name Muhammad is only mentioned in Qur’an four times diminishes his status, belies the fact that Muhammad is directly addressed in the Qur’an at least 70 times. For instance, the Prophet’s exalted status is referred to seven times. That he is a beloved of Allah is mentioned nine times, that he is an intercessor is indicated three times and his miracles are described six times.

Amongst the Prophet’s miracles are the Qur’an, the Night Journey, the splitting of the moon, the angels fighting his enemies at the Battle of Badr and his escape from the Quraish in the cave of Thawr. There are hundreds more, such as the Prophet not having a shadow and water flowing from his fingers.

Joseph’s departure of faith is his conflation of Jesus with God Himself by capsizing our understanding of the divine words, “kun faya kun” – “be, and it is”. He takes from the Gospel of John, which says “in the beginning was the Word”. However, in Islam God is the beginning.

In Islamic theology, therefore, the Word existing before Allah is impossible. As creation cannot precede its Creator, and the created cannot become the Creator, Jesus can never be God. According to His own attributes, Allah is totally transcendent. Allah might arguably be co-eternal with His Word, but He cannot come after it. If the divine cart were to go before the divine horse, the universe would collapse.

The idea, posited by Joseph, that the Qur’an suggests the “word became flesh” via Jesus being “Kalimatullah” is a fracturing of the Divine Whole, or Tawhid, which is the central theme of the Qur’an. It engenders the Islamic blasphemy of Allah begetting offspring, which is condemned in Surat ul-Maryam  (Mary) and countless other Qur’anic chapters.

With the “Kalimatullah” imbued with the ruh – or holy spirit – we get the Pauline trinity of the Father, the son (divine flesh splitting off from the godhead) and the holy ghost (the split divine flesh being imbued with an equivalent godly spirit). Islamic scholars say this tends to polytheistic confusion.

What is misunderstood with regards to Jesus, a much beloved prophet in Islam, is that “Kalimatullah” means he was blessed to carry a prophetic message. Some scholars also suggest that “Kalimatullah” means the “testimony”, the kalimah, of faith. All of this is a far cry from the attribute of divinity.

“Ruhullah” refers to several things, none of them divine. “Ruhullah” is essentially an Adamic statement, as Allah blew the “ruh” – or soul – into the previously lifeless figure of Adam. This was a moment of “kun faya kun”, a divine decree, and not an act of godly parenthood in begetting a son or a daughter.

In the case of Jesus, “Ruhullah” is an honorific title referring to his inherent spirituality. In his case, his “ruh” was blown into the womb of Maryam, a chaste and pure woman of great stature by the archangel Jibril on the command of Allah. The divine decree was “be” and “Jesus was”, an infallible Messenger of Allah, but not Allah.

Apologies are due to our Christian brethren if I have offended them. I have tried to deal with Joseph’s injustices to Islamic theology, not Christianity. Of course, Mario Joseph (aka Moulvi Sulaiman) is free to believe what he wants, but if he spreads half-truths about Islam I do have the right to reply – in the very same sense if I’m seen to have done the same myself, someone else will enjoy the right of reply too.

Finally, as Surat ul-Kafirun says: “you to your belief, me to mine”. May we all go in peace.


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