It is my goal in 2013 to review one book at the end of each month that I am currently, or have just finished, reading. The book I have chosen to highlight for January is Jesus and Muhammad: Profound Differences and Surprising Similarities by Mark A. Gabriel, PhD.
When I initially stumbled across Jesus and Muhammad I was both curious and skeptical. I was curious to see how Gabriel would handle discussing these two men who represent the world’s largest religions; and I was skeptical, wondering if he would portray them accurately and with fairness. As I read, my curiosity was more than satisfied and my skepticism was laid to rest. Gabriel has written in a fair, balanced, and honest way, paying specific attention to the lives and teaching of Jesus and Muhammad.
Part autobiography and part educational, Gabriel is uniquely qualified to compare these two historic figures. Growing up in Egypt, he had the entire Qur’an memorized by the time he was 12. He earned a PhD in Islāmic history and culture from Al-Azhar University in Cairo and proceeded to teach there when his education was complete. Since that time he has also received a PhD in Christian education. His practical and experiential knowledge of both Christianity and Islam enable him to discuss both religions with a level of competency few of us can boast.
Gabriel begins his analysis of Jesus and Muhammad with a summary of his story, beginning with his fervently religious upbringing in the Islāmic faith. In his early 30’s he reached a crisis in his beliefs, at which point someone gave him a New Testament. At this point his comparison of Jesus and Muhammad began. I found his biography as interesting to read as his analysis that follows; he shares with simplicity and honesty. If anything, I was left wishing he had gone into more details about his experiences.
After laying the framework for why he began comparing Jesus and Muhammad side by side, Gabriel gets to the heart of this book, an analysis of these two men. It’s important to note at this point that Gabriel goes to great lengths to differentiate between how Christians and Muslims live and what Jesus and Muhammad taught. He states the following:
“We have to recognize an important principle: we must separate the leader from the followers.
We cannot look to Christians to learn what Jesus taught, nor can we look to Muslims to determine what Muhammad taught. We must not focus on the actions of those who call themselves Muslims or Christians. It does not matter how many terrorists call themselves Muslims, and it does not matter how many Nazis or Crusaders called themselves Christians.
Instead, we must look directly at the teachings and actions of Jesus and Muhammad as they are recorded in the most reliable sources.”
Gabriel relies on the New Testament Gospels as his sources for the life and teachings of Jesus; he relies on the Qur’an, the hadith, biographies of Muhammad, and Islāmic history for the life and teachings of Muhammad (make sure to read Appendix A for a discussion on the sources’ historical reliability).
The first aspect of Gabriel’s analysis is biographical, looking at the lives of both men. It is interesting to read about the similarities in their lives. For example, both Jesus and Muhammad were prophesied over as children. Both men were rejected by their hometowns and religious leaders; both wept over a city (Muhammad over Mecca and Jesus over Jerusalem); and they both had twelve key men who followed them. Yet their similarities are not as noteworthy as their differences. Muhammad gave his followers permission to fight to spread Islam; Jesus commanded his followers not to fight in spreading the gospel. Muhammad did not perform miracles, and refused to do so; Jesus performed many miracles. Muhammad had more than one wife; Jesus never married.
As Gabriel points out, the heart of the matter is the legacy Jesus and Muhammad left in their teachings and actions. This is where their significant differences become even more clear. The following are a few key areas, discussed by Gabriel, where Jesus and Muhammad differed in their message and actions: teachings on God, their understanding of their personal identity, forgiveness, love, prayer, the meaning of holy war, and their attitudes towards women. Gabriel points out that Westerners continually strive to find similarities between Jesus and Muhammad with the wish of diminishing animosity between Jews, Muslims, and Christians. While this is a noble goal, the fact remains that the more you learn about these two men the more you realize they are profoundly different.
Gabriel’s analysis of Jesus and Muhammad led him to the conclusion that he had to do something with the information he learned. He states, “As I looked at their lives side by side, I had to conclude that fundamental difference far outweighed superficial similarities. More importantly, I realized that I had come to a place where I had to make a personal decision for myself. Which path would I follow?” Which path did he choose? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
Overall, this is a very helpful book that I would highly recommend you read. If you are a Christian it will help you better understand the teachings and mindset of Muhammad. If you are a Muslim it will help you better understand Jesus. These two men are too important, and their impact on the world today is too great, for us to ignore them. Jesus and Muhammad can help you see who these men really were and what they were like. Then you will be better informed to face the question Gabriel faced; which path will you follow?