Reza Aslan grew up in a nominally Muslim family in Northern California, and converted to Christianity at age thirteen. After two decades of rigorous research into the origins of Christianity he concluded he had previously been duped, and returned to Islam (xix). He now claims to be more devoted to Jesus than ever–a “committed disciple” (xx) of the “real Jesus”–not the “Jesus of faith.” Aslan thinks his portrait of Jesus, hidden behind layers of theology and centuries of interpretation, may in fact be more accurate than what the Gospels present (xxviii). His book is for the general audience with the express purpose of prying the historical Jesus away from the Christ of Christianity (120, 215-216).
Zealot shot to the top of the bestseller list due to a notorious interview on Fox News, where Lauren Green began by asking the author why a Muslim would write about Christianity’s founder. After that the discussion went downhill, recording the anchor’s ignorance (bias?) of Islam, and the author’s vigorous self-defense as scholar, who just happens to be a Muslim. Throughout the tense dialog, Aslan repeated his credentials three times: he has four degrees and is an “expert” in the history of religions. New Testament scholars would agree that he is a scholar on the history of religions, though not of early Christianity (his PhD is in sociology). But rather than question an author’s credentials, it is more helpful to discuss the contents of his work.
Having previously read the author’s No god but God, I was eager to purchase this book, but found it disturbing and unconvincing. It is poor scholarship in that the author confidently relies on outdated and untrustworthy sources. He does not seem interested in grappling with those who believe New Testament writers, like Luke, wrote with diligence and integrity. Finally, though some of the history is interesting, and the author engaging, there is little that resonates with how most Muslims see the prophet Jesus. Here, he is presented more like a failed Muhammad. A statement in the Introduction of Zealot seems to sum up the author’s own bias: “Scholars tend to see the Jesus they want to see.”
In answer to this question, therefore, we can never get away from the contrast between the lives of Jesus and Muhammad. One of the temptations during the 40 days in the wilderness (‘all the kingdoms of the world in their glory … I will give you, if you will only fall down and do me homage.’ (Matt 4:8-9 REB) may have been the temptation to seek political power. But if the kingdom of God, the kingly rule of God, means anything, it can’t simply be about me and my relationship with God. Jesus said to Pilate ‘My kingdom does not belong to this world’ (John 18:30). But if his followers are called to be salt and light in the world, how are the values of the kingdom to be expressed in communities and in society as a whole? If we are critical of the political agendas of some Muslims, we dare not abandon the public sphere to secularists and Muslims. Christians must have a clear vision of the kind of just and caring society we want to live in. And this must have something to do with public life and politics.
Religious ceremonies affect home life very much and therefore involve women particularly. Even Muslim families unaccustomed to practicing daily prayers and other religious duties will celebrate Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha just as Christians celebrate Christmas and Easter. They are social as well as religious occasions. Muslims and Christians generally show considerable interest in each other’s festivals. These festivals and the interest they generate can be bridges for understanding and communication between the communities.
6 Things Christians can Learn from Muslims about Prayer
Pakistani Muslims, like their counterparts around the globe, bow to pray. Prayer is living and it involves motion and movement. There is a specific posture to each phase of the prayer. They stand, bow deeply, lower their foreheads to the floor, and sit. Pakistani Muslims understand intuitively the deep connection between body and soul and spirit. Their whole bodies are involved as they prostrate themselves humbly before God. They know they were created to worship and for them prayer is worship. The older I get the more I am realizing the profound truth that was modeled for me as a child. We are whole people. Our bodies are not disconnected from our inner reality. We go together, my body and I. As I watched Pakistanis, with their heads lowered before God, as they kept their bodies in line with their spirits, in seeming submission, I was challenged to bring my own self in alignment. Nowadays I occasionally raise my hands in supplication. Often I sit. Occasionally I pace out my petitions, walking back and forth before the Holy Throne of God. Often I kneel. Occasionally I bow face down before God, acting out what is true—that He is God and I am not. My prayers are directed to a Living God and often they are moving and motional.
My entire theology on prayer expanded as I watched with childlike curiosity my neighbors pray. For them, prayer wasn’t static and quietly compartmentalized. Prayer was a part of every single day. There were no exceptions. If you were in the middle of something, you stopped to pray. If you were busy and distracted, you were called back to prayer. No one was exempt: the rich prayed, the poor prayed, the villager prayed, the city dweller prayed, the tribal elder prayed, the plains person prayed. They were a praying people and that influenced me in significant ways. Prayer became for me a normal requisite to a normal day.
Pakistanis also understood the benefit of community in collective accountability. It was assumed: you pray, I pray, we all pray. Business contracts were paused while prayer mats were unrolled. Conversations over tea, kitchen gossip, homework all took a break for prayer. If your brother-in-law wasn’t praying you knew something was amiss. Everyone prayed. I love that community element. I love the structure that provides for a populace. There is routine and rhythms built around the call to prayer. It was this measured out, predictable schedule that warmed my heart to liturgical prayer. The stage of my heart was set for the high church’s loyalty to traditional written prayers. I love that those words have rung out in churches around the world and around the centuries. What stability is procured in that! I’ve always been intrigued by the monastic commitment to praying the liturgical hours. This official set of prayers marks the hours of each day and sanctifies the day with prayer: There is regularity in it. There is holy rhythm and purposeful pacing.
The muezzin begins with a recitation of the Islamic creed. Millions of Muslims repeat back to themselves, no less than five times a day, what they believe to be true. There is great benefit in learning this lesson from our Muslim friends. We have the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. What if we too deliberately remembered what is true? What if we recited back to our weary-from-life souls the character of God, his faithfulness, his sacrifice, his provision? Imagine the reassurance that might wash over our reactive emotions, our crises, our desperations, our superficial happiness? We could learn a lot from this repetition of doctrine throughout each of our days.
Growing up, I watched a whole community decide collectively to connect with God. They were given regular opportunities to have their obsessions with fickle and frail things pried away. I would love to claim that I learned this lesson as a child. I did not. But as I think of it now and reflect on it more, I wish I had. How often I’m distracted! How often I forget to remember my living connection with the Living God. I wish to live spiritually connected to the God who loves me and initiated relationship with me. I long to live from that reality all day long! Punctuating my day with intentional prayer would certainly help.
The idea that we can talk to God baffles me and strikes me as marvelous. I firmly believe that every prayer need not start with “Dear God” and shouldn’t necessarily end with “Amen”. Some of our deepest groans and yearnings float up as prayer. A thought unbidden of a faraway friend surfaces memory and prayer. To-do lists sighed over are heard by our kind Father as the true prayers of our overwhelmed hearts. Tears and sorrows become intercessions and laments. If we bounce our hearts up to the divine we live out our prayers. I watched my Pakistani Muslim friends stop, toward the end of their ritual prayers, for the silent session of “dua”. This was the space in their recitations for them to lift up their hearts in prayer. They prayed for whatever was on their minds: a sick relative, a final exam, a financial need.