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Byline by MJ Akbar: Redress Code
A Da Vinci week should be a good one for rumination.
One of the most exquisite passages in the New Testament is the eighth chapter of St. Mark. A crowd of some 4,000 — astonishingly large, and soon to be astonished — had been following Jesus (Peace be upon him) for three days, without having eaten. The compassionate Prophet wanted to feed them. His disciples had only seven loaves and two fishes. Jesus offered thanks to God, and there was enough food for everyone. Jesus’ miracles were never ostentatious. When he cured a blind man at Bethsaida by rubbing over the victim’s eyes, Jesus told the fortunate man: "Neither go into the town, nor tell it to any in the town". At Caesara Philippi, Jesus asked his disciples, "Whom do men say I am?" Some compared him to John the Baptist, others to Elias; all agreed he was a Prophet.
Jesus turned the question around to his disciples: "But whom say ye that I am?" Peter answered: "Thou art the Christ."
Jesus "charged them that they should tell no man of him", for "the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again." Then followed some of the most moving words in the literature of any faith: "For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"
There is a key phrase: "Son of man". Jesus repeats the phrase in the last verse of the chapter: "Whosoever shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels".
One of the fundamental differences between the brother-faiths, Islam and Christianity, is that while the Church believes that Jesus was the son of God, Islam insists that Jesus was human.
The Quran venerates Jesus, places him on the highest of pedestals and calls him Christ 11 times. Verse 45 of Al-Imran (The family of Imran) says: "O Mary! Allah giveth thee glad tidings of a Word from Him: his name will be Christ (Maseeha) Jesus. The son of Mary, held in honour in this world and the Hereafter and of (the company of) those nearest to Allah". He is not only a servant of God, and a messenger of God, and a Prophet: in the chapter on Mary (Maryam) Jesus is thus described: "I am indeed a servant of Allah; He hath given me revelation and made me a Prophet." More remarkably, seven times in the Quran Jesus is said to possess the ruh, or spirit, of Allah: "We gave Jesus, the son of Mary, clear signs and strengthened him with the Holy Spirit…" Incidentally, it is perhaps revealing that while the New Testament mentions Mary 19 times, the Quran mentions her 34 times. According to certain interpretations, it is Jesus who will descend to earth a second time, before the hour of judgment. Maulana Yusuf Ali translates verse 61 of Surah 43 as "And (Jesus) shall be a sign (for the coming of) the Hour (of judgment)".
But the Quran categorically rejects the divinity of Jesus, or that he died on the cross and was resurrected; the crucifixion was a "counterfeit": "But they killed him (Jesus, son of Mary) not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them…" Commentators like Sayyid Ahmad Khan have explained that Christ did not die on the cross, since the piercing of palms and feet is not necessarily fatal, and that Jesus’ body was taken down after three or four hours by his disciples and concealed till he recovered. In Sufi tradition, Jesus is the greatest model of the wandering preacher, particularly during his life after his punishment on the cross. There is even a belief, not substantiated, that Kashmir was the last resting place of Jesus.
But what about the miracle of his birth? The Quran is as insistent as the Bible on the virginity of Mary. But that, says the Quran, does not make Jesus divine. Adam had neither mother nor father, but we do not consider Adam divine. It is up to God, who created us all, to choose the means of His creation.
And of course, the Quran is categorical that Muhammad (Peace be upon him) is the last Prophet of Allah, the "seal" of the Prophets. A traditional saying of Muslims puts it neatly: "Our Lord Abraham is the beloved of God. Our Lord Moses is the voice of God. Our Lord Jesus (Issa) is the spirit of God. But our Lord Muhammad is the Prophet of God."
These are the great issues of faith that divide billions of people who, otherwise, have so much in common. Jews, Christians and Muslims are "people of the Book", owing allegiance to the same God, but differing on the messenger. Islam predates its last Prophet, but naturally, and Muhammad restored the monotheism of Abraham and Moses from which the faithful had so often deviated. There is a lovely hadith, or saying of the Prophet Muhammad: "My brother Moses had only one eye, it was the eye of the law. My brother Jesus had only one eye, it was eye of compassion. God has given me two eyes, both the law and compassion." In other words, society is best ruled through a combination of law and compassion.
What is interesting, in the context of the furore over the bogus Leonardo da Vinci code, is the strong, if often suppressed tradition of what might be called the "human Jesus" within the various strands of Christian belief. Dan Brown is only a terrible writer with a terrific sense of pace who has won an unbelievable lottery. We should not take him more seriously than that. But if he has hit a nerve in these godless times, it is only because the Christian world — or should we say "post-Christian" communities are trying to turn religion upside down. Instead of faith lifting man towards salvation in the after-world, they are pulling down the supernatural into the straitjacket of explicable behaviour. Jesus needs to do explicable things like getting married and having children: how else can he be claimed by a middle class that finds religion to be such a bore? Dan Brown is a graceless, if inevitable, child of Darwin.
The film apparently achieves what the book adroitly avoided: it ends in titters rather than jitters. But the most interesting reaction to the film was surely from those Muslim imams who joined many Christian priests in demanding a ban in India. The imams were following their ethics, for Jesus does not belong to Christians alone. If you demand a ban on a book that slanders Muhammad then it is equally logical that you should demand a ban on a film that slanders Jesus.
Hollywood is the ivory tower of globalisation. Satellite television, freer trade and increasingly unipolar tastes may be turning the world into a single marketplace. But it is not yet a market without exit routes.