An American Islam
Encountering Reza Aslan's Jesus
I, as likely thousands of others, came to learn of Reza Aslan's latest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, after watching the sadly hilarious Fox News interview with Lauren Green. Her first question—"You're a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?"—was as tragically ignorant as it was amusingly farcical. Not long after, I penned a response posing a different question: Why wouldn't a Muslim write about Jesus?
In fact, this Muslim has been writing about Jesus for over a decade, for Christ figures prominently in Islamic belief and scripture. Yet, although the Quran does mention many aspect of Jesus' life and ministry, it does not give a complete story. Hence, I bought Dr. Aslan's book with great enthusiasm.
And I was not disappointed.
I have been reading about early Church history for many years now, fascinated by the development of Church doctrine about the nature of Christ. Indeed, I approached these writings as a Muslim believer, one who does not accept the divinity of Christ, curious and fascinated about how Jesus' followers came to see him as being God himself. A study of the historical Jesus was the piece that was missing, and Zealot completed the puzzle perfectly.
True, there have been countless scholarly studies on the life of the historical Jesus of Nazareth, but these works are not available to me as a layperson (and I probably would not want to read them, either, due to their complexity). Thus, Dr. Aslan's book is a welcome addition, and in an interview with John Williams of the New York Times, Dr. Aslan explained:
What I've done is take this debate that scholars are immersed in and simply made it accessible to a nonscholarly audience. It's something I wish more scholars would do, in various fields.
I am very glad he did.
As I voraciously took in the book, I wanted to see who the man Jesus really was. I wanted to get a sense of what this—from my perspective as a Muslim—mighty Prophet and Messiah was like, and Dr. Aslan, through his exceptional story-telling ability, was able to paint a picture I can easily visualize in my own mind. Indeed, it does not fit into the nice and neat commonplace view of Christ as the "Prince of Peace," but Zealot offers a convincing explanation of who Jesus really could have been.
Moreover, his extensive notes about each chapter (which I highly recommend reading) excellently flesh out the scholarly debate over the various aspects of Jesus' life and ministry about which Dr. Aslan is writing. What baffles me about some of his critics is that they do not seem to allow him to have a scholarly opinion. The Jesus Aslan portrays in Zealot is his scholarly opinion, based on his own reading of the literature, about who Jesus Christ was. And he cites those scholars who disagree with him right there in black and white in the notes. So, what's the problem?
I also found quite fascinating his take on Jesus' famous saying: "So give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's" in Matthew 22:21. Aslan explains that, far from being an elusive answer to a question designed to get him in trouble with the authorities, it is a revolutionary statement: the coin itself is Caesar's and should be given back to him. But the land of Palestine? That belongs to God, and it should go back to God. Although I never looked at it that way, it is definitely a plausible explanation.
Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago-based physician and writer. He is author of, most recently, Noble Brother: The Story of the Prophet Muhammad in Poetry (Faithful Word Press). You can follow Hesham Hassaballa on Facebook.