I don’t think Jesus was a follower of Islam, and neither does Robert F. Shedinger, Associate Professor of Religion at Luther College. But you could be forgiven for thinking that Shedinger believed that if you only read the title of his book Was Jesus a Muslim?, if you read the World Net Daily article, or The Blaze article. Or if you watched this clumsy interview:
Shedinger is trying to be deliberately provocative, and I think it’s causing more confusion than it’s worth.
Just for the record, Shedinger starts off his book by saying, “Obviously, since Islam developed in seventh-century Arabia, hundreds of years after Jesus lived, it is chronologically impossible tor Jesus to have been a Muslim.” So, yeah, there’s that.
Shedinger’s discussion is driven by his experiences after 9/11, when he found himself trying to explain Islam to the public while at the same time trying to reconcile the textbook description of Islam with the perceptions of his few Muslim students. The experience led him to question the value of the word “religion” and the potted definitions of religious movements generally given in World Religion classes. This explains the subtitle of his book, Questioning Categories in the Study of Religion.
Just having poked at the book on Google Books, I think it can basically be boiled down to these points:
- The category of “religion” is problematic, and the usual academic definitions of religion don’t match the lived experience of of the people who practice those religions.
- Once you set aside the textbook definitions, it looks like Islam began more as a movement for social justice than as a theological system.
- Once you set aside the textbook definitions, it looks like Christianity began more as a movement for social justice than as a theological system.
- Therefore, Jesus and Muhammad were doing similar things. Since the category of religion is so problematic, we can discard that and focus on the fact that both men were part of – broadly speaking – the same movement.
- And here’s the payoff: by recognizing what Jesus and Muhammad had in common, we can find common ground to bridge the gap between Christianity and Islam, engage in dialogue and hopefully erase some of the acrimony between the two cultures.
I’ve got problems with points 2 and 3, and questions about point 4, but Shedinger can at least cite respectable scholars who agree with him and I respect his motivations. I’m not sure I agree with him, but he’s playing the game by the rules.