Few things are more demonstrative of the sad state of affairs of modern academia than the increasingly fictionalized portrayals of the founders of the two largest religions in the world: Jesus and Mohammad. Though the same dubious methods are used for both — ignore the most historically valid texts and documents, build ponderous theories atop evidence of the most tenuous kind — the goals are markedly different. In academia today, we find Jesus, far from the Son of God, portrayed at once as a wandering “magician” and a hippie-like philanderer inclined to homosexuality. Mohammad, whom the most authentic Muslim sources portray as, among other things, a warlord who had entire tribes executed and plundered, their women herded into harems, their children sold into slavery, appears as a peaceful and altruistic ruler whose governance ushered in, among other improvements, a sort of seventh-century “feminism.”
Considering that the early writers who composed the original texts and scriptures of Christianity and Islam were separated by only a few generations from the historic Jesus and Mohammad, as opposed to modern academics who are separated by 20 and 14 centuries, respectively, one would think that the former group would have been in a better position of authority to tell the narrative of Jesus and Mohammad. Yet nowhere is the arrogance of modernity better manifested than in the universities, where the straightforward words of history’s primary sources are increasingly brushed aside. The implicit understanding is that the writers of the New Testament and Islam’s vast compendium of scriptures were naïve and superstitious simpletons who — unlike their more “objective” modern day counterparts — simply could not critically engage their subjects.
Whenever the primary sources make mention of anything that might annoy or offend modern sensibilities — from Jesus’ celibacy to Mohammad’s militant jihads — “progressive” academics tend to simply dismiss it out of hand, preferring to rely on their own thoughts on the matter.
When it comes to “reconstructing” Jesus, academics invariably make two assumptions: The Gospels are not inspired, and the historical events recorded therein are also untrustworthy. In other words, not only do they reject the miraculous, they suspect the entire narrative, which has long been the primary source for understanding the nature of Jesus, even in a secular sense. Irrespective of what Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John record Jesus saying or doing; irrespective of the antiquity and authority of the Gospels, written just decades after the events they describe; irrespective of the fact that much of the historical events described in the Gospels accord with first-century Roman history; irrespective of all this, several Jesus “reconstructionalists” have decided that the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament simply will not do for historical accuracy.
Instead, they rely on two dubious authorities: any scraps of other religious writings and their own conjectures. Obscure Gnostic documents, which were refuted, discredited, and abandoned nearly 2000 years ago, or were of such little importance that the early church was not even aware of their existence, become foundational. Through these fragmented parchments, academics can read into Jesus whatever they desire. Pope Benedict XVI alludes to this in his book Jesus of Nazareth:
At the same time, though, the reconstructions of this [modern-day] Jesus (who could only be discovered by going behind the traditions and sources used by the Evangelists) became more and more incompatible with one another: at one end of the spectrum, Jesus was the anti-Roman revolutionary working — though finally failing — to overthrow the ruling powers; at the other end, he was the meek moral teacher who approves everything and unaccountably comes to grief. If you read a number of these reconstructions one after another, you see at once that far from uncovering an icon that has become obscured over time, they are much more like photographs of their authors and the ideals they hold.
Consider, for instance, the standards of the “Jesus Seminar,” a project of the Westar Institute. They have made it a first premise to grant equal or more weight to an arcane document that we know next to nothing about (the fourth-century Coptic “gospel of Thomas”) vis-à-vis the canonical Gospels. The title of the Seminar’s book, The Five Gospels, assumes that the “gospel of Thomas,” which was written nearly 300 years after the original Gospels, is enough to demonstrate the utter subjectivity of their supposedly rigorous methodology. Through a capricious “voting” system, the Jesus Seminar takes it upon itself to decide what Jesus “really” said and did. According to the seminar, Jesus apparently spoke no more than 20 percent of the statements ascribed to him, nor did he make mention of “the kingdom of heaven,” “the son of man/God,” or anything else that would have led to his execution.
Following the loose standards set by the seminar, and based on another fragmented text known as “Philip’s gospel,” dating from the third century, books and movies that try to pass themselves off as quasi-documentary (Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code) try to make a case that Jesus was married with children. Then there was the late professor Morton Smith’s “find” — a parchment supposedly written by Church father Clement that purportedly contained “missing” fragments from the Gospel of Mark that portray Jesus spending the night with a “lightly-clad” youth, teaching him the mystery of the kingdom of heaven. Based on this, Smith and other “critical” scholars have either suggested or concluded that Jesus was gay. (Rather tellingly, when Smith was challenged to produce the original document, he could not oblige, and it is currently said to be “lost.”)
Even if the aforementioned texts were authentic, they still do not at all support most of the academics’ sweeping conclusions. For instance, no matter how one manipulates the fragmented text of Philip’s gospel concerning Jesus and Mary Magdalene, the best that can be pieced together is that Jesus kissed her — we don’t know where, head, cheeks, lips — and that he “loved her,” a far cry from saying that they were married and had offspring.
All this simply supports the pope’s notion that supposedly objective scholars are reading in whatever they want about Jesus. Nor do any of these academics note the fact that the Gnostic texts often directly contradict one another (unlike the Gospels, which enjoy a high degree of congruence). Where the gospel of Philip portrays Jesus as loving and kissing Mary, the gospel of Thomas has an extremely misogynistic quote to the effect that women are unworthy of heaven directed at none other than Mary herself. Is it any wonder that the early church deemed the Gnostic texts spurious and heretical?
In the end, the so-called “historical” Jesus that sticks in people’s minds based on these academic distortions is little more than a liberal-minded, sexually ambiguous wandering sage, stripped, ironically, of all historical context. But as theologian John Meier points out:
A tweedy poetaster who spent his time spinning out parables and Japanese koans…or a bland Jesus who simply told people to look at lilies in the fields—such a Jesus would threaten no one, just as the university professors who create him [the Jesus Seminar and their ilk] threaten no one.
While that is true, the pseudo-scholarship hashed out by universities’ religion departments has, in fact, permeated the non-academic world and influenced the popular imagination, where it is often taken as “fact.” One can easily dismiss as risqué fiction movies like the Da Vinci Code, or its predecessor the Last Temptation, or the distasteful and amateurish James Cameron “discovery” of the tomb of Christ. But the fact remains that these are often based on pseudo-scholarship that the unsuspecting public assumes must be plausible — for instance, the DaVinci Code quotes from Gnostic texts, including Philip’s.
An left-wing academic attempt to discredit Christian faith is not all too surprising given the personal persuasions of modern scholars. But the academic treatment of Islam’s founder, Mohammad, exposes a double standard. The same class of academics uses the same uncritical methods — but for radically different purposes: to whitewash and romanticize.
It has been remarked, and for good reason, that there is probably no one person of late antiquity who is better documented than Mohammad. Literally thousands of pages exist consisting of what Muslims believe to be verbatim statements and deeds attributed to their prophet. These are the “hadiths” that, after the Koran, are the second most important source for Islamic jurisprudence. There are also historical works such as Ibn Ishaq’s eighth-century Life of Mohammad, the earliest extensive biography of Islam’s prophet, as well as the voluminous histories of al-Tabari, al-Baladhuri, and al-Waki that recount the life and especially military exploits of Mohammad.
Indeed, there is much more “primary” source material on Mohammad than on Jesus. And this is to be expected, since the question of “what would Mohammad do?” in any given circumstance is of the utmost importance for Sunni Muslims –the word “Sunni” denotes the need to emulate Mohammad in every possible way. It comes as no surprise, then, that the portrait of Islam’s founder — his life, deeds, words, character, likes, dislikes — is very clear; only very few aspects, if any, of Mohammad’s life are open to conjecture.
Based solely on these sources, which, it bears repeating, Muslims themselves consider to be of great authority, one can spend pages enumerating less-than-impressive deeds attributed to Mohammad: aggressive and unprovoked warfare, mass executions, assassinations, lies, thefts, the enslavement of women and children, and marriage to a nine-year old. These are the sort of calumnies that, if there was just one scrap of parchment hinting that Jesus may have engaged in, the same aforementioned “Jesus scholars” would undoubtedly have a field day popularizing and emphasizing. But when it comes to writing about Mohammad, few are the scholars who will even allude to these authoritative sources; they often go to great lengths to cover them up or at least minimize their authority.
Consider, for instance, the issue of “jihad.” Islam’s earliest theologians unanimously agreed that jihad was simply offensive warfare with the express purpose of spreading Islamic rule — a path shown by Mohammad himself, and then by his companions, the “rightly-guided” caliphs, who conquered much of the Old World in the name of Islam. There is a good reason why all early works of English-language scholarship have always translated “jihad” as “holy war.”
Yet the academic dissembling is well underway. Around the same time scholars of Christianity began perverting the image of Jesus, the professors of Islam began telling us that Mohammad’s concept of “jihad” had nothing at all to do with “holy war” (which, so the line of reasoning went, is instead a Christian creation of the Crusades), but that it simply means “to strive” — as in to strive to be “a better student, a better colleague, a better business partner” per one professor, Bruce Lawrence. This widely held view is based primarily on the oft-quoted hadith where, upon returning from battle, a group of Muslim warriors went to see Mohammad, and he said to them, “You have returned from the lesser jihad [warfare to spread Islam] to the greater jihad [warfare against one’s own vices].” This one hadith has all but come to define jihad for the academic community.
Placing so much emphasis on this one hadith, however, is extremely problematic. For starters, not all hadiths are equal. Though there are thousands of hadiths, there are only six canonical collections that Sunnis consider trustworthy. This hadith does not occur in any of those six. On the other hand, the most authentic of the six hadith collections, the ninth-century Sahih Bukari mentions jihad 199 times, all in the context of warfare against non-Muslims in an effort to spread Islam. Further illustrative is the fact that the individual hadiths listed under the “jihad” heading of Sahih Bukhari often do not contain the word jihad at all; the words that predominate are “fighting,” “killing,” “warring,” and, the grand end of all three, “martyrdom.” A typical Sahih Bukhari hadith regarding jihad goes something like this:
The Prophet said: “He who wages jihad in the path of Allah — and Allah knows who it is who wages jihad in his path — is as commendable as one who continuously fasts and prays. Allah guarantees if he who fights for his cause dies, he [Allah] will usher him into paradise; otherwise, he will return him to his home safely, with rewards or war booty.”
Just as academics have downplayed the authority of the New Testament and ascribed much importance to the unauthenticated and dubious Gnostic parchments in their efforts to reconstruct Jesus, so too have they downplayed the authority of Islam’s most authoritative texts in favor of aberrant and unsubstantiated hadiths when reconstructing Mohammad.
The next strategy consists of playing semantic games. Scholars of Arabic insist that the word “jihad” literally means “to struggle” and thus clearly has nothing to do with “holy war.” This line of reasoning totally ignores the historical and textual contexts in which the word jihad predominantly appears — all which revolve around “holy war” — and is nothing short of disingenuous. As Daniel Pipes put it:
It is an intellectual scandal that, since September 11, 2001, scholars at American universities have repeatedly and all but unanimously issued public statements that avoid or whitewash the primary meaning of jihad in Islamic law and Muslim history. It is quite as if historians of medieval Europe were to deny that the word “crusade” ever had martial overtones, instead pointing to such terms as “crusade on hunger” or “crusade against drugs” to demonstrate that the term signifies an effort to improve society.
Indeed, many are the words that, while denoting one thing, are only understood connotatively. Imagine going to Arabic speakers and adamantly explaining to them that the English words “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” mean nothing more than what they denote: a boy or girl who is simply a “friend.” Considering that the vast majority of English speakers understand by those two terms something quite more than a friend, would that not be a dishonest explanation to the non-English-speaking Arab? Americans who don’t speak Arabic are being duped in the same way. Just as a “boy/girl friend” is a very specific type of friend, so too is jihad a very specific type of struggle — a lasting war in order to establish Islam supreme, “until all chaos ceases and all religion belongs to Allah alone,” in the words of the Koran.
Even in encyclopedias — traditionally the most unequivocal source of scholarly information — the postmodern West’s academic disregard for objectivity can be discerned. Compiled some 80 years ago, the voluminous Encyclopedia of Islam has long been recognized as the most authoritative English-language compendium on Islam. Its entry on jihad is honest and to the point, as demonstrated by its opening sentence: “The spread of Islam by arms is a religious duty upon Muslims in general.” There is little talk of the “greater/lesser jihad” dichotomy or any other euphemisms, only facts: “[Jihad] must continue to be done until the whole world is under the rule of Islam.” Its closing sentence flatly states, “Islam must completely be made over before the doctrine of jihad [warfare to spread Islam] can be eliminated.”
Contrast this brusque, but refreshingly honest, definition with the entry for jihad found in the 1995 Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World. Although eventually addressing the true aspects of jihad, the all-important opening sentences would lead the reader to think that jihad as warfare on behalf of Islam is all but nonexistent:
Carrying the basic connotation of an endeavor toward a praiseworthy aim, the word jihad bears many shades of meaning in the Islamic context. It may express a struggle against one’s evil inclinations or an exertion for the sake of Islam and the ummah, for example, trying to convert unbelievers [how, warfare?] or working for the moral betterment of Islamic society (“jihad of the tongue” and “jihad of the pen”).
At one point, jihad is even portrayed as a possible byproduct of Christianity in this same Oxford Encyclopedia entry — despite the fact that the founder of jihad, Mohammad, had absolutely no contact with Byzantium, aside from issuing an ultimatum to the Christian emperor Heraclius in 630 AD to the effect that if the latter did not embrace Islam, he would have only war (which proved only too true). Says the encyclopedia: “The doctrine of jihad may have been influenced somewhat by the culture of the Byzantine Empire, where the idea of religious war and related notions were very much alive. It is, however, very difficult to identify these sources.” If identifying these sources is “very difficult” — read: “impossible” — why make the bold assertion? Simply because the encyclopedia, being a product of an academic age that tries to lay the blame on Christianity and the Church, cannot resist the temptation of portraying even jihad, that unique hallmark of Islam. as also being something of a Christian byproduct.
One can go on and on about the aggressive white-washing campaign underway on behalf of Mohammad and certain doctrinal aspects of the faith he promulgated. Harsh measures and misogynistic statements permeate Islamic scriptures: Men may take four wives and can have sex with their female slaves captured during jihad; a woman’s witness in court is half that of a man; females inherit half of the male’s inheritance; men have “authority” over women and can beat them whenever they misbehave. All of these can be found in the Koran, which Muslims take as a doctrine of faith to be immutable and just as applicable today as in the seventh century. But academics stress only that Mohammad liberated women, who apparently suffered even worse injustices in the pre-Islamic period. (Mohammad banned the regular pre-Islamic Arab practice of burying unwanted female babies alive). The entry on women and Islam in the Oxford Encyclopedia, characterized by a markedly feminist tone, assures us that “Although certain social and economic regulations in the scripture seemingly favor men, the conditions prevailing at the time of the revelation, which seem to justify such inequality, have lapsed.” Such an opinionated statement totally contradicts the traditional belief of Muslims that the sharia is immutable. In the same vein, Leila Ahmad, author of Women and Gender in Islam, argues that the oppressive practices inflicted upon women living in Islamic lands are due to the prevalence of “patriarchal interpretations” of Islam rather than Islam itself.
What’s most troubling about all the above is not that some writers make such dubious claims and arguments, but that supposedly authoritative and well-recognized professors – the “experts” of the field — are the ones pioneering this sort of academic chicanery. It is both alarming and revealing that the professors not only utilize unsound methodologies, but are not even consistent in doing so. By constantly trying to make Jesus appear all too human, and Mohammad (who was extremely human) appear as “a prophet for our time,” per one Karen Armstrong, secular academics will never refer to Jesus as the “Christ.” What the West used to construe as the Son of God and a moral leader is today just some liberal happy-go-lucky sage preaching love and passivity. And Mohammad has, in these circles, taken on the loving reputation of Christ. And herein lies academia’s ultimate aspiration: everything is relative, even the divine.
– Raymond Ibrahim is editor of The Al Qaeda Reader.