My face grew hot when one of my religion professors proclaimed that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was a prophet who waged war and showed anger unlike Jesus who only preached peace and pacifism.
Having studied the Bible from the age of 5 and having studied Islam for four years prior to this moment, this statement struck me as very disingenuous, coming from a person charged with the task of being unbiased teacher of a high-level college course.
I raised my hand feeling the perhaps ironic anger rise up in me, and said:
“As a student of the Bible, I have to disagree with this description of Jesus. He in fact got angry, as we read about him turning over the tables of the money changers in the temple. And as a Muslim, this idea that Muhammad was a prophet of war is extremely reductive.”
The professor looked at me with a scarf on my head and quickly brushed off my comments. But this professor’s Orientalist understanding of the differences between Jesus and Muhammad (peace be upon them) is not unique.
Many people who superficially compare Islam and Christianity have this same idea that Jesus emphasized heaven, love, peace, and forgiveness while Muhammad taught about hell, punishment, waged war and was harsh or even threatening. But just a slightly deeper (and perhaps a less biased) look at Jesus and Muhammad’s lives and teachings (peace be upon them) will show that the truth is not always what is widely believed to be true.
Messengers as a Mercy
Before we can have a genuine comparison of Jesus and Muhammad (peace be upon them), we must first understand what Islam teaches about these men and what their roles were. In Islamic thought, both Jesus and Muhammad (peace be upon them) are considered great prophets.
In this sense, their function was to deliver the message from God that God is one without partner. The Bible speaks about this message in The Gospel According to Mark:
[…] The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord. (Mark 12:28-29)
The Quran reaffirms this on the second surah:
There is no god but He, the Living, the Everlasting […] (Quran 2:255)
Jesus and Muhammad (peace be upon them) had the same message to disseminate, and because of this they were both sent by God as a mercy to people, to guide people back to God.
Same Messages, Different Circumstances
Even though each messenger was tasked with delivering the same massage and providing an example to his or her people, each prophet was faced with unique challenges and circumstances in their place and time.
Dr. Shabir Ally explains in his YouTube video:
“The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was considered to be a preacher of peace.
But at the same time, there are some circumstances in which war is thrust upon you, and you have no way out but to defend yourself in a reasonable way. And that is what the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) had to do. He struggled for many years preaching Islam in a very peaceful manner. He was persecuted, so were his followers as well. Then he moved away from that scene of violence.
But still the non-Muslims, wanting to wipe out this new religion and its followers, came battling with the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in one army after another.”
Critics of Islam place a lot of emphasis on the battles the Muslims fought, but never attempt to understand the atmosphere from which they rose. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) sought peace until his enemies gave him and his companions no other option but to defend themselves or be obliterated. War was only the last resort so that God’s message could be passed on.
While Jesus (PBUH) was also met with intense opposition for spreading the message of God, he did not have a large enough following to resist his enemies. His disciples were very few in numbers, and held no political weight. It would have been impossible for them to withstand any kind of conflict in the same way that Muhammad (PBUH) and his followers did.
To compare these prophets and say that one was quick to wage war and one promoted peace is a product of not taking circumstances each prophet faced into consideration. It does not even take the actual life of Jesus into consideration nor does it consider what Christianity teaches about conflict.
And so, having an authentic comparison of Jesus and Muhammad (peace be upon them), demands that we also understand what Christianity teaches about war, anger, and defending justice.
It is not that Christianity deems war to be an evil pursuit or even that Jesus (PBUH) taught this. There are many instances of war in the Bible: David and Goliath, Joshua and The Battle of Jericho, Gideon against Midian, etc. And these instances are seen as righteous wars waged for justice. Jesus would have known and taught about this history.
But not only is there a long detailed history of war in Christian theology, there are many instances in the Bible where Jesus himself showed righteous indignation and even violence.
Jesus (PBUH) loathed hypocrisy. He hated to see haughtiness. He was violently angry when he encountered greed:
“Nothing is more telling of Jesus’ outward expression of anger [read more examples here] than when He drove out the money changers. Using the church as a vehicle for economic activity, instead of promoting spiritual vitality demonstrates a wrong heart that idolizes money.”
These are just a few instances when Jesus (PBUH) expressed and was justified in anger, even in violence. So, a portrayal of a Jesus who was always peace loving and turn the other cheek does not show the whole picture of Jesus’ life or Christian teachings as a whole.
Reality of Consequences
Similarly, the idea that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) placed an emphasis on Hell, as is often described by Orientalists, does not take a holistic look at his life and mission.
In fact, the words “paradise” and “hell” are repeated 77 times each in the Quran. There is a distinct balance in Islam that shows people that mercy and punishment are both a reality-one to be sought and one to avoid.
Heaven and hell were both a part of Jesus’ message from God. Michael Allen Rogers, Doctor of Christian Ministry at Westminster Theological Seminary writes:
“It may seem remarkable, but no Bible spokesman places more stress on hell as the final consequence of God’s judgment of condemnation than Jesus. […] the Christian should not consider it strange that Christ has more to say about hell than anyone else. […] It was he who likened hell to “a fire” at least twenty different times.”
And even if Jesus were to have only preached about the promise of heaven or even just heavily emphasized this message, would denying the consequences of actions, in this case hell, actually be more loving and merciful simply because we find facing reality distasteful?
Michael Allen Rogers writes:
“Suppose the Bible told us nothing about hell. Would that really make the Scriptures more ‘loving,’ or compassionate? Does concealing unpleasant truth demonstrate that you truly care more for others’ destinies?”
Jesus and Muhammad (peace be upon them) were brothers and great prophets. They taught the same message of God’s oneness. They lived as examples for us to follow. They were both a mercy. And casting doubt on one prophet’s reputation over another is an attempt to distort God’s message.