Yesterday I remarked on Twitter that the imitation of Muhammad seems to be much more important for Muslims than the imitation of Christ is for Christians. My wording was exaggerated, suggesting that Christians are opposed to imitating Christ — though I would maintain that for many conservative Christians, that is obviously the case (theologically, not because they’re bad people, etc.) — and so I thought I’d write the blog post I should have written in the first place.
In my study of Islam so far, it’s striking how much people try to model their lives after Muhammad. There are thousands upon thousands of anecdotes and quotations, called hadith, that ostensibly give insight into these topics (and Muslims are well aware that they are of varying levels of reliability). In the early centuries, people would travel hundreds of miles to find new hadith, and collecting and assessing them became a fine art — which then became the basis for the development of Shari’a law.
Even if some of the hadith are not authentic or fully accurate, it remains the case that there is a lot more you can know about Muhammad’s life than about Jesus’. We have reliable information about Muhammad’s appearance, his dress, the way he cut his facial hair, his daily habits (such as using a toothpick), etc. In part, this is simply because Muhammad was much more “important” in a straightforward sense during his lifetime — he was the leader of a powerful community that was on its way to taking over much of the known world by the time he died.
Yet there’s a theological reason as well. It is important to Christian theology that Jesus became “really human,” but the emphasis there was on confirming his functional role in enabling humanity to be saved. His moral example was always secondary, and when it is emphasized, it’s incredibly vague: “love one another,” “be humble,” “sacrifice for one another,” “be willing to die for your faith.”
This is simply not at the level of concreteness of Muhammad’s toothpick. It’s not the same kind of thing. In fact, I would claim that you don’t need Jesus to know the moral principles that his example supposedly provides. We already knew that love was a good thing before Jesus came around. Judaism had already developed the concept of martyrdom.
I would even go a step further and say that there’s a theological reason that we don’t have the same kind of concrete information about Jesus that we do about Muhammad. It’s not simply a contingent fact that the earliest Christian writings, the epistles of Paul, are devoid of any information about Christ except for his death and resurrection — and that the gospels devote most of their time to those topics, while providing very little in the way of imitatable detail. (It’s not like we’re going to make it a general principle to miraculously multiply a small amount of food when confronted with a huge crowd, for instance.) Even in places where Jesus isn’t clearly divine, he’s still an exceptional person with a unique mission. All the Gospels are at pains to show that no one really understood his importance when he was alive, even his closest associates. Those same apostles, who presumably observed Jesus very closely when traveling with him (and again, are we going to make it a norm that everyone has to be a celibate itinerant preacher?), only become truly effective as part of his mission once they receive a share of the divine power in the form of the Holy Spirit.
It can’t be a matter of reading off a pattern of life from a flesh-and-blood human being in the case of Jesus. That’s just not how it works. That’s not the kind of figure he is in Christian theological terms, and what little we know about his lifestyle does not seem to provide a formula for an enduring, large-scale society like Islam became. And to be clear, I’m not accusing Christians of hypocrisy or implying that things would be better if only they’d followed Jesus’ example. There’s just not much usable material in the concrete facts of Jesus’ example. Indeed, once serious research into the “historical Jesus” began, it was only a short time before the most rigorous scholars concluded that the life of Jesus was basically irrelevant to contemporary concerns, particularly the liberal project that his example is most often invoked to support.
So yes, I am aware that there’s a book called The Imitation of Christ and that people throw that phrase around — but that’s about super-charging general moral principles with religious significance, not about figuring out how to model every aspect of your daily life around the habits of a guy named Jesus of Nazareth. The Islamic stance toward the figure of Muhammad is fundamentally different and is more accurately called “imitation” than the devotional practices that go under the title of “imitation of Christ” in Christian circles.
To repeat again, though — I’m not trying to deride Christianity or claim that Islam lives up to a Christian principle better than Christians. They’re two different approaches to two very different founding figures, and it’s not clear to me that either has delivered uniformly positive or uniformly negative concrete results.