The imitation of Muhammad

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.

17 thoughts on “The imitation of Muhammad

  1. Very interesting reflections indeed. I guess Christians might say they have the lives of the saints provide this role and flesh out what this lifestyle might look like.

  2. Muhammad’s role might be more accurately compared to that of the founder of a monastic order, whose “life” was immediately the “rule” (in Agamben’s terms) — but Muhammad’s particular example was obviously much better suited to developing a full civilization rather than an avowedly isolationist movement seeking to escape the world.

  3. Hmm. I get what you’re saying, but some of the phrasing gives me pause. I wouldn’t say Christ’s “moral example was always secondary,” for example — the author of Hebrews would certainly dispute that. Likewise, gospels aren’t biographies of Jesus, they are testaments to the spiritual power of Christ. And it’s not beside the point that the book is the Imitation of Christ — the risen Savior — not the Imitation of Jesus.

    But you’re correct: imitation of the person of Jesus in all his intimate details has never been as important in Christianity as imitation of Muhammed has been for Muslims, if for no other reason than that early Christian teaching often conceived of Jesus in literary terms, i.e., the fulfiller of Jewish prophecy.

  4. Clarifying my earlier, scattered thoughts: the earliest Christian writers were more concerned with exploring the power of the risen Christ than in recording the details of the person Jesus of Nazareth. You do catch glimpses of that person here and there in the gospels, but even James, Jesus’ brother or cousin, really has nothing to say about the man himself.

    In large part, this absence of the person of Jesus comes about as an artifact of the discourse early Christians found themselves in. It was imperative for them to claim the mantle of authentic Judaism – sometimes literally a matter of life and death – so they tried to shape their depiction of Jesus in the forms of Jewish scripture. But I wouldn’t say that the result is a “abstract moral ideal,” exactly. It’s more that they thought what was interesting about Jesus the person was how he fulfilled the role of Christ the messiah. In other words, they dealt with the dichotomy between the individual and holy aspects of that person by collapsing them: Jesus’ person is defined by how he imitates (or embodies) the abstract ideas we have of God, and through his imitation gives us a pattern for imitating him.

    I think what you point out very well here is that this project of holding the two natures together has never worked out very well in practice. For the most part, the human side of Jesus is neglected in favor of the divine side of Christ. So there’s an ideal that isn’t upheld: Christians just aren’t able to fit those pieces together as well as we’d like.

    But that leads to a further insight: there’s a promise in Islam that’s never quite upheld, either. Though the religion claims to be the logical extension and fulfillment of both Judaism and Christianity, there seems to be precious little effort given to exploring the continuities. At least, as far as I know, I’m hardly an expert on the subject.

    tldr; Jesus saves, Moses invests, Mohammed had a lot of kids.

  5. I think that many Christians are simply accustomed to conceiving of the “imitation of Christ” in more general, moral terms, and therefore reflexively feel that imitating Christ is a key part of our faith. Moreover, many Christians simply don’t know what is in the hadith, and are ignorant overall of the extent that specific imitation of Muhammad is part of Islam. So what ought to be an uncontroversial observation ends up sounding like some kind of accusation of hypocrisy.

  6. “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.”:

    This is an interesting and provocative claim. But it’s also still very much at the level of speculation. This is totally fine, of course. Especially in a blog post. But it seems to me that you’re rushing too quickly toward explication here. In your reflection you’re relying heavily on arguments about theology (the function of salvation) and value (the relative importance of concrete information, and the influence it has on practice). Certainly these aren’t irrelevant. But it’s also likely that there are a whole host of historical, cultural, environmental, and other factors at play here beyond theology and questions of value. More concrete information, Adam! How Christian of you.

    In all seriousness, though, I don’t think that what you’re talking about here is totally unrelated to what many scholars have tried to argue by drawing the distinction between Christianity as an orthodox religion and Islam (and Judaism) as orthoprax religions. Because it seems like what you’re gesturing towards, on some levels, is the emphasis on practice. I’d also recommend checking out Kevin Schilbrack’s Philosophy & the Study of Religions: A Manifesto. I think it offers some helpful lenses for thinking about theological (and other more abstract questions) alongside some of the sociological and anthropological work on elements like ritual and practice.

  7. It’s good, there’s a lot about it that I like. Perhaps I should post something about it, here on the blog (with all the free time I have…) I do think a lot of readers would be interested in what he’s doing on at least some levels. He’s definitely making a plug for the value of philosophy in the interdisciplinary study of religion. But he’s also usefully challenging philosophers who think about religion to seek better ways of incorporating non-philosophical (in the not-quite-Laurellian sense) research on ritual and practice into their work.

  8. It seems relevant that Mohammed is regarded as someone who was born, lived, and died, while Jesus is (in some form or other) supposed to still be alive after all that. So the span between birth and death is relatively unimportant in Jesus’s case; if “it is not I, but Christ who lives” then the life of Christ can be immediately present as living, with historical details about the life of Christ before his death seeming second-rate. There are pneumatological reasons for Christianity to not care about a singular moral exemplar in the way that Islam does, I think. This would provide a reason for the difference between the two religions apart from Christianity’s emphasis on Christ’s objective soteriological function. It also motivates looking to the lives of the saints — the multiple lives can all be Christ, in a way that multiple human lives can’t all be Mohammed.

    This discussion reminds me of SK’s Climacus writings: there is a real sense in which knowing the historical Jesus as a contemporary would make faith harder; the man is a distraction from himself. (I don’t see the standard Christian emphasis on an objective soteriology in Climacus, though it does show up in SK’s Anti-Climacus work, with the manic focus on original sin we get there. Not sure what to do with this.)

  9. Great points! I think this is a problem in many forms of Christianity, but surely not all? I guess it depends on the particular theology.

    In my days as a young pentecostal there was definitely a strong element of wanting to ‘be more like Jesus’ and do what Jesus ‘would have done’, while at the same time insisting that no one is like Jesus or can do what he did (think penal substitution, for instance). One problem with this is that since I am both called to do what Jesus did and to acknowledge (even celebrate) that no one but Jesus can can do this, I am caught in an infinite circle of debt – of gratitude, but debt nonetheless. Knowing that nothing I do will ever be ‘enough’ to satisfy God (since only Jesus can do this), God always has the upper hand in our relation, so to speak – like when a distant relative keeps giving way too expensive gifts, so that you forever owe them more than you can give.

  10. As far as imitation goes, there’s always the “living the Gospels” of St. Francis which seems about as close as it gets within Christianity. After that, Francis becomes the one to imitate…

  11. This seems like a potentially fascinating topic. I would perhaps speculate (as a total non-expert) that there do exist some traditions of literal imitation of Christ, especially in the East. Take the eastern tradition of “holy foolishness”, for example – according to always-reliable Wikipedia, the Russian yurodivy “was believed to have been divinely inspired, and was therefore able to say truths which others could not, normally in the form of indirect allusions or parables” – to which I would add, in obvious imitation of Christ’s teaching style (and given that Christianity has long emphasized Christ’s role as the source of orthodoxy, proper imitation of Christ would seem to be at least as much a matter of pedagogical method as of anything else). Likewise remember that Christ was also thought mad (because demon-possessed) by the Jews in John’s gospel.

    Another eastern example that springs to mind: the practice among Old Believers and eastern monastics of wearing full beards in imitation of the traditional iconographic portrayals of Christ.

  12. Yes, of course! I only meant to give an example of this plays out in different and sometimes problematic ways, depending on the particular theological context, like you said in the first paragraph.

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