So I wanna clear up… so you’re a Muzzlim, why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” It was the question heard round the world. The viral video, starring an interviewer oblivious to her own stupidity and a slick, media-savvy academic affecting outrage that shot said academic’s book to the very top of the New York Times bestseller list. As Reza Aslan reeled off his credentials, his four degrees, his ability to read New Testament Greek, the journalist didn’t back down. “It still begs the question though, it still begs the question, why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?”
Perhaps in her blundering, heavy-footed way, the reporter was getting at something important. Is Jesus to be treated as a historical figure or simply revered as the “founder of Christianity”? No longer a man but a deity, of relevance only to believers. It is the sort of narrow, parochial worldview commonly attributed to Muslims hypersensitive about the world’s interest in their prophet.
So who is Jesus? Reza Aslan’s Zealot, which will be available in bookshops in India from 25 September, is a biography of Jesus the Nazarene, the daily-wage labourer from a hick town who led a revolution against the imperial might of Rome, rather than the more familiar Jesus Christ, the serene prophet who suffered for the world’s sins. Aslan tells a rollicking story. His Jerusalem is a city forever boiling over in religious dispute, its winding, dusty streets teeming with prophets, assassins, madmen and bandits, the distinctions elided so that many men are all four things at once.
He admits that the historical evidence is thin. “In the end, there are only two hard historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth upon which we can confidently rely: the first is that Jesus was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century CE; the second is that Rome crucified him for doing so.” From a distance of 2,000 years, however educated the guesswork, “the quest for the historical Jesus”, Aslan acknowledges, quoting the Christian theologian Rudolf Bultmann, “is ultimately an internal quest”. It is an act of creation. (The demiurgical author’s dream to recreate the creator.) As Aslan puts it: “Scholars tend to see the Jesus they want to see. Too often they see themselves — their own reflection — in the image of Jesus they have created.”
Early this year, though only recently available in Indian bookshops, Atlantic Books published The First Muslim, journalist and, as she likes to call herself, “accidental theologist” Lesley Hazleton’s biography of Prophet Muhammad. Read together, both books work to overturn the prevalent contemporary narrative of peaceful, even irrelevant Christianity and violent, revolutionary Islam. It is in Hazleton’s biography that you will find the “Quranic voice” advising Muhammad to not retaliate, to, as Jesus famously said in the Sermon on the Mount, offer the left cheek when the right has been struck. While it is in Aslan’s biography that you will find, two decades after the crucifixion of Christ, a group of marauding young men terrorising the Jewish elite, detested for their collaboration with Rome, with their indiscriminate violence and cries of “No lord but God!”
The modern-day reader, steeped in media coverage of Islamic terror, might hear in those words an echo of “la ilaha ill’Allah”. The title of Aslan’s book, Zealot, is a provocation. It asks the Western Christian reader to see Christ as a fanatic, a leader of fanatics. The original zealots were led by Judas of Galilee, a “magnetic teacher and revolutionary”, in Aslan’s words. Their fierce movement for independence from Rome, the so-called ‘Fourth Philosophy’, was distinguished, he writes, by “their unshakeable commitment to freeing Israel from foreign rule and their fervent insistence, even unto death, that they would serve no lord save the One God.”
Nazareth was a tiny, poor, unheralded village in Galilee and Aslan makes a fanciful case for Jesus being a political revolutionary in the mould of Judas, a rabble-rousing champion of Jewish independence. First-century Palestine, in Aslan’s imagination, is populated almost entirely by the sort of person who today might commandeer Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, or be seen bedraggled on the streets of any major city warning the unheeding crowds of impending doom, of apocalypse, of the end of the world. It was into this atmosphere of wandering preachers, prophets and false messiahs that Jesus was born, a poor boy in a largeish working-class family. When he was old enough, Aslan writes, “[s]ix days a week from sunup to sundown, Jesus would have toiled in the royal city building palatial houses for the Jewish aristocracy… He would have witnessed for himself the rapidly expanding divide between the absurdly rich and the indebted poor”. Jesus was the outsider from the sticks horrified by the decadence of the city.
Muhammad, born in Mecca but having spent much of his childhood with the Bedouin in the desert far from the sophisticated, corrupting city, was, like Jesus, an outsider looking in, his nose not so much pressed up to the window as wrinkled in disdain at the goings-on from which he was excluded by birth and circumstance. “The parallels between Muhammad and Jesus are striking,” Hazleton writes. “Both were impelled by a strong sense of social justice; both emphasised unmediated access to the divine; both challenged the established power structure of their times.” Hazleton’s Muhammad is a reluctant, unlikely leader. The archangel Gabriel’s revelation on Mount Hira terrifies Muhammad, drives him to contemplate suicide.
It is, for Hazleton, important that this respectable but ordinary man, married to an older woman (an orphan searching for a mother figure), reacted to the revelations not with entitlement — as if his destiny was merely coming to pass — but real shock, real fear. The story she tells is of his transformation from that meek man to a leader. Muhammad, as has long been the Christian criticism of him, is as much a political as spiritual leader. Hazleton doesn’t shy away from writing about his most ruthless acts. She reads them as pragmatic, if brutal, choices, even the massacre of 900 men from a Jewish tribe.
Bear in mind that both Hazleton and Aslan have written what is essentially, for all their extensive research, imaginative fiction. And so readers might find themselves making the sort of leaps that come naturally when reading fiction: musing about the similarities between Aslan’s Jesus and Che Guevara or between Jesus and an Afghan warlord fighting as fiercely to repel the American empire as first-century Jews fought to repel the Romans; comparing Prophet Muhammad’s transformation from mild-mannered, diffident young man to Machiavellian leader with that of Michael Corleone.
These are not scholarly works, whatever their trappings of indexes, end notes and bibliographies. Aslan’s is the more polemical book. His Jesus has raised hackles among theologians, experts and lay readers. The gentle Jesus of the gospels, Aslan asserts, is the real fiction (authored in large part by the apostle Paul), an attempt not to draw further Roman retribution for the Jewish rebellion of 66 CE. Politics animates both biographies, makes vivid and urgent the struggles of Jesus and Muhammad. It is, their lives as imagined by Aslan and Hazleton show, when ordinary men are forced to confront the casual cruelty and corruption of their leaders that capitals shake, that the world changes. Where are those men now when we need them again?