Many Muslims feel that the image and reputation of Islam have been co-opted by a minority with extreme views. However, Muslims don’t often reflect on how images within other religions have shaped and impacted our community. The whole world has had an image of a Eurocentric Jesus, may God’s peace be upon him, presented as the norm. The books and studies of the resulting racism, colonization, and even the emboldened politics of white supremacy grew out of this image. Muslims must be deliberate in embracing the Muslim narrative of Prophet Isa, may God’s peace be upon him.
Although the Bible does not give a definitive description of Jesus and there are no known pictures of him during his lifetime, Christendom has depicted him as a person with Eurocentric features. The famous 1940 painting by Warner E. Sallman the “Head of Christ” depicts the Prophet as a long-haired, blonde, blue-eyed man with fair skin. According to Christianity.com this picture has been reproduced over a billion times. That is an incredible amount of indoctrination. But hundreds of years before this famous painting, there were Romanized likenesses of Jesus, peace be upon him
For instance, Greco-Roman drawings from the year 235 in Syria depict a young man in Greek clothing and cropped hair (although not blonde). Naturally, from the fourth century, with the dawning of the first Christian state under Roman Christian emperor Constantine I, the characterization of an Eurocentric view of Jesus, peace be upon him, would be solidified and spread through missionary work and colonization.
The impact of an Eurocentric image on non-European people around the world profoundly impacted the psyche, especially since the Christian religion teaches its followers that Jesus, peace be upon him, is related biologically to God. The religious belief that man was created in the image of a supreme being who looked like a white male was powerful.
White became an influential color, and the white image of Jesus emboldened European expansion. By the time Christians began interacting with Muslims in the seventh century, the image and its impact was well-established in the religious canon and culture of Christians. Islam and Christianity became locked in battle with the symbolic representation of Prophet Isa, God’s peace be upon him.
Thomas McDonnell from the Elizabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University published an article titled: “The West's Colonization of Muslim Land and the Rise of Islamic Fundamentalism”. In this article, his research revealed that practically every Muslim majority country on the earth has been colonized at some point by Europe or Russia, both part of Christendom.
According to McDonnell’s research, “Just as abolishing de jure discrimination has not eliminated de facto racial discrimination in the United States, the simple act of becoming independent does not immediately eliminate the attitudes, customs, and institutions of either the colonizer or the colonized” (833). Thus, Muslims from these lands who may have been under colonization for generations have been indoctrinated to accept the Eurocentric image of Jesus, peace be upon him, as the norm. Indigenous Muslims of African descent are well aware of this Christian indoctrination. Historically, the image of a white Jesus pushed many to make the conscious choice to embrace Islam.
So Muslims have to be deliberate in working against the indoctrination of the white image of Prophet Isa, God’s peace be upon him. The “Muslim” Jesus must be ever present in our minds and Dawa. We can refer to verses both from the Bible and the Quran to enhance our understanding of the full picture of how Prophet Isa, God’s peace be upon him, is meant to be represented. For example, in the Old Testament of the Bible, the Prophet Isaiah recounts Jesus, peace be upon him, by saying: “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:1). The Book of Psalms characterizes him by saying “Thou art fairer than the children of men: grace is poured into thy lips: therefore God hath blessed thee forever” (Psalms 45:2).
Many Muslims don’t even know these Biblical verses and therefore cannot refer their Christian friends, family (and ever-increasing numbers of spouses) to their own Scripture when discussing the subject. The key to note in these two examples is how the verses focus not on his physical attributes, but something greater that is compelling and special. They allude to his honorable nature and elevated status. In the Bible Jesus, peace be upon him, is referred to as a servant of God: “For you first, God raised up His Servant, and sent Him to bless you by turning every one of you from your wicked ways” (Acts 3:26).
The Quran does not have a physical description of this Prophet, but rather discusses his character and significance. When discussing the “Muslim” Jesus with Christians, we can support the essence of their book and share that Prophet Isa, God’s peace and blessings be upon him, was a servant and messenger of Allah
“We have chosen some of those messengers above others. Allah spoke directly to some, and raised some high in rank. To Jesus, son of Mary, We gave clear proofs and supported him with the holy spirit. If Allah had willed, succeeding generations would not have fought among themselves after receiving the clear proofs. But they differed—some believed while others disbelieved. Yet if Allah had willed, they would not have fought one another. But Allah does what He wills” (Quran 2:253).
We can remember that the Quran teaches us that Prophet Isa, peace be upon him, is part of a long line of Prophets and remember ourselves what the Prophets are best remembered for their purpose and contribution and, not their ethnicity.
“Then in the footsteps of the Prophets, We sent Jesus, son of Mary, confirming the Torah revealed before him. And We gave him the Gospel containing guidance and light and confirming what was revealed in the Torah—a guide and a lesson to the God-fearing” (Quran 5:46).
The Muslim image of Prophet Isa, God’s peace be upon him, can prevail as we refer to the Quran to remove the commercialism and intermixing of iconographic images related to his birth. With distinctive language there is not a way for a particular portion of humankind to co-opt the narrative of what Prophet Jesus, peace be upon him, looks like in the verse from Surah Ale Imran:
“Indeed, the example of Jesus in the sight of Allah is like that of Adam. He created him from dust, then said to him, “Be!” And he was!” (Quran 3:59).