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Christian Gnosticism in Islamic Theology
by Rickey K. Hood
Christian Gnosticism in Islamic Theology
by Rickey K. Hood
Before the revelation came to the Prophet Mohammad the people of Arabia had no prophetic message given to them. They were historically known to be Ishmaelites (the decedents of Ishmael, the oldest son of Abraham) and that Allah was the same God of the Jews and Christians. Buy the Prophet’s time however, Ishmael’s decedents had forgotten the theology of the oneness of God and had fallen into the religion of paganism and the belief in a pantheon of gods. When the light of Islam came it striped away those superstitions reacquainting the children of Ishmael to the one God theology of Abraham. Islam is a religion that states to be a reminder and clarification of the earlier monotheistic traditions of Judaism and Christianity. With Judaism, Islam shares the strict doctrine of one God and divine law. With Christians it shares the belief in the Messiah-ship of Jesus. (For more info. Read the essay: Finding the Historical Jesus in Islamic Tradition.)
In the Qur’an there are many references of the earlier prophets of the Hebrew Bible and also many reference of the holy men and women of the mainstream Christian Bible but the Qur’an is a text that has preserved in it the teachings of Christianity now lost to the mainstream, this teaching is from the Christian sect know as the Gnostics. Gnosticism was a branch of Christianity that believed that Jesus was a manifest spirit in the form of flesh not actual flesh and blood; this is not an Islamic belief. This teaching developed in the mid to late first century CE during the Apostolic ministries:
Bible, First John 4:1-3:
“Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.”
Gnosticism along with the Ebonites, Nazarenes (Jewish Christians) and later in the Forth Century the Arians (those who believed Jesus was the divine creation of God) and the Athanasians (those who believed that Jesus was the same as God) were all vying for dominance of the Christian theological core. Because Christianity became a largely gentle religion the Ebonites and Nazarenes grew less prominent and their Christian doctrines became lost to history. Only fragments of their theology can be gleaned from Church Bishops brief mentioning’s in ancient records. Gnosticism too would have gone the path of the Ebonites and Nazarenes if not for a major discovery in 1945 in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. A cash of Gnostic books and scrolls were discovered in the desert of Nag Hammadi preserved in jars. This discovery, now called the Nag Hammadi library, brought the sect of the Gnostics out of speculation and into in-depth scholarly research.
What is Gnosticism then? It is a diverse theology extremely different from the Christian mainstream. This paper will only deal with the subject of how it relates to Islam. Gnostic teaching were unique in its belief of how salvation is received. The word Gnostic means Knowledge or To Know, for this reason salvation had nothing to do with Jesus’ death or resurrection. For Gnostics salvation was gained through the seeking of knowledge and understanding of the hidden meaning of Jesus’ teachings. As stated in the opening verses of the (2) Gospel of Thomas:
“These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymas Judas Thomas wrote down. And he said, “Whoever finds the interpretation Of these sayings will not experience death.”
Most Christians will never read or even know that such text exist. The New Testament in its present Protestant form is an extremely edited text from the original. Gnostic theology and its influence over Christianity was removed in the Forth century in the year 325 CE during the first Bishops Council in Nicea. It was then that emperor Constantine ordered the church to be standardize, organizing the Christian faith under one creed and scriptural canon. (3)“Constantine invited the bishops from East and West to join him in the small seaside village of Nicea for a council to unify the church. …Three main groups were present at this council: Eusebius of Nicomedia presenting the Arian view of the Trinity, Alexander of Alexandria presenting the Athanasian version, and a very large ‘middle party’ led be Eusebius of Caesarea whose submitted the Arian creed first and was rejected. Then Eusebius of Caesarea submitted the Cesarean baptismal creed. Instead of submitting a creed of their own, the anti-Arians (Athanasians) modified Eusebius’, thereby compelling him to sign it and completely shutting the Arians out. Those Arians who did not sign were deposed and exiled. Thus Constantine had his unified Church” Later, in the year 381 CE the second Bishops Council ratified the doctrine of the Trinity. When the Athanasians won control of Christian doctrine the first thing they created was the Nicean Creed:
(4)We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, light from light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and became truly human.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father [and the Son],
who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
(#5, read foot note)
This simple act spelled the end for all other Christian sects. Anyone that did not accept the creed was branded a heretic or one that did not accept the now Holy doctrine of the Church (later called the Catholic Church). The Gnostic sect survived this persecution well into the 7th century CE finding safe havens in Egypt, the Byzantine Empire, and Arabia. The Qur’an mentions the existence of such a sect in Surah 2:62,
“Those who believe (in the Qur’an)
And those who follow the Jewish (scripture)
And the Christians and Sabians…
…On them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.”
(6) Who are the Sabians? “latest research have revealed a small remnant of a religious community near Basra, Iraq. In Arabic they are called Subbi (plural Sabbae). They are also called Sabians and Nasoraeans, or Mandaeans, or Christians of Saint John [the Baptist]. They claim to be Gnostic, or knower’s of the Great life…”
The idea of resurrection from the dead in physical form was a repulsive notion for Gnostic Christians. The whole purpose of life and death was to be free from the prison of the flesh, not to be locked in it for eternity. The spirit is to resurrect in a spirit body that resembles flesh and to reunited with the true reality, God, and make what is two, the human spirit and the divine spirit, one. To make “One” or to make the Two “One” is a central theme in Gnostic Theology. This is also part of the Gnostic idea of Salvation. In Gnostic theology the body is material and therefore imperfect. The true man is trapped within the body and longs to be released and reunite with the true reality from which it came and leave this world of material illusion behind. It was believed that the first man, Adam, was a being of spirit before being caged in flesh. (7)The Secret Book of John makes the Augment concerning the nature of first Man, “Out of first knowledge and perfect Mind, through God [the creator], through the good pleasure of the great Invisible Spirit, and through the good pleasure of the Self-born, came forth the perfect Man, the first appearance. He called him Adam….” When man was created spiritually, the Sophia [Wisdom] gave permission for him to be transformed into the form of a man, (8)“This is the fetter, this is the tomb, the formation of the body which was put on man as the chain of matter…” the ridding of the flesh is the freeing of the Light of Thought, the True Man to reunite with the Father. The flesh is not the truth for Gnostic believers, it is an illusion, a substitute for the real man. Thus the death of Jesus on the cross had a different meaning. It was the separation point of the spirit away from the flesh as noted in The Gospel of Philip, (9) “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? ’it was on the cross that he said these words, for it was there that he was divided.’”
The Crucifixion Paradox
Hence the crucifixion of the body of Jesus was necessary to free his spirit, the True Jesus within. For the Gnostics the body of Christ on the cross was only an illusion, an image that appeared to be Jesus hanging dead. The true Jesus escaped the cross being set free in spirit having no harm come to him. As stated in the (10)Apocalypse of Peter, “When he (Jesus) had said those things, I (Peter) saw him seemingly being seized by them (The Roman soldiers). And I said ‘what do I see, O Lord? That is you yourself whom they take, and [yet] you are grasping me? Or who is this one, glad and laughing on the tree (cross)? And is it another one whose feet and hands they are striking?’ The savior said to me, ‘He whom you saw on the tree, glad and laughing, this is the living Jesus. But this one into whose hands and feet they drive the nails is his fleshly part, which is the substitute being put to shame, the one who came into being in his likeness. But look at him and me…’…Therefore he (Jesus) laughs at their lack of perception, knowing that they are born blind. So then the one susceptible to suffering shall come, since the body is the substitute. But what they released [through crucifixion] was my incorporeal body.” This same theme of Jesus escaping the cross and a likeness dying in his place is echoed in the Qur’an, Surah 4:157:
“That they said (in Boast)
‘we killed Christ Jesus
The son of Mary
The Messenger of Allah’-
But they killed him not.
Nor crucified him
But so it was made
To appear to them
And those who differ
Therein are full of doubts
With no (certain) knowledge
But only conjecture to follow
For of a surety
They killed him not.
As you can see, the elements of a likeness being crucified, no harm coming to Jesus, and Jesus escaping the cross shows clear exchange of theological doctrine from Gnostic to Islamic belief. The notion of spiritual bodies is not a Gnostic teaching only, the Apostle Paul taught this in First Corinthians 15: 35-44. Many of the disagreements between Christians and Muslims in interfaith dialogues is the Christian certainty of Jesus’ death on the cross and Muslim certainty of Jesus’ escape from the cross. As you can see in Gnostic theology both events are true. As for the resurrection of the dead, Gnostic theology does not mean the raising of the physical body but a transformation of the light of thought, the spirit of the true man. The unseen of the spirit world is the true reality and the true matter, the body is only a false shell to be discarded as the (11) Gospel of Philip makes clear, “The Lord rose from the dead, He became as he used to be, but now his body was perfect. He did indeed possess flesh, but this flesh is true flesh. Our flesh is not true, but we possess only an image of the true.” The Gnostic emphasis on the world of the unseen being more real than the natural world is consistent with the Qur’anic verse Sarah 2:154
“And say not of those
Who are slain in the way
Of Allah: ‘They are dead’
Nay, they are living
Though you perceive (it) not.”
This again stresses how the death of Jesus on the cross and his escape from it can co-exist together in a paradox, being both dead and alive. The crucifixion paradox must be viewed for two perspectives: first from the natural, the physical eyes of men are seeing the corps of Jesus hanging dead on the cross, a slain servant of Allah, as the Qur’an reports “That they said (in Boast) ‘we killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary the Messenger of Allah.’” This verse makes clear that the people witnessing the execution recognized that is was Jesus being killed not an imposter. The second perspective is spiritual which contradicts the first, “But they killed him not. Nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them” This is the verse of the escape, the Jesus not crucified, the verse that divides Christian and Muslim dialogue, the verse that seem uniquely Islamic. But in truth it is only a reminder of what was revealed in earlier scriptures like the Gnostic Apocalypse of Peter, Therefore he laughs at their lack of perception, knowing that they are born blind. So then the one susceptible to suffering shall come, since the body is the substitute. But what they released [through crucifixion] was my incorporeal body.” So the crucifixion paradox can only be solved by understanding the limits of visual and spiritual perceptions: “And say not of those who are slain in the way of Allah: ‘They are dead’ nay, they are living though you perceive (it) not.”
Satan The Enemy of Man
Another example of an exchange of Gnostic to Islamic theology is the story of the creation of the Satan and his hatred for man. The understanding among Christian doctrine is that Satan attempted to exalt his throne above the Throne of God and that Satan is the enemy of God. But the Book of Job shows this not to be the case. In Job Satan is subject to the rule of God and is welcomed to the court of angels, yet his hastily toward man is evident in his accusations of Job. If Satan did not attempt to exalt his throne above God’s throne, then who was he trying to exalt himself above? And if Satan is welcomed in the court of angels then who is it that he hates? (12) The Gnostic Gospel of Bartholomew states the following, “I [Satan] wandered to and fro in the world, and God said to Michael: ‘Bring me earth out of the four rivers of Paradise.’ And when Michael had brought them to him. He formed Adam in the east, and gave form to the shapeless earth, and stretched sinews and veins, and united everything into a harmonious whole. And he [God] showed him [Adam] reverence for his own sake because he was his image. And Michael worshipped him [the image of God]. And when I came from the ends of the world, Michael said to me: ’Worship the image of God [Adam] which he has made in his own likeness.’ But I said: ’I am fire of fire…shall I worship clay and matter?’ and Michael said to me: ’worship, lest God be angry with you.’ I answered: ’God will not be angry with me, but I will set up my throne over against [Adam’s] throne, and shall be as he is, [that is, like God]. Then God was angry with me and cast me down…and I …took counsel with him how I could deceive the man on whose account I had been cast out of heaven.”
In the Qur’an, Surah 7 verses 11 to 17 a very similar story is told:
It is We who created you
And gave you shape;
Than We bade the angels
“Bow down to Adam,” and they
Bowed down; not so (13)Iblis;
He refused to be of those
Who bow down.
(Allah) said: “What prevents
You from bowing down
When I command thee?”
He said: “I am better
Than he: Thou didst create
Me from fire, and him from clay.”
(Allah) said: Get thee down
From this: it is not
For you to be arrogant here
Get out, for thou
Art of the meanest (of creatures).
He said: “Give me respite (time)
Till the day they are
(Allah) said: “Be then
Amongst those who have respite.”
He said: “Because you
Have thrown me out
Of the Way, Lo! I will
Lie in wait for them
On your Straight Way:
Then will I assault them
from before them and behind them
From their right and their left:
Nor wilt you find
In most of them
Gratitude (for your mercies).”
In conclusion, most critics of Islam would call these similarities overt plagiarism, but in truth it shows the Christian and Gnostic influence in the pre-Islamic beliefs and the early Qur’anic revelation era. This sharing of text is consistent with Qur’an 35:31
That which We have revealed
To thee of the Book (the Qur’an)
Is the truth confirming
What was (revealed) before it…”
Though the Qur’an sings in harmony with Biblical and Gnostic text it has its own unique voice and point of view. As for Hagar, God has kept his promise to her concerning Ishmael and his decedents: Genesis 17:20 And as for Ishmael, I have heard you:
I will surely bless him;
I will make him fruitful
And will greatly increase his numbers.
He will be the father of twelve rulers,
And I will make him
A great nation.
1. Bible, First John 4:1-3
2. The Other Bible by Willis Barnstone; Gospel of Thomas, page 300,
3. The Great Debate Regarding The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Robert A. Wagoner, page 109.
5. What is a Creed? “A creed Negates the need for individuals to seek truth as a quest for authenticity. To be authentic, people must own each statement they make passionately and personally, and must accept nothing on the basis of outside authority.” The Creed, What Christians believe and why it matters, Luke Timothy Johnson, page 2.
6. The meaning of the Holy Qur’an, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, New edition: Commentary #76, page 33.
7. The Other Bible by Willis Barnstone; The Secret Book of John page 55.
8. Ibid. Page 58.
9. The Other Bible by Willis Barnstone; Gospel of Philip, page 94.
10. The Apocalypse of Peter, http://www.gnosis.org/naghamm/apopet.html
11. The Other Bible by Willis Barnstone; Gospel of Philip, page 94.
12. The Other Bible by Willis Barnstone; Gospel of Bartholomew, 357.
13. Iblis is the Arabic name for Lucifer.