MUST READ: Between Good Friday and Easter: A Muslim Meditation on Christ and Resurrection
by Omid Safi
The time period between Good Friday and Easter is a poignant time for me. As a Muslim, it has meaning beyond its meaning as Christian creed. Some of the great exemplars of my own life have been figures from the Christian tradition, iconic figures such as Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu. I look at what Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection has meant to them and to their communities. It speaks to me as a Muslim, as a human being, and as a person of faith.
The Easter and Good Friday that I care about has little to do with candy and the Easter Bunny. I am thoroughly uninterested in “fundamentalist atheists” trying to connect Easter to fertility cults. No, I care about what Good Friday and Easter have to teach us—and teach me—about suffering, life, death, spirit, and triumph.
The symbolism of Good Friday to Easter resonates for me in a powerful way, as the symbolism of the triumph of resurrection over death and ultimate redemption in God’s grace over sin.
Easter for me is irrevocably tied to Good Friday: The redemption is so sweet because the suffering is also real. As my Christian friends believe that Christ suffered on the cross for our sins, I too come to see that some measure of suffering on any spiritual path is necessary. I am suspicious of spiritual paths that promise “cheap” joy here and now. I am suspicious of spiritual teachers that promise us the “gospel of prosperity” or “happiness”, for I wonder how much compassion they have towards those who are poor, or genuinely suffering. Are the un-prosperous (the majority of us humans) and those who suffer the children of a lesser God?
When I look at this world, I see suffering in so many places: suffering of a billion human beings who live on a dollar a day, suffering of millions caught up in war, suffering of millions who live under brutal occupation (including in Jesus’ own Palestine), suffering of millions of refugees, suffering of women caught in sexist cultures, suffering of minority communities all over the world, suffering of those who are separated from loved ones. It goes on and on… Suffering at times seems to be global and universal.
When I reflect on the suffering of Christ, the mediation does not begin and end with the suffering—even the crucifixion—of Jesus the son of Mary, the 1st century Palestinian Jew. Rather, I see the connection between the suffering of Christ and the suffering of all of God’s children, all of us who are vessels of the Spirit of God.
There is a beautiful teaching of the Prophet Muhammad where a person came up to him and said: “O Messenger of God, I love you.” The Prophet said to him: “Then go put on the battle armor, because surely the next thing to come will be affliction.” The God that I have faith is not just the God of the sunny days, but the God of every day, including the days of suffering, the days of pain, and the days of loss.
I too seek shelter in God in the days of suffering, having faith in the unseen days to come. Our God is the God of Good Friday as much as the God of Easter, the God of the lowest valley and the loftiest mountain, and the God of the spaces in between—where we dwell most days.
In these ways, I too marvel at the experience Mahalia Jackson, the great gospel singer whom Dr. King loved so deeply, sings about:
It was alone
the Savior prayed
In dark Gethsemane;
Alone He drained the bitter cup
And suffered there for me.
He bore the cross alone;
He gave Himself to save His own,
He suffered, bled
and died alone,
Jesus—for my Christian friends—“bore the cross alone”, and yet I know that none of us suffer alone. The suffering of Christ then and there is connected to the suffering of Palestinians and Israelis and Syrians, inner-city Americans and grieving Newtown parents and HIV-positive sub-Saharan Africans, here and now.
Our suffering is connected because our humanity is already connected. We are part of the same garment of humanity, caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality.
I ponder on the poignant time between Good Friday and Easter, which is where I see most of us human beings.
As Jesus is believed to have been in the tomb for three days, most of us humans spend our lives in the metaphorical tomb of existence. We stand between a womb and a tomb.
Most of us are in this in-between stage, the cosmic “three days” that all of us find ourselves in: not dead, and not yet resurrected.
There is something Divine in us, though it has not Risen yet. That Divine Spark in us, the Jesus of our soul, remains Unresurrected.
We wait, though time alone will not lead to the Resurrection. As seekers of God, sought by the One we seek, we want that Rising, that Resurrection, that “Easter”, here and now.
And I ponder on the mystery of Easter. I wonder about what it is like for a soul to give birth, to be born, and to Rise. Rumi, the famed Muslim mystic, always asks us to look at the Biblical figures not only as distant figure of the past, but as also responding to the spiritual faculties of our own spirit. He recognizes that in the story of Moses and the Pharaoh, there is something inside us that is tyrannical like the Pharaoh, and there is something that corresponds to Moses. He asks us: “Who is the Moses of our soul, and who is the Pharaoh of our soul?” And following Rumi, I look at Jesus in the same way:
Nothing can be undertaken until a pain—a yearning and love for a thing—is awakened inside a human being.
Without pain one’s endeavor will not be easy,
no matter whether it be about this world, the hereafter, commercial, regal, scholarly, astrological or anything else.
Our body is like Mary, and each of us bears a Jesus.
If we experience birth pains, our Jesus will be born,
but if there is no pain,
our Jesus will return to his origin by that hidden road whence he came,
and we will remain deprived.
[Modified from Signs of the Unseen, 22-23].
So I with this “Jesus”, this “Mary”, inside our own body, inside our own soul. I wonder when this Mary of my own body will give birth to my own “Jesus.” Though the giving birth will be painful, I so yearn for that birth….
The Qur’an discusses Christ’s death and resurrection:
So peace is on me the day I was born,
the day that I die,
and the day that I shall be raised up to life !
That is Jesus, son of Mary, in word of truth…
Muslims and Christians of course differ as to whether this life and resurrection refers to Christ’s earthly life in 1st century Palestine or in his future Messianic return at the End of Days. My concern today is not with its historicity, but rather its meaning and relevance.
As a Muslim, we remain respectfully beyond the thin line that separates and demarcates Islam from Christianity. My intention is not to blend faiths into one another and eradiate the particularity that gives each their own flavor and fragrance. Yet as I stand on one side of the same garden, in one room of “my Father’s mansion with many rooms”, I detect truth and beauty coming from, and in, the other side. I need not theologically accept the notion of Jesus as a unique divine incarnation who dies for all of our sins and is buried and rises on the third day to sit on the right hand of God to see beauty, insight, and relevance in that narrative. The proof of that beauty is none other than the sanctity of ordinary human beings whose poetry of daily lives bears the fragrance of teachings of Christ.
So in that way, I too celebrate Easter, I too celebrate the Risen Jesus, though I seek not the Palestinian Jesus of Bethlehem, but rather the Jesus that the Qur’an names as the “spirit of God”. I seek the Easter of our own spirit, the resurrection of our spirit, long dead, brought back to God through God’s grace.
May there be an Easter for the Jesus of our spirit, overcoming every death, every suffering and every affliction. Again, as Rumi says, may we meet the spiritually luminous souls whose every breath is efficacious like Christ (Masiha-dam), awakening in us the dormant spirit that is like a flower-bearing tender shoot buried under the winter snow.
May that healing, redeeming spirit Rise, now, each and every day. Every day that our spirits are resurrected is a holy day to be celebrated. On that day, we will sing together:
praise be to God.
The Jesus of the Spirit has Risen!
Omid Safi is a Professor of Islamic Studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, specializing in contemporary Islamic thought and classical Islam. He leads educational tours to Turkey every summer, through Illuminated Tours: http://www.illuminatedtours.com He has a blog on Religion News What Would Muhammad Do? where this article was first published.