The great German painter Grunewald has a picture in which he shows St John the Baptist with an exceedingly elongated forefinger. A finger pointing to the figure of Jesus standing nearby. The same image is used in some Byzantine icons to express what Christians believe was the main purpose of St John’s ministry, the pointing out of Jesus as the expected Messiah. John thus was the precursor who prepared the way for the coming of Christ.
I wish to suggest that St John points also to some exciting commonalities between Islam and Christianity. There are many Qur’anic passages in which he is mentioned and revered as a Prophet of God. St John’s miraculous birth, his preaching and his chastity definitely make him a thrilling connecting link and a common ground between faiths. His figure is therefore an opportunity for religious dialogue and interfaith work.
The Anglican Church has two major feast days named after St John. One celebrates his birthday, the second his martyrdom by beheading. The Eastern Church too gives him a position of high honour. He is always portrayed next to Christ on the iconostasis, the painted screen which separates the altar from the rest of the building in all Orthodox churches. Moreover, all Christian communities at the beginning of the Easter season read out the joyful account of his supernatural birth as recounted in St Luke’s Gospel.
In the Qur’an St John is called Yahya. This is a name apparently related to the Arabic word ‘hayya’. It means to make alive or to quicken. According to some scholars, the allusion is not only to the prodigy of Yahya’s birth – his father Zachariah being over 100 years old and his mother hitherto barren – but also to his prophetic and preaching mission to renew the flagging faith of his people.
The Qur’an mentions St John several times but most of the narratives about his nativity are from chapters 3 and 19. It is uplifting to see the similarities between those passages and what the Gospel of St Luke says about the Baptist’s birth. In both cases the good news of the Prophet’s birth is announced by an angel. Another instance is that his father Zachariah remains speechless for three days. Yahya ‘shall be noble, chaste, a Prophet among the righteous’, the angel announces.
St John’s self-denying lifestyle and personality are graphically conveyed in the Gospels. That is brought out in the clothes he wore – a rough garment of camel’s hair and a leather girdle around his waist – as well as by the food he ate. No meat but wild berries and honey. The Quranic use of the word ‘chaste’ also harmonises well with the Gospel narrative. But of course St John was no detached, other-worldly contemplative. A fiery messianic preacher, he summoned the Jewish people to repentance, to beg forgiveness for their sins and to accept baptism in the River Jordan. The language he used was pretty forthright: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you from the wrath to come?’ Unless the erring people changed their minds and their hearts, he told them, they would be ‘thrown into the fire’.
There is some mystery about St John, however. Take for example of his baptising Jesus at the beginning of his public ministry. That episode always presented a puzzle for Christian commentators. As Messiah, the chosen Christ of God, the Church teaches that Jesus was sinless. But John’s baptism was one of remission of sins. ‘I need to be baptised by you and you come to me?’, the astonished Baptist asked the Messiah. Yet Jesus, despite John’s remonstrance, willingly submitted to the ceremony. The reason Jesus himself gives in St Matthew’s Gospel is that it was ‘fitting’ he should publicly undergo baptism, presumably for the sake of Jewish sensitivities. Yet something of the puzzle endures.
The plot thickens further when, after being imprisoned by the tyrant Herod, St John from jail sends his disciples to Jesus with a challenging question: ‘Are you the awaited Messiah or not?’ Now, as John had previously recognised Jesus as ‘the Lamb of God’ and gone on to baptise him, why did he need to ask? Had St John, alone and under the atrocious conditions of his dungeon, perhaps fallen to doubting his own judgment? Human, all too human. Or were perhaps his disciples jealous of Jesus and deliberately failed to report their master’s words with all accuracy? That too would be only too human. Only God knows…
Another question might arise out of what Jesus says of John in St Matthew, 11:14. On the face of it, he seems to identify the Baptist with the Prophet Elijah, who had died many centuries before. Some captious people have sought to understand that ascription as meaning that Jesus believed in reincarnation. Namely that the soul of Elijah had been reborn into the person of St John. But that interpretation is both absurd and unnecessary. All that Jesus meant was that the God-given spirit of prophecy possessed by Elijah had also been bestowed on the Baptist.
The Gospel accounts of the death of St John are harrowing. We learn that the despotic Herod Antipas, ruler over part of Palestine, was angry because the righteous Prophet of God had accused him of adultery. Herod had married Herodias, his brother’s wife, therefore rendering his own marriage unlawful. The tyrant was angry. He wanted to kill John but, given his reputation as a prophet, he was afraid. Instead, he had him imprisoned in the dreadful, harsh fortress of Macherus, on the Red Sea. One day, on Herod’s birthday, Herodias’ beautiful young daughter danced before him. The old lecher was so overwhelmed by passion that he swore to the girl: ‘Ask me for anything. I will give it to you!’
The wicked mother then prompted her wanton daughter: ‘Ask for the head of John the Baptist!’ And she did. Herod the hypocrite pretended to be sorry but he readily gave in. So the Prophet was beheaded and the head brought to the girl on a dish. After which John’s followers buried his body, then they went and told Jesus.
According to Muslim tradition, St John’s body was later buried in Damascus. Today the Umayyad Mosque there houses his green-domed marble shrine, much revered by a constant stream of pilgrims, especially women. During his visit to Syria years ago, Pope John Paul II saw the shrine and was deeply moved to be in a place so dear to Christians and Muslims alike. He prayed for peace and reconciliation. A prayer still tremendously necessary and topical, alas.
So, St John-Yahya. A Quranic verse that really strikes me is where God instructs the Prophet ‘to hold on to the Book with strength’ (19:12). But John did not bring his own Scripture and so some commentators argue that the Book meant the Taurat, the Jewish Law. That reminds us that John was a Prophet of Judaism as well. Excellent.
Lastly, is it not movingly significant that the Qur’an praises Yahya with awesome words of blessing used only in connection with Jesus?
‘So peace on him the day he was born, the day that he dies, and the day he will be raised to life’ (19.15). How splendid!