Fr. Paul Jackson SJ
Some years ago I was teaching in a Summer Course on Islam jointly organized by the Henry Martyn Institute and the Islamic Studies Association. It so happened that I was the only staff member present one evening for the after-dinner discussion. One student, a Protestant Pastor, said that Muhammad had not acknowledged Jesus as the Son of God because, if he had done so, he would have been obliged to become a follower of Jesus, a Christian, and would lose his status as a religious leader.
My standard response to the failure to believe in Jesus as the Son of God was to quote what Jesus said to Peter after his confession of faith: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in heaven.” Faith in Jesus as the Son of God is a gift from God.
The particular objection raised by my young friend, however, was really an accusation of bad faith, implying that Muhammad really did believe in Jesus as the Son of God but, out of a desire for religious and political power, refused to acknowledge him as such.
If one turns to the Quran, however, one finds an abundance of evidence of the high esteem in which Jesus was held. He is sinless; a prophet; an apostle; bearer of the Gospel; miracle-worker; a model of poverty, alms-giving, devotion to his mother and to prayer; he is continuously blessed by God; he is a portent of the hour of doom; he has been taken up alive, in body and soul, to God; he is the word of God and a spirit from Him. It does not seem possible to extol him any higher than this. One gets the impression of a profound respect for Jesus. Moreover, there is no hesitation at all in ascribing to him qualities which the Quran does not ascribe to Muhammad, e.g. miraculous healings and even raising the dead to life.
Time and time again, whenever there is mention of the possibility of God’s begetting children, this is strenuously denied and God’s uniqueness is affirmed. The following passage illustrates this:
He brings forth the living from the dead, and the dead from the living. Such is God. How then can you turn away from Him?
He kindles the light of dawn. He has ordained the night for rest and the sun and the moon for reckoning. Such is the ordinance of God, the Mighty, the Knowing.
It is He that has created for you the stars so that they may guide you in the darkness of land and sea. We have made plain Our revelations to men who understand.
He sends down water from the sky…
Yet they regard the jinn as God’s partners, though He Himself created them, and in their ignorance ascribe to Him sons and daughters. Glory be to Him! Exalted be He above their imputations!
He is the Creator of the heavens and the earth. How could He have a son when He had no consort? He created all things and has knowledge of all things. This is
God, your Lord. There is no other god but Him, the Creator of all things (Q6,95-102).
Referring to the three famous goddesses of the Meccans, Al-Lat, Al-Uzza and Manat, the Quran is dismissively explicit: “They are but names which you and your fathers have invented” (Q53,23).
“When Mary’s son (i.e. Jesus) is cited as an instance (i.e. of the signs from God), your people (i.e. the Meccans) laugh and say: ‘Is he better than our own gods?’ They cite him to you merely to provoke you” (Q43,57-8). This is Dawood’s translation. It seems to me that he has caught the nuances of the exchange better than other translations. The Meccans know of Muhammad’s great respect for Jesus and realize that, by tauntingly equating him to their own goddesses, they can provoke him to an angry outburst.
For the sake of argument, Muhammad even goes so far as to say: “If the Lord of Mercy had a son, I would be the first to worship him” (Q43,81). But this is not so, and could never be so! God is infinitely above such a conception! The classic expression is: “Say: ‘God is One, the Eternal God. He begot none, nor was He begotten. None is equal to Him’” (Q112).
It seems to me that there are two models of God in Muhammad’s mind. One is of a god who has a consort by whom he begets sons and daughters. This was the faith world of the Mecca Muhammad grew up in. The other model was of the One, Unique, Creator God, Exalted far beyond such considerations, Peerless in Majesty and Power, Who has only to say, “Be! And it is.” In this conception the greatest possible sin, shirk, is to put anyone or anything on the same level as God, while the greatest dignity any human being can be raised to is that of being a Messenger or Apostle.
Muhammad forcefully rejects the first model and whole-heartedly embraces the second.
This seems to explain the exalted status of Jesus as a sinless prophet, apostle, miracle-worker etc., combined with a vehement denial that Jesus is the Son of God.