How do Muslims Understand Jesus?
Muslims revere Jesus as one of their prophets. The Qur’an and Hadith refer to Jesus several times. Three of its Sūras, namely, Al-‘Imran, Al-Maida and Maryam are so named because of their references to Jesus and his work. There are about ninety verses spread across fifteen Sūras of the Qur'an that refer to Jesus. A second source for the Islamic understanding of Jesus is the numerous Hadith that portray his teaching and the ultimate purpose of his first and second coming. There are many references to Jesus in other Islamic literature too. But I would like to restrict my study within the Qur'ānic literature. The Qur'ān is the fundamental book of Muslims’ beliefs and principles. So it is apt to see from the perspective of Qur'ān about the mission and the person of Jesus.
The primary objective of this paper would be to explore the Muslim understanding of Jesus and to study the Muslim attitude with respect to Jesus and his portrayal in the Qur'ān. And also to look for a platform strong enough to encourage a fruitful search for new insights and new dimensions of faith that may appear when Christians and Muslims talk together about the Messiah and the wisdom they detect in his personality. Today, it is an age of dialogue and mutual understanding. Through dialogue we can promote Christian-Muslim relations on the level of spiritual communion and theological reflection. For Christians, in many parts of the world today Muslims are next-door neighbors. Therefore, an attempt to understand them and their spirituality is an important task.
1. Jesus in the Qur'ān
In the Qur'ān Jesus is called ‘Isā. ‘Isā appears in the Qur'ān twenty-five times. The word ‘Isā’ comes from the Syriac ‘Yeshu’ which is derived from the Hebrew ‘Yeshua’. In the Qur'ān Jesus is given more honorific titles than any other prophet (including Muhammad). Those titles include ‘prophet’, ‘messiah’, ‘word’ and ‘spirit and mercy of God.’ These titles are found in the following verses: Q. 2:81-87; 3:40-45; 4:156-157; 5:50-46; 6:85; 9:31; 19:35; 23:52; 33:7, 42:11-13; 43:63, 57:27 and 61:6 of the Holy Qur'ān. As already noted, that in Islam Jesus is considered to be a Prophet of God, who was sent to guide the Children of Israel. Jesus was given the Injīl Moses received ‘Torah’ and ‘Zabur’ was given to David, and ‘Qur'ān’ to Muhammad (Q. 5:46). Qur'ān states that Jesus was born to Mary (Maryam) as the result of virginal conception, a miraculous event which occurred by the decree of God (Allah). And he was given the ability to perform miracles such as healing the blind, bringing dead people back to life, etc., all by the permission of God rather than of his own power. Jesus is also at times called ‘Seal of the Israelite Prophets’, because in general Muslims consider that Jesus was the last prophet sent by God to guide the Children of Israel. “We…have appointed him to be a parable for the children of Israel” (Q. 43:59).
1.1 Birth of Jesus
The Qur'ān gives an important place for Mary, the chaste mother of Jesus, who surrendered her will to the will of God. She was called pure, spotless and sinless because of God’s intervention in her life. Qur'ān speaks of Mary not only as the mother of Jesus, but as a righteous woman in her own right. Chapter 19 of the Qur'ān has the title ‘Mary’ and it focuses on Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary is the sole woman who was specifically called by name in the Qur'ān. “O Mary! Lo! Allah hath chosen thee and made thee pure and hath preferred thee above the woman of creation” (Q 3:42, 21:91). She humbly accepted the will of God saying, ‘behold the servant of the Lord’ (Q 3:43). This total surrender to the will of God is fundamental to the Qur'ān.
Sūra 19 gives the account of the birth of Jesus. The birth of Jesus is seen as an aya, a sign of God's power. The Qur'ān describes that an angel appeared to Mary to announce the “gift of a holy son” (Q 19:19) while she was praying in the temple. She was astonished at the news and asked: “How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me and I am not unchaste?” (Q 19:20). Then the angel explained to her that she had been chosen for the service of God.
The angel told Mary that she was to give birth to a son, named Jesus, who would be a great prophet and to whom God would give the Gospel (Injil). The angel further told Mary that “He would speak unto mankind in his cradle and in his manhood” (Q 3:46). Therefore, the Qur'ān states that Jesus was created from the act of God’s will. The Qur'ān compares this miraculous creation of Jesus with the creation of Adam, where God created Adam by His act of will. The Qur'ān further describes that Mary retreated from her people and gave birth to Jesus underneath a remote date palm tree in the desert. The tree miraculously provided nourishment for her during labour and birth.
Forty days later she carried him back to her people. The Qur'ān describes that Mary vowed not to speak to any man on that day as God was to make Jesus, who Muslims believe spoke in the cradle, perform his first miracle. The Qur'ān narrates that Mary then brought Jesus to the temple, where immediately she began to be taunted by all men, excluding Zechariah, who believed in the virgin birth. The Israelites accused Mary of being a loose woman and having touched another man whilst unmarried. In response, Mary pointed to her son, telling them to talk to him. They were angered at this and thought she was mocking them by asking them to speak with an infant. It was then that God made the infant Jesus speak in the cradle, and he spoke of his prophecy for the first time. He said, "I am a servant of Allah. He will reveal the Book to me and make me a prophet. He blessed me wherever I am. In the rules revealed to me there will be a special attention given to prayers and charity. Allah predestined that I will be kind to my mother and not a tyrant with a bad ending. Peace was on me the day I was born, peace will be on me on the day I will die, and on the day I am raised alive again!"(Q 19:30-33).
1.2 Jesus’ public life and mission
The Qur’ān portrays that Jesus healed the blind and the lepers and raised the dead to life. Jesus is also said to have raised the dead but much details are not given in the Qur'ān. We can find evidences to these miracles in Sūras 5-110, 61- 6, 2-81 of the Qur'ān. The Qur'ān enumerates these miracles as signs of his prophecy. Jesus produced these miracles by the will of God in order to convince those who doubted his mission. Q 3:43/49 says, ‘I have come to you with a sign from your Lord that I shall create for you from clay the form of a bird and I shall breathe into it and it shall become a bird by the permission of God, and I shall heal the blind and the leprous and bring the dead to life by the permission of God and I shall announce to you what ye may eat, and what ye may store in your houses; verily in that is a sign (aya) for you if ye are believers.’
Jesus’ mission is indicated already in the annunciation of Jesus’ birth to Mary by the angels, “O Mary, God giveth thee glad tidings of a Word from Him; his name will be the Christ Jesus, Son of Mary; he will be honoured in this world and in the next, and he is of those nearest to God. He will speak to the people in the cradle and when of mature age, and he will be one of the righteous ones. He will teach wisdom ‘I have come to you with wisdom’ in order to make clear to you some of things which you don’t understand”. So the mission of Jesus in the Qur'ān is that of bringing the Good News (Injil), confirming the Torah, showing the Wisdom, teaching prayer and almsgiving and being a sign and witness to the people.
Jesus is said to be strengthened with the “holy Spirit”. The Qur'ān understands Angel Gabriel as the holy spirit (Q. 2:87). Jesus preaches true Islam, submission to the will of Allah, which is found in the Gospel (Injil) which Jesus has been taught by God (3:48) just as the Qur'ān would be later revealed to Mohammad. Thus, Jesus is presented in the Quran not simply as an ordinary prophet but as an apostle or messenger of Allah with the Injil. Hence, the Qur'ānic conception of Jesus’ mission can be described in the following words: Christ is then a prophet, a teacher, a healer of the sick, a spirit from of God.
1.3 Final days of Jesus
During the last days Jesus was strongly opposed and harassed by the Jews. They did not understand him. They did not accept his preaching and teachings. Though they had been long awaiting a Messiah to relieve them of their miseries, they did not believe Jesus to be the true Messiah. Out of their disappointment, hatred and enmity towards Jesus, they finally accused him of rebellion against the emperor, whose officers gave orders for his arrest and eventual crucifixion. Muslim commentators believe that the Jews failed in their treacherous plot, that the Roman soldiers arrested a person who had a striking resemblance to Jesus, while Jesus himself was lifted alive to Heaven. Qur'ān clearly states that Christ did not die by crucifixion but being ‘called away’ by God. “When Thou didst take me up Thou wast the Watcher over them” (Q. 5:117).
We see that Jesus has been described by various means in the Qur'ān. He has been called son of Mary, messiah, prophet and messenger. The Qur'ān gives high regards to Jesus and Mary. The Qur'ān also describes Jesus’ mission as healer and savior. Islam regards all prophets, including Jesus, to be mortal and without any share in divinity.
But whatever Islam claims, it does not believe in the biblical Jesus because-
First, Islam asserts that Jesus was only one of God‘s many prophets, and not God’s only begotten Son (Q. 112). Muslims strongly reject the idea that Jesus is the Son of God. The Qur'ān repeatedly emphasizes that Jesus Christ is not the literal Son of God. The Christian view of Jesus Christ as God’s literal Son is blasphemy to the Muslim.
Second, Muslims do not believe that Jesus was crucified and died on the cross.
Third, Islam teaches that Muhammad was a superior prophet to Jesus because he brought God’s final revelations to man.
2. Qur'ānic christology of Jesus
The first section of this paper portrays the Qur'ānic understanding of Jesus. The following section considers some of the elements of Qur'ānic christology. The word Christology, according to Christian understanding is the theological portrait of Jesus as the second person of the Trinity. Now we would see that Qur'ān rejects any such notion, hence, christology is used in a sense the theological portrait of Jesus in Muslim understanding.
The Qur'ānic christology is not given in one piece. It is has been growing in different stages. Here context plays an important role. The christology which I am dealing with is limited to the Qur'ānic presentation only. As mentioned earlier that the Qur'ān refers Jesus in fifteen Sūras and devotes ninety three verses to Him, serves the foundation for Muslim christology.
2.1 Jesus in the Meccan Sūras
The Meccan Sūras came from the first segment of Muhammad’s career as a prophet, when he simply called the Meccans to a monotheistic faith. Meccan Sūras of the Qur'ān are those Sūras which, according to Islamic tradition revealed before the Hijrah, the pilgrimage of the prophet Muhammad from Macca to Medina. Meccan Sūras are typically shorter with relatively short ayat (verse) and mostly come near the end of the Qur'ān.
At that time of Muhammad many religions were present, including polytheism, animism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity marked by chronic conflict in West Asia. In this atmosphere prophet Muhammad started preaching his basic teaching that there is only one God and the pagan faith has no value. Along with his handful of followers he tried to turn people from idolatry to the worship of the one true God but he encountered rejection and ridicule. He accepted this because he could see himself in comparison with that of other prophets and their work.
Muhammad’s preaching to the Meccans involved two crucial claims that Muhammad was a messenger sent by God and the bearer of a divine revelation. At the heart of this vision was the belief that God had repeatedly sent messengers entrusted with divine revelations to provide guidance for human beings. Thus, the Qur’ān portrays Jesus as one of those messengers sent by God to guide his people. But Qur’ān does not say who Jesus is in himself. Jesus is portrayed as prophet in relation with Muhammad. The Maccan Suras speak about Jesus as merely a prophet and servant of Allah and his word. Scholars like Bell and others point out that during the Meccan period Muhammad’ s attitude to the People of Book was friendly. Christians are described as ‘believers and shun idolatry’. They were portrayed as models for Muhammad’s followers.
2.2 Jesus in the Medinan Sūras
The Medinan Sūras of the Qur'ān are those Sūras which were revealed at Medina after Muhammad’s hijra from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE. These Sūras appeared when the Muslims were in large numbers rather than being an oppressed minority as in Mecca. They are mostly placed at the beginning of the Qur'ān. These Sūras more often deal with details of legislation and warfare. They are also concerned with social legislation, the political and moral principles for constituting and ordering the community. There are 28 Medinan Sūras in the Qur'ān and out of these 10 Sūras speak about Jesus.
The Medinan situation was quite different from Mecca. Here Muhammad became a powerful statesman, warrior, religious leader and ruler. He was more of established. He continued to say that Jesus was a prophet expecting that all the Jews and Christians would accept him. But they did not accept him.
Muhammad had a significant contact with Jews and Christians in Medina. Christians During this period Jesus was presented as one sent by God whom the Jews rejected him. However, God frustrates the schemes of the unbelievers and vindicates his servant by raising him to heaven.
In Sura 61 Jesus is portrayed as a messenger of God addressing the children of Israel, confirming the Torah, summoning helpers and provoking a mixed response among the Jews. He also announces the coming of a future messenger, ahmad. ‘Jesus, son of Mary, said: “O children of Israel, I am God’s messenger to you” (Q. 61:6).’ So Jesus was presented as his forerunner. One of the titles which is given to Jesus in the Qur'ān is Messiah and this title appears only in the Medinan Suras. Muhammad was unaware of this title until he moved to Medina and came in contact with Christians over there. So he became aware of the unique appellation given to Jesus and simply adopted it himself and included it in the Qur'ān.
Islamic theology divides the Qur’an into ‘Meccan’ and ‘Medinan’ Sūras. The Meccan Sūras came from the first segment of Muhammad’s career as a prophet, when he simply called the Meccans to Islam. They are earlier Sūras of the Qur'ān revealed before the Hijrah. The Medinan Sūras are filled with matters of law and ritual–and exhortations to jihad warfare against unbelievers. Both of these categories of Sūras speak about Jesus and his message to the people with different emphasizes.
We have discussed the different elements of Qur'ānic christology. The Qur'ān speaks about Jesus but it does not tell much about his life as mission and his intimacy with God. Hence, the Qur'ānic Jesus is not the Jesus of Christian faith. The essential element of Christian faith on Jesus is either ignored or mistakenly represented. Poor representation of Christian faith in Jesus is misleading. It does not help the readers to understand better. The portrait of Jesus in the Qur'ān is inadequate because, intense devotion to Jesus and worship is the central characteristics of Christian faith. Though their understanding of Jesus is inadequate, their special love and respect for Jesus should not be ignored.
His life is the gospel, the good news. Not only what he did or said is significant, but also significant is the way he was present among his contemporaries, as one who embodied God's affirming, unconditional love toward his creatures. This love was not merely taught, but manifested in a life of vulnerable availability to the neighbor, poor and rich, friend and enemy, sinner and victim. In embodying this divine love, Jesus was more than a prophet. The cross is not an isolated event, as in the Qur'ān, but the supreme disclosure of his sacrificial, unconditional and divine love. This way of life of Jesus, a way of life in which there is no place for vengeance and hate, is affirmed as the true way of life, intended by God for human beings created in his image. The Jesus of Islam is only a prophet of God, though a very holy one, only a creature of God and not the son of God. He is the messenger of God with the Injil but not the savior of the world.
Parrinder, Geoffrey. Jesus in the Qur'ān. London: Sheldon Press, 1965.
Schumann, H. Olaf, Jesus the Messiah in Muslim Thought. Delhi: ISPCK, 2002.
Tirimanna, Vimal, C. Ss. R., ed. Asian Faces of Christ. Bangalore: Asian Trading
Ridgeon, Lloyd, ed. Islamic Interpretations of Christianity. Great Britain: Curzon Press, 2001.
Hahn, Ernest, Jesus in Islam: A Christian View. Vaniyambadi: Concordia Press, 1975.
Zahniser, Mathias A. H., The Mission and Death of Jesus in Islam and Christianity. New York: Orbis Books, 2008.
Pashan, Tobias, “Jesus in Islam” Sevartham, 1987, Vol. 12.
 G. Parrinder, Jesus in the Qur'ān [London: Sheldon Press, 1965], 18.
 Ibid., 18.
 H. Ernest, Jesus in Islam [Vaniyambadi: Concordia Press, 1975], 28.
 G. Parrinder, Jesus in the Qur'ān, 16.
 Ibid., 18.
 Ibid., 38.
 Ibid., 62.
 Ibid., 62.
 Ibid., 69.
 Ibid., 77.
 Ibid., 83.
 Ibid., 85.
 Ibid., 90.
 Ibid., 91.
 O. Schumann, Jesus the Messiah in Muslim Thought [Delhi: ISPCK, 2002], 27.
 V. Tirimanna, ed. Asian Faces of Christ [Bangalore: Asian Trading Corporation, 2005], 138.
 G. Parrinder, Jesus in the Qur'ān, 84.
 L. Ridgeon, Islamic interpretation of Christianity [: Curzon Press, 2001], 3-4.
 Ibid., 4.
 Ibid., 8.
 Ibid., 8.
 Ibid., 10-11.
 Ibid., 14
 O. Schumann, Jesus the Messiah in Muslim Thought, 28.