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What does the Qur’an teach about Jesus?

Posted August 2, 2018 by Mark Anderson Leave a comment

What does the Qur’an teach about Jesus?

Posted August 2, 2018 by Mark Anderson Leave a comment

Muslims rightly stress the Qur’an’s reverence for Jesus (cIsa), but they fail to see that the Qur’an also marginalizes Jesus, making him the prophet least like his biblical counterpart. Thus, he is one of the Qur’an’s most controversial prophets and the one needing the most unpacking.

All Muslims revere Jesus, some  lovingly focusing their devotional lives on him. And Muslim reverence for Jesus comes directly from the Qur’an. A careful study of the Qur’an reveals that some of its teachings about Jesus agree with the Bible, while others plainly disagree. To simplify the topic, we’ll view it in terms of the Qur’an’s direct agreement and disagreement with the Bible, as well as its other forms of divergence. The Qur’an clearly agrees with the Bible on all these points:

  • Jesus was conceived by divine miracle, born of the virgin Mary
  • God sent him as his prophet to show the people of Israel the true path to God
  • He was the Messiah, lived a sinless life and had disciples
  • Jesus did many miracles—e.g., fed large crowds, healed the sick, raised the dead—and communicated God’s wisdom
  • Though Jesus’ people violently rejected him, God honored him
  • Having served God faithfully, Jesus was raised up to be with him

Clearly, that is very significant agreement. However, the Qur’an also contradicts the Bible[1] by denying that:

  • Jesus is the “Son of God” and is worthy of our worship
  • Jesus is the bearer of God’s ultimate, definitive message for humankind
  • God has ranked Jesus above every other created being[2]

We might assume that the Qur’an, in calling Jesus the Messiah, views him as savior-king, the biblical meaning of “Messiah.” But that’s not the case at all. In fact, the Qur’an entirely omits:

  • The meaning of Messiah
  • Humankind’s need of a savior—our absolute lostness without one
  • Jesus’ resurrection and lordship over creation
  • The kingdom of God which Jesus established
  • The Church Jesus died for
  • Jesus’ second coming[3] and appointment as humankind’s final judge

These omissions fit perfectly with the Qur’an’s strong emphases on 1) our ability to deal with our own sins independently, 2) Muhammad’s superiority over his predecessors—Jesus included—and 3) the Muslim community’s superiority over other religious communities. The Qur’an emphasizes these things in many different ways. It also makes a number of claims about Jesus for which we find either no evidence in the Bible or else contrary evidence:

  • Jesus’ prophethood was contingent on his promising to support Muhammad,* God’s final prophet.[4]
  • Jesus received a scripture, the New Testament, from God.
  • Jesus promised any of his followers who died fighting for him immediate entrance to heaven.
  • He foretold Muhammad’s coming.

This brings us to other key differences between the Bible and Qur’an on Jesus:

  • The Qur’an makes Jesus’ death peripheral by referring to it very infrequently and to the crucifixion just once (Q 4:157-58).[5]
  • The Qur’an radically de-emphasizes—if not, removes—both center points in Jesus’ ethics, love for God and love for neighbor.
  • The Qur’an entirely omits Jesus’ emphases on being like God and knowing God intimately.

We thus find many similarities and differences between Jesus in the Bible and Qur’an. The net effect is that the Qur’an honors cIsa as a great prophet and yet so marginalizes him[6] that he is only superficially like the biblical Jesus. Hence, many Christians would say that Muslims seem barely to know the Jesus they revere.

As Tarif Khalidi writes:

“The Qur’an is the axial text of Islamic civilization, and it is of course where we must begin for Islam’s earliest images of Jesus. Approximately one third of the Quranic text is made up of narratives of earlier prophets, most of them Biblical. Among these prophetic figures, Jesus stands out as the most puzzling. The Qur’an rewrites the story of Jesus more radically than that of any other prophet, and in doing so it reinvents him. The intention is clearly to distance him from the opinions about him current among Christians. The result is surprising to a Christian reader or listener. The Jesus of the Qur’an, more than any equivalent prophetic figure, is placed inside a theological argument rather than inside a narrative. He is very unlike his Gospel image. There is no Incarnation, no Ministry and no Passion. His divinity is strenuously denied either by him or by God directly. Equally denied is his crucifixion. A Christian may well ask, what can possibly be left of his significance if all these essential attributes of his image are gone?”[7]

And yet, despite the Qur’an’s treatment of him, it remains true that all Muslims revere Jesus and some lovingly focus on him in their devotional lives.

*Peace be upon his descendants

For a far more extensive examination of the topic of of Jesus in the Qur’an, see the author’s The Qur’an in Context: A Christian Exploration.

[1] Most Muslims explain this by saying the biblical scriptures originally agreed with the Qur’an and have been corrupted.

[2] The Qur’an doesn’t make this denial explicit, but its presentation of Jesus consistently implies it.

[3] All Muslims believe Jesus will return to earth at the end of time, but that belief has no basis in the Qur’an. Rather, it’s based on the hadith, or traditions, which came later and supplement qur’anic teachings in many ways.

[4] We must assume that Jesus was included in Q 3:81, with all of Muhammad’s predecessors only made prophets after they’d agreed to support his prophethood.

[5] Most Muslims today believe Q 4:157-58 says Jesus didn’t die on the cross, but rather God rescued Jesus from the cross and had someone else—possibly his betrayer, Judas—die in his place. They explain away all other qur’anic mentions of Jesus’ death, except for one. The exception, Q 19:33, they move into the future, such that Jesus’ death and burial will take place after he returns to earth.

[6] The Qur’an ranks Jesus below Muhammad,* and his teaching and community below those of Muhammad.* As God’s revelation to his final prophet, the Qur’an sets aside or subverts—depending on your perspective—Jesus’ teaching on such things as nonviolence, marriage’s being exclusively monogamous and divorce. The Qur’an also marginalizes Jesus by devoting many more verses to Moses than to him, making Abraham more religiously important than him and never telling a single story about Jesus as an adult completely.

[7] http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam/beliefs/isa.shtml   Accessed August 2, 2018. Dr. Khalidi is the author of The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature (Harvard University Press, 2003) and currently holds the Shaykh Zayid Chair in Islamic and Arabic Studies at the American University of Beirut.

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  1. This is one of the most balanced, factual and unbiased descriptions of Jesus (ASW) by a Christian as described in Quran that I have read to date. Incompleteness of Jesus’ message or mission is the reason why Muhammad (SAW) was sent as the prophet so it is nothing but natural that Quran emphasizes its own message over that of its predecessors and mentions Jesus as forecasting Muhammad’s arrival. (Refer to the Bible (Gospel) of Barnabas). However, there is no formal ranking of prophets in Quran, and there is a hadith of Muhammad (SAW) to the effect that “don’t rank me above any prophets not even Yunus” (ASW) (mentioned as Jonah in the Bible).

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