Archive for Friday, August 11, 2000

Christ plays part in Muslim faith


August 11, 2000


Probably most Christians are unaware that Jesus is a rather important figure in the Quran, the Muslim scriptures given by the prophet Muhammad in the seventh century.

Islam does not, however, view Jesus the same way Christians do.

In the Quran (3:45), angels appear to Mary to announce the birth: "Allah gives you glad tidings of a word from Him: his name will be Christ Jesus." So Jesus was a Christ, or Messiah (Masih in Arabic; the term for a Christian is Masihi).

Moreover, the Quran agrees with biblical Matthew and Luke that Jesus was miraculously born of a virgin. The angels tell Mary that God has "chosen you above the women of all nations" to deliver a holy child. Mary asks, "How shall I have a son when no man has touched me?" An angel replies: "Allah creates what he wills. When He has decreed a plan, He but says to it, 'be,' and it is!" (3:47). So Mary "guarded her chastity" and God "breathed into (her body) of Our spirit" (66:11).

This passage foretells that Jesus would be an apostle to Israel to teach God's law. Through him the blind and lepers would be healed and the dead would be made alive again (3:49).

That verse and a parallel account in 5:110 predict a specific miracle not found in the Bible. Jesus would form a bird out of clay and turn it into a living thing. F.F. Bruce, a British Protestant scholar, now deceased, said this came from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, a writing that was rejected as inauthentic by the Christian church.

Jesus and Mary

In another account of Jesus' birth (19:16-34), the infant miraculously speaks from his cradle and a voice tells a thirsty Mary to shake fruit from a palm tree. Bruce said that resembles a passage in another rejected writing, the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew.

Bruce wrote that the Thomas and Pseudo-Matthew materials were "all fabricated out of whole cloth."

Apart from the birth accounts, the Quran's references to Jesus are brief. We are told that God "strengthened him with the Holy Spirit" (2:87, 253) and that he is "in the ranks of the righteous" alongside John the Baptist and Elijah (6:85). He is also called the "Word" of Allah and "a Spirit proceeding from Him" (4:171).

The Quran's most important point is to reject the Christian teaching that Jesus is divine, which Islam considers great heresy. The Quran also spurns the related Christian belief in the Trinity, the one God existing in three persons. Though the Christian Trinity consists of the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Muslims apparently thought Mary was one of the three divine persons, judging from this passage:

"Allah will say: 'O Jesus, the son of Mary? Did you say unto men, "Worship me and my mother as gods in derogation of Allah"?'" (5:116). Jesus replies that he did not teach this.

Living on

In another distinctive teaching of the Quran (4:157), the Jews say, "'We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the messenger of Allah.' But they killed him not, nor crucified him. But so it was made to appear to them."

Agreeing with various writers from Islam's early centuries, the classic 1934 Quran commentary by A. Yusuf Ali said Jesus was not crucified or otherwise killed by the Jews. That was a mere "illusion" among his enemies. Such is the popular belief among Muslims.

But Cyril Glasse's "Concise Encyclopedia of Islam" (1989) argues that the Quran itself does not warrant that view. Rather, he thinks the phrase "they killed him not" reflects identical phrasing elsewhere (2:154, 3:169) that says people slain for the faith should not be called dead because they live on in Allah's presence.

Glasse says the Quran's point is to reject Christian teaching that Jesus' death was a sacrifice or atonement for sin.

Bruce thought early Muslim understandings of Jesus may have been shaped by Arab Christians of the time, some from branches that rejected orthodoxy. Around the time of Muhammad's birth, that district of Arabia was invaded by a Christian general from Ethiopia. And Muhammad is said to have spoken with a Christian cousin of his first wife Khadijah who had some knowledge of the Bible.

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