Our pull-out series for 2021 is taken from Understanding Islam from a Christian Perspective, by Rosemary Sookhdeo, Barnabas Fund’s International Director of Finance.
The following excerpts from her popular and informative book give invaluable insights into areas where the religion of Islam, which was established 600 years after Christ, has borrowed from Christianity and explains the key theological differences between the two religions.
Theological Differences between Islam and Christianity
Jesus is called Isa in Islam. There are two main sources for the Muslim Jesus: the Quran gives a history of his life, while the haditha establishes his place in the Muslim understanding of the end times. Christians who engage in dialogue with Muslims sometimes argue that the Isa found in the Quran is essentially the same as the Jesus of the New Testament. However, all the evidence from the Quran, the hadith and the New Testament leads both Muslims and Christians to precisely the opposite conclusion. In fact, the Isa of Islam and the Jesus of Christianity are radically different and irreconcilable in their person and work. If Isa and Jesus shared the fundamental commonalities then either Islam or Christianity would have to rewrite and reinterpret all the theology and teachings of their faith.
Isa is only a prophet
Isa (the Muslim Jesus) is a great prophet in Islam, but he is a different person from the Jesus whom we know as the Son of God. In the Quran, “Christ the son of Mary was no more than a Messenger; many were the messengers that passed away before him” (sura 5:75). There are 28 prophets in the Quran and Isa is one of them. Six of these prophets receive special titles: Adam the Chosen of God, Noah the Prophet of God, Abraham the Friend of God, Moses the Converser with God, Isa the Spirit of God and Muhammad the Apostle of God. Muhammad is called the last and Seal of the prophets. Isa is considered to be the greatest of the prophets before Muhammad, yet he is human like the prophets of old and is superseded by Muhammad, the “Seal”.67
In the Gospels Jesus is called a prophet by those who first hear His teaching (Mark 6:15, 8:28) and accepts this title when He says that a prophet is not without honour except in his own country (Mark 6:4, cf. Luke 13:33). However, the New Testament, apart from the above references, makes no explicit mention of Jesus using the title of prophet.
Parallels and differences between the Biblical Jesus and the Muslim Isa
The birth of Isa
The Quran states that a “spirit” appeared to Mary and promised her a son. Islamic tradition assumes this to have been the angel Gabriel. The messenger goes on to say that the child will be a sign not only for his own people but for all humanity. Sura 19:21 states: “We wish to appoint him as a sign unto men”.
The Quran says that Isa was born of Mary, who was a virgin. Mary is mistakenly called Miriam the sister of Aaron and Moses whose father was Imran.b There is no mention of Joseph in the Quran. In the Gospel of Luke, when Mary asks the angel Gabriel how her conception is possible since she is a virgin, the angel replies: “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).
The place where Isa was born is not clear, but the Quran states that he was born in a remote place under a palm tree. Straight away Isa comforts Mary in her pain and her fear of people’s rejecting her. Isa then speaks from the cradle and says, “I am indeed a servant of Allah: he hath given me Revelation and made me a prophet” (sura 19:30-31).
However, there are stark differences between the virgin births in Christianity and Islam. The virgin birth in Islam was a divine sign but was not indicative of a special role or purpose. Isa was created out of the dust of the earth. The Bible says Jesus was born of God and “conceived of the Holy Spirit”. The virgin birth was the indication of His role as Son of God.
Isa and miracles
According to the Quran Isa raised the dead and healed the blind and leprous and breathed life into clay birds. “I have come to you, with a Sign from your Lord, in that I make for you out of clay, as it were, the figure of a bird, and breathe into it, and it becomes a bird by Allah’s leave: And I heal those born blind, and the lepers, and I quicken the dead, by Allah’s leave; and I declare to you what ye eat, and what ye store in your houses. Surely therein is a Sign for you if ye did believe” (sura 3:49).
According to this verse (in Arabic) Isa did God’s work and bore God’s attributes (e.g. creator), but he was able to perform miracles only with Allah’s permission.
The story of Jesus creating a bird out of clay is reported in a number of apocryphal gospels. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas narrates: “This little child Jesus when he was five years old was playing at the ford of a brook … and having made soft clay, he fashioned thereof twelve sparrows. And it was the Sabbath when he did these things … Jesus clapped his hands together and cried out to the sparrows and said to them: Go! and the sparrows took their flight and went away chirping”.
Isa was sinless
Muslims believe Isa was sinless, as in sura 19:19: “(the angel says) I am only a messenger from thy Lord, (To announce) to thee the gift of a holy son.”
Isa was the only prophet mentioned in the Quran who had these three characteristics mentioned above.
Isa is the “Word of God” and “Spirit of God”
Isa is called “Word of God” and “Spirit of God” – the only prophet who is given these titles in the Quran (sura 4:171). “Christ Jesus the son of Mary was (no more than) a messenger of Allah, and His Word which he bestowed on Mary and a Spirit proceeding from Him.” However, the Quran indicates that Isa is only “a” word of God and not “the” Word of God (or the divine logos who was pre-existent with the Father at creation) as described in John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”.
Isa brought a gospel to humankind
Muslims believe that Isa brought a gospel called the injil and a law to humankind. However, this gospel bears no resemblance to the four Gospels in the New Testament or to the Gospel, which is the Good News of salvation through Christ alone. Since the Quran denies the crucifixion of Jesus, it eliminates any possibility of defining the Gospel as the belief that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, (and) that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
The Muslim gospel mentions nothing of the life of Isa or any of his teachings. There is also no reference to any content from the book of Acts or any of the epistles of Paul, Peter, James or John. The message Isa gives is one confirming the message of earlier prophets. “We [Allah] sent Jesus the son of Mary, confirming the Torah that had come before him: We sent him the Gospel: therein was guidance and light. And confirmation of the Torah that had come before him: a guidance and an admonition to those who fear Allah. Let the People of the Gospel judge by what Allah hath revealed therein. If any do fail to judge by what Allah hath revealed, they are those who rebel” (sura 5:46-47).
The apostle Paul categorically rejects any other message as “a different gospel which is really no gospel at all”. He emphatically makes clear that the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is non-negotiable. “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: if anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!” (Galatians 1: 8-9).
Isa was only human and the son of Mary
As we have seen, Muslims believe that Isa was a mere man like any other prophet, and that all of them have been superseded by Muhammad. Isa was created from dust and lived like other prophets or messengers sent by Allah before him. Hence, it is not surprising that the Quran repeatedly refers to Jesus as “son of Mary”. This title occurs 23 times in the Quran, 16 times as Isa, son of Mary, and seven times as Son of Mary alone or with some other title. In marked contrast, the New Testament calls Jesus “Son of Mary” only once in the Gospel of Mark. “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” (Mark 6:3 KJV). The Islamic commentator M. Ali notes that “the epithet Ibn Maryam (Son of Mary) is added to show that he was a mortal like other prophets of God”.68
“The use of the title Son of Mary, found only once in the Bible, was not taken up by the early church generally. A search in the orthodox Christian literature of the centuries after the Bible was written has found no trace of this title, though it is possible that it was used occasionally or obscurely. Even apocryphal and heretical works rarely use it,” writes Parrinder.69 The exceptions are the Arabic Infancy Gospel and the Syriac Infancy Gospel where the title “Son of Mary” occurs five times and 15 times respectively. Both these works were never accepted by orthodox Christians and entirely rejected by the Church.
Christians believe that even though Jesus was fully human, He was also fully God. He had a human body and exhibited normal human characteristics such as hunger and thirst and weariness. Both human and divine natures came together in one person. “... Christ Jesus ... being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage, rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness,” the apostle Paul explains (Philippians 2:5-7).
Isa is the Messiah but not the Redeemer
Isa is called the Messiah in the Quran eleven times. However, the title is empty and meaningless, as it does not carry the Old Testament meaning of “Messiah” or its fulfilment in the Jesus of the New Testament, where it means “Anointed One” and “Redeemer” or “Deliverer”. The Quran does not explain the title.
Isa is not the Son of God
Muslims deny the deity of Isa and therefore do not accept him as the Son of God. They quote sura 4:171 of the Quran: “O People of the Book! Commit no excesses in your religion: nor say of Allah aught but the truth. Christ Jesus the son of Mary was (no more than) a messenger of Allah, and His Word which he bestowed on Mary, and a Spirit proceeding from Him: so believe in Allah and His Messengers. Say not “Trinity” desist. It will be better for you: For Allah is One God: Glory be to Him: (Far Exalted is He) above having a son”.
Muslims believe that Isa confirms this himself, and say the idea that Allah could have a child is blasphemous. “They do blaspheme who say: ‘Allah is Christ the son of Mary’. But said ‘Christ O Children of Israel! Worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord’. Whoever joins other gods with Allah – Allah will forbid him The Garden, and the Fire will be his abode. There will for the wrong doers be no one to help” (sura 5:72).
The Quran has many passages denying that God has offspring. The most famous is the short sura recited daily by Muslims. “Say: ‘He is God, One; God, the eternal; he brought not forth, nor hath he been brought forth; Co-equal with him there hath never been any one’” (sura 112). Another sura confirms this: “That is Jesus, son of Mary – a statement of the truth concerning which they are in doubt. It is not for God to take to himself any offspring; glory be to him! When he decides a thing, he simply says ‘Be!’ and it is” (sura 19:35-36).70
Paramount in Islam is absolute monotheism or the unity of Allah (tawhid) and this is in direct opposition to the Trinity and therefore the divine nature and Sonship of Jesus Christ. Muhammad believed the idea that Allah should have a son is a lie believed only by those that are ignorant. We read in (sura 18:4-5). “What they say is nothing but falsehood!”
Islam not only proclaims the unity of God but constantly attacks the Sonship of Christ at every level from its theology to its practice. Muslims consider the statement that “Jesus is the Son of God” to be blasphemous, and it will cause them to react sharply with great disgust (sura 19:88-92).
a The hadith is the second sacred source text of Islam. There are six authoritative hadith collections, which include thousands of Muhammad’s sayings that were passed on by his companions and were collected from 275 to 350 years after his death. The way of life of Muhammad as recounted in the hadith is known as the sunna and is used as guidance for his followers.
b In the Quran, Mary the mother of Jesus is confused with Miriam the sister of Aaron who was the first high priest of Israel. “When Jesus was born Mary’s neighbours said to her, ‘Mary! Truly an amazing thing has thou brought! O Sister of Aaron! Thy father was not a man of evil, nor thy mother a woman unchaste!’” (sura 19:27-28). Muslims say that Mary had a brother called Aaron, but in the Quran the only one called Aaron is the brother of Moses (sura 20:30).
67 Parrinder, Geoffrey Jesus in the Qur’an. London: Sheldon Press, 1965, p. 40.
68 M. ‘Ali, Translation and Commentary on The Holy Qur’an. 4th edition, Lahore, 1951, p. 40.
69 Parrinder, p. 26.
70 Sura 19:35-36 in Richard Bell, The Qur’an: Volume I. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1937, p. 287.
To be continued in Barnabas Aid May/June 2021