Jesus in the Quran

Cambridge, MA.

Then God will say, “O Jesus son of Mary! Remember My Blessing upon thee, and upon thy mother, when I strengthened thee with the Holy Spirit, that you mightest speak to people in the cradle and in maturity; and when I taught thee the Book, the Wisdom, the Torah, and the Gospel;” and how thou wouldst create out of clay the shape of a bird, by My Leave; and how though wouldst breathe into it, and it would become a bird, by My Leave; and thou wouldst heal the blind and the leper, by My Leave; and thou wouldst bring forth the dead, by My Leave; and how I restrained the Children of Israel from thee, when thou didst bring the clear proofs, and those disbelieved among them said, “This is naught but manifest sorcery.” And when I inspired the apostles to believe in Me and in My messenger, they said, “We believe. Bear witness that we are submitters.” (5:110-111)

When the apostles said, “O Jesus son of Mary! Is thy Lord able to send down to us from Heaven a table spread with food?” [Jesus son of Mary] said, “Reverence God, if you are believers.” They said, “We desire to eat from it, so that our hearts may be at peace, and we may know that thou hast spoken truthfully unto us, and we may be among the witnesses thereto.” Jesus son of Mary said, “O God, our Lord! Send down unto us a table from Heaven spread with food, to be a feast for us — for the first of us and the last of us — and a sign from Thee, and provide for us, for Thou art the best of providers.” God said, “I shall indeed send it down unto you. But whoever among you disbelieves thereafter, I shall surely punish him with a punishment wherewith I have not punished any other in all the worlds.” (5:112-115)

And when God said, “O Jesus son of Mary! Didst thou say unto mankind, “Take me and my mother as gods apart from God?” [Jesus son of Mary] said, “Glory be to Thee! It is not for me to utter that to which I have no right. Had I said it, Thou wouldst surely have known it. Thou knowest what is in my self and I know not what is in Thy Self. Truly it is Thou Who knowest best the things unseen. I said naught to them save that which Thou commanded me: “Worship God, my Lord and your Lord.” And I was a witness over them, so long as I remained among them. And Thou art Witness over all things. If Thou punisheth them they are indeed Thy servants, but if Thou forgiveth them, then indeed Thou art the Mighty, the Wise.” (5:116-118)

There are many passages in the Quran to look at, if one wants to understand the role of Jesus in the eyes of the Prophet and early Islam. See in particular, and most easily, passages (e.g., 19:16-21; 3:45-47; 3:49) cited by Joseph Lumbard in his essay in the Study Quran, “The Quranic View of Sacred History and Other Religions” (particularly pages 1777-1782). See also some of the books he refers to, such as Quranic Christians (1981) by Jane McAuliffe, former Dean at Georgetown and now President of Bryn Mawr College, and Mahmoud Ayoub’s 1995 essay, “Jesus the Son of God: A Study of the Terms Ibn [offspring] and Walad [son] in the Qur’an and Tafsir [exegesis] Tradition.” John Kaltner’s book, Ishmael Instructs Isaac, remains valuable here too, as is a 2013 essay on Mary and Muhammed in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies by my Harvard doctoral student, Axel Takacs. One can also search through the detailed index of the Study Quran, which lists more than 50 references to Jesus, and many more in the commentaries. (Or try an online concordance.)

A lot to read. Indeed, the multitude of such passages is part of the point: confronted with the mysteries of God and of ourselves, and guided by our traditions and Scriptures, there is still much room for study, close and complex reading; there is room for learning, in the face of the monumental ignorance tormenting us today. Violence wins in the short run, Truth in the long run. A humble contribution to this great work of learning is what my posts have been about, including this one. We are not doing theology in any completed sense in this study, but we are making ourselves the literate persons who will be capable of theologies worth reading. I am therefore encouraged by the many comments on my posts, particularly from those who read closely what I write. May the study continue, long after this fifth and last post is forgotten.

Not wanting my always-too-long posts to be even longer, I had to choose one passage about Jesus to write about, and the passage cited above from Sura 5 (The Table Spread) seems beneficial and illuminating (even if I still recommend Sura 19 [Maryam], for which I also gave you audio links in my past post). Sura 5 is difficult, as it incorporates several different Christian and Muslim views of Jesus, and requires cross-reading with many other Quranic passages. The passage falls into three parts. Verses 110-111: God’s declaration to Jesus of what he has done for him, through him, both deeds such as we find in the Gospels, and the account of the miraculous clay birds we find in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Even the people’s refusal to accept Jesus is in God’s hand, as is the divine protection of Jesus, kept from their hands. This is God’s direct address to Jesus, after addressing a wider group of prophets. Verses 112-115: The heavenly meal that God sends down, possibly after a Ramadan fast, showing to ambivalent disciples the effective intercessory power to Jesus. Verses 116-118: Jesus’ testimony, when questioned by God, that as God already knows; Jesus did not ask his listeners to worship him (and his mother) as deities apart from God, since his message is always, “Worship God, my Lord and your Lord.”

The passage, nine verses, is accompanied by about five pages of small-print commentary, not to be skipped. Regarding verses 110-111, for instance, we learn of the Islamic tradition’s teaching on the Holy Spirit, as either the Archangel Gabriel, or the Spirit arising from God’s command, the “Spirit of the Holy.” Jesus is learned in all the sacred books; the “Book” may be taken as God’s Word, perhaps first of all the uncreated Quran, before its worldly revelation (see also 2:129, 3:3-4, 48ff.); his disciples are “submitters,” true “muslims.” Regarding 112-115: Even when these apostles believe, they also balk, and demand a sign, a meal from Heaven — or, it is because of their faith that they hunger for the meal from Heaven. Jesus can bring down this heavenly food; Jesus is the one to whom God will listen, whose requests God honors. Noting that Christian readers will see here hints of Jesus’ multiplication of the loaves (and, I would add, a distant gesture toward Jesus himself as the Bread from Heaven), the commentary notes that it also prompts in Muslim readers a sense that Jesus and his apostles were sharing a meal after a fast something like Ramadan; or, it is the Christian ‘id, joyful meal from Heaven, perhaps even the Eucharist, a meal of faith, grounded in the piety and obedience of Jesus.

And finally, regarding the most difficult 116-117: Perhaps, the commentary says, this section is prompted by the mention of disbelief in the previous section. True belief knows that Jesus directed worship only to God, not to himself. Perhaps the Prophet had the impression, from Christians he observed, that Mary too was worshipped, and so that piety too is restrained here: “Jesus indicates that he bears no responsibility for such exaggerations of his or his mother’s status, but rather than directly denying that he commanded his disciples to take him and his mother as gods apart from God, he demonstrates an attitude of proper comportment before god by offering a response of perfect humility, saying he had no right to utter such a thing.” God knows Jesus, but even Jesus does not know his God as God knows him. In leaving judgment in God’s hands—punishment and forgiveness mark His justice and mercy—Jesus leaves the door open, the commentary says, to God’s patience with those who see Jesus as God, a confusion, in the Quranic way of thinking, that is not the grievous sin of idolatry.

In the previous two paragraphs I have stated all too briefly some complicated matters, and touched on issues that Muslims and Christians, and those dedicated to Christian-Muslim dialogue, have debated and written about for centuries. My summary, meant to give a taste of the Book itself and of The Study Quran’s notes to readers without the text in front of them, does not substitute for the necessary personal study—study which, I am suggesting, must come before a return to doctrinal disputes, and which through learning will leave no space for border-closing bigotry and interreligious violence that stresses only differences, replacing divine Mercy with human zealotry.

The Jesus we discover in Sura 5:110-118 is not the Jesus of the New Testament and Christian faith; and yet—in the text’s strong sense of God, God’s providence, God’s special relationship to Jesus, and Jesus’ own utter fidelity and obedience to the Word of God he came into the world to witness—we are not as far from Christian faith as one might have thought. We encounter here the piety of Jesus, a Jesus reverenced in the Quran, with his mother, beyond the Christian communities of the time. We who are Christian can, in light of this text—and the many others in the Quran—prayerfully return to the Gospel with a fresh eye, not to abandon our faith, but to recognize that instructed by the Prophet we become able to see more of Jesus than we had seen before. If Muslims do the same, and study the Gospels with open hearts, we will all be better off, and ignorance will lose another battle.

But enough. Do check out The Study Quran, either from your library, or quickly ask for it for Christmas, or purchase a copy if you can afford it. For still further interreligious reading, turn for instance to the Jewish Study Bible, or The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha. In 2012, I blogged for some weeks on the Book of Mormon , and one can find a study version of the Book of Mormon itself listed here.

My previous posts on the Quran: one, two, three, four.

(The words accompanying this post in the image are, I believe, from Sura 5. I welcome correction!)

Merry Christmas to all; Peace be upon all God's People; may the borders remain ever open to God's Mercy.