He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Friday, September 9, 2016

Fair Questions: What does the Qur'an say about Jesus?

Listen to the embedded podcast version of this post or read the written version below.

There are many references to Jesus in the Qur'an, and there are some very important ones in the surah on Mary, which is a surah I have written about previously.  Some of these references are not related to Mary directly or to the infancy narrative of Jesus, but are part of a discourse about the unfortunate fate of unbelievers (kafir in Arabic).

And they say, 'The All-Merciful
has taken unto Himself a son.'
You have indeed advanced something
The heavens are wellnigh rent of it
and the earth split asunder, and
the mountains wellnigh fall down
for that they have attributed
to the All-Merciful a son; and it
behoves not the All-Merciful to take
     a son.

This is an explicit denial of Jesus being the Son of God following immediately after the narrative of his conception and birth and the miracles being performed by him as an infant.  But this is more than just a competing intellectual claim; it's not just that arguments are given for why it's absurd that Jesus would be the Son of God, but also that it is such an astoundingly blasphemous claim in the eyes of Muslims that it is appropriate to describe it in terms of natural catastrophes of near-unimaginable scope, the kind of natural catastrophes that destroy entire civilizations.

This isn't the only surah that presents Christian beliefs about Jesus as having severe consequences.  The surah "The Table" (Al-Ma'ida in Arabic) features a similar discourse:

     They are unbelievers
who say, 'God is the Messiah, Mary's son.'
     For the Messiah said,
     'Children of Israel,
     serve God, my Lord and
     your Lord.  Verily
     whoso associates
     with God anything,
     God shall prohibit him
     entrance to Paradise,
     and his refuge shall be
     the Fire; and wrongdoers
     shall have no helpers.'

     They are unbelievers
who say, 'God is the Third of Three.'
     No God is there but
          One God.
If they refrain not from what they say, there
shall afflict those of them that disbelieve
     a painful chastisement.
Will they not turn to God and pray His forgiveness?
God is All-forgiving, All-compassionate.

The Messiah, son of Mary, was only
a Messenger; Messengers before him
passed away; his mother was a just woman;
they both ate food.  Behold, how We make clear
the signs to them, then behold, how they
     perverted are!

The consequences in "The Table" surah are eternal spiritual consequences; Christians will be denied entry to Paradise and will be cast into The Fire (Al-Nar in Arabic) which is another name for Jahannam, the Islamic equivalent of what is known as Hell in the Christian cosmology.

The Quranic narrative presents Jesus himself as the one who makes it clear that those who keep these Christian beliefs about his divinity will be condemned to everlasting torment in The Fire.  The next Christian doctrine to be explicitly addressed in the Quranic narrative is the Trinity, and that belief too is said to result in severe consequences for those who believe it.

The last part of this passage makes it clear that Christians have perverted the clear teachings of God about who Jesus is.  Later in the surah "The Table," Jesus and Mary are mentioned again:

The day when God shall gather the Messengers, and say,
'What answer were you given?' They shall say, 'We have
no knowledge; Thou art the Knower of the things Unseen.'

When God said, 'Jesus
Son of Mary, remember
My blessing upon thee
and upon thy mother,
when I confirmed thee
with the Holy Spirit,
to speak to men in
the cradle, and of age;
and when I taught thee
the Book, the Wisdom, 
the Torah, the Gospel;
and when thou createst
out of clay, by My
leave, as the likeness
of a bird, and thou
breathest into it,
and it is a bird, by My
leave; and thou healest
the blind and the leper
by My leave, and thou
bringest the dead forth
by My leave; and when I
restrained from thee
the Children of Israel
when thou camest unto
them with the clear
signs, and the unbelievers
among them said, "This is
nothing but sorcery
manifest."  And when I
inspired the Apostles:
"Believe in Me and My
Messenger"; they said,
"We believe; witness
Thou our submission."'
And when the Apostles
said, 'O Jesus son of
Mary, is thy Lord able
to send down on us a
Table out of heaven?'
He said, 'Fear you God,
if you are believers.'
They said, 'We desire
that we should eat of it
and our hearts be at rest;
and that we may know that
thou hast spoken true to
us, and that we may be
among its witnesses.'

The reference to birds made out of clay becoming alive when Jesus breathed on them comes from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, a text from the 2nd century popular among Gnostics.  Though it was probably written during the same century as the Protoevangelium of James which fits well with the canonical Gospels, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas presents a very different Jesus than what is consistent with the synoptic Gospels in the New Testament.

Interestingly, the narrative about the birds coming to life because Jesus breathed on them would have been seen as a sign of divinity by someone familiar with the Genesis creation narratives in which the breath of God is what brings Adam to life.  But that divinity is explicitly denied in the Quranic narrative, and the Jesus of the Qur'an is the one who denies it in the following passage:

Said Jesus son of Mary,
'O God, our Lord, send
down upon us a Table
out of heaven, that shall
be for us a festival, the
first and last of us,
and a sign from Thee.
And provide for us; Thou
art the best of providers.'
God said, 'Verily I
do send it down on you;
whoso of you hereafter
disbelieves, verily I
shall chastise him with a
chastisement wherewith I
chastise no other being.'
And when God said, 'O
Jesus son of Mary,
didst thou say unto men,
"Take me and my mother
as gods, apart from God"?'
He said, 'To Thee be
glory!  It is not mine to
say what I have no right
to.  If I indeed said it,
Thou knowest it, knowing
what is within my soul,
and I know not what is
within Thy soul; Thou
knowest the things unseen
I only said to them what
Thou didst command me:
"Serve God, my Lord
and your Lord."

The Quranic narrative has Jesus explicitly denying not just his own divinity, but also denying the divinity of Mary, which is something the overwhelming majority of ancient Christians would have denied as well.  Either this passage wasn't directed at them, or the author had a fundamental misunderstanding of ancient Christian beliefs about Mary.  Another possibility is that it was a reaction against the Collyridian sect that worshiped Mary in 4th century Arabia, and may still have been known to Muhammad in the 600s.

Mary isn't the only woman mentioned in the Qur'an, and several mentions occur in another surah, and surah which, like "The Table" appears early in the Qur'an.  This surah, in which Christian doctrines are also explicitly denied is entitled "Women" (Al-Nisa in Arabic):

So, for their breaking the compact, and disbelieving
in the signs of God, and slaying the Prophets
without right, and for their saying, 'Our hearts
are uncircumcised'--nay, but God sealed them
for their unbelief, so they believe not,
     except a few--
and for their unbelief, and their uttering
against Mary a mighty calumny,
and for their saying, 'We slew the Messiah,
Jesus son of Mary, the Messenger of God'--
yet they did not slay him, neither crucified him,
only a likeness of that was shown to them.
Those who are at variance concerning him surely
are in doubt regarding him; they have no knowledge
of him, except the following of surmise;
and they slew him not of a certainty--
no indeed; God raised him up to Him; God is
     All-mighty, All-wise.
There is not one of the People of the Book
but will assuredly believe in him before his
death, and on Resurrection Day he will be
     a witness against them.

The people being referred to in this passage as having broken the covenant, disbelieving God's signs, killing the Holy Prophets, committing calumny against Mary, and claiming to have killed Jesus are...the Jews.  The Quranic narrative insists that Jesus never actually died, but rather that God raised him up alive, and that Jesus will subsequently return during the end times.

Some Islamic commentators on the Qur'an insist that someone else was crucified in place of Jesus, which is a view taken in some Gnostic texts like, for example, the Apocalypse of Peter, which plainly states that someone else was substituted for Jesus on the cross.

There are also more references to Jesus in "The House of Imran" surah.  The following passage is the last part of the angel's announcement to Mary about the child Jesus she would conceive and bear:

And He will teach him
the Book, the Wisdom,
the Torah, the Gospel,
to be a Messenger
to the Children of Israel
saying, "I have come to
you with a sign from
your Lord.  I will create
for you out of clay as
the likeness of a bird;
then I will breathe into
it, and it will be a
bird, by the leave of God.
I will also heal
the blind and the leper,
and bring to life the
dead, by the leave of God.
I will inform you too
of what things you eat,
and what you treasure up
in your houses.  Surely
in that is a sign for you,
if you are believers.
Likewise confirming the
truth of the Torah that
is before me, and to make
lawful to you certain
things that before were
forbidden unto you.
I have come to you with
a sign from your Lord;
so fear you God, and
obey you me.  Surely
God is my Lord and
your Lord; so serve Him.
This is a straight path."

The "House of Imran" contains many of the same points that are present in "The Table" surah, but has an added point that certain things that were unlawful (haraam in Arabic) have been made lawful (halal in Arabic), which seems to be a reflection of early Christian beliefs about Gentile converts not being required to abide by the laws of the Torah.

The "House of Imran" surah continues with more about Jesus and the Apostles:

And when Jesus perceived
their unbelief, he said,
'Who will be my helpers
unto God?' The Apostles
said, 'We will be helpers
of God; we believe in God;
witness thou our submission.
Lord, we believe in that
Thou hast sent down, and we
follow the Messenger.
Inscribe us therefore with
those who bear a witness.'

And they devised, and God
devised, and God is
the best of devisers.

When God said, 'Jesus,
I will take thee to Me
and will raise thee to Me,
and I will purify thee
of those who believe not.
I will set thy followers
above the unbelievers
till the Resurrection Day.
Then unto Me shall you
return, and I will decide
between you, as to what
you were at variance on.
As for the unbelievers,
I will chastise them with
a terrible chastisement
in this world and the next;
they shall have no helpers.'

The idea that Jesus will come back at the end times and God will set the record straight about how he is a Muslim appears here in the "House of Imran" surah as well, along with additional mentions of the severe consequences which await unbelievers.

The Quranic narrative in the "House of Imran" surah continues with another explicit denial of Christian beliefs about Jesus:

This We recite to thee
of signs and wise remembrance
Truly, the likeness of
Jesus, in God's sight,
is as Adam's likeness;
He created him of dust,
then said He unto him,
'Be,' and he was.
The truth is of God;
be not of the doubters.
And whoso disputes with thee
concerning him, after the
knowledge that has come to thee,
say: 'Come now, let us call
our sons and your sons,
our wives and your wives,
our selves and your selves,
then let us humbly pray
and so lay God's curse
upon the ones who lie.'
This is the true story.
There is no God but God,
and assuredly God is
the All-mighty, the All-wise.
And if they turn their backs,
assuredly God knows
the workers of corruption.

In this passage, the Quranic narrative emphasizes that Jesus is a man just like Adam, and that the appropriate response to the Christians who claim that Jesus was uncreated and coeternal with God the Father is to pray for God to curse them for their lies against God.  Unsurprisingly, this is immediately followed by a classical Islamic formulation which asserts the oneness of God.

The Qur'an has many interesting things to say about Jesus, and on the whole these statements are an interesting blend of appropriation of and also rejection of early Christian beliefs, some of them from Gnostic sources.  In the Quranic narratives about Jesus, we see even more starkly that an important part of the project of Islam is to reform existing monotheistic religions (meaning the Christians and Jews) and restore them to the true faith in the One God while acknowledging many of the good things about those religions.

Setting aside the military prowess of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, that acknowledgement of the good things in Judaism and Christianity may well be part of why Islam has been so successful in making converts.

*     *     *

These passages are not the only references to Jesus in the Qur'an, and if you want more information about those references and how Jesus is viewed in Islam, I recommend both reading the Qur'an for yourself and reading the thoughts of Islamic commentators on it.

The above image is a Persian painting of Mary and the infant Jesus.

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