In this post I deal with the question why? Why is it that Islamic teaching about Jesus is so antithetical to orthodox Christology?
According to the earliest sources, Islam came into existence in a context where Jews and Christians openly doubted and questioned the prophethood of Muhammad. And many of the revelations he supposedly received were actually polemical statements against Christian doctrines as he understood them. Ayahs (verses) which seem to refute New Testament teaching purportedly came to Muhammed in the later part of his prophetic career in Medina when he was being challenged.
It is worth our time to read this brief dialogue between Muhammad and two Byzantine Christians found in the oldest biography of the prophet’s life from Ibn Ishaq. Note, “they” refers to the Christians speaking with Muhammad. When it says that “the Quran came down” this is referring to the classical Islamic doctrine of revelation. The word of Allah was sent down from Allah to the Prophet.
They argue that he is the third of three in that God says; We have done, We have commanded, We have created and We have decreed, and they say, If He were one he would have said I have done, I have created, and soon, but He is He and Jesus and Mary. Concerning all these assertions the Quran came down. When the two divines spoke to him the apostle said to them, 'Submit yourselves.'! They said, We have submitted.' He said: 'You have not submitted, so submit.' They said, 'Nay, but we submitted before you.' He said, 'You lie. Your assertion that God has a son, your worship of the cross, and your eating pork hold you back from submission.' They said, 'But who is his father, The apostle was silent and did not answer them. So God sent down concerning their words and their in-coherence the beginning of the sura of the Family of 'Imran up to more than eighty verses…and using their own arguments against them in reference to their master to show them their error thereby, 'God there is no God but He,' no associate is with Him in His authority. 'The Living the Ever-existent,' the living Who cannot die, whereas Jesus died and was crucified according to their doctrine; 'The Ever-existent' one who remains unceasingly in the place of His sovereignty in His creation, whereas Jesus, according to their doctrine, removed from the place where he was and went from it elsewhere. 'He has brought down to thee the book in truth,' i.e. with the truth about which they differ. 'And He sent down the Torah and the Gospel,' the Torah to Moses and the Gospel to Jesus, as He sent down books to those who were before him. 'And He sent down the Criterion,' i.e. the distinction between truth and falsehood about which the sects differ in regard to the nature of Jesus and other matters….i.e. He knows what they intend and scheme and what comparison they seek to establish in there doctrine of Jesus when they make him God and Lord, when they possess the knowledge that he is nothing of the thus behaving with and infidelity. 'He it is who forms you in the womb as He pleases, i.e. Jesus was one who was formed in the womb—they do not attempt to deny that—like every other child of Adam, so how can he be God when he had occupied such a place?…The Mighty in His victory over those who deny Him when He wills, and the Wise in His argument and His case against His creatures. (Guillaume. The Life of Muhammad. A Translation of Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah. 271-272, emphasis added)
Just as in the discussion above, it is not uncommon today for Muslims to assume that Christians believe the Trinity is a reference to Allah, Jesus and Mary. Also, I cannot count the number of times Muslims have told me that it is impossible for Jesus to be God because God cannot die. Or, that Jesus was a baby and he cannot be God (the reason the above text says, “Jesus was one who was formed in the womb”).
Notice that the arguments Muhammad is attacking in this excerpt are unfounded. They are not rooted in true Christology or any aspect of Christian theology. Much of what is refuted are simply misrepresentations of the Christian faith. Orthodoxy did not and does not assert that Jesus and Mary are gods “besides” Allah. Christians do not worship the cross. They do not believe Jesus is one of three gods. And, lastly, they do not believe that God died in the way Muslims argue (more on this in another post).
This narrative just surveyed has many points of overlap with passages from the Quran. For example, we see in surah (chapter) 6 of the Quran that Jesus cannot be the Son of God because God does not have a wife.
To Him is due the primal origin of the heavens and the earth: How can He have a son when He hath no consort?… (Q. 6:101, Yusuf Ali)
This helps us to grasp the worldview of Muslims. Recently, some friends and I had the opportunity to share with a man from Turkey. When I told him Jesus is the Son of God he was incredulous and confused. He told me that this is just like Greek mythology and the god Zeus having sons and daughters! Obviously no sincere Christian believes this is what is meant by the title Son of God. Nevertheless, this is the prevailing misconception in the minds of Muslims.
Next is a verse accusing Christians of tritheism, the belief in three gods.
They have certainly disbelieved who say, “Allah is the third of three.” And there is no god except one God. And if they do not desist from what they are saying, there will surely afflict the disbelievers among them a painful punishment. (Q. 5:73)
I have asked multiple Christian audiences if they believe in three gods. I have never had one person raised their hand and said “yes, I believe in three gods!” This seems to be Muhammad’s interpretation of the claim that Jesus was equal to God. There is strong evidence that the author of the Quran is unaware of the orthodox view of the Trinity. The doctrine of one God, eternally existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is never mentioned in the Quran or refuted. Many claim that surah 5:73 is a reference to the Trinity. Some English translations of the Quran actually use the word Trinity in the verse. Yet this is a problem, for just as in the passage from Ibn Ishaq, Mary seems to be included in the “three.” Immediately following surah 5:73 we have an argument presented against the deity of Mary and Jesus,
The Messiah, son of Mary, was not but a messenger; [other] messengers have passed on before him. And his mother was a supporter of truth. They both used to eat food… (Q. 5:75)
Why does this verse say Mary ate food? Well, if Mary ate food then it follows that she can’t be a god like Allah, because Allah doesn't eat food. This may have been a reaction to Mary veneration in 7th century Middle East. Nevertheless, what is proposed in the Quran as the Christian view has never been part of orthodox Christian theology. There has never been a “three” composed of Allah, Jesus, and Mary. This is clearly a mistaken view of the Trinity. When we continue to chapter 5:116 there is further confirmation that this is in fact the case.
And [beware the Day] when Allah will say, "O Jesus, Son of Mary, did you say to the people, 'Take me and my mother as deities besides Allah?'" He will say, "Exalted are You! It was not for me to say that to which I have no right… (Q. 5:116)
Another problem with the Quran here is its presentation of the divinity of Jesus. Christians do not take him to be a deity “besides” Allah. When the Quran denies the deity of Jesus Christ, it does so with a false notion that Christ is a distinct god from the Father and not one God with the Father. The author of the Quran simply evidences no awareness of the correct teachings of Christianity and presents misrepresentations.
As we close, I don’t want us to miss something very important. The passage from Ibn Ishaq is saying that this is why part of the Quran was given to Muhammad; “Concerning all these assertions the Quran came down” and, “God sent down concerning their words and their in-coherence the beginning of the sura of the Family of 'Imran up to more than eighty verses” and, the Quran is using “their own arguments against them” and, “He sent down the Criterion…in regard to the nature of Jesus” and, Allah is “the Wise in His argument and His case against His creatures.” It could not be more obvious that Islam came specifically as a polemic against the Christian faith, particularly in relationship to Christology.
It is, therefore, the goal of evangelism among Muslims to present the true doctrines of Christ and to correct misunderstandings and misrepresentations.
My friends and I were able to share more with the young man in Turkey. I explained that “Son of God” refers back to prophecies about the Messiah and that it is spiritual language which does not infer God had a wife. Then, I stressed to him that Christ is the eternal Word of God without a beginning. Suddenly, something extraordinary happened. It was like a lightbulb turned on in his mind. He looked at us and said with excitement, “I understand!”
Paul said to Timothy long ago, “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 2:24-25). If you can understand Muslim evangelism as a way of lovingly correcting your opponent’s false presuppositions, and reasserting the truths of the gospel, then you will quickly become more effective in your witness.
In the next post I will get into the specifics of how to present Christ as Lord to Muslims.