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17. Understanding Islam


Although the Qur’an specifically and Islam in general venerate Christ beyond any person, they don’t tire of pointing out over and over that Jesus is a mere human. The Qur’an says:

“It is not for Allah to take a son! Exaltations to Him! When He decrees a thing He only says: ‘Be!’ and it is.” (Qur’an 19:35).

The same chapter says:

“And they say, ‘The All-merciful has taken unto Himself a son.’ You have indeed advanced something hideous! The heavens are well nigh rent of it and the earth split asunder, and the mountains well nigh fall down crashing for that they have attributed to the All-merciful a son; and it behoves not the All-merciful to take a son. None is there in the heavens and earth but he comes to the All-merciful as a servant.” (Qur’an 19:88-93)

Thus we can see that the truth about Jesus being God’s son, wholly human and wholly divine, is anathema to Muslims. In fact, Islam considers even discussion about Christ’s divinity and His sonship to the Father to be blasphemous. But this is not the only reason why sharing the truth with our Muslim friends and contacts is difficult. A complicating factor is that in general, Muslims don’t actually know what Christians actually believe about Christ, they only know what the Qur’an says Christians believe. And these are two quite different things.

Muslim don’t – and I might even go so far as to say can’t – understand what Christians say. They start from the presupposition that the Qur’an is the word of Allah and it is absolutely correct. So when the Qur’an says God can’t have a son because that requires a wife, then that is what it means to have a son. Even though the Arabic language uses the word son to denote many non-biological relationships, in this context Muslims are restricted to interpreting the idea of the son of God to this one way. The fact that the Qur’an gets the concept of sonship of Christ wrong is really important, because if a Muslim were merely to acknowledge that Christians believe what they actually believe, this would be automatically calling the Qur’an wrong. If Allah said Christians say Allah had a son and a wife, then that is what Christians say. It really doesn’t matter if what we believe in is true or not, for in this case, simply admitting the Qur’an got our faith wrong is an indictment of the Qur’an. Thus it is a major milestone to get Muslims to understand what we believe in, half the battle in fact.

Muslims believe that to say Christ is the son of the Father makes Him a co-God, which Muslims believe is a form of polytheism. This is something we would certainly agree with Muslims about, if Christ were only a mere human; sure enough, having a mere creature as an equal to God is polytheism and blasphemous. And we also believe it is impossible for a mere creature to become God. That said, we clearly and fundamentally don’t agree with Muslims that this is the relationship between Christ and the Father, because we say the Father and the Son are one being, or as the writer to the Hebrews puts it, Christ “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” (Heb­rews 1:3).

So we have seen that Muslims believe (and must believe), when we talk about Jesus being the son of God, that we are talking about a biological relationship requiring a father and a mother. This is what the Qur’an denies:

“He is the Originator of the heavens and the earth. How can He have children when He has no wife? He created all things and He is the All-Knower of everything.” (Qur’an 6:101)

Muslims don’t believe there is a sonship without sexual relations, and all the Qur’an commentators build their objection on this point. Tabari, for example, says: “How could Allah have a son when he has no wife, and the son can only come through male and female”, and similarly Baidawi says: “For Allah to have a son it means he must have an equal wife and that is impossible for Allah”.

Muslims always are surprised when they are told Christians don’t believe in the father, the mother, and the son, as according to the Qur’an that is what the Christian trinity is:

“When God said, ‘O Jesus son of Mary, didst thou say unto men, “Take me and my mother as gods, apart from God”?’ ” (Qur’an 5:116).

Some Christians think the Qur’an is objecting to Collyridianism, which was an early Christian heretical movement in pre-Islamic Arabia whose followers worshipped Mary as a goddess. We know nothing about such a group other than what the Bishop of Salamis in Cyprus, Epiphanius, wrote around 376 AD. According to him, certain women in then-largely-pagan Arabia syncretised indigenous beliefs with the worship of Mary, and offered little cakes or bread-rolls to their followers. These cakes were called collyris (Greek: κολλυρις), and are the source of the name Collyridians. But the existence of such a group of women is disputed by many scholars as we have no other reference to their existence other than Epiphanius. There are many other theories about whose teaching the Qur’an is taking issue with: it could be Marcionians, Nazoraeans, Mariolatrists, or Jews of the time. It is obvious, though, that the Qur’anic objection is not to actual Christian beliefs but to teachings which Christianity also rejects (for further discussion, see page 189 of The Qur’an in Christian- Muslim Dialogue). But regardless of why Mohammed had this idea of Christian beliefs – even though Christians have never believed or claimed Mary to be the wife of God – that doesn’t matter to a Muslim because the Qur’an said otherwise.

One final reason Muslims believe it is impossible for Christ to be God is because according to the Qur’an

“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 perverted they are!” (Qur'an 5:75)

So according to the Qur’an, because Jesus ate food, that means he needed to go to the toilet, and Allah can never do that.

The Qur’anic Ideas about Jesus can be summarised as following:

A. “The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only the Messenger of God, and His Word that He committed to Mary, and a Spirit from Him. So believe in God and His Messengers, and say not, ‘Three.’ Refrain; better is it for you.” (Qur’an 4:171)
B. “He [Jesus] said, ‘Lo, I am God’s servant; God has given me the Book, and made me a Prophet.’ ” (Qur’an 19:30)
C. “Truly, the likeness of Jesus, in God’s sight, is as Adam’s likeness; He created him of dust, then said He unto him, ʽBe!’ and he was.” (Qur’an 3:59)

Thus the essence of the Islamic idea about Christ is that he is just a human being who Allah sent as a messenger to the Jews with a book called the Injeel (Gospel) to correct what the Jews had changed in their religion, and when they wanted to kill him Allah raised him up to heaven, and in the last days he will come down, follow the Muslim Imam, break the cross, and kill the pig, get married, die and be buried next to Mohammed. He could never be God because he used to pray and fast, eat and drink, and because he was born of a woman. As such he is a creature and the creature could never be God.

Muslim beliefs about Christ are significantly different from Biblical truth. Yet we do broadly agree on two things even though we differ in the details:

1. Christ is the servant of God. The Bible says Christ is Prophet, Priest and King, and is the servant of the Lord (Isaiah 43:10; Philippians 2:6-7; Isaiah 42:1). Christians don’t see that believing in Christ as the servant of the Lord conflicts with His divinity. A question we could ask our Muslim contacts is: do they assume – for argument’s sake – that if God chose to become a man, he should be an atheist? Christ's full obedience to the Father is merely evidence of him being a perfect man. Islam affirms half of what Christians believe and strongly denies the second half. The Qur’an has left Muslims with an unclear picture of Christ, the Bible, and Christian beliefs. A Muslim therefore has a choice to either find out more about Christ through the Bible or to refuse to know what the Qur’an doesn’t tell them.

2. Jesus is a man, something the Bible states over and over again. What Muslims do not comprehend, however, is the idea of Christ being both fully man and fully God. When the Bible says “concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 1:3-4), this is incomprehensible to Muslims, because of their underlying presupposition, as we mentioned before, that sonship can be only biological.

Another reason is the Muslim’s use of the word “Allah” in Arabic as a proper noun (or name), while the Bible uses “Elohim” as a common noun which may even refer to people and not just to God (e.g. Psalm 82:1,6; Exodus 7:1; Exodus 21:6; Exodus 22:8-9). The Bible uses it to refer to the ultimate authority in a situation, and it can accurately be translated as “Mighty ones”. The word the Bible uses as proper noun, or name, for God is “Yahweh” which exclusively refers to the true God and never to anyone else, and not Elohim. But when Muslims hear Christians saying that Jesus is God, the Father is God, and the Spirit is God, they think that we are using the same proper noun or name for all three, and thus they hear this as if we are saying Jesus is the Father is the Spirit. Unfortunately, it doesn’t help much when some Christians try to explain the trinity using a human analogy such as comparing it to the three states of water (solid, liquid, and vapour) because that enforces the concept of modes which Muslims perceive. The best we can do is to explain or state what we believe clearly and leave the convincing to the Holy Spirit.

It is important to remember that the first obstacle is for Muslims to accept that we believe something other than what the Qur’an says we believe. The majority of Muslims have no idea about Christian beliefs or Biblical teaching, because they have never read it or they don’t understand it or both. Many Muslims who say they have read the Bible usually mean they got a book written by a Muslim apologist with some Bible verse in it, or they had a Bible to look up those verses quoted by the Muslim apologist. Personally my first contact with the Bible was this way. I got a Bible to look up a verse used by a Muslim author criticising Christianity. Muslims believe they have the final Testament (as some westernised Muslims like to call the Qur’an) and therefore they don’t need to read the Bible: for if what it has agrees with the Qur’an, they don’t need it; and if it doesn’t, they don’t believe it. And so you may find it necessary to spend a good deal of time on this with your Muslim contacts before a true discussion of Biblical teachings can begin.

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