My intention in this post is to give some Quranic verses and commentary from Muhammad Asad about Jesus. My intention is not to present my own views about Jesus. I would prefer not to get into any debates about the divinity of Jesus or other headaches like that.
The reason I want to post these is that they give what I think is a very reasonable account of Jesus within the context of the Islamic picture. (Whether it’s reasonable generally, I’m not going to say.) The interpretation differs from some Islamic concepts I’ve heard about Jesus, but I had difficulty assimilating those concepts into Islam, so I was interested by what I read here.
Firstly, the Quran seems to use Christian language – words that could be translated as “holy spirit” and so on – but seems to mean different things by it than what Christians mean, as explained. I’ve noticed this in other passages; it seems to reproduce previous scripture while narrowing and refining the definitions.
2:87 For, indeed, We vouchsafed unto Moses the divine writ and caused apostle after apostle to follow him; and We vouchsafed unto Jesus, the son of Mary, all evidence of the truth, and strengthened him with holy inspiration.*
* This rendering of ruh al-qudus (lit., “the spirit of holiness”) is based on the recurring use in the Qur’an of the term ruh in the sense of “divine inspiration”. It is also recorded that the Prophet invoked the blessing of the ruh al-qudus on his Companion, the poet Hassan ibn Thabit (Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dd’ud and Tirmidhi): just as the Qur’an (58: 22) speaks of all believers as being “strengthened by inspiration (ruh) from Him”.
Here we see Jesus referred to as God’s word, but meaning really just the fulfilment of God’s promise:
4:171 O FOLLOWERS of the Gospel! Do not overstep the bounds [of truth] in your religious beliefs,* and do not say of God anything but the truth. The Christ Jesus, son of Mary, was but God’s Apostle – [the fulfilment of] His promise which He had conveyed unto Mary – and a soul created by Him.** Believe, then, in God and His apostles, and do not say, “[God is] a trinity”. Desist [from this assertion] for your own good. God is but One God; utterly remote is He, in His glory, from having a son: unto Him belongs all that is in the heavens and all that is on earth; and none is as worthy of trust as God.
* I.e., by raising Jesus to the rank of divinity. Since here the Christians are addressed specifically, I render the term kitab as “Gospel”.
** Lit., “His word which He conveyed unto Mary and a soul from Him”. According to Tabari, the “word” (kalimah) was “the announcement (risalah) which God bade the angels to convey to Mary, and God’s glad tiding to her” (a reference to 3: 45) – which justifies the rendering of kalimatuhu as “[the fulfilment of] His promise”. (See also note on 3: 39.) As regards the expression, “a soul from Him” or “created by Him”, it is to be noted that among the various meanings which the word ruh bears in the Qur’an (e.g., “inspiration” in 2: 87 and 253), it is also used in its primary significance of “breath of life”, “soul”, or “spirit”: thus, for instance, in 32: 9, where the ever-recurring evolution of the human embryo is spoken of: “and then He forms him [i.e., man] and breathes into him of His spirit” – that is, endows him with a conscious soul which represents God’s supreme gift to man and is, therefore, described as “a breath of His spirit”. In the verse under discussion, which stresses the purely human nature of Jesus and refutes the belief in his divinity, the Qur’an points out that Jesus, like all other human beings, was “a soul created by Him”.
The virgin birth was something I could not understand in an Islamic context. Somehow I managed to completely miss the footnotes the first time around, but I already started to notice that the Quran doesn’t explicitly say Jesus was born to a virgin. It turns out on closer inspection that Muhammad Asad concurs with this.
19:19 [The angel] answered: “I am but a messenger of thy Sustainer, [who says,] ‘I shall bestow upon thee the gift of a son endowed with purity.’ ” 19:20 Said she: “How can I have a son when no man has ever touched me? – for, never have I been a loose woman!” 19:21 [The angel] answered: “Thus it is; [but! thy Sustainer says, ‘This is easy for me*; and [thou shalt have a son,] so that We might make him a symbol unto mankind and an act of grace from Us.’ ” And it was a thing decreed [by God]: 19:22 and in time she conceived him, and then she withdrew with him to a far-off place.
* Cf. the identical phrase in verse 9 above, relating to the announcement of John’s birth to Zachariah. In both these cases, the implication is that God can and does bring about events, which may be utterly unexpected or even inconceivable before they materialize. In connection with the announcement of a son to Mary, the Quran states in 3:47 that ‘‘when He wills a thing to be, He but says unto it, ‘Be’ – and it is’’: but since neither the Quran nor any authentic Tradition tells us anything about the chain of causes and effects (asbab) which God’s decree “Be’’ was to bring into being, all speculation as to the “how” of this event must remain beyond the scope of a Quran-commentary. (But see also note on 21:91.)
It says to see 21:91, so here that is too. This is a verse that could easily be misconstrued as supporting the virgin birth if it was read with that in mind as a preconception:
21:91 AND [remember] her who guarded her chastity, whereupon We breathed into her of Our spirit*
and caused her, together with her son, to become a symbol [of Our grace] unto all people.
* This allegorical expression, used here with reference to Mary’s conception of Jesus, has been widely – and erroneously – interpreted as relating specifically to his birth. As a matter of fact, the Quran uses the same expression in three other places with reference to the creation of man in general – namely in 15:29 and 38:72, “when I have formed him… and breathed into him of My spirit” and in 32:9, “and thereupon He forms [lit., “formed”] him fully and breathes [lit., “breathed’’] into him of His spirit”. In particular, the passage of which the last-quoted phrase is a part (i.e., 32:7-9) makes it abundantly and explicitly clear that God “breathes of His spirit” into every human being. Commenting on the verse under consideration, Zamakhshari states that “the breathing of the spirit [of God] into a body signifies the endowing it with life’’: an explanation with, which Razi concurs. (In this connection, see also note on 4:171.) As for the description of Mary as allati ahsanat farjaha, idiomatically denoting ‘‘one who guarded her chastity” (lit., “her private parts”) it is to be borne in mind that the term ihsan – lit., ‘‘[one’s] being fortified [against any danger or evil]” – has the tropical meaning of “abstinence from what is unlawful or reprehensible’’ (Taj al-Arus), and especially from illicit sexual intercourse, and is applied to a man as well as a woman: thus, for instance, the terms muhsan and muhsanah are used elsewhere in the Quran to describe, respectively, a man or a woman who is “fortified [by marriage] against unchastity”. Hence, the expression allati ahsanat farjaha, occurring in the above verse as well as in 66:12 with reference to Mary, is but meant to stress her outstanding chastity and complete abstinence, in thought as well as in deed, from anything unlawful or morally reprehensible: in other words, a rejection of the calumny (referred to in 4:156 and obliquely alluded to in 19:27-28) that the birth of Jesus was the result of an “illicit union”.
OK, so potentially no virgin birth… what about death? I’m sure we’ve all heard the Islamic concept that Jesus did not die, but take a look at this.
3:55 Lo! God said: “O Jesus! Verily, I shall cause thee to die, and shall exalt thee unto Me, and cleanse thee of [the presence of] those who are bent on denying the truth; and I shall place those who follow thee [far] above those who are bent on denying the truth, unto the Day of Resurrection. In the end, unto Me you all must return, and I shall judge between you with regard to all on which you were wont to differ.
It’s pretty clear, isn’t it? But then in the following verse the Quran appears to deny the crucifixion. At a Sufi workshop I was told that this verse had, in the past, been understood to mean that Jesus went willingly to the cross (and so nobody forcibly killed him). The interpretation by Muhammad Asad, on the other hand, is that the crucifixion did not happen at all and was a legend, and so the means of Jesus’ death is left unspecified.
4:157 and their boast, “Behold, we have slain the Christ Jesus, son of Mary, [who claimed to be] an apostle of God!” However, they did not slay him, and neither did they crucify him, but it only seemed to them [as if it had been] so;* and, verily, those who hold conflicting views thereon are indeed confused, having no [real] knowledge thereof, and following mere conjecture. For, of a certainty, they did not slay him: 4:158 nay, God exalted him unto Himself** – and God is indeed almighty, wise.
* Thus, the Qur’an categorically denies the story of the crucifixion of Jesus. There exist, among Muslims, many fanciful legends telling us that at the last moment God substituted for Jesus a person closely resembling him (according to some accounts, that person was Judas), who was subsequently crucified in his place. However, none of these legends finds the slightest support in the Qur’an or in authentic Traditions, and the stories produced in this connection by the classical commentators must be summarily rejected. They represent no more than confused attempts at “harmonizing” the Qur’anic statement that Jesus was not crucified with the graphic description, in the Gospels, of his crucifixion. The story of the crucifixion as such has been succinctly explained in the Qur’anic phrase wa-lakin shubbiha lahum, which I render as “but it only appeared to them as if it had been so” – implying that in the course of time, long after the time of Jesus, a legend had somehow grown up (possibly under the then-powerful influence of Mithraistic beliefs) to the effect that he had died on the cross in order to atone for the “original sin” with which mankind is allegedly burdened; and this legend became so firmly established among the latter-day followers of Jesus that even his enemies, the Jews, began to believe it – albeit in a derogatory sense (for crucifixion was, in those times, a heinous form of death-penalty reserved for the lowest of criminals). This, to my mind, is the only satisfactory explanation of the phrase wa-lakin shubbiha lahum, the more so as the expression shubbiha li is idiomatically synonymous with khuyyila 1i, “[a thing] became a fancied image to me”, i.e., “in my mind” – in other words, “[it] seemed to me” (see Qamus, art. khayala, as well as Lane II, 833, and IV, 1500).
** Cf. 3: 55, where God says to Jesus, “Verily, I shall cause thee to die, and shall exalt thee unto Me.” The verb rafa ahu (lit., “he raised him” or “elevated him”) has always, whenever the act of raf’ (“elevating”) of a human being is attributed to God, the meaning of “honouring” or “exalting”. Nowhere in the Qur’an is there any warrant for the popular belief that God has “taken up” Jesus bodily, in his lifetime, into heaven. The expression “God exalted him unto Himself” in the above verse denotes the elevation of Jesus to the realm of God’s special grace – a blessing in which all prophets partake, as is evident from 19: 57, where the verb rafa nahu (“We exalted him”) is used with regard to the Prophet Idris. (See also Muhammad ‘Abduh in Manar III, 316 f., and VI, 20f.) The “nay” (bal) at the beginning of the sentence is meant to stress the contrast between the belief of the Jews that they had put Jesus to a shameful death on the cross and the fact of God’s having “exalted him unto Himself”.
Again, I don’t want to discuss whether or not this is plausible. I just wanted to show what the Quran says and how this might be interpreted. My main point is that what Asad calls “fanciful legends” about Jesus within the Islamic tradition find no basis in the Quran. Another concept which is absent from the Quran is the idea of the second coming of Christ. I would guess that comes from hadiths, whether strong or not I don’t know.