No chapter on the Islamic view of prophets can be complete, especially for the Christian reader, without a brief mention of the Muslim understanding of Jesus Christ. Whereas there are some areas of general agreement between the Qur’anic and Old Testament views of prophets (with one major exception being the Islamic claim that they were sinless), there is little substantial correspondence between the Qur’anic and New Testament views of the person of Jesus Christ. According to the Qur’an Jesus was merely a human being who was chosen by God as a prophet and sent for the guidance of the people of Israel.
The Nature of Christ
Interestingly, in spite of its emphasis on the humanity of Jesus, in many respects the Qur’an seems to portray Jesus as a unique prophet in history. Jesus is mentioned in ninety-three verses of fifteen suras, a total of ninety-seven times (although in most cases quite briefly and only as a name in the prophetic list). He is recognized as a great Hebrew prophet, and only his name along with Abraham’s, appears in every list of prophets. The Qur’an gives Jesus such honorary titles as the “Messiah” (used eleven times), “the Word of God,” and “the Spirit of God” (4:169–71), “the Speech of Truth” (19:34–35), a “Sign unto men,” and “Mercy from (God)” (19:21).
We must note that even though the above titles and activities have much significance in Christian theology, as they relate to the divine character of Christ, “to the Muslim they lack entirely the content of deity.” Many Christian writers have tried to read too much into these passages in their attempts to prove certain biblical doctrines from the text of the Qur’an.31 But if we are to do justice to the Qur’anic text, we ought to let Islamic theology speak for itself in determining the significance of the above titles. As one scholar on Islam warns:
It is primarily Christian missionaries, or certain Orientalists who are either themselves theologians, or who are well disposed to Christian theology, who overestimate the role of Jesus in the Koran. They are misled by the way of understanding Jesus which they retain from their Christian Tradition. It is no surprise that, under such circumstances, they arrive at false conclusions and evaluations.
So what exactly is this Qur’anic picture of Jesus? And what role, if any, does Jesus play in the Muslim awareness? Despite the fact that the account of Jesus’ life is filled with extraordinary miracles, and the titles for Jesus are very complimentary, the Qur’anic verdict concerning his identity is clearly summarized in
5:75, “Christ the son of Mary Was no more than An Apostle; many were The apostles that passed away Before him. His mother Was a woman of truth. They had both to eat Their (daily) food.”
This attitude is also expressed by Kateregga. He writes, “Muslims do respect the Messiah, Jesus, profoundly, but they do not believe that he is, therefore, superior to all prophets. In fact, the Qur’an affirms that Jesus foretold the coming of the Seal of the Prophets [Muhammad].”
Furthermore, both the Qur’an and the universal opinion of Muslims vehemently insist that Jesus is not the divine Son of God. The Qur’an is filled with verses that speak against the idea of God begetting a son. In 19:35 we read, “It is not befitting To (the majesty of) God That He should beget A son. Glory be to Him! When He determines A matter, He only says To it, ‘Be,’ and it is.” And In 10:68 we read, “They say, ‘God hath begotten A son’—Glory be to Him! He is self-sufficient.… No warrant Have ye for this! Say ye About God what ye know not?” In another instance we are specifically told that the creation of Jesus was similar to Adam, by the fact that both were created by God’s command (3:59).
Besides the Qur’anic charge that the idea of God begetting a son is against the truth of God’s majesty and glory, it seems that the Qur’an and Muslims have generally understood the idea of a begotten Son of God quite literally. In 72:3 we read, “And exalted is the Majesty Of our Lord: He has Taken neither a wife Nor a son.” Commenting on this verse, Yusuf Ali observes that Islam denies “the doctrine of a son begotten by God, which would also imply a wife of whom he was begotten.” And reasoning from this physical understanding of sonship, the world-renowned Muslim apologist, Ahmad Deedat, argues, “If Jesus is God, and the very Son of God because He has no earthly father, then Adam is a greater God, because he had no father and no mother! Simple, basic common sense demands this deduction.”36
The Qur’an affirms the virgin birth (19:16–21; 3:37–45) and Jesus’ many miraculous acts recorded in the New Testament, such as his healings and raising people from the dead. It also refers to miracles of Jesus recorded in the New Testament apocryphal books, such as creating live birds from clay and speaking as a newborn infant in his cradle proclaiming his prophethood (19:29–31; 5:113). In addition the Qur’an affirms that God “raised him up” to heaven (4:158).
In addition to these Qur’anic accounts, we also see a reverential treatment of Jesus in Islamic tradition. In one hadith from Bukhari we read that the prophet Muhammad said, “Whoever believes there is no god but God, alone without partner, that Muhammad is His messenger, that Jesus is the servant and messenger of God, His word breathed into Mary and a spirit emanating from Him . . . shall be received by God into Heaven.” And again according to Bukhari, we are told that on another occasion the prophet said, “I am nearest of men to the Son of Mary. Between Jesus and me there has been no prophet.”39 There is also a strong prophetic tradition that every child born in the world has been struck by the devil except Jesus (some accounts also add Mary).
However, it is a mistake to think that based on the above passages we can entertain the thought that Islam portrays Christ as someone more than a mere prophet. For example, regarding the Islamic understanding of the virgin birth, Cragg insightfully comments:
The fascinating situation in Islam is that virgin birth stands alone, does not serve, or effectuate, Incarnation, indeed, quite excludes it. Mary is understood as the virgin mother of the prophet Isa. She gives birth to him without human intervention in order that he and she may be ‘signs’ and that his prophethood . . . may enter the world.
Many Muslims believe that Jesus’ ministry was limited to the nation of Israel, and his revelation was basically one of confirmation and revision of the Mosaic covenant (5:46–47). For example, Yusuf Ali, in his commentary to the Qur’an, states, “The mission of some of the apostles, like Jesus, was different—less wide in scope than that of Mustafa (Muhammad).”
Of the actual content of Jesus’ life and message we are given little information in the Qur’an. What we are told is that he was given the gospel by God as guidance for his people, invited people to worship one God (5:72), permitted the Jews to do certain things that were forbidden by the previous law, and performed many miracles for his disciples and the people around him. In agreement with this judgment, Cragg writes:
The immediate impression on the general reader from what the Qur’an has to tell him about Jesus is that of its brevity.… It is further surprising that within the limits of some ninety verses in all no less than sixty-four belong to the extended, and partly duplicate, nativity stories.… This leaves a bare twenty-six or so verses to present the rest and some reiteration here reduces the total still further. It has often been observed that the New Testament Gospels are really passion narratives with extended introduction. It could well be said that the Jesus cycle in the Qur’an is nativity narratives with attenuated sequel.
Cragg goes on to say that the idea that “Jesus had a specific—some would say a limited—mission to Jewry is stressed in the Qur’an. Only Muhammad as the ‘seal of the prophets’ belongs to all times and places.” Thus, “the ‘universality’ which Christianity is alleged to have ‘read into’ Jesus, violating this more explicitly Jewish vocation, is seen as part of that de-Semiticisation of Jesus’ Gospel, which is … attributed to the early Gentile Church.”
Besides the fundamental Muslim and Christian disagreement concerning the person and mission of Jesus Christ, there is also the centuries-long debate about the Qur’anic denial of Jesus’ crucifixion. In a context in which the Qur’an is strongly condemning the Jews for repeatedly breaching their covenant with their God, we come upon a highly controversial account in 4:157–59:
That they said (in boast), ‘We killed Christ Jesus The son of Mary, The Apostle of God’;—But they killed him not, Nor crucified him, But so it was made To appear to them, And those who differ Therein are full of doubts, With no (certain) knowledge, But only conjecture to follow, For of a surety They killed him not:— Nay, God raised him up Unto Himself; and God Is Exalted in Power, Wise;—And there is none Of the People of the Book But must believe in him Before his death; And on the Day of Judgment He will be a witness against them.
Commenting on the above passage, Yusuf Ali writes: “The end of the life of Jesus on earth is as much involved in mystery as his birth.… The Orthodox Christian Churches make it a cardinal point of their doctrine that his life was taken on the Cross, that he died and was buried, that on the third day he rose in the body.… The Quranic teaching is that Christ was not crucified nor killed by the Jews, notwithstanding certain apparent circumstances which produced that illusion in the minds of some of his enemies; that disputations, doubts and conjectures on such matters are vain; and that he was taken up to God.”
There are various speculations among Muslim commentators regarding the last hours of Jesus’ life on earth. Based on the phrase that “it was made to appear to them,” orthodox Muslims have traditionally interpreted this to mean that Jesus was not crucified on the cross, but that God made someone else look like Jesus and this person was mistakenly crucified as Christ. And the words “God raised him up unto Himself” have often been taken to mean that Jesus was taken up alive to heaven without dying.
As to the identity of this “substitute” and the question of how this substitute was changed into the likeness of Jesus, Muslim commentators are not in agreement. Candidates for this individual have ranged from Judas to Pilate to Simon of Cyrene or one of Jesus’ close disciples. Some have claimed that one of the disciples volunteered to take upon himself the likeness of Jesus so his master could escape the Jews, but others have insisted that God cast Jesus’ likeness on one of Jesus’ enemies. One example is the view of Baidawi, the learned thirteenth-century jurist and exegete whose commentary has been regarded by Sunni Muslims almost as a holy book:
It is related that a group of Jews reviled Isa [Jesus] . . . then the Jews gathered to kill him. Whereupon Allah informed him that he would take him up to heaven. Then Isa said to his disciples, “Which one of you is willing to have my likeness cast upon him, and be killed and crucified and enter Paradise?” One of them accepted, and Allah cast the likeness of Isa upon him, and he was killed and crucified. It is said also that he was one who acted the hypocrite toward Isa, and went out to lead the Jews to him. But Allah cast the likeness of Isa upon him, and he was taken and crucified and killed.
The view that Judas replaced Christ on the cross was again recently popularized in the Muslim world by The Gospel of Barnabas (see Appendix 3). Regarding the question of what then happened to Jesus himself, Muslims usually contend that Jesus escaped the cross by being taken up to heaven and that one day he will come back to earth and play a central role in the future events. Based on some of the alleged sayings of Muhammad it is believed that just before the end of time Jesus will come back to earth, kill the Antichrist (al-Dajjal), kill all pigs, break the cross, destroy the synagogues and churches, establish the religion of Islam, live for forty years, and then will be buried in the city of Medina beside the prophet Muhammad.
Of course we need to point out that even though these views have been held by orthodox Islam throughout the centuries, some Muslim thinkers today are beginning to distance themselves from such theological expressions (although this trend still does not apply to the traditionalist Muslim camps or the average masses). The well-respected Egyptian writer, Hussein Haykal, writes:
The idea of a substitute for Christ is a very crude way of explaining the Quranic text. They had to explain a lot to the masses. No cultured Muslim believes in this nowadays. The text is taken to mean that the Jews thought they killed Christ but God raised him unto Him in a way we can leave unexplained among the several mysteries we have taken for granted on faith alone.
Several Qur’anic verses speak or hint about the death of Christ (2:87; 3:55; 4:157–58; 19:33). Thus, several Muslim groups today believe that 4:157–59, if taken within the total Qur’anic context, must be understood to say that it was Jesus who was tortured on the cross, but that he did not die there. This is in contradistinction to the traditional view of the more ambiguous verses, which suggest that Jesus’ death must be referring to his second coming. The explanation adopted by this view is usually a version of the swoon theory. The major adherents of this view are the Ahmadiyyas (originating in Pakistan), a highly active Islamic group in the West, who are often considered by orthodox Muslims to be a heretical sect (see Appendix 1). This particular group also believes that Jesus eventually died in India, and that his grave is still there today.
The great majority of Muslims believe that Jesus did not die on the cross but that he was taken up bodily into heaven. This they base on the Qur’anic passage that declares: “Behold! God said: ‘O Jesus! I will take thee And raise thee to Myself’ ” (3:55).
It might seem perplexing as to why the Qur’an should deny the death of Christ, an event that is considered by the great majority of humankind as an uncontested fact of history. Sir Norman Anderson explains the Qur’anic motivation for this denial:
The rationale of this is that the Qur’an regularly reports that earlier prophets had at first encountered resistance, unbelief, antagonism and persecution; but finally the prophets had been vindicated and their opponents put to shame. God had intervened on their behalf. So Jesus, accepted in the Qur’an as one of the greatest of the prophets … could not have been left to his enemies. Instead, God must have intervened and frustrated their evil purpose. Muhammad, as himself a prophet—even the ‘seal’ of prophets—had a personal interest in the certainty of divine succour. If Messiah ‘IMsam had been allowed to die in this cruel and shameful way, then God himself must have failed—which was an impossible thought.
In the final section of this chapter we focused our attention on the Muslim view of Jesus, mainly because of its importance for the Christian reader. However, it is of utmost importance that when speaking of prophets, we should focus on the one whom Muslims believe is the last and greatest prophet, Muhammad. Belief in the prophethood of Muhammad is the second part of the Islamic shahada, “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is His prophet.” Furthermore, according to the Muslim understanding of the prophets’ roles in history, all the prophets prior to the advent of Muhammad were limited in their mission. Since their teachings have either been completely lost or severely corrupted, and because their revelations were partial and incomplete, it becomes absolutely necessary for us to understand how, according to Islam, Muhammad fulfills and completes the office of prophet. Therefore, it is necessary to turn our attention to a historical study of the person of Muhammad and his significant role in Islamic theology.
 Norman L. Geisler and Abdul Saleeb, Answering Islam: The Crescent in Light of the Cross, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002), 62–69.