In the Qur'an, in a passage describing the annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Jesus ('a) is described as a Word from God:
“O Mary! Verily Allah gives you the glad tidings of a Word from Him; his name is the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, eminent in this world, and in the Hereafter of those near [to God]” (3:44)
The context in which this ayah was revealed was one of inter-religious encounter. It is said that the Christians of Najran sent a delegation to the Prophet of Islam (s) at Makkah to question him about the teachings of Islam concerning Jesus ('a), and God revealed the above and other ayat of Surat Al 'Imran in response.
The response is not only not a denial of Christian teachings, although the divinity of Christ is clearly rejected, but also an affirmation of much believed by Christians as well, even the designation of Christ as logos:
'O People of the Book! Do not go to extremes in your creed, and do not say of Allah but the Truth. Verily, the Messiah, Jesus the son of Mary, is only an apostle of Allah and His Word which He conveyed unto Mary, and a Spirit from Him (Qur'an 4:171)
So in addition to being called the Word of God, Jesus ('a) is also called a Spirit of God and in some of the narrations reported in the Shi'i tradition, this title is used.
Of course, the interpretation of the logos in Christian theology differs markedly from the interpretation of the kalimah by Muslim scholars. For the Christian, according to the Gospel of John, the Word was God and the Word became flesh.' For the Muslim, on the other hand, the Word is creature, even while it is the creative principle, for it is in God's utterance of the word 'Be'. That creation takes place.
To call Christ the Word of Allah is not to deify him, but to verify his status as prophet. Because of his high status as prophet, Jesus ('a) becomes a complete manifestation of God, one who conveys the message of God, one who can speak on behalf of God, the Word of God Jesus ('a) becomes the Word of God not because of an incarnation whereby his flesh becomes divine, but because his spirit is refined to such an extent that it becomes a mirror whereby divinity comes to be known.
The temple is holy not because of any inherent sanctity in the structure, but because it is the place of the worship of God.
The differences between Islamic and Christian thinking about Jesus ('a) are as important as they are subtle. Both accept the virgin birth, although it is ironic that a growing number of liberal Christians have come to have doubts about this miracle while Muslims remain steadfast!
Among the other miracles attributed to Jesus ('a) in the Glorious Qur'an are the revival of the dead and the creation of a bird from clay, but all of the miracles performed by Jesus ('a) are expressly by the permission of Allah. Just as in the miracle of his birth, Jesus ('a) came into the world by a human mother and divine spirit, so too, his miracles are performed as human actions with divine permission. In this regard the error of the Christians is explained by Ibn 'Arabi as follows:
“This matter has led certain people to speak of incarnation and to say that, in reviving the dead, he is God. Therefore, since they conceal God, Who in reality revives the dead, in the human form of Jesus, He has said:
They are concealers [unbelievers] who say that God is the Messiah, son of Mary. (5:72)”1
The point is that one can find God in Jesus ('a) without deifying him, and furthermore that deifying Jesus ('a) is really an obstacle to finding God in Jesus ('a), for in the deification one ceases to look in Jesus ('a) for anything beyond him. It is as if one were to become distracted from a message by focusing one's attention on the words through which it was conveyed.
To the above point it may be added that not only does the doctrine of the incarnation prevent one from finding God in Christ ('a), but it also prevents one from seeing Christ ('a) the man, because his imagined divinity gets in the way.
One of the central questions of Christian theology is: “Who was Jesus Christ?” The formulation of answers to this question is called Christology. In this area of theology, Christians have debated the significance of the historical Jesus as opposed to the picture of Jesus presented in the traditions of the Christian Churches and the Biblical understanding of Jesus. The time has come for Muslims to begin work in this area, as well.
Through the development of an Islamic Christology we can come to a better understanding of Islam as contrasted with Christianity, and Islam in consonance with Christianity, too. Indeed, the first steps in this direction are laid out for us in the Qur'an itself, in the verses mentioned above and others. Contemporary work toward an Islamic Christology is scarce.
Christian authors have tended to stress the salvific function of Jesus ('a) which seems to have no place in Islam, and given this, the Christians ask one another whether Christ ('a) can be the savior of Muslims and others who are not Christians. Christians should be reminded that Muslims accept Jesus ('a) as savior, along with all the other prophets, for the prophetic function is to save humanity from the scourge of sin by conveying the message of guidance revealed by God.
The important difference between Islam and Christianity here is not over the issue of whether Jesus ('a) saves, but how he saves. Islam denies that salvation is through redemption resulting from the crucifixion, and instead turns its attention to the instruction provided in the life of the prophets ('a).
Muslims, on the other hand, have tended to produce polemical works showing how much of what is in the Bible is consistent with the Islamic view of Christ ('a) as prophet rather than as a person of the Trinity. Some interesting work along these lines has been initiated by Ahmad Deedat in South Africa. More profound insights into the differences between Islam and other faiths, including Christianity, may be found in the writings of Frithjof Schuon, Shaykh 'Isa Nur al-Din Ahmad, who presents the beginnings of a genuine Christology from a sufi perspective in his Islam and the Perennial Philosophy.2
There is also a valuable collection of stories about Jesus ('a) culled from the writings of various Muslim mystics, Jesus in the Eyes of the Sufis.3 Some of the items reported in this work have their origins in the narrations attributed to the Shi'i Imams ('a) presented below.
These days there is much discussion of dialogue between different faith communities. Conferences have been held for this purpose in the Islamic Republic of Iran as well as in Africa, Europe and the United States. Perhaps one of the best ways Christians can find common ground for discussion with Muslims is to become familiar with the portrait of Jesus ('a) presented in Islamic sources, the most important of which are the Qur'an and hadith, and as for the latter, no matter what one's religious orientation, it must be admitted that the narrations handed down through the Household of the Prophet (s) deserve careful attention.
For those of us who have the honor of being counted among the Shi'ah, the importance of what has been related by the Ahl al-Bayt weighs especially heavily, as it should, according to the famous hadith al-thaqalayn”, in which the Prophet (s,), in the last year of his life, is reported to have said:
“Verily, I am leaving with you two weighty things (thaqalayn): the Book of Allah and my kindred, my household, for indeed, the two of them will never separate until they return to me by the Pond [of Kawthar on the Last Day].”
Perhaps some Christians will be dismissive of what is said of Jesus ('a) in the Islamic narrations because the main debate about contemporary Christology among Christians is whether research about the historical Jesus ('a) is relevant to religion, or whether knowledge of Jesus ('a) requires attention to the role he plays in the Church and in theology.
The Islamic narrations, coming centuries after the life of Christ ('a) (and in some cases more than a century after the life of Muhammad [s] will likely be dismissed by liberal Christians in pursuit of a portrait of Jesus ('a) based on the standards of historical research currently accepted in the West. The neo-orthodox Christian claims that the Savior is not to be found in history, but in the Church, so it will not be surprising if he displays no interest in what Islam has to say about Christ ('a).
However, the Christian may find that the Islamic perspective illuminates a middle ground between the historian's emphasis on the natural and the ecclesiastical emphasis on the supernatural. The humanity of Jesus ('a) is evident in the narrations of the Shi'ah, but it is a humanity transformed, a perfected humanity, and as such there is no denying its supernatural dimension.
The Muslim always seems to appear as a stranger to the Christian, but perhaps it is from the stranger that the Christian can best come to know his savior. The crucifix has hung in the Church for so long that it becomes difficult for the Christian to find significance there.
The attraction of the quest for the historical Jesus is that it provides a fresh look at the subject, even if that quest is marred by naturalistic presumptions inimical to the religious outlook. By trying to see Jesus ('a) as the Muslim sees him, the Christian may find his savior come to life, lifted up to God in his own inner life rather than crucified.4
If we have given reason for Christians to study the narrations of the Shi'ah about Jesus ('a), the question of the value of such study for Muslims remains. Some might wonder why, when we have the Qur'an and Sunnah, we should be especially interested in Jesus ('a).
To begin with, Jesus ('a), along with the prophets Noah, Abraham, Moses, Peace be with them, and Muhammad (s) has a special status in Islam as one of the greatest prophets, the ulu al- 'azm, the prophets who brought the divine law.
What was revealed to the last of them, (s), is a confirmation of what was revealed to the others. The truth of the revelation is not to be found in its particularity but in its universality, and we come to understand this best when we understand the teachings of all the prophets ('a). Is this not why so much attention is given to the previous prophets in the Qur'an?
All of the prophets ('a) have brought a gospel of love, love of God and love of neighbor and love even for the meanest of His creatures. So, in the reports narrated below we find Jesus ('a) giving some of his food to the creatures of the sea. At the same time, however, this love is not to be confused with a sentimentalism which would prevent the execution of the divine law. Jesus ('a) found fault with the Pharisees not because of their regard for the exterior forms of religion, but because of their disregard for its interior forms, that is, because of their hypocrisy.5
The words of the Spirit of Allah reported in the selections that follow are primarily concerned with morals. These are Christian morals and at the same time Islamic morals. Today Christendom is in a state of moral upheaval. Peculiarly modern ideas of what is right and wrong have found their way into the theologians' understandings of ethics.
Significant areas of agreement are difficult to find. The simple morality taught by Jesus ('a) and which continues to be emphasized in Islam resonates in the narrations of the Shi'ah. While excessive asceticism is forbidden, we are to turn, like Jesus ('a), away from the world to find refuge in God.
From the following narrations we not only become reacquainted with the moral teachings of Jesus ('a) and with his character, but we also discover what the dear friends of Allah, the Household of the Prophet (s) found it important to transmit about him, and thereby we get a glimpse into their moral teachings and characters, too.
- 1. Ibn al 'Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom (Fusus al-hikam). tr. R. W. J. Austin (Lahore: Suhail, 1988), p.177.
- 2. Frithjof Shuon, Islam and the Perennial Philosophy (Lahore: Suhail, 1985).
- 3. Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh, Jesus in the Eyes of the Sufis (London: Khaniqahi-Nimatullahi Publications, 1983).
- 4. We are reminded by the Glorious Qur'an:
“O Jesus, I will take you away and lift you up to me...” (3:54)
- 5. Cf Matt. 23:25.