Jesus in the Qur'an
The Qur'an treats Jesus as a very important figure. It gives him a greater number of honourable titles than any other figure in the past. It calls him a 'sign', a 'mercy', a 'witness', an 'example' one who is upright, one who is eminent, and 'one brought nigh unto God' . It gives him the titles Messiah, Son of Mary, Messenger, Prophet, Servant, Word of God, and a Spirit from God (Parrinder 1977 p. 16). He is the only prophet to have been born of a virgin and he did the greatest miracles of all the prophets. Jesus is also referred to in ninety verses scattered in 15 surahs in the Qur'an. Yet for all of this respect, the Qur'an denies Christ his identity as the Saviour and Lord of mankind. The Qur'an presents a very well defined idea of prophethood and then applies this role of prophet to Jesus and most of the other major Old Testament figures. It is the idea of prophethood it applies mostly to Muhammad, and this idea is then read back to all major prophetic figures in the past.
Prophethood in the Qur'an
Prophets in the Qur'an fall into two divisions, Prophet (Nabi) and Messenger or Apostle (Rasul). A Prophet is anyone directly inspired by God. A Messenger is one to whom God has entrusted a special mission. Messengers are usually also prophets and often come with books of revelation. The basic message preached by Messengers and Prophets is the same: warning people to repent of sin (especially idolatry) and fulfill their duty to God. This message fits with the Islamic doctrine of salvation that all one must do is repent of sin, believe in God, and do the right good works to be saved. The prophet/messenger is there to warn them of the consequences if they lapse in fulfilling their duty to God. If they do repent the prophet/messenger promises blessings from God. It is a simple role and the Qur'an asserts in Surah 10:48 that every nation has received a prophet at one time or another. Muslims believe that all of the Old Testament prophets had this same ministry as prophets. Totally absent from the Qur'an's view of prophethood is any reference to Old Testament prophecy concerning the Messiah to come, any reference to calling the Israelites back to their covenant with God centered on the sacrificial system of the Temple, and any expansion in revelation concerning God's plans for mankind or any other covenants like the Davidic covenant or the New covenant. The Islamic idea of prophethood is strictly linear without development calling people back to the same basic religion.
Certain prophet/messengers received books from God. The idea here is that they all received their books the same way as Muhammad is supposed to have received the Qur'an--by dictation from a heavenly original. According to the Qur'an, Moses received a book called the Taurat, David a book called the Zabur, and Jesus a book called the Injil or Gospel. Muslims are taught that they must believe in all of these prophets and their books. The Qur'an, however, is taught to be the only one that is uncorrupted and trustworthy, as well as being sent to correct the corruptions in the prior books and retain whatever sound teaching was in them. The net effect is that the Muslim, while saying he believes in all of the books actually only trusts the Qur'an.
Jesus' name in the Qur'an is 'Isa. It is unresolved how he came to be referred to by this name and many theories have been put forward, three of the more important being it is either a corruption of the Syriac "Yeshu", a corruption of "Esau" which was a derogatory name the Jews used for Jesus, or it was used to make a rhyme with Moses (Musa) in certain verses of the Qur'an. For our purposes, it is enough to say that your Muslim friend will automatically know who you are talking about when you use the name Jesus Christ. He will expect it from you since you are a Christian and it will not be offensive to him.
An interesting thing in the Qur'an is that Jesus is recorded many times speaking on his own behalf defining his own identity and his ministry. A survey of these instances will give us the best view of the Qur'anic Jesus.
Jesus' cradle speech
The first instance of Jesus speaking for himself in the Qur'an is when he was a baby. In Surah 19, after his miraculous conception and birth, Mary comes to present the baby Jesus to her relatives. They accuse her of immorality and in her defense Jesus speaks up from the cradle and says:
He spake: Lo! I am the slave of Allah. He hath given me the Scripture and hath appointed me a Prophet, and hath made me blessed wheresoever I may be, and He hath enjoined upon me prayer and alms-giving so long as I remain alive, and (hath made me) dutiful toward her who bore me and hath not made me arrogant, unblest. Peace on me the day I was born, and the day I die, and the day I shall be raised alive!
Surah 19:30-33, Pickthall's translation
There are many key words and thoughts here. First, Jesus identifies himself as the slave of Allah. The technical word here is 'abd, which means he is just a human in the ordinary human relationship with God. The use of this word is a direct denial of deity in Jesus' nature. Second, note the statement of being given a scripture and being appointed a prophet. This is according to the Qur'anic idea of scripture and prophethood mentioned earlier. Jesus is saying here he was to receive a scripture like Moses, David, and Muhammad. The references to prayer and almsgiving are taken by Muslims to refer to two of the five main duties of Islam, ritual prayer and almsgiving. Jesus was called to be a good Muslim, in other words. The last statement, referring to his death and resurrection is taken by Muslims to not occur in that order but rather reversing the order, him being taken to heaven first and then coming again to finish out his normal lifespan. Though this is not the order the Qur'an uses it is what Muslims believe.
Surah 5:110 gives a convenient list of the miracles attributed to Jesus in the Qur'an:
O Jesus, son of Mary! Remember My favour unto thee and unto thy mother; how I strengthened thee with the holy Spirit, so that thou spakest unto mankind in the cradle as in maturity; and how I taught thee the Scripture and Wisdom and the Torah and the Gospel; and how thou didst shape of clay as it were the likeness of a bird by My permission, and didst blow upon it and it was a bird by My permission, and thou didst heal him who was born blind and the leper by My permission; and how thou didst raise the dead, by My permission;...
Surah 5:110, Pickthall's translation
Note the constant refrain, "by My permission". Muslims assert from this that Jesus' miracles were all done by God's power and that in himself he had no power to do them; that in himself he was just a man. Two miracles are omitted from this list but found in other places in the Qur'an: causing a table spread with food to be miraculously lowered from heaven for his disciples (5:112-115), and being able to tell people what they had hidden in their houses (3:49).
His speech from the cradle and making the bird from clay are stories that are both found in apocryphal Christian books written prior to the time of Muhammad. They are two of many Qur'an stories that demonstrate borrowing from other religions.
There are many places in the Qur'an where any kind of a trinitarian idea of God's nature is rejected. The main conception of the Trinity in the Qur'an seems to be one of God the Father, Mary the Mother, and Jesus the Son. Most Muslims you will meet realize that Christians today do not mean this when they talk about the Holy Trinity. But they will be quick to assert that any notion of three-ness is wrong and use the Qur'an to defend their idea. Jesus in the Qur'an speaks very forcefully against the Trinity:
And when Allah saith: O Jesus, son of Mary! Didst thou say unto mankind: Take me and my mother for two gods beside Allah? He saith: Be glorified! It was not mine to utter that to which I had no right. If I used to say it, then Thou knewest it. Thou knowest what is in my mind, and I know not what is in Thy mind. Lo! Thou, only Thou art the Knower of Things Hidden. I spake unto them only that which Thou commandest me, (saying): Worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord....
Surah 5:116,117, Pickthall's translation
The Qur'an reinforces Jesus' words with statements like the following:
O People of the Scripture! Do not exaggerate in your religion nor utter aught concerning Allah save the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, was only a messenger of Allah, and His word which He conveyed unto Mary, and a spirit from Him. So believe in Allah and His messengers, and say not "Three"-- Cease! (It is) better for you!--Allah is only One God. Far is it removed from his transcendent majesty that he should have a son...
Surah 4:171, Pickthall's translation
The Qur'an never seriously interacts with the biblical and orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. The Trinity describes what God has revealed about His unity. It does not multiply gods as the Qur'an states.
Jesus predicting Muhammad
One verse in the Qur'an has turned Muslims loose looking in the Bible for any possible prediction of Muhammad.
And when Jesus son of Mary said: O Children of Israel! Lo! I am the messenger of Allah unto you, confirming that which was (revealed) before me in the Torah, and bringing good tidings of a messenger who cometh after me, whose name is the Praised One (Ahmed)....
Surah 61:6, Pickthall's translation
Most will go to the passages in John 14-16 concerning the Paraclete to try to prove that this really refers to Muhammad, not the Holy Spirit. The important thing for us to note is that Muslims believe that a major part of Jesus' ministry was to predict the coming of Muhammed.
The Jesus of the Qur'an did not die on the cross. Surah 4:157,158 says,
And because of their saying: We slew the Messiah Jesus Son of Mary, Allah's messenger--They slew him not nor crucified, but it appeared so unto them; and lo! Those who disagree concerning it are in doubt thereof; they have no knowledge thereof save pursuit of a conjecture; they slew him not for certain, But Allah took him up unto Himself....
The normal explanation is that God put someone else on the cross and took Jesus to heaven. Judas is probably the most suggested person for who died in Jesus' place. No historical evidence is given. It is believed because the Qur'an states it as the truth.
Jesus' return to the earth
The Qur'an does not explicitly state that Jesus will return again to the earth. It is a doctrine that is developed in the traditions of Islam (the Hadith). Here are the two Qur'an verses used to support the doctrine of his return:
There is not one of the People of the Scripture but will believe in him before his death, and on the Day of Resurrection he will be a witness against them --
Surah 4:159, Pickthall's translation
And (Jesus) shall be a Sign (for the coming of) the Hour (of Judgment): Therefore have no doubt about the (Hour), but Follow ye Me: this is the straight way.
Surah 43:61, Yusuf Ali's translation
From these verses and with other traditions the Islamic version of the return of Jesus will look like this. After being taken to heaven to escape crucifixion, Jesus will appear at the end of time as a sign that it is the Last hour. He will descend by resting his hands on the wings of two angels. He will descend onto a white minaret set in the eastern part of Damascus. He will invite the whole world to become Muslim including Christians and Jews, He will kill the anti-Christ, He will break the cross, kill all the swine, end all wars, and will become a judge. He will marry, have children, perform the pilgrimage to Mecca, die after 40 years and be buried beside Muhammad in Medina. His time on the earth will mark a period of abundance on the earth and all religions will end except Islam.
How Muslims feel about Jesus
From the above description you can sense how Muslims do have a great degree of admiration and devotion to Jesus. Some even seek him for intercession because he is such a powerful figure in Islam. Unfortunately, the Qur'an directs their respect away from regarding Him as being the only Saviour from sin and the Lord of Lords. It even has Him denying His identity as God come in human flesh, and denying that His ministry was the climax of God's program on the earth.
As with the Qur'an, Muslims do not tend to recognise the importance of the actual historical evidence that exists concerning Jesus. They take the Qur'an's word for His identity and ministry without examining the basis for their belief.
Also, as Muslims are passionate about the Qur'an being a superior revelation to the Bible, so with Jesus, they believe that we Christians are committing blasphemy in what we assert about Jesus. They think it is Christians who have made Jesus out to be God. The zeal and passion Muslims show in arguing these things comes from sincere belief that we are wrong and committing blasphemies. They do not realise their error and misunderstandings. They do not realise that we are taking Jesus at His word and also taking the word of Jesus' disciples as found in the New Testament.
Geisler, Norman and Saleeb, Abdul. Answering Islam. Baker Books, 1993.
Masood, Stephen. Jesus and the Indian Messiah. Oldham: Word of Life, 1994.
Why Follow Jesus?. OM Publishing, 1997.
Parrinder, Geoffrey. Jesus in the Qur'an. Oxford University Press, 1977.
Robinson, Neal. Christ in Islam and Christianity. MacMillan Publishers, 1991.