W. D. Short
One of three gods?
The meaning of ‘Son of God’
Did Christians believe that Jesus was only divine, not human?
In my paper The Exclusion of the Jews and Christians from the Arabian Peninsula, I questioned the historicity of the presentation of early Muslim-Christian relations that we find in the Sira and the Hadith. Not least among my objections was the depiction of Christian Christology and Theology (i.e. ontological doctrine of God) attributed to the Najran Christians in the Sira. I endeavoured to demonstrate that such a Christology was impossible, and that frankly, the Muslim historical picture was simply propaganda. There is simply no evidence that any Christian group held to such beliefs. I also suggested that one of the reasons for the invention of this story was to explain away some of the gaffes of the Qur’an.
A review of the historical background of the Muslim theological controversy with Christianity is useful to begin an exploration of the Christology of Islam. My purpose in this paper is to examine ontological (rather than functional) assertions about Christ in Islam, both in terms of what Islam itself affirms about Jesus, and also what it claims Christians believe. A proper study of this subject is essential for moving the debate forward. As we examine this subject, we come to one inevitable conclusion about what Islam insists is Christian belief; namely, that what Islam claims we believe in is not an accurate picture of Christian doctrine, and so the Qur’an is mistaken.
The picture of Jesus we find in the Qur’an at first glance agrees with the Bible as to His emergence into this world – Jesus is born of a virgin - Surah An-Anbiyaa 21:91 ‘And (remember) her who guarded her chastity: We breathed into her of Our Spirit and We made her and her son a Sign for all peoples’ (cf. also Surah Al-i-Imran 3:45ff; Surah Maryam 19:16ff; Surah An-Muminun 23:50). No particular importance is given to this in the Qur’an, nor any special reason for Jesus being virgin-born. Yusuf Ali says the following about Surah 66:12:
...As a virgin she gave birth to Jesus: xix. 16-29. In xxxii. 9, it is said of Adam’s progeny, man, that Allah ‘fashioned him in due proportion, and breathed into him something of His spirit’. In xv. 29, similar words are used with reference to Adam. The virgin birth should not therefore be supposed to imply that Allah was the father of Jesus in the sense in which Greek mythology makes Zeus the father of Apollo by Latona or of Minos by Europa. And yet that is the doctrine to which the Christian idea of ‘the only begotten Son of God’ leads.
Yusuf Ali echoes this assertion with regard to S. 3:59, and makes the usual Islamic comment that the creation of Adam, who had no human parents whatsoever was an even greater miracle:
After a description of the high position which Jesus occupies as a prophet, we have a repudiation of the dogma that he was Allah, or the son of Allah, or anything more than a man. If it is said that he was born without a human father, Adam was also so born. Indeed Adam was born without either a human father or mother. As far as our physical bodies are concerned they are mere dust. In Allah’s sight Jesus was as dust just as Adam was or humanity is. The greatness of Jesus arose from the divine command ‘Be’: for after that he was more than dust - a great Prophet and teacher.
It should be noted that the Qur’an itself never makes this contrast or assertion about Adam’s miraculous superiority over Jesus; rather, it is Islamic apologetics that has taken distinct verses and poured meaning into them they never first possessed. The Qur’an message is simply that Jesus was like Adam – just a human being, created through a divine fiat, not that the emergence of Adam was a greater miracle than the birth of Jesus. The virgin birth is one area at least where one finds no Islamic polemic against Christian distinctives. Interestingly, the Hadith, probably borrowing from Christian theology on the importance of the virgin birth for the impeccability of Jesus, points to a unique characteristic of the event, one not shared by even Muhammad:
Sahih Al-Bukhari Hadith 4.641
Narrated by Said bin Al Musaiyab
Abu Huraira said, "I heard Allah’s Apostle saying, ‘There is none born among the offspring of Adam, but Satan touches it. A child therefore, cries loudly at the time of birth because of the touch of Satan, except Mary and her child’"...
Sahih Al-Bukhari Hadith 4.506
Narrated by Abu Huraira
The Prophet said, ‘When any human being is born, Satan touches him at both sides of the body with his two fingers, except Jesus, the son of Mary, whom Satan tried to touch but failed, for he touched the placenta-cover instead.’
It is at this point that the Jesus of Islam and the Christ of the Bible begin to diverge, since S. 19:19ff presents Jesus speaking in the cradle, announcing His prophethood, a thought repeated in S. 5:110 – ‘Behold! I strengthened thee with the holy spirit so that thou didst speak to the people in childhood and in maturity’. In fact, the Qur’an presents Him as a wunderkind, for in S. 3:49 we find the child Jesus animating clay birds (again, repeated in S. 5:110 ‘...thou makest out of clay as it were the figure of a bird ...and thou breathest into it and it becometh a bird...’)! Clearly, there is nothing in the canonical gospels resembling this picture. However, we must observe this fact at this juncture; what the Qur’an is asserting here is its own Christology, not what it claims Christians believe. It is very well known that this idea of the wonder-working infant has been borrowed from the apocryphal pseudo-gospels of the Gospel of Thomas the Israelite (‘clay birds’) and the ‘cradle’ story is taken from the so-called Gospel of the Infancy which itself derives from the Gospel of Thomas the Israelite.
Yusuf Ali notes the absence of any reference in the canonical gospels to this picture of Jesus, but recognises an affinity between the Qur’anic stories and the apocryphal pseudo-gospels - ‘This miracle of the clay birds is found in some of the apocryphal Gospels; those of curing the blind and the lepers and raising the dead are in the canonical Gospels...’ A cursory glance at these apocryphal works reveals them as the source for the Qur’anic narrative:
Gospel of Thomas the Israelite
First Greek Form
Gospel of the Infancy
And having made some soft clay, He fashioned out of it twelve sparrows... And Jesus clapped His hands, and cried out to the sparrows, and said to them: Off you go! And the sparrows flew, and went off crying
Gospel of Thomas the Israelite
Second Greek Form
And Jesus made of that clay twelve sparrows, and ...looked upon the sparrows, and said: Go away, fly, and live, and remember me. And at this word they flew, and went up into the air...
1. We find what follows in the book of Joseph the high priest, who lived in the time of Christ. Some say that he is Caiaphas. He has said that Jesus spoke, and, indeed, when He was lying in His cradle said to Mary His mother: I am Jesus, the Son of God, the Logos, whom thou hast brought forth, as the Angel Gabriel announced to thee; and my Father has sent me for the salvation of the world.
36. Now, when the Lord Jesus had completed seven years from His birth... He had made figures of birds and sparrows, which flew when He told them to fly, and stood still when He told them to stand, and ate and drank when He handed them food and drink.
Again it must be emphasised – this is what the Qur’an portrays as Islamic Christology, not what it asserts is Christian doctrine. It need hardly be stated that these stories are purely mythological, and should not be taken seriously. They may present us with the ’Isa of Muslim faith, but they in no way resemble the Jesus of History; for the latter, we must turn to the canonical gospels. It would seem to be the case that Muslims realised their gaffe early on. As the Islamic empire expanded, coming into contact with increasing number of Christians, this picture of Jesus would have become increasingly embarrassing, as it became clear that no Christian group adhered to it or believed such legends as presented in the Qur’an or apocryphal works. The total absence of such a depiction of Jesus from the canonical gospels would have been a bitter blow to Islamic credibility, and stifled opportunity for conversions.
As I suggested in my paper The Exclusion of the Jews and Christians from the Arabian Peninsula, this is undoubtedly one reason that the Sira attempts to suggest that the Najran Christians believed such stories. According to ibn Ishaq/ibn Hisham, when a deputation from Najran visited Muhammad, the Christian delegation supported their claims by pointing to his miracles. These apparently included making ‘...clay birds and breathe into them so that they flew away...’ 1 The delegation stated that Jesus ‘...spoke in the cradle...’ The text goes on to say that the Qur’an (i.e. Surah 3 Al-i-Imran) came down in answer to these assertions. This has remained the usual Muslim perception. The great Qur’anic commentator Mawdudi, in his introduction to the surahs in Yusuf Ali’s translation, states that a number of the ayat (verses) of Surah Al-i-Imran, were revealed to Muhammad at this time: ‘The second discourse (vv. 33-63) was revealed in 9 A.H. on the occasion of the visit of the deputation from the Christians of Najran’ He repeats this assertion in his commentary. 2
The Sira of Ibn Ishaq states that the delegation were ‘...Christians according to the Byzantine rite...’ 3 This is unlikely, as Byzantine influence was limited to the northern border areas. A modern Christian writer suggests that they were Nestorians. 4 The Syrian Orthodox Church (‘Monophysite’), perhaps implausibly, claims they belonged to their confession. 5 It is much more likely that they were Abyssinian-influenced Monophysites. 6 The Encyclopaedia of Islam holds that Monophysitism was the dominant sect in Najran. 7 Yusuf Ali, commenting on S. 27:24, suggests that Abyssinia was responsible for the origins of Christianity in Najran:
Yemen had easy access to Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf by way of the sea, as well as with Abyssinia. That accounts for the Christians of Najran and the Jewish dynasty of kings (e.g. Zu-Nuwas, d. 525 A.D.) who persecuted them in the century before Islam, - also for the Christian Abyssinian Governor Abraha and his discomfiture in the year of the Prophet’s birth (S.cv.), say 570 A.D. Jewish-Christian influences were powerful in Arabia in the sixth century of the Christian era.
Whatever their sect, the Najran Christians would not have believed in the Qur’anic wunderkind legends of Jesus. All the major Eastern Orthodox groupings held to essentially the same canon as the Church in the West. F. F. Bruce notes that by 508 A.D. the Syrian Jacobite (Monophysite) Church held the same canon as found in the West, whilst the Nestorians accepted a canon of only twenty-two books. 8 The Ethiopian Orthodox canon is slightly different, accepting the same canon as the wider Church plus eight books addressing Church order. 9 The essential point is, however, that no canon whatsoever included either the pseudo-gospel of Thomas or that of the Infancy, nor any supposed ‘gospel’ teaching these ideas. This being the case, the Najran Christians whatever their sect, could not have quoted the references to ‘clay birds’ and Jesus ‘speaking in the cradle’, since the material appears in apocryphal books regarded by all as non-canonical. It follows that the narrative presented in the Sira, and the purported Christology proposed by the Najran Christians, cannot be authentic.
Why then did the Sira invent this tale? This brings us back to the issue we observed earlier – that as the Arabs consolidated their rule in areas such as Egypt, Syria and Iraq, they encountered learned Christians who automatically dismissed the Qur’anic Christology as false. This would have undermined the credibility of the Islamic kerygma. Hence, a two-pronged attack resulted; firstly, the claim of tahrif (corruption) against the Bible when it was found that the latter did not predict Muhammad and its theology was incompatible with Islam. Watt notes in connection with the traditional Muslim charge of tahrif, ‘corruption’, against the Bible, that the idea does not occur in the Qur’an itself, but ‘after the conquest of Iraq, Syria and Egypt, however, the doctrine of tahrif, of "corruption" was elaborated in various ways to give the Muslim Arabs a defence against the better-educated Christians with whom they were now mixing.’ 10 Secondly, the assertion was made that some Christians – specifically those who purportedly met Muhammad – adhered to the Christology we find in the Qur’an concerning the infant Jesus.
Why was this so important? As Surah Ahl-i-Imran indicates, Muhammad claimed to be a prophet in the line of Abraham, S. 3:65, 67-68. Following on from this, he also claimed to be the next prophet after Jesus, S. 43:59. Once it became clear to the Muslims that the infant legends about Jesus were not shared by Christians, the claim of Muhammad being in the prophetic line of Abraham and Jesus was undermined. Hence, the Sira had to invent a Sitz-im-Leben for the emergence of the ayat about ‘clay birds’ and ‘cradle-prophecy’. The assertion that a group of Christians believed these myths as true relieved the embarrassment. However, the cover-up was unsuccessful in the end, precisely because in the Qur’an itself we never get the impression that the Christians shared these beliefs. The very fact that the Sira manufactures this story tells against the Christology of the Qur’an being divine revelation.
When it comes to other ontological descriptions of Jesus in the Qur’an, it is noteworthy that these tend to be negative in character – denying that Jesus is what Christians claim:
Surah Al-Baqarah 2:116
They say: ‘Allah hath begotten a son’; Glory be to Him. Nay to Him belongs all that is in the heavens and on earth; everything renders worship to Him.
Surah 9 At-Tauba
The Jews call Uzair a son of Allah and the Christians call Christ the son of Allah. That is a saying from their mouths...
Surah Mumineen 23:91
No son did Allah beget nor is there any god along with Him...
Surah An-Nisaa 4:171
O people of the Book! commit no excesses in your religion: nor say of Allah aught but truth. Christ Jesus the son of Mary was (no more than) an Apostle of an Apostle of Allah and His Word which He bestowed on Mary and a Spirit proceeding from Him...
Surah Maida 5:72
They do blaspheme who say: "Allah is Christ the son of Mary." But said Christ: "O children of Israel! worship Allah my Lord and your Lord."
Surah Maida 5:73
They surely disbelieve who say: Lo! Allah is the third of three; when there is no God save the One God. If they desist not from so saying a painful doom will fall on those of them who disbelieve.
Surah Maryam 19:88
They say: ‘(Allah) Most Gracious has begotten a son!’
Indeed ye have put forth a thing most monstrous!
The comments of Yusuf Ali in regard to Surah Maryam 19:88 demonstrate that Islam misconceives the Biblical concept of the incarnation:
Just as a foolish servant may go wrong by excess of zeal for his master, so in religion people’s excesses may lead them to blasphemy or a spirit the very opposite of religion. The Jewish excesses in the direction of formalism, racialism, exclusiveness, and rejection of Christ Jesus have been denounced in many places. Here the Christian attitude is condemned, which raises Jesus to an equality with Allah: in some cases venerates Mary almost to idolatry: attributes a physical son to Allah: and invents the doctrine of the Trinity, opposed to all reason, which according to the Athanasian Creed, unless a man believes, he is doomed to hell for ever.
Islam emphasises that God is self-subsisting, and sufficient, without need for forebears, offspring or equals. Having stated that Jesus was simply a man like Adam, the Qur’an leaves it at that – Jesus was not divine. He was not one of three gods. Obviously, the Qur’an misunderstands the Christian doctrine of the Trinity as a Tritheism, belief in three Gods, whereas the Biblical and historic Christian position is that the Godhead is Triune - that there are three hypostases (‘Persons’) commonly possessing the unique divine essence, inseparable and eternal. It follows that Christians are not ‘associating’ any being with God, since they are not dividing the single divine essence nor proposing that there is a plurality of divine essences; rather they are affirming an inseparable distinction within the unique divine essence. Neither should the generation of the Son be understood in terms of a temporal distinction between the First and Second Persons of the Trinity. There was never a time when the Son did not exist, nor is His essence different from that of the Father (or the Spirit).
It should also be noted that Christian doctrine does not present a composite divine being; on the contrary, they affirm the undivided unity of the divine essence. The Muslim writer Suzanne Haneef misrepresents Christian belief on this issue as holding to a deity in ‘three parts’, to which responds ‘God is not like a pie or an apple which can be divided into three thirds which form one whole’. 11 Christians would heartily agree with her on this point; the problem for Haneef is that we do not believe that God is in three parts. There is one unique divine essence. The Qur’an misunderstands Christian doctrine on the Triune nature of God, and this in itself indicates that the Muslim holy book is fallible, and thus not divine inspiration.
Of course, the Qur’an not only misconceives the nature of the Trinity, it misconstrues the identity of the Persons: it presents us with three deities – Allah, Mary and Jesus – S. 5:116 ‘'And behold! Allah will say: "O Jesus the son of Mary! Didst thou say unto men, take me and my mother for two gods beside Allah?"’ Again, this presents a picture of a divided divine essence that Christians deny. We do not believe that Jesus was a separate deity from the Father; still less do Christians believe that Mary was a member of the Trinity. Based on Matthew 28:19 and 2 Corinthians 13:14, Christians believe that the Holy Spirit, rather than Jesus, is ‘the third’ of three (more exactly, of the ‘three-in-one’); Jesus is also represented as the Second Person of the Trinity. Zwemer notes the difficulties Muslim commentators have had with the concept as defined in the Qur’an:
The commentaries interpret the Koran as follows: Zamakhshari [604 AH] on 4:169 remarks, "The story received among Christians is that God is one in essence and three persons, (alcanim) the person of the Father, the person of the Son and the person of the Holy Spirit. And they verily mean by the person of the Father, the Being, and by the person of the Son, knowledge, and by the person of the Holy Spirit, life. And this supposes that God is the third of three, or, if not, that there are three gods. And that which the Koran here refers to is the clear statement of theirs, that God and Christ and Mary are three gods and that the Christ is a child (walad) of God from Mary." For proof he then quotes Surah 5:116, and adds: "And it is universally known concerning Christians that they hold the deity and humanity of Christ as regards his father and mother." From this it is evident that Zamakhshari had a more correct idea of the doctrine of the Trinity than did Mohammed and that after offering a modal trinity as the creed of Christians he covers up the Koran mistake by asserting, without proof, that the trinity was a triad of Father, Son and Mother. (Vol. I. of the Kishaf, p. 241.)
Beidhawi [685 AH] (on 4:169) remarks: "Jesus is called the Spirit of God because He makes the dead to live or quickens hearts." On the following verse he is doubtful; "Either God is the third of three gods or is a triad of Father, Son and Holy Spirit." (Vol. I., p. 319.) He, too, avoids a real explanation of the gross misstatement in the Koran that Mary is one of the persons of the Trinity. The Jilalain [864-911] (Vol. I., p. 278) prove that Jesus cannot be God, "because He has a spirit and everything possessed of a spirit is compounded (murakkib), and God is absolutely without compounding, arrangement (tarkib), i.e.) simple." He says the Trinity consists of "Allah and Jesus and His mother." 12
Watt, referring to S. 5:73/77 and S. 4:171-69, observes about the Qur’anic conception of the Christian Trinity:
...if these passages are examined without parti pris, it is clear that they are not attacking the orthodox Christian doctrine of the Trinity, but the misinterpretation of that doctrine sometimes called ‘tritheism’. The great body of Christians officially deny that they believe in three gods, and in their creeds profess their belief in God who is one. 13
It appears that early on Muslims realised that they had problems with their assertion that Christians believed in Jesus as a distinct god from Allah – namely, the latter believed no such thing. Once again, as with the Infancy wunderkind legends, The Sira material made the Najran Christians the scapegoats for the blunders of the Qur’an. According to ibn Ishaq/ibn Hisham, the Christians informed the Muslims that Jesus was God; the son of God; the third person of the Trinity ‘...which is the doctrine of Christianity.’ Specifically, they argued that Jesus is ‘...the third of three in that God says: We have done, We have commanded... if He were one he would have said I have done... but He is He and Jesus and Mary.’ 14 Again, whatever their sect, the Najran Christians would not have believed that Mary was divine, part of the Trinity, or that Jesus was the ‘third of three’. All Christians, including Monophysites and Nestorians, accepted the definition of the Trinity and the eternal Sonship of Christ in the Creed of the Council of Nicaea (325):
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of his Father, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father. By whom all things were made, both which be in heaven and in earth. Who for us men and for our salvation came down and was incarnate and was made man. He suffered and the third day he rose again, and ascended into heaven. And he shall come again to judge both the living and the dead. And in the Holy Spirit.
It follows that the Najran Christians could not have believed in Jesus as a distinct deity from God. Not even the apocryphal pseudo-gospels present such a picture of Christ and the Trinity. Hence, the Christological doctrinal assertions in the Sira did not emerge with the Najran Christians. In my paper The Exclusion of the Jews and Christians from the Arabian Peninsula, I rhetorically queried ‘From whence then did ibn Ishaq/ibn Hisham derive this story?’ It is noteworthy that it is not even present in the Hadith.’ The answer is that they got the picture from the Qur’an. So, instead of the verses in Al-i-Imran descending at the time of the Najran deputation in response to Christian assertions, the Sira of ibn Ishaq/ibn Hisham invented a myth of Christians upholding the heterodox Christology denounced by the Qur’an, to defend the Islamic holy book from charges of inaccuracy, which undermined its claims to inspiration. For example, the reference to Jesus being ‘...the third of three’ is found in Surah 5:73. Maida ‘They surely disbelieve who say: Lo! Allah is the third of three; when there is no God save the One God.’
Similarly, the implication in what the Najranis supposedly advocated is that Christians believe in the separate divinity of Christ. Watt observes that the Islamic view is that Christians believe that ‘...Jesus is a deity apart from God...’ 15 However, the true source for the Sira’s claims is Surah Maida 5:17. Watt comments that ‘What is denied here is the assertion of complete identity between Jesus and God... generally regarded as the heresy of confusing the hypostases... In the light of the Qur’anic attack on tritheism, it seems certain that the denial that the Messiah was the son of God was a denial that he was a deity separate from God; and this is confirmed by the later part of 9:30 which identifies what is denied with the views of ‘former unbelievers’... that is presumably of the pagans.’ 16
It is clear from the study of the Qur’an’s denunciations of Christians for believing in the divine sonship of Jesus that Islam’s sacred text accuses Christians of divinising a mortal human being. The historic Christian doctrine is the reverse – the whole concept of the Incarnation hinges on the belief that God became Man – John 1:14. Strangely, there may be an echo of this idea of Christ’s pre-existence in the Hadith. 17 Linked to this is the idea that Christians hold that Jesus was the naturalistic Son of God – produced by God being intimate with Mary, much like Zeus cavorting with Leto to produce Apollo. Yusuf Ali comments on S. 19:35 in this respect: ‘Begetting a son is a physical act depending on the needs of men’s animal nature. Allah Most High is independent of all needs, and it is derogatory to Him to attribute such an act to Him. It is merely a relic of pagan and anthropomorphic materialist superstitions.’ Of course, Christians believe nothing of the kind. They believe that Jesus is the eternally generated Son, and in regard to the Virgin Birth, the Gospel passages do not give the slightest hint of sexual intercourse between God and Mary, or the idea that Jesus was a demi-god. Yet it is quite clear that this idea of naturalistic generation is the accusation of Islam against Christianity.
The obvious inference is that Muhammad confused the Christian concept with pagan ideas of divine progeny, such as the Binat’Allah. Yet again, we can recognise how embarrassing this claim would have been once Muslims began to properly understand Christian doctrine, and thus discover that what the Qur’an accused Christians of believing was not the case. Yet again, as we saw earlier, the Sira came to the defence of the Qur’an, placing Qur’anic doctrine of the lips of the Najran Christians; this is how we should understand the references in the Sira to the Najranis believing Jesus was the Son of God. Once again, this Qur’anic gaffe only serves to undermine belief in the book’s inspiration.
As one reads the Qur’an and studies its denials of what Christians are supposed to believe, one is struck by the absence of any reference to the fact that Christians believe that Jesus is both divine and human. Yet the whole point of the Incarnation is that God the Word became flesh – John 1:14. The impression one receives is that Christians believe that Jesus has only one nature, the divine. The polemical tract The God that never was proceeds on that basis. John Gilchrist observes this phenomenon, and comments on its inadequacies, with particular reference to this pamphlet:
As any reader of the booklet can see, the scriptures quoted relate primarily to the humanity of Jesus and his brief life on earth. The thrust of the essay is that Jesus could not have been God because he was a man and was subject to all the natural limitations of the human race (i.e. ancestry, nationality, human emotion, physical weakness, etc.). The author ... has casually glossed over and paid no attention to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, but has instead set forth Christian belief in Jesus as God absolutely (that is, to the exclusion of the Father and the Holy Spirit and without reference to the office of Jesus as the Son of God). He knew that when Christians say that Jesus is God this means that he shares the divine nature of the Father ... with the Holy Spirit in a threefold Trinity. But he has subtly reversed this by misrepresenting the Christian doctrine, setting it forth as a belief that God, the subject, is Jesus, and has based his whole argument on this premise... It is a fundamental Christian doctrine that Jesus is the Son of man as well as the Son of God. There is no validity in any argument against the deity of Jesus which is based exclusively on the human limitations he deliberately assumed during his brief course on earth. 18
I have suggested that the Najranis were probably Monophysites, and Monophysitism was often understood as teaching that the humanity of Christ was swallowed up by His deity, although it should be said that this was probably a misunderstanding of the Monophysite position. Their acceptance of the Creed of Nicaea does not suggest they were guilty of this error. Essentially, their distinctive position was probably a matter of phraseology. However, misconceptions of the Monophysite position as denying the true humanity of Jesus may have influenced the Qur’anic portrayal of Christian Christology. Yet again, as the Muslims began to understand Christian beliefs after their conquests of the Fertile Crescent and Egypt, they would have realised that the Qur’an had failed to properly understand and depict Christian doctrine on the Person of Christ – once more undermining the claim to divine inspiration. Further, the Qur’an gives one the idea that there is an exclusive choice – Jesus is either divine or human; He could not be both, whereas the Christian position is precisely that Jesus was concurrently divine and human. Once again, the story of the Najran Christians was invoked Sira material to aid Islamic apologetics. Ahmad von Denffer refers to the account of the theological dispute between Muhammad and the Najranis:
They said: If Jesus is not Allah’s son, who is then his father?’, and they argued about Jesus, so Allah’s messenger said to them: ‘Do you know that there is no child not resembling his father? They said: ‘Yes’. He said: ‘Do you not know that our Lord is living and does not die, and that Jesus passed away?’ They said: ‘Yes’. He said: ‘Do you not know that our Lord takes care of everything, guards it and sustains it?’ They said: ‘Yes’. He said: ‘Does Jesus do any of these things?’ They said: ‘No’. He said: ‘Our Lord formed Jesus in the womb, as he wished, and our Lord, he does not eat, nor drink nor talk?’ They said: ‘Yes’. He said: ‘Do you not know that Jesus’ mother carried him, as any woman carries (a child), then she gave birth to him, as any woman gives birth to her child, then she fed him, as a child is fed, then he ate, drank, talked?’ They said: ‘Yes’. He said: ‘How is it then as you claim? Then they were silent.’ 19
In passing, it is interesting that, given the assertion of Muslims that Jesus did not die on the cross, Muhammad in his discourse to the Christians is recorded as stating that ‘Jesus passed away’. According to this narrative, Muhammad’s reference to the human characteristics of Jesus silenced the Christians, which gives the impression that the latter had not given proper consideration to the fact that if Jesus were born into this world and engaged in human functions such as eating and drinking, then He could not be divine. Perhaps the narrator was banking on conceptions of the Najranis’ Monophysitism to give plausibility to this story. Given the number of councils addressing Christological issues, and the creeds produced as a result, this supposed silence of the Najranis lacks credibility. Even the Sira of Ibn Hisham/ibn Ishaq states that the deputation included a distinguished bishop-theologian, Abu Haritha. Any proper scholar could have responded to the points Muhammad made, even as those engaged in debate and disputation with Muslim today are able to and actually do answer such Muslim objections. It is impossible to credit that a theologian or scholar of any standing would have been dumbfounded by Muhammad’s points. This in itself is probably another propagandistic raison d’être for the passage – to give the impression that Christians could not answer the religious wisdom of Islam’s Prophet. At any rate, the Sira again fails to shield the reputation of the Qur’an, given that Christians have always affirmed the true humanity of Christ in common with His deity in One Person.
The Qur’an tells us far more about what Jesus is not than what He is. Most of its assertions appear to be corrective, such as when it says to the Jews that they did not crucify Him, and when it addresses the Christians to deny His deity and eternal Sonship. In all these matters the Qur’an misunderstands and misconstrues Christian theology. Christians never believed that Jesus alone is God, or that He is only divine, rather than both God and Man, that He shares His deity with Mary, that He ‘rose’ from humanity to deity, or that He is a physical son of God in the same sense as the demi-gods of the Greek pantheon. Essentially, the Qur’an gets it wrong in almost every case. Surely a book revealed by God would not be subject to such elementary errors. An omniscient God knew what Christians believed, and would have accurately revealed their doctrines before condemning them. The fact that the Qur’an is guilty of such fallacies demonstrates that it is not divinely-inspired, and that the ’Isa of the Qur’an is not the Jesus of History.
Islam accepts the virgin birth, but never explains why it occurred, and it is clear from the attempts of later Muslims, like Yusuf Ali, to down-grade its importance by presenting an analogy with Adam that is alien to the tafsir of the Qur’an indicates how uncomfortable Muslims became when they encountered Christian Christology which had a definite reason for the event. The careless borrowing from apocryphal pseudo-gospels further demonstrates that Qur’anic Christology is unhistorical and devoid of credence. The concept of the infant Jesus wunderkind belongs in the annals of science fiction or fairy tales, not in supposed divine revelation. The scapegoating of the Najran Christians by the Sira, in that the supposed biography of Muhammad attempts to blame these Christians for the Christological gaffes of the Qur’an, evidences the uncomfortable realisation of later Muslims that their Holy Book was inaccurate in its presentation of Christian Christology.
Hence they had to defend the Qur’an by claiming that the Christology it attacks was actually held by the only Christian entity in the Arabian Peninsula south the Byzantine Empire, and that the Qur’an is actually responding to the Najrani Christology. The Sira fails in this because it is evident from early Christian councils and creeds that no Christian group could have held such Christological doctrines. By the time the Sira was composed, some two hundred years after Muhammad, this would have been obvious, hence we can see one reason for the emergence of such material; apologetic defence. The defence fails because History, sacred or otherwise, is against it – and History is His Story – the story of the God who became flesh and dwelt among us.
Guillaume, A., The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, (Oxford University Press, Pakistan, 1955, 9th impression 1987), p. 271.
Mawdudi, S. Abul A’la, The Meaning of the Qur’an, (Islamic Publications Ltd., Lahore, 1993 edition), vol. 1, Surah Al-i-Imran, p. 3.
Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad, p. 271.
Betts, Robert Brenton, Christians in the Arab East, (SPCK, London, 1979), p. 12.
http://www.syrianorthodoxchurch.org/cgi-bin/library/libdisplay.cgi?l-008.txt 1997, 1999:
... At the end of the 6th and the beginning of the 7th century, Qas Ibn-Sa-ida Al-Ayadi, bishop of Najran, was praised for his wisdom, poetry and the art of speech. Another famous man is named Waraqa Ibn Naufal Ibn Assad (who died about the year 611). He was the bishop of Mekka that was full of Christians. He was the cousin of Khadidga, daughter of Khuailid, the wife of Muhammad, the prophet. Most of the Christians of Mecca, Yemen and Najran were members of the Syrian Orthodox Church. The majority of Qurash was Christian. (The Christians were called ‘Nazarians’ after Jesus.) As manifold as the different dogma of the Christians of the Arab peninsula might have been, they exercised a great influence upon their Arab Muslims there….
Trimingham, J. Spencer, Christianity among the Arabs in Pre-Islamic Times, (Longman, London, 1979), pp. 294, 298. The traditional association with Abyssinia would suggest that they were Monophysite Christians.
The Encyclopaedia of Islam, vol. VII, p. 872.
Bruce, F. F., The Canon of Scripture, (Chapel House Ltd., Glasgow, 1988), p. 215.
Dunbar, David G., The Biblical Canon, in Carson, D. A., and Woodbridge, John D., (eds.), Hermeneutics, Authority and Canon, (IVP, Leicester, 1986), p. 317. M. James Sawyer writes in Evangelicals and the Canon of the New Testament (Grace Theological Journal V11 #1:29-52, Spr 90-29), ‘the Ethiopic Church recognized the twenty-seven books of the New Testament plus The Shepherd of Hermas, 1 & 2 Clement and eight books of the Apostolic Constitutions.’ He mentions further ‘The Ethiopic version is dated as early as the fourth century by some. Others would attribute it to the seventh century’.
Watt, William Montgomery, Early Islam: Collected Articles, (Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 1990), p. 67.
Haneef, Suzanne, What Everyone should know about Islam and Muslims, (Kazi Publications, Lahore, 1979), p Haneef, Suzanne, What Everyone should know about Islam and Muslims, Kazi Publications, (Lahore, 1979), p. 183.
Zwemer, Samuel, The Moslem doctrine of God, (American Tract Society, Boston, New York & Chicago, 1905), pp. 80-81. (Dates interpolated by me.)
Watt, Early Islam, p. 67.
Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad, pp. 271-272
Watt, Early Islam, p. 68.
Watt, Early Islam, p. 68.
Al-Tirmidhi Hadith 122
Narrated by Ubayy ibn Ka’b
In regard to the words of Allah, the Exalted and Glorious, "Your Lord brought forth their offspring from the loins of the children of Adam." (7:172) Ubayy said: He gathered them and paired them then fashioned them and endowed them with the power of speech and they began to speak. He then made an agreement and covenant with them. He made them bear witness about themselves (saying) Am I not your Lord. They said: Yes. He said: I call to witness seven heavens and seven earths regarding you and I call witness your father Adam regarding you lest you should say on the Day of Resurrection: We do not know this. Bear this in mind that there is no god besides Me and there is no Lord besides Me and do not associate anything with Me. It is I Who should be sending to you My messengers in order to remind you My agreement and My covenant and it is I who would send you My Books. They said: We bear witness to the fact that Thou art our Lord, Thou art our Object of worship. There is no Lord besides Thee and there is no object of worship besides Thee. They confirmed this (pledge). Adam was raised above them so that he would see them and he saw the rich and the poor, those having handsome faces and even those inferior to them and he said: My Lord, why is it that Thou hast not made Thy servants alike? He said: I wish that I should be thanked. And he also saw the Prophets, some amongst them like lamps with light in them, distinguished by another covenant regarding messengership and prophethood, viz. the words of the Blessed and the High: And when We made covenant with the prophets - up to His words: Jesus son of Mary (33:7). He was among those spirits and He sent him to Mary (peace be upon both of them). And it is narrated by Ubayy that he entered by her mouth.
Transmitted by Ahmad.
Gilchrist, John, Christ in Islam and Christianity: A comparative study of the Christian and Muslim attitudes to the person of Jesus Christ http://www.the-good-way.com/eng/article/a13.htm#1.3
von Denffer, Ahmed, Christians in the Qur’an and the Sunna, (Islamic Foundation, Leicester, 1979, 1987 edition), pp. 25-26.