This is Part Two of Three of a Series of Articles on Islamic Christology
- Part One (Below)
- Part Two (forthcoming)
- Part Three (forthcoming)
One of the main and specific issues between Muslims and Christians since the days of Muhammad until now has been Christology. The image of God as the Transcendent Other appears to be sacrificed by the Christian notion of Jesus as the ‘Son of God’, and ‘Trinity.’ Thus the dominant image of Jesus in the Quran is not as one of the prophets who serve to illustrate the message and the ministry of Muhammad and also serve as a warning to those who do not listen to him, but as one who correct Christians of exceeding the bounds of ‘the Islamic structure of prophecy’.
The Quranic Christology shows that ideas from a doctrinal dispute over the nature of Christ, which arose between the third and sixth century in the churches of the Mediterranean region, had advanced as far as Mecca. Resident Jews may also have influenced Muhammad with their rejection of Jesus’ divine Sonship. Thus Muhammad denied the heavenly nature of Christ with a cutting sharpness. In Sura Q 112 of the Quran we find the core of Islam in the command for the Muslim confession, “Allah begets not and was not begotten.”
This phrase is impressed upon every Muslim from childhood – God is not a father and never had a son. In Q 9:29-30 Muhammad gave a more radical argument to this theme. He ascertained: “The Christians say, `the Messiah is the Son of Allah.’ That is the utterance of their mouths, conforming to the unbelievers before them. Allah kill them! How they are perverted!” With this curse, Muhammad asserts that anyone who believes that God is a Father and Christ is His Son, must be annihilated by Allah. Who can deny that this is a manifestation of an anti-Christian spirit? In Islam a real incarnation of God in Christ is unthinkable which is a clear confirmation to the truth found in 1 John 2:22-23 and 4:2-3 as to the signs of the Antichrist: “This is the Antichrist who denies the Father and the Son. Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father either… Every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God, and this is the spirit of the Antichrist.”
There are many Jesus figures, despite the fact that there was only one. Variations began appearing as early as the first century and have not abated, making efforts to uncover the historical Jesus, the real man from Nazareth, notoriously fraught and conflicting endeavors – as Christians who have tried can attest. Many claim that the written record is incomplete and contradictory; archaeology can only assist and often merely confounds; scholars must detect and filter the “errors” of early accounts while keeping their own biases at bay. It is probably easier to meet Jesus in one’s heart than to find Him in the past – a venerable Christian theme, perhaps the most venerable. What remained of the man when Jesus appeared, to some eyes, was a little thin. The effect of this effort on the community of biblical scholars was predictable: conniptions, followed by factions. Among the statements declared inauthentic was this telling one: “Who do you say that I am?”
The commonalities between the Muslim and the Christian understandings of the human Jesus are not commonly appreciated. Yet they should in no way obfuscate the mutually exclusive answers given by Christianity and Islam on the question of Jesus’ divinity. The doctrine of Jesus’ two natures – divine and human – is a defining point of Christianity, while the essence of Jesus’ person in Islamic tradition is shaped by His own consistent upbraiding of those who would attribute to Him divine characteristics. The dialogue between Christianity and Islam comes through in a passage from the Quran in which God asks Jesus whether he told mankind to take himself and his mother, Mary, as two gods beside God. Jesus responds firmly, saying: “Glory be to you! It cannot be that I would say that which is not mine by right” (Q 5:116).
This comment captures a consistent message of Islam: No man shares divinity with God.
Brian Brennan quotes Leirvik in The Jesus of Islam:
“Christians have more in common with Muslims than they realize’ stating “rightly asserts that the crucifixion and concomitant question of redemption constitute the essential difference separating Christianity and Islam, from which other differences flow. Christians see the crucifixion as a revelation of the divine itself, through Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection. In contrast, Muslims believe that through divine intervention, Jesus was rescued from the cross before he died. This can be interpreted as a sign of Jesus’ helplessness and his status as a lesser prophet not able to effect the massive political change wrought by Muhammad. This difference is not merely one of emphasis. It highlights the fundamental opposition of Islam to the notion of a triune God, and the inability of Christians to question Jesus’ divinity without ceasing to be Christian.”
This theological divide between Muslims and Christians is real; it is not going to be filled in by threading together bits of Christian and Muslim scripture to concoct a Jesus-light. Yet controversy about the nature of Jesus is not new. Christianity had been around for several hundred years before the Council of Chalcedon definitively proclaimed the doctrine of Christ’s two natures. The Islamic Jesus is no more radical from a Christian perspective than any one of a number of heresies that embroiled the early church, and innumerable theologians and philosophers have since continued to ponder Jesus’ being.
One of the great apologists of the early church, John of Damascus, in his work The Fount of Knowledge, Part Two, entitled Heresies in Epitome: How They Began and Whence They Drew Their Origin, considered Islam a form of Christian heresy as we read in his comments below:
“There is also the superstition of the Ishmaelites which to this day prevails and keeps people in error, being a forerunner of the Antichrist. They are descended from Ishmael, [who] was born to Abraham of Agar, and for this reason they are called both Agarenes and Ishmaelites. They are also called Saracens, which is derived from Sarras kenoi, or destitute of Sara, because of what Agar said to the angel: ‘Sara hath sent me away destitute.’ These used to be idolaters and worshiped the morning star and Aphrodite, whom in their own language they called Khabár, which means great. And so down to the time of Heraclius they were very great idolaters. From that time to the present a false prophet named Mohammed has appeared in their midst. This man, after having chanced upon the Old and New Testaments and likewise, it seems, having conversed with an Arian monk, devised his own heresy. Then, having insinuated himself into the good graces of the people by a show of seeming piety, he gave out that a certain book had been sent down to him from heaven. He had set down some ridiculous compositions in this book of his, and he gave it to them as an object of veneration. He says that there is one God, creator of all things, who has neither been begotten nor has begotten. He says that the Christ is the Word of God and His Spirit, but a creature and a servant, and that He was begotten, without seed, of Mary the sister of Moses and Aaron.”
Negative Christology in the Quran:
A Christian reaction to Islamic Christology
While we recognize the vast diversity of thought and attitudes within Islam, our response to this world religion must be limited to its core beliefs. Before offering such a critique, it will be both helpful and crucial to clarify the points of tension between Christianity’s and Islam’s Christology. While on a superficial level it appears that Christianity and Islam share common theological ground in some particulars (e.g., monotheism), a closer scrutiny of the two religions exposes several fundamental differences that can be reconciled only by a costly compromise by either the Christian, the Muslim, or both.
In Part 2 of this series, we will examine some of the Islamic understandings concerning the person and works of Christ.
1 Q 4:172; 5:72, 75, 116
2 All Quranic passages are the author’s translation unless otherwise noted.
3 David Emmanuel Singh, Islam as a Context for Christian Theologizing: A Preliminary Search, in Bangalore Theological Forum. UTC, Bangalore, Vol. XXXII. No. 2. December 2000, pp. 60-72.
4 Sara Miller in the review of The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature – a wandering prophet: the Islamic Jesus. Christian Century. January 2, 2002.
5 Q 5:116 “Allah will say: “O Jesus the son of Mary! Didst thou say unto men, worship me and my mother as gods in derogation of Allah’?” He will say: “Glory to Thee! Never could I say what I had no right (to say). Had I said such a thing, thou wouldst indeed have known it. Thou knowest what is in my heart . . .”
6 Brian Brennan, The Jesus of Islam: Christians have more in common with Muslims than they realize, National Catholic Reporter, June 3, 2005.
7 John of Damascus. The Fount of Knowledge, Part Two entitled Heresies in Epitome: How They Began and Whence They Drew Their Origin, http://orthodoxinfo.com/general/stjohn_islam.aspx. Accessed: 26 December, 2012.
8 It is worthy to note that Islam considers Christians “Idolaters”.
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