By Jaafer Sheikh Idris
Who is Jesus, peace be upon him? What is his relation to God? Is he God? Is he the son of God? Or is he divine in some other way? Or is he at least not an ordinary human being? What does it mean then to say – as we do – that he is the word of God, the spirit of God, that he is the son of a virgin lady, that he spoke in the cradle, or that he used to heal the blind and the leper and to bring to life the dead?
These are the questions we will address to the Qur’an and seek its guidance. It is not of course possible here to give all the detailed Qur’anic answers to these questions. We shall therefore be content with a brief account.
The best way to approach our topic is the way the Qur’an itself approached it. It is reported that in the ninth year of the Prophet’s Hijra, a delegation of Christians from the city of Najran, which included some learned men, visited the Prophet in order to argue with him on some matters concerning the nature of Jesus. And it was on that occasion that the first eighty three verses (ayat) of Chapter Three of the Qur’an-surat ‘Aali ‘Imran-were revealed to the Prophet. I suggest that first the chapter should be read bearing in mind this fact. But as it is, we cannot now do more than briefly dwell on a few of those eighty three verses. Of course, ‘Aali ‘Imran is not the only reference for anyone who wants to know what the Qur’an says about Jesus. There is a whole chapter that goes by the name Maryam or Mary, and the story of Jesus and the Christians is referred to in so many other parts of the Qur’an. So, as I implied earlier, when we confine ourselves to these few selected verses, we are only going to have a glimpse of that Qur’anic account.
Alif, Lam, Mim. Allahu laa ilaaha illa huwa. Al Hayyu, Al Qayyum.
Thus the sura begins. It tells us something about God that is relevant to our problem. This is because the most important job of religion is to give man a clear and correct conception of God in the light of which he can worship Him and through the guidance of which he can correctly deal with the many problems that confront him in all aspects of his life. The better we know God, the more we love Him and the happier we become irrespective of our external circumstances. The love of God is the quintessence of religion and the only way to the peace of mind for which man naturally yearns but seldom attains.
Allahu laa ilaaha illa huwa. AI Hayyu, Al Qayyum: The true God is one; there is no God except Him, the Living, the Sustaining.
The true God, is one. Why? The general answer is given in a verse of another chapter:
“if there were in the (heavens and the earth) gods besides the true God, they would both have been in disorder”-Al Anbiya 21:22.
But we need not go into the details of this now. In the course of our present verses, and concerning our particular problem, the nature of Jesus, it will soon become clear why he cannot be another God.
Al Hayyu, The Living God
is the only true living being because He has been and shall continue to be eternally living, while the life of all the so-called living things is only temporary, being preceded and followed by death, or non-existence. And even their temporary life, unlike God’s, is interrupted by sleep and slumber, which are forms of partial death.
The Arabic word, Qayyum is derived from Qania-to stand up, or to continue to be, and it literally means one who stands by, himself and causes other things to stand or to be, by giving them whatever is necessary for their existence. So nothing except God is self-subsisting; everything else is dependent for its existence upon Him.
The true God, then, must be one. He must be eternally living and He must sustain all other things while not being in need of anything to sustain Him. Can we apply any of these qualities to Jesus? By no means.
But God is not only eternally living and eternally sustaining His creation, it is He-as we read in verse 4- Who forms us in the womb. We know what to do when we wish to beget a child. Surely we do not form it in the wombs of our wives, let alone in the wombs of virgin ladies. This is why in denying that He has children, God says:
“How should He have children seeing that He has no consort?”
Al-Aziz: The Almighty
is one who cannot in anyway be overcome, the one who always gets what He wills, and to whom nothing is done against His own will.
Al-Hakim: The Wise One
who does everything in a perfect way and to serve a good purpose.
Again though we roughly attribute these qualities to men, it is only to God that they are attributed in their perfect and absolute sense. However strong or wise man becomes he is essentially weak and fallible.
Let us now jump to the verses 34-51 where part of the story of Jesus is directly related. (While reading, please refer to these verses in any good translation of the Qur’an.) In this account we have two things, besides the birth of Jesus which happened in a very unusual- what we call a miraculous-way. Zachariyya, the Prophet of that period, and the husband of Mary’s aunt (or sister) discovers to his astonishment that Mary sitting alone in her room and cut from the outside world is nevertheless being supplied with provisions. And when he asks her wondering how it comes to her, she simply says,
“From God. Truly God provisions whomsoever he Will without reckoning”.
It seems that Zachariyya being impressed by this wonderful divine grace, which reminded him that God’s power of doing things is not limited to the ways familiar to us, restored his hope of having a son. So once he had heard Mary’s reply he turned to God and prayed to Him to grant him a child. Again to his astonishment his prayer was accepted and he was to have a son despite his old age and his wife’s barrenness. Yet Zachariyya who surely must have been pleased and thankful to God, still wonders,
“Lord, how shall I have a son, seeing I am an old man and my wife is barren ?” Indeed how? Well, simply because God does what He wills.
When the birth of Jesus is seen against this background which surat’Aali lmran furnishes, it does not seem very unusual or extraordinary. If food suddenly appears in a closed room, and if a child can be begotten by parents one of whom is too old and the other barren, why shouldn’t a child be born to a virgin lady ? And it becomes more natural if we remember-as the Qur’an reminds us in this sura that Adam had no parents at all. If Jesus is thought to be divine by virtue of his miraculous birth, then not only Adam and John but even Mary’s miraculous provisions are divine. If it be foolish to say so, then it is equally foolish to say that Jesus is divine.
Jesus – the word of God
“God gives thee good tidings of a word from Him whose name is Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary”.
How can a man be a word? A word is something that we mention or speak. The word of God emanates from Him. It is what God says, not what He creates, while man is some- thing which God creates not something which He says. Some people interpreted this and similar expressions literally and said that Jesus is himself the word, that Jesus and the word are identical, and that is why he, unlike other men, is a Divine being. But we read in this sura that John is also the word of God. Is he also divine? And what about this verse:
“Say, if the sea were ink for the words of my Lord, the sea would be spent before the words of my Lord are spent though we brought replenishment the like of it”. -18:108
Are all these infinitely many things divine?
In replying to a heretic who said that Jesus is himself the word, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, the famous imam, said in his small pamphlet Ar Radd ‘ala az Zanadiqa wal Jahmiyya: “Surely God has deprived you from understanding the Qur’an. Jesus is not the “Be!” (Arabic: kun.) But it is by the “Be!” that he became”. So now we know what is the word. Whenever God wills to create something he says to it “Be!” and it becomes. The created thing is called the word of God because it comes as a result of this word; it is caused by this word, but it is not itself the word. Even in modern English you say, “Take my word for it”. The person whom you address does not, on hearing this, jump at your mouth trying to snatch the word therefrom.
And when someone, seeing you engaged in doing something of which he does not approve or which he does not quite understand, asks: “What are you doing ?” and you answer, “These are the boss’s orders or instructions”, surely you do not mean that the thing you are doing is itself the orders or instructions. What you mean is that you are executing the boss’s orders. It is also the same when we say either in English or Arabic, “This is the will of God”. Similarly, when we say that something is the word of God, we only mean that it is an execution of the word of God, i.e. God’s will or decree expressed in a word.
It follows from all this that when we say that Jesus is the word of God, we are in fact emphasising the fact that he is not divine, that like Adam before him and in fact like everything else, he is a created thing. That is why when Mary wondered how she was to have a son, God said,
“When He decrees a thing, He does but say to it: ‘Be!’ and it becomes”.
It is regrettable that an expression which is meant to assert the humanity of Jesus should be taken as strong evidence of his divinity.
Jesus-the spirit of God
So much for Jesus being the word of God. What about his being the spirit of God? When we talk about the spirit of man, we usually mean something that partially constitutes his personaiity. Some people interpreted the spirit of God in the same manner atid concluded that being the spirit of God, Jesus contains in his being something divine. But in the Qur’an the same expression is used in the case of Adam, about whom God says
” . .. . . .and breathed My spirit into him”.-15:29.
The correct interpretation is that “the spirit of God” like “the servant of God”, “the messenger of God”, “the house of God”-all mean something which God owns, not something that is part of Him. Its relation to God is-as the learned Muslims say-a relation of the thing owned to its owner, not a relation of a part to its whole.
Jesus then, like all the prophets of God is no more than an ordinary human being whom God judged to be worthy of having the honour of communicating his message to the people of his time. His miraculous birth is only one of the many “signs” (ayat) that God shows to mankind that they may know and have faith in Him. He was not crucified, not because a prophet cannot be killed or crucified-we read in this sura that the Jews killed so many prophets-but just because this is a historical fact.
He is neither in any way divine as those who exaggerate in their respect for him claim, nor is the honour of his righteous mother-the purified and chosen lady-to be doubted as those who hate him maliciously insinuate. He is a chosen prophet to be sincerely loved and respected, but not to be worshipped.
Let me end this talk by an authentic tradition of our Prophet, transmitted by both al-Bukhari and Muslim:
“If anyone testifies that there is no God but God alone, who has no partners, that Muhammad is his servant and messenger; that Jesus is God’s servant and messenger; the son of his handmaid, His word which he cast into Mary, and a spirit from Him; and that paradise and hell are real, God will cause him to enter paradise, no matter what he has done”.
Delivered at the U.K. Islamic Mission Conference in the summer of 1969 at Manchester.