“JWs and Bart Erhman’s all very well,” I hear you say, “but what happened to the Introduction to the Qur’an series??” Well, I apologize for the delay, but here it is, at long last, the third and final installment of the series. In this part we will examine what the Qur’an has to say about John the Baptist, Mary, and Jesus. Please bear in mind that this is a very brief overview; nevertheless, I hope it will be helpful to you.
There are far fewer direct references to New Testament figures in the Qur’an than Old Testament. Most notable of these, though are Mary (Maryam), John the Baptist (Yahya), and Jesus (‘Isa). A comparison between the Qur’an and the New Testament reveals a similar methodology at work in dealing with these as with people from the Old Testament.
John the Baptist
The birth of John the Baptist is preceded by the announcement of the angel to his father, Zacharias, who, according to Luke’s Gospel, was struck dumb as a penalty for his unbelief. In sura 19, Zakarya requests a sign to validate the prophecy concerning his aged wife giving birth, and the sign is that he will be unable to speak; there is no mention of his unbelief. When Yahya was born, the Qur’an says that he was given wisdom, and that he was devout and obedient to his parents. No mention is made of the ministry of John, his role as forerunner to the Messiah, his imprisonment, or his execution at the instigation of Herod’s wife (Yusuf Ali mentions these things in his commentary on 19:7 and 19:13, but he is clearly dependent upon the Christian Scriptures for this information).
Sura 19 has the Arabic name “Maryam” since it contains the birth narrative of Jesus from the perspective of His mother. Most other references to Mary in the Qur’an speak of her only in relation to Jesus (i.e. ‘Isa ibn Maryam, Jesus son of Mary; see, for example, 2:87, 23:50, 33:7, 4:156-7, et al.). In this brief passage (19:16-34), however, the Qur’an tells of the visitation of the angel to Mary and the prediction that she would bear a son even though “no man has touched me and I am not unchaste” (28). It also adds details not found in the canonical Gospels, notably the reproach of the people to Mary after Jesus had been born, and the baby Jesus jumping to Mary’s defense with an articulate response to those who accused her of promiscuity.
The idea that the infant Jesus was able to speak and behave in a very un-childlike way, is, of course, contrary to the concept of Him growing and becoming strong (Luke 2:40). It can, however, be found in Gnostic writings (e.g.,The Gospel of Barnabas 7, and The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, particularly the opening passage of the Latin text, where the two- and three-year-old Jesus is grinding wheat from a field, and commanding dried fish to move)
The Qur’an does not provide any record of Jesus’ life and ministry comparable to the New Testament Gospels. Aside from the account of His birth mentioned above, there are some notes regarding His character, and fervent denials of his divinity, but little else. The Qur’an does mention on a couple of occasions that Jesus was enabled by God to heal the blind, heal lepers, and raise the dead. In this list, however, it also says that Jesus “makest out of clay as it were the figure of a bird by My leave and thou breathest into it and it becometh a bird by My leave” (5:110; see also 3:49). The canonical Gospels say nothing of Jesus doing this; rather, it is the Gnostic Infancy Gospel of Thomas that records such a feat: “This child Jesus, when five years old, was playing in the ford of a mountain stream…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” (Thomas 2, from the First Greek Form; translation located at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf08.vii.viii.html).
In agreement with the Gospels, the Qur’an calls Jesus a prophet, and sets Him firmly in the line of other prophets such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses (e.g., 2:87, 2:136, 33:7). The Gospels, however, record explicit statements with regard to Jesus’ divine status, both in terms of commentary (e.g., Matthew 3:16-17; Mark 1:1; John 1:1; 20:28, 31) and direct affirmations from Jesus Himself (e.g., John 8:58; 14:6; 17:4). The Qur’an even goes so far as to put denials of His divinity onto His own lips:
And behold! 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 though I know not what is in Thine. For Thou knowest in full all that is hidden.” (5:116)
In addition to this there are frequent assertions that Allah would not bear a son, and that Allah does not have “partners” (e.g., 5:72, 13:33, 40:12). Muslims call such belief shirk, which is often ascribed to polytheists. The Qur’an views the doctrine of the Trinity as a denial of monotheism (see 5:72-73, 116), so any Christian holding to Christ’s divinity would be seen as one ascribing partners to God, and hence guilty of shirk.
The Qur’an also teaches, contrary to the Gospel accounts, that Jesus did not die on a cross, but only appeared to do so:
That they said (in boast) “We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary the Apostle of Allah”; but they killed him not nor crucified him but so it was made to appear to them and those who differ therein are full of doubts with no (certain) knowledge but only conjecture to follow for of a surety they killed him not. Nay Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is Exalted in Power Wise (4:157-158).
Once again, it appears that the Qur’an is seeking to protect the reputation of a prophet. If Jesus died on a cross, then he would be cursed (Deuteronomy 21:23), and this would not be appropriate for a prophet of Allah.
It is interesting to note, in light of the differences between the Christian Scriptures and the Qur’an, that the Qur’an refers to both the Tawrat (i.e., the Law, or the Old Testament) and the Injil (i.e., the Gospels) as revelations from Allah (10:37; 2:4; 3:3). Furthermore, it is required that the faithful believe not only in the present revelation (i.e., the Qur’an), but in those revelations that have preceded it (2:4). For the Muslim, however, there is no dilemma over which version is true: the Qur’an is Allah’s Word. As for the Tawrat and the Injil, Muslim apologists will be quick to note that these words do not refer to the written documents of the Old and New Testaments, but rather the original words spoken to Moses, to David, and to Jesus. Further, they will side with modern liberal scholars in asserting that very few of the original words of these men appear in our Biblical texts (Ironically, many of these liberal scholars would just as quickly deny the claims Muslims make about the authorship and reliability of the Qur’an):
When we say that we believe in the Tauraat, the Zaboor [the Psalms], the Injeel and the Qur’an, what do we really mean?… The Tauraat we Muslims believe in is not the “Torah” of the Jews and the Christians? We believe that whatever the Holy Prophet Moses? preached to his people, was the revelation from God Almighty, but that Moses was not the author of those “books” attributed to him by the Jews and the Christians? Likewise, we believe that the Zaboor was the revelation of God granted to Hazrat Dawood (David)? but that the present Psalms associated with his name are not that revelation…We sincerely believe that everything Christ? preached was from God. That was the Injeel, the good news and the guidance of God for the Children of Israel. In his lifetime Jesus never wrote a single word, nor did he instruct anyone to do so. What passes off as the “GOSPELS” today are the works of anonymous hands! (Ahmed Deedat, The Choice: Islam and Christianity, Volume Two, (Woodside, Ny: Islamic Propagation Center International, Inc., 1994), pp.80-81).
Hence, for the Muslim, the only way to know what Allah originally said to Moses, David, or Jesus, is to consult the Qur’an.
My purpose here has not been so much to present an apologetic, but to inform. If we are to present a meaningful defense of the truth, we need to be sure we understand what it is we are defending the truth against. If we assume that most Muslims derive their understanding of the Old and New Testaments from what the Qur’an teaches, then we are better able to understand where they are coming from and to address the issues if we know what the Qur’an is and what it teaches about our faith. For some excellent apologetic resources, I would encourage the interested reader to avail him or herself of the growing number of items available from Alpha & Omega, both in the bookstore, and also in the numerous blog entries and videos you can access for free on this site.