(This article originally appeared in St. Francis Magazine in April 2012. It has been updated and reprinted with the author’s permission.)
As a Christian of Muslim background, I can appreciate the many challenges the Church has faced over the past fourteen centuries in presenting the Gospel to Muslims. It is not surprising there is much debate in Christian circles on how best to accomplish this commission. The fault line in this debate seems to have settled over translation issues related to the divine, familial terms, “Father” and “Son of God.” 1Since Bible translations rest upon certain theological and missiological foundations, any miscalculations in laying these foundations will tip the whole “Dar al-Translation” out of plumb.
In this article I suggest that Christians and Muslims believe essentially the same thing regarding the how question: How did Jesus come into the world? I will conclude that the main scandal for Muslims is the who question: Who is this Jesus who has come into the world? The former scandal is divine procreation; the latter is divine incarnation. In Islam, the baby growing in Mary’s womb is part of creation. In Christianity, the baby growing in Mary’s womb is actually the Creator.
By placing so much emphasis on explaining away divine procreation, we are losing ground in presenting divine incarnation. This imbalance has a profound effect on Muslim evangelism, of which Bible translation into Muslim languages plays an inestimable role. I hope to reflect the perspective of one Muslim background person as I have perceived and wrestled with these concepts.
The Muslim Mindset and the Divine Procreation Scandal
Much has been written about what I will call the “Divine Procreational Scandal”—the notion that Muslims believe Christians have reduced God Almighty to a being who has sexually and biologically begotten a child through a human woman. Rick Brown of Wycliffe Bible Translators makes the following assessment regarding “Son of God”: “The biological meaning of this phrase and its blasphemous connotations are so deeply entrenched in the minds of most Muslims that it is impossible simply to erase it from their minds and hearts.” 2
I am unaware of any scientific study or survey of Muslims that corroborates Brown’s assertion. Nevertheless, if Brown’s assertion were true, it would logically follow that this blasphemy would abruptly curtail any interest a Muslim reader would have in further exploring the biblical message. Indeed, this is an argument being used to justify the liberties bible translators have taken in expressing the familial terms of divinity into languages Muslims speak, especially where those languages retain both biological and non-biological words for these familial terms. 3
There are three major reasons I believe defending against the procreational scandal has been overplayed. First, it is untrue. While the Incarnation is actually a Christian teaching, divine procreation is not, regardless of “perception is reality” arguments. Second, in nearly three decades of talking to Muslims and former Muslims, my impression is that Incarnation is a much bigger obstacle for Muslims to overcome on their respective journeys to Christ than is coping with the allegation of divine procreation. Third, when looking at the Qur’an as a post-biblical work, the Islamic scriptures devote much more attention to combating divine incarnation than to divine procreation. Mahmoud Ayoub writes, “It must be noted that the Qur’an declares the Christian belief in the Trinity to be an extremist religious position. The matter of God having a child is mentioned only in passing as part of this extremism in faith.” 4
Islamic and Biblical Views of the Virgin Birth
Christians and Muslims are agreed on how Jesus Christ came into the world. The prophet of Islam clearly believed in a miracle-working God, and he accepted the testimony that Jesus Christ was born into this world through his virgin mother Mary. The primary account of Jesus’ birth in the Qur’an is found in the nineteenth surah, named after Mary herself:
“Relate in the Book (the story of) Mary, when she withdrew from her family to a place in the East. She placed a screen (to screen herself) from them; then We sent her our angel, and he appeared before her as a man in all respects. She said: ‘I seek refuge from thee to (God) Most Gracious: (come not near) if thou dost fear God.’ He said: ‘Nay, I am only an apostle from thy Lord, (to announce) to thee the gift of a holy son. She said: ‘How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me, and I am not unchaste?’ He said: ‘So (it will be): Thy Lord saith, ‘that is easy for Me: and (We wish) to appoint him as a Sign unto men and a Mercy from Us’: It is a matter (so) decreed.’ So she conceived him, and she retired with him to a remote place.” (19:16-22) 5
A similar passage in the Bible is recorded by Luke (1:34-35, NASB throughout): “Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.”
Biblical readers will not find much to object to in the Qur’anic account. Jesus was called a “holy son” by God’s angel, to immediately buttress Mary in the face of the claims of immorality that would only naturally hound her as the pregnancy and birth became known. Note that the Bible, like the Qur’an, uses the adjective “holy” (Greek: hagion; Arabic: zakiyyan) signifying the purity of the conception.
Muslims need fathom only three cases of fatherless humans: Adam, Eve and Jesus. Adam and Eve were not born as infants, but created as adults by God. Orthodox Muslims have no difficulty understanding or explaining the genesis of Adam and Eve, since Allah is well able to have accomplished this creative act. The Qur’an teaches that Allah was also able to have caused Jesus Christ to be conceived in Mary’s womb with ease, since all things are possible for God. This acceptance of the Virgin Birth, along with an appreciation for Jesus’ miracles, gives orthodox Muslims a certain affinity for Jesus Christ. Most missionaries among Muslims will have heard their Muslim friends declare those exasperating words: “We believe in Jesus Christ, alaihi as-salaam, better than you do!”
The passages cited above establish significant agreement between Christianity and Islam on the question of how Jesus Christ came into the world. Both faiths demonstrate God’s clear vindication of a virgin woman who was chosen by God to give birth to an unprecedented child. The only scandal facing a brave Mary and Joseph was the assumption by their peers of human sexual immorality.
The Scandal of the Who? The Biblical Position
Having established that the Bible and Qur’an teach virtually the same thing regarding how Jesus entered the world, the question turns to who indeed was this Jesus Christ who entered the world?
Briefly, the biblical narrative affirms that God himself entered space and time as flesh-encased human (John 1:1, 14). His mission was to live the sinless life no one could live, thereby qualifying himself to offer the substitutionary death that no one else could offer (2 Cor. 5:21).
Isaiah 9:6 demonstrates that Incarnation is not merely a New Testament concept by identifying the “son to be given” as “Mighty God.” While other prophets may certainly be considered servants of God, only Christ is the eternal Son. The author of Hebrews compares Moses to the Lord Jesus Christ as follows: “Now Moses was faithful in all His house as a servant, for a testimony of those things which were to be spoken later; but Christ was faithful as a Son over His house…” (3:4, 5). The Sonship of Jesus Christ implies being of the same essence as the Father. This was the same Jesus whom Gabriel indicated would be called the Son of God (Greek, huios tou theou).
Jesus affirmed that redemption hinges on believing in the Incarnation. “Unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). Anyone less than God was unable to pay the penalty due to God, who was both “just and justifier” (Rom. 3:26).
Ecclesial councils affirmed the centrality of the Incarnation to biblical orthodoxy. Those, such as Arius, who held Jesus Christ as being less than fully God were deemed outside the household of faith. Throughout this pre-Islamic Christian period, the pressure point was centered on the nature and divinity of Jesus. There was no significant question about whether God had physical relations with a woman.
The Effect of Tawhid on the Muslim Mindset
A plain reading of the Qur’an leaves no room for God visiting the earth in the form of a person, which is the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. Islam condemns the belief that God has been physically manifest in space and time as shirk, associating partners with the transcendent Unity, Allah. Shirk is the unforgivable sin in Islam, as stated in Surah Nisa: “God forgiveth not (The sin of) joining other gods with Him; but He forgiveth whom He pleaseth other sins than this: one who joins other gods with God, Hath strayed far, far away (from the right)” (4:116).
The Islamic idea of tawhid, the absolute, indivisible, unified nature of Allah, is the Islamic distinctive. Tawhid does not allow for Jesus Christ being God in the flesh. Note Surah Ma’ida: “They do blaspheme who say: ‘God is Christ the son of Mary.’ But said Christ: ‘O Children of Israel! Worship God, my Lord and your Lord.’ Whoever joins other gods with God, – God will forbid him the garden, and the Fire will be his abode. There will for the wrong-doers be no one to help” (5:72). That the teaching is put directly into mouth of Jesus Christ adds particular emphasis to this Islamic position.
Though tawhid is translated “unity,” the connotation is stronger than this one simple English word. In the English translation of Muhammad Abduh’s classic work Risalat at-Tauhid (Theology of Unity), translators Ishaq Musa’ad and Kenneth Cragg are instructive: “…it must be remembered that Tauhid is a causative and intensive noun and never means ‘unity,’ still less ‘unitariness,’ as an abstract state. It is aggressive, so to speak, antiseptic: it means ‘unity’ intolerant of all pluralism, in the ardent subjugation of all that flouts or doubts it…” 6 These translators rightly acknowledge that tawhid is an Islamic antiseptic to Incarnation.
Many Muslim boys and girls learn to recite Surah Ikhlas (112) after learning the first surah, Fatiha. Bukhari (Volume 9, Book 93, Number 471) relates a hadith that reciting Surah Ikhlas is worth as much as reciting one-third of the Qur’an. Ikhlas commands Muslims to recite that Allah is ahad (one), and lam yulid wa lam yulad, “He does not beget, nor is He begotten.” While this two-part sentence could be considered a condemnation of both divine procreation and divine incarnation, its proximity to the word ahad, and thus its cognate tawhid, places it in the context of an affirmation of absolute monotheism and thus a rejection of incarnation. A young North African man whom I had been discipling said to me of Ikhlas, “This is the anti-Incarnation surah.”
Building on this understanding, the Qur’an teaches that Jesus and other prophets are merely slaves of Allah who do his bidding. In Surah 19:30, Jesus says, ‘Indeed, I am the servant of Allah.’” The prophet of Islam, like the author of Hebrews, understood the key difference between servanthood and sonship. Sonship indicates unity of essence. The theological implication has nothing to do with sexuality or procreation. Muhammad clearly rejected sonship, since it required unity of essence with the Almighty. Note the ninth sura, appropriately named Tawbah (Repentance): “The Jews call Uzayr [Ezra] a son of God, and the Christians call Christ the Son of God. That is a saying from their mouth; (In this) they but imitate what the Unbelievers of old used to say. Allah’s curse be upon them: how they are deluded away from the truth!” (9:30) 7
The material in this section above undermines the “Jesus-in-the-Qur’an” 8type arguments which claim that an Incarnate Christ can be found in the Qur’an itself. Simply stated, finding Jesus as God in the pages of the Qur’an is only possible by inappropriately superimposing biblical meanings onto Qur’anic terms. For example, the Qur’anic mention (4:171) of Jesus being the “word” (kalimah) is not thought by Muslims to be a reference to the co-eternal, co-equal Second Person of the Trinity, or John’s Logos. It merely refers to Jesus being an apostle of Allah and bearer of Allah’s word. The reference in the same verse of Jesus being a “spirit from him” (ruhun min-hu) does not make Jesus co-equal with the biblical Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity. In Islam, the theology of the Holy Spirit is underdeveloped and inconsequential; the Holy Spirit is most often thought by Muslims to be Gabriel (by comparing surah 2:97 with 16:102). Lastly, the Qur’anic title of “Messiah” (as in Isa al-Masih) carries none of the divine gravitas of the Old Testament term, and therefore cannot be substituted for a term like “Son,” which similarly carries the biblical connotation of divinity, but which has been thought by some translators to perpetuate the procreation scandal.
Arguing against the Preposterous is a Time Waster
While it has been mentioned above that Muslim indignation is raised against the notion that God Almighty was sexually procreative, the same exact indignation would also be raised by Christians and Jews. The assertion of God, who is spirit (John 4:24), having physical relations with a wife is simply preposterous. It is not necessary to offer a defense against an argument as preposterous as this. For example, Nicodemus wonders if he should enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born again (John 3:4). Jesus does not waste time addressing the carnality and bizarre nature of this unimaginable suggestion. He moves on to more important spiritual topics. And I am yet to observe Bible translators striving to reassure Muslims that God did not have sexual relations with Ezra’s mother (see Qur’an 9:30), or whether the biblical phrase “Ezra son of Seraiah” (Ezra 7:1) was biological, social, economic, or functional sonship.
On the Islamic side, Muslim boys and girls will early on learn the story of “Abu Lahab,” the “Father of Flame,” from Surah 111. 9
Abdul Uzza Ibn Abdul-Muttalib, or Abu Lahab as he became known, was Muhammad’s paternal uncle and a harsh critic of the prophet. He is the only enemy of the prophet mentioned by name in the Qur’an, in this case by his nickname (111:1, 3): “Perish the hands of the Father of Flame…Burnt soon will he be in a Fire of Blazing Flame!” Again, this is absurd to think that “Father of Flame” is a direct biological construct. (“Father” here is the Arabic Ab, a cognate of the Hebrew Av, which is the same word used for “Father” in Arabic Bibles.) Can a human being beget a flame? It is obviously a metaphorical use of the word “Father” (Abu). If it was literal, Abu Lahab would have been the literal father of a flame, and, because of the blood relationship, Muhammad would have been calling his own cousins “flames.” Note also that the unbelieving wife of Abu Lahab was Umm Jamil bint Harb (“the Mother of the Beautiful, the Daughter of War”). These are just examples in Qur’anic Arabic where familial terms are used metaphorically. To interpret them literally yields only the absurd.
Conclusion: The Scandal for the Muslims is Jesus’ Incarnation, not His Conception
A comparison of primary source documents—the Bible and Qur’an—reveal that both books affirm the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ. Neither religion teaches that God had physical relations with a woman.
While the Bible clearly teaches that salvation hinges on faith in the Incarnate Redeemer-God, the Qur’an denies any incarnation of God. The Islamic theological institution of tawhid has made a watertight barrier which precludes the possibility of God visiting the earth in any tangible form. Muslims have developed their own theological distinctive in tawhid; a healthy respect requires granting Muslims the theological “personal space” inherently requested by this distinctive.
In conclusion, the stumbling block for Muslims is not how Jesus came into the world, but who this Jesus is. The Bible teaches that the Lord Jesus Christ is God in the flesh. Islam clearly denies this. No manipulation or massaging of translated terms can bridge this gap. Muslims cannot ultimately bypass the challenge to the Islamic distinctive of tawhid which is presented by the biblical distinctive of divine incarnation.
If Bible translators select alternate, non-literal, terminology to “Father” and “Son,” in the hope that Muslims will be relieved that Christians do not hold a carnal view of God, their efforts have the effect of weakening the Incarnational and Trinitarian language that God has chosen to reveal Himself. As such, they begin to collapse the biblical distinctive of the Lord Jesus Christ as Incarnate Redeemer (however they may argue to the contrary that they are in fact preserving it). This is the missiological crisis of our time, in the Muslim context.
A Final Plea from a Christian of Muslim Background
As a Christian of Muslim background, I am profoundly thankful to all who have set forth to share the gospel with Muslims. My final thought is to encourage Christian communicators (including Bible translators) to allow the Bible itself to present the ultimate choice to Muslims. The true choice is whether to believe God has visited the earth as the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The decision whether to believe God had physical relations with a woman is overstated and unnecessarily puts Christians in a ridiculously defensive position. The former choice does indeed involve reckoning with a stumbling stone, yet He is the one God esteems as the Chief Cornerstone. Though He was rejected by many in His day, and downgraded by Muhammad to a mere prophet, may Jesus Christ have the glory due His wonderful Name. As many Muslim background Christians can testify, the same Lord Jesus Christ who stepped into space and time 2,000 years ago is alive and well and has stepped into our hearts in this generation.
- For example, see “The Son and The Crescent,” Christianity Today, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/february/soncrescent.html; and, a petition to Wycliffe Bible Translators and others to retain familial terms in the Bible: http://www.change.org/petitions/lost-in-translation-keep-father-son-in-the-bible ↩
- Rick Brown, “Explaining the Biblical Term ‘Son(s) of God’ in Muslim Contexts,” Part One (IJFM 22:3, July–Sept. 2005), p. 92. ↩
- Rick Brown, Leith Gray, and Andrea Gray, “The Terms of Translation: A New Look at Translating Familial Biblical Terms,” (IJFM 28:3; Fall 2011) pp. 105-120. ↩
- Mahmoud M. Ayoub, ““Jesus the Son of God: A Study of the Terms Ibn and Walad in the Qur’an and Tafsir Tradition.” In Christian-Muslim Encounters, eds. Yvonne Y. Haddad & Wadi Z. Haddad. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1995, pp. 65-81. p.77 ↩
- All Qur’anic citations are from A. Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur’an: Text, Translation and Commentary, (Khalil ar-Rawaf, 1946). ↩
- Ishaq Musa’ad and Kenneth Cragg, Introduction to the English translation of Theology of Unity, 1966, London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, p. 12. Arabic original: Risalat at-Tauhid, by Muhammad Abduh, 1895. ↩
- A. Yusuf Ali mysteriously translates the Ezra clause using the indefinite, “a son of God,” though the Arabic original is definite in both the Ezra clause and the Christ clause. For more details on the translation of 9:30, see http://www.answering-islam.org/Quran/Versions/009.030.html. ↩
- See, for example, www.JesusandtheQuran.org. ↩
- For a full description of Abu Lahab, see Mawdudi’s commentary at: http://www.islamicity.com/mosque/quran/maududi/mau111.html ↩