The Qur’anic Jesus and My Muslim Neighbor: A Response to Thabiti Anyabwile’s “How to Use the Qur’an to Get to the Gospel”

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In the article titled “How to Use the Qur’an to Get to the Gospel,” which was recently posted to the International Mission Board website, Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile is enthusiastic about using the Qur’an in evangelism to Muslims: “Using the Qur’an can help establish a common starting point, and it opens the door for honest questions about what the person has heard about [Jesus].” He argues that the Qur’an is a good source to establish that Jesus is the virgin-born Messiah, a prophet of God, and the returning judge in the Last Day. Anyabwile encourages us that this method actually allows him “to then highlight the sharp contrast between the hope-filled message of Christ and the works-based righteousness of Islam.” The passion for proclaiming Christ that we find in Anyabwile’s piece is unquestionable. We should delight in the fact that he is seeking every possible avenue to bring the Gospel of Hope to Muslims, and pray with him “for opportunities to build bridges with Muslim friends.”

I agree with Anyabwile that we should not be obsessed over Arabic terms. He rightly argues that the concern over the use of the Arabic Muslim name of Jesus, ‘Isa, “is ultimately off base.” With this I agree, with a caveat. Muslims refer to Jesus as ‘Isa, because it is the name mentioned in the Qur’an. It should be noted, however, that Arab Christians use a different name for Jesus, Yasou’ (from the Hebrew Yashua). They use this different term to distinguish it from the Muslim Qur’anic term, ‘Isa. Arab Christians are keen to do so, since they are aware that the Muslim portrayal of Jesus as found in the Qur’an is distorted, and thus they want to be absolutely particular in establishing that they do not adopt the same view of Jesus advanced by the Qur’anic ‘Isa. Nevertheless, having said that, I actually agree with Anyabwile that we should not be concerned over Arabic terms, as long as we define exactly what we mean by the names and titles we use.

My disagreement with Anyabwile is over his statements’ accuracy and questionable methodology. I will provide four examples to make the point.

First, Anyabwile claims that “Every one of the 1.8 billion (and growing) followers of Islam is required to believe in ‘Isa to be considered Muslim.” While I highly question the number of Muslims he mentions, and the reasoning for adding “and growing,” this is a secondary point and does not need my focus. He states that every Muslim “is required to believe in [Jesus] to be considered Muslim.” This is, at best, inaccurate and incorrect, and at worst, misleading. We are not told in what way Muslims should believe in Jesus—just that Muslims should believe in Jesus. If Muslims should believe in Jesus, why would they be Muslims at all? Perhaps what Anyabwile meant to say is that Muslims are required to believe in Jesus as one of the prophets sent by Allah (according to one tradition there have been 124,000 prophets). Claiming that Muslims are “required to believe in Jesus,” without stating exactly the qualification of such a belief, is inaccurate and can be misleading to many.

The same inaccuracy appears in his following statement, “Astoundingly, it’s an Islamic article of faith to believe that Jesus, or ‘Isa, was a prophet of Islam.” The statement suggests that the article of faith in Islam is devoted and totally concerned with Jesus and Jesus alone, but this is incorrect. The fourth article of faith in Islam declares that Muslims should believe in Allah’s prophets. These include Jesus and many other Biblical and non-Biblical prophets. The article of faith emphasizes, moreover, that Muhammad is unmatched and supreme above them all. He is the Seal of the Prophets. He came with a revelation to replace and surpass all previous revelations. The inaccurate claims advanced by the author establish false common grounds. Furthermore, Anyabwile seems ecstatic and states, “The Qur’an mentions Jesus of Nazareth in numerous places.” The word “Nazareth” is never mentioned in the Qur’an! Why does he utilize it? Anyabwile uses a term that all Christians love, and argues that the Qur’an also states it! Why do we establish common grounds that never existed? By mentioning “Jesus of Nazareth” and claiming it exists in the Qur’an, the author depicts a common picture that is baseless, untrue, and ultimately misleading. It appears that Anyabwile, in his pursuit to seek conversations with Muslims, is willing to dilute Islamic facts, using them selectively to convince Muslims of what they do not actually believe, as well as hoping to exhort Christians regarding a “Jesus” found somewhere—probably hidden—in the Qur’an. Is this a method we should adopt? I have not a single doubt regarding the love for Muslims in Anyabwile’s heart, but diluting facts or misrepresenting them is not the best way forward, as I believe particularities of each faith cannot be compromised.

Second, Anyabwile is thrilled about his method, as he claims, “I guide conversations toward three aspects of the way the Qur’an talks about [Jesus].” He informs the reader, “Using the Qur’an can help establish a common starting point.” But, is this actually “using” or “misusing and abusing” the Qur’an? I believe it is the latter. Are we truly allowing the Qur’an itself to tell the portrayal of Jesus? Or are we, in reality, cherry-picking from the Qur’an, forcing it to tell what we want it to tell? He suggests that we refer to the Qur’anic Jesus as the virgin-born Messiah, a prophet, and as the returning judge. While parts of these claims can find roots in the Qur’anic text, they are not the only statements about Jesus in the Qur’an. Nor are they accurate in themselves. The Qur’anic Jesus was only a messenger, before whom many similar messengers came by (Q 5:75). Is this part of the portrayal we should present to Muslims? The Qur’anic Jesus is not God, and he told his disciples and all the Jews: “worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord,” and do not associate “others with Allah” (Q 5:72). Is this the Jesus Christians should proclaim? The Qur’anic Jesus denies the Trinity, and labels his followers who say “Allah is the third of three” as infidels (Q 4:171; 5:73). The Qur’anic Jesus said he was merely the servant of Allah, who gave him the Scripture and made him a prophet: This Qur’anic Jesus emphatically denies that Allah has a son, and declares, “Allah is my Lord and your Lord, so worship Him” (Q 19:30–36). Is this Qur’anic Jesus, in any way, the one Christians should proclaim to Muslims? I absolutely doubt that Anyabwile believes this is the Jesus Christians proclaim. So, why would we mislead Muslims to think of their Qur’anic portrayal of Jesus as in any way similar to the true Biblical Jesus?

Third, the three components of the Qur’anic Jesus adopted by Anyabwile are not only selective, but are, more importantly, not accurate in themselves. He states that the Qur’anic Jesus is “the returning judge.” This is a false and baseless claim. While the Qur’an indeed hints at the return of Jesus, nowhere is Jesus identified as “the judge.” Anyabwile claims that the Qur’an “includes the claim that [Jesus] will return in the second coming to judge between believers and unbelievers,” but never introduces the reference for such a claim, most likely because it doesn’t exist. Frankly, this is a Christian truth, and has no root at all in the Qur’an. He appears to stretch the Islamic belief of a returning Jesus, coloring it with Christian components and claiming that this forged portrayal establishes a common starting point. His use of the word “judge” implies that Muslims agree with the Christian belief that Jesus is coming again to judge and rule over all. This is misleading and fact-twisting. Muslims do not believe that. It is not stated anywhere in Islamic texts, since this claim actually violates an Islamic tenet identifying Allah as the only judge (see Q 2:113; 3:55; 4:141; 6:57).

Why do some Christians twist Qur’anic claims to fit them into their favored methods of evangelism? In fact, all the Islamic stories about the return of Jesus are primarily based on later traditions—compiled centuries after Muhammad’s death—and not the Qur’an. Even the Qur’an’s hints about the returning Jesus are highly disputed among Muslims. Consider these Muslim claims: Islamic traditions state that the Islamic Jesus will return to kill both the pig and the anti-Christ, as well as to destroy the Cross and to fight “Christians” who believe Allah is triune, and that he will only accept them believing in Islam! The Qur’anic Jesus is actually a Muslim, believing in Islam and proclaiming the same message as Muhammad!

Furthermore, Anyabwile asserts that the Qur’an presents Jesus “as a prophet,” and that “Christians have very much the same definition of a prophet,” but we are not told what kind of a prophet this is. Does Anyabwile agree with Muslims that Jesus is a prophet like Abraham, Moses, David, or, let alone, Muhammad? Or, as the Qur’an states, “the example of Jesus to Allah is like that of Adam. He created him from dust” (Q 3:59)? Is the label “prophet” such an elastic term which we can use with no qualifiers? Do Muslims think of “prophets” in any way close to what Christian scriptures declare, especially considering the supremacy of the Lord Jesus Christ? The answer to all these questions is negative. Similarly, Anyabwile writes that the Qur’an portrays Jesus “as the virgin-born Messiah.” He then admits that this Qur’anic “Messiah” is not the same as Christians affirm. Still, Anyabwile argues that the term “Messiah” can build a bridge. In my view, this is an example of how we can misuse a Muslim term, in order to make it appear to claim what every Muslim knows is incorrect. We all know that Muslims understand the terms “prophet” and “Messiah” in a completely different way. So, why do we base our conversation with Muslims on weak grounds embedded in a dead book while we have the Living Word? Do we actually need to misuse or abuse the Qur’an to create a Jesus appealing to Muslims? I do not believe so. I start my conversations with Muslims using a completely different methodology: Have you studied the true Jesus Christ? This takes me immediately to the Sermon on the Mount.

Fourth, the major problem with Anyabwile’s piece is methodological. An uninformed Christian reading his piece could easily conclude that the Qur’an is actually truthful in many claims about Jesus. For Christians who do not know Islamic texts or tenets, they may errantly conclude that the Qur’an and the Bible actually speak of the same Jesus in many cases, especially if they insert some “Christian” elements in their depictions—elements which never exist in the Qur’an. This can get worse: Christians may deduce that the Qur’an actually includes truths that can open the eyes of Muslims to know the true Jesus! Why should we be adamant about the Trinity, then? Why do we need to insist that Jesus is actually the Son of God? With this fanciful picture of the Qur’anic Jesus, I wonder who makes the Qur’an valid and valuable for Christians in their proclamation of our Lord Jesus Christ?

This method is not only problematic for uninformed Christians, but actually very harmful and misleading to Muslims, whether they are cultural, religious, or even radical. The basic question Muslims may ask Anyabwile is: “Oh wait! You seem to know the Qur’an well. Do you believe the Qur’an is inspired by Allah?” This is a trap. If the answer is yes, then my article does not concern you, since I am writing for devoted Christians who really believe in the supremacy of the Biblical Jesus and the uniqueness of the Christian scriptures as revealed by the true God. If the answer is no, then your Muslim friends will likely quit the conversation immediately, since you have essentially insulted their most sacred text. A Muslim might even ask the author: Why are you trying to convince me with something I do not believe by using a book you do not trust? Fellow Christians, be careful: Your method may jeopardize your testimony.

In conclusion, I find it ironic that the title of Anyabwile’s article is, “How to Use the Qur’an to Get to the Gospel.” What I see here is not using the Qur’an, but rather abusing and misusing it, making it claim what some might want it to portray. This, in my view, dishonors Christ and my Muslim friends. This, in addition, makes the Qur’an—intentionally or unintentionally—authoritative. Quoting or referring to the Qur’an is not the problem (cf. Acts 17:28); misquoting, twisting, or misinterpreting it in evangelism is what should concern every Christian. Dwelling on the Qur’an and exegeting it in order to provide a compelling—yet untrue—picture is wrong. You cannot bring life from a dead book. While many secular and Muslim scholars have already started to shed significant doubts on the validity of the Qur’an, as they highlight its major textual and literary flaws, we yet find some Christians who elevate it, claiming it is helpful, valuable, and valid to “establish a common starting point.” When we look at this “common starting point,” we only find inaccurate statements, incorrect claims, and misleading approaches. Just as I encourage my students never to attack Muslims using their Qur’an, I also exhort them to stay away completely from abusing or misusing it—to not make it state what it never does. Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile is a man of God who wants to see Muslims come to Christ. Christians should agree with his prayers and desire to win Muslims to Christ everywhere they go. However, his method and claims about Islam and the Qur’an are hardly the best way forward.

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About Author

Ayman S. Ibrahim, Ph.D., was born and raised in Egypt. He recently completed his second Ph.D. in Islamic History at the University of Haifa, Mount Carmel, examining conversions to Islam in the earliest Muslim period. He is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at Southern Seminary and director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam. His publications include The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion and Muslim Conversion to Christ.

2 Comments

  1. It is sad and naive that many Christians are falling for what is in essence an “easy believism” applied to a romanticized and Christianized Islam. Thabiti Anyabwile, of The Gospel Coalition, is promoting this in his recent article “How to Use the Qur’an to Get to the Gospel.”

    Ayman Ibrahim brings out crucial points on how this approach to sharing the Gospel in reality denigrates it. It proves to Muslims that their book and traditions are authoritative and muddles a clear presentation of judgement, of the Gospel, and of who Jesus, The Son of God, is. Ayman also clearly points out how this approach insults Muslims, the Qur’an, and their traditions.

    In order to put this “approach” into a context more easily understood apply it to sharing with your Mormon friends. Mormonism, like Islam, came centuries after Christianity and says that Christianity got it all wrong; about God, about Jesus, about revelation and about judgement and salvation. Would you use the book of Mormon as an authoritative starting point to share the Gospel? Would you say that they have “very much the same definition of a prophet” as the Bible teaches? Would you say that only “some [Mormons] misunderstand Christian teaching regarding the trinity”?

    Now as a Christian imagine a Muslim or Mormon, coming to you, condescendingly saying that you sort of got things right but need them to “help” you to understand the “truth,”, starting in your Bible, then moving on to their more recent revelations, books and traditions. Would that be endearing to you? Would that make you trust their worldview? As Ayman says, this approach is manipulation of both Islam and Christianity. It is manipulation of the Qur’an and the Bible. God’s Word does not need manipulation for it to produce true faith.

  2. I want to thank you for this excellent article because it is only the truth that sets us free which alone is found in Jesus’ Word (i.e. the Bible) which reveals that He is the Son (John 8:31-36). I really appreciate the encouragement and exhortation to use the Bible from the start with Muslims. In spite of their belief that we have corrupted Scripture, the Word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword and is the only thing that exposes what is in our hearts (Hebrews 4:12-13). Because the heart is deceitful above all things, rendering us unable to see our true condition before God (Jeremiah 17:9), it is God’s inspired (or, Spirit-breathed) Word alone that is the only mirror that can accurately reflect who we are (James 1:21-24).

    I am surprised and disappointed by what Anyabwile wrote. At a time when the false teachings of: “Common Ground” conferences (formerly related to the Navigators but continues to be carried on by Jeff Hayes); “Jesus and the Qur’an” (formerly, “Jesus in the Qur’an”) seminars run by Jaime Winship; the training of Frontiers (especially Nathan Lutz’s, Training Ordinary Apprentices to Go, or TOAG); the teachings of the Perspectives course; the articles in the International Journal of Frontier Missiology (formerly, International Journal of Frontier Missions), better known as IJFM; the books published by William Carey Library; the classes taught at Fuller Theological Seminary (especially those taught by Charles Kraft, Dudley Woodberry, Jay Muller – a.k.a. John Travis- , et. al.); the instruction given at the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics (G.I.A.L.), which is the main training center for SIL translators (which is the organization for which Wycliffe Bible Translators was created) especially through their Abraham Center where professors Kurt Anders Richardson and Mark Harlan (a.k.a. Harley Talman, Mack Harling, etc,); the teachings in Encountering the World of Islam by Keith Swartley; the teachings of CAMEL by Kevin Greeson and promoted by David Garrison; the metastasized spread of “Muslim Idiom Translation” (MIT) in which professing Evangelicals have changed the Bible in far greater ways than have done Jehovah’s Witnesses in their “New World Translation” so that YouVersion (www.bible.com) brazenly has 3 versions in Arabic that contain the first part of the shahada, or Islamic confession of faith (“there is no god but Allah) which rendering cannot be justified on any linguistic grounds much less theological grounds; the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) has allowed Jeff Hayes to Islamize its Arabic webpage who claims that they now see 12-15 Muslims becoming “believers” on a daily basis; ad nauseum, Anyabwile’s article does nothing but stoke the fires of an already out-of-control situation (i.e. humanly speaking).

    Love rejoices with truth (1 Corinthians 13:6). To compromise the truth is to be unloving.

    For more information about the “Insider Movement” which is based on the premise of reinterpreting the Qur’an and Islam see:

    Missiological Models in Ministry to Muslims by Sam Schlorff
    Chrislam: How Missionaries Are Promoting an Islamized Gospel, Joshua Lingel, Jeffery J. Morton, and Bill Nikides, eds.
    Muslim Conversions to Christ: A Critique of Insider Movements in Islamic Contexts by Ant Greenham (Editor), Ayman S. Ibrahim

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