Nearly six centuries before the advent of Muhammad, the aged prophet Simeon took the baby Jesus in his arms and said, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35). As it was then, so it is today. Each person’s eternal destiny is linked to his or her response, and relationship to, Jesus.
In this essay, I review the options open to the prophet of Islam regarding the positions he could have possibly taken regarding Jesus. I suggest these were:
- Muhammad against Jesus
- Muhammad for 1 Jesus, or
- Jesus for Muhammad
I contend that Muhammad chose the latter, transforming Jesus into his own personal forerunner. By this strategy, Muhammad created a Jesus who never existed and co-opted him into the Islamic theological agenda which Muhammad was developing. I will provide some contextual background to Muhammad’s options regarding Jesus. Then I will review each of the options above.
Background to the Discussion
Formidable questions confront any researcher looking into early Islamic literature, as well as the decisions confronting Muhammad and the early Muslims. The Muslim position, of course, is that Muhammad simply was an obedient mouthpiece for God’s message. The purpose of this inquiry, therefore, would be considered by them to be irrelevant or even sacrilegious.
The secular school of scholarship associated with John Wansbrough 2 suggests the early Islamic history handed down by the Muslims is likely inaccurate. For the purposes of this essay, I do not seek to conclude how the Islamic message was revealed and codified. Whether “Muhammad” was actually Muhammad acting alone, or whether he was aided in whole or in part by later editors, is not considered by this paper. In other words, I do not seek to answer how the Islamic revelatory content has come to us. I simply assess that content at face value.
A second significant question in this discussion is the situation in Mecca regarding any expression of Christianity there at the time of Muhammad. It has been suggested that the cousin of Muhammad’s first wife Khadija was himself a Christian priest. This mysterious figure, Waraqa ibn Nawful, is at least though to have been a hanif, a pure monotheist, like Abraham. Speculation abounds as to what influence Waraqa may have had on Muhammad, since Muhammad married Khadija when he was 25 but did not have his first revelation until he was 40.
My own speculation is that Waraqa was not a Christian priest or pastor, since the Islamic historical narrative does not mention any established churches in Mecca at the time of Muhammad. We simply hear that Meccans were idolaters and the Ka’aba was inundated with idols. It is more likely that Muhammad interacted with Christians (and Jews) on his caravan missions to the Levant in the employ of his wife. Once again, from the orthodox Islamic perspective, these speculations regarding influences on Muhammad and his message are irrelevant, since Muslims believe he received his messages from God via the Angel Gabriel.
Having addressed these initial contextual questions, I turn now to Muhammad’s options regarding Jesus.
“Muhammad against Jesus”
The “Muhammad against Jesus” position seemed the most likely option for Muhammad, yet he did not choose it. Muhammad considered ridding the world of idol worship to be a major component of his message. He was pained by the idolatry of his kinsmen in Mecca, which he rightly rebuked. He ultimately made associating partners (Arabic, shirk) with the one true God, Allah, as the unpardonable sin in Islam (Sura 4:116).
There is some indication that Muhammad was aware of Mariolatry, since he places Mary in the Trinity in Sura 5:116 (text below). Some Christian missionaries and scholars are sympathetic to Muhammad, feeling he was presented only with non-orthodox forms of Christianity. Geoffrey Parrinder, a Methodist missionary to West Africa, stated, “It has often been thought that the Qur’an denies the Christian teaching of the Trinity, and commentators have taken its words to be a rejection of orthodox Christian doctrine. However, it seems more likely that heretical doctrines that are denied in the Qur’an, and orthodox Christians should agree with most of its statements.” 3Whether Muhammad was interacting with orthodox or heretical forms of Christianity does not excuse him for failing to present a message that coincides with the Bible, especially regarding Jesus.
Muhammad was undoubtedly aware that Christians worshipped Jesus and considered him divine. Several verses highlight this, in which Muhammad attacks this Christian position:
4:171: O People of the Scripture, do not commit excess in your religion or say about Allah except the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, was but a messenger of Allah and His word which He directed to Mary and a soul [created at a command] from Him. So believe in Allah and His messengers. And do not say, “Three”; desist – it is better for you. Indeed, Allah is but one God. Exalted is He above having a son. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. And sufficient is Allah as Disposer of affairs.
5:72: “They have certainly disbelieved who say, “Allah is the Messiah, the son of Mary” while the Messiah has said, “O Children of Israel, worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord.” Indeed, he who associates others with Allah – Allah has forbidden him Paradise, and his refuge is the Fire. And there are not for the wrongdoers any helpers.”
5:116: And [beware the Day] when Allah will say, “O Jesus, Son of Mary, did you say to the people, ‘Take me and my mother as deities besides Allah ?'” He will say, “Exalted are You! It was not for me to say that to which I have no right. If I had said it, You would have known it. You know what is within myself, and I do not know what is within Yourself. Indeed, it is You who is Knower of the unseen.
9:30: The Jews say, “Ezra is the son of Allah “; and the Christians say, “The Messiah is the son of Allah .” That is their statement from their mouths; they imitate the saying of those who disbelieved [before them]. May Allah destroy them; how are they deluded?
These verses provide proof that Muhammad was aware of claims of the divinity of Jesus, and that Christians worshipped Jesus. Given Muhammad’s anti-idol emphasis, it would have appeared simpler and cleaner for Muhammad to have rejected Jesus outright as a self-deifying imposter. This would have set up the “Muhammad against Jesus” paradigm. If Muhammad had chosen this route, Jesus would not have appeared in the Qur’anic listings of bona fide prophets (eg. Sura 2:136). His name would not be loved by Muslims to this day, who add “alaihi as-salaam” (“upon him be peace”) when they mention the name of ‘Isa (Jesus). In short, Muhammad could have excommunicated Jesus from the blessed family of prophets, since Jesus claimed to be God. Muhammad, cleverly, did not choose this option.
“Muhammad for Jesus”
The second option for Muhammad regarding Jesus was that Muhammad could have become a Christ-worshipper himself. If Muhammad was indeed being led by God, this is the option—the true option—he would have chosen.
While I have mentioned it is unclear what type or types of Christianity Muhammad may have observed in his lifetime, the Qur’an does give a narrative in the third sura (al-Imran) in which a delegation of Najrani Christians, including their bishop Abu al-Haritha, visited Muhammad in Medina. During this post-Hijra time period, many tribes came to Medina to seek terms of peace with Muhammad.
Sura 3:1-80 describes this meeting. Gordon Nickel 4 provides an excellent English-language treatment of Islamic commentaries regarding this meeting of the Najrani Christian delegation and Muhammad. The summary is that the Najrani Christians offered to pledge their political support to Muhammad if he would accept Christ and worship him as God’s son. The Najranis gave what they considered proofs of Jesus’ divinity: the many miracles He did and that He did not have a human father. Muhammad famously countered (3:59) that Jesus was no more divine than was Adam, who likewise did not have a human father (Muhammad accepted the Virgin Birth of Christ). The negotiations broke down at this point, based on this theological impasse. Muhammad, having rejected the Najranis invitation to worship Christ, then insisted on a cursing ceremony (3:61) to dramatically seal the impasse. Though Muhammad cursed the Najrani Christians, they did not reciprocate.
Muhammad indeed cursed the doctrine of the divinity and Lordship of Jesus Christ. The Qur’anic material confirms this was his position. Muhammad had the opportunity to submit himself to the Lordship of Christ in his lifetime, but he refused to do so. The story of the Najrani Christians has provided a template of harshness for Muslims in their dealings with Christians, especially when the Muslims have had the upper hand politically and militarily. In short, Muhammad could have become a Christian and a disciple of Christ. If he had truly been led of God, this is the path he would have chosen. He could have become “Muhammad for Jesus,” yet he refused.
“Jesus for Muhammad”
This third option is the one Muhammad ultimately chose. Instead of serving Jesus as Lord, Muhammad turned Jesus into his own personal servant. Muhammad reduced Jesus to a herald and forerunner by claiming that Jesus prophesied that a prophet named Ahmad (a literal cognate of “Muhammad”) would follow him (Sura 61:6). By re-creating Jesus as a mere mortal prophet, Muhammad fabricated a Jesus who never existed, one who bears little resemblance to the historical Jesus.
The Qur’anic Jesus is an Islamic figure that serves Muhammad and the Islamic theological agenda. Muslim scholar Tarif Khalidi elucidates what is inescapable from a plain reading of the Qur’an: “Clearly there is something about Jesus which makes his Qur’anic image so utterly different from the Jesus of the Gospels…He is the only prophet in the Qur’an who is deliberately made to distance himself from the doctrines that his community is said to hold about him” (2003, 11-12). Muhammad’s authoritative sayings make up the hadith literature. One hadith (Sahih al-Bukhari Volume 4, Book 55, Number 657) has the Islamic Jesus rebuking Christians upon his return to earth because they wrongly promoted him to a status above that of a mortal man. The same hadith narrates Jesus breaking the Cross in his Islamic second coming.
In summary, Jesus’ two main purposes in Islam are to herald the coming of Muhammad and to rebuke Christians for worshipping him. The Qur’an also denies Jesus’ crucifixion (4:157-158), which becomes a moot point if the one crucified was merely a mortal prophet. In the biblical narrative, Jesus is the central figure. In Islam, Jesus is merely a supporting actor to Muhammad’s lead. In the Bible, John the Baptist willingly decreases in importance that Jesus might increase (John 3:30). In the Qur’anic narrative, Jesus decreases in importance that Muhammad might increase.
Since Muhammad opted for the “Jesus for Muhammad” option, especially over the “Muhammad against Jesus” option, this allowed him to say some good things about Jesus while rejecting the most important things. For example, Muhammad affirmed that Jesus was a prophet sent from God, who was born of a virgin. Muslims will feel they love Muslims more than Christians do, because they feel Christians worship an illusion of Jesus. All this flows from the decision Muhammad made about Jesus. Sadly, Muhammad and his followers betray the Son of Man with a kiss of familiarity.
By co-opting Jesus into the Islamic theological agenda, Muhammad opened the door for further non-historical embellishment of the Jesus figure by Muslims. Sufis tend to seek a more personal relationship with God than orthodox Islam will allow. Khalidi describes the Sufi veneration of Jesus: “By the time of Ghazali [died AD 1111]…Jesus was enshrined in Sufi sensibility as the prophet of the heart par excellence.” 5He also describes Jesus as the “patron saint of Muslim asceticism.” 6A heartwarming picture of this Sufic Jesus may raise the hopes of uniformed Christians that Muslims may come to some type of saving faith in Christ. However, the Islamic Jesus is shorn of his saving power.
Jesus and Muhammad are the two most influential human beings who ever lived. Muhammad, coming 600 years after Christ, needed to interpret and explain the Christ-event—God visiting the earth in the form of Jesus to die on the Cross for the sins of humanity. Muhammad rejected this narrative. Interestingly, he chose not to simply castigate Jesus as an imposter, which I represent as the “Muhammad against Jesus” option. That would have created far less confusion for inter-faith communication as well as for sharing the gospel with Muslims.
Instead, Muhammad chose the “Jesus for Muhammad” option, in which Jesus is affirmed but only in a way that enhances Muhammad’s personal portfolio. This was indeed a clever and even devious innovation by the prophet of Islam. Instead of making Jesus the bad guy, Muhammad was able to blame Christians for corrupting the true portrait of Jesus by wrongly elevating him to divinity. In reality, Muhammad corrupted the biblical portrait of Jesus. The Prophet of Islam denied the pillars of the biblical faith, the Incarnation, Divinity, Lordship, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Because of his vast influence over more than a billion souls—an influence which has lasted fourteen centuries—I conclude that Muhammad did more to diminish the Lord Jesus Christ than any other person in human history. The question the Najrani Christians asked Muhammad at the beginning of their meetings rings true today: “Why do you abuse and dishonor our Master?” 7 In conclusion, I recommend that people base their opinion of Muhammad neither on his historical prominence nor his political accomplishments, but on the way he treated the Lord Jesus Christ.
- By “for” I mean “in support of,” “in favor of,” “affirming,” and “endorsing.” ↩
- See Wansbrough, John. 1977. Qur’anic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press. This line of thinking contends that Muhammad, during his own lifetime, may have not fulfilled the role of “Seal of the Prophets” who finalized the Islamic revelation we have today. Rather, he may have been a charismatic warrior-leader upon whose prophetic gifts and utterances were later enhanced by his followers. This school rejects the Islamic doctrine of Uthmanic Rescension—that Muhammad dictated the Qur’an to his disciples, who wrote them down and later canonized them under the third Caliph Uthman, who ruled from 644-656 AD, approximately two decades after Muhammad’s death in 632 AD. These scholars instead point to a date of Quranic canonization one to two centuries after Muhammad’s death. In the narrative of Wansbrough is true, then, for the purposes of this study, “Muhammad” would actually be the Qur’anic editors responsible for giving us the Qur’an we have today. ↩
- Parrinder, Geoffrey. 1965. Jesus in the Qur’an. New York: Barnes and Noble, p. 133. ↩
- See Nickel, Gordon. 2006. “‘We Will Make Peace With You’: The Christians of Najran in Muqatil’s Tafsir.” Collectanea Christiana Orientalia, 1-18. ↩
- Khalidi, Tariq. 2003. The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, p. 42. ↩
- Khalidi, ibid. p. 34. ↩
- Nickel, ibid. p. 5. ↩