Muslims and the gospel — a key question in considering how to share the gospel with Muslims is how the Quran and the Bible describe differently who Jesus is. This article, originally published by Biblical Missiology in 2017 will help you understand exactly that — who does the Quran say Jesus is? And how should we help our Muslims friends understand the true Jesus?
The Qur’an states that Jesus is Allah’s “word which he cast into Mary, and a ‘spirit’ from him” (Sura 4:171). Jesus is also called a word from Allah in Sura 3:39, 45.
Some see in these titles a mark of distinction for Jesus (ʿĪsā), among the many messengers of Allah. There are Christian missionaries who have made much of these terms, claiming they point to the uniqueness of the Qur’anic Christ and using them as a springboard for evangelism. Some have even suggested that in this respect, the Qur’an was inspired by God himself. Others do not go that far, but still, they hold to the conviction that in calling Jesus by such titles, the Qur’an at least reflects truth from God.
But what do these references to ‘word’ (kalimah) and ‘spirit’ (rūḥ) actually mean, in their original context?
First, we can note that the Qur’an, when it refers to Jesus as ‘word’ or ‘spirit’, also takes pains to reject any claim that he is more than an ordinary human being.
The same verse 4:171, which states that Jesus was ‘word’ and ‘spirit’, also asserts that he was “only (innamā) a messenger of Allah”, and this in the context of a rebuke to Christians: “Say not ‘Trinity’! Desist! It will be better for you.”
Likewise, Sura 3, which also calls Jesus a ‘word’, asserts that he is like Ādam (Sura 3:59), i.e. created by Allah, and any who dispute this are to be deliberately cursed by believers during times of prayer (Sura 3:62).
The obvious interpretation of ‘word’ and ‘spirit’ references to Jesus is therefore that they point to his created humanity, in contrast to his claimed deity. But how might these terms be markers of createdness, to serve as proofs against those who call Christ God?
The answer is found in the Qur’an itself. In other places, the Qur’an calls things after the means by which they were created. For example, humankind is called “a drop of semen” (Sura 75:37; see also 16:4; 76:2).
Calling Jesus a ‘word’ thus refers to the means of his creation by Allah. He is a ‘word’ because he was created by means of a word, just as mankind is a drop of semen because this is how it was created.
The Qu’ran also explains that Allah creates by his word:
“He is the Creator, the Knowing. His only command, when He intends something, is to say to it, ‘Be!’ and it is.”(Sura 36:81-82)
This point is made specifically in reference to Jesus in the following passage:
“It is not for Allāh to beget offspring. Glory to Him! When He decrees something, He simply says to is, ‘Be!’ and it is.”(Sura 19:35)
Here the Qur’an is saying that Jesus is not the divine Son of God because he was created by a word of command from Allah.
What about rūḥ ‘spirit’? It is striking that in pre-Qur’anic classical Arabic poetry, and in the Qur’an itself, rūḥ is never actually used to refer to someone’s spirit, nor to the breath of life that leaves a person when he dies. Rather this word refers to blowing or puffing air, for example, to fan a fire into flames, or to inflate a sheep’s skin, so in the Qur’an rūḥ does not mean ‘spirit’ at all, but ‘blowing’ or ‘puff of breath’. In the Qur’an, blowing or breathing on something is a means of creation. Allah brings man to life by blowing his rūḥ into him (Sura 38:72). Likewise, Jesus himself is said to have brought clay birds to life by breathing on them (Sura 5:110).
So, just as kalimah ‘word’ points to the means of man’s creation, by a word of Allah, so also rūḥ ‘blowing’ (not ‘spirit’) refers to the way man was brought to life, by Allah’s creative blowing.
These two titles of kalimah and rūḥ, usually translated as ‘word’ and ‘spirit’, far from being marks of distinction of the Quranic Jesus, are in fact intended to point to his humanity, indeed of his ordinariness as a created being: Jesus is a kalimah and a rūḥ in exactly the same way that Adam was, as a man like all other men. So these terms are not special titles for the Qur’anic Christ, but proofs that he is merely a member of the human race.
This interpretation aligns fully with the context in which these words are used to refer to Jesus in the Qu’ran. It also aligns with the tradition of Islamic commentary on these verses.
Of course, it is possible, and it does sometimes happen, that the Holy Spirit uses these terms to draw a Muslim’s attention to Jesus in the Qur’an, but such sign posting of Jesus does not reflect the original intent and purpose of these terms. It happens in spite of what the Qur’an is actually saying, not because of it.
It is ironic that some well-meaning missionaries take these terms, designed to deny the deity of Christ by pointing to Jesus’ ordinariness as a creature, and mistakenly find in them some kind of special honor afforded to Christ by the Qur’an. Nothing could be further from the truth. These are not marks of distinction, but marks of being common, everyday and ordinary. This is anti-Christian rhetoric. For missionaries tempted to read New Testament categories into the Qur’anic text where they don’t belong, my advice is: don’t take the bait. There is a hostile hook in both these terms, and the direction it pulls in points away from the true nature of the Son of God.
This is a nicely written article. BUT when in the days of Moses when God sent the plagues. Each plaque was “explained away” by the magicians and scientists of their day. Moses’ signs, God’s wonders where “explained”. Yet that did not change the truth that Mose’s signs and God’s wonders had NOTHING to do with their “explanations”.
As Christians, Jesus is called the Word which carries powerful significance. This means EVERY-TIME God spoke .. such as “Let it be” or “Adam where are you?” This was Jesus because Jesus is the WORD.
And just become the poetry or other arabic writings would call human kind “sperm” or even “word” or “breath” does NOT really mean much because the idea of calling Jesus the WORD and only Jesus, comes from the Christian faith, Islam is to be the evolution of God’s religion. Just like Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism, Islam has to come out or from or be built upon Christianity. And therefore we have to go back to the people of the BOOK to get understanding …. Not Arab poets of the colloquial language of the time.
It is true Jesus was born by the Spirit of God. But in the Quran , Jesus was born during Moses time. Mary sister of Aaron. Quran 19:28 . Mary’s father was imran, imran was also father of Moses and Aaron. Quran 66:12. The true Jesus was born during Romans expire time and Mary father’s is Joachim. You can see Jesus in the Quran and the Bible is 1500 years apart. And I want to say, Jesus is God, God the Father is inside Jesus. John14:8-12. Mary wasn’t mother of Jesus, Mary was just a surrogate woman, God used her to give birth to Jesus.
I wonder why some one is mentioned a hundred and sixty something times and is called a prophet, a messenger a word of God, a spirit of God,etc etc and is regarded merely as a messenger of God while some one who is only mentioned 3 times once as his real name, another time as a title and the third time with a name which is a variation of his real name, and this one is revered most and called the prophet of God. Is there common sense in this???
I couldn’t have given a better description of my grand dad more than my uncle did. I could only shuffle and amend my uncles records.
it might seem so because you think the research answers your heart troubles. However, christians cast out demons in the name of Jesus but on whose name does muslims cast these? Muslims are now running into the temple of christians to seek refuge because they can actually feel the presence of spirit at the mention of the name Jesus. Just hope if you actually respect the quran, you would actually heeds to its instruction to ask the people of the book if you dont understand anything. I can only blame it on your own selfish desire without contacting the people of the book for further explanation. Hypocrites
This comment, while obviously well-intentioned, does not attempt to resolve any of the theological issues raised in this article. The Quran, while according Jesus special status amongst prophets, unequivocally states that Jesus was only a man, that he is not the Son of God, that he faked his death on the Cross, and that he advocated death for those who called him divine. It further states that God is unknowable, impersonal—which directly contradicts the whole of the Biblical record of YHWH. So by using the name of the Quranic character, Christians are referring to a completely different character, in a completely different context—and rather than trying to redefine “Isa” to agree with the Bible, it is easier to explain how Yesu is a different person altogether.
These things obviously do invite discussion, as it is helpful for Muslims to understand what the true gospel says. The claim posed by this article is that Christians do damage to the Word of God, and close Muslims off from hearing the gospel, when they attempt to amend the beloved character of the Quran, rather than insisting on a biblically faithful interpretation of who Jesus is.
A final note: the Quran was written perhaps 500 years after the Bible. The Bible was written by many authors, over thousands of years; the Quran was written by one man who seems to have a cursory understanding of some Biblical stories. The Bible retains incredible theological consistency and thematic integrity in all it says, and then a half-millenium later, the Quran asserts a number of incredible changes that exist in direct contradiction to the core tenets of Christian faith.
Yet, clearly, Jesus is particularly distinct in the Qur’an. He is called the ‘Word’ because of its Biblical reflections, and it is linked to his Virgin Birth/conception. He has a special status amongst other prophets. Of course Islam is a different religion, but it is connected to Christianity. It exists, through the Qur’an, in tension between both rejection of Trinity and acceptance of some special characteristics of Jesus – an invitation to dialogue rather than a marker of error or falsehood.
Nicely researched and succinctly presented. I rejected Christianity and accepted Muhammad as God’s final Prophet and Messenger, and I had sometimes wondered about the Qur’an’s depiction of Jesus / Isa as being seemingly singularly pointed out as the Word or Spirit of God. This commentary reaffirms my faith that the Qur’an in its entirety is the Word of God, just as these arguments allow reaffirmation of the People of the Book’s faith in Jesus as son of God. As a Confirmed Catholic during my childhood, I will always love Jesus, just not in the manner that you do, and while I do not appreciate the comment that the Qur’an depicts Jesus as “marks of being common, everyday and ordinary”, just as Ibrahim, Musa and Adam are not common, everyday and ordinary, I I do appreciate that your intent is not another misguided attempt to insert new meaning into the Qur’an to manipulate either Muslim or Christian belief. We all can respectfully disagree and live together on this God-given Earth by remembering the 109th Surah:
“Say, “O disbelievers, I do not worship what you worship. Nor do you worship what I worship. Nor do I serve what you serve. Nor do you serve what I serve. You have your way, and I have my way.”
Amin. May God bless you.
Mark, thank you for writing this much-needed article. I am reminded of what Tilman Nagel wrote in, The History of Islamic Theology: From Muhammad to the Present:
I deliberately refrain from rashly pointing out parallels or similarities between Islam and Christianity, because this tends to be misleading. For what do we learn from an analogy which is sometimes made-of Christ as the “logos” and the Koran as God’s word? Statements of that kind only feign similarities between Islam and Christianity; the naive European reader is led to believe that Islam has a logos theory comparable to that of Christianity. That is utterly wrong! The religious pedagogues’ zeal in finding and inventing as many similarities between the world religions in order to reduce tensions by way of a superficial harmony is something I find deplorable-it attests to an (even badly disguised) ignorance of all foreign religions, to an intolerable lack of seriousness. It is more important and helpful to recognize and accept-the different nature of the other faith.
(Tilman Nagel, The History of Islamic Theology: From Muhammad to the Present. Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2000, xi)