Jesus' Birth

The orthodox position in the Islamic narrative of Jesus’ birth is that he was born of a virgin. Although Joseph in not mentioned, Mary has an exalted position among women. She is the only woman mentioned in the Qur’an with an entire chapter named after her (Surah 19). Jesus is often called the “Son of Mary” and referenced together with his mother. One account (Surah 3:45-47) sounds similar to the Bible (Luke 1:26-38), but others from the Apocrypha, like when Jesus speaks from the cradle, forms birds from clay and gives them life (Surah 5:110). Or, when provided drinking water during pregnancy, Mary returns home and is accused of immorality. At that point, the infant Jesus defends her character and his own prophethood (Surah 19:29-30).

Jesus' Names

‘Issa is Jesus’ proper name (thirty times) in the Qur’an but obscure as to its origin. Ibn Mariam (Son of Mary, is more helpful (thirty-five times) and always used with respect. He is called a Sign or Revelation (Aya) two or three times, and this is the same word for a verse in the Qur’an. Of course, Jesus is a Nabi (prophet), and Muslims believe his prophethood began at birth. Seven times, he is described as Ruh (Spirit) and a “Spirit from God.” Kalima (Word) is a very meaningful title (Surah 3:39; 4:171), but most notably, eleven times he is referred to as Al-Masih (Messiah)–all in the Medinan context (Surah 3:45). Most titles given to Jesus in Islam provide ample opportunity for Christian witness (see our Field Guide for Muslim Evangelism).

Jesus' Miracles

The miracles of Jesus in the Qur’an are found primarily in two passages (Surah 3:49; 5:110) and the only Qur’anic miracle not mentioned in the Gospels is him creating birds out of clay. A modified version of the same account is found in the apocryphal Gospel, The Infancy Story of Thomas, and lingers today in Christian legend. Moreover, though the Qur’an says Jesus heals lepers, gives sight to the blind, and raises the dead, one must turn to the Gospels for details. Muhammad, in contrast, says his only miracle is the Qur’an (Surah 13:7; 20:133; 29:49). Finally, though Muslims have no trouble acknowledging these miracles, they say they were done by God’s “leave,” and simply demonstrate God’s power.

Jesus' Purity

In spite of orthodox (Sunni) Islamic teaching that prophets are sinless (Isma is the doctrine that characterizes the innocence of all prophets), the Qur’an suggests they sinned and needed forgiveness–Noah (Surah 11:49); Abraham (Surah 26:80-82); and Moses (Surah 28:15). The same is true of Muhammad (Surah 40:55; 47:19; 48:2) (“dhanab” is the common word for sin). In contrast, the Qur’an calls Jesus’ birth “the gift of a holy child” (Surah 19:9). It is worth mentioning that the Qur’an also says John the Baptist (Yaya) was holy (Surah 19:13). The Bible, however, states over and over again that Jesus was the only person in the world who was without sin (See, John 8:46; 14:30; I Peter 2:22; Hebrews 4:15; II Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 9:14). For more on this, see our Field Guide on Sin in Islam.

Jesus' Passion

Relevant qur’anic passages, and exposition by Muslim scholars over the last several centuries, reveal a variety of explanations as to what really happened on the cross. The most widely held view is that God caused someone else to die (substitute theory); he was then rescued from the cross, and another (most likely, Judas), his accuser) died in his place–despite the fact that of four passages on him (Surah 3:55; 5:117; 19:33), three seem to suggest he died. This is clear from the words (and idioms) used. Only the fourth (Surah 4:157-158) denies the crucifixion: “They killed him not, nor crucified him.” In this light, the Muslim jury may still be out on what took place on a Friday in Jerusalem, two thousand years ago.

Jesus' Prophethood

“Nabi,” the Arabic word for “prophet” is the same in Hebrew. Since Jesus was a “prophet” while still in infancy (Surah 19:30), most Muslims believe he was prophet from birth, but certainly not the Son of God incarnate. He was also a rasul (apostle/messenger) (Surah 4:171; 2:253; 3:49; 57:27; 61:6), endowed with special honor: “Those Messengers we endowed with gifts, some above others …. Jesus the Son of Mary … and strengthened him the Holy Spirit” (Surah 2:253). It is obvious that he is both loved and revered by all Muslims—especially mystics: Sufi Al-Ghazali (d. 1111), considered Islam’s greatest theologian and philosopher, reportedly described him as “the prophet of the soul.” And Sufi master, Ibn Arabi (d. 1240), called him “the seal of saints.”

Jesus' Return

Many Muslim theologians consider Jesus’ return extremely important in Islamic eschatology. Though the Qur’an is somewhat unclear, two verses are cited: First, “And there is none of the people of the Book but must believe in him before his death, and on the Day of Judgment he will be a witness against them” (Surah 4:159). Second, “And (Jesus) shall be a Sign (for the coming of) the Hour (of Judgment)” (Surah 43:61). The Hadith adds certain details: he will be a just ruler who breaks the cross, kills the pig, and abolishes the Jizya (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 3, 233-234). Finally, an Islamic historian says that when Jesus returns, he will descend at the white minaret in Damascus, marry, have children, and die after forty years (see our Field Guide on the Islamic Apocalypse).

Warren LarsonDr. Warren Larson and his wife Carol were missionaries for 23 years in Pakistan. He is a Professor Emeritus at Columbia International University (CIU). He is also the Senior Research Fellow and former Director of the Zwemer Center for Muslim Studies. Due to his understanding of radical Islam, he has been quoted widely in both Christian and secular publications. His Ph.D Thesis from Fuller Seminary was published and was chosen as one of 15 most significant writings on mission in 1998.