What Muslims affirm about Jesus is interesting but what they deny is critical. Still, they never seem to get tired of writing about him,[i] and most are open to talking about him. This is helpful because the greatest question in Scripture is the one Jesus put to his disciples: “Who do you say I am” (Mt. 16:13-16)? I have previously written about Jesus in Islam,[ii] but this article will be more concise as to what Muslims get right, and what they get wrong about him. Most importantly, I will discuss the power of the simple Gospel and the centrality of the cross in our witness. As someone has succinctly said: “Without the cross, there is no Christianity and with the cross, there is no Islam.”
The Good News
Many years ago, a young college student in Pakistan confided to me that he was intrigued by stories of Jesus in the Qur’an. He said his mother prayed seven times a day and read the Qur’an to him. What impressed him most were the miracles of Jesus–healing the sick, cleansing the lepers and raising the dead. “Who is this Jesus?” he asked. It was a wonderful opportunity for us to study Scripture together.
More recently, not far from where I lived in the United States, misguided Christians held a procession outside a mosque. Their sign said, “Abortion is murder; homosexuality is sin; Islam is a lie. One protestor went so far as to say Jesus hates Muslims, to which a Muslim inside the mosque responded: “If Jesus was here, he wouldn’t say that; we love him.” This is certainly true, and most Muslims proudly own him as a prophet of Islam.[iii] Some Muslims even claim to love and revere him more than Christians who believe Jesus was crucified by cruel men. Their reasoning is that an all-powerful God would never allow his beloved prophet to suffer such an ignominious death. Finally, the Qur’an awards him exalted names (Word, Prophet, Spirit, Sign, Messiah and Son of Mary), talks about his miracles (none recorded for Muhammad), and indicates he is coming back again.[iv]
The Bad News
Nevertheless, despite beautiful things said about Christ in the Qur’an, it basically offers a drastic revision of who he is and what he did: no incarnation, no passion, and his divinity is vigorously denied. Samuel Zwemer wrote, “In none of the other sacred books of the east is Christ mentioned: the Koran alone gives him a place but does so by displacing Him. With regret it must be admitted that there is hardly an important fact concerning the life, person and work of our Savior which is not ignored, perverted, or denied by Islam.”[v]
The most widely held Islamic view of the crucifixion is that God caused someone else to die (substitute theory). He was rescued from the cross, and another (most likely, Judas, his accuser) died in his place. This, despite the fact that of the four Qur’anic passages about Jesus, three (3:55, 5:117, 19:33) give the impression that he did in fact die. Only one (4:157-158) might suggest otherwise.[vi] Denials are firmly in place because it does not fit into the Islamic narrative. As Kenneth Cragg has pointed out, Muslims essentially say historically, he did not die, theologically he must not die, and morally he should not die.[vii]
Readers might conclude from the above that we have nothing to talk about with Muslims, but Samuel Zwemer insisted the Qur’an left room for dialog. Believing a bold and loving presentation of the surpassing grandeur and beauty of Jesus would not alienate the Muslim heart, Zwemer never downplayed the incarnation, the necessity of the atonement and the glory of the cross.
In Cairo, it was his habit each year to take trainees to Al-Azhar University to meet the president. One year, he asked the president to come to the window, where he asked: “Do you see any stars?” The president replied that it was a bright day in Cairo. With his arm around him, Zwemer replied: “My friend, once the Son appears, all lesser lights disappear.” He was known for his direct and bold approach, but his friendliness enabled him to witness without antagonizing Muslims.
In our witness, too, Christ must ultimately be presented in all his majesty and all his glory. Muslims need to hear that the cross was not a mistake, or a defeat. It was the redemptive work of God Almighty, planned before the world began, and foretold throughout the Old Testament. Jesus could say to his disciples, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything written about the Son of Man will be fulfilled … They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. On the third day, he will rise again (Lk. 18:31-33). How can we leave Jesus in Galilee (where he did most miracles), when he set his face toward Jerusalem? It was only there that “by his stripes we are healed.”
After rising from the dead, Jesus asked two disillusioned disciples on the way to Emmaus: “Did not Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (Lk. 24:26). Later, showing them his hands and feet, all doubt was removed (Lk. 24:4). In talking to Muslims there is plenty to argue about, but we can learn the skill of bringing the conversation back to Jesus, and not get sidetracked with issues of much lesser importance. We need to ask Muslims who they think Jesus was, and it is our prayer many will come to the place where they can respond like Peter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
See Samuel Zwemer’s writing on the centrality of the cross here.
[i] For example, Tarif Khalidi, ed. & transl. The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Tradition. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2001. Geoffrey Parrinder (a convert to Islam), Jesus in the Qur’an. London: Sheldon Press, 1965. Mahmoud Ayoub, “Towards an Islamic Christology, II. The Death of Jesus, Reality or Delusion: A Study of the Death of Jesus in Tafsir Literature,” in the Muslim World, Vol. 70, No. 2, April, 198. Finally, a Google search on Jesus in Islam, reveals fifteen websites!
[ii] Warren Larson, “Jesus in Islam and Christianity: Discussing the Similarities and the Differences,” Missiology: An International Review, July 2008.
[iii] Reza Aslan in Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, New York: Random House, 2013. See my critique of the author’s portrayal of Jesus as a zealot: https://www.zwemercenter.com/research/?search=reza&post_id=380
[iv] A PEW study finds a higher percentage of Muslims believe in the “imminent return” of Christ than evangelical Christians. Jayson Casper, “Who Awaits the Messiah Most? Muslims” in Christianity Today, December 2016.
[v] Samuel Zwemer, The Moslem Christ: An Essay on the Life, Character, and Teaching of the Jesus Christ According to the Koran and Orthodox Traditions. Edinburgh and London: Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier, 1912, p. 7.
[vi] In three of the references, from the words (and idioms) used, it seems Jesus did die. The fourth (4:157-158) is unclear: “… They killed him not, nor crucified him …” might be interpreted as Muhammad’s retort to Jews who boasted they had killed the Christ. In my view, Muhammad did not know that the crucifixion of Jesus was relative to Christian beliefs; neither did he understand the atonement. Is it possible he is denying the crucifixion as unfounded calumny of the Jews? In any event, most Muslims agree there was an intention to kill him and that he was willing to die.
[vii] Kenneth Cragg, Jesus and the Muslim, London: Allen and Unwin, 1985, p. 1781