Islamic traditions about Jesus are one indication of how much Muslims respect Jesus. When Muhammad took over Mecca in AD 630, he cleansed the Ka’aba of idols, and destroyed all icons except the Virgin Mary and her son. Those he covered with his coat. Another tradition says that in all humanity only Jesus and his mother were not touched by Satan at birth. Muslims say they honor Jesus more than Christians who claim he was crucified by the hands of cruel men.
They reject the cross for these reasons: theologically it need not happen; morally it should not happen; historically it did not happen. As someone succinctly put it: “Without the cross, there is no Christianity, and with the cross there is no Islam.” This article suggests that by building on what is known of Christ in the Qur’an, Christians can lead Muslims to consider God’s plan of redemption in the Bible. Jesus had to die and Easter is God’s vindication. We have a message of hope for Muslim friends.
Qur’anic references bring out the uniqueness of Jesus’ birth:
Behold the angels said: “O Mary! Allah giveth thee glad tidings of a Word from Him: his name will be Christ Jesus. The son of Mary, held in honor in this world and the hereafter and of (the company of) those nearest to Allah; He shall speak to the people in the cradle and in maturity. And he shall be (of the company) of the righteous. She said; “O my Lord! How shall I have a son when no man hath touched me?” He said: “Even so: Allah createth what He willeth: when He hath decreed a plan, He but saith to it, ‘Be,” and it is! (3:45-47). Also, during Mary’s pregnancy she is provided with drinking water from a stream and fed by dates from a nearby tree. Upon giving birth to a son, she returns home and accused of immorality, but Jesus defends her and announces his prophethood (19: 16-40).
Similarly, many titles for Jesus in the Qur’an set him apart, and provide bridges for discussion of what the Bible says about him.
Two of the three references to Jesus as a sign also mention his mother (19:21; 21:91; 23:50). In the Qur’an, “sign”(ayat) later refers to a verse in the Qur’an. In the Gospels, Simeon predicted Jesus would be “a sign that will be spoken against” (Lk. 2:34), meaning he would be persecuted by his enemies.
Most Muslims think Jesus was a prophet from birth (19:30) and the Bible says much about his prophethood (Mt. 13:57; Lk. 1:76; 4:24; Jn. 4:19). But the New Testament claim is that he is much more than a prophet. There, all he says and does is intended to help listeners understand and believe he is the Christ, the Son of God, and Savior of the world (Jn. 20:31). Jesus viewed himself as apex and culmination in the prophetic line. He said Moses and all the prophets spoke of him (Lk. 24: 25-27; Dt. 18:15, 18; Jn. 6: 14). In the New Testament he performs miracles on his own authority—not by “God’s leave”–as the Qur’an suggests. He even forgives sins (Mt. 9:6; Mk. 2:9-11).
Another unique, albeit obscure term for Jesus in the Qur’an, is “Spirit” (2:87). There are seven references to this effect–not only at his birth–but in the cradle, in youth, and as a grown man. He is a “spirit from God” (4:171). In the New Testament Jesus is not called “Spirit,” but it is prophesied the Holy Spirit would “come upon” Mary for a miraculous conception (Lk. 1: 35). And the canonical Gospels say that at Jesus’ baptism the Spirit descended on him (Mt. 3:16) with a fullness that was without limit (Lk. 4:1; Jn. 3:34). During his earthly ministry he continued to work under the Holy Spirit’s divine empowerment (Lk. 4:14, 18).
An important title given to Jesus in the Quran is “God’s Word” (3:39, 4:171; 19:35) and it should help Christians explain the difficult Son of God concept. In the New Testament, a meaningful term for Jesus is “logos” (Word) (Jn. 1) as it is rooted in creation when the powerful word of God was manifest (Gen. 1). God simply spoke the “word” and all things came into being. “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth” (Ps. 33:6). Various passages in the New Testament state that Jesus Christ is the Creator (Col. 1; Heb. 1).
This is also a significant term for Jesus in the Qur’an and he receives this title (Christ) eleven times–all in the context of Medina. (3:45; 4:157; 4:169; 4:170; 5:17; 5:75; 9: 31). Qur’anic commentators agree there is no one explanation as to the etymological root, so Christians can point to the Bible where it means an anointing (I Sam. 10:1; 16:13). They can demonstrate that Jesus Christ is the anointed One of God and chosen for the special work of redemption (Dan. 9:25, 26; Jn. 1:41; 4:25).
The miracles of Jesus in the Qur’an are found primarily in two passages (3:49; 5:110), and the only Qur’anic miracle not mentioned in the Gospels, is creating birds out of clay. A modified version of that same account is found in the apocryphal Gospel, or Infancy Story of Thomas, and lingers to this day in Christian legend. Also, though the Qur’an says Jesus heals the lepers, gives sight to the blind and raises the dead, one must turn to the Gospels for details. Muhammad, on the other hand, made no claim to be a miracle worker (13:27-30; 20:133; 29:49).
In spite of orthodox (Sunni) Islamic teaching that all prophets are sinless, the clear Qur’anic teaching is that they sinned and needed forgiveness: Noah (11:49); Abraham (26:80-82); Moses (28:15). This included Muhammad (40: 57; 47:21; 48:1, 2). Yet both the Qur’an and the Bible affirm that Jesus is without sin (19:9; Jn. 8:46; 14:30; Heb. 4:15; 7:28). Also, two passages in the canonized traditions (al-Muslim, Vol. 1, 373 and vol. 1, 378) state that error, fault and sin is found in Adam, Noah, Moses and Muhammad, but not in Jesus.
Muslim-Christian discussion over the death of Christ can turn to sharp disagreement. For Christians, the cross is the heart of the Gospel, but Muslims have historically opposed it because the Almighty would not allow such a thing. They have come to this conclusion, not so much from the Qur’an (it leaves room for such an interpretation), but as mentioned above, that Islamic theology sees the cross as a defeat for God.
Missionaries among Muslims often testify that the most effective apologetic the Christian worker has is the power of the simple gospel, rooted in Old Testament prophecies. Thus, when Jesus faced the cross, he appealed to Scripture. In talking to Muslims, Christians must stress that the cross was not a mistake, or a defeat, but the redemptive act of Almighty God, planned before the world began (Gen. 3:15; Acts 2:22-23; 4:27-28; Mt. 1:21).
Prior to the cross, Jesus said to his mystified disciples: “We are going up to Jerusalem and everything that is written by the prophets 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). In witness, Christ must never be left in Galilee, when he set his face toward Jerusalem. Only there “by his stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:6). We must not join those who say, “Come down from the cross” (Mt. 27:40). After his passion, Jesus asked a penetrating question of two disciples on the way to Emmaus: “Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (Lk. 24:26). This is the same question we must ask Muslims. Later, in order to convince some in the “upper room” who doubted, Scripture says he showed them his hands and his feet (Lk. 24:40).
In conclusion, Christians have much in common with Muslims, but in the end, we must focus on the message of Easter. Samuel Zwemer’s comment bears repeating, that the Qur’an leaves the door open for dialog, and that a loving but bold presentation of the surpassing grandeur and beauty of Jesus will not alienate the Muslim heart. We can make much of titles and miracles that describe the person and work of Jesus in the sources of Islam, but must move on to terms, like “Light of the World,” “Bread of Life,” and “Resurrection and the Life.” We must stress that through his death and resurrection, Christ defeated Satan and triumphed over the last enemy, death (I Cor. 15; Heb. 2:5-18). The cross is central to the Gospel (I Cor. 1:23; 15:3-4). In the Qur’an, Jesus is embryonic and mysterious, but Muslims can be encouraged to seek Christ above and beyond their own book: “We made her [Mary] and her son a sign for all peoples” (21:91). I will never forget a Pakistani Muslim villager who gave three reasons why he thought Jesus was greater than Muhammad: “Your Prophet was a Prophet from birth, ours became one at age 40; your Prophet did miracles, ours did none; your Prophet is alive, ours is dead.”