By Samuel Gonzalez
Who is Jesus?
Depending on who you ask, Jesus might be the pre-existent son of God, an illuminated spiritual teacher, a reincarnation of the Buddha, a prophet, or a mythological reprint of the man-god archetype. Asking a Jew who Jesus is to them would be like asking a Muslim who is Hare Krishna in Islam. Some communities portray him as a white or black man; some splatter his face on the side of an American military tank, preaching about the values of republican conservatism; some imagine him as a guerilla fighter caressing an Ak-47 in the rainforest; some will conceive of him as gracefully meditating on a lotus leaf. That’s the thing with a figure as legendary as Jesus: He’s infinitely malleable.
The Christ of faith can be molded to suit whatever agenda or ideology one has in mind; the Jesus of history is frozen in time. In other words, when it comes to history, facts always lie under interpretations and it is difficult to arrive conclusively at the facts. There is only one historical Jesus, and there are many interpreted Jesuses. Here is what is known about him apart from the Gospels and the Qur’an:
- He was a Jewish teacher and pious preacher who lived in or around Galilee.
- He performed miracles of some sort.
- He was baptized (and perhaps mentored) by a certain John.
- He was known for his ability to draw large crowds and developed a core group of followers.
- He spoke Aramaic, a Hebrew dialect.
- He was murdered (or at least appeared to be) by the Romans.
Everything else is up for debate.
Jesus’ Last Name
Christ is not the last name of Jesus; it is his title. The word Christ is the Greek translation of the Hebrew term ‘Messiah,’ meaning ‘the anointed one.’ According to Jewish theology, the Messiah is a political liberator who will restore Judaism by:
- Rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem.
- Facilitating the adherence to the 613 commandments found in the Torah.
- Gathering God’s people to the land of Israel.
The Christians say the Messiah is God; the Jews have rejected their own Messiah. Islam takes the middle ground, affirming that Jesus represents the fulfilment of the messianic prophecies found in the Hebrew Bible but that he is not God, confirming what the Jewish scriptures say about the Messiah.
The Birth of Jesus
The Qur’an affirms the virginal conception of Jesus, saying:
She [Mary] wondered, “How can I have a son when no man has ever touched me, nor am I unchaste?” He [Gabriel] replied, “So will it be! Your Lord says, ‘It is easy for Me. And so will We make him a sign for humanity and a mercy from Us.’ It is a matter ˹already˺ decreed.”(Quran 19:20-21)
Regarding the actual annunciation of his birth, the Qur’an makes it very clear that the archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary in the form of a man. When Gabriel presented himself to Mary, she believed that he wanted to lie in her. Her reaction is a testament to her purity of character, for she sought refuge from him in God, attaining to the perfect presence and unity with the Almighty:
She appealed, “I truly seek refuge in the Most Compassionate from you! So leave me alone if you are God-fearing.”(Quran 19:18)
The medieval Andalusian philosopher Ibn al-Arabi summarized it in this fashion:
From the water of Mary or from the breath of Gabriel,
In the form of a mortal fashioned of clay,
The Spirit came into existence in an essence
Purged of Nature’s taint, which is called Sijjin (i.e., hell)
Because of this, his sojourn was prolonged,
Enduring, by decree, more than a thousand years.
A spirit from none other than God,
So that he might raise the dead and bring forth birds from clay.
The Divine Breath in Jesus
In fact, Gabriel was transmitting God’s word to Mary, in the same way that a prophet transmits the words of God to his community.
“He is His word deposited with Mary, and a Spirit from Himself.”(Quran 4:171)
But what does this mean that Jesus was ‘God’s word?’ The Qur’an does not say that God’s word is a co-eternal, separate entity alongside God, nor that this speech of God is itself a deity. Rather, Jesus came forth raising the dead because he was a divine spirit, but not God. The power itself came from God, while the blowing, or manifestation of this power, was through Jesus as a human instrument, just as the proclamation, word, and speech of Jesus’ birth, was manifested through Gabriel, but the actual power to do so was from God. Every uttered word requires a source of power, for human speech does not exist in a vacuum nor can it make itself known without the proper medium of transmission, respiratory organs, or thoughts behind its articulation.
The Qur’an explicitly mentions six of Jesus’ miracles, although there is no way to tell if his miracles are limited to just the ones mentioned.
- “And he revives the dead.” [42:9]
- “You will breathe into it [clay] and it will become a bird by God’s permission.” [5:110]
- “And he will speak to the people in his infancy.” [3:46]
- “I will heal the blind and the lepers.” [3:49]
- “I will prophesize what you eat and store in your houses.” [3:49]
- “Jesus, son of Mary, said, ‘O God our Lord send down upon us a table from heaven, to be for us a festival, for the first of us and the last of us, and a sign from you: and give provision (of food) to us, for you are the best of providers. God said I am sending it down for you.’” [5:114-115]
Hence, in the Qur’an, six miracles are mentioned without much detail: resurrection of the dead, bringing to life birds our of clay, speaking with wisdom from the cradle, healing the blind and leprous, and summoning a heavenly table to feed the world. It is crucial to note that in all of these cases, there is no separation between the miracle performed by Jesus and God’s permission. If God’s permission is connected to the miracle, then the one who performs it can only do so through the power of God.
Jesus’ Community and Injil
The humility of the Christ was such that his community was commanded that:
“They should pay the poll tax completely, humbling themselves.”(Quran 9:29)
If any one of his followers were struck on the cheek, he or she should also offer the other rather than hit back or seek retribution. It is possible that this aspect of Jesus’ teaching was transmitted to him either through his mother or through his possible mentor and teacher, John. To say that Jesus annulled the Torah, or Law of Moses, would be to reject Jesus’ Jewishness, for what makes a Jew a Jew is his or her adherence to the Law! However, the Qur’an affirms Jesus’ original message as being the Injil. While the majority Muslim view is that the Injil has either been lost or poorly preserved (and thus irretrievable), when the inner testimony of the Qur’an is synthesized with its inherent logic, one can safely conclude that its core message is found within the precepts of Islamic theology as extrapolated from the Scripture:
“Then We caused Our messengers to follow in their footsteps; and We caused Jesus, son of Mary, to follow, and gave him the Gospel, and placed compassion and mercy in the hearts of those who followed him.”(Quran 57:27)
In essence, it was a law of love, mercy, and compassion.
Jesus and the Table
As a Latino revert, I’ve oftentimes had to defend the integrity of Jesus in the Qur’anic view against traditionally Christian and Catholic interpretations. The Latino community, much like the overarching Western system of thought, automatically presupposes the divinity of a man from antiquity who left behind no personal writings, no appointed successor to propagate his teachings, and no indication that he wanted to be worshipped. Far from rejecting Jesus, as I am oftentimes accused of, I have a profound love for this prophet and revere him as an exceptionally holy figure whose life is worth emulating.
I once knew a group of Americans who went to India to learn about true spirituality. They asked a renowned guru how to meditate and the guru responded: “Meditate like Christ!” Perplexed and wanting to escape the spiritual and mystical traditions of America, they asked him, “How does one meditate like Christ?”
The guru shed a single tear and cried: “He lost himself in love.”
In Islam, a core idea is that of dhikr, or the constant remembrance, or utterance of the name of God. This is done through the rhythmic repetition of prayers, sacred phrases, Islamic mantras, blessings, or the names of God. Dhikr is for the human soul what food is for the body: an essential nourishment. In the Qur’an (5:114-115, a verse quoted earlier), Jesus asks God to send down a heavenly banquet for humanity. God grants him this request, which testifies to Jesus’ nearness to his Maker. Food is a sacred blessing from God that has guided humanity throughout millennia and sustains us as we go about our days. It gives us energy; it helps us heal; it inspires us to create. Through the miracle of the Table, Jesus tells us that he is like a sacred meal that wants to heal and inspire, much like a dhikr that has been uttered, repeated, and passed down from generation to generation, jumping its way from heart to heart, healing and sustaining those whom he comes into contact with. Contrary to what most Westerners believe, it should go without saying that Muslims love Jesus even more than those who desire to attribute pre-existent, co-eternal divinity to him. We love and revere him without attributing godhood to him.
In short, you cannot be a Muslim and reject Christ.
Views of Jesus’ Death
“We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary the Messenger of God”- but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not: Nay, God raised him up unto Himself; and God is Exalted in Power, Wise.”(Quran 4:157-158)
Throughout history, much conjecture has been stirred as a result of differing interpretations regarding the aforementioned verse. Below, I will briefly lay out four of the most common interpretations headed by top Muslim scholars:
- Someone was substituted to die in Jesus’ place after his trial – some speculate that the substitute was either Judas Iscariot, Simon of Cyrene, or another one of his disciples who volunteered to take his place.
- Jesus was crucified but did not die, rather, he was rendered unconscious, laid in the tomb, and arose once again, producing the illusion of being resurrected.
- The body of Jesus was physically crucified, but his spirit did not die, ascending to heaven and descending once more as the essence of his divine element.
- Jesus was actually crucified and actually died and was physically resurrected from the sepulcher.
What do you think? Share your reflections below!
- Al-Arabi. The Bezels of Wisdom.
- Leaman, O. The Qur’an: An Encyclopedia. Routledge, 2006.
- Legall, D. A Culture of Sufism: Naqshbandis in the Ottoman World. SUNY Press, 2005.
- The Noble Quran. Available at: https://quran.com/