It may come as a surprise to some that Jesus and Mary are mentioned in Islam’s holy book at all. But, in fact, Jesus is mentioned 25 times in the Quran, and chapter 19 is named after Mary. Both Isa (Jesus) and Maryam (Mary) are portrayed as two of the holiest people chosen by God (called Allah in Arabic).

Jesus in the Quran, Prophet and Messiah

The Quran accepts Jesus as both prophet and messiah, but not as the Son of God and Saviour of the world. He is cited as one of a long line of prophets, beginning with Adam, including Noah, Abraham, Moses and David, and ending with Muhammad, who is considered to be the last and the greatest of the prophets. 

Jesus is regarded as one of the major prophets and is accorded remarkable titles. He is referred to as “the Messiah, Jesus, Son of Mary” (Quran 3:45), a “messenger of God” (3:49), as well as a “word” and a “spirit” from God (4:171). The Quran attributes great miracles to Jesus that even Muhammad is not credited with, including raising people from the dead (3:49).

The Quran - An Anti-Christian Polemic

On the other hand, however, the numerous fierce attacks on the Christian beliefs in the Holy Trinity and the divinity of Jesus make the Quran clearly an anti-Christian polemic. It also denies Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection from the dead. The Quran declares Jesus human, but not God or the Son of God, because that would be shirk (polytheism) which is the greatest sin in Islam. The main Islamic belief is in the oneness of God (tawheed), first preached by Abraham and reiterated by Muhammad.

Muhammad had always been religious by nature. When, as a young merchant, he travelled around the Middle East, he picked up a lot of information about Christianity and Judaism, but much of it came either from the Apocryphal Gospels or from the heresies popular at the time. One such heresy was Arianism which taught that Jesus was just a man created by God. Muhammad of course claimed that all the material in the Quran was a direct revelation from Allah to himself.

When attacking the Trinity, the Quran mistakes it for “tri-theism”, accusing Christians of worshipping God, Jesus and Mary (Q. 5: 116). Most Muslim scholars blame St. Paul for “inventing” the Trinity and “divinising” Jesus. The Quran wrongly depicts Jesus’ divine son-ship in a literal, physical sense of the term.

The denial of the crucifixion is based on the assumption that God would not abandon a great prophet in the hands of his enemies to meet an ignominious death, since that would be a defeat for God himself. So, instead, having tricked Jesus’ enemies into crucifying someone else, “Allah took him up unto himself” (4:158), which may well be a reference to Jesus’ Ascension.

Islam has no doctrine of Original Sin and the need for redemption through the cross, and there are various theories as to what happened to Jesus after escaping the crucifixion. But it is commonly held that, on the Day of Judgement, Jesus will return as a Muslim, smash all the crosses, preach Islam, marry, die and be buried next to Muhammad.

Mary in the Quran

What about Mary’s place in the Quran and Islam? Mary is venerated simply because she is the mother of Jesus. In chapter 19 we find an account of Mary’s life that contains striking similarities, as well as differences, to the Gospel accounts. While the similarities indicate the influence of the Christian canonical gospels, the differences suggest the influence of the apocryphal gospels.

The story of Mary begins with the declaration that she is chosen by God who purified her and filled her with graces. She is described as the most prayerful and devout of all women and is held up as a “sign” (ayah) to the world. From her mother’s womb she is consecrated to God and preserved from “the touch of Satan”. This is close to our Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, but without the notion of original sin.

There is an annunciation scene between Mary and the Angel Jibreel (Q. 19:17-21), which resembles St. Luke’s account (1:28-36). After hearing Gabriel’s proclamation about the birth of Jesus, Mary exclaims: “How shall I have a son when no mortal has touched me?” The angel replies: “So it will be. God creates what he wills. If he decrees a thing he says to it: ‘Be’ and it is.” Believing the angel’s words and resigning herself to God’s will, she conceives and gives birth to Jesus in a secluded place by a palm tree. When she returns to her folks, they are shocked and accuse her of immorality. However, she is defended by the infant who miraculously speaks from his cradle.

It is remarkable that the Quranic account reflects our belief in the Virgin Birth. It also contains a possible allusion to the flight to Egypt. But there are obvious omissions as well, such as the role of Joseph, the visit by the shepherds and the magi, the presentation and the finding in the temple, and the wedding feast of Cana. Mary is referred to as “the sister of Aaron” (19:28), reflecting a possible confusion with Aaron, the brother of Moses.

Jesus and Mary in Popular Islamic Piety
In the Quran, Jesus and Mary together constitute a single “sign”, and veneration for both has been going on throughout Islamic history. Devotion to Mary is particularly evident among Muslim women, many of whom visit churches and pray in front of statues of Our Lady, even though statues are forbidden in Islam. But small statues of Mary are popular in the homes of Iranian women, for example, who hold up Mary as an ideal woman.

Inter-faith Dialogue
When it comes to dialoguing with Muslims, either Jesus or Mary can be used as a starting point. Perhaps talking about Mary is easier because her portrayal in the Quran is similar to what we know about her and is less complicated than that of Jesus. Theological dialogue between Christians and Muslims is always difficult, however, not only because Muslims believe the Quranic account to be a direct revelation from God, but also due to the Quranic claim that the Bible has been “corrupted” by both Christians and Jews. But engaging in dialogue is still possible since our two religions do share a lot in common. There is also common ground in the areas of spirituality, moral principles, social issues, working for charity, and the desire for peaceful co-existence. But, at the same time, both sides should respect the unbridgeable differences between their two religions.

Since Vatican II and the decree “Nostra Aetate”, the Church has been encouraging dialogue with adherents of other religions. This is sorely needed in our time of rampant secularism and the increasing attempts to marginalize religion. Christians and Muslims can work together to restore belief in God and the importance of the place of religion in both the private and public spheres.   

(© JS, 2012, article previously published in The Catholic Herald, 21 March 2008, reproduced here with permission)

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