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Bridges Between Jesus in the Qur'an and the Bible:

A Brief Introduction for Christians Interested in Conversation with Muslims

MR550 Intro to Islam - IDL

Dr. Dudley Woodberry


Robin Basselins (T.A.)

September 18, 2008

Matthew Lumpkin
Fuller Box# 449
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1. Introduction

Many Christians, especially those of us who live in America, know very little about the

central figure of Islam: the prophet Muhammad. Even fewer have reflected upon how their

Christian tradition informs their view of him. In contrast, most Muslims have a fairly established

view of the central figure of Christianity: Jesus. This is partly a function of chronological

sequence. Any new religious movement must necessarily deal with how it relates to those who

have gone before it. Islam was in a position to define itself in relationship with, and at times in

contrast with, the Jewish and Christian traditions. Because this happened during its formation

we can see this process reflected in its foundational sacred text: the Qur'an. This same dynamic

can be seen within the New Testament as Paul and others spend a great many words defining

their positions in relationship to the Jewish tradition.

The outcome of this is that when Christians seek to begin conversations with their

Muslim friends about Jesus ('Isa in the Qur'an), they often are surprised to find that the Qur'an

already affirms many of their articles of faith about their Lord. Jesus' virgin birth to Mary, his

sinlessness, his title as prophet and messiah, his status as "Word from God," and "spirit from

him," as well as many of his miracles are all affirmed in the Qur'an (S. 3:45-51) and the sayings

of the prophet or Hadith. Yet in spite of these vast areas of agreement there are important areas

of disagreement. The Qur'an seems to teach that Jesus did not actually die upon the cross

(S. 4:157-159). Further it actively denounces the idea that Jesus is "son" of God, as well as the

foundational Christian doctrine of the trinity, describing such beliefs as religious "extremism,"

(S. 4:171).

If we hope to communicate the hope and life we have found in Jesus then we need to
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know what we share as well as where we disagree. Yet if our aim is to begin lasting

conversations and relationships with our Muslim friends we would do well to begin with what

we share before focusing upon what divides us. A superficial harmony will not last, but without

a relational basis, our discussion about our differences will ultimately not survive, let alone

communicate the love of Christ. If we approach the Qur'an with a sympathetic attitude and begin

by discussing where it and the Bible agree then we may inspire Muslim readers to approach our

scripture with the same respect and charity. As we will discuss below, there are many "bridges"

between the Jesus of the gospels and 'Isa of the Qur'an. It is the purpose of this paper to briefly

highlight a few of these as a means of providing Christians with an introduction to a few of the

issues. The hope is that they will go on in conversation and relationship, encouraging and

inspiring our Muslim friends to encounter the depth and richness of Jesus in the powerful

narrative of gospels in the hopes that they will begin to see what we find so compelling in "'Isa

al Masih," Jesus the Messiah.

2. Bridges from the Qur'an

2.1 Jesus Born of a Virgin

The first bridge is our shared belief in the virgin birth of Jesus to Mary and in God's

particular intervention in history to bring it about. Because of the Muslim sensitivity to

"association" of anything with God as idolatry we would expect to find the annunciation

narrative stripped of divine involvement so as not to appear like other mythic stories of deities

who take consorts of mortal women and bear unique offspring (e.g. Zeus and his son Hercules).

What we find is quite the opposite. When compared to the account in the gospel of Luke
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(chapter 1:26-38) the Qur'anic accounts emphasize more direct divine action.

In Luke 1:35, the angel Gabriel informs Mary that, "The spirit of the Lord will come

upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you: and therefore the holy one

which shall be born of you shall be called the Son of God." In contrast to the vague language of

"spirit" and "overshadowing," in the Qur'an (S. 21:90-91) God says, "We breathed into her of our

spirit." In S. 62:12 the text goes even further saying, "And Mary... who guarded well her

generative organ (farjaha), and thus We breathed into it of our spirit (emphasis mine)." This

scandalous depiction of God's very direct involvement in Jesus' conception has confounded

commentators who have either tried to ignore it or creatively explain away its meaning.1

Drawing attention to the physicality of the Qur'an's portrayal in contrast to Luke's is not

suggested as a bridge. Rather it is mentioned to suggest that both texts speak of a God actively

and personally involved in the origination of this special person: Jesus.2 Many Muslim scholars

and the Qur'an itself are quick to point out that Adam too was created by God's breath and spirit

and as such this does not confirm Christ's divinity. But again, if we can defer falling into the

deeply entrenched battle-lines of the divinity debate, we will see that the Qur'an speaks of Jesus

as coming from God into human life in a way unique to human history. This alone should

intrigue the reader to learn more.

1. Mahmud M. Ayoub, "Jesus the Son of God" in Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and Wadi Z. Haddad,
Christian-Muslim Encounters (Gainesville: University Press of Florida 1995), 67-68.

2. Indeed the early depiction of S. 19 is shockingly anthropomorphic for a tradition known for its
iconclasm. God takes on the form of a "perfect man" when appearing to Mary. This role is later filled by angels
later in S. 3 as the doctrine of divine transcendence develops.
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2.2 Jesus the Teacher of Truth: the "Straight Path" to God

Further enthusiasm for approaching Jesus in the gospels with an open mind can be found

in the Qur'an's descriptions of Jesus' role as a teacher of God's will. It is helpful here to

recognize that the Qur'an describes itself as the final revelation in a long line of prophets and

their "books" from God beginning with the Torah (Taurat), and including the Wisdom and the

Gospel (Ingil). Jesus is described as having been taught all of these "books" by God (S. 5:110).

Here we can observe the manner in which Muhammad seems to overlay his experience of

revelation of the Qur'an upon all prior prophets and the sacred texts associated with them.

Muhammad claims that all of the Surahs of the Qur'an were dictated to him verbally and word

for word before being written down. It is important to recognize this when in conversation with

Muslims who may be unaware of the more incarnational and nuanced doctrine of the inspiration

of scripture many Christians and Jews adhere to.

The possibility here for a bridge is not to be found in divergeant views of revelation and

inspiration but in the Qur'anic notion that Jesus was taught by God all of the scripture prior to the

Qur'an. Given this profound access to God's wisdom and teaching (a notion Christians can

openly affirm) Jesus' life and teaching ,which are not included in fullness in the Qur'an, would be

an enviable source of learning more about how to please God and follow the "straight path" to

Him, (S. 3:51).3 Further, Jesus himself in the Qur'an claims authority for his teaching and

demands obedience (S. 3:50, 43:63-64).

One particular description of Jesus in S. 3:50 stands out as a bridge between the Qur'anic

3. Surah 5:46 further affirms Jesus as an example to be emulated. "And in their footsteps We sent Jesus the
son of Mary confirming the Law that had come before him: We sent him the Gospel: therein was guidance and light,
and confirmation of the Law that had come before him: a guidance and an admonition to those who fear Allah."
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Jesus and the Jesus of the Gospels. Here, Jesus describes himself as, "an actualizer of what has

existed since before me --the Torah-- and so that I may make lawful for you some of what was

made unlawful to you (emphasis mine)." Here we have Jesus teaching with authority, correcting

apparent mis-understandings of the Torah (making lawful what was made unlawful) but also

actualizing the Torah.4 This idea of Jesus as actualizing or instantiating God's truth that is pre-

existent is a bridge to the Christian notion that Jesus life is to be emulated as the ultimate

example of what a human life submitted to the will of God looks like. The Qur'an teaches

Muslims that Jesus has a great deal to teach them. If the hadith contain the wisdom of

Muhammad's sayings in every-day life, the gospels or injil contains a great deal more teaching

and narrative about the life of this teacher sent by God, imbued with God's spirit. Muslims who

are searching for an example of a life pleasing to God cannot overlook as a Teacher, the singular

figure of Jesus.

2.3 Jesus the Son: ibn or walad?

So far I have emphasized bridges or common ground upon which to build conversation

and inspire Muslim interest in encounter with Jesus as described in the gospels. However, even

if we succeed in generating interest in our Muslim friends in reading the gospels they will be

confronted with books with a theological axe to grind. The language of "Son of God" in

particular will bring the issue of Son-ship, "association," and the Christian understanding of

4.Muslim exegete and commentator, Mustansir Mir, helpfully explains that the Qur'an teaches that part of
Jesus' special mission to restore the spirit of the law that had been replaced by letter-of-the-law legalism that had
obscured the "heart of the Torah." This is consistent with many Christian's understanding of Jesus' relationship to
the law especially with regard to his teaching and claims of coming to "fulfill" it. Mustansir Mir, Understanding the
Islamic Scripture: A Study of Selected Passages From the Qur'an (New York: Pearson Longman, 2008), 85.
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Christ's divinity to the forefront.

In the earlier discussion of the virgin birth and annunciation narratives it was made clear

that neither tradition understands Jesus' divine origin through the rubric of God taking a human

consort. If this can be made clear perhaps some of the shock and possible offense will be taken

out of the language. Yet there is still some visceral repulsion for some towards the language of

offspring ascribed to the deity, even if used metaphorically. I suspect this stems from

Muhammad's formative experience of coming out of the polytheistic context of Mecca. The

Mecca to which Muhammad brought his message of monotheism was one in which polytheism

and the Kaba'ah shrine were deeply enmeshed into society and economy. This can be seen in the

Qur'an in the highly controversial verses (S. 53:19-20) referring to three goddesses who are said

to be the "daughters of Allah." Persistent devotion to these goddesses was a source of conflict

between the early Muslim community and the Meccan citizens. It is entirely possible that

Muhammad understood the Christian language describing Jesus as "Son of God," through the

lens of these "daughters of Allah."

The Qur'an uses two distinct Arabic words for "son" when talking about the extreme way

in which Christians call Jesus "Son" of God: walad and ibn. Walad has a meaning of "offspring,

one given birth to," or perhaps "begotten," (hence common Muslim retort, "God is not begotten

nor does he beget."). Although this term occurs fifteen times in the Qur'an, only twice does it

refer to Jesus directly. The majority of the other times it occurs are on the lips of the pagan

Meccans claiming that their three goddesses and the angels were "daughters," of God.5 The

term, ibn, while containing the range of meaning of son, also contains a metaphorical

5.Ayoub, "Jesus the Son of God," 73.


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connotation of "a close and intimate friend." This term is used only once in the Qur'an in S.

9:30. What is significant about this very intentional usage of the two words for "son" is that it is

consistent with the theological use of these words by the Syro-Arabic Christian tradition that

Muhammad would have most likely had contact with. Ayoub cites Jacobite theologican

Theodore Abu Qurra (c.825) as representative of this use of the terms when writing in Arabic.

While he uses ibn for "son" he consistently uses the verb walada, "to engender, to give birth to"

when speaking of God the father and Jesus His son.6 This language remains unchanged in the

Syro-Arabic liturgy even today.7

It would seem that the language of the Qur'an in denouncing Jesus as Son is rejecting

ascribing to Jesus the notion of walad more than it is that of ibn. In fact, many Muslim

commentators suggest that Christians misread their own scriptures mistaking ibn language for

literal walad.8 That is, mistaking metaphorical language describing Jesus' unique origin, and

unique relationship with the God he consistently referred to as "father," for literal language

describing God having "given birth" to Jesus in some sense. Now this is significant for those of

us interested in finding bridges between the Jesus of the Qur'an and the Jesus of the Bible since

the way Jesus' son-ship is understood today by Christians is probably closer to ibn (in both literal

and metaphorical senses) than walad.

Ultimately it is the Qur'an itself that encourages Muslims to use all the "books" of

revelation at their disposal. In the words of Ali Merad, the Algerian Muslim scholar, cited by

6. Ayoub, "Jesus the Son of God," 69-70.

7. Ibid.

8. Ayoub lists Fakhr al-Din al-Razi as well as the Sufi Al-Alusi as commentators who suggest this as the
probable origin of what they consider an erroneous ascription of divinity to Jesus. Ibid, 72-73.
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Moucarry, "It would be presumptuous for Muslims to believe that they know not only the truth

but the full truth about Jesus, and to refuse to pursue the way opened by the Qur'an in seeking

other witnesses."9

3. Bridges From Culture

3.1 Embedded Culture

And yet, beyond finding a motivation for studying the gospels within the teaching of the

Qur'an, there is another barrier standing between Muslims and the Jesus of the Gospels: culture.

If we are to find bridges of communication between Christians and Muslims, the Bible and the

Qur'an, we cannot ignore the role culture plays in the way both are read and understood. Though

this issue is complex, it is helpful to be aware of a few basic elements that make up this Islamic

cultural identity as well as some of the consequences for cross-cultural proclamation today.

Because Islam emerged out of an Arab cultural context it persists with many Arab

cultural values embedded within it. Yet at the same time it provided an identity that transcended

Arab tribalism. That trans-tribal loyalty provided the foundation for the shift from nomadic to

urban life necessary to the growing empire that Islam became so quickly in its early expansion.10

As a result, many of the Arab Christians who were conquered so quickly by Muslim expansion

likely saw much that connected with them culturally in Muhammad's message. Gordon-

Chandler suggests that in this mode, Islam might be viewed, at least originally, as an Arab

9. Chawkat Moucarry, The Prophet & the Messiah: An Arab Christian's Perspective on Islam &
Christianity (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 211.

10. Frederick M. Denny, An Introduction to Islam. 3rd ed. (Upper Saddle River, N.J: Pearson Prentice
Hall, 2006), 62.
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contextualization of the monotheism of the Jews and Christians.11 Because of Islam's holistic

character (not separating public from private, religious from secular) and connection to Arab

culture there is an important sense in which to be Arab is to be Muslim and vice verse.12 This

dynamic is much the same in the Jewish community in which religion serves as the medium and

preservation of cultural identity. And yet Islam does not see itself as a chosen people, separate,

and removed, but instead as an international ummah or "community" of those submitted to God.

Finally there is a certain pride that comes with a member of one's people being chosen as

the prophet of God to reveal his message to that people. There is even evidence to suggest that

after encounter with other monotheistic traditions there was an Arab cultural anticipation and

yearning for a messenger from God specifically to them.13 Muhammad fulfilled that yearning.

This partly explains why so many Arab Muslims have such a great deal if identity tied up in the

prophet and respond so intensely when his honor is threatened or mocked as in the recent Danish

editorial cartoon controversy.

Given the intimate connection between Islam as a religion and the (largely Arab) cultural

practices and way of life associated with it, many converts from Islam to Christianity feel a

profound sense of lost identity. They go through the great trauma of losing family, friends and

community, and even language only to find no corresponding holistic identity waiting for them

on the other side of conversion to replace it. While Christianity has its own fair share of cultural

11. Paul Gordon-Chandler, Pilgrims of Christ on the Muslim Road: Exploring a New Path Between Two
Faiths (Lanham, MD: Cowley Publications, 2007), 103.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.
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practices they are often institutionalized forms of similar cultural "contextualizations" or

indigenous cultural appropriations of Christianity into particular contexts (e.g. American

Protestantism, Greek Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism). Indeed many have argued that this cross-

cultural process is Christianity's main strength and is closely tied to its successful expansion.

One's own cultural context is (ideally) redeemed and brought into expression within the Faith.14

The consequence of these differing models of cultural appropriation is that Arabs and Muslims

converting to Christianity generally suffer not only loss of family and community ties but a

profound inner crisis of identity with their new faith in Christ.

3.2 Bridge People

Many Christian missionaries working among Arabs in the Muslim world have

encountered this tension first-hand both among converts and among their Muslim friends and

neighbors. No matter what cultural "contextualization" he tried or how persuasive his arguments

from the Qur'an were, missionary Kevin Higgins, noticed that he could not overcome the

resistance to his implicit message that Muslims forsake their culture in order to follow Jesus.

Eventually he began to encounter and study communities of faith spontaneously navigating a

middle way. These communities of individuals retained much of their Muslim "culture" while

becoming devoted "followers of Jesus." Needless to say this provoked much controversy in

Christian and Muslim circles. All of this caused Higgins to recognize that the acceptance of the

message of Jesus by Muslims had less to do with the contextualization of the message and more

to do with the context of the messenger. That is, Muslims were much more likely to accept and

14. See Lamin Sanneh, Disciples of all Nations: Pillars of World Christianity (Oxford, UK: Oxford
University Press, 2008), 3-12. See also Andrew Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History (New
York, NY: Orbis, 2002).
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receive the Biblical Jesus if he were presented by an "insider" to Muslim culture who had

nevertheless come to a satisfying reconciliation of the cultural identity crisis implicit in

conversion to following Jesus.15

One Arab Muslim who underwent this crisis of identity and has gone on to share Jesus

with Muslims as a cultural insider is Mahzar Mallouhi. A moving and detailed account of his

experience with this process can be found in Paul Gordon-Chandler's biographical discussion of

"insider movements," as they are sometimes called.16 Mallouhi suggests a recovery of the

Middle Eastern origins of the Jesus of the Bible. In fact, the Jesus of the Bible has a great deal

more in common, culturally, with Middle Eastern culture than with the Christian West. Gordon-

Chandler writes:
"Perhaps his most significant spritual contribution... has been of effectively stripping Christ of his
Western trappings and introducing him to Muslims as one who was born in the Middle East, and
who lived and died there. This is the Christ that Mazhar met as a young man on the Golan
17
Heights, and this is a Christ that Muslims can understand."

This approach is not without critics, most especially within the western church and

among Muslims. However, this apparently novel phenomena of followers of Jesus who fall

outside the traditional boundaries understood by both Islam and Christianity is causing all parties

to re-evaluate their understandings of what it means to be a Christ follower as well as what it

means to be submitted to God.

Gordon-Chandler's language describing Mallouhi is reminiscent of E. Stanley Jones, the

15. Kevin Higgins, "Encountering Muslim Resistance," in Woodberry, John Dudley. Reaching the
Resistant : Barriers and Bridges for Mission. Pasadena, Calif: William Carey Library, 1998.

16. Paul Gordon-Chandler, Pilgrims of Christ on the Muslim Road: Exploring a New Path Between Two
Faiths, 2007, 103-125.

17. Ibid, 128.


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Methodist missionary working in India in the early 1900's, and who Mallouhi counts as a strong

influence. Jones found that as he traveled about the countryside, teaching about Jesus he

invariably found himself in rhetorical battles attempting to defend issues related to the Old

Testament, Western Civilization, and the Christian Church. He felt he was missing the heart of

the matter: Christ. By focusing solely on Jesus he discovered that the resistance he had been

encountering was not to Jesus but to the things he had thought inseparable from him. He writes,

"I saw that the gospel lies in the person of Jesus, that he himself is the Good News, that my one

task was to live and to present him. My task was simplified."18

4. Summary and Conclusion

The Christian unfamiliar with Islam and the Qur'an will find in it a remarkably

sympathetic picture of her Lord. In the Qur'an Jesus comes from God's spirit and is God's Word,

born to the Virgin, Mary. He is a great messenger and teacher from God. Jesus is an

"actualizer" of God's teaching on life and the supreme example of a human life. He teaches with

authority and demands obedience. Even on issues of great contention, such as the son-ship of

Jesus, a careful analysis of the Qur'an and commentators suggests that the idea the Qur'an so

vehemently condemns is not the orthodox Christian view. As Christians we would do well to

learn more about our Muslim neighbors as a means of coming to a deeper understanding of their

faith and deepening our relationships with them.

But beyond Qur'anic and Biblical arguments, there are real and persistent cultural barriers

18. E. Stanley Jones, The Christ of the Indian Road (New York: Abingdon, 1925), 8.
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to be bridged between Muslims and the Jesus of the Bible who has become so widely identified

with the Christian West and all its cultural and political baggage in the Middle East. Many

missionaries in Muslim areas and some Arab Christians are coming to the conclusion that this

may involve openness to individuals and communities walking along the challenging and fluid

boundary between culture and religion. Yet this challenge and this strength has been at the heart

of Christianity from the beginning. We, as Christians everywhere in the world, are after all,

attempting to follow a Jew from Galilee.


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Works Cited:

Ayoub, Mahmud M."Jesus the Son of God." in Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, and Wadi Z. Haddad,
eds. Christian-Muslim Encounters. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1995. 65-81.

Denny, Frederick Mathewson. An Introduction to Islam. 3rd ed ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J:
Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006.

Chandler, Paul Gordon. Pilgrims of Christ on the Muslim Road: Exploring a New Path Between
Two Faiths. Lanham, MD: Cowley Publications, 2007.
Higgins, Kevin. "Encountering Muslim Resistance." in John Dudley Woodberry. Reaching the
Resistant: Barriers and Bridges for Mission. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1998),
107-116.

Jones, E. Stanley. The Christ of the Indian Road. New York, Cincinnati: The Abingdon press,
1925.

Mir, Mustansir. Understanding the Islamic Scripture : A Study of Selected Passages From the
Qur'an. New York: Pearson Longman, 2008.

Moucarry, C. G. The Prophet & the Messiah : An Arab Christian's Perspective on Islam &
Christianity. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2001.

Sanneh, Lamin. Disciples of all Nations: Pillars of World Christianity. Oxford, UK: Oxford
University Press, 2008. 3-12 at 12.
Walls, Andrew. The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History. New York, NY: Orbis, 2002.