Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Chapter Nine

The Word and the Spirit

Jesus Himself is the Message of God


Jesus – the Kalima from Allah

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. John 1:14

In two passages in the Qur’an Jesus is given a very unique description. In the first we read that the angel who appeared to Mary said to her, ‘Allah announces to you a Word from Him, his name is the Messiah Jesus, son of Mary’ (Surah 3:45), and in the second Jesus is called ‘a messenger from Allah and his Word which he breathed into Mary’ (Surah 4:171). The relevant words are, respectively, kalimatim-minhu (a Word from him) and kalimatuhu (his Word). In both instances the same thing is being said – Jesus came into the world as a Word from Allah.

No one else receives a title like this. We saw earlier that the Qur’an also says that the same angel, when appearing to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist (Yahya), said that his son would ‘testify to a Word from Allah’ (musaddiqam bikalimatim-min-allah) and, by relating this to the title given to Jesus, this is clearly a reference to him as well. It substantiates what we said earlier – if John and Jesus (Yahya and ‘Isa) were only prophets of Islam no different to those who preceded them, why did they suddenly appear together more than five hundred years since the last prophet had appeared in Israel and without any successors in the nation to follow them?

This text hints at the answer – John was merely a herald to announce to the nation someone far greater than himself, the thong of whose sandals John was not worthy to untie. He appeared to reveal al-Masih, Israel’s long-awaited Messiah. The Qur’an here concedes this – John came to testify to ‘a Word from Allah’ who was about to reveal himself to Israel, Jesus. In a way the title is a synonym for ‘Messiah,’ it is a unique definition of Jesus that the Qur’an three times applies to him and never, not even once, to anyone else – including Muhammad.

Muslim scholars have done everything in their power to avoid conceding that there is anything unique about the title. As they did with the title ‘Messiah,’ so here too they downplay and minimise the title ‘a Word from Allah’ in every way they can. An example is that all that is being said here is that Jesus was brought into being simply by the creative ‘word from Allah,’ namely kun – ‘Be!’ (so Rida, who thought it was simply the same means by which everything came into existence). But then why would Jesus be specifically called ‘a Word from Allah’ in contrast to every other prophet, human or living creature who is not so described? Another example is that this is no more than a description of a ‘prophetic word’ from Allah by which he came into the world (Muhammad Ali). Many others argue that Adam was also created by the same unique Word from Allah, kun – ‘Be!’ (Surah 3:59), and that this is all the title means. But, once again, Jesus alone is actually called a Word from Allah in the Qur’an. No such title or anything like it is given to Adam.

The key issue here is that Jesus himself is called a Word from Allah – kalimatim-minhu – a Word from him, and kalimatuhuhis Word. It is the suffix hu (him) that gives the title its special definition. A word did not come to Jesus like those that came to the prophets before him, he himself is the Word that came from Allah himself. Other prophets brought a message from Allah, Jesus himself is the Word that came from Allah. He did not come to lead the world into the light, he himself is the light of the world (John 8:12). He did not just testify to the truth, he himself is the truth (John 14:6). He did not come to show the way to eternal life, he himself is the living presence of God in the world. He is the bread of life (John 6:35) and eternal life is to know him whom his Father had sent (John 17:3).

While the Qur’an says that the Injil, the Gospel, was delivered to Jesus (Surah 5:49), the Christian scriptures show that Jesus himself is the message of good news, the Gospel. In Islam it is the message that came to Jesus in the Injil that counts, in the canonical Gospels it is the messenger himself that is the revealed Word of God. By attributing this title to Jesus, the Qur’an goes against its own alternative declarations and sides with the Christian scriptures.

The deciding factor here is that the title given to Jesus is clearly defined in the Christian scriptures. John’s gospel is the source of the title, the Word of God, which the Qur’an confirms. It is also directly attributed to Jesus in the last book of the Bible (Revelation 19:13). John commences his gospel with these famous words: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1:1). It is precisely this definition of its origin that the Qur’an repeats – the Word was with God, it came from his throne. John uses the Greek word logos which the Qur’an translates as kalima, its Arabic equivalent.

John then goes on to say: ‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father’ (John 1:14). It is because Jesus is the Son of God, who is divine and united to his Father, that he is the Word from God, that he himself is God’s message to the world. Muhammad claimed that the Qur’an was delivered to him, the kitabullah (the scripture or the book of Allah), but for those who knew Jesus in human flesh during his days on earth, his message was to reveal himself to the world.

The mission of Jesus was Jesus himself. This is why he said: ‘without me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5). Only those who are born of his Spirit, who abide in him and draw their life from him as a branch does from the vine, can experience eternal life. That life is vested in him. This is why he also said ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood you have no life in you’ (John 6:53). During the days of the old covenant the nation of Israel was bound to a system of religious laws, practices and rituals. They made up the picture of Jewish theocracy. But when Jesus died and rose again, he introduced the new covenant by which believers in him can inherit eternal life even while they live out their normal earthly lives. Jesus replaced the picture of a religious system with a picture of himself. He fills the picture and it has no background.

When Jesus was thrown to the ground and nailed to the cross, he took the whole Jewish system down with him. Paul says that ‘God made us alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross’ (Colossians 2:13‑14). Elsewhere Paul says that he abolished ‘in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances’ that had embodied the old covenant (Ephesians 2:15). When Jesus died he took the whole Judaic legal and systematic structure down with him; when he rose from the dead he brought nothing but himself back. But vested in him is the whole fullness of God. He is all-sufficient for everyone on earth who desires to live forever in his eternal kingdom.

Jesus was given a unique title, a Word from God, because he himself is unique. He is the Saviour of the world (John 4:42). He – and he alone – is the door that opens the way to the kingdom of heaven (John 10:9). The title in the Qur’an is nothing other than a literal equivalent of John’s logos, the Word who came from God because he is divine and descended from the very throne of God himself whence he later returned. The Qur’an does not use the word kalima to describe a fiat, a unique creative action by which Jesus came into being, it defines the very essence of Jesus himself. He is the Word who came ‘from him’ (min-hu), from Allah himself.

Jesus held a title distinguishing him from any other prophet of God, the Word of God. It is a definition of his own divine subsistence, not of something given to him or of a manner of his creation. The Qur’an merely echoes the glorious meaning of the title in the Christian scriptures. Muslim scholars cannot explain its uniqueness, so they evade and sidestep it, falling back on the usual Islamic dogmatics: ‘Jesus was only a messenger of God, he was created by the word of God, he was not divine, he was not the Son of God.’

The Qur’an, by laying down these dogmatic and fundamentalist statements (they are no more than that), unfortunately divests the title ‘a Word from God’ of its original and quintessential meaning – that all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell within Jesus and to declare in him (rather than through him) God’s final message to the human race – that Jesus himself is Lord of all and is the Saviour of all who would draw near to God through him. The Qur’an gives Jesus titles like the Messiah and a Word from God, but it says no more, disclosing an uncertainty about their meaning. But in conceding them it acknowledges that Jesus was unique and that he had a very special mission and brought the ultimate message of God to the human race, and that he was therefore vastly superior to all the prophets that had preceded him and that there would be none after him.

Ruhullah: The Spirit of Allah

The prophets of Islam have traditionally been given a number of different names. Muhammad is rasulullah, the messenger of Allah. Moses is the kalimullah, the word of Allah (though he is never given the title ‘a word from him’ in the Qur’an as Jesus is). David is the khalifatullah, the representative of Allah; and Abraham is the khalilullah, the friend of Allah. The title given to Jesus is ruhullah, the spirit of Allah. The title is derived from the following words applied to Jesus in a verse we have already partly considered: wa ruhum-minhu, ‘and a spirit from him’ (Surah 4:171). The expression looks innocuous enough, but it has tremendous implications.

Just as Jesus is described in the Qur’an as a Word from Allah, so here he is also described as ‘a spirit from him.’ But this does not mean that he is a spiritual person given the title ‘spirit of Allah’ in the same way other prophets are called the friend or representative of Allah. Jesus is not only a Word from Allah, he is also a Spirit from Allah. The same Arabic words are used – min-hu – ‘from him’. No other prophet is given this title in the Qur’an or is said to have come from Allah.

Once again, rather than interpreting the title, Muslim scholars and writers over the centuries have spent more time trying to explain it away, or diminish it and deprive it of its uniqueness. Some say the Qur’an is talking of the spirit that breathed Jesus into life when he was born of a virgin woman, relying on what the Qur’an says of Adam, namely that Allah ‘breathed into him of my spirit’ (Surah 15:29, repeated in Surah 32:9). Surah 4:171, however, says that Jesus himself is a spirit from Allah, not that he received a spirit from him. There are eternal distinctions between these two positions.

Muhammad Ali perverts its obvious meaning and mistranslates ruh by saying it only means that Jesus was a mercy from Allah. Jahiz said the spirit could not have been a ‘part’ of God that was transferred to Jesus, otherwise God would have been deprived of part of himself. Rather, the spirit spoken of in Surah 4:171 was a substance independent from himself which could be transferred to anyone else at his will and discretion (Risalah fi al-Radd, p.36). Jahiz, however, was exercising no small measure of interpretive licence when he so interpreted the verse. Once again, however, it is purely an example of how Muslims sidestep any unique title given to Jesus, or any unique feature of his life, solely to maintain the dogmatic assertion that ‘he was no different to any other messenger of Allah.’

The problem for Muslims, and for any interpreter of the Qur’an, is that the title once again parallels the Christian definition of Jesus and is derived from the Christian understanding of Jesus. Just as the titles ‘a Word from Allah’ and ‘the Messiah,’ unique titles given to Jesus, are unexplained in the Qur’an but have highly significant meanings in a Christian context, so here too the admission that Jesus himself was originally a spirit who came from the very heart of God himself to earth is part of the foundational Christian belief in Jesus as God’s eternal Son who became the Son of man. Muhammad knew the titles the Messiah and a Word and Spirit from God from his contact with Christians during his lifetime, but he failed to see their implications and freely attributed them to Jesus, not knowing that they firmly endorsed everything that Christians believe about him and his unique person and mission.

There is only one other person in the Qur’an who is described as ‘a spirit from him.’ He is mentioned in this text: ‘These are they into whose hearts he has written faith and has strengthened them with a spirit from him’ (Surah 58:22). The concluding words, once again, are ruhum-minhu. Here it is obviously not the same spirit who is said to be Jesus himself in Surah 4:171, but another spirit from God – this time one who enters the heart of all true believers.

Who could this spirit be? Once again the Qur’an offers little assistance to us, it refrains from saying much more about the spirit from God who joins himself to true believers. Another text that contains a similar expression is the following: ‘He sends down his angels with a spirit from his command’ (Surah 16:2). No explanation is given, however, of who the ruh (spirit) is who is sent down with his angels. It can only be the same spirit, but nothing more about him is disclosed.

Yet another text repeats the statement that this spirit is sent down to true believers: ‘He makes the spirit by his command to come upon any of his servants as he pleases’ (Surah 40:15). Once again the spirit is said to come by his command (min-amrih). The implication, however, is much the same as in Surah 58:22. To ascertain who this spirit might be, however, we have to return to the Christian scriptures.

The ‘spirit’ of whom the Qur’an speaks here is clearly identifiable with the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity. On only four occasions does the Qur’an actually mention the Holy Spirit (ar-ruhu’l qudus), but in three of them it relates him solely to Jesus the son of Mary! The texts are: ‘And we gave to Jesus son of Mary clear (signs) and strengthened him with the Holy Spirit’ (Surah 2:87, repeated in Surah 2:253), and ‘When Allah will say, “O Jesus, son of Mary, bring to mind my favour to you and your mother, when I strengthened you with the Holy Spirit”’ (Surah 5:113). Once again the statements are pregnant with Christian influence.

Of no other prophet does the Qur’an speak like this. Jesus was strengthened with the Holy Spirit at his baptism for the work which lay before him. The third person of the triune God (the Holy Spirit) was sent down by the first person (the Father) and he alighted on the second person (the Son) and anointed him. The Qur’an comes tantalisingly close to confirming the Trinity when it says that God sent down the Holy Spirit to strengthen Jesus, and does so on no less than three occasions, and it is this Spirit that strengthens believers when they are born of him (John 3:6). Twice the Qur’an speaks directly of spirits who came from God himself, and it identifies them as Jesus (Surah 4:171) and the spirit who strengthens believers (Surah 58:22), the same spirit who anointed Jesus as well, the Holy Spirit. How much closer could the Qur’an have come to conceding the Christian Trinity, especially as it never attributes these titles to any other person who might have come from God?

One of the ironies of the Qur’an is that it three times makes dogmatic assertions in Surah 4:171 denying the divinity of Jesus. Firstly, ‘the Messiah Jesus, son of Mary, was only a messenger of Allah;’ then ‘Do not say “three” – Allah is only one God;’ and finally ‘Glorified be he from having a son.’ But in the very same verse it attributes three titles to Jesus that clearly distinguish him from all the other messengers of God, making him unique in his person, that elevate him to being the very thing the Qur’an denies, the Son of God. The titles are ‘the Messiah,’ God’s anointed Saviour and Deliverer, ‘his Word,’ the logos who was with God and is God and who became flesh and dwelt among us, and ‘a spirit from him,’ one who came as a spirit from the throne of God himself to become a man, and who returned there after his ascension to heaven. There you have the divinity of Jesus in the Qur’an – thrice denied, and thrice confirmed, all in the same verse!

Jesus Christ in his Historical Context

The Qur’an defines Jesus very simply – he was a prophet of Allah no different to those who went before him. He was an obedient servant, but no more than that. Yet, as we have seen, it attributes titles to him and unique features in his life that leave so much about him unsaid and undefined. He came into the world in a very unique way – he was born of a virgin-woman. He left the world in an equally distinctive way – he ascended to heaven. He was sinless throughout his life. He was the Messiah and was also a Word from Allah and a Spirit from him. The Holy Spirit in the Qur’an is named solely in conjunction with him.

Has the Qur’an withheld information about him? Has it conceded a wealth of unique facets to him without saying who he really was? If there had been no historical Jesus, the one bequeathed to the world through the contemporary records of him in the canonical gospels, any objective reader of the Qur’an could have been forgiven for wondering who he really was. The unique titles and features we have considered single him out as an obviously unique figure, easily distinguished from all the other prophets and messengers who went before him.

The same reader might want to know why the Qur’an spends so much time trying to discount these unique features rather than explain them. “The Messiah was only a messenger like those who went before him,” the Qur’an protests, there was nothing unusual about him (Surah 4:171). So why was he uniquely called the Messiah? “His virgin-birth was no different to the creation of Adam, Allah just proclaimed ‘Be!’ – and so he came to be” (Surah 3:59). So why was he the only prophet to be born of a virgin-woman? One has to turn to the historical Jesus to unravel the Qur’an’s strange tendency to attribute a wealth of unique features and titles to him, only to fail to explain them and downplay them instead.

What the Qur’an has presented to the world is a truncated Jesus, yet another re-definition of him that denies his glory and uniqueness. The Gnostics denied his atoning work by which he laid down his life on a Roman cross to open the door that sinners might find eternal life. The Arians denied that he was one with the Father and that he revealed the perfect love of God himself for all men on earth by being willing to give his very own Son, united to him from all eternity, to break down the barriers between God and men. The Jesus questers of the modern age turn him into a messianic pretender of his time, one who thought he was someone special but wasn’t, who forfeited his life for his misconceptions. The Islamic Jesus is just another in the sequence of these diminished figures, a Jesus in every case reshaped, reinvented, and shorn of his glory.

The Qur’an time and again shows how its image of Jesus was severely camouflaged and affected (or rather infected) by the erroneous misrepresentations of him that had preceded Muhammad’s time. We have not arbitrarily drawn parallels between the Quranic ‘Isa and other unhistorical images of him simply because there are similarities between them. We have, on the contrary, shown how consistently and regularly the Qur’an draws on Gnostic, Arian and other apocryphal sources for its own distorted portrayal of him. The similarities are too consistent and repetitive to be coincidental.

The Jesus of the Qur’an is only a shadow of his true self. The hints of light are all there – his life began and concluded uniquely, he was the unique Anointed One of God who came from the heavens and returned there where he remains to this day, etc. But the Qur’an’s constant focus on discounting any uniqueness in these features so as to reduce him to the level of ordinary prophethood, (ordinary in comparison with Jesus the Messiah, Word and Spirit of Allah), leaves the indicators of a greater person with a greater purpose heavily smoke-screened.

The apostle Peter wrote to Jewish disciples of Jesus about those who had preceded Jesus as follows: ‘The prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours searched and enquired about this salvation; they inquired what person or time was indicated by the Spirit of Christ within them when predicting the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glory. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, in the things which have now been announced to you by those who preached the good news to you through the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look’ (1 Peter 1:10-12).

The prophets foretold the coming of Jesus. Abraham rejoiced to see his day (John 8:56), Moses wrote of him (John 5:46), David called him his Lord (Matthew 22:45), and Isaiah foresaw his glory and spoke of him (John 12:41). Jesus himself said to his disciples: ‘Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it’ (Matthew 13:17). The disciples of Jesus saw, knew and heard greater things than all the prophets of God before them. The prophets foretold his coming, but it was only his own disciples who were privileged to witness it. Jesus spoke to some of his disciples on the day of his resurrection and, ‘beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself’ (Luke 24:27).

If Jesus had been no more than a prophet of Islam his message would have been to repeat the ceremonial and legal aspects of the law. He would have focused on the times of prayer as Muhammad did, he would have been concerned about the direction his disciples faced when they prayed. He would have been a loyal servant of an annual religious calendar with its holy days, both festive and sombre. He would have been dressed in distinctive religious clothing, he would have maintained his beard at a specific length, he would have been scrupulous in observing all the purifying rituals of his day. He would, indeed, have been no different to those who went before him if he had just been a prophet of Islam as they too would have been.

But quite the opposite is recorded of the historical Jesus. His disciples burst on the world around him, proclaiming a very different Jesus. The apostle John said: ‘That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us – that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ’ (1 John 1:1-3).

Jesus was universally proclaimed as God’s Saviour of the world: ‘In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him’ (1 John 4:9). The apostle Paul declared: ‘To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass, that the Christ must suffer, and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to the people and to the Gentiles’ (Acts 26:22-23).

The apostle Peter likewise publicly proclaimed: ‘But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ should thus suffer, he thus fulfilled. Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for establishing all that God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old’ (Acts 3:18-21).

This is the true Jesus, the historical Jesus, the Messiah foretold by all the prophets of old. He was not just another of them – he was the one to whom they looked and longed for, their coming Saviour and Lord. From Abraham to Jacob, from Moses to Joshua, from David to Solomon, from Elijah to Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, all the prophets knew that the promised one would bring in the eternal kingdom of God and that it would be embodied in him in all its fullness.

He was not a prophet of his time, he was God’s Lord and Saviour for all time. His unique birth indicated that he had come from his Father and had come down from heaven into the world. His ascension to heaven was merely a journey back to whence he had originally come. His perfect, unmatched sinlessness distinguished him as the only perfectly pure human being who has ever lived. His title Messiah discloses that he was the one who would suffer and die so that others may live, and that he would one day return to earth as the ruler of his Father’s eternal kingdom. He was the Word of God, who had been in the beginning with God, but became flesh to become one of us and redeem us from our sins. He took our sins so that we might obtain his perfect righteousness. On returning to heaven he sent the Holy Spirit to his disciples so that they might become the sons and daughters of God, transformed into the image of Jesus who himself is the image of the invisible God.

When he returns to earth, ‘every eye will see him, every one who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him’ (Revelation 1:7). He will sit on his glorious throne and all the nations will be gathered before him. All who loved him will receive eternal life and will dwell in his kingdom – the rest will be judged and cast into eternal darkness (Matthew 25:31-33). The world will finally know who Jesus really was, is and always will be, and every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess, ‘that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Philippians 2:11).

Every other Jesus – the Gnostic mystic sage, the Arian created Son, the Quranic messenger of Allah alone, the apocalyptic self-styled preacher or social reformer of the modern Jesus questers – will fade into oblivion. Every reinvention of him, the only human who has ever been so reshaped and truncated into every possible alternative, will be shown to have been a misrepresentation of him, shorn of his glory and stripped of his saving grace. The only true Jesus, the Son of God who became the Son of man, the promised Messiah, will establish his rule above the heavens and will share his kingdom only with those who have loved him and long for his appearing.

Jesus said: ‘Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense, to repay every one for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end’ (Revelation 22:12-13). Blessed are those who believe it!