History of the Prophets
by Maulana Muhammad Ali
Jesus Christ is, according to the Holy Quran, the last prophet of the Mosaic dispensation. He is mentioned by three different names: ‘Isa (Jesus), Ibn Maryam (the son of Mary) and al-Masih (the Messiah). Isa, or Jesus, is the proper name; he is called the son of Mary to show that, like every human child, he was born of a woman, and one born of a woman could not be God (Job 25:4); and he is called the Messiah because he held the office of a prophet among the Israelites. But Masih also means one who travels in the land, and the title may have reference to his travels from one country to another.
Jesus Christ is mentioned about twenty-five times in the Holy Quran, and the longest notices of him which speak of his birth and mission are those in which he is mentioned along with John the Baptist. These occur in chapter 19, which receives the name of Mary, his mother, one of the early Makka [Makkah] revelations, and in chapter 3, which receives the name of the Family of Amran, and is one of the early Madina revelations. Besides these two occasions where the life-story of Jesus Christ is dealt with at some length along with the Christian doctrine, there is another early Makka [Makkah] revelation, the 18th chapter, which deals with the history of Christianity, and the 5th chapter, a late Madina revelation, which deals with the Christian violation of the covenant. Another important fact in connection with the mention of Jesus Christ is that though the same importance is not given to his life-story as to that of Moses, yet much importance is attached to a refutation of the erroneous doctrines connected with his name, a refutation starting with one of the earliest revelations in chapter 112 and continued up to the latest in chapther 9.
As regards the life-story of Jesus Christ, the earliest revelation is chapter 19, which opens with the prayer of Zacharias for a son, and the first section deals with the birth and the mission of John. The second section deals with the birth and mission of Jesus Christ. Verse 16 states that Mary, who lived in the holy temple as a child (The Holy Quran, 3:37), had to leave the precincts of the temple for an eastern place, probably Nazareth. This, no doubt, took place on her attaining puberty, for the Jews considered a woman to be impure during her monthly courses. There she received in a vision the news of the birth of a son (verse 19). She wonders, (verse 20), because she had not as yet been married and is told that the child to whom she would give birth would be made a guide for the people,
“a sign to men and a mercy from Us” (verse 21).
We are then told that she conceived him (verse 22),
“as women conceive”
according to a saying of the Holy Prophet. After this she had to go to a distant place (compare, Luke 2:2–6), and her confinement came during the journey (verses 22, 23).
The third chapter, the Family of Amran, gives some details on these points not to be met with in chapter 19. In the first place it speaks of the birth of Mary herself, who, according to a vow made by her mother, was to be devoted to the service of the temple at Jerusalem (The Holy Quran, 3:35). Notwithstanding this she prays when she gives birth to the child that both the girl and
may be vouchsafed Divine protection against the devil (The Holy Quran, 3:36), showing that her mother expected her to marry and bear children, as women do. Verse 37 tells us that as a child she remained in the charge of Zacharias and was brought up as a devout child. Here the subject is changed, Zacharias praying for and being granted a son, John the Baptist. The original subject is reverted to in verse 42, where Mary is spoken of as being chosen above other women of her time. Evidently this refers to the time when she was quite a grownup girl, and then in verse 44 we are told that there was a contention as to the man in whose charge Mary should be placed. This in all probability refers to arrangements for her marriage, for her charge as a child has already been spoken of clearly in verse 37. It is at this point that the earlier narrative in chapter 19 begins speaking of her leaving the precincts of the temple for an eastern place. The part common to both narratives is her receiving the news in a vision, the angels speaking to her according to 3:45 [The Holy Quran], that she would give birth to a son who would come in fulfilment of the Messianic prophecy. The next verse tells us that he would attain to old age and be one of the righteous. In 3:47 [The Holy Quran] she wonders, because her marriage had not as yet taken place, and is reassured. The further details of conception and birth are not met with here.
In both narratives, however, there is a gap up to the time that Jesus is called and preaches to his people. In chapter 3, the news of the birth of a son in verse 47 is immediately followed in verses 49–52 by the call of Jesus and his preaching. In chapter 19, the account of his birth is similarly followed. Evidently, the coming of Mary with Jesus to her people, as spoken of in 19:27 [The Holy Quran], does not relate to the time of Jesus’ birth which is the subject-matter of the previous verse, but to a later time, because it is unthinkable that a woman should thus make a show of a new-born baby, and because Mary at the time was journeying to a distant place (The Holy Quran, 19:22). Verse 27 speaking of Mary going along with Jesus to her people while he was riding an animal, probably contains a reference to the episode of Jesus riding on an ass and a colt (Matthew 21:1–7). Moreover the reply given by Jesus Christ to the people on this occasion cannot possibly relate to the time when he was a mere baby, because in that reply he clearly speaks of having been made a prophet and having been commanded to say prayers and give alms while he lived. A baby a day old could not have been made a prophet, nor could he be commanded to say prayers and give alms. Here are the words conclusively showing that 19:27–32 [The Holy Quran] relates to the time when Jesus had received the call, and offended the elders of the Israelites by his preaching:
“He said: I am indeed a servant of Allah. He has given me the Book and made me a prophet. And He has made me blessed wherever I may be, and He has enjoined on me prayer and poor-rate so long as I live: And to be kind to my mother; and He has not made me insolent, unblessed.”
As I have said, however, greater stress is laid upon the doctrines connected with the name of Jesus than the details of his life, and even the circumstances relating to his life are meant to be a denial of his divinity. We are told that his mother conceived him, quite a superfluous detail of life-history, unless it is meant to show that he could not be God or the Son of God, for the idea of conception in the mother’s womb is incompatible with Divinity. The severity of pains during labour, which makes Mary cry out:
“Oh, would that I had died before this” (The Holy Quran, 19:23),
is not only to show that Mary gave birth to Jesus under the ordinary circumstances which women experience in giving birth to children, but also seems to contain a deeper reference to Genesis 3:16,
“In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children,”
which, according to the Bible, was the punishment inflicted on woman because of Eve’s alleged sin. He is also mentioned as speaking
“when in the cradle and when of old age” (The Holy Quran, 3:46),
to show the change of condition from childhood to old age, while change in the Divine Being is impossible. The prominent features of his preaching when called to the office of a prophet also show the same tendency. He is spoken of as
“a servant of Allah” (The Holy Quran, 19:30; 43:59),
by no means disdaining to be a servant of Allah (The Holy Quran, 4:172), as
“a prophet” (The Holy Quran, 19:30),
“a messenger to the children of Israel” (The Holy Quran, 3:49),
nothing more than a messenger, before whom numerous messengers had passed away (The Holy Quran, 5:75), one who had to learn
“the Torah” (The Holy Quran, 3:48),
“Allah is my Lord and your Lord; therefore serve Him” (The Holy Quran, 3:51; 5:117; 19:36; 43:64).
Along with his mother he is spoken of as
“eating food” (The Holy Quran, 5:75),
showing that he had all the needs and weaknesses of a mortal. He is even made to deny his divinity in plain words:
“And when Allah will say: O Jesus son of Mary, didst thou say to men, Take me and my mother for two gods besides Allah? He will say: Glory be to Thee! it was not for me to say what I had no right to (say).” (The Holy Quran, 5:116)
A noteworthy feature of the narrative of Jesus Christ in the Holy Quran is the mention of his death which occurs thrice in plain words and several times by implication:
“When Allah said: O Jesus, I will cause thee to die and exalt thee in My presence and clear thee of those who disbelieve and make those who follow thee above those who disbelieve to the day of Resurrection.” (The Holy Quran, 3:55)
“I said to them naught save as Thou didst command me: Serve Allah, my Lord and your Lord; and I was a witness of them so long as I was among them, but when Thou didst cause me to die, Thou wast the Watcher over them. And Thou art Witness of all things.” (The Holy Quran, 5:117)
“They indeed disbelieve who say: Surely Allah—He is the Messiah, son of Mary. Say: Who then could control anything as against Allah when He wished to destroy the Messiah, son of Mary, and his mother and all those on the earth.” (The Holy Quran, 5:17)
The first of these verses shows that Jesus Christ was comforted by Divine revelation, when his enemies planned to take away his life by violence, that he would be made to die a natural death. But this promise does not stand alone; it is the first of four promises; death, after death exaltation in Divine presence, then clearance from false charges and lastly the triumph of the Christians over the Jews. The order in which these promises are mentioned is the order in which they actually took place. The second verse shows that the doctrine of the Divinity of Jesus Christ did not grow up before his eyes, but was invented by his followers after his death, and the verse is conclusive as showing that Jesus Christ was made a god after his death. The third gives the reason for laying stress on his death, and says in effect that if Jesus Christ had been God, as alleged by the Christians, he would not have tasted of death, as did his mother and his compatriots.
Of the verses which speak of Jesus Christ’s death by implication, I would content myself only with three:
“The Messiah, son of Mary, was only a messenger; messengers before him had indeed passed away. And his mother was a truthful woman. They both used to eat food. See how We make the messages clear to them! then behold, how they are turned away.” (The Holy Quran, 5:75)
“And Muhammad is but a messenger—messengers have already passed away before him.” (The Holy Quran, 3:144)
“And those whom they call on besides Allah have created naught, while they are themselves created. Dead (are they), not living. And they know not when they will be raised.” (The Holy Quran, 16:20, 21)
The first verse in this case states that as all the messengers before Jesus Christ had died, so he, too, must have died, because like them he was a mortal and like them he ate food. The second states in clear words that all the prophets before Muhammad had passed away, and thus includes Jesus Christ among the dead. And the third says that all those who had been taken as gods before the Quran—and Jesus Christ was one of them—were dead, nor one of them being alive. And yet in spite of so many clear statements, the idea finds acceptance among some Muslims that Jesus Christ is still alive. This idea no doubt came originally from the Christian tradition, and then, owing to the prophecy of the second advent of the Messiah, which meant nothing more nor less than the appearance of one in his
“spirit and power” (Luke 1:17),
it slowly gained ground. There is nothing, however, in the Holy Quran, nor even in the sayings of the Holy Prophet, which lends any support to this idea. True it is that the Holy Quran speaks of the raf or exaltation of Jesus Christ, but it is after his death, as plainly stated in 3:55 [The Holy Quran]. Nor does raf (exaltation) by God signify a translation of the body of a mortal to heaven; it only signifies exaltation in rank.
One point, however, needs to be elucidated. The Holy Quran negatives the death of Jesus on the cross, but a negation of death by crucifixion does not amount to a negation of natural death. And what actually happened is stated thus:
“And they killed him not, nor did they cause his death on the cross, but he was made to appear to them as such. And certainly those who differ therein are in doubt about it” (The Holy Quran, 4:157).
The Quran thus asserts that Jesus Christ did not meet with his death on the cross, but was made to resemble one crucified. The story that he was lifted up to heaven while someone else was made to resemble him and suffered crucifixion is one of which no trace is met with in the Holy Book, nor in any saying of the Holy Prophet. What the Quran says concerning the crucifixion of Jesus—that he was nailed to the cross but did not die on it—is exactly what appears to be the truth from a perusal of the Gospels. The Quran is not a book of history and is not concerned with the details of what happened to him after the crucifixion, but it tells us that both he and his mother were given
“a refuge on a lofty ground having meadows and springs” (The Holy Quran, 23:50),
which description applies to Kashmir. And there is a saying of the Holy Prophet that Jesus lived to the age of 120 years.
Thus, according to the Quran, Jesus Christ was born like a mortal and he died like a mortal. He lived the life of a righteous man and was entrusted with a Divine message
“to the Israelites” (The Holy Quran, 3:49).
But these people rejected him, planned against his life, and denounced him as a bastard, calling his mother an adulteress (The Holy Quran, 4:156). If the Quran had, therefore, to denounce the doctrine of his divinity, it had also to defend him against false accusations. It is for this reason that it speaks of his mother as
“a truthful woman” (The Holy Quran, 5:75),
and speaks of Jesus Christ himself as
from God and
“a spirit from Him.”
He is called a word from God because he came in fulfilment of a word
“which He communicated to Mary” (The Holy Quran, 4:171),
just as the Holy Prophet is reported to have said,
“I am the prayer of my father, Abraham,”
because of the prayer of Abraham referred to in 2:129 [The Holy Quran]. Mary was told that the son she would bear would be a righteous man and a prophet, and it is in reference to this prophecy that he is called a word from God. Or, it may be in reference to the prophecies of the previous prophets that he may have been so called. Similarly, his being called
“a spirit from Him”
may be in reference to the denial of the charge of illegitimacy against him, because illicit sexual relations are ascribed to the devil. It must, however, be borne in mind that Jesus is spoken of only as a word from God or a spirit from Him, and not as the word or the spirit. Though he may have been called a word especially with reference to the prophecy of his birth, yet every creature of God is His word in one sense because it comes into existence by a Divine commandment, and hence it is that the Holy Quran speaks of the words of God as being too numerous to be exhausted by writing down:
“Say: If the sea were ink for the words of my Lord, the sea would surely be exhausted before the words of my Lord were exhausted, though We brought the like of it to add (thereto)” (The Holy Quran, 18:109).
Similarly, though he may have been called a spirit from God in reference to the charge against his mother, the Holy Quran also speaks of the spirit of God being breathed into every human being:
“Then he made his progeny of an extract, of worthless water. Then He made him complete and breathed into him of His spirit” (The Holy Quran, 32:8–9).
The spirit of God being breathed into every man seems to be directed against the Christian doctrine that every man is born in sin and a bondslave to the devil.