‘ISA IN ISLAMIC THINKING
Both the Quran and Tradition present their picture of ‘Isa. They give him a high place among the prophets; they affirm his sinless-ness; they affirm he had power to work miracles but all this does not distinguish Him in any way as to its nature from the other prophets who came before him.
Derivation of the title ‘Isa
The question as to why Muhammed used the word ‘Isa instead of Yashua is more easily asked than answered. It is a stumbling-block to every Muslim convert who reads the Arabic Scriptures. Did this name exist among the Arabs before Muhammad’s time, during the ‘days of Ignorance,’ or from another source?”
There are no records anywhere in Christian history to possibly help us understand the strange name for Jesus in the Quran. As Arabic is a Semitic language, closely allied to Hebrew, one would have thought that the name, always used by Christian Arabs, Yasu, derived from the Hebrew Yashua would be found in the Quran. Muhammad seems to have preferred to use the name ‘Isa, possibly derived from the Nestorian Isho. The full Nestorian Syriac title for Jesus was Isho Mshiha.
The Muslim scholar al-Beidhawi (1226-1260) in his commentary (volume 1 page 96) asserts that ‘’Isa is the Arabic form of the Hebrew Yeshu’a and he goes on to say that it comes from a root Al-’Ayos, which signifies white mingled with red.
Others hold that the name originated naturally by phonetic change from the Hebrew Yeshu’ and then combined to rhyme poetically with Musa however, the difficulty is that only in five cases is the name ‘Isa joined to that of Musa in the Quranic text
A more sinister approach to the derivation of the word ‘Isa argues that ‘Isa corresponds with the Hebrew Esau, the name of the brother of Jacob (Israel) because his descendents all through their history stood hostile to the Israelites. Later Jews caricatured the name of Jesus by making it Esau and Muhammad took this form from the Jews at Medina, without being conscious of this sinister connection.
Titles used for ‘Isa in the Quran and Tradition
The Quran reflects its theological view of Jesus by the titles and descriptions given to him. These titles reflect how Muhammad understood ‘Isa and these limitations to the person of Jesus are reflected in the Quran, the Traditions and by Muslim theologians.
Son of Maryam: He is called the ‘Son of Maryam’ for Muhammad believed he was born of Mary by the direct creative activity of a ‘word (kalimah) of Allah’ and equated similarly to Adam who was created by a word from Allah (Al-Imran 3:59)
Al-Masih: The Quran’s use of the term Al-Masih is evident, but what Muhammad meant by that term is far from clear. This term is evidently taken from the Hebrew and in that language has the significance of the anointed, the Muslims explain it differently. They bring everything back to Arabic roots connecting it with the word Sah (to wander or go on pilgrimage), and say it is the intensive form of that root, and Jesus was the leader of wanderers. Although this explanation of theword is ingenious, it is evidently an attempt to escape from the ordinary significance of the root.
A Word of Allah: The verses in the Quran that speak of ‘Isa as ‘a word’ or ‘the word’ seem to indicate that he was Kalimat Allah or Word of Allah because he communicates Allah’s word, and Allah’s will to men. The title Kalim Allah is given to Moses and the common explanation is that Moses was the mouth-piece of Allah in the sense that he spoke to him and made him is special confidant. It is very doubtful therefore that the expression Kalimat Allah portrays the New Testament meaning concerning the eternal nature of Jesus Christ.
In Al- Imran 3:45 this word is said to be “Illustrious (honoured) in this world and the next, and of those whose place is nigh unto God.” Muslims are of course unwilling to admit that these words imply that the character of Jesus Christ is superior to all the other prophets and apostles. The commentator Beidhawi, comments: “His illustriousness in this world is the gift of prophecy, and in the world to come, the power of intercession; and ‘whose place is nigh to God’ signifies His high position in Paradise, or to the fact that He was raised up to heaven and enjoys the companionship of the angels.”
Additionally, his high office in heaven is found in the Traditions as they relate what is known as Muhammad’s Miraj into heaven. ‘Isa was found in the second heaven (Bukhari Volume 4, Book 55, Number 640), and therefore worthy of great honour.
A Spirit from Allah: As ‘a Spirit from Allah’ he is assigned an identity with the created angels who were spirits directly formed by Allah. Islam understands that the honour awarded to is equivalent to that of the angels. This title is therefore viewed in Islam as an honorific title for a created person.
Islam teaches that Allah formed Adam and breathed into him of his spirit (min ruhi Al-Hijr 15:29, Sa’d 38:72) and despite the later title al-ruh or ruh Allah being applied to ’Isa “he is nought but a servant” Az-Zukhruf 43:59; and “never disdains to be a servant of Allah” An-Nisa 4:172). Literally he is ’abd Allah a slave, a creature, the property of Allah.
Prophet and Messenger: He has both the title a nabi (prophet – Maryam 19:30) and a rasul (messenger – An-Nisa 4:157, 171, Al-Maidah 5:75) . He has a book, the injil (Maryam 19:30)
Descriptions of ‘Isa in the Quran and Traditions
Blessed wherever he is: Despite the Quran stating that ‘Isa is being blessed wherever he is” (Miriam 19:31), the commentators explain that the meaning is that he was “possessing much profit for others” (Al-Baidawi) and thought to be in possession of much baraka.
A sign and a mercy: The sending of him as a ‘sign’(aya) and a ‘mercy’ (rahma) is found in Maryam 19:21 for he brought proofs and wisdom (Az-Zukhruf 43:63, Al-Maidah 5:110).
Allah taught him (Al-Imran 3:46, Al-Maidah 5:110) and he possessed peculiar miraculous powers of raising the dead, healing the sick and making clay birds, but all by the permission of Allah breathing life into them (Al-Imran 3:47, Al-Maidah 5:110). In all this he was aided by Allah with the ruh al-quddus (Al-Hajj 22:87, Al-Maidah 5:110) which was explained in later Islam as being helped by Gabriel.
He was a witness: He was a witness until taken into heaven: “I will then say what the pious slave Jesus, the son of Mary said: ‘And I was a witness over them while I dwelt amongst them; when You did take me up” (Bukhari Volume 4, Book 55, Number 656)
The death of ‘Isa: As far as the death of ‘Isa is concerned the statements of the Quran are contradictory. It is certain that Muhammad rejected the crucifixion but accepted the ascension, for apparently, he ascended into heaven in an earthly body and not a glorified body. The crucifixion was prevented by a change of resemblance (shubihha lahu An-Nisa 4:157). This obscure phrase was explained by later commentators to mean that his likeness was put on another and the other crucified in his place. Yet, the death of Jesus is referred to on two occasions “before his death” (An-Nisa 4:159) and “on the day that I die, and the day I shall be raised alive” (Miriam 19:33). Muslim commentators explain this contradiction by suggesting that ‘his death’ refers, a) to the death of ‘Isa after his descent from heaven; b) the text refers to the death of a Jew or a Christian who when faced with the Angel of Death will realise that ‘Isa was only a messenger of Allah and did not share his divinity.
Descent of ‘Isa: For the second coming, the only Quranic authority is Az-Zakhruf 43:61: “And (Jesus) shall be a sign (for the coming of) the Hour (of Judgment): therefore have no doubt about the (Hour), but follow ye Me: this is a straight way.” (Az-Zakhruf 43:61) This is a very obscure verse, the reading of which is in doubt. Some read as above “a sign (la-’alam) of the Hour; others read (la-’ilm) meaning that by his descent the knowledge of the approaching Hour is manifest, while even “a reminder” (la-dhikr) is offered as its true meaning. The later doctrine of his return is supplied by the commentators.
The Mahdi: Bukhari has little to say about ‘Isa in the doctrine of the Last Things merely linking him with Dajal, the Anti-Christ. In the developing concept of the Mahdi the roles assigned to ‘Isa and the Mahdi become confusingly alike, and one party tried to cut the knot with a tradition from Muhammad by creating the hadith “There is no Mahdi save ‘Isa b. Maryam.” Almost all the hadith scholars are agreed that this hadith by Ibn Majah in his Sunan (4039) is da’if (weak). Due to the lack of Quranic evidence of a future restorer of faith the concept of the Mahdi (‘Isa or otherwise) has never become fixed as a dogma in Islam.
Muhammad’s Jesus – a confused picture
It seems from the above that Muhammad had heard a definite story of Jesus from some heretical teacher which he defends and posits vigorously in the Quran. He presents him as a unique figure, a second Adam and a Word – logos (not in the biblical sense) and a semi-angel. He is a sign, a mercy, and an example but these terms are not explained. At his birth, along with his mother, he was guarded by the touch of Satan (Al-Imran 3:33 and Muslim Book 30, Number 5837). Some consider that neither of Jesus nor Mary, committed sin but a similar idea is portrayed in respect of John the Baptist.
Although he had heard a little about Jesus there was much untold for he classed ‘Isa with all the other prophets yet essentially different. The story of the table with food sent down from heaven (Al-Maidah 5;112 f) seems to be genuinely confused with the eucharist. Interestingly al-Baidawi and other commentators say that the food was a large fish, suggestive of the ichthus symbol.
The enlarged picture painted in Islam from its source documents is that ‘Isa is ain individual separated from all human ties, except to his mother and was constantly wandering barefoot without an abiding place. He passes the night in worship wherever he might be when the sun sets, living from day to day for nothing but devotion and miracles of benevolence. At the Judgement he will be an example of absolute poverty
On the day that men have to give an account to Allah, men will ask him to intercede but he will refuse, not for any sin of his own, as in the case of the other prophets, but because his followers had taken him and his mother as gods along with Allah.
In the Quran and Traditions Muhammad is always in the foreground, and Jesus Christ, in spite of the lofty titles and the honour given to Him in the Quran, is in the background. Most Muslims only know Jesus by His name, and that He was a Prophet! Muslims know extremely little about Him and think about Him still less. He has no place in their hearts or in their lives.