The Gospel According to Muhammad

January 02, 2017

The Gospel According to Muhammad

The Qur’an is a collection of Muhammad’s ‘recitations’ in response to different situations throughout his life. The book revolves and evolves around his life, and he claimed that what he recited was the word of God/Allah brought to him by angels.

The Qur’an makes many references to Jesus. It speaks about his birth, life, ministry, death, ascension and possibly his return. It portrays him as one of the greatest prophets in Islam, and claims to continue his teaching. But it is not the only sacred book in Islam; there are also the Hadith, which are collections of Muhammad’s actions and sayings. The Hadith too speak about Jesus. It is from the Qur’an and Hadith that Muslims form their perspective on Jesus—a different perspective to Christians.

In this article I focus on what the Qur’an says about Jesus and only occasionally consider the Hadith. This is because different Muslims have different Hadith, while they all share basically the same Qur’an. Therefore I want to consider what the Qur’an says about Jesus, and interact with it in terms of history, scripture, and theology.


Muhammad (c. 570-632 A.D.) was born over 500 years after Jesus. As such the Qur’an does not claim to have eye-witness material about Jesus. Instead, it claims to be God speaking directly about Jesus. But this does not mean that Muhammad only heard of Jesus from his prophetic experiences. Christianity was present on the Arabian Peninsula at the time of Muhammad and the Hadith records that he was well aware of Christians and initially imitated their practices:

Narrated Ibn 'Abbas: The Prophet (Muhammad) used to copy the people of the Scriptures (Jews and Christians) in matters in which there was no order from Allah (God). ... (Sahih al-Bukhari: vol. 7, bk. 72, no. 799)

We are told of Muhammad’s uncle, Waraqa, that

... during the Pre-Islamic Period (Waraqa) became a Christian and used to write the writing with Hebrew letters. He would write from the Gospel in Hebrew as much as Allah wished him to write. ... (Sahih al-Bukhari: vol. 1, bk. 1, no. 3)

And at least one of Muhammad’s scribes who wrote the Qur’an for him was a Christian. (Sahih al-Bukhari: vol. 4, bk. 56, no. 814)

Therefore the Qur’an does not seek to introduce people to Jesus, but speaks to a people who already know something of him. It joins into an existing discussion, and makes its own contribution regarding who Jesus is. It is to these statements of Jesus that we know turn.


The Outsider

The Qur’an’s depiction of Jesus has some similarities to that of the New Testament. For instance, Jesus was a real person, born of a virgin called Mary/Mariam (Qur’an 3:45-47), he is like Adam (Q. 3:59), and he came to the Israelites (Q. 43:59) to confirm the law of Moses and bring a new covenant/scripture called the Gospel (Q. 3:50, 5:44-48). He had disciples (Q. 5:111), faced opposition from those he was sent to (Q. 5:110), and is called the Messiah (Q. 3:45).

But there are also significant differences at these exact points. Yes, Jesus’ mother’s name is Mary/Mariam in the Qur’an and the Bible, but in the Qur’an she is the same Mary/Mariam who was the sister of Moses and Aaron (Q. 19:28 & 53) and the daughter of Imran/Amram (Q. 3:35-51, 66:12, Ex. 15:20, Num. 26:59). The problem here is that Mariam the sister of Moses and Aaron, the daughter of Amram, lived 1500 years before Jesus. To an outsider listening in on the Christian scriptures, it is easy to see how such a mistake could be made as both women have the same name. But the Qur’an is claiming to give true history about Jesus.

We see this internal inconsistency again when the Qur’an calls Jesus the Messiah yet denies any Messianic role or actions to him. In the Qur’an Jesus does not save his people as the earlier prophets said the Messiah would. He does not rule God’s kingdom, and is not the Son of God (Q. 9:30), though ‘Son of God’ is a well-established title for the Messiah (2 Sam 7:14, Ps. 2). This reveals an outsider’s understanding of these titles and roles.

The doctrine of the Trinity is another such example. The Bible and Qur’an both speak of God, but in the Qur’an God is never called ‘Father’, and the Father-Son-Spirit relationship is never mentioned. Instead, when the Qur’an speaks about three it refers to God, Mary, and Jesus:

They are unbelievers who say, ‘God is the Third of Three’. No god is there but One God. ... The Messiah, son of Mary, was only a Messenger; Messengers before him passed away; his mother was a just woman; they both ate food.[1] (Qur'an 5:73-75, Arberry)

And when God said (to Jesus), ‘O Jesus son of Mary, did you say to men, “Take me and my mother as gods, apart from God?”’. (Qur'an 5:116, Arberry)

How this understanding of the ‘Trinity’ arose in the Qur’an is debated by scholars.[2] Whatever the reason may be, the simple fact is the Qur’an understands the Trinity as God, Mary, and Jesus, and not how Christians understand it as the Father, Son, and Spirit.

Therefore, while the Qur’an speaks of similar events and relationships in Jesus’ life as the New Testament, its understanding of these events is that of an outsider. This should not surprise us as the Qur’an itself says that Muhammad did not read any of the earlier Scriptures:

You (Muhammad) did not recite any Scripture before this (Qur’an) nor did you write it with your right hand. (Qur’an 29:48, trans: Jones)

Muhammad is therefore very different to the New Testament writers who studied the earlier Scriptures and referred to them with great care.

We see this outsider’s perspective again when some of the Qur’anic stories of Jesus are traced back to their original sources. Here are three examples:

  1. Jesus speaks fluently when he is only a few days old (Q. 19:29-35). This story is from the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ.
  1. Jesus makes birds from clay (Q. 3:49). This comes from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.
  1. Jesus only appeared to be crucified and die on a cross (Q. 4:157-158). This is a docetic understanding of the death of Jesus. The docetists were influenced by Greek cosmology and understood that God was totally transcendent to creation, thus God could not touch creation or enter into it. They accepted Jesus as God and thus denied that he was bodily present. Thus when he died on the cross, he only appeared to die, just as he only appeared to walk, and so on. The Gospel of Judas and the Gnostic Apocalypse of Peter[3] are two documents that teach these ideas. Muhammad was not himself a docetist—he did not believe Jesus was God—but here he has incorporated the docetic account of the death of Jesus into the Qur’an.

These stories about Jesus come from later centuries in Christianity and are not authentic, canonical sources of information about Jesus. Yet these are some of the sources of the Qur’an. Again this shows that Muhammad had an outsider’s view of Christianity. I would like to invite Muslims, or anyone else who would like to learn about Jesus, to not be an outsider but to come and listen to the insiders, to the very disciples of Jesus who shared life with him, learned from him and were sent by him. This is what we have in the Gospel accounts in the Bible—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Which Jesus?

The Qur’an does not have a single, unified perspective of Jesus. On the one hand it denies that Jesus is God (Q. 5:116) yet on the other it refers to him in divine terms. Consider the story of Jesus creating birds from clay (Q. 3:49). One of God’s unique attributes is that he is the creator. Being the creator is one of the characteristics that defines him and makes him unique. Yet in the Qur’an Jesus too is portrayed as having this divine attribute and he expresses it in exactly the same way as God.[4] God creates Adam from clay and breathes into him the breath of life:

When your Lord said to the angels, ‘I shall create mankind from clay. When I have formed him and breathed some of my Spirit into him ... I created (him) with my own hands.’ (Qur’an 38:71-75, Jones)

And in exactly the same way, Jesus creates:

I (Jesus) have come to you with a sign from your Lord. I will create for you out of clay the likeness of a bird; then I will breathe into it, and it will be a bird, by the permission of God. (Qur’an 3:49, Arberry)

This story of Jesus creating birds comes from an early Christian fable[5] about the childhood of Jesus, and it demonstrates Jesus’ divinity by showing him as the creator—that is, it is a Trinitarian story.

In the Qur’anic version, Jesus only created by God’s permission; however, this does not undermine Jesus’ divinity, because creating is a uniquely divine attribute. If God shares this attribute with Jesus then Jesus shares in what is uniquely God’s. If God can share this attribute with anyone then he is no longer unique. Therefore, an element of Trinitarian theology remains in the Qur’an.

The second example is when Jesus is given the title ‘Word of God’.

And the angels called to him (Zechariah), standing in the Sanctuary at worship, ‘Lo, God gives you good tidings of John[6], who shall confirm a Word of God (Jesus).’ (Qur’an 3:39, Arberry)

The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only the Messenger of God, and His Word that He committed to Mary. (Qur’an 4:171, Arberry)

On a Christian understanding, to call Jesus the ‘Word of God’ is a Trinitarian statement. It shows that he comes from God not by way of creation, but as the word, having the same nature as God. This is the original meaning of calling Jesus the Word of God (Jn 1:1). In the Qur’an the meaning is different. When Jesus is called the Word of God it means his creation came about as a result of God’s word/command to Mary. The problem with this is that every human being, and everything, is created by God’s word/command, (Q. 36:82) and so to call Jesus the Word of God is not saying anything special. Yet it clearly is a special title. If, as Christians maintain, the only valid reason to call Jesus the Word of God is the original Trinitarian reason, we see another element of Trinitarian theology remaining in the Qur’an.

I believe these two aspects of how Jesus is presented in the Qur’an provide a useful starting point for Christian-Muslim dialogue.

Not in My Name

While the Qur'an seems to be presenting the life of Jesus, it is helpful to see which aspects of Jesus’ life the Qur’an does not present. One case notable for its absence is any reference to the parables of Jesus. Jesus is famous for telling parables and a sizable amount of the gospel accounts are records of his teaching with these parables. However in the Qur’an, Jesus tells no parables. Thus at this significant point the Qur’an is not passing on the teaching of Jesus.

In fact when we look at what the Qur’an does say about Jesus, we see it is not passing on his teaching at all, but instead using the name of Jesus for the cause of Islam. And so we see that Jesus taught Jihadist ideology (Q. 9:111), brought a book from God like Muhammad (Q. 19:30), performed some of the Pillars of Islam (Q. 19: 31), was just a prophet like Muhammad (Q. 4:171), Jesus’ disciples called themselves Muslims (Q. 5:111), he foretold the coming of Muhammad (Q. 61:6),  and will return to teach the Qur’an (Sahih al-Bukhari: vol. 4, bk. 55, no. 658). Thus in the Qur’an, the name of Jesus is used to teach Islam and justify Muhammad. But this is to misuse the name of Jesus. Jesus did not teach jihadist ideology or any of these other ideas first attributed to him by Muhammad 500 years after Jesus’ earthly life and ministry. There is no evidence for these claims about Jesus in the earliest and most historically well-established records of Jesus’ life.[7] Furthermore, the sources Muhummad does draw on in his portrayal of Jesus are not recognised as reliable historical records of Jesus’ life.         

Muslims do not like it when terrorists use the name ‘Islam’ to justify their attacks. Some Muslims have started the ‘not in my name’ movement.[8] It is understandable that such Muslims do not like it when the name of Islam is associated with these actions. Similarly, as a Christian I do not like it when the name of Jesus is used by Muhammad to promote his religion. Jesus’ name should be used for what he actually taught. There is no evidence at all that he taught the things Muhammad claims. Instead, his teaching is what we have in the Bible. The Gospel according to Muhammad is really no gospel at all. If you want to learn about Jesus there is no better source than the oldest documents on his life which are the documents found in the Bible.

[1] They both ate food, that is, they were both mortal.

[2] Possibly from the Orthodox reply to Adoptionism that Mary is the mother of God; or from the actions of the Collyridians.

[3] There are two works called The Apocalypse of Peter. One is quasi-canonical, the other gnostic. The latter presents docetic views, but the former does not.

[4] Some people have said to me that Moses created when he threw his staff on the ground and it became a snake (Exodus 4), however, Moses ran from the snake in fear of what God had done. This is significantly different to the fable of Jesus who creates in precisely the same way as God did when he created Adam.

[5] The Infancy Gospel of Thomas.

[6] That is, John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Jesus.

[7] On early documents about the life of Jesus, see Andrew Shead’s discussion of the formation of the biblical canon (Case #42, 2015, pp16-21), and Simon Gathercole’s article in this issue (pp5-??) on differences between the canonical and non-canonical gospels.


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