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The Path of Love:  Jesus in Mystical Islam

Orville Boyd Jenkins

Jesus is for the most part highly revered by Muslims, his birthplace a shrine for them as it is for many Christians.  Muhammad mentions more about Jesus than about any of the other prophets, no doubt due at least in part to his contacts with Christians,5 even though they may have been heretical teachers or unlearned believers.


The Monophysite Christians were one of the prominent groups of Arab Christians.  Alfred Guillaume points out that these Christians were very active in converting the Arabs.6 These Christians believed that Christ had only one nature (mono-physites), that he was the divine word.  They taught that Jesus did not actually die on the cross, but was taken away and only his “appearance” or “form” was on the cross.  (Thus the Western and the Eastern churches considered them heretics.)

It was likely from the Monophysite concept that Muhammad developed his concept of Jesus Christ and gained some knowledge of the Injil (Gospel) of Jesus (though Muslims would never grant that this was the source of any of Muhammad's revelations in the Qur'an).  Witness the reference to Jesus as “a word from him (God)” (sura 3:45) and “His word that he committed to Mary, and a Spirit from Him” (sura 4:171).

Again there is the claim that God could not have allowed His Messiah to die, but rather delivered his spirit and allowed only an illusion to appear on the cross:  “And for their saying, 'We slew the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, the Messenger of God' – yet they did not slay him, neither crucified him, only a likeness of that was shown to them” (sura 4:157).

The Qur'anic Portrait

The Qur'anic narrative of Jesus is “somewhat incoherent,”7 and is rather a matter of almost haphazard references, though some of the incidents are more detailed.  Badru Kateregga comments on this matter from a Muslim point of view:

A stranger to the Qur'an would be struck by what appears as a kind of incoherence from the human point of view.  Unlike all other books, the Qur'an does not contain information, ideas, or arguments about specific themes that are arranged in a literary or serial order.  Subjects are not discussed under specific topics:  They are scattered all over the book.8

There is no reason given why Jesus appeared on earth, other than that he is a prophet.9  The Christian would see an obvious) lacking, or omission, because Jesus is not referred to as savior, though he is considered the Messiah (Masih).  His role as prophet for the Muslim, however, is quite an exalted one.  His role as prophet would be a sufficient and major reason for Jesus' appearance on earth, not a minor one.

There are evidences that Muhammad modeled himself and his community on what he knew of Jesus.  He called Jesus' apostles (disciples) hawari, hawariyin, and applies this word to his twelve Medinan helpers.

Also the word “helpers” (ansar, nasara) is used of both Jesus' disciples and the twelve Medinans.  Further, Christians are called Nasara in the Qur'an.10  And Jesus and his disciples are models of submitting ones, sura 3:45:  “And when Jesus perceived unbelief on their part, He said, 'Who my helpers with God?' (sic) The apostles said, 'We will be God's helpers! We believe in God, and bear thou witness that we are Muslims [submitters.]'” Also the same confession appears in sura 5:111.

Jesus in the Qur'an tries to make clear some points of contention and calls everyone to worship God.  “Muhammad was evidently unaware that the teaching of Jesus differed in any fundamental sense from his own. ... Jesus is mentioned among other prophets, all of whom are said to have taught the same religion.”11

Qur'an 2:136:

Say (Muslims):  We believe in Allah and that which is revealed unto us and that which was revealed unto Abraham, and Ishmael, and Isaac, and Jacob, and the tribes, and that which Moses and Jesus received, and that which the Prophets received from their Lord.  We make no distinction between any of them, and unto Him we have surrendered.

Also in the Qur'an sura 42:13:

He hath ordained for you that religion which He commended unto Noah, and that which We [God] inspire in thee [Muhammad], and that t which we commended unto Abraham and Moses and Jesus, saying:  Establish the religion, and be not divided therein.

Gospel Parallels

There are some Qur'anic parallels to the Gospels, evidently modeled on them, though some are mixed together, or even with Old Testament stories.  It is commonly believed by scholars that Muhammad did not have access to the written Christian scriptures, but probably learned by hearing oral tradition or readings of scripture.l2

Various kinds of miracles are attributed to Jesus, including speaking from the cradle in defense of his mother's honor.13  These miracles would qualify him as a saint for Sufis.

This aspect is more prominent when we note that, while Muhammad attests to many signs and miracles of Christ, he claims none for himself, except the Qur'an,14  which he conceives as received in much the same was Jesus received the original Injil (Gospel).15  Sura 19: 21 says of Jesus, “... and we will make him a sign to mankind, and a mercy from us.”

We will see that this concept of a sign from God shows up in al-Hallaj's thought.

It is uncertain what the Qur'anic teaching is about the death of Jesus, Many variations of several theories have been posited by Muslims,16  some similar to Ebionitic and Gnostic Christian sects,17  Sura 19 mentions his death, as does 3:37ff, while 4:157 denies that he was killed or crucified.

Muhammad was careful to portray Jesus as rejecting any worship of himself18 and Christians are denounced for calling Jesus Son of God.  (Sura 19:35, “It befitteth not Allah that He should take unto himself a son. … When he decreeth a thing, He saith unto it only:  Be! and it is.”) He is said to have eaten food, thus proving he was not divine!19  The virgin birth is recorded (3:40ff) and a tradition says both Jesus and his mother are protected from the touch of Satan.20  

Jesus a Model Muslim

Though in his later years as a prophet, Muhammad was critical of the Jews and Christians and persecuted them, still it is in one of his last suras that he says that the Jews and Christians who are true believers and do right shall be saved and “on them shall come no fear, neither shall they be put to grief” (sura 5:69; 2:62).  With such references as these, other favorable references to Christians and miracles of Jesus, and Jesus as a model Muslim, it certainly was within Islam's bounds to follow Jesus' example as a prophet and a saint.

Al-Ghazali, a Persian, was a great admirer of Jesus, and his attitude on law and morals, as well as Ibnul 'Arabi's, are much like the attitude of Jesus.2l  It is notably Persian poets, early and modern, who honor Jesus and cite his teachings and life.  Among them are Attar, ar-Rumi, and Hafiz.

The Iranian poets turned frequently to Jesus and Christian ideas as they described man's sense of sin and need for forgiveness and for the denial of self, which are conspicuous by their absence in the Muslim indoctrinated with orthodox Islam.22

Modern poets have a sympathy and love for Christ which are "diffused through all their works.”23  In 1894 at the Orientalist Congress, Ahmad Shawqi read sixteen verses dedicated to the praise of Christ.24  Here are two examples from Hazrat Inayat Khan, 1960:

The soul of Christ is the life of the universe.

The claim of Christhood seemed too great for Jesus in the eyes of men; therefore he was crucified by the intolerant world.25

Before dealing with two major Qur'anic teachings about Jesus, let's spend just a minute on the early Islamic image of Jesus.  Canonical tradition shows little interest in his life on earth but deals mostly with “end-time” acts.26  He does many miracles – mostly of a whimsical nature27 – and has unusual knowledge – which are both sources for Sufism – but the main emphasis is on asceticism.  He had no house, no provision but food for the day, he wandered barefoot, and was called, in fact, “The Imam of the Wanderers.”28

"One would not gather from the Qur'an that Jesus had been an ascetic, but this is the prevailing picture we get of him in later writers.  This was possibly due to contact with members of the Nestorian Church, which was noted for asceticism.”29 Jesus' self-denial of worldly attachments to search for God is said to have carried him “into the very presence of God.”30

Ibn Sirin (110 AH) criticizes ascetics for wearing the suf (wool shirt worn by Persian ascetics) "in order to imitate Jesus," and Hammad ibn Salamah commanded a disciple of al-Basri:  “So divest yourself of your Christian-ness!”31

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5 Foster, p. 129-30; and Shorter Encyclopedia, p. 174; and al-Husayni, pp. 298- 299; and Bell, p. 141

6 Guillaume, pp. 14-15

7 Hughes, p. 229

8 Katerregga and Shank, p. 28

9 Shorter Encyclopedia, p. 174

10 Parrinder, pp. 93-94; Bell, pp. l47ff

11 Robson, "Teachings," p. 38.  See also Qur.  43:57-65; and Foster, pp. 129-30

12 Bell, pp. 106ff, 136, 140.  Bell, in his chapter "Moulding of the Prophet," proposes an explanation of the Prophet's piecemeal and gradual conception of Judaeo-Christian tradition, and how this growing understanding and knowledge of detail of Biblical stories and their relation to each other, is reflected in the Qur'an.  Notable is his growing conception of God's nature as being merciful, while at first he saw only judgment and warning.

13 Sura 19:16-36

14 al-Husayni, p. 298

15 Rodwell (Koran), note pp. 409-410.  Cf.  Bell, pp. 140, l56ff; sura 5:50

16 Parrinder, pp. 109-115

17 Bell, p. 154

18 Or his mother.  It appears that Muhammad was under the impression that the Christian trinity was God, Jesus, and Mary; sura 5:116-118.  (Note: versification is different in various English and Swahili translations of the Qur'an, particularly in Chapter 5.  I have generally followed Pickthall.)

19 sura 5:72-75

20 Rodwell (Koran), note p. 389

21 Wilson, Introducing Islam, p. 51; Wensinck, pp. 200-201

22 Wysham, p. 108

23 al-Husayni, p. 302

24 Ibid., p. 300.

25 Khan, p. 45 and p. 177.

26 Robson, "Tradition," p. 258.

27 Robson, "Teachings," p. 44.

28 Robson, "Teachings," p. 46; Shorter Encyclopedia, p. 174; Hayek, p. l35ff.

29 Robson, "Teachings," p. 47.

30 Hayek, p. 138.

31 Massignon, Essai, pp. 153-154.  These citations from Massignon are my translations from the French.


Originally published in the The Path of Love, (Nairobi:  Communication Press, 1984.)
Posted on Thoughts and Resources 15 February 2003
Last Updated 14 November 2007

Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.
Copyright © 1984, 2003, 2007 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

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