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The Path of Love:  Jesus in Mystical Islam

Orville Boyd Jenkins

Muhammad refers to Jesus as both "word," kalimah, and "spirit," ruh.  The word ruh is the Arabic form of the Hebrew word ruach, meaning "breath" or "Spirit.”  God is said to have breathed his spirit into Mary and sent (or cast) his word into her, and Jesus is called both.32 Jesus is born by the specific creative act of Allah by the command "Be!" (sura 119:35, quoted above).  Concerning the use of these words, J. Robson warns, "The use of 'word' and 'spirit' should not be given a Christian interpretation.  The context shows Muhammad did not take these titles to mean what a Christian interpreter might read into them.33


Though kalimah is normally used to translate the Greek logos, it did not have the idea of essence or structure of being at the time of the prophet, though it was later so developed by Muslim philosophers and mystics.  The word carries the idea of God's word of command and creation, and "is more closely associated with, mental effort and coherent phrasing than its English equivalent.” It is used of the ten words (commandments) of God.34

T. O'Shaughnessy says the grammatical use of the word indicates that kalimah is indefinite as applied to Jesus, thus Jesus in the Qur'an is not God's only word, but is one of a class of persons.  The same appears to be so with ruh; it is in a "nunnated" form, indefinite; a spirit.35

It is the faithful (holy) Ruh which descends into Muhammad's heart to reveal the Qur'an to him,36 and this Holy Spirit appears, at least in later suras, to be in Muhammad's mind equivalent to Gabriel,37 but it is not applied to angels in general.  The ruh of God spoke to Mary the annunciation (sura 19:17).

Ruh never appears in the plural in the Qur'an,38 but it applied to special messengers of God, the expression of God's will in the world.  This could mean that, while Jesus was not the only Spirit, he was a special messenger in the world.  This is confirmed by the recognition of his unique virgin birth and his title of Masih (Messiah).

God's Spirit

The word ruh is also related, as kalimah, to God's command (amr) (or message-bearer), in the context of acquaintance with God.39 Another use appears to mean that Jesus is some of God's Spirit or at least the result of the Spirit's activity in Mary (sura 66:12; cf 32:9 at creation, for humans).  There is certainly great possibility here for mystical development upon Jesus as a prototype.

The fact that Jesus is not the only word and spirit may also offer this possibility to all.  Jili says, in fact, that Christians are wrong to restrict divine self-manifestation to Jesus.  "I breathed some of my Spirit into Adam" (sura 15: 29), and here Adam signifies every human individual.40

In this regard, it should be noted here that in Hebrew and Arabic, the term adam means "humanity."  Though, as mentioned above, there are significant differences in the connotations of these words, it seems to me they also provide a significant point of contact for beginning discussion for dialogue and witness between Christians and Muslims.

Jesus as the Model

Kalimah came to be used by later systematicians.  "The nebulous concept of a 'word' in the Koran, attached to the name of Jesus, one of the greatest prophets, who is represented I as surpassing Mohammad himself in moral stature, gives liberty for an almost unlimited development in the later use of the term."41

Ibnul 'Arabi develops a kalimah (logos) doctrine, which seems to echo directly much of Saint Paul and the Fourth Gospel concerning Christ.42  Al-Ghazali said, "imitate if you will (the manner of life of) the possessor of the spirit and the word, Jesus, son of Mary."43  Jesus is also called word in other places in tradition.

We breathed into her [Mary] some of our Spirit and made her son a token for all peoples.
— Qur'an 21:92


32 Sura 21:91, 3:45, 19:34, 4:171, inter aliae.  Hughes, p. 229, indicates that in 4:169 (171), qawla is used, not kalimah, indicating here the spoken aspect of speech, the non-creative meaning of “word.”

33 Robson, “Teachings,” p. 40.

34 O'Shaughnessy, Word, pp. 7ff.

35 Ibid., pp. 20-21.

36 Encyclopedie, p. 884.

37 Rodwell (Koran), notes, p. 207 and p. 346.  Rodwell also says this is the concept of Muhammad in the phrase that Jesus was strengthened by the Holy Spirit (sura 2:81 (or 2:87 in Arberry and Pickthall) and many others).  This book will not go into this matter.  Pickthall, an English Muslim, says, “‘The holy Spirit’ is a term for the angel of revelation, Gabriel,” p. 40.

38Encyclopedie, p. 884.

39 Ibid.

40 Nicholson, p. 232.

41 O'Shaughnessy, Word, p. 31.

42 Nicholson, p. 225.

43 O'Shaughnessy, Word, p. 30.


Originally published in The Path of Love (Nairobi:  Communication Press, 1984.)
Posted on Thoughts and Resources 13 November 2007

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

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