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Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

The birth of Jesus according to the Qur’an


In Islam, Jesus (‘Isa عيسى) is an honoured prophet. Qur’an 19 — Suratu Maryam سورة مريم, the Chapter of Mary — begins with the story of Zechariah (Zakariyya زكريا) being promised that he and his barren wife will have a son, to be called John (Yahya يحيى), and he is struck dumb for three nights as a sign of the promise. Although Zechariah is not described as a Jewish priest, it said that he comes out of the sanctuary (mihrab محراب) after his prayer.Mary (Maryam مريم) is introduced in verse 16, where we are told nothing of her apart from that she leaves her family and goes to an ‘eastern place’ away from them. God sends an angel to her, popularly understood to be Gabriel (Jibra’il جبرائيل), although the Qur’an describes him simply as ‘Our Spirit’ (Ruhana روحنا). Mary is a virgin, and the Qur’an agrees with the Gospels that she conceived miraculously by the power of God. The child she is to bear is fortold to be a sign for humanity and a mercy from God (ayatun lin-nasi wa-rahmatun minna اية للناس ورحمة منا).When Mary went into labour she went out into a remote place, and clung to the trunk of a palm tree (an-nakhlah النخلة). The Qur’an records her as crying out in pain that she would rather had died and been forgotten at that moment, giving birth all alone. Then God, out of mercy, made a spring to bubble up beside her and urged her to shake the dates from the tree so that she could be refreshed by them.

Mary is described as introducing her miraculous son to his people. We are not sure how much time has elapsed since his birth (and Quranic scholars debate the meaning of of verse 27 that, on the face of it, suggests she carried him). Mary’s people describe her son as a ‘scandal’ (fari فري), although there are variations in how that word be translated. They then address her as ‘sister of Aaron’ (’ukhtu Harun اخت هرون), suggesting that she is of priestly lineage, and remind her that she is of good parentage. She points to her child, and they retort ‘How should we speak to one who is a child in the cradle?’ Miraculously (perhaps?) he says to them he is a servant of God (‘Abdullah عبد الله), and that God has given him the Book (al-Kitab الكتب) and made him a prophet (nabi نبي); he adds that he has been enjoined to live a life of prayer and poverty, and mentions that he will die and be raised to life (although the majority of Islamic scholars say he did not die, was not crucified, but assumed directly to heaven).

The Qur’an calls him Jesus son of Mary (‘Isa bnu Maryam عيسى ابن مريم). Verse 35 then tells us that God would not have a son, but just says ‘Be!’ and it is. This outlines the Islamic view of Jesus, that despite his miraculous birth, his Gospel (’Injil إنجيل), his miracles and his being taken up to heaven, he is not God, the Son of God, but a prophet and messenger (nabi wa-rasul نبي ورسول), he is Messiah and the word of God (al-Masih wa-kalimatullah المسيح وكلمة الله), forerunner of Muhammad the ultimate prophet, but still a man and no more. In Islamic tradition, Mary is celebrated as the Lady of the Women of the World (Sayyidatu Nisa’il-‘Almin سيدة نساء العالمين).

The image of Mary giving birth to Jesus while clinging to a palm tree in the middle of nowhere is quite appealing given the rather confused, crowded imagery we get from the Christian tradition that weaves the Lucan and Matthean accounts with other titbits of stories. However, there is clear evidence that the Quranic account owes something to the Syriac Infancy Gospel (itself a blending of the Gospel of James and the Thomasine Infancy Gospel) which had a popular translation in North Arabic. This underlines the intricately intertwined history between Christianity and Islam, against the modern misconception of our being alien to each other.

When it comes, have a happy Christmas — ‘Idu l-Milad عيد الميلاد!

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

5 thoughts on “The birth of Jesus according to the Qur’an

  1. Isn’t it true that also included in the Koran is the episode of Jesus making live sparrows out of clay?

  2. I have written a book that purports to be the memoirs of St. Thomas of all that he recalls that Jesus said and did the three years they spent together. It contains nothing of Pauline Christianity as I don’t like Paul and how he transmogrified the message of Jesus into a religion the likes of which Jesus could never have imagined. You can look up the book on Amazon under Tales of the Master by Karl Bruno Gatti.

  3. Thank you for your comment. The miracle of the making of birds from clay is recounted in Qur’an 3.49 and 5.110. It is interesting that Quranic scholars are keen to point to how Jesus is often linked to Adam, and this event is often used in that way — all quite Pauline. It is quite trendy to be against Pauline thought, which is somewhat understandable due to the way in which he has been interpreted. I find a deep spirituality and wisdom in the Pauline corpus, and tend to find the complaints rather superficial. Of the Thomasine literature, fragmented as it is, I quite enjoy the Hymn of the Pearl, which I have in Syriac.

  4. Thanks Gareth for writhing on it. It will help me to introduce the Koranic version of Jesus to my Christian friends.

  5. Very good illustration about our unity as humans and as believers.

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