Comment on the following text: ‘The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, Was the only messenger of God. And his word that he committed to Mary and a spirit from him. So believe in God and his messengers, and say not ‘Three’’ (Sura 4:171)

1.Opening Comments

With a cursory glance this ayah may seem to affirm Christian truths about Jesus. But although the terms use to describe Jesus may be very similar in Islam and Christianity, they are understood in very different ways. This essay will aim to comment on the names Jesus is given in this text.

2.Messiah

The first name that is given Jesus in this ayah is ‘Messiah’, which is particularly interesting because it is a term that was first defined in the Judao-Christian tradition. Even though it is used in the Qur’an eleven times, Qur’anic commentators have admitted that Masih ‘Messiah’ is a foreign word, originating from the Hebrew Mashiah.[1] In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, it was translated ‘Christos’[2], and Christians still call Jesus by this title derived from the Greek, hence why we see ‘Jesus Christ’ written on the pages of the New Testament, rather than ‘Jesus Messiah’. Geoffery Parrinder explains in his book Jesus in the Qur’an that although the term Messiah was understood in a Jewish context as the Deliver that was to come, but also as a term to describe the Lord’s anointed, it was not so well understood in the Gentile context. Therefore, as Christianity grew and an increasing majority in the church were Gentile, often the meaning of ‘Messiah’ was not understood except as a title of honour.[3]

This is likely why there are many differing understanding of the term in Islam. If the term was used of Jesus as a title in Arabiain the 7th Century, it is likely that Muhammad likewise used the term as a title without understanding it’s Jewish history. However, as the term frequently appears in the Qur’an, and Muslims believe the title to be given to Jesus by Allah, the all-knowing, then the term must mean something. Whether it derive it’s meaning from Jewish history, or it is redefined, or corrected, by the Qur’anic meaning is the decision of the commentators. Likewise, ‘Messiah’ cannot be defined by Christian doctrine because that would contradict Islamic doctrine. ‘Messiah’ by Christian definition means the one that has delivered humankind from sin and death and restored us to a relationship with the Father God. For Messiah to be defined as such would raise questions about the need for Muhammad to come at all, if Jesus has already brought eternal life.

This is why there are many theories Muslim commentators have presented concerning what ‘Messiah’ actually means. Some commentators believe that Messiah is a personal name.[4] Others have tried to link the meaning to the Old Testament ‘anointed’, claiming that Jesus had been specially ‘blessed’ by Allah during the course of his life. Others linked meaning to a root word msh ‘to touch’, and extrapolated that Jesus’ touch had special religious properties.[5] Parrinder records that there are up to fifty different interpretations for ‘Messiah’ in Islam. However, what is clear is that, whatever the definition, the Qur’an is very clear that Jesus was the Messiah, which is stated unequivocally by Muhammad Ata’ur-Rahim:

There is absolutely no doubt about the fact that Jesus was the promised Messiah[6]

3.Son of Mary

The phrase ‘son of Mary’, is used to refer to Jesus in the Gospels (Mark 6:3 ESV) as well as the Qur’an. The difference lies in the frequency with which it is used in the Qur’an compared to the New Testament, twenty three times for the former, and only once for the later. Clearly, the Biblical use of the phrase was descriptive, whereas the Qur’an seems to have made a title of it. The title is used so often that scholars have asked why the name became so popular. One view is quoted below By Eric Bishop in his work Jesus of Palestine:

The Qur’an repeatedly speaks of him as ‘Jesus the messiah, son of Mary’ . . . it must have been the Ethiopic church which gave it to the Muslims[7]

However Parrinder disagrees with this view, because the migrants returning from Ethiopiadid not arrive in time to influence the Meccan surahs, but only the later Madinan surahs, but both categories of surah use the phrase extensively. Parrinder looks to other sources that may have caused the popularity of the title. The New Testament only uses it once, and even apocryphal and heretical works rarely use it. However the Arabic and Syriac infancy Gospels are the only heretical works that do use the title enough that it be significant. There is uncertainty regarding the dating of the Arabic version, but the Arabic was translated from the older Syriac, which could have been accessible in Arabiain the 7th century.[8]

It is interesting to note that this title that is so often used for Jesus in the Qur’an could have, without doctrinal hesitation, been used in Christian worship. The only reason it wasn’t, it seems, was due to inopportunity in church history and the fact that is not mentioned enough times in the Bible to cause it to roll naturally off the Christian tongue.

3. His Word

In this ayah Jesus is described as the Word of God, but this is understood very differently to the ‘Word’ in Christian thought. The context in which it is given is: ‘his Word which he bestowed on Mary’. Fakhruddin Razi, the 12th century Muslim theologian, emphasises that Jesus is given this title because of his virgin birth.[9] Jesus was created at the word of God, as was Adam, and unlike any of the other prophets who were all procreated in the normal way. Due to context, this is an understandable and reasonable explanation.

4.Spirit from him

Jesus is called a Spirit from God in this ayah. ‘Jesus’ and ‘Spirit’ are titles that Christians are used to hearing in conjunction with each other. Jesus was lead by the Spirit in Matthew 4:1, and in the opening chapter of 1 Peter, he exhorts his readers: according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ.

However, for the Muslim, references to Jesus and the Spirit are treated as synonymous. Whereas in Christian texts there is a clear definition between Jesus and the Spirit, in Muslim theology both terms refer to Jesus. Parrinder quotes from a letter Muhammad sent the Negus of Abyssinia in which Muhammad confirms that Jesus is ‘the spirit of God.’[10] This is very important in Christian-Muslim relations because of what this might imply in Muslim theology, and whether there is any indication here that Jesus was different to other prophets, and perhaps even more highly esteemed?

Razi gives us a list of five possible interpretations of ‘a Spirit from him’, some of which are: Gabriel was the spirit that breathed on Mary in order that she might conceive, and therefore this is why Jesus is called a Spirit from God. Also, Allah’s revelation is sometimes referred to by the same word that is translated ‘Spirit’, and therefore, this passage means that Allah had given Jesus revelations as he has the other prophets. Lastly, in surah 58:22 we read: God has engraved faith in the hearts of such believers and strengthened them with a spirit from himself, and therefore in the sense that Allah is here giving ‘mercy’ to his people, so too dose 1:171 refer to the mercy of Allah that was given to Jesus.

5.‘Three’

5.1.Islamic Monotheism

Islam is monotheistic, as is Christianity; however, Islamic understanding of monotheism is dissimilar to Christian understanding due to the different definitions of the concept of monotheism. The Islamic doctrine is called Tawhid, which teaches that Allah is an absolute unity without parts. The Qur’an uses two words to describe Allah’s oneness; Ahad and Wahid. Ahad is an adjective, and describes Allah’s oneness as a single entity. Allah is not one in a unity of parts, but has no parts at all, and no associates.[11]

As such, the Christian doctrine of Trinity has been criticised heavily by Muslim and Qur’anic commentators for the last 1,400 years.

5.2.Questions Regarding Interpretation 

The beginning of the ayah we are looking at reads ‘Oh People of the Scripture! Do not exaggerate in your religion . . .’, and ends with the exhortation ‘say not three’. This is one of the main passages in the Qur’an in which the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is criticised, along with 5:116 and 5:73. What the ayah in question begins to affirm about Jesus in common with Christian thought, at the end sharply contradicts.

Muhammad Ata’ur-Rahim’s argument is just that, a criticism of Trinity, in his book Jesus: Prophet of Islam. He argues that Jesus was a monotheist in the Islamic sense, and that the early church was also Unitarian until the official doctrine of the Trinity was enforced at the council of Nicaea.[12] Al-Rahim paints Jesus in Muhammad’s likeness; he is portrayed as a zealot ‘prepared to fight anyone who tried to prevent [him] from living as [his] Lord wished’[13], and a monotheist in line with Essene[14] doctrine, which is close to the Islamic understanding of monotheism than Christianity. Al-Rahim further enforces this picture of the Tawhid-teaching Jesus by pointing to The Gospel of Barnabas and the Sheppard of Hermas, the first explicitly Islamic, the second implicitly. He claims that these Christian books were as authoritive in the early church as any other New Testament book, but were simply voted out at Nicaea. He also insists that many early Church Fathers and theologians, including Iranaeus, and later church theologians were anti-Trinitarian. He points to the fact that Iranaeus quoted extensively from the Gospel of Barnabas in the 2nd Century.[15] But Al-Rahim has made a mistake; it is the Epistle of Barnabas that is quoted not the Gospel of Barnabas:

On examination one finds that Irenaeus in his writings quoted from the Epistle of Barnabas and not from what Rahim calls the Gospel of Barnabas.[16]

This revisionist interpretation of Christian history indeed fits nicely with Islamic theology, but does not cohere with current scholarly opinion. Al-Rahim’s assertion that Jesus adopted Essene monotheism is based on the fact that similar language is used in the Gospels as in the Dead Sea Scrolls; but this reasoning is unsatisfactory. Similar wording and phrasing is common to particular cultures and contexts all around the world. It is not the turn of phrase that synthesises two texts, but the message within them. Therefore, one need only compare the teaching of Jesus, on the relationship between the Father and himself, with the Essene teaching of God to notice the difference. Similarly, Al-Rahim refers to Jesus’ words in Luke 22: 36 to prove that Jesus was willing to use violence: and let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. But he fails to consider context, for just a few verses on we read: And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. Likewise, Al-Rahim’s assertion that Iranaeus ‘believed in One God and supported the doctrine of the manhood of Jesus’ is not controversial and shocking, as he presents it. These things are believed to be true by any Trinitarian. Al-Rahim’s claim that Iranaeus was anti-Triniatarian is misleading, as Iranaeus writes:

He [John] thus plainly points out to those willing to hear, that is, to those having ears, that there is one God, the Father over all, and one Word of God [Jesus, as described in John’s Gospel], who is through all, by whom all things have been made; and that this world belongs to Him, and was made by Him, according to the Father’s will[17]

However, Al-Rahim’s reconstructions of Christian history are felt necessary by many in the Muslim umma if one holds to the literal teaching of the Qur’an, and in particular ayah 4:169/4:171.

Yusif Ali also agrees that this ayah is directly addressing the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, and forbidding that any Muslim believe that Jesus is a part of it. He even goes so far as translating thalathatun as ‘Trinity’ instead of ‘three’[18]. This makes a significant difference when considering what this ayah means. It is commanded of Muslims that they do not think of Jesus as a member of a three-way God-head. The crucial point being that thinking of Jesus as one God in a three-way God-head is also heretical to Christians, and orthodox Christians could agree with the sentiments of this ayah. However, with the translation ‘Trinity’ this changes the meaning, and will forbid Muslims from believing the Christian doctrine even though Jesus’ relationship to the Father is defined differently in Christian thought than it is in the Qur’an. And, of course, Christians could not agree with this ayah if ‘Trinity’ is what is actually meant by ‘three’.

However, there are other ways that some Muslims interpret this ayah and its meaning. Mahmoud Ayoud believes that ‘this theological barrier is not an impenetrable wall dividing the two communities’.[19] He basses his hope on the word used in the Qur’an to describe ‘offspring’. The Qur’anic condemnation of the supposed Christian three-God is closely linked in Muslim thought about the reprehensible notion that God would physically procreate a Son. This idea is not explicitly stated in the Qur’an, but can be implied from certain references to a three-way God-head between Allah, Mary, and their son Jesus.[20] Ayoud attempts to resolve this conflict by studying the word the Qur’an uses to describe Jesus’ relationship with Allah: ibn and walad. Ibn is used to describe a filial relationship, but can be taken metaphorically, to imply adoption. Walad, on the other hand implies physical generation.

The Qur’an no-where accuses Christians of calling Jesus the walad offspring of God[21]

Therefore, Ayoud argues perhaps Qur’anic commentators have been to hasty to criticise Christians for claiming that Jesus is the Walad of God, when the Qur’an and Gospel accounts both treat Jesus’ birth as spiritual rather than physical.[22]

6.Conclusion

Therefore, in conclusion, although traditionally this ayah has been the cause of some misunderstanding between the Muslim and Christian communities, and still causes misunderstanding today, there are those that are working to present the Muslim umma with the correct understanding of Christian doctrine, especially of the Trinity. And evidently there are Muslims who are also thinking critically about the Qur’an and studying what the Qur’an is really saying about Christianity. Dose this ayah contradict Christian doctrine, or does it actually affirm it? I would say the later.


[1] Parrinder, Jesus in the Qur’an, p.30

[2] Ibid, p.31

[3] Ibid, p.33

[4] Moucarry, C., Faith to Faith, p. 179

[5] Parrinder, Jesus in the Qur’an, p.31

[6]Al-Rahim, Jesus: Prophet of Islam, p. 280

[7] Bishop, E. F. F., Jesus of Palestine, 1955, pp.61

[8] Parrinder, Jesus in the Qur’an, p.27

[9] Moucarry, C., Faith to Faith, p. 177

[10] Parrinder, Jesus in the Qur’an, p.50

[11] Geisler N. L. & Saleeb, A., Answering Islam, p. 18

[12] Al-Rahim, Jesus: Prophet of Islam, p.36

[13] Ibid, p.36

[14] The Essenes were a Jewish sect/community that lived in the desert and created the writings we now call the Dead Sea Scrolls.

[15] Al-Rahim, Jesus: Prophet of Islam, p.86

[16] The Gospel of Barnabas. 2012. The Gospel of Barnabas. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.itl-usa.org/barnabas/evidence.html. [Accessed 09 July 2012].

[17] Iranaeus, Against Heresies, Book VI. XVIII.  ANF01. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus – Christian Classics Ethereal Library. 2012. ANF01. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus – Christian Classics Ethereal Library. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.vii.xix.html. [Accessed 02 July 2012].

[18] Abdullah Yusif Ali, The Holy Qur’an: Text, Translation and Commentary. P. 234

[19] Mahmoud Ayoud ed. By Irfan A. , A Muslim View of Christianity,  p.118

[20] Qur’an 5:116: O Jesus, Son of Mary, did you say to the people, ‘Take me and my mother as deities besides Allah ?'”

[21] Mahmoud Ayoud ed. By Irfan A. , A Muslim View of Christianity,  p.118

[22] Ibid, p.119

  1. #1 by montjoie1095 on July 10, 2012 - 4:22 am

    You suggest that “the migrants returning from Ethiopia did not arrive in time to influence the Meccan surahs, but only the later Madinan surahs, but both categories of surah use the phrase extensively.” This of course assumes that Mohamed actually had anything to do with the writing of the Koran and that it wasn’t written and compiled much later. There is some evidence that it was. In fact, the use of the titular “Jesus son of Mary” may actually support the case for a later-written Koran.

  2. #3 by montjoie1095Montjoie on July 31, 2012 - 6:21 am

    • #4 by Apple on May 12, 2013 - 5:51 pm

      No bias from an author who directs the organisation known as “Jihad Watch” ! Career anti muslim polemicists will teach you nothing about Islam.

  3. #5 by Emmaus At Twilight on May 13, 2013 - 9:19 am

    emmmm, I think the historical evidence for Muhammad’s existence is pretty high – does this book suggest that he didn’t exist? I’m skeptical.

    @Apple, I do hear you, i.e. one cannot just listen to the arguments of those opposed to Islam – but we can’t ignore his arguments just because he might be a ‘career anti muslim polemicist’ – we need to engage with his arguments 🙂

  4. #6 by hmsk.itmedia.se on August 17, 2013 - 10:14 am

    Its like you learn my thoughts! You seem to know so much approximately this, such as you wrote the ebook
    in it or something. I believe that you simply can do with a few % to
    pressure the message home a bit, however other than that, this is great blog.

    A great read. I’ll certainly be back.

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