Unique and Highly Significant
The Qur’an’s Evasion of its Implications
It is easy for me – and it is to appoint him a sign to mankind and a mercy from us. Surah 19:21
The Qur’an confirms the virgin-birth of Jesus described in the nativity stories found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and, as we have seen, is particularly reliant on the latter for its information in addition, primarily, to the apocryphal Proto-Gospel of James. The Qur’an says that when the angels spoke to Mary, announcing the unique birth of Jesus to come, she replied: ‘My Lord, how can I have a son when no man has touched me?’ He replied: ‘Even so, Allah creates what he wills, when he decrees a matter, He says to it, “Be”, and it comes to be’ (Surah 3:47).
Her response is very similar to Zechariah’s who turned to his Lord and said: ‘How shall I have a son when I am of a great age and my wife is barren?’ In the same way the Qur’an says his Lord’s reply was: ‘Indeed, so Allah does as he pleases’ (Surah 3:40). Both Zechariah and Mary could not see how they could bear a son, one because he was too old to bear children and his wife was beyond the age of childbearing, and the other because she was still a virgin woman who had had no physical contact with a man. The answer each time was that Allah effects these things, which are indeed supernatural, purely according to his creative purposes.
In the other passage confirming the virgin-birth of Jesus, when the angel who appeared to Mary in human form promised her a most-holy son, she again responds: ‘How shall I have a son when no man has touched me and I have not been impure?’ (Surah 19:20). The answer here is slightly different to the one in Surah 3:47 – the angel advises Mary that her Lord says: ‘It is easy for me, appointing him a sign to mankind and a mercy from us’ (Surah 19:21). The Qur’an elsewhere describes Mary as the daughter of Amran ‘who guarded her purity (ahsanat)’ (Surah 66:12), another reference to her virgin-state before the conception of Jesus.
The Qur’an’s only answer to Mary’s obvious question in her virgin-condition was to say that Allah simply says: ‘Be!’ (Kun), and ‘it comes to be’ (fayakun). For one who created the whole universe by his word of power it is hardly surprising to find that it is ‘easy’ for him to cause a woman to conceive a son without the contribution of a human father, but why should this be the only reason why God would do this? Why would he choose to enact the birth of Jesus, a prophet in Islam no different to or greater than all the other prophets, in such a unique way? And how could the virgin-birth of Jesus be a sign to the nations when there was no way of proving it? In the Qur’an, when Mary was challenged as to how she could conceive a child out of wedlock, she had no way of proving her chastity. So she pointed to her infant son Jesus who promptly spoke from his cradle and gave the women around her a discourse about himself and his coming role on earth: ‘I am indeed a servant of Allah. He has delivered to me the scripture and has made me a prophet. And he has made me blessed wherever I am, and has enjoined on me the required worship and charity (as-salati wal-zakat) for as long as I live; and to be kind to my mother, and not overbearing or unblest’ (Surah 19:30‑33).
The sign here was not the exceptional cause of Jesus’ birth – it was his miraculous ability to address the bystanders in coherent speech while still a baby in a cradle. Unless there was some very significant purpose in the virgin-birth, it is hard to see how it could have been a sign in its own right when no one could prove it. (Once again, Mary is found alone with Jesus with no sign of Joseph anywhere. Even when Jesus says that he will be kind to his mother, he makes no reference to the man who by then would have been her husband for many years. One cannot help wondering whether Muhammad possibly believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary, especially as the Qur’an nowhere mentions his brothers and sisters.).
What is most interesting here is the determination in the Qur’an to actually play down the virgin-birth of Jesus as being inconsequential other than as an arbitrary demonstration of Allah’s creative power. It says: ‘The likeness (mathal) of Jesus with Allah is as the likeness of Adam. He created him from dust and said to him “Be!” and he came to be (kun fayakun)’ (Surah 3:58). The argument built into this text is obvious – Jesus’ conception was no different to the creation of Adam. Both of them simply came into being by a creative fiat (accomplishment) through the word of God alone. Muslims accordingly have argued that the creation of Adam was in fact greater than that of Jesus, for the latter was conceived solely through a mother, but Adam was brought into being without a father or mother!
Likewise it is argued that Eve came into being the same way and that both Adam and Eve were created without mothers or fathers. Muslims who reason like this are merely following the Qur’an itself which seems to be more concerned about explaining away any unique significance in the virgin-birth of Jesus that might be relative to him personally, rather than giving any answer to the question why Jesus should have been chosen as the uniquely-conceived son.
It goes without saying that Adam and Eve could not have had any human parents. Someone had to be created first! But the birth of Jesus could, in the normal course of events, have surely been the same as that of any other prophet if there was nothing unique about him personally. Both Isaac and John the Baptist were conceived in unique ways – from an ageing father and a barren woman both beyond the age of child-bearing, but a father and mother still achieved their conceptions in the natural way. Jesus’ birth – and his alone of all men and woman in human history – was not only supernatural but contrary to natural means. Adam and Eve were created – Jesus was procreated in a very unusual way which invaded and disturbed all the normal means by which children are brought into the world. There must have been a very special reason for Jesus’ unique birth – and the Qur’an hints at it when it says ‘We made her and her son a sign for all peoples’ (Surah 21:91). What was that sign?
There are two texts in the virgin-birth passages that must be examined here. The first is the address of the angels to his mother: ‘O Mary, Allah announces to you a word from him, whose name is the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, worthy of praise both now and in the hereafter, and from those who draw near’ (Surah 3:45). Now the Qur’an begins to give some real meaning to the unique birth – the angels tell her that her son will himself be unique, not one to whom the Word of God comes, but an actual Word from God himself, from the very heart of the One who sits on the throne of heaven. He will also be given a unique title – al-Masih, the long-awaited glorious Messiah promised through David and the prophets many centuries beforehand.
The other passage reads: ‘Such was Jesus the son of Mary: a statement of truth about which they dispute. It is not becoming of Allah to take to himself a son. Glory be to him! When he decrees a matter he but says to it, “Be!”, and it comes to be’ (Surah 19:34-35). Here, however, we can see again how the Qur’an downplays and minimises the virgin-birth of Jesus. If Jesus was indeed the unique Son of God, his virgin-birth can be very easily explained – he could not have been born or procreated in any other way, being pre-existent from all eternity.
Unfortunately the Qur’an’s concern is to discount this, once again offering its only explanation for the unique conception – it was purely a gesture of Allah’s creative word, nothing more. But can such a simplistic and evasive answer really go unchallenged? In what way were Jesus and his mother a sign to the peoples of the world? We will turn to the historical records of Jesus’ birth and life, the canonical gospels, to see how they explain this remarkable supernatural conception and the reasons they give for why it was Jesus, and no one else, who was brought into the world in this exceptional way.
The Virgin-Birth of Jesus in the Gospels
According to the Gospel of Matthew, ‘the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way’ (Matthew 1:18). While his mother was still only betrothed to Joseph, she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit. Joseph did not know this and resolved to divorce her quietly. But an angel of the Lord appeared to him and said: ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:20-21). It is that last declaration that the Qur’an misses which is the supreme factor that distinguishes Jesus’ mission from those of all the other prophets. They were God’s spokesmen, he was God’s redeemer – the one who had come to deliver God’s people from the consequence of their sins.
The Gospel of Luke has much more to say about the virgin-birth of Jesus. We are told here that the angel Gabriel visited Mary and declared to her: ‘you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High’ (Luke 1:31-32). When Mary asked how this could possibly happen seeing she had no husband, the angel replied: ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God’ (Luke 1:35).
The angel did not say that this was something God had ordained purely to make a show of his creative powers (something that, once again, would have been impossible to prove), he told Mary that she was to experience a very special birth because there was something very special about her coming son Jesus. Twice the angel told her that he would be the Son of the Most High. The uniqueness of the virgin-birth was vested in the actual person being born – it was the incarnation of the Son of God, a hitherto unprecedented event, that necessitated the equally unique and unparalleled character of his birth.
In denying that there was anything in the virgin-birth other than a demonstration of God’s power, the Qur’an divests the event of its two most important characteristics. In Luke the coming child is to be the Son of God and in Matthew his advent is for the purpose of saving his people from their sins. In Luke it is the person of Jesus that explains his unique conception, in Matthew it is his redemptive mission that explains the unique purpose for which he came to earth – this is the ‘sign’ that was signified in his exceptional birth. It is these two factors that have always been at the heart of the Christian faith and that define its greatness. Its central figure is known to all Christian believers as ‘our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’ (2 Peter 1:11, 3:18). This was the supreme purpose for which the Son of God became the Son of man, Jesus of Nazareth.
Ironically these are the two dividing characteristics about Jesus that distinguish Christians from Muslims. The latter accept his virgin-birth as a fact, his ascension to heaven, his coming return to earth, his miracles and his sinlessness. As Muslims so often say, ‘we accept everything you believe about Jesus except for two things – he was not the Son of God and he did not die for our sins.’ To put it simply, in contrast to the fundamental biblical definition of Jesus, Muslims will reply: ‘neither Lord, nor Saviour.’ But in acknowledging the virgin-birth, the Qur’an has unwittingly recognized a unique feature of his birth that cannot otherwise be effectively explained – the child was the Son of God (Luke) who had come into the world to be its saviour (Matthew), Lord and Saviour indeed!
Looked at in a historical context, the Qur’an followed the Gnostic texts in making unique statements about Jesus, but failed to see the unique significance of the events it was confirming. His life began in an extraordinary way solely because he was a unique personality who had come into the world with a very unique mission, to bring salvation and eternal life to all who would accept him as Lord and Saviour of their lives. As Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, said to Mary his mother, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’ (Luke 1:42). It was the person and character of the child she was bearing which made it possible for Mary to respond: ‘For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed’ (Luke 1:48).
Mark only covers the public ministry of Jesus in his gospel from the time of his baptism and so makes no reference to the virgin-birth, save perhaps for an allusion to it in calling Jesus ‘the carpenter, the son of Mary’ (Mark 6:3) without any direct reference to Joseph. John, however, in the prologue to his gospel tells us precisely why Jesus was born in such a unique way. He begins: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made’ (John 1:1-3). It was because Jesus had long existed in the divine realms before his conception on earth that he had to be born of a virgin woman. He could not have been procreated through both a father and mother as a new person entirely, distinguished purely by his parents’ genes and DNA.
John adds: ‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father’ (John 1:14). Jesus had long pre-existed his incarnation, he had come down from above and had taken on a human form to become one of us, and to reveal the fullness of God’s glory in his redeeming work. Jesus himself said: ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven’ (Luke 10:18), a declaration of his pre-existence long before his conception in Mary’s womb. Jesus also said to the Jews: ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I proceeded and came forth from God’ (John 8:42), adding: ‘before Abraham was, I am’ (John 8:58).
Paul defined the two unique features about Jesus that characterised and explained his virgin-birth: ‘For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross’ (Colossians 1:19-20). He was the Son of God incarnate who had come to redeem and save the world – the two things Luke and Matthew respectively mention to explain his unique birth.
Jesus and Adam: Similar or Radically Different?
It is also important to note that, while the Qur’an says that the mathal, the ‘likeness’ of Adam, is the same as the mathal, the ‘likeness’ of Jesus (Surah 3:59), the Christian scriptures reverse this completely. Paul strongly contrasts the two when he says: ‘For as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive’ (1 Corinthians 15:22). He adds that Adam, the first man, was created as no more than a living being, whereas Jesus, the ‘last Adam’, came into the world as a life-giving spirit (1 Corinthians 15:45). Paul would never have understood the Quranic dictum that the examples of Jesus and Adam were the same, that both of them had been created purely by a word from God, ‘Be!’
Paul emphasises the contrast between them when he says: ‘The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven’ (1 Corinthians 15:47). Sure, Adam was created from the dust, but Jesus was born of a virgin because he had pre-existed Adam and took on human form to reverse the effects of Adam’s fall. Paul added: ‘Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven’ (1 Corinthians 15:49). There you have it – Adam was only a man of dust, Jesus was a man of heaven.
Paul draws the same contrast in his letter to the Romans. Sin, Paul says, came into the world through one man (Adam) and death through sin, and the deadly affliction spread to all men because all men sinned (Romans 5:12). But if they all died because of Adam’s transgression, how much greater is the grace of God and the free gift of that grace in Jesus Christ which has now abounded for many as well (Romans 5:15). Paul again emphasises the contrast between Jesus and Adam: ‘Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous’ (Romans 5:18‑19).
In another letter Paul contrasts Jesus and Adam again. He says: ‘Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men’ (Philippians 2:5-7). It was Adam and Eve who, though being nothing more than mortal creatures, had grasped at equality with God when they believed Satan’s lie that, if they ate of the forbidden fruit, they would ‘be like God, knowing good and evil’ (Genesis 3:5).
Jesus, who was in the form of God, being one with the Father and the Holy Spirit, nonetheless had not held onto that status, but humbled himself in becoming a man and in submitting himself to his Father as a human servant to God. So the pride of Adam and the humility of Jesus are contrasted, but Paul does not leave it there. He adds that, unlike Adam, Jesus ‘humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2:8). He was not only humbled, he was violently humiliated, purely so that he could undo the effects of Adam’s sin and bring repentance and eternal life to those who had now become his fellow human beings.
The contrast between the first man Adam, created from dust, and the second man Jesus, born of a virgin, is powerfully set forth in Paul’s epistles. It is that contrast that makes Jesus the glorious deliverer that he is, the one who redeemed the world from the effects of Adam’s fall. The Qur’an fails to discern this when it suggests that Adam and Jesus were similar in the manner of their becoming human beings. The contrast between them is absolute as Paul so capably shows. No mother of Adam would ever have been told: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.’ That honour was reserved for the mother of Jesus alone.
The Unique Sinlessness of Jesus, the Son of Mary
Even though the Qur’an states that Jesus was a prophet of Islam no different to all the other prophets who went before him, it grants to him many of the biblical features around his life and personality that distinguish him and mark him out as vastly superior to his forerunners. The virgin-birth is just one of many examples – it was a unique event based on a purely supernatural conception that has no meaning or significance unless one accepts that the person who was born had pre-existed his human form and had come into the world with a very significant and universal mission, in Jesus’ case to redeem it from its transgressions and iniquities.
He could not have done this, however, if he had had any sins of his own. If he was no different to all other men and women on earth, he would have been as much in need of redemption as they were. He had to have remained sinless throughout his life to be able to become a perfect, pure and adequate substitute who could take the sins of others on himself and pay the price required to redeem them. Peter says ‘He committed no sin, no guile was found on his lips’ (1 Peter 2:22), going on to say ‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness’ (1 Peter 2:24). Only by being sinless himself could he assume our sins on himself and impute his perfect righteousness to us in return.
Paul says much the same in different words: ‘For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Corinthians 5:21). Only by being perfectly sinless himself could he make it possible for us to assume his perfect righteousness. Elsewhere Jesus is described as ‘one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin’ (Hebrews 4:15). The apostle John makes the same point as Peter and Paul when he says: ‘You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin’ (1 John 3:5).
Jesus is the only human being who has ever lived whom the Bible declares to have been completely without sin. As Jesus himself said to the Jews ‘Which of you convicts me of sin?’ (John 8:46). His sinlessness is one of those many unique features about him that distinguish him so radically from all other men, including all the prophets who preceded him. The Qur’an so often acknowledges these exceptional characteristics but fails to see their significance.
Typically, Jesus is the only person in the whole of the Qur’an to actually have been described as sinless. When the angel appeared to Mary, his mother, he said to her: ‘I am only a messenger of your Lord to give you a holy child’ (Surah 19:19). The word used here to describe the little boy (ghulam) as ‘holy’ is zakiyya. The word actually means ‘most holy, completely pure, without blemish.’ It was the justification given to Mary for her coming conception of a child while still in a state of complete purity and chastity. The word only appears in one other text in the Qur’an which reads: ‘Have you killed an innocent person who has not done this to another person?’ (Surah 18:74).
In this text the complete innocence of the victim is restricted to the fact that he had never slain someone else. He was completely blameless of any act that might have justified killing him in return. In the passage quoted Moses put this question to an unnamed companion he was travelling with and was met with a sharp rebuke that he should have shown patience with him before reacting as he did, to which Moses replied that if he again showed such impertinence his companion should part company with him (Surah 18:75-76). The justification his companion supposedly had for killing the boy is not disclosed in a typical middle-eastern wisdom mystery-story, but the complete innocence of the child is not contested.
In Surah 19:19, however, the angel uses the word zakiyya to define the whole person of Jesus. It is not a statement that he was innocent of some imagined crime, it is a definition of his overall personality. He was totally pure and holy within himself, without any sin or impurity. A hadith also excuses him of any impurity at his birth that might have given Satan an opportunity to come into contact with him, and it once again distinguishes Jesus in this respect from every other person or prophet who has ever lived: ‘The Prophet said, “no child is born but that Satan touches it when it is born, whereupon it starts crying loudly because of being touched by Satan, except Mary and her son”’ (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol.6, p.54).
Nowhere else in the Qur’an is there any kind of statement about Jesus imputing to him any transgression, iniquity, fault or blameworthiness. The same cannot, however, be said for many of the other prophets. Abraham speaks of Allah, the Lord of the worlds, and says that he is the one ‘who, I hope, will forgive my sins on the day of reckoning’ (Surah 26:82). The words used here are yaghfirali khati’ati, Arabic words which throughout the Qur’an are used to express the act of asking forgiveness for sins against God. Muslim scholars, eager to sidestep the Quranic teaching that Jesus alone was sinless, try to dilute and mitigate these words to mean something like asking protection from faults, but every Muslim knows that al-Ghafur is ‘the Forgiver’ and that any word in the Qur’an based on the consonants gh,f,r relate to forgiveness, not protection. Khat’a, derived from the letters kh,t,’a, is also the standard Arabic word for transgressions.
Speaking of the nations at the time of Noah who had led themselves away from the worship of Allah and had turned to idols whom the Qur’an names (Wadd, Suwa’, Yaguth, Ya’uq and Nasr), the Qur’an says: ‘Because of their sins (khati’atihim) they were drowned and made to enter the Fire, and apart from Allah they found no helpers’ (Surah 71:25). The word is once again used to describe serious sins and wrongdoing towards God, not forgetfulness or mistakes.
In the Qur’an Moses cries out to God: ‘“My Lord! Verily I have wronged my soul, so forgive me.” So he forgave him. Indeed he is the Forgiver, the Merciful’ (Surah 28:16). Interestingly the same word for forgiveness appears each time, faghfir, faghafara and al-Ghafur, all derived from the same root letters gh,f,r, clearly implying that Moses was asking for God’s forgiveness for sins he had committed.
Noah cries out in the Qur’an: ‘Unless you forgive (taghfir) me and have mercy on me, I shall be one of the losers’ (Surah 11:47). The Qur’an also says of Jonah: ‘And Dhul-Nun, when he went away in wrath and thought We could not reproach him, then cried out in his shortcomings (dhulimati): “There is no god but You, Glory be to you! Surely I am one of the defaulters (al-dhalimin)”’ (Surah 21:87).
The story of David and Bathsheba in the Bible is well-known. Even though he was a prophet of God and the king of Israel, he committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of his loyal subject Uriah the Hittite, who became pregnant. After he had contrived to have Uriah killed in the heat of a battle and thought his sin had been covered, Nathan the prophet came to him and told him of a rich man who had many flocks of sheep and a poor man who had only one ewe lamb which he nourished and cherished. When a traveller came to the rich man, however, the latter took the poor man’s lamb and killed it to give to his visitor as a feast. David was angry and said: ‘the man who has done this deserves to die’ and ordered him to restore the lamb fourfold. Nathan, however, said to him: ‘You are the man,’ going on to tell him the word which had come to him from God who knew exactly what David had done with Bathsheba and Uriah and what the consequences would be for his transgressions. David replied: ‘I have sinned against the Lord’ (2 Samuel 12:1-13).
The Qur’an gives a very truncated account of this incident, saying only that two brothers came to David of which one complained that the other had ninety-nine ewes and he only one, yet his brother had taken his ewe lamb to add to his own ewes. David said: ‘Surely he has wronged you,’ only for David to realise that Allah had been testing and examining him. At this David cried out to his Lord to forgive him (fastaghfara rabbahu), at which Allah duly forgave him (faghafarna) – Surah 38:22-25. Once again many Muslim translators try to avoid the implications of what David had done (sinning against God for which he needed forgiveness) by minimising the meaning of the Arabic word to suggest that David was only asking for ‘protection,’ but it is quite clear from both the biblical and Quranic accounts that he was begging for forgiveness for a very serious sin he had committed.
In his prayer for forgiveness David prayed: ‘Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me’ (Psalm 51:1-2).
In the Qur’an even Muhammad is told to pray for the forgiveness of his sins: ‘So know that there is no god but Allah and ask forgiveness for your sins and for believing men and believing women’ (Surah 47:19). The words here are wastaghfir lithanbik. In another similar passage Allah says to Muhammad: ‘Surely we have given you a clear victory, so that Allah may forgive your past and future sins’ (Surah 48:1-2). The same words are used, namely liyaghfira and thanbik. The Arabic word ghafara in its various grammatical forms always refers to forgiveness and the word used for sin here, thanb, applies to serious sins and transgressions against God.
Surah 12 records the story of Joseph in the Qur’an and repeats the incident found in Genesis 39:6-23 where the Egyptian who bought Joseph from his brothers as a slave, Potiphar, had to deal with an accusation by his wife (named Zulaykah in Islamic tradition) that Joseph had tried to seduce her (the truth was precisely the opposite). When Potiphar realised what had really happened he accused her of setting a trap for Joseph (kaydakun – a snare) and said to her: ‘Ask forgiveness for your sin. Indeed you are one of the sinners’ (Surah 12:29). The words used here, once again, are wastaghfiri lithanbik, the same words used when Allah commanded Muhammad to ask forgiveness for his sin. The word used for sinners is the other we have already encountered, al’khati’in.
Despite all the efforts made by Muslims to exonerate the other prophets of sinfulness under the euphemism ‘faults,’ and their similar attempts to minimise the commands to them to ask forgiveness for their sins as a call simply to ask for ‘protection’ against them, it is clear from the original Arabic words used that the Qur’an freely acknowledges that all the prophets of Islam that it names, including Muhammad, were sinners who needed to pray for forgiveness, save for Jesus the son of Mary.
Jesus is the only human being whom both the Bible and the Qur’an actually describe as sinless, and the Qur’an’s admission of this unique characteristic shows once again that although it claims he was no more than a prophet like all the others, he was in fact a unique and absolutely holy personality from the heart of heaven itself, who came into the world to be its savior, redeemer and deliverer.