Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Let The Study Quran Speak! Pt. 1b

Sam Shamoun

We continue the discussion.

There are two passages where the Quran censures Christians for believing that Allah is the Messiah:

Surely, in disbelief are they who say that Allah is the Messiah, son of Maryam (Mary). Say (O Muhammad): "Who then has the least power against Allah, if He were to destroy the Messiah, son of Maryam (Mary), his mother, and all those who are on the earth together?" And to Allah belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth, and all that is between them. He creates what He wills. And Allah is Able to do all things. S. 5:17 Hilali-Khan

They surely disbelieve who say: Lo! Allah is the Messiah, son of Mary. The Messiah (himself) said: O Children of Israel, worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord. Lo! whoso ascribeth partners unto Allah, for him Allah hath forbidden paradise. His abode is the Fire. For evil-doers there will be no helpers. S. 5:72 Pickthall

The problem with this assertion is that no informed Christian believes this, since historically Christianity has never taught that God is the Messiah. Rather, the orthodox historic position has been that the Messiah is God, not the other way around. Here are a few citations from some of Christianity’s foremost theologians and philosophers to confirm this fact:

Third, to distinguish between person and nature, we must keep in mind two ways to use “is”–identity versus predication. Mark Twain is the pen name for Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the 26-cigars-a-day smoker and author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Twain does not have characteristics that Clemens does not have. In other words, when we say, “Samuel Langhorne Clemens is Mark Twain,” we can just as easily reverse the names: “Mark Twain is Samuel Langhorne Clemens.” Each of those statements indicates identity: Mark Twain = Samuel Langhorne Clemens (and vice versa). The names, which refer to the same person, are fully interchangeable and thus identical. 

When it comes to the Trinity, to say “Jesus is God” isn’t identical to “God is Jesus.” Unlike the Mark Twain example, “Jesus” doesn’t exhaust what it means to speak of “God.” Jesus and God are not identical. According to the Bible, Father and the Spirit are called divine, just as Jesus. In the statement “Jesus is God,” we use is to describe or predicate, not to identify or equate: Jesus is God in that He shares in the nature that only two other persons share; so there isn’t just one person who can properly be called God. (Paul Copan, “Is The Trinity A Logical Blunder? God As Three And One”, in Contending With Christianity’s Critics: Answering New Atheists & Other Objectors, ed. Paul Copan & William Lane Craig [B&H Publishing Group, 2009], Part Three. The Coherence of Christian Doctrine, p. 212; bold emphasis ours)    


“… The second way is to qualify the affirmation ‘Jesus is God’ by observing that this is a nonreciprocating proposition. While Jesus is God, it is not true that God is Jesus. There are others of whom the predicate ‘God’ may be rightfully used. The person we call Jesus does not exhaust the category of Deity.” (Murray J. Harris, Jesus as God: The New Testament Use of Theos in Reference to Jesus [Baker Book House, Grand Rapids MI, Paperback edition 1998], XIII. Conclusions: Theos as a Christological Title, K. “Jesus is God” as a Theological Formulation in English, p. 297; bold emphasis ours)


“To recognize that the godhood of the Son is indistinguishable from the godhood of the Father is not, of course, to jeopardize the personal distinction between Son and Father. Jesus is totus deus but not totum dei. He is all that God is without being all there is of God. There is a numerical unity of essence but not a numerical identity of person. Although Jesus shares the divine essence fully and personally, he does not exhaust the category of Deity of the being of God. To use the distinction made in the Johannine Prologue, ho logos was theos (1:1c) but ho theos was not ho logos (cf. 1:1b). (Ibid., J. The Significance of the Christological Use of Theos, 2. Theos is a Christological Title That Explicitly Affirms the Deity of Christ, p. 293; bold emphasis ours) 

Harris goes on to say:

“Once again the other two deities are said to be Jesus and Mary. The veneration of Mary has been a major article of Roman Catholic belief and the Ethiopian Church, in particular, has historically revered her as the mother of God. It seems, however, that their excesses and confusion have only resulted in the Qur’an compounding the confusion! No Christian Church, no matter how much it reveres or glorifies Mary as, for example, the Queen of Heaven, has ever confused the Trinity or made it out to be what the Qur’an represents it to be.” (Ibid.; bold emphasis ours)

And this is what Harris states elsewhere:

Can we, therefore, say that the New Testament teaches that Jesus is "God"? Yes indeed, provided we constantly bear in mind several factors.

First, to say that "Jesus is God" is true to the New Testament thought, but it goes beyond actual New Testament diction. The nearest comparable statements are "the Word was God" (John 1:1), "the Only Son, who is God" (John 1:18), and "the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever" (Rom. 9:5). So we must remember that the theological proposition "Jesus is God" is an inference from the New Testament evidence – a necessary and true inference, but nonetheless an inference.

Second, if we make the statement "Jesus is God" without qualification, we are in danger of failing to do justice to the whole truth about Jesus – that he was the incarnate Word, a human being, and that in his present existence in heaven he retains his humanity, although now it is in a glorified form. Jesus is not simply "man" nor only "God," but the God-man.

Third, given English usage of the word God, the simple affirmation "Jesus is God" may be easily misinterpreted. In common English usage God is a proper name, identifying a particular person, not a common noun designating a class. For us God is the God of the Judeo-Christian monotheistic tradition, or God the Father of Jesus and of the Christian, or the trinitarian Godhead. So when we make the equation in English, "Jesus is God," we are in danger of suggesting that these two terms, "Jesus" and "God," are interchangeable, that there is a numerical identity between the two. But while Jesus is God, it is not true that God is Jesus. There are others – the Father and the Spirit – of whom the predicate God may be rightfully used. Jesus is all that God is, without being all there is of God. The person of Jesus does not exhaust the category of deity. So then, when we say, "Jesus is God," we must recognize that we are attaching a meaning to the term God – namely, "God in essence" or "God by nature" – that is not its predominate sense in English. (Harris, 3 Crucial Questions About Jesus [Baker Books; Grand Rapids, MI 1994], pp. 101-102; bold emphasis ours)

Nor is this a modern criticism which just recently sprung up. Christians have been objecting to this incorrect formulation of their beliefs long before Muhammad was born, as even noted by Muslim author Neal Robinson who, in referring to an ancient Nestorian Christian reference, writes that:

“… The text which dates from around 550 CE. concludes a discussion of the Trinity with the words ‘The Messiah is God but God is not the Messiah’. The Qur'an echoes ONLY the latter half of the statement. C. Schedl, Muhammad and Jesus (Vienna: Herder, 1978), p. 531.” (Neal Robinson, Christ In Islam and Christianity [State University of New York Press, Albany 1991], p. 197; bold and capital emphasis mine)

And here is another source which records the reaction of Christians to the Quran’s gross misrepresentation of their beliefs in the early centuries of Islam, specifically the late tenth century AD: 

‘Abd al-Jabbar focuses in particular on those Qur'anic statements THAT CHRISTIANS IN HIS DAY DO NOT ACKNOWLEDGE, for example that they consider Jesus to be a separate God (Q 5:72), or consider God to be third of three (Q. 5:73), or even consider Mary to be a God (Q 5:116). ‘Abd al-Jabbar contends that Muhammad was right to attribute these statements to Christians: (Critique of Christian Origins, a parallel English-Arabic text, edited, translated, and annotated by Gabriel Said Reynolds & Samir Khalil Samir [Brigham Young University Press, Provo, Utah 2010], p. xlvi; bold and capital emphasis ours)


“Thus [Muhammad] related their statement that Christ is God, and ‘God is the third of three.’ These are their essential teachings, but they barely express them clearly. Instead, THEY RESIST THE ESSENCE OF THEM AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE, so that their principal authors and their writers who are devoted to this barely summarize their teachings. You will find that if you asked the disputants and debaters among them about their statement on Christ, they would say, ‘Our statement is that he is the Spirit of God and His Word, JUST LIKE THE STATEMENT OF MUSLIMS. We say, “God is one.”’…

“For the most part you will encounter among them who says: ‘We did not say God is Christ. We did not say “God is the third of three.” Whoever related this about us HAS ERRED AND LIED.’ Know, then, that Muhammad's position on this… is from God, Mighty and Exalted, and that this is one of his signs.” (Ibid., pp. 2-3; bold and capital emphasis ours)


“Now someone might say: ‘By my life it is demonstrated that the Christians have said that Jesus, the son of Mary, is neither a prophet nor a Messenger of God nor a righteous servant, but rather that he is a god, Lord, Creator, and Provider, that God is the third of three, and that he was killed and crucified. Yet your master has said in your book, “Did you say unto men, ‘Take me and my mother as two gods, apart from God?’” The Christians say, “This is a lie. For although we said about [Christ] that he is a god, we did not say about his mother that she is a god.”’” (Ibid., pp. 80-81; bold emphasis ours)

The problem is further compounded when we take into consideration that the term Allah is a proper name, not a generic noun denoting deity. As a proper noun, Allah refers to the one who supposedly sent Jesus which, in Christian theology, would be the Father.

Therefore, even if the Quran had said that Christians are those who believe that the Messiah Jesus son of Mary is Allah, this still would be wrong since this would mean that Christians believe that Christ is actually God the Father.

If the Quran wanted to correctly address Christian belief in the divinity of the Lord Jesus then it should have said they are disbelievers who say the Messiah is God, which in Arabic would read: Laqad kafara allatheena qaloo inna al-Masiha huwa Ilahu. Instead of using the word Allah, it would have been more appropriate to have employed Ilah, which is the generic noun denoting deity. Note, for instance, the following examples where Ilah is used to emphasize the fact of Allah being the only god in existence:

Or were you witnesses when death approached Ya'qub (Jacob)? When he said unto his sons, "What will you worship after me?" They said, "We shall worship your Ilah (God…), the Ilah (God) of your fathers, Ibrahim (Abraham), Isma'il (Ishmael), Ishaque (Isaac), One Ilah (God), and to Him we submit (in Islam)." S. 2:133 Hilali-khan

And Allah said (O mankind!): "Take not ilahain (two gods in worship, etc.). Verily, He (Allah) is (the) only One Ilah (God). Then, fear Me… much…” S. 16:51 Hilali-Khan

And for every nation We have appointed religious ceremonies, that they may mention the Name of Allah over the beast of cattle that He has given them for food. And your Ilah (God) is One Ilah (God…), so you must submit to Him Alone (in Islam)… S. 22:34 Hilali-Khan

And argue not with the people of the Scripture (Jews and Christians), unless it be in (a way) that is better… except with such of them as do wrong, and say (to them): "We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you; our Ilah (God) and your Ilah (God) is One (i.e. Allah), and to Him we have submitted (as Muslims)." S. 29:46 Hilali-Khan

Verily your Ilah (God) is indeed One (i.e. Allah); Lord of the heavens and of the earth, and all that is between them, and Lord of every point of the sun's risings… S. 37:4-5 Hilali-Khan

It is He (Allah) Who is the only Ilah (God to be worshipped) in the heaven and the only Ilah (God to be worshipped) on the earth. And He is the All-Wise, the All-Knower. S. 43:84 Hilali-Khan

That Allah is said to be the only Ilah confirms that the latter is the generic noun for god, whereas the former is the proper name of the deity being described.

As such, the Quran is in gross error concerning what Christians actually believe, and the contributors to The Study Quran are absolutely correct when stating that the Islamic scripture does not address, let alone censure, the orthodox Christian understanding of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ.

With that said, we are ready to proceed to the second installment in our series.