The Uniqueness and Titles of Jesus in Islam


1. Al-Masih: The Messiah in the Qur'an.

We have already examined three of the unique features in Jesus' life which, by implication, place him far above all the prophets. In the following two sections we shall in the same manner consider three titles applied to him in the Qur'an which also make him unique among the prophets and in this section shall examine perhaps the most significant of these titles, namely the Messiah.

Muslims often confront Christians with the suggestion that it is only in Islam that Jesus obtains proper reverence, as no true Muslim will mention his name without some qualification of respect, whereas Christians are charged with a far too-easy familiarity with him, speaking of him simply as Jesus. "We do not speak simply of Isa", a Muslim will say, "we will always give him a title of respect, such as Hazrat Isa (His Eminence, Jesus), or Isa alayhis-salaam (Jesus, on whom be peace). Why do you Christians always speak of him only as Jesus without showing him some measure of respect?"

In reply I always say that we appreciate the gestures of respect that accompany the name of Jesus in Islam, except to add that we cannot find any of them in the Qur'an. "What is the full Qur'anic name for Jesus?", I respond, or alternatively, "What is the one title of respect given to Jesus in the Qur'an?" The Muslims do not often provide the obvious answer, probably because the meaning of the title is almost completely glossed over in Islam. The answer is simply this: the full Qur'anic name for Jesus is Al-Masihu Isa - "the Messiah Jesus" (cf. Surah 4.157, 4.171).

Jesus is nowhere called Hazrat Isa or Isa alayhis-salaam in the Qur'an. These qualifying titles of respect have been applied to him in Muslim tradition. The only Qur'anic name for Jesus that embodies a respectful title is Al-Masihu Isa - "the Messiah Jesus". In fact we even read that when the angels first appeared to Mary they said of the holy child they had been sent to announce: Ismuhul Masihu Isabnu Maryam - "his name shall be the Messiah Jesus, son of Mary" (Surah 3.45). Even before the conception of Jesus, therefore, the angels gave him the one title that is applied to him on no less than eleven occasions in the Qur'an, namely Al-Masih - "the Messiah". The strange thing is that, whereas the Qur'an unflinchingly attributes to Jesus the one title claimed for him by the Christians and rejected by the Jews, it attempts no explanation of it. The following quote hints at the three anomalies surrounding the use of this title in the book:

The first of the three intriguing features that strikes us is that Jesus only receives this title after Muhammad had completed his twelve years of preaching at Mecca and had migrated to Medina. In none of the Meccan surahs is the name of Jesus qualified by the title Al-Masih. A Christian writer advances the probable reason for this phenomenon in saying:

The most plausible explanation is that Muhammad was unaware of the title until he moved to Medina and, as his contacts with Christians and Jews increased, so he came to learn of the unique appellation given to Jesus and, being unaware of its meaning but seeing no reason to reject it, simply adopted it himself and included it in the Qur'an without any further ado.

The second feature that draws our attention is the lack of any explanation of its meaning in the Qur'an. Islam only accepts Jesus as a prophet like all the other prophets. In one passage he is joined with Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and Moses as simply one of the prophets (an-nabiyyin) between whom no distinction of any kind is made (Surah 2.136). In another verse he is said to have been no more than a servant (abd - Surah 43.59) and in yet another as nothing more than a messenger (rasul - Surah 5.78). One would therefore expect to find the Qur'an denying that Jesus was the Messiah, especially as the Jews and Christians have always regarded the title as signifying more than prophethood. When Jesus on one Occasion asked his disciples who the people thought he was, they answered that it was generally believed that he was one of the prophets (Mark 8.28). But when he asked them the same question, Peter replied: "You are the Messiah" (Mark 8.29). His answer was clearly intended to be in contrast with the general opinion that Jesus was just one of the prophets.

The Qur'an's acknowledgement that Jesus was indeed the Messiah comes, therefore, as something of a surprise. He is not only called Al-Masihu Isa but on some occasions the title Al-Masih appears by itself (Surah 4.172), and on others he is called Al-Masibuhnu Maryam - "the Messiah, son of Mary" (Surah 9.31). What is most significant is that the title is applied solely to Jesus in the Qur'an and that its definitive quality is carefully defined by the use of the article - Al-Masih, namely, the Messiah. Indeed the title is never used in the Qur'an without the definite article. This rules out any possibility that the title can be applied to anyone else. No one else in the Qur'an is, or accordingly possibly could be, the Messiah. Jesus is not a messiah or one of the messiahs, he is Al-Masih - the Messiah. This leads to the third feature that must occupy the attention of all who seriously consider the use of this title in the Qur'an, namely that it is obviously used, as Parrinder says, "in a particular sense". We shall have to examine this subject in the light of Jewish and Christian expectations and proclamations respectively to discover what that sense is, but in the meantime can take note of its use in an exclusive context in the Qur'an.

Nevertheless, as said before, the Qur'an's acknowledgement that Jesus was indeed the Messiah comes as a surprise, for it denies that Jesus was anything more than a prophet, whereas the promises of God about the coming Messiah had made it plain that he would be far greater than just a prophet. The Christian confession that Jesus is the Lord and Saviour of all men is thus consistent with the teachings of the former prophets that the coming Messiah would be the supreme man of history, far above all the prophets (2 Samuel 7.12-14). The Qur'an, on the other hand, declares Maal Masihubnu Maryama illa rasul - "The Messiah, son of Mary, was no more than an apostle" - like the other apostles who had passed away before him (Surah 5.78). Why, then, does the Qur'an also acknowledge that Jesus was the Messiah if it denies that he was anything more than a prophet' It seems hard to avoid the conclusion that the Qur'an is contradicting itself here, especially when it offers no alternative explanation of the title.

Furthermore one struggles to find in Arabic any roots for the title which might give some indication of its meaning. It is true that its three consonants, mim, sin and hah, are also the root letters of the word masaha meaning "to rub, wipe or stroke", which appears four times in the Qur'an. There is no hint, however, that the title as applied to Jesus carries any meaning remotely connected with this word which appears only as a verb in the Qur'an. Some Muslim authorities have even sought other words with similar roots (not identical, as in masaha) to explain its meaning, yet we find that the greatest Muslim scholars, such as Zamakhshari and Baidawi, "rejected these theories and admitted that it was a borrowed word" (Jeffery, The Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur'an, p. 265).

The average Muslim will be hard-pressed to venture a plausible explanation of this supreme title given to Jesus, Al-Masih, based on the use of the word in the Qur'an, and consistent with the claim that he was in no way different to the other prophets who went before him. We are bound to conclude that the Qur'an unwittingly gives Jesus a title which has momentous implications when studied in the light of its use in both the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, but which otherwise has no meaning when considered solely in the light of its use in the book. As we press on to study the third feature we have mentioned, namely the "particular sense" in which the title is used in the Bible, we shall see what a wonderful opportunity we have to present the Gospel to Muslims through this title against the background of its unexplained use in the Qur'an.

2. The Biblical Concept of the Messiah.

The common word used for Messiah in the Christian Scriptures, in the original Greek texts, is ho Christos. Twice it is said to be a translation of the word Messias (John 1.41, 4.25) and, as in the Qur'an, no attempt is made to define or explain the meaning of the title. Nevertheless, just as the Qur'an uses the definite article al to apply the title to Jesus alone, so in the Christian Scriptures he is constantly called ho Christos, that is, the Messiah. (We shall use the word 'Messiah" here in our quotes from the Christian Scriptures rather than "Christ" as the title corresponds more readily to the Qur'anic Al-Masih).

We have to turn to the Jewish Scriptures to find the real meaning of the title. It derives chiefly from the following prophecy:

Twice in this passage we read of a mashiah, "an anointed one", a prince who would appear, but who would suddenly be cut off. Right throughout the prophetic writings of the Old Testament one finds predictions of a coming one, a supreme deliverer, God's chosen servant, who would rule over his kingdom for ever. The use of the word mashiah in Daniel 9.25-26 led the Jews to coin a title for the coming Prince - ha Mashiah, "the Anointed One", the Messiah. A typical prophecy of his greatness and the extent of his dominion is found in this passage:

The prophet Isaiah went on to say of him: "In that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples; him shall the nations seek, and his dwellings shall be glorious" (Isaiah 11.10). The prophecy clearly could not be applied to any of the prophets who were appearing at times among the people. It spoke of one man alone who would rule the whole earth and who, by the breath of his mouth alone, would slay the wicked. In another passage of the same prophecy we read that God himself said of this coming ruler:

One after the other the prophets of Israel foretold the coming of this supreme representative of God on earth who would bring the justice of God to the whole world and rule over it. Through another prophet God also spoke of the coming Anointed One and described his glory in these words:

The Jews began to realise that, whereas prophets arose at fairly regular intervals to declare the will of God, one great figure was to follow them all who would be far above all the prophets of God in honour and majesty. This supreme ruler was destined to be God's own chosen representative who would establish his kingdom and rule upon his throne. Through yet another prophet God foretold where he would be born:

As the predictions increased, so the outstanding features of the coming chosen one of God became more apparent. In this prophecy it was plainly stated that the coming ruler, although yet to be born, had in fact existed in the heavens from the beginning of time. Daniel the prophet gave a climactic review of his coming glory and authority when he described a vision he had seen during his time of exile in Babylon. As he gazed into heaven and saw millions of people gathered before the throne of God, he exclaimed:

It was little wonder that the Jews concluded that the Ruler of God's own kingdom, whose origin was from of old, and whose dominion would last for ever, was to be far greater than a prophet. When Daniel spoke of him as God's "Anointed One" (Daniel 9.25), the title Mashiah stuck and became the common title to describe him. "The Messiah" became their long-awaited Deliverer and Ruler.

We see therefore that the title "the Messiah" clearly means, not just a prophet among many prophets, but God's Supremely Anointed One, whose origin was from of old and whose rule over the whole universe would last for ever. It was an apocalyptic figure they awaited, the climax of God's revelations to the world. Ha Mashiah he was called - the one and only supremely anointed, chosen one of God to rule over all his dominions.

This brief survey of the real meaning of the title Al-Masih, that is, "the Supremely Anointed One", shows how inappropriate the Qur'anic statement Maal-Masihubnu Maryama illa rasul - "the Messiah, son of Mary, was no more than an apostle" (Surah 5.78) - really is. The whole meaning of the title Al-Masih, as considered in its original Hebrew context, totally negates the suggestion that the one bearing this title was, after all, only an apostle like others who had gone before him. One can only presume that Muhammad did not know the meaning of the title Al-Masih and, hearing it freely applied to Jesus by the Christians, unquestioningly adopted it without realising that it completely undermined his belief that Jesus was only one of a long line of prophets.

We see ultimately that the coming Messiah was to tower over all the prophets and, by comparing the teachings of the Jewish Scriptures regarding his glory with the admission in the Qur'an that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, Christians have a golden opportunity to witness meaningfully to Muslims. The Qur'an attempts no explanation of the title, yet its very inclusion in the book, the sacred Scripture of Islam, opens a wide door for effective witness. The common testimony of both the Christian and the Muslim Scriptures to Jesus as the long awaited Supremely Anointed One provides a platform on which Christians can build the message of the Gospel and show Muslims the real meaning and implications of the title. We shall close this section by seeing just how this can be done.

3. Jesus of Nazareth : God's Anointed Messiah.

There are two supreme implications behind the title Messiah - the identity of its subject and the work he was to perform. He was to be far greater than the prophets who had preceded him and accordingly was sent to the earth for a more profound purpose. He did not come purely to prophesy and to draw his people back to God, he came to redeem the world and prepare the way for the coming kingdom of God. The Scriptures show quite plainly wherein the greater character of the Messiah consisted - he was the Son of God - and also set forth, both prophetically by way of anticipation and thereafter historically through a factual record, the exalted nature of the work he was sent to do - to save men from their sins by dying on the cross and rising from the dead on the third day.

We shall consider these two great themes in order and shall begin by considering the revelations in the Jewish Scriptures that he was to be the Son of God who would establish and rule over God's eternal kingdom. Among the many predictions of his coming, many of which foretold that he would come from David's line (Jeremiah 23.5, Ezekiel 34.24), was this direct prophecy to David himself when God spoke through the prophet Nathan at the time when David sought to build a house for the ark of the covenant, a temple to God's glory. After stopping him from doing so God declared:

When Solomon, David's son, duly built a great temple for God (known in Islam as baitul-muqaddas, "the Holy House", and spoken of in Surah 17.7 as al-masjid - "the Temple"), it seemed that the prophecy had been fulfilled. Nevertheless, not long after Solomon's death the kingdom of Israel was split in two and within three hundred years fell away completely, Solomon's temple being destroyed in the process.

The Jews then realised that God had, in fact, been speaking ultimately of the Messiah as the prophecy had been couched in eternal language - "I will establish his throne for ever . . . I will confirm him in my house and in my kingdom for ever and his throne shall be established for ever" (1 Chronicles 17.12,14). God had clearly spoken of his Supremely Anointed One who would establish his kingdom and rule it for ever. Solomon and his temple were clearly only shadows and types of the Messiah and his kingdom to come. "One of your own sons", therefore, was to be applied ultimately to David's "greater son" yet to come, the Messiah, who would be descended from David's line. As a result the Jews coined the expression "Son of David" as a title for their coming Messiah and often used it of him to identify the line of offspring from which he would rise. "Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?" (John 7.42), was the constant belief of the Jews, a belief Jesus duly fulfilled when he was born of David's line in Bethlehem (Matthew 2.1).

It is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew that about two days before his crucifixion, Jesus engaged in lengthy debate with the Jewish leaders. Firstly the Pharisees and then the Sadduccees tried by every verbal twist and trick to trap him in his talk. At the end of the day, when their efforts were exhausted and they were all standing before him, he finally put a question to them. It was to be the last time he would engage in debate with them. He said to the Pharisees:

They promptly answered: "the Son of David", in accordance with the prophecies in their holy scriptures. Jesus replied to them in these words:

David, said Jesus, called the Messiah his Lord and Master, how then could he be David's son? What man looks on his son as his lord and master? We read that "no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did any one dare to ask him any more questions" (Matthew 22.46). This momentous question ended all debate between Jesus and the Jews.

Any Jew in the crowd who had been awake, however, could have given a very complete answer to the question. Let us go back to the prophecy Nathan gave David that one of his sons would establish his throne for ever and ever. We have read it already, but now let us repeat the key words of God to David. He said of the Messiah who would be descended from him:

I will be his Father and he shall be my Son, God said to David - a prophecy contained to this day in the Jewish Scriptures, those of a people who no more believe that Jesus is the Son of God than Muslims do. Yet there it is, right in their Scripture. Any discerning Jew, in answer to Jesus' question, "What do you think of the Messiah, whose son is he?", could have replied, "he is the Son of God", for so God had spoken to David. This is why David called the Messiah his Lord, for he knew that although he would be descended from him, God would be his true Father and he would be God's Son. He might well have said, as John did, "After me comes a man who ranks before me, for he was before me" (John 1.30).

David knew that the Messiah would be the Son of God and therefore openly called him his Lord and Master. "The Lord says to my Lord" to David meant simply "The Father says to his Son, sit at my right hand till I put thy enemies under thy feet". In another of the prophetic passages in the Psalms God spoke of the coming glory of the Son of David at his second advent at the end of time:

No one but the Son of God could so boldly address the Lord of heaven and earth. Bedded into the glorious predictions of the coming Messiah, who would rule over the kingdom of God for ever and ever, are clear statements that he would be God's own Son. The promises to this effect came directly from God himself. The Messiah, God's Supremely Anointed One, would far surpass the prophets in glory and majesty because he would be no less than the Son of God himself.

Jesus himself gave the answer to his own question how the Messiah could be both the Lord and the son of David at one and the same time. He declared:

Because he was David's offspring he could indeed be called his son, but he was also his root as "the world was made through him" (John 1.10) and was therefore rightly called his Lord. "All things were created through him and for him", the Scripture continues (Colossians 1.16), and he could accordingly truly be said to be the Root of David (Revelation 5.5), his ultimate Lord and Master. "What do you think of the Messiah, whose son is he?", was the climactic charge Jesus set before the Jews as his long public confrontation with them finally came to an end. It is the very charge that Christians must set before the Muslims they meet - "What do you think of Al-Masih, whose son was he really?"

It is useful both to note and to point out to Muslims that the titles Messiah and Son of God are used interchangeably in the Christian Scriptures. Jewish believers in Jesus used both titles for him simultaneously, Simon Peter being the first to do so when he declared to Jesus:

When Martha was challenged about the death of her brother Lazarus and was asked by Jesus whether she believed that he was the Resurrection and the Life, she replied:

The High Priest Caiaphas used the titles simultaneously when putting Jesus on oath to declare who he really was:

Mark began his Gospel by describing it as the gospel of "Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God" (Mark 1.1) and John, in like manner, summed up all that he had written in his Gospel as having been set down so that his readers might believe "that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God" (John 20.31). Even the demons regarded the two titles as synonymous with each other:

In the title Al-Masih, "the Messiah" as it appears in the Qur'an, being freely applied to Jesus exclusively without any explanation of its meaning, we find a tremendous channel by which to show Muslims who Jesus really was. He was not just one of the prophets, he was the Supremely Anointed One, with whom no one else could compare, the eternal Son of the living God.

This brings us in closing to the work the Messiah was to perform. Although he was plainly identified as a figure of great glory and although many of the predictions of his coming heralded his ultimate glory, it was clearly foretold that he would come the first time in relative obscurity and would be a man of sorrows and great suffering. Indeed, in the very prophecy in which he is called mashiah, from which the title "Messiah" came, there is a plain statement that he would be struck down in the middle of his course:

The prediction was quite clear: "mashiah shall be cut off, and shall have nothing". This was a direct warning that the Anointed One of God would suddenly be struck down and killed - a clear reference to the death of Jesus the Messiah on the cross which came quite unexpectedly on his disciples.

There are numerous passages in the Old Testament foreshadowing the sufferings of the Messiah and his subsequent glory, such as Psalms 22 and 69, but perhaps the most significant is found in the prophecy of Isaiah which begins:

The text contains clear predictions of the coming glory of the Messiah at his second advent, but in between these promises of his ultimate exaltation comes a clear warning of his rejection and suffering at his first advent - "his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance". The prophecy contains an unambiguous declaration that he would have no apparent honour at his first coming and would generally be overlooked and rejected by his people:

Almost immediately after this, however, comes a clear prediction of the atoning character of his sufferings. In this Jewish scripture written some six centuries before the coming of Jesus we find his crucifixion foreshadowed, not as a defeat, but as the means by which many would be saved:

These words clearly show that the great servant of God, the long-awaited Messiah, would have the sins of the world placed on him in his hour of trial and that he would die that others might live. "Stricken for the transgression of my people" (Isaiah 53.8) he would be, dying for the sins of those he was suffering to save. Furthermore we not only find the sufferings of the Messiah foretold but also the attendant events which were fulfilled to the letter. The prophecy is remarkable for its plain and unambiguous details and the degree to which it foreshadows the cross. The next verse reads:

Here we have what appears to be a riddle - how could a man be buried with honour among the wealthy if his grave was prepared among the wicked? In the crucifixion of Jesus we have a perfect answer. All Jews put to death by crucifixion were, upon their demise, cast into a large pit reserved only for criminals. But when Jesus died, a rich man named Joseph of Arimathea came and took the body of Jesus and buried it in his own tomb which he had hewn out of a rock (Matthew 27.60). The prophecy continues with a similar detail: "he poured out his sout to death and was numbered with the transgressors" (Isaiah 53.12). Jesus directly applied this prediction (and thus the whole prophecy) to himself the night before he was crucified, saying to his disciples:

Once again the prophecy was fulfilled. We read that when Jesus was taken out to be crucified, "Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him" (Luke 23.32). When Jesus was duly crucified between these two men who were both thieves the prophecy had once again been fulfilled even in its finest details, for he was duly put to death with them and was thus "numbered with the transgressors". We see yet again how detailed the predictions of the suffering of the Messiah were in the writings of the prophets who preceded him.

By quoting such passages Christians can show Muslims that the suffering of the Messiah was foretold centuries before it happened, and that the travail predicted was quite plainly nothing other than the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Indeed no Christian witness should ever stop at the death of Jesus after his sufferings but should press on immediately to show that the resurrection was foretold as well. The prophecy we have been considering from Isaiah contains obvious prophecies of the resurrection of the Messiah after his death through which he wrought salvation for all those who were to become his own by faith in him. The prophecy contains this wonderful promise that his lonely death would not be in vain:

Although he would die for the sins of the world, he would yet see the heirs of his salvation, he would yet look in triumph on the immense benefits of his redeeming work, and the fulness of God's saving grace would yet be brought to light in his own hands. "He poured out his soul to death", the prophecy continues (Isaiah 53.12), yet the Lord God of heaven himself left him with the assurance that he would still, in good time, obtain the fruits of his victory. Thus we find the whole crucifixion scene, with the subsequent resurrection of the Messiah, foretold in this prophecy.

We have only briefly treated the subject of Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah of Israel, yet I am sure all Christians can see just how effectively this title can be used as a means to preach the Gospel to Muslims. The Qur'an, in frankly acknowledging Jesus as Al-Masih, yet without any attempt to explain the title, opens the way for Christians to witness of his glorious identity and the sufferings he was first to endure before receiving eternal glory. By presenting Jesus as God's Anointed Saviour and Deliverer whose coming was foretold by the prophets, Christians can once again set the Gospel right against the background of the Muslims' own beliefs about him and very meaningfully outline the implications behind this title.

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