The Uniqueness and Titles of Jesus in Islam


1. Jesus as the Word of God in the Qur'an.

The Qur'an has much to say about the Christian faith, speaking at times favourably and at others unfavourably, but perhaps the most interesting verse of all on the whole subject of Christians and their beliefs is this one:

The passage contains typical Qur'anic dogmas in opposition to Christianity and we find here the divinity of Jesus as emphatically rejected as anywhere else in the book. The dogmas are these: Jesus was only a messenger, God is not Triune, he is only one God and has no son. A Muslim seeking proof texts in the Qur'an to confront Christians with a denial of their belief in Jesus as the Son of God will not have to venture beyond this verse. The fascinating feature of this verse, however, is its attribution of three titles to Jesus, each one of which strongly implies that he was far more than a prophet and seems to be more consistent with Christian belief in him as Lord and Saviour of all men than the Muslim belief that he was no different to the other messengers God had sent. The key words containing all three titles are Innamaal-Masiihu Iisaabnu Maryama rasuulullaahi wa kalimatuhuu al-qaahaa ilaa Maryama wa ruuhum-minhu.

We have already considered the first at some length, namely Al-Masih, "the Messiah", and saw that no attempt is made in the Qur'an to explain the title. The other two that : appear in the text we shall consider in this section, namely Kalimah, meaning "Word", and Ruh, meaning "Spirit". Let us begin with the first as it is written in the verse, namely kalimatuhuu - "His Word". The construction makes it plain that Jesus is, in some unique way, God's own Word. The title; appears in two other places in the Qur'an in much the same context. In Surah 3.39 an angel announces to Zachariah that his son John (Yahya) will witness to a kalimatim-minallaah, "a Word from God", and in Surah 3.45 the angels, in announcing the conception of Jesus to Mary, speak of him as a kalimatim-minhu, "a Word from Him". The title, thus applied on no less than three occasions to Jesus, is not applied to anyone else in the Qur'an yet, as with the title Messiah, no attempt is made to explain it.

As usual Muslim writers are at pains to explain away yet another unique title applied to Jesus in the Qur'an without seriously attempting to consider its implications. Yusuf Ali, commenting on Surah 3.39, says:

Many Muslim writers follow the same pattern, arguing that Jesus is called a Word from God solely because he was created by the Word of God, kun - "be", just as Adam was created (Surah 3.59). "Thus Imam Razi, followed by some modern writers, would have us believe that the term 'Word of God' means no more than that, 'Jesus was created by the command or word of God"' (Goldsack, Christ in Islam, p. 14). Another argument occasionally used to explain away the title, is that the words of God were revealed to Jesus and that in this sense alone he can be called a Word from God. An Ahmadlyya writer uses this line:

The common argument, however, is the first one, namely that Jesus was created in an unusual way simply by divine command just as Adam was created. This argument, with all the others, falls to the ground on closer analysis. A Christian writer assesses it in the following quote and in doing so gives a clear hint as to why it can only be regarded as an inadequate explanation of the unique title given to Jesus we are here considering, namely a Word from God.

There are two key factors that the Muslims are only too inclined to overlook - the application of the title to Jesus alone and the fact that he is clearly described in Surah 4.171 as "His Word", meaning not a Word from God alone but the Word of God. Abdul-Haqq states the first factor quite plainly - the title is "an expression uniquely used of Jesus Christ". The Qur'an, in Surah 3.59, states that "the likeness of Jesus with God is as the likeness of Adam" and promptly defines that likeness. God simply said "Be", and he came to be (kun fayakuun), implying that both were made by the single word of God in the same way. If Jesus is called the Word of God purely as a result of the manner of his conception, then Adam too must be the Word of God for according to the Qur'an they were both created in the same manner. Now a real difficulty arises because Adam is not called the Word of God in the Qur'an. Nor are the angels, nor is any other creature so called in the Qur'an. Jesus alone is called the Word of God.

The very uniqueness of the title in the Qur'an as applied to Jesus begs the suggestion that there must be something about the person of Jesus himself that makes him the Word of God in a way that no other man has ever been or ever will be. We must surely seek for some other meaning and significance behind the title, especially when we consider that the Bible also applies the title uniquely to Jesus - "the name by which he is called is The Word of God" (Revelation 19.13). It is perhaps in consideration of the second factor that we will find the real implications of the title.

In Surah 4.171 Jesus is called God's Word, not just a Word from God as in the two passages we quoted from the third Surah. This clearly implies, not that the Word was revealed to Jesus or that he was created by the Word, but rather that he himself is the Word of God. The title relates to his person and not to any feature or circumstance of his life. A Christian writer, speaking of Surah 3.45, makes the same point about the form of the words in the text:

The clear implication is that Jesus is, himself, in a unique way the revelation of God himself to men, the communication of God to his creation. The Word did not come to Jesus from above, rather he himself is that very Word which came from heaven to earth.

The Qur'an says no more of Adam than that "he learnt from his Lord words of inspiration" (Surah 2.37), that is, the kalimaat were sent down mir-rabbihi, "from his Lord", but in the case of Jesus it is said that he himself is the kalimatullah, the "Word of God". As there is, nonetheless, no explanation of the title in the Qur'an, we shall have to turn, as we did with the title Al-Masih, to the Christian Bible to find its real meaning and see how it can be used as a typical point of agreement between Christians and Muslims upon which a Gospel witness can be based.

2. The Implications of Jesus' Deity in the Title.

We have already seen that the title Word implies that Jesus himself is the communication and revelation, in his own person, of God to men. The second thing to consider is that the Word is from God. He is one who is actively the real manifestation of God to men. To know him is to know God. In the prologue to John's Gospel we have the meanings implied in the title brought to the fore:

We see here that Jesus existed as the Word of God before God ever began to create and that he is therefore not of the created order by nature but enjoys the fulness of deity. It was this Word himself which took human form - the Word did not come to him as a man:

The Qur'an plainly calls Jesus God's Word and a Word from God, and in the emphasis on the divine origin of the Word is it not logical to see the spirit of divinity in the person of the Word himself? It is hardly surprising that even from early times Christians saw in this unique title of Jesus in the Qur'an a clear hint to his deity.

One writer perhaps sums it up when he says: "The fact is that this title of the Lord Jesus can only be understood by a reference to the Gospel wherein it is clearly stated that Jesus the Word of God is divine, and existed with God before His birth into the world" (Goldsack, Christ in Islam, p. 14), and even a Muslim writer is constrained to admit that the title carries a heavenly character with it:

The writer draws a remarkable comparison between Jesus as the Word of God and Spirit of God, and Muhammad who is only called the servant of God in the Qur'an. He clearly acknowledges that the unique titles given to Jesus lift him into a heavenly realm and give some idea why he was taken up there, while Muhammad's ordinary status as nothing more than a servant of God explains why he returned to dust whence he had come. (A Muslim cannot suggest that Muhammad enjoyed a uniqueness as God's servant in comparison with Jesus' uniqueness as God's Word and Spirit - Jesus himself is called abdullah, "servant of God", in the Qur'an in Surah 19.30. On the contrary Muhammad is nowhere called a Word or Spirit from God in the book).

Christians need to emphasize the unique character of this title Word of God. Muslims need to realise that Jesus alone bears the honour in the Qur'an and the Bible. One Christian writer, while tending to the Muslim idea that the title only relates to the creative word of God in bringing Jesus into being of a mother only, nonetheless gets to the heart of the matter when he says it celebrates "a unique status belonging to Jesus - albeit for the purposes of prophecy - which gives him a significance altogether his own as 'God's Word"' (Cragg, Jesus and the Muslim, p. 32).

The other aspect requiring emphasis is the divine implication in the title. Short of acknowledging that Jesus is the Son of God one will struggle to truly interpret this title and realise the full implications behind the fact that the origin of its bearer is none other than God himself. Another Christian writer, commenting on Surah 3.45, says the form of the title in that verse "necessitates the meaning that this is the soul of the Word, uncreated and eternally, in the mind of God, and one with the essence of God" (Harris, How to Lead Moslems to Christ, p. 74). Another writer likewise brings out the obvious meaning of the title and its relevance to Jesus as the Son of God when he says:

The title Son of God at least implies some limitation and submission on the part of its bearer - a son is subject to his father - but the title Word of God implies no such limitation. By itself it clearly implies that its bearer is the express image of the invisible God and only the latter title Son of God implies some submission on his part to the Father. The Qur'an denounces Christians for believing that Jesus is the Son of God and yet, in the very same breath, gives him the title Word of God which is as indicative of deity as the title Son of God. There is really no meaningful difference between the titles.

Quite where we Christians are exaggerating in our religion, as the Qur'an suggests in Surah 4.171, is not at all clear to us. Our study of the first two titles in that verse that are applied uniquely to Jesus, namely "the Messiah" and "the Word of God", has led to the inevitable conclusion that Jesus must be far more than a prophet, indeed nothing less than the divine Son of God. In both titles Christians have tremendous scope for witness to Muslims. Once again, from the Muslim's own background, from the teaching of his own Scripture, Christians can lead to an effective witness to the Gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Let us close by considering the third unique title given to Jesus in Surah 4.171, namely a Spirit from God.

3. Ruhullah - Jesus the Spirit of God.

This third title is very little different to the second one for once again the title belongs to Jesus alone and God again is the source of the Spirit as he was the source of the Word. In Surah 3.45 we read that Jesus was a kalimatim-minhu, "a Word from him". Now we read in Surah 4.171 that he was also a ruhun minhu, "a Spirit from him". On both occasions it is clearly stated that the source of the man who bears these titles is God himself. Jesus is his Word and his Spirit. Once again no attempt is made to explain the title in the Qur'an, yet it frankly supports the Christian belief that Jesus was not a creature made out of dust but an eternal spirit who took on human form. It is the closest the Qur'an comes to admitting the pre-existence of Jesus before his conception on earth. The lack of any explanation of its meaning, however, or why it should be applied uniquely to Jesus just as the other two titles are, suggests that Muhammad once again heard and adopted Christian teachings and titles applying to Jesus without understanding them or seeing their ominous implications for his dogma that Jesus was only a prophet like all the other prophets.

In this case, however, we do find some evidence in the Qur'an that helps us to identify the meaning of this title. Elsewhere in the Qur'an we read of the "Holy Spirit" (Ruhul-Quds - cf. Surahs 2.85, 2.253, 16.102) and it is presumed that the Holy Spirit is the angel Gabriel. Whoever it is, it is generally agreed that the Holy Spirit is greater than man and comes from heaven and is purely a spirit.

Jesus, however, is now called "a Spirit from him" (ruhun minhu) from which he has received the title in Islamic traditions, "Spirit of God". Whereas David is called Khalifatullah ("Vicegerent of God") and Abraham Khalilullah ("Friend of God") as we have already seen, so now we find that the express title for Jesus in Islam is Ruhullah ("Spirit of God"). Throughout the works of Hadith where purported sayings and anecdotes relating to Jesus are recorded, we find him always being addressed Ya Ruhullah (''O Spirit of Allah"). It is a very common title in many works. In one place his disciples are found saying to him:

Indeed, when one examines the other titles applied to the other prophets, one finds them all typical of the kind of status that ordinary human messengers might enjoy before God. In fact the title applied especially to Muhammad, Rasulullah ("Messenger of God"), carries with it no uniqueness at all for all the prophets are called rusulih in the verse under consideration (Surah 4.171) and indeed, in this very verse, Jesus himself is called a rasulullah. The title "Spirit of God", however, carries with it divine implications.

The author, quoting such distinguished commentators as Imam Razi and Baidawi, continues: "Candid Muhammadan writers freely admit that this title 'Spirit of God' carries with it some speciality such as can be predicated of no other prophet" (Goldsack, Christ in Islam, p. 21). It is very interesting to note that the very expression applied to Jesus in Surah 4.171, ruhun minhu, appears in exactly the same form in Surah 58.22 where we read that God strengthens true believers with "a spirit from him". The Muslim translator Yusuf Ali appends the following comment to this verse:

This is a remarkable comment which clearly contains a veiled implication that the ruhun minhu is the very Spirit of the living God, uncreated and eternal in essence. Yusuf Ali says it is "the divine spirit" and that it is as incomprehensible as God himself. The language he uses is unambiguous - the Spirit from God is clearly believed by him to be from the realm of deity and not from the created order. He is, according to this interpretation, practically synonymous with the Holy Spirit in the Christian Bible.

Now this is the very title that the Qur'an gives to Jesus in Surah 4.171. The exact same words are used - he is the ruhun minhu, "a Spirit from God". If we merely apply Yusuf Ali's interpretation of the expression in Surah 58.22 to the very same expression given as a title to Jesus in Surah 4.171, we can only conclude that Jesus is the "divine spirit", which we can no more adequately define than we can define in human language "the nature and attributes of God". He is, therefore, God in essence and nature. Because of the simultaneous denial in Surah 4.171 that Jesus is the Son of God, Yusuf Ali is constrained to deny that the title ruhun minhu when applied to Jesus implies deity, but he is hardly consistent in his exposition of the Qur'an when he teaches in another place that ruhun minhu is indeed a divine spirit possessing the nature and attributes of God and is as incomprehensible as God as well. Once again we find the dogmas of the Qur'an somewhat contradicted by its own teachings regarding the uniqueness of Jesus over all the other prophets.

For our part we believe that, as with the titles Messiah and Word of God, this title Spirit of God also strongly supports the Christian belief that Jesus is indeed the Son of God and that, not in any metaphorical sense, but in an eternal one which is based on the fact that he is very deity himself. The only way Yusuf Ali could avoid this admission when commenting on Surah 4.171 was to frankly contradict what he said in his commentary on Surah 58.22.(In his comments on Surah 4.171 he denies the divinity of Jesus, his sonship, and his unity with the Father).

There can be little doubt that the title here applied to Jesus, like the titles Messiah and Word of God, contains a special meaning not immediately apparent in the Qur'an which fails to attempt any explanation of it, but which nevertheless must place him above the prophets. Ultimately all three titles are only consistent with Christian belief in him as the Son of God and this title "Spirit of God" therefore also gives Christians an open door in their witness to Muslims.

As Goldsack says in his excellent booklet on Jesus in Islam, "When we see that to Jesus alone Muslims give this high title 'Spirit of God', then it is evident that he is the Spirit of God in a special sense, and it is only a step from this to the fuller teaching of the Injil that He is the eternal Son of God" (Goldsack, Christ in Islam, p. 23). The same author fitly concludes: "Thus we re-affirm that the term 'Spirit of God', applied to Christ by Muslims, places Him high above all other prophets, and hints at the great doctrine of His divinity which is so clearly taught in the Injil" (Goldsack, Christ in Islam, p. 24). Another writer also does not hesitate to see in this title clear evidence that Jesus was unique among men and above them all, and not merely one of the prophets of God:

We have now considered three unique titles that are applied to Jesus in the Qur'an and, along with the three unique features of his life that we considered in the first section, we have found an abundance of material in the Qur'an itself that Christians can use to show Muslims that only the Bible reveals the true Jesus - the Son of God who came to save us from our sins. It is quite remarkable to find all three titles in just one verse which also contains a threefold denial of Jesus' deity! The very titles Messiah, Word and Spirit of God, when analysed against the background of the implications as to their meanings and the Qur'anic silence in this respect, can only lead to the very conclusion that the Qur'an is at pains to pre-empt - that Jesus is the Son of God.

In closing let us consider yet one more feature in the life of Jesus which the Qur'an applies to him as uniquely as it does the others we have considered, namely the power and authority to give life to the dead, and see how this too can be used as a very effective bridge for the communication of the Gospel to Muslims against the background of their own beliefs.

The Christian Witness to the Muslim: Table of Contents
Answering Islam Home Page