The Roots of Muslim Radicalism: Part 2—Islam & Jesus

This is part 2 in a three-part series. Read “The Roots of Muslim Radicalism: Part 1” here.

Islam acknowledges Jesus to have been a great prophet. Indeed, Islam honors Jesus as the greatest of all prophets other than Muhammad. However, Muslims flatly deny the two central claims of Jesus as understood by Christians.

Denial #1: That Jesus Was (Is) the Son of God

First, Muslims deny that Jesus is the Son of God or a deity in any sense. The unqualified, simple monotheism of Muhammad left no room for God to have “partners,” as the Qur’an puts it. Of course, in Christianity Jesus is not a divine “partner” of God—he is God, in the person of the Son. But to Muhammad’s mind—raised in a polytheistic culture, with only limited exposure to Judaism and even less to Christianity—the doctrine of the Trinity sounded like three Gods.  Muhammad could not even accept the designation “Son of God” for Jesus, since he took this literally to mean that Jesus was procreated by God. Muhammad rightly rejected such an idea—unfortunately, not realizing that this was not the Christian position.

Denial #2: The Crucifixion and Resurrection

Second, Islam rejects the Christian belief that Jesus died on a cross as an atonement for sin and rose from the dead.

Having demoted Jesus to a merely human prophet, Muhammad could not very well retain the Christian concept of Jesus as a divine Savior from sin. Moreover, in Muhammad’s conception, a prophet is a glorious, victorious figure; he reasoned that God would certainly never allow his prophet to suffer such an ignominious death. Muhammad concluded that Jesus never died at all, but had been taken up bodily into Paradise. The Romans probably crucified someone else by mistake, they believe—most likely Judas Iscariot (although Simon of Cyrene, whom the Gospels say carried Jesus’s cross, is sometimes suggested).

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The claim that Jesus did not die on the cross is arguably the weakest link in the Muslim religious system. As a matter of simple historical fact, the execution of Jesus by the Romans is on the firmest ground possible.

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The claim that Jesus did not die on the cross is arguably the weakest link in the Muslim religious system. As a matter of simple historical fact, the execution of Jesus by the Romans is on the firmest ground possible. The Jewish leaders had seen Jesus in the temple and around Jerusalem for several days prior to his death, and they would certainly have known (and objected) if the Romans were crucifying the wrong man. We have at least two independent accounts informing us that various friends and family members of Jesus (including his mother) witnessed his death and buried his body (Luke 23:49–56; John 19:25–27, 38–42). Small wonder that all non-Muslim historians, whether Jewish, Christian, or skeptic, agree that Jesus was crucified.

A related difficulty facing the Muslim view ought to be mentioned. In their view, Jesus never died at all and was instead taken up bodily into Paradise. Although Jesus’s enemies might be confused as to what happened, it is hard to imagine why his disciples would have remained confused. Surely Jesus explained it to them before he ascended! How, then, did the idea originate among Jesus’s followers (that is, in the Church) that Jesus had died? No follower of Jesus would have made up such an idea, for the very reason that Muhammad, seven centuries later, could not accept it—because death by crucifixion was universally regarded as the most shameful death possible.

[note]For more on Jewish and Greco-Roman attitudes toward crucifixion in the time of Jesus, see Martin Hengel’s classic Crucifixion: In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977).[/note]

Though they reject the deity of Jesus and his death and resurrection, Muslims do have a high regard for Jesus. Whatever traditional Christian beliefs about Jesus that did not contradict or undermine Muhammad’s strict unitarian monotheism were accepted by him and are acknowledged by Islam to this day. So, Muslims have no trouble agreeing that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he performed miracles, that he ascended into heaven, and even that he will return to the earth at some future time. What they cannot allow is that any of these ideas be interpreted in a way that would imply Jesus’ deity or undermine Muhammad’s claim to be a prophet of God.

Muhammad vs. Jesus

Not surprisingly, Islam regards Muhammad as the last of the prophets. As such, it is natural that Islam should claim that Muhammad’s teaching supersedes that of Jesus and of Christianity. Muslims have traditionally argued that Jesus was a Jewish prophet sent to his people, whereas Muhammad was a prophet for the whole world. This claim obviously depends on the claim, already discussed, that Jesus was a mere prophet and not the divine Savior from sin.

But there are other problems with the Muslim claim that Muhammad was a more universal prophet than Jesus. Although Jesus was a Jew, he commissioned his disciples to take the gospel to all nations (Matthew 28:19–20), which they did. By Muhammad’s time, Christianity was predominantly Gentile, and Christians could be found throughout Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa—essentially the whole known world at that time.

Today, Jesus is acknowledged by a larger number and a greater diversity of ethnic and cultural peoples than any other religious leader in history. Nearly every major world religion (including Islam) finds it necessary to assign some place of honor to Jesus. Muslims regard Jesus as a prophet, Hindus regard him as a holy teacher or even an avatar (human manifestation of the divine), and Buddhists regard him as an enlightened one or “Buddha” for the West. The people of the world religions do not, on the other hand, find it necessary to come to terms with Muhammad.

Our point here is not that the greater attraction of Jesus among people of all religions proves that Jesus was (and is) the Son of God and the Savior. The point is that the evidence does not support the Muslim claim that Jesus was a lesser prophet with only local appeal as compared to Muhammad. If anything, the evidence shows that Jesus is the one person in human history who has the potential to transcend all cultural boundaries and unite people “from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).

To learn more about Islam and how Christians can reach out to Muslims, check out Ken’s six-part Understanding Islam series. [vector_icon icon=”arrow-circle-o-right”]

The Roots of Muslim Radicalism: Part 2—Islam & Jesus

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