Is Isa merely a Messenger or God Incarnate?
While being a Muslim in the late 1980’s, and seeking the truth within Islam, I was faced with a number of challenges as I tried to reach out and invite Christians to the truth of the Quran and Islam. One such challenge was the belief that Jesus Christ, or Isa of the Quran, was God Incarnate (God in the flesh). The Quran claims Isa was a Messenger, none the less one of the greatest Prophets. Since this came from the Quran, I believed this as fact. Beyond being a messenger and prophet, I believed the divine claims by Christians were simply excesses that the church leaders in general and Paul in particular popularized. Since this belief was a foundational aspect of Christianity, I started studying it with the intent to prove to the Christians that Isa was neither God in the flesh, nor a Son of God, but rather a great Prophet. In this context I wanted to provide evidence to them from the Quran, Hadith and from their own Bible, specifically the Gospel accounts and history, that this belief of Isa being God to be a foreign concept and the explanation by Christians of the Trinity weak and unsupportable. My goal was for the Christians in my life to accept Islam as the true and final religion and the Quran as the eternal guide for their life.
I therefore spent much time studying this topic, armed primarily with the Quran, the Bible and other supporting works by Muslims and some non-Muslims. I was clear about some very basic assertions of Islamic teaching regarding the oneness of Allah. After the Fatiha (Surah 1), which is the main prayer for guidance for a Muslim, the Surah Ikhlas (Surah 112) that I learnt and recited more than any other is that of Allah’s unity.
In my religious studies as a Muslim, I recall my teachers saying that this Surah was as weighty as a third of the entire Quran regarding the doctrine of God, since the uncompromising unity of God is the cornerstone of Islamic belief. I was convinced that the Christians who considered Isa as the Son of God were on a path to damnation. Again, as I saw it, it was simply a matter of expediency by the Christian Church of old to integrate pagan practices to assimilate Greek and Roman culture. Paul and not Isa, as I saw it, was the big proponent of pushing this false doctrine. Note what Allah says in the Quran regarding Isa being the Son of God
Not only does the Quran emphatically deny it but also adds that Allah’s curse will rest upon those who believe this false doctrine. In addition to believing in Isa being God the Son, the Christians believe in God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, which is labeled by the Church as Trinity. Note again what the Quran teaches about the Trinity.
The Quran is clear beyond a shadow of doubt that Isa was a great human messenger of Allah and the son of Mary, not of Allah as we check further into the following ayah.
Also from the Sahih Hadith of Bukhari where emphasis is that Isa is the son of Mary.
Volume 3, Book 34, Number 425:
Hence, I was ready with this knowledge to challenge the Bible and their teachers with the truth that I believed to be from Allah. While most of the Christians would share with me verses from the Bible that showed his divine nature or attributes, I would respond with items not only from the Quran as I have discussed above, but also from their own Bible that showed his human nature and attributes. For example note in the next two verses from the Injeel account by Matthew where Isa "became hungry" and "was asleep" - needs of a human being, not of God.
However, there were many places in the Injeel accounts regarding Isa’s claim of being divine. I was shocked to find that in these accounts the words are directly attributed to Isa and not Paul. All along in my understanding from the teachers of Islam was that it was not Isa, but Paul and the church leaders that pushed this ideology. Therefore, I was much surprised that Isa himself was making claims that are attributable only to God. Here are a few examples of the areas about which I had many discussions with Christians.
Isa having authority to forgives sins
In the Injeel account by Matthew, Isa forgives sins and causes quite a commotion among the Jews.
The challenge of these verses from the Injeel is twofold. First, does Isa have authority to forgive sins because he is divine, or because God has chosen to give him this authority as he is only a human? Secondly, the question is whether the phrase Son of Man is a Prophetic title that identifies him with God based on the Prophecies of Prophet Daniel found in the Torah, or Isa’s identification with humans.
As a Muslim, I believed both of these challenges pointed to Isa’s simply being human. That is how most Muslim scholars view it too. Also, it is clear from the context that the crowds thought that he was a human. Note, however, the attitude of the religious men (Scribes) who understood the Torah and the prophecies in the book of Daniel and were experts in religious matters. They considered Isa as claiming to be God. Note also that Isa then addresses them specifically as he proves the claim that he has authority to forgive sins and thereby supported his claim by healing the man. Even though I sided with the crowds, I wondered if the Scribes who understood God's Law from the Torah and the prophecies of Prophet Daniel were correct? I decided to look at what the Quran says about who can forgive sins?
Based on the above ayah, it is clear that the Quran sides with the Scribes as only Allah has authority to forgive sins and thus indirectly supports the fact that Isa is making a claim to be God. But, on the other hand, the same ayah tells us the worst of all sins is to associate partner with Allah as Isa has done! This caused quite a tension in my understanding of Isa’s claim to do something that only God has authority to do – forgive sins! But how could Isa have done the miracle as evidence of his claim to forgive sins if he was not who he was claiming to be? I was left at this point not able to support the claim from these verses that Isa was only human.
Isa claims to be greater than and existing before Ibrahim
From the Injeel account of John, we have another very interesting discourse with the Jews. Note what Isa is saying about himself with respect to Prophet Ibrahim.
This discourse between the Jews and Isa is a very interesting one with many points to consider. The first point is Isa showing a very unique relationship between him and God, whom he calls Father. Here Isa is making a very clear statement of equating himself to God, but also being under the authority of God the Father. The one thing that really upset the monotheistic Jews and also myself is the later portion of Isa being compared to Prophet Ibrahim, where Isa himself claims to not only be superior to Ibrahim, but also to exist before him. The word he uses to denote this is the 'I AM' which is the same word used as the personal name of God in the Torah, thereby equating himself to God and resulting in the Jews picking up stones to throw at him; as he is blaspheming, or to a Muslim, committing shirk – the unpardonable sin of associating others with God. That is why the Jews picked up stones to kill him. Hence I started to note that in the Injeel, Isa was claiming to have two natures - one human as many parts of the Injeel and also the Quran attest to and the other divine, to which only the Injeel attests to in Isa’s own words, and not that of Paul.
At this point I was wondering if the sections of the Injeel, where there are what I considered vague claims of divinity, corrupted? Since like the previous discussion on Isa forgiving sins, the Injeel does make claims for Isa’s divine nature and attributes the teaching directly to Isa and not Paul. I was not satisfied and desired to know more so I continued to study the Injeel to see what else Isa said about this topic of him being divine.
Isa claims unique relationship to God the Father
In the first two verses above, the fact that Isa is praising God I assumed to be because of the humanness of Isa. In the next set of verses, however, within the same context, a special relationship and uniqueness of Isa is shown with God the Father and a statement saying to all people that he himself, not God the Father will give rest. This is again at odds with all that we have discussed above about the ayahs from the Quran, and another similar one saying the same.
While the ayah from Surah 5:75 makes it clear that Isa, is no more than a messenger, the verse in Matthew 11:27 - "all things have been handed over to me" implies that Isa claimed divine status, but lower than that of the God the Father. This is very odd, as no human would make such a claim, especially a prophet of God. So at this point it became clear that the more I studied the Injeel, the evidence that Isa was claiming to be God Incarnate was not isolated or vague, but consistently claimed by him. Also in the process as he did this he continually angered the Jews with this outrageous claim. Let us take note what they think of him when Isa claims to have authority over life.
Isa claims authority over life
This section from the Injeel account according to John is the teaching of the Good Shepherd. Here a number of points again are being made, the most interesting one to me was Isa having authority to not only lay his life down; but he is claiming to be able to take it up again. Only Allah can give life, and hence Isa is making a very strong statement to his divine nature. This is, of course, picked up by the Jews as a number of them claim that he must be a demon or insane to make such a statement, however other are perplexed that he cannot be insane or a demon, as he was able to heal the blind, and only one from God can do that.
The first point about his knowing the Father and the Father knowing him is again leaning towards a special relationship with God that is exclusive. More so, Allah makes it very clear in the Zabur that he is the Good Shepherd, also we know from the teachings of Islam, only Allah can be considered Good and here Isa takes this absolute attribute only meant for Allah to himself. Hence we are left with the same dilemma the Jews were in - either Isa must be a demon or insane. However like the others, it is true that only one coming from God can do the miracles he was performing.
So here again we are left with the tension of his humanness and a claim of his having divine attributes. The more I studied about Isa from the Injeel the higher was my level of discomfort. In the past I had the understanding that it was the church leaders in general and Paul, through his Epistles in particular, who was a proponent of Isa’s divine nature. But here in the Injeel it is coming from the lips of Isa. I was at this point also puzzled and confused as to the true identity of Isa! Was he both human and divine? How could that be?
As I studied about Isa from Muslim Scholars and looked at how they addressed these difficult passages in the Injeel I found a variety of answers.
As I reviewed what the different scholars had to say and studied for myself the materials in regard to the true identity of Isa, I came to the following conclusions.
It was interesting to find that this dilemma of mine was not unique to me, but that it was also something the people of Isa’s day were dealing with. Here we see their confusion documented in the Injeel.
That is the question that has always been in the minds and thoughts of people throughout the generations since Isa walked the earth, and still is being asked today. The question Isa asked about himself "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" Isa than turns to his disciples and asks them since they should know him better than the public at large since they have been sharing their lives with him.
What was most interesting to me is the response Isa gave to Peter’s answer. That it was his Heavenly Father who revealed that to him. He did not say you are right, or even better give them the answer himself of his divine nature. But that Peter was blessed that this was revealed to him. Then I started to reflect on the whole aspect of Muslim claims that the Injeel is corrupted. If there was going to be corruption of the text by the church, why not simply add a phrase here from Isa’s lips. But there are none. Now the tension in my understanding was growing even more. There is no place in the Injeel Isa makes the claim of divinity by expressing in words that I am God, or Worship Me! But nonetheless, Isa continues to live his life out before the people, identifying himself with divine attributes and doing miracles and saying things that are in the exclusive domain of God.
As we go further through the Injeel accounts of Isa, it becomes clearer that as time went on, Isa became more public with his statements of his divine attributes. At this point, I shifted my attention on Isa’s understanding of the Trinity. I found this in the Injeel account of Matthew.
Isa states the Trinity
After the resurrection, Isa is receiving worship and clearly stating that all authority is given to him not only on earth, but also in heaven. This is one of the clearest statements of his divine nature along with receiving worship. He further goes on to make the claim of equality in the "singular" name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Hence we reach a point, where we cannot argue with the Injeel accounts, and what Isa himself has clearly stated. We may disagree if he really said it, or if the texts are corrupted, however we cannot deny that these statements are clearly making a claim of being divine and of being equal to God.
Again, when we match this with the record in the Quran we find ourselves at opposite ends of the spectrum as the Quran denies these claims as coming from Isa. Note the ayah below.
What was very disturbing to note from the above Surah is that Allah is taking Mary as the third God and not the Holy Spirit as the Injeel teaches. Hence one thing became clear in my study of the Injeel is that its concept of Trinity differs greatly from that of the Quran. From the Injeel, the Trinity consists of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Christian Trinity in the Injeel had not replaced the Holy Spirit by Mary. This was quite shocking to find out that the Quranic concept was off. I looked in the Quran and the Hadith, and could not find any place where the Trinity was Father, Son and Holy Spirit. For example, in my study of the Quran what is clear is that the third person of the Trinity was Mary, the mother of Isa and not the Holy Spirit. The earlier Surah 5:75 makes that clear, along with the two below.
In addition, unlike my understanding of the Quranic perspective of trinity being three gods in a merely physical and carnal relationship, the Biblical concept of one God is a complex unity. I struggled with this concept of a Tri-Unity; it did not make rational sense. But from the singular name in Matthew 28:19 above and from the many other places in the Injeel, such as the following verse, Isa does claim God is one.
To me mathematically 1+1+1 is 3 not 1. But yet, I could not deny that all that we know and can comprehend about Allah is what he has chosen to reveal about himself. I can accept that Allah is incomprehensible, and the only things I can comprehend about him are what he has chosen to reveal. I was challenged with the Trinity as Isa often spoke of God as the Father, he as the Son, and of the Holy Spirit in such terms as to leave no doubt that all three shared the realm of the divine unity, which the later church leaders labeled as Trinity. To me this would be stretching it mathematically to the concept of infinity – this is reasonable as God’s attribute and nature are incomprehensible and infinite. Here mathematically the normal rules of operations like addition of small numbers does not apply and hence one cannot say 1 + 1 + 1 = 3 for God, but must say something akin to infinity + infinity + infinity, which is mathematically undefined. Hence it cannot be ascertained logically or rationally – which is what I was trying to do. What was enlightening was what Isa said to Simon Peter when he said Isa was the Son of God. Isa made clear that this was a revelation from God as he spoke to Peter "Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven."
As this went on, I noted something that was not evident to me earlier. Great men of God do not always express it verbally that they are great men of God, their own works testify to it or others who walk along with them testify to their identity. For example, Muslims, Jews and Christians consider Hazraat Ibrahim a great Prophet. However, no place in any expression by Hazraat Ibrahim in the Quran or in the Torah is there a statement that he himself said ‘I am a prophet of God’. What we do find is that Allah states that in the Torah. This provided an interesting problem to deal with. To my amazement, I found something in the Injeel of Matthew that I had not read before. When Yahya (John the Baptist) is sending word through his disciples to find out if Isa is the expected ‘Al Masih’. His reply is ‘let the evidence speak for itself’ as seen below.
Hence here again was a prime opportunity for the original authors or the later day church to make strong claims for Isa’s divine nature in Isa’s own words. But none are found. Why, if corruption was going to be done, why not do it here to make the fundamental claim of Christianity loud and clear with no questions remaining? But instead we find simply ‘let the evidence speak for itself’. Also, only God can accurately predict the future as he is over time. Hence Isa, by identifying himself with a prophecy made by Prophet Isaiah is adding even more credibility than if he simply gave an affirmative answer or expressed it verbally.
At this point I was satisfied of my understanding of the claims of Isa in the Quran and the Injeel.
I had started in my quest to prove Isa merely a human. But in my journey of discovery I arrived at a place of understanding that it was Isa himself, and not Paul or the church leaders, that established the claim that he was God Incarnate. Also, at this point I was now even further set back in my esteem of the Quran as it had the concept of Christian Trinity incorrect. This was yet another blow to my use of the Quran as my standard; the others, as I mentioned earlier, being covered in my discussion on abrogation and discrepancy in the Quran. However, I was not ready to accept the words of the Injeel as true regarding the claim that Isa is God Incarnate. I needed to understand and either confirm or repudiate the reliability and integrity of the Injeel. Even with that, I was still very challenged with this claim of Isa being God Incarnate. I truly found solace though in the fact that this was something that Isa himself saw as a central truth, and that is why he focused attention on it with his closest disciples when he asked them about himself "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" (Matthew 16:15) Was the answer a "Messenger" as the Quran claims or "God Incarnate" to which the Injeel testifies? That is a question I was seeking an answer to, an answer of eternal ramifications and one I was not ready to give up on until I found it.
For those of you who are interested in further study on Isa please refer to the references on it at Answering-Islam and other sites and books. If you would like to send me your comments or questions, please use this email address.
** This article was first posted at the Answering-Islam website by the author Farooq Ibrahim. Copyrighted by Farooq Ibrahim and used by permission. For comments or feedback, please contact him or The Abraham Connection.