Arguably, no character in the Qur’an is more contentious than the one named ‘Isa. That is because this character is regularly understood to be Jesus. In fact, ‘Isa does exhibit many similarities to the Jesus of the Bible. He is born of the virgin Mary, said to be strengthened by the holy spirit, and performed signs such as healing the blind and lepers and raising the dead. Throughout the Qur’an’s pages, ‘Isa features as a prophet, as a transmitter of God’s revelation, and as one who confirms the Torah that was given before him. Yet, despite these similarities with the biblical Jesus, ‘Isa also speaks and acts in extrabiblical ways. Some aspects of ‘Isa’s story are not only extrabiblical, but they contradict the biblical account of Jesus. . . .
Preserved from Crucifixion
By nearly all Islamic accounts, the Qur’an is understood to teach that ‘Isa was not crucified, nor was he killed by the Jews, but that God preserved him from what would be such a shameful fate. This understanding derives from Qur’an 4:157–58, which states,
And for [the Jews’]saying, “Surely we killed the Messiah, [‘Isa], son of Mary, the messenger of God”—yet they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but it only seemed like (that) to them. Surely they have no knowledge about him, only the following of conjecture. Certainly they did not kill him. No! God raised him to Himself. God is mighty, wise.
What this passage unequivocally teaches is that ‘Isa was not killed nor crucified by the Jews. What happened to ‘Isa, and what it means that the Qur’an states that it seemed like he was crucified, however, are matters of debate. The standard Islamic teaching on the issue is that ‘Isa was raised to paradise prior to the crucifixion, and that he will return at the end of time to do battle with dajjal (the antichrist figure) and to die a natural death. Scholars speculate about who was crucified in his place, though many Muslims contend that Judas was made to look like (shubbiha lahum) ‘Isa and was crucified in his place. Regardless of what specific interpretation one takes, the qur’anic ‘Isa does not die a substitutionary, atoning, or salvific death on behalf of his followers.
Rejecting the Trinity
Finally, ‘Isa is made to be a champion of qur’anic monotheism. As such, the Qur’an argues that ‘Isa is but one of many messengers who proclaim the same message. This claim can be seen in the declaration of Qur’an 4:171, which states,
People of the Book! Do not go beyond the limits in your religion, and do not say about God (anything) but the truth. The Messiah, [‘Isa], son of Mary, was only a messenger of God, and His word, which He cast into Mary, and a spirit from Him. So believe in God and His messengers, but do not say, “Three.” Stop! (It will be) better for you. God is only one God. Glory to Him! (Far be it) that He should have a son! To Him (belongs) whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. God is sufficient as a guardian.
This verse specifically targets Christian monotheism, which understands God to exist as three persons in one essence.
Elsewhere, the Qur’an depicts the idea of the Trinity as the preposterous idea that includes God, Jesus, and Mary as the divine persons. In Qur’an 5:73 one reads, “Certainly they have disbelieved who say, “God is the third of three.” Two verses later, in Qur’an 5:75, it continues on saying, “The Messiah, son of Mary, was only a messenger. Messengers have passed away before him. His mother was a truthful woman. They both ate food. See how We make clear the signs to them, then see how deluded they are?” The idea of God eating food is taken to be absurd, thus ‘Isa and Mary are to be viewed merely as admirable humans.
Yet, even more explicitly, Qur’an 5:116 depicts God asking, “[‘Isa] son of Mary! Did you say to the people, ‘Take me and my mother as two gods instead of God (alone)?’ He said, ‘Glory to You! It is not for me to say what I have no right (to say). If I had said it, You would have known it. You know what is within me, but I do not know what is within You.” Thus, ‘Isa in the Qur’an is made to declare to God that he never sought the worship of his followers, and he merely commanded them to serve God in the same way as all of the previous prophets also did.
“40 Questions About Islam is the best one-stop introduction to Islam written by an evangelical Christian. In it, Matthew Bennett provides concise and reliable answers to the most important questions people have about Islam and Muslims, encouraging Christians all the while to relate lovingly, respectfully, and evangelistically to their Muslim neighbors. Recommend highly and without reservation.”
— Bruce Riley Ashford, Provost, Professor of Theology & Culture, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary