The person of Jesus Christ: the great debate between Islam and Christianity
One of the most significant points of difference between Christians and Muslims is their different understanding of the nature of Jesus Christ. Who is he, what is he? Closer analysis of the key text (‘Surat Al-‘Ikhlāş) reveals that the distance is not so great; indeed, that there might be a misunderstanding of key terms. This does not mean that the issue is resolved, but rather that it is better understood.
Reflections on the Qur’an, ‘Surat Al-‘Ikhlāş (The Sincerity)’ 112:1-4 by the Mela Interfaith Association discussion group.
Surat Al-‘Ikhlāş (The Sincerity)’ 112:1-4 reads:
“Say, “He is Allah , [who is] One,
Allah , the Eternal Refuge.
He neither begets nor is born,
Nor is there to Him any equivalent.” ”:
We noted that the Qur’an is a text proclaimed in a particular language, and directed in the first instance to a particular audience in a particular context. We named some of the particular groups: the Quraysh of Muhammed’s immediate clan, other groups in Arabia, the ‘People of the Book’ including Christians and Jews; idolaters; faithful Muslims; believers. and at times all people, as in the verses which have the phrase “O People”.
The Qur’an is also a text addressed to the whole of humanity. It has therefore both a particular and universal aspect, so that we must see the universality in the particularity. This involves a process of interpretation.
Someone commented that this is true also of the Bible. He referred in particular to the word “Messiah” which has a certain meaning in the Biblical text and has been widened in scope in the later Christian understanding of the term. Another commented that the word ‘messiah’ is also found in the Qur’an but in a different sense from the New Testament.
We then looked at the English word ‘begotten’ which has a very different nuance in its Arabic, Hebrew, Greek and Latin sources.
First of all, it was noted that the Arabic root of the term is WLD, which means ‘to bear’, ‘to give birth’, ‘beget’, ‘generate’, ‘procreate’, ‘bring forth’, etc. The root is at the base of words and phrases such as ‘newborn child’, ‘he was born, ‘baby boy’ (wali), ‘baby girl’ (walida), ‘birth place’ (wolud). In the phrase of the Surat: “he does not beget and he was not begotten”, the root ‘beget’ (WLD) is given in its active and passive forms; these could also be translated as: ‘he does not bring forth and is not brought forth’; ‘he does not procreate children and he was not the result of a process of procreation’.
We asked if the root WLD has a sexual/procreative aspect. It was explained that the Arabic root has further forms linked to the idea of procreation: ‘assisting in giving birth’, ‘making to bear children’, ‘making to be born or descended from’, ‘to increase’, to ‘to multiply’, ‘to aim to produce’.
We can ask, therefore, is the Surat Al-‘Ikhlāş opposing the idea prevalent in the pagan Arabic tribes of a deity having children? Childbearing deities were part of the culture. Indeed, the mythologies of the Arabic tribes even had names for the daughters of the gods; angels were the daughters of God.
A discussion then ensued about the context of the text. One member of the group pointed out that Surat Al-‘Ikhlāş is ‘Meccan text’, pronounced during the period in Mecca where there were almost no Christians, and certainly no Hindus or Greeks. Another member noted, however, that Muhammed had travelled during his youth and had met a Christian monk. He was, therefore, strongly of the opinion that Surat Al-‘Ikhlāş is clearly and primarily aimed against Christian Trinitarian ideas which had so occupied the minds ofChristians in the 4th and 5th centuries CE. Amin Ahsan Islahi (1904–1997), the noted Pakistani commentator on the Qur’an was also the opinion that Surat 112 is specifically aimed at Christian mythologies. But which mythology? Did Muhammad know of the gnostic speculations and hierogamies that abounded in Egypt even in later centuries?
One of us questioned whether we can be too confident about the influences on Muhammad during his youth. Not much is known for certain. He admitted, however, that among the ordinary Christians of Medina, and of Mecca if any did live in that city, there could well have been the unorthodox idea of a Trinity consisting of God, Mary and their child Jesus. The Qur’an intimates that this idea was around at that time. Indeed, it may have been precisely to counter that idea that the Surat Al-‘Ikhlāş was proclaimed. And because the Qur’an suggests this, many Muslims today, following the Qur’an, hold firmly that this is what Christianity actually teaches.
The word ‘begotten’ has fallen out of general use in English and is commonly used only in the creed of Nicaea/Constantinople (CE 381). The Greek, Latin and English versions of the creed read: τὸν μονογενῆ; unigenitum, ‘only-begotten’; γεννηθέντα, natum, ‘born’; γεννηθέντα οὐ ποιηθέντα, genitum non factum, ‘begotten not made’.
The Greek word monogenes is found twice in the first chapter of the Gospel of John (vv.14 and 18). This term itself hearkens back to the Genesis 22 where Abraham is told to sacrifice his ‘only son’. The Hebrew term yāhīd in Gen 22 has a double meaning: either ‘favourite son’ or ‘only son’. It firstly means ‘favourite son’ since Abraham had an older son, Ishmael, by Hagar, his wife’s serving maid. Isaac however, is the ‘only son’ that counts, the only heir. The command is all the more dramatic because Abraham is told to kill the only one son of importance. As Gen 22 is dominated by the theme of sacrifice the Greek word monogenes must also be understood to have a nuance of sacrifice. The importance of Gen 22 in the New Testament is underscored by the debates in John 8 on the true son and Abraham’s sacrifice, and in Galatians 4 about which son has a rightful place in the house. The term monegenes or unigenitus ‘only-begotten’, is therefore not just a comment about the nature of Jesus but also about his sacrificial role. This sense of sacrifice is lost in the English word ‘begotten’. It is also absent from the Arabic word.
One of us stressed again the importance of seeing the term ‘son’ in its messianic context. The word ‘messiah’ is the primary term; terms such as ‘son’ or ‘begotten’ are to be understood as commentaries on the word ‘messiah’.
The Arabic use of ‘begotten’ has a different slant from the Christian use of the ‘begotten’. Someone agreed that the Arabic term stresses procreation. The speculation of the Patristic period attached no ‘procreative’ meaning to the word γεννηθέντα. Another member agreed that at no stage does the Christian term ‘begotten’ have a physiological sense. It is more ‘abstract’, but among the ordinary people the use of the terms ‘Father’ and ‘children of God’, might have led the them to see ‘begotten’ in reproductive terms.
However, all that is perhaps missing the point of Surat Al-‘Ikhlāş which is not to oppose Christians or Greeks but to proclaim the transcendence of God.
At this point one of our number changed the direction of the discussion. He held that Surat Al-‘Ikhlāş has its own existence, and is not just a polemic against the ideas of Arabian tribes or Christian theologians. The Surat has nothing to do with those groups. It is a revelation of God himself. Likewise, discussions about influences on Muhammed are irrelevant. It is a self-revelation by God himself and must be seen as such in the first instance. Only after that can it be applied to other contexts. He stressed that there is value in just standing in front of mystery, and avoiding to inclination to investigate. In listening to the Qur’an we are being asked to bow down. The One is the heart of the mystery.
Islahi holds that there is a central theme, a ‘pillar’, in every Surat, around which the rest of the Surat revolves. The central pillar of Surat Al-‘Ikhlāş is the term ‘one’. The other terms are just an elaboration this central point. Indeed, Surat 112 is, along with Surat 1, Al-Fātiḥa, the fundamental text of the Qur’an. The Surat Al-‘Ikhlāş is making the point that God is one; there no one equal to him; there is no question of being begetting or being begotten; he is self-sufficient; he has no need of anything not even creation. One of us stated that he could hear such a text and assent to it fully in faith.
All the words of Surat Al-‘Ikhlāş flow from the phrase ‘Allah is one’. The main point of Surat 112 is to proclaim the unity of God. We should have started with discussing ‘one’ and only then gone on to discuss ‘eternal’, ‘refuge’ (‘absolute’), ‘not dependent’, ‘begotten’, ’without equivalent’ (there are different interpretations of the original). If Allah is not dependent, then there is no begetting nor begotten.
A question asked about the meaning of the word ‘one’, for it does not imply two nor does it mean first. It was pointed out in reply that linguists distinguish between ahad (one) and wahid. The word ahad means the one in whose being no other can be associated; there is no sharing of attributes. It means that there is no division in Allah; no one can be associated or partnered or compared with Allah. Remarkably in the Qur’an the word ahad is only ever used of Allah.
The question was asked if there Surat 112 could be linked with Deut 6:4, “The Lord is one.” Perhaps the great credal statement of Deut 6:4 is closer to the Muslim creed than are the Christian creeds.
What is the meaning is the word ‘absolute’? It obviously signifies no dependency, such that Allah is in no way obliged to answer human prayer. When we call on Allah, he may or may not answer, and we submit to his will in this regard.
The question was also asked: if we stress the ‘no other’ sense of the word ‘one’, what sort of deity do we end up with? Is Allah seen as ultimately solitary, even solipsistic, Even if we speak of Allah as being close to his creation, is there not an infinite gulf between them, an insuperable sense of superiority and inferiority? There can be no real closeness. A member of the group spoke of the ecstatic nature of God, that he is essentially outward-going to his creatures. If creation is in any way necessary; if Allah is not to be seen as essentially remote, he has become dependent.
Another member added that the revelation about Allah is really about human beings. The 99 ‘names’ of Allah refer actually to the human condition.
The question was also asked: what can Christianity bring to Surat Al-‘Ikhlāş? Does Christianity throw any light upon the light of this Surat? That question lies at the heart of interfaith dialogue. If religions do not have anything vitally important to say to each other, the interfaith relationship is useless. In more general terms, what does Christianity learn from Buddhism; in what way can Hinduism develop the meaning of the Qur’an. How necessary are we to each other?
One of us prefers using the word logos in speaking of Jesus rather than the word ’begotten’. On this matter another of us referred to the Sanskrit term vac (‘word’). Jesus is the vac of God. For the Muslims, the vac of God is the text of the Qur’an; for Christians, the vac of God is the person of Jesus. He went on to speak of the Sanskrit term advaita which he interpreted as ‘one without a second’. Another member responded that the word advaita is different from the word eka, which has the sense of monos (one, only). Advaita is really a negative, meaning ‘not dual’. It is a positive expressed negatively. It is a paradox, and an apophatic term.
We noted that we could move out of the Greek term ‘substance’, as in the phrase ‘of one substance’ (homoousios), and speak in Hindu terms, such as vacaka (‘speaker’) and vacana (‘spoken’). The more fully the speaker expresses himself, the more the speaker and the spoken are one. In turn, those who listen become the word they hear. There is identity between listener, speaker and spoken. The relationship involves mutual identity, a profound unity.
The Christian approach is theosis (divinisation), where, by the grace of God, the human acquires the divine state. But theosis doesn’t fit well with Surat Al-‘Ikhlāş.
The Mela Interfaith Association (MIA) seeks to promote the bonds of friendship between members of different faith traditions in order to learn from each other’s spiritual experience and to journey together in peace and harmony.
Among its purposes is to learn from each other’s sacred texts; and link our reflections to Christian texts. In keeping with this purpose, we have embarked on a series of discussions on verses of the Qur’an. Our procedure is to discuss the text, and produce audiotapes as well as written summaries which will be available on the Mela Interfaith Association website (http://www.melainterfaith.org)
In attendance on 5 July 2014 at the Janssen Spirituality Centre.
Rev. Dr John Dupuche (Senior Lecturer, MCD University of Divinity / Catholic Theological College; Honorary Fellow, Australian Catholic University; member of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission; President, Mela Interfaith Association); Dr Stewart Sharlow (Public officer and Board Member, Mela Interfaith Association); Dr Herman Roborgh (Honorary Fellow, Australian Catholic University; Board Member, Mela Interfaith Association); Rev. Nick de Groot svd, (Director, Janssen Spirituality Centre; Board Member, Mela Interfaith Association); Rev. Dr Jacob Kavunkal svd (Associate Professor, MCD University of Divinity / YTU).