Christianity and Islam: What American Christians need to know about Muslims
Quick quiz. Which has more to say about the virgin birth of Jesus: the Qur’an, or the Bible?
Believe it or not, the right answer is: the Qur’an! Part of the reason for this is that the entire Bible contains only three references to the virgin birth: Matthew 1:18-25, Luke 1:26-35, and Isaiah 7:14. That’s it. Matthew and Luke never mention the virgin birth again. And Mark, John, Paul, and the other New Testament authors do not mention it at all.
Of course, with the possible exception of the New Testament era, the virgin birth has always been a crucial part of Christianity. The Church Fathers wrote quite a bit about the theological implications of the idea that Jesus did not have a biological human father, and early Christians made the virgin birth into a fundamental doctrine of Christianity. Perhaps the Fathers were influenced by the enticing message of the Christmas stories: through God’s love and power, a child born in the humblest of circumstances brings hope to a sick world. Thus, the virgin birth is part of the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed, and it is included inthe “statement of faith” of many churches and parachurch organizations.
The fact that the virgin birth became theologically important shortly after the New Testament era explains why it is mentioned so often in the Qur’an. Since Islam teaches that the Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad, its historical contents address people and events which happened prior to his time. Therefore, the biblical material which is in the Qur’an focuses on things which were important to people during Muhammad’s lifetime, in the seventh century A.D. Arabs of that time had a lot of contact with Christians (and Jews), and so were very familiar with the stories that were important tot Christians. As a result, the Qur’an includes quite a bit on Mary’s experience – so much so, that Mary is the only woman who has a chapter of the Qur’an named after her (sura 19)!
Of course, Christians and Muslims disagree on the crucial question of the nature of Jesus. Traditional Christians believe that Jesus is both God and man, while Muslims believe that he was a man only. Christians also believe that Jesus came to earth in order to create a way for people to gain a peaceful relationship with God, through his death on the cross. Islam instead teaches that God sent Jesus only to speak His word to humankind, and to bring scriptures (the gospels). Muslims believe that Jesus was one of the greatest prophets of all time, only slightly inferior to Muhammad. And since Jesus brought the gospels, Muslims actually affirm most of the contents of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Even though it is much shorter than the Bible, the Qur’an contains four separate passages that discuss Mary’s experience: 3:42; 19:17-21; 21:91; and 66:12. Particularly interesting is 21:91-92: “And she who was chaste, therefore We breathed into her something of Our Spirit and made her and her son a token for (all) peoples. Lo! This, your religion, is one religion, and I am your Lord, so worship Me.” In other words, this passage is saying that Jesus came for the benefit of all people, and that he taught the one true “religion” that focused on worshiping the one true God.
This is, in fact, the Christian message. While there are many religions and many conceptions of God in the world, we Christians believe that the best way for human beings to find God is to go through Jesus. Christian can therefore affirm this teaching of the Qur’an, that Jesus was sent by God to tell everyone about God’s love, and about the human need to change our lives in order to obey God’s will.
Again, Christians and Muslims disagree about whether Jesus was God, and about Jesus’ role in human salvation. But we do agree on his teachings about God’s power, love, and sense of justice, and on his message of love for God and neighbor. The Qur’an thus celebrates the momentous, joyous occasion of Jesus’ birth. This Christmas, and this coming year, let’s make Jesus a figure of unity for all people who love God and love peace.
Helping modern readers engage with ancient biblical texts
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