Jesus’ sonship of God in Christianity is no different from the concept of offspring of God of the polytheists of Arabia:
He (Jesus) said: “I am Allah’s servant. He has given me the Book and has made me a prophet. (19.30) He has made me blessed wherever I may be. He has enjoined upon me prayer and almsgiving so long as I remain alive. (19.31) And [He has made me] kind to my mother and has not made me arrogant or wretched. (19.32) Peace is on me the day I was born, the day I shall die, and the day I shall be raised alive.” (19.33) Such was Jesus son of Mary: this is the statement of the truth which they (Christians) dispute. (19.34) Allah would never take offspring [to Himself]. Far exalted is He above this. When He decrees a matter, He says to it only “Be!” and it is. (19.35)
Verses 19.34-35 make it clear that Jesus’ alleged sonship of God is as false as any claim of offspring of God. It is the concept that God could have offspring that the Qur’an unreservedly rejects, not the identification of particular beings as God’s offspring. Another indirect rebuttal of Jesus’, as well as the angel’s, divinity is made in this verse:
And neither would he command you that you should take the angels and the prophets for lords. Would he command you to disbelieve after you have become Muslims? (3.80)
The Arabs were aware of the Christian claim of Jesus’ sonship of God, so when they saw Jesus being mentioned and praised in the same book that rejected their daughters of God they argued that Jesus was also considered a son of God:
And when the son of Mary was cited as an example, your people [O Muhammad!] turned away from him. (43.57) They said: “Are our gods better, or is he?” They raise this only by way of disputation; they are merely a contentious people. (43.58) He is only a servant on whom We bestowed favour and whom We made an example for the Children of Israel. (43.59)
The Qur’an rejects the polytheists’ argument because Jesus is not considered a son of God in the Qur’an. On the contrary, it refutes this Christian claim. The Qur’an also stresses that the polytheists knew all too well what the Qur’an says about Jesus, so their argument was not genuine, but contentious.
Contrary to what the New Testament states, it was not Jesus who claimed to be the son of God. Jesus’ sonship of God is seen by most Christians as a form of divinity, yet Jesus never claimed to be divine. He stressed that he was human, and that he was sent by God to deliver a message. His followers later split into different factions and distorted his teachings, and his original message was lost:
When Jesus came with clear proofs, he said: “I have come to you with Wisdom, and to make plain some of what you have disagreed on. So keep your duty to Allah, and obey me. (43.63) Allah is my Lord and your Lord. So worship Him. This is a straight way.” (43.64) But factions from among them differed. Woe to those who do wrong from the torment of a painful day. (43.65)
It is rather irrelevant, according to the Qur’an, what terminology is used to express Jesus’ divinity and his relationship to God. This terminology, the discussion of which has occupied Christian theologians since the formative days of Christianity after Jesus’ departure, would not change the fact that the very claim that Jesus is divine removes the distinction between him and God. In Qur’anic theology, divinity sums up the fundamental difference between God, on the one hand, and everything and everyone else, on the other. To say that someone is divine yet try to differentiate him from God is a logical fallacy and a meaningless exercise. Indeed, no matter how theologians express Jesus’ divinity, he and God end up being treated equally and interchangeably. Any prayer that can be made to God can be equally addressed to Jesus. To attribute divinity to Jesus, therefore, is to make him equal to God:
They have indeed disbelieved those who say: “Allah is the Messiah son of Mary.” Say [O Muhammad!]: “Who then can do anything against Allah if He had willed to destroy the Messiah son of Mary, his mother, and everyone on earth?” Allah’s is the kingdom of the heavens and the earth and all that is between them. He creates what He wills. Allah is able to do all things. (5.17) And the Jews and the Christians say: “We are the sons of Allah and His beloved ones.” Say [O Muhammad!]: “Why does He then chastise you for your faults? No, you are human beings from among those whom He has created; He forgives whom He pleases and chastises whom He pleases.” And Allah’s is the kingdom of the heavens and the earth and what is between them, and to Him is the eventual coming. (5.18)
Some Christian scholars have wrongly claimed that the Qur’an rejects the concept of sonship of God because it implies procreation. What the Qur’an therefore actually denies, they suggest, is a corrupt interpretation of the New Testament’s concept of Jesus’ sonship of God which does not imply any act of procreation (Cragg, 1999: 189-207; Parrinder, 1995: 136-137). It is common among critics of the Qur’an to claim that its rejection of certain concepts and practices represents a response to particular groups that held a corrupt understanding of the Jewish and/or Christian scriptures, or reflects a misunderstanding by the author of the Qur’an, who is supposed to be Muhammad, of what the scriptures say.
The Qur’an rejects that God was involved in any procreation but, as I have already explained, it rejects the divinity of Jesus regardless of how this divinity is explained — whether it implies procreation or not. Interestingly, none of the verses (6.101, 72.3, 37.152, 112.3) that deny that God had a consort or begot offspring occurs in the context of talking about Jesus’ sonship of God. The Qur’an’s rejection is not directed at an outlandish interpretation of the Christian scriptures or derives from a misunderstanding of these writings. Christian writings present Jesus’ sonship of God as a form of divinity, and this is why this sonship is rejected by the Qur’an. Verse 5.18, above, sheds clear light on this issue.
The Qur’an mentions the historical fact that the Jews, and later the Christians, called themselves sons of God. Significantly, the Qur’an differentiates between this mass sonship of God and Jesus’ unique sonship of the Divine. While the latter sonship is condemned as imbuing Jesus with divinity, the former is not considered blasphemous. The Qur’an recognizes that the Jews’ and Christians’ claims to sonship of God are not a claim to any form of divinity, and that they only signify close servanthood to God. So its rejection of these claims is only directed at their implication that God treats the Jews and Christians preferentially. The Qur’an refutes this implication by pointing out that the followers of these religions are treated in the same way others are. Should a Jew or Christian fail in his duty toward God, this believer would be punished accordingly, and the “son of God” tag would do nothing to protect him from that punishment. The verse then reminds all that the Jews and Christians are merely human beings created by God, and that what applies to humans in general applies to the followers of these religions.
This condemnation of the claim that the Jews and Christians are the sons of God is reminiscent of other verses that criticize the self-image of the Jews, which Christians later borrowed, as the chosen people of God:
And they [the People of the Book] say: “No one shall enter paradise except those who are Jews or Christians.” These are [merely] their desires. Say [O Muhammad!]: “Produce your proof if you are truthful.” (2.111) Yes, whoever becomes a Muslim (surrenders himself) to Allah and is a doer of good, his reward is with his Lord, and there is no fear for them nor shall they grieve. (2.112)
The Qur’an states that people are not judged by how they label themselves or are labelled by others, but by their beliefs and deeds (also 5.69):
Those who believe, the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabaeans — whoever believe in Allah and the Last day and does good — they shall have their reward from their Lord, and there is no fear for them, nor shall they grieve. (2.62)
He commands all people not to try and praise and commend themselves as He knows who is pious and who is not:
So do not ascribe purity to yourselves; He knows best those who are pious to God. (53.32)
In another verse that condemns describing Jesus as the son of God, the Qur’an also anathematizes the claim by some Jews that a certain ‘Uzayr was the son of God:
The Jews say: “‘Uzayr is the son of Allah,” and the Christians say: “The Messiah is the son of Allah.” That is a saying from their mouths, imitating the saying of the disbelievers of old. May Allah fight them! How deluded they are! (9.30) They have taken their rabbis and monks as lords besides Allah, and so they treated the Messiah son of Mary, although they were not commanded to worship other than One God; there is no God save Him. Far exalted is He above their attribution of partners to Him! (9.31)
Exegetes usually identify ‘Uzayr with the Prophet Ezra of the Old Testament. This is a possible identification, but there is no evidence to support it. Verse 9.30 does not accuse all Jews of considering ‘Uzayr the son of God. The Qur’an uses the definite name of a group to refer to some of them. For instance, the Qur’an states that “the Jews,” meaning some Jews, killed prophets and tampered with God’s word. Similarly, “the people” is used to mean “some people” (e.g. 2.13), and so on. So “the Jews” in verse 9.30 means some Jews. The fact that this belief is restricted to some Jews only explains why, even though the Jews and Israelites are mentioned much more than the Christians in the Qur’an, it is mentioned only once whereas the sonship of God of Jesus is rejected several times.
As we have already seen in Chapter 3, Judaism did not use the title son of God to imply divinity. Verse 9.30 makes it clear that ‘Uzayr’s sonship of God was taken to mean that he was divine, as was the case with Jesus, so clearly the reference is to a heterodox belief among a small Jewish group or cult, which probably lived in Arabia at the time of Prophet Muhammad. The older disbelievers that the verse mentions are people who lived before the Jews and the Christians and believed, as the latter later did, in forms of sonship of God. The concept of sonship of God can be found in various ancient civilizations.
The reference to the Jews and Christians taking their rabbis and monks, respectively, as lords besides God does not mean that they considered them divine. It rather highlights the unconditional surrender to what these clerics taught, even when their teachings went against God’s. It is reported that Prophet Muhammad was asked about this verse by a Christian who pointed out that the Christians did not worship their monks. The Prophet replied that the Christians followed their monks who permitted things that God had declared unlawful and prohibited things that God had made lawful, and this was the equivalent of worshipping them, because they were allowed to overrule God’s law.
The Qur’an separates the condemnation of the claims of ‘Uzayr’s and Jesus’ sonship of God from its indictment of treating the rabbis and monks as lords. Note that the verse uses the term “lords” not “gods.” Also, verse 9.31 mentions the treatment of the rabbis and monks as lords separately from the fact that Jesus was also treated so. Jesus’ lordship is derived from the belief in his divinity, whereas treating rabbis and monks as lords only referred to the fact that people followed them blindly. Indeed, two verses later in the same chapter the Qur’an exposes the fact that many rabbis and monks had conned people and turned them away from the right path:
O you who believe! Many of the rabbis and monks eat away the property of people falsely and turn [people] away from Allah’s way; and [as for] those who hoard up gold and silver and do not spend it in Allah’s way, to them give [O Muhammad!] tidings of a painful chastisement [on the Day of Judgment.] (9.34)
The Qur’an does not reject the lordship of the rabbis and monks just to replace it with lordship of Muhammad. No human being should treat another as a god or even as a lord who can change or override the commands of the ultimate Lord, God:
Say [O Muhammad!]: “O People of the Book! Come to an equitable agreement between us and you: we shall not serve any other than Allah, we shall not associate anything with Him, and we shall not take from among each other lords besides Allah.” But if they turn away, then say: “Bear witness that we are Muslims.” (3.64)
Another misconception advocated by some Christian scholars (e.g. Parrinder, 1995: 137) is that the Qur’an does not reject Jesus’ sonship of God absolutely, but only denies adoptionism, i.e. the belief that God adopted Jesus at some point as His son. Bishop Kenneth Cragg shares this view, and he argues that the Qur’an’s rebuttal of adoptionism is no indication of its rejection of the doctrine of the Incarnation, i.e. that God took a human form in the person of Jesus:
Where the Qur’an remonstrates against Christian faith in Jesus’ Incarnation, what it in fact accuses is not Incarnation but adoptionism, itself a heresy. However, it serves little purpose for Christians to “exploit” this and argue from it that the Qur’an mistakes what it is rejecting and, therefore, might be claimed not to reject what Christians believe. This would be both barren and contentious, a disservice both to fact and to right intention. The operative term is ittikhāth (cf. 17.111, 19.35, 19.92, 39.4). “God’s not taking to himself a son” is a conviction Christians share. The phrase does not describe, and so does not in itself deny, what the Gospel means by “the Word made flesh” and the Creed by “the only begotten Son.” (Cragg, 1999: 38-39)
I have already presented substantial evidence that the Qur’an rejects Jesus’ divinity, whether this is presented as procreation, adoptionism, incarnation, or any other form. I would like to add two more points here about Cragg’s wrong link of the Arabic verb yattakhith (takes to himself) to adoptionism. First, the Qur’an’s rejection of Jesus’ sonship of God is not always associated with the use of the verb yattakhith or God’s taking of a son to Himself. We have already seen verses where this sonship is denied without any qualification and where there is no room to suggest that what is being rejected is any one particular form of deification. Second, scholars such as Cragg ignore the fact that yattakhith is used with many nouns, not only “son,” that its general meaning is “considers” or “treats as,” and that it has no explicit or implicit emphasis on the time of occurrence of the action it refers to. There are numerous verses to show this (e.g. 2.67, 2.80, 3.28, 4.89). One example is the Qur’an’s statement that “Allah took (ittakhatha) Abraham as a close friend” (4.125). The verb clearly does not imply any act of adoption of Abraham by God.
Furthermore, the Qur’an uses the verb ittakhatha with the rejection of the concept of offspring of God, not only the concept of Jesus’ sonship. The verses that are particularly interesting here are those where the verb yattakhith is used specifically when talking about the taking of other than Jesus as alleged gods. When referring to the sin of the Jews who disobeyed Moses and worshipped a calf, the Qur’an uses the verb yattakhith to mean “take as a god” (2.92, 4.153, 7.148, 7.152). The verb yattakhith here cannot mean “adopt.” The same applies to these verses (also 19.81, 21.21, 21.24):
And Allah has said: “Do not take (tattakhithū) two gods; He is only one God; so be fearful of Me.” (16.51)
These, our people, have taken (ittakhathū) gods besides Him; why do they not produce a clear authority in their support? Who is then more wrong than he who forges a lie against Allah? (18.15)
In each and every one of these verses, the verb yattakhith is used to mean “take” and appears in the context of rejecting considering something or someone as a god. No sense of “adopt” is implied or even possible. Moreover, in verse 5.116 the verb yattakhith is used in the context of denying the divinity of not only Jesus, but also his mother Mary, so clearly it cannot mean “adopt”:
And when Allah said: “O Jesus son of Mary! Did you say to people: ‘Take me (ittakhithūnī) and my mother for two gods besides Allah?’” He said: “Glory be to You! I could never say what I have no right to say. If I have said it, then You know it. You know what is in my mind, but I do not know what is in Your mind. You know all unseen things. (5.116) I never said to them anything other than what You commanded me: ‘worship Allah, my and your Lord.’ I was a witness over them while I was among them, and when You took me You were the watcher over them. You are a witness over all things. (5.117) If You punish them, they are Your servants; and if You forgive them, You are the Invincible, the Wise.” (5.118)
This dialogue happened after God took Jesus to live in a heavenly place and rescued him from the attempt to get him crucified (Fatoohi, 2007: 445-452). Jesus lived until his middle age. The Arabic term in verses 3.46 and 5.110 that I have translated as “middle-aged” is kahl. This term is taken by exegetes and linguists to denote the period after youth and before old age, with almost all identifying it as covering the late thirties and forties and when the person has grown grey hair. According to the highly regarded lexicon al-Qāmūs al-Muḥīṭ of the well-known linguist al-Fayrūz ābādī, kahl means “someone with grey hair and a respectable appearance, or someone who is over thirty or thirty four up to fifty one.” I am inclined to think that Jesus was still a young man when he left the earth, so he might have lived some 20-30 years in the new, non-earthly place before he died. This dialogue, therefore, does not mean that Jesus and his mother were already being treated as divine before he was taken to heaven. It is far more likely that the distortion of Jesus’ teachings began when he was no longer around to confirm his real message and counter the attempts to turn him and his mother into gods.
It was probably Paul who sowed the seeds of the deification of Jesus and it was among his communities of pagan converts that this distorted teaching gained momentum and flourished and ultimately influenced even some Jewish converts. Unlike Judaism, Roman paganism accommodated the concept of the divinity of human beings. Most scholars also think that the deification of Jesus happened after he was gone. Larry Hurtado (2003: 131) stresses that “the Gospels confirm that the worship of Jesus in ‘post-Easter’ Christian circles represents a significant development beyond the sorts of homage given to Jesus during his ministry.” It was not the historical Jesus who taught people to worship him. Considering the historical context of Jesus’ teachings, and even taking into account the Gospel accounts, his deification must be considered as a development that Jesus had no involvement in and happened after him:
To state something that hardly requires argumentation, in the setting of first-century Jewish Palestinian society, the profound commitment to the exclusive worship of the one God, and an equally profound antipathy toward deification of humans, make it most improbable that either his followers or those Jews who approached him for help offered what they would have intended as “worship” of him as divine. Though gentiles may have been more comfortable with reverencing human figures as divine, any who might have offered such reverence to Jesus in supplicating him for his healing and exorcistic powers would have been regarded as misguided. To be sure, in that cultural setting, it would have been fully appropriate to make reverential gestures toward someone regarded as a respected teacher or a source of desperately-needed help. But the far more intense devotion to Jesus that characterized early Christian circles so amazingly early was not simply the continuation of the pattern of homage given to the historical Jesus, and it cannot be accounted for adequately by reference to Jesus’ ministry. (Hurtado, 2003: 144-145)
To put it in a stark way, modern scholars have concluded what the Qur’an revealed 14 centuries ago, that Jesus taught that he was a man and that his message and image were changed after him as pagan beliefs turned him into a god. I will discuss in more detail Paul’s role in defining Christianity in Chapter 7.
Verse 5.116 gives another clear confirmation that Jesus never claimed to be divine, which means he never claimed to be the son of God. The verse also mentions the fact that many Christians turned Mary also into an object of worship, i.e. made her divine like her son. The worship of Mary or “Mariolatry” is also a concept that is foreign to Jesus’ teachings. In verse 5.116 Jesus stresses that he never commanded people to consider him or his mother divine. Jesus tells God that he only taught what God ordered him to teach, which is to worship God, who is his and everyone’s Lord.
The Qur’an also stresses Jesus’ human nature through the metronymic title “son of Mary.” Semitic people are called after their fathers, so in addition to emphasizing the fact that Jesus had no father, this matronymic is intended to deny any suggestion that he was a son of God. This description of Jesus occurs 23 times in the Qur’an. Only the name Jesus occurs more — 25 times. Interestingly, Jesus is only once called “son of Mary” in the whole of the New Testament: “‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him” (Mark 6:3). However, the New Testament frequently uses the significant title “son of man.” I will later argue that Jesus used this title to stress his human nature and rebuff the suggestion that he was the son of God or any attribution of divinity to him.
There is no reason to suggest that the title “son of man” is directly linked to the metronymic “son of Mary.” The latter is always used by God in the Qur’an. There is no instance of Jesus referring to himself as “son of Mary.” It is difficult to think of a suitable use by Jesus of this title anyway. On the other hand, almost all occurrences of “son of man” in the New Testament are found in sayings of Jesus. My conclusion is that God, as well as people, called Jesus after his mother, “son of Mary,” and that Jesus used the periphrastic expression “son of man” to refer to himself. Both are intended to stress Jesus’ human nature and refute claims that he was divine.