In Matthew 16:15-16, Jesus asks Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responds, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”
If Jesus asked a Muslim this same question, what would he say? To find out, let’s delve into a comparison between the Quran and Bible.
The Annunciation and Virgin Birth
Both the Quran and the Bible record an Annunciation event prior to Jesus’ conception and his birth:
The Quranic version of the Annunciation:
When the angels said, “O Mary, truly God gives thee glad tidings of a Word from him, whose name is the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, high honored in this world and the hereafter, and one of those brought nigh. He will speak to people in the cradle and in maturity, and will be among the righteous.” She said, ‘My Lord, how shall I have a child while no human has touched me?’ He said, “Thus does God create whatsoever he will. When He decrees a thing, he only says to it, ‘Be!’ and it is. And he will teach him the Book, Wisdom, the Torah, and the Gospel, and he will be a messenger to the Children of Israel” (3:45-49a).
Similarities with the Bible account, found in Luke 1:26-38, include the Annunciation by angel(s), the virginity of Mary, the conception of Jesus through the Holy Spirit, and the greatness/honor of Jesus. The important differences lie in the exact nature of Jesus. The Quran, very much opposed to the Trinity, does not equate the Holy Spirit with God. Also noteworthy is the miracle of Jesus speaking from the cradle, which is reminiscent of the first verse of the apocryphal Arabic Infancy Gospel, a record of oral Christian legends that predates the Quran.
Jesus and Miracles
The Quran says that performed many miracles.
And [make him] a messenger to the Children of Israel, [who will say], “Indeed I have come to you with a sign from your Lord in that I design for you from clay [that which is] like the form of a bird, then I breathe into it and it becomes a bird by permission of Allah. And I cure the blind and the leper, and I give life to the dead—by permission of Allah. And I inform you of what you eat and what you store in your houses. Indeed in that is a sign for you, if you are believers” (3:49).
The New Testament contains thirty-seven miracles of Jesus: turning water into wine (John 2:1-11), healing (John 4:43-54, Matt. 8:14-15, et al), driving out evil spirits (Mark 1:21-27), calming a storm on the sea (Matt. 8:23-27), and raising the dead back to life (Matt. 9:18, 23-26, John 11:1-45) among many others. Interestingly, a version of the Quranic miracle of Jesus creating a bird out of clay and breathing life into it is found in the second-century (Gnostic) Gospel of Thomas.
Jesus as Prophet
Both sacred texts contain verses that imply Jesus is a prophet sent by God. In the Quran:
Verily We have revealed unto thee, as We reveled unto Noah and the prophets after him, and as We revealed unto Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and the Tribes, and Jesus and Job and Jonah and Aaron and Solomon, and unto David We gave the Psalms (4.163, see also 3:84-85).
Jesus in the New Testament is also sent by God to preach to the people, like a prophet, and like a prophet he foretells future events (for example, the destruction of the temple and the coming tribulation, in Mark 13). In John 4:19, the Samaritan woman at the well identifies Jesus as a prophet: “‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘I can see that you are a prophet.’” So the biblical Jesus is also a prophet; indeed, he is the king of prophets as well the fulfillment of prophecy.
To summarize so far, we can heartily agree with our Muslim brothers and sisters that Jesus was announced by an angel/angels, that he was conceived by God, born of the Virgin Mary, performed many miracles, and was a special prophet (Quran 2.253)
The Divine Nature
The Quran calls Jesus “word” and “spirit,” which are titles not given to anyone else—indicating that he is great indeed—but it vehemently opposes the idea that he is God:
O People of the Book! Do not exaggerate in your religion, nor utter anything concerning God save the truth. Verily the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only a messenger of God, and his Word, which he committed to Mary, and a Spirit from him. So, believe in God and his messengers, and say not “Three.” Refrain! It is better for you. God is only one God; glory be to him that he should have a child. Unto him belongs whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is on the earth and God suffices as a Guardian (4:171).
Jesus in Scripture, however, is identified with divinity. In John 10:30, Jesus says, “I and the Father are one.” In John 20:28 Thomas, speaking to Jesus, says, “My Lord and my God!” In John 5:18, the Jews want to kill Jesus for calling God his Father, for they knew that meant he was “making himself equal with God.”
In these and other verses, Jesus is clearly identified with and identifies himself as God. And yet our Muslim friends cannot accept this. Just as they cannot imagine a prophet of Jesus’ greatness being executed on a cross—which would seem like an unacceptable defeat for God—they cannot conceive of how Allah, singular and wholly transcendent, could have a son. Still less can they imagine how God himself could become incarnate and allow himself to be put to death by human beings! The core doctrine of Christianity is also its most scandalous.
So, we can find some common ground with Muslims in reverencing Christ as a singular prophet and miracle-worker sent by God. However, we must not paper over, even in the name of religious cooperation, the critical difference of Jesus' divine sonship and full divine nature.
And yet, if we can help them to see that the Incarnation is not an affront to God’s transcendence but an expression of his love for mankind, and that, far from being a defeat, the Crucifixion (along with the Resurrection) is actually the greatest triumph in history, we might just lay the foundation for a bridge that will lead them to a restoration of belief in Christ’s divinity and, by God’s grace, acceptance of the gospel.