The Koran’s unconvincing account of Jesus.
Critics of Islam tend to avoid the main question about Islam in favor of secondary questions. The main question is, “Did Muhammad actually receive a revelation from God?” The secondary questions are: “Is Islam a religion of peace?” “Is Islam compatible with modern values?” “Are women treated fairly under Sharia law?” And so on. These are useful questions to ask if you are trying to wake up your fellow citizens to the utterly alien nature of Islam, but they won’t carry much weight with a believing Muslim. Warlike religion? Incompatible with modern values? So what? If that’s the way God wants it, who are we to question his ways?
That’s why the main question needs to be raised. Did God deliver a message to Muhammad, or did Muhammad make it up? It’s a good bet that most Americans believe the latter but are too polite or too prudent to say so. We keep our thoughts on the matter to ourselves, not just out of fear of offending Muslims, but also because the cult of cultural relativism requires us to give lip service to the proposition that all religions are equally valid. Nevertheless, the question about the authenticity of Muhammad’s claim is still the heart of the matter. As long as Muslims believe that Muhammad received his marching orders from God, the threat of Islamic jihad will continue to grow. But take that away and you take away the rationale for Islam’s war against the world.
So it makes sense to lay out the case that Muhammad’s claims are highly improbable. One way to do this is to apply to Islam the same tests of critical reason and historical evidence that we apply to the Christian revelation. Over the centuries, both Christian critics and Christian scholars have subjected the Gospel revelations to a rigorous examination. While this had the effect of shaking up some people’s faith, it also had the effect of strengthening the rational/factual case for Christianity. But when this method of inquiry is applied to the Islamic revelation things fall apart.
For example, take the depiction of Jesus in the Koran and compare it to the depiction of Jesus in the Gospels. Since they flatly contradict each other on essential matters, normal curiosity invites the comparison. Which is the real Jesus? Or better, which of the two accounts seems to describe an actual historical figure?
Jesus is considered a great prophet by Muslims, but one has to wonder why, seeing as he has almost nothing to do or say in the pages of the Koran. He only speaks on six or seven occasions and then, very briefly, and primarily to deny that he ever claimed to be God. But then, the whole point of introducing Jesus into the Koran is to discredit the Christian claim that he is divine—a claim that, if true, invalidates Muhammad’s entire mission. Thus, whenever Jesus is mentioned in the Koran, it’s almost always for the purpose of whittling him down in size. For example, “He was but a mortal whom we favoured and made an example to the Israelites.” (43: 60).
The Jesus of the Koran appears mainly in the role of a counter to the Jesus of the Gospels, but “appears” is really too strong a word. This Jesus doesn’t attend weddings, or go fishing with his disciples, or gather children around him. He has practically no human interactions, and what he has to say is formulaic and repetitive. He is more like a disembodied voice than a person. And, to put it bluntly, he lacks personality. The Jesus of the New Testament is a recognizable human being; the Jesus of the Koran is more like a phantom. When did he carry out his ministry? There’s not a hint. Where did he live? Again, there’s no indication. Where was he born? Under a palm tree. That’s about as specific as it gets in the Koran. Next to the unanswered questions about the Jesus of the Koran, President Obama’s problems over establishing his birthplace seem minor by comparison. In short, Muhammad’s Jesus is a nebulous figure. He seems to exist neither in time nor space. On the one hand you have Jesus of Nazareth, and on the other, someone who can best be described as Jesus of Neverland.
One thing you find in the Gospels which you don’t find in the Koran is a solid geographical and historical context. If the story of Christ was set in some mythical location, long before the age of recorded history, it would be easier to pass it off as…well, a myth. But the story takes place not in some vague neverland but in places that can still be visited today—Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem. Christ doesn’t just go to some indeterminate wedding feast, he goes to the wedding feast at Cana; in his parable about the good Samaritan, he mentions a specific road, the one going from Jerusalem to Jericho. He converses with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in the town of Sychar. He cures one man at the pool of Siloam, and another at the pool with five porticos. Sidon Tyre, Capernaum, the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River, the Mount of Olives, the Praetorium, Herod’s court, Golgotha—there is a specificity and facticity that you won’t find in mythology.
…Or in the Koran. Take, for example, the differing accounts of the crucifixion. Here is what the Koran has to say: “They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but they thought they did.” (4:157). Well, that’s an interesting take on the crucifixion. Tell us more. Dan Brown has a similar theory about the crucifixion but at least he concocts a story to support it. But inquiring minds who hope to gain some further insight in the Koran will be disappointed. “They did not kill him…but they thought they did?” Why did they think that? And who were “they”? Answer: Muhammad didn’t seem to know who “they” were. Or, if he did know, he didn’t want his followers to know that there existed an entirely different and far more detailed story of the life of Christ than the one he presents. In the Koran account there are no chief priests, no Sadducees, no crowds, no Romans, no Pilate, no Herod, no Peter, James, and John, no Golgotha, no Garden of Gethsemane, no upper room, no Jerusalem, no Nazareth, no Galilee, no preaching in the temple, no sermon on the mount, no calming of the tempest, no last supper, no trial before the Sanhedrin. For that matter, there’s no historical context, no geography, no kind of setting at all. Someone once said of Los Angeles that “there’s no there there.” That’s the feeling you get when you encounter Jesus in the Koran.
The Jesus of the Koran really does exist in a neverland. Set against the Gospel story with all its vivid detail and close attention to persons and events, the Koranic account is vague and vapid in the extreme. And amazingly brief. If you omit the repetitions, the whole of what the Koran has to say about Jesus can be fit on about two or three pages of Bible text. And of that, about half is devoted to denying that he was God’s son.
You don’t have to be a Christian to see that the New Testament looks much more like a historical document than the Koran. It’s curious when you think about it. With all of his audacious claims to be equal with God, the Jesus of the Gospels is far more believable than the Jesus of the Koran. Not only is it difficult to believe in the few claims that are made for Muhammad’s Jesus, it’s difficult to believe in his existence. There’s just no convincing detail.
Which is more likely the true account of Jesus? On the one hand, you have the Koran’s sketchy version; on the other you have a highly detailed narrative with numerous references to historical facts and geographical locations. Which is more believable? An account composed in Arabia some six hundred years after the life of Jesus, or one composed by his contemporaries with the help of numerous witnesses who were on the spot?
Whatever you may think of the claims of Christ, it’s hard not to believe in his existence. As Dinesh D’Souza puts it in What’s So Great about Christianity, “Do you believe in the existence of Socrates? Alexander the Great? Julius Caesar? If historicity is established by written records in multiple copies that date originally from near contemporaneous sources, there is far more proof for Christ’s existence than for any of theirs.” Historical reliability? F.E. Peters in his book Harvest of Hellinism writes that “the works that make up the New Testament were the most frequently copied and widely circulated books of antiquity.” What does that mean? It means that the New Testament survives in some 5,656 partial and complete manuscripts that were copied by hand. And that’s in Greek alone. If you add in the Latin-vulgate and other early versions, there are more than 25,000 manuscript copies of the New Testament in existence. How does that compare with other early histories? Well, there are seven copies of Pliny the younger’s Natural History, twenty copies of the Annals of Tacitus, and ten copies of Caesar’s Gallic Wars. Score: Christianity, 25,000, Caesar, 10. When you render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s in manuscript terms, it doesn’t seem to amount to much.
It’s a little more difficult to check up on the authenticity of the other Jesus, however, since there is no record of anyone in the ancient world declaring himself not to be the Son of God, while simultaneously heralding the coming of a prophet named “Muhammad.” Muslim apologists insist that there is an original, long-lost version of the Gospel which corroborates the account of Jesus that appears in the Koran. Christians, they say, tampered with the original, and manufactured a corrupted version which turned Jesus into God, and left Muhammad out of the story—in effect, the Muslim equivalent of the Da Vinci Code theory. But it’s a general rule of scholarship that you have to work with the records you have, not the hypothetical ones. And in the record we have—the Koran—Jesus seems more like a mythological person than a real one. Subjecting him to the historical/critical method of inquiry would be akin to subjecting Perseus or Achilles to the historical/critical method.
In the Koran, Jesus’ longest monologue is delivered from the cradle when he is only a few days old. In view of the air of unreality surrounding him, it’s worth asking again why he is in the Koran at all, or why he is accorded the status of a great prophet. The answer is that in claiming him as a Muslim prophet, Muhammad is giving Jesus a demotion, not a promotion. John the Baptist said of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Muhammad preferred it the other way around. For him to increase, it was necessary that Jesus decrease.
So, although Jesus is supposed to be a great prophet, he does not really come across that way in the Koran. He comes across more like a shadowy government witness at a show trial who has been given some statements to memorize. At one point he is actually interrogated by God:
Then God will say: "Jesus, son of Mary, did you ever say to mankind: 'Worship me and my mother as gods besides God?’"
"Glory be to You," he will answer, "I could never have claimed what I have no right to. If I had ever said so, You would have surely known it…I told them only what you bade me." (5:116-117)
Well, that settles it, then. You see, he never said it. Admits it himself.
Muhammad seems to have realized early on that if Christ is who Christians say he is—the Son of God and the fulfillment of all prophecy—then there is no need for another prophet and another revelation. In one sense, Muhammad’s handing of the Jesus problem is very clever: keep him in the narrative but demote him; and use him to rebut the Christians’ central beliefs. In another sense it was not so clever, because the stage-managed Jesus Muhammad presents is almost totally lacking in substance, and is clearly meant to be nothing more than a prop to the Prophet’s own claims. Christian scholars and Christian critics often talk about the search for the “historical Jesus.” Here’s a time-saving hint: don’t bother looking for him in the Koran.
William Kilpatrick’s articles have appeared in FrontPage Magazine, First Things, Catholic World Report, National Catholic Register, Jihad Watch, World, and Investor’s Business Daily.