Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Jesus’ Ministry and Miracles in the Qur’an

A Comparative Analysis: Part I

Masud Masihiyyen

The Islamic scripture identifies Jesus as a great and outstanding prophet that performed various miracles in Israel. The comparative reading of the different Qur’an chapters that relate Jesus’ prophetic ministry and refer to the wonders wrought by Him reveals that Muhammad’s knowledge on this issue evolved in time in accordance with the supposed gradual revelation of the divine message, which actually pertained to Muhammad’s obtaining information through his occasional contacts with Christians and their sources. In this article, which will contain two parts, we shall perform a comparative reading to analyze Jesus’ miracles in the Qur’an and illustrate their origins as well as the problems stemming from their inept incorporation into the narratives of Jesus’ prophetic ministry. The first part will focus on the chapters of the Meccan period whilst the second on those of the Medinan period.

Jesus’ miraculous birth and being a sign for mankind

According to Surah 19, the first chapter that recounts Jesus’ story in the Qur’an, Jesus’ mother Mary miraculously conceived despite being a virgin and gave birth to a son that would be a sign for mankind:

She said: "How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me, and I am not unchaste?" He said: "So (it will be): Thy Lord saith, 'that is easy for Me: and (We wish) to appoint him as a Sign unto men and a Mercy from Us': It is a matter (so) decreed." (Surah 19:20-21 Yusuf Ali)

In this early stage of our examination, it is not possible to know for certain why Muhammad endorsed the doctrine of Jesus’ being a universal sign or whether he promoted this teaching because he was somehow familiar with Jesus’ depiction as a sign by Simeon in the Gospel of Luke (2:34) or even with the connection drawn by Matthew between Jesus’ miraculous birth (1:22-23) and the consideration of Immanuel’s birth as a sign in Isaiah 7:14. In any case this doctrine turns out to be detrimental to another Islamic teaching that paints only Muhammad as a prophet having a universal mission in contrast to all the former prophets having a mission confined to their respective tribes/nations.1

As the angelic annunciation of Jesus’ birth in Surah 19 clearly shows, Muhammad linked Jesus’ being a sign for mankind to His miraculous birth.

This is further proven by Jesus’ designation as a sign for mankind right after the reference to His miraculous birth in another Meccan chapter of the Qur’an:

And (remember) her who guarded her chastity: We breathed into her of Our spirit, and We made her and her son a sign for all peoples. (Surah 21:91 Yusuf Ali)

Interestingly, unlike in Surah 19, in this late Meccan chapter not only Jesus, but also His mother Mary is said to be a sign for all peoples, which points at Muhammad’s conclusion that Mary was a sign like her son because what was miraculous was not only the begotten child but also Mary’s pregnancy. In another Meccan chapter, Mary’s description as a sign along with her son is repeated with the omission of the phrase “for all people”:

And We made the son of Mary and his mother as a Sign: We gave them both shelter on high ground, affording rest and security and furnished with springs. (Surah 23:50 Yusuf Ali)

This verse is evidently a modified form of Surah 21:91 as it does not explicitly bind Mary and Jesus’ designation as a sign to the miraculous pregnancy and birth. When we get to the examination of the Islamic narrative of Jesus’ nativity and infancy in Surah 3, which is a chapter of the Medinan period, we are surprised to see that the angelic annunciation in this Surah, unlike the one in Surah 19, does not refer to Jesus as a sign for all people. More, in none of the chapters of this post-migration period is Jesus described as a sign with or without His mother.

The reason underlying this discrepancy between Surah 19 and Surah 3 cannot be discovered unless we compare the original texts that these two Quranic narratives were plagiarized from. In accordance with our basic and overall theory that the account of Jesus’ annunciation in Surah 19 was copied from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and its counterpart in Surah 3 from the Gospel of James, in Pseudo-Matthew the angel of the Lord appears to Mary and depicts Jesus’ universal mission and role by identifying Him as a light that will illuminate all people:

And on the second day, while Mary was at the fountain to fill her pitcher, the angel of the Lord appeared to her, saying: Blessed are you, Mary; for in your womb you have prepared an habitation for the Lord. For, lo, the light from heaven shall come and dwell in you, and by means of you will shine over the whole world. (Pseudo-Matthew chapter 9)

In the Gospel of James, however, the angel’s words are basically similar to the angelic annunciation in the Gospel of Luke, but there is no specific reference to Jesus’ universal mission in this account:

And behold an angel of the Lord stood before her saying: Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace before the Lord of all things, and thou shalt conceive of his word. And she, when she heard it, questioned in herself, saying: Shall I verily conceive of the living God, and bring forth after the manner of all women? And the angel of the Lord said: Not so, Mary, for a power of the Lord shall overshadow thee: wherefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of the Highest. And thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins. (Gospel of James chapter 11)

Paying attention to the differences between the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and that of James enables us to answer the question why the accounts of Mary’s pregnancy in Surah 19 and 3 contain so many discrepancies despite the baseless allegation that they came from the same divine source.

Provision of fruit and water

According to the narrative in Surah 19, Mary departed from her house in the East right after the angelic annunciation and went to a distant place. She had to lean against the trunk of a palm tree while in labor and complained about her situation. Then she was provided with water and fruit:

And the pangs of childbirth drove her unto the trunk of the palm-tree. She said: Oh, would that I had died ere this and had become a thing of naught, forgotten! Then (one) cried unto her from below her, saying: Grieve not! Thy Lord hath placed a rivulet beneath thee, And shake the trunk of the palm-tree toward thee, thou wilt cause ripe dates to fall upon thee. So eat and drink and be consoled. (Surah 19:23-26 Pickthall)

These verses are the twisted version of the 20th chapter in Pseudo-Matthew’s Gospel. To understand what kind of modifications Muhammad applied to the original narrative, a comparative reading and analysis is crucial:

And it came to pass on the third day of their journey, while they were walking, that the blessed Mary was fatigued by the excessive heat of the sun in the desert; and seeing a palm tree, she said to Joseph: Let me rest a little under the shade of this tree. Joseph therefore made haste, and led her to the palm, and made her come down from her beast. And as the blessed Mary was sitting there, she looked up to the foliage of the palm, and saw it full of fruit, and said to Joseph: I wish it were possible to get some of the fruit of this palm. And Joseph said to her: I wonder that you say this, when you see how high the palm tree is; and that you think of eating of its fruit. I am thinking more of the want of water, because the skins are now empty, and we have none wherewith to refresh ourselves and our cattle. Then the child Jesus, with a joyful countenance, reposing in the bosom of His mother, said to the palm: O tree, bend your branches, and refresh my mother with your fruit. And immediately at these words the palm bent its top down to the very feet of the blessed Mary; and they gathered from it fruit, with which they were all refreshed. And after they had gathered all its fruit, it remained bent down, waiting the order to rise from Him who had commanded it to stoop. Then Jesus said to it: Raise yourself, O palm tree, and be strong, and be the companion of my trees, which are in the paradise of my Father; and open from your roots a vein of water which has been hid in the earth, and let the waters flow, so that we may be satisfied from you. And it rose up immediately, and at its root there began to come forth a spring of water exceedingly clear and cool and sparkling. And when they saw the spring of water, they rejoiced with great joy, and were satisfied, themselves and all their cattle and their beasts. Wherefore they gave thanks to God. (Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew chapter 20)

The first major difference between the account in Surah 19 of the Qur’an and that in chapter 20 in Pseudo-Matthew’s Gospel concerns the perpetrator of the miracle. In the original text this miracle is attributed to infant Jesus whereas in its poor counterpart in the Qur’an it is ascribed to God.

Second, in Pseudo-Matthew infant Jesus commands the huge palm tree to bend down its branches and give its dates to Mary whereas in the Qur’an an indefinite voice commands Mary to shake the palm tree to get its fruit. In this peculiar narrative, Muhammad’s or his mentor’s inaccurate plagiarism from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew cannot be denied due to the appearance of the absurd and unthinkable idea that a woman in labor would be able to shake the trunk of a palm tree! This is why it is a matter of wonder whether the author of the Qur’an considered Mary’s carrying out this naturally impossible task a great miracle. If this interpretation is true, it is necessary to attribute this wondrous act to Mary as she seems to be the one who performs it by obeying a divine command.

Third, in Pseudo-Matthew infant Jesus commands the same palm tree to open up a stream from its roots whereas in the Qur’an a rivulet is placed beneath Mary directly by God as the voice does not command Mary to do anything – something like digging up the ground – in order to get the stream. This is why it is impossible to ascribe this miracle to Mary.

In the light of this comparison, it would require a miracle to refute the allegation that the Quranic narrative in view has no textual coherence unlike its original version in Pseudo-Matthew. The inconsistencies abound in the account of Surah 19 and include the confusion of the sequence of the two related miracles. According to Pseudo-Matthew, Mary was first provided with dates and then with water. According to Muhammad, Allah first placed a rivulet beneath Mary and then asked her via an unidentified intermediary to shake the palm tree and get its fruit, which implies that the miraculous provision of water preceded that of the dates. However, the act of eating has primacy in comparison with the act of drinking, which is a fact confirmed also by the Qur'an: the unidentified voice in Surah 19:26 told Mary to “eat and drink” rather than “drink and eat”.

Further, this modification in the sequence of the miracles applied by the author of Surah 19 to the narrative in Pseudo-Matthew is relevant to the loss of the connection between the palm tree and the rivulet in the Qur’an. In the original account, the palm tree became the source of both the food and drink in that it gave fresh dates to Mary by bending its branches and gave water to her by opening a stream from its roots. In Surah 19, however, the creation of the rivulet beneath Mary was not linked to the palm tree.

An additional discrepancy between the two texts concerns the reason underlying this miraculous provision of food and drink. According to Pseudo-Matthew, infant Jesus performed these two related and consecutive miracles to appease His mother’s hunger and slake her thirst as she was going to Egypt and passing through the desert. According to the writer of Surah 19, on the other hand, Allah gave Mary fresh dates and created a rivulet for her because she was in labor and wished that she had died. In short, the logical connection between the objective (ceasing Mary’s hunger and thirst during her trip) and type of the miracles is missing from the account in the Qur’an.

Finally, the location and type of the two miracles are thematically relevant to the major motifs employed by Pseudo-Matthew although no such relevance can be found in Surah 19. It is by no means a coincidence that the narrative in Pseudo-Matthew is peculiar to this apocryphal Gospel of Infancy and aims to augment the associations drawn by Evangelist Matthew between Israel and infant Jesus.2 Since Pseudo-Matthew tried to prove that he is the same person as Evangelist Matthew and attributed his writing to him, he suggested further typological associations between Jesus and the Old Testament by providing detailed data about infant Jesus’ journey to Egypt with Mary and Joseph. It will not take people who are familiar with such associations long to discover that Pseudo-Matthew recounted the miraculous provision of fruit and water in the desert during the trip to Egypt basically because he wanted to depict Jesus as the Son of the God of the Old Testament, who had wrought miracles to feed the Israelites wandering in the desert on their way to the promised land. This kind of a theological connection is unsurprisingly missing from the account in Surah 19 since the author of this chapter disregarded and perverted the chronology of the events in Pseudo-Matthew’s Gospel through inept plagiarism and failed to see that there was no thematic or theological link between the time and place of these miracles and Mary's being in labor.

To sum up the differences between the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and Surah 19 in regard to the provision of dates and water for Mary:

In Pseudo-Matthew

Miracle: Providing fruit and water.
Number of miracles: Two and consecutive.
Order of the miracles: First dates, then water
Perpetrator of the miracles: Infant Jesus
Aim of the miracles: Appease the hunger and slake the thirst of the people going to Egypt (Mary and Joseph)
Time of the miracles: On the third day of the journey to Egypt
Place of the miracles: Desert
Means of the miracles: A palm tree. (Jesus commands a palm tree to give fruit and water.)
Theological connection with the Old Testament: By working this wonder, Jesus imitated His Father, who had miraculously given food and water to the Israelites journeying from Egypt to the Promised Land.

In Surah 19

Miracle: Providing fruit and water or only water.
Number of miracles: Either one or two, uncertain and open to interpretation since Mary’s shaking the trunk of a palm tree to get its fresh dates is not miraculous in itself unless we think that Mary could find a palm tree full of dates right at the time of her delivery and shake its trunk despite her being in labor.
Order of the miracles: If we consider Mary’s provision with fresh dates a miracle, the first miracle turns out to be the creation of a rivulet. (First water, then fruit)
Perpetrator of the miracle/s: Allah places a rivulet beneath Mary. It is not possible to find out the perpetrator of the second miracle or consider it a miraculous incident.
Aim of the miracle/s: To comfort Mary, who is in labor and complaining about her situation.
Time of the miracle/s: Mary’s delivery, which was preceded by a long journey to a distant place.
Place of the miracle/s: Not identified.
Means of the miracle/s: Palm tree for the second supposed miracle. No means for the creation of a stream beneath Mary as the placement of the rivulet is independent of the palm tree.
Theological connection with the Old Testament: None.

Jesus’ Speech from the cradle

According to Surah 19, Jesus initiated His prophetic ministry when He delivered His first speech to the Israelites despite His being an infant in the cradle. To follow it from the Qur’an:

Then she pointed to him. They said: How can we talk to one who is in the cradle, a young boy? He spake: Lo! I am the slave of Allah. He hath given me the Scripture and hath appointed me a Prophet. (Surah 19:29-30)

As we have discussed at length in our article on Surah 19:37, Muhammad copied the miracle of infant Jesus’ speech from an apocryphal writing named “The Arabic Gospel of the Savior” and combined it with the data he had plagiarized from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. This process of combination changed not only the content but also the context of the miracle. According to the Arabic Gospel of Infancy, Jesus spoke to His mother Mary while in the cradle and declared His divinity:

We find what follows in the book of Joseph the high priest, who lived in the time of Christ. Some say that he is Caiaphas. He has said that Jesus spoke, and, indeed, when He was lying in His cradle said to Mary His mother: I am Jesus, the Son of God, the Logos, whom you have brought forth, as the Angel Gabriel announced to you; and my Father has sent me for the salvation of the world. (Arabic Gospel of the Savior's Infancy chapter 1)

Evidently, Muhammad’s plagiarism from this non-canonical text was not free from distortion. In the original account Jesus had used two terms to express who he was: the Son of God and the Logos. He implicitly identified Himself as the universal Savior when He stated that His birth and mission aimed at the salvation of the world. In the poor copy devised by Muhammad, infant Jesus spoke to declare His prophetic ministry and to implicitly deny His statements recorded in the Arabic Gospel. Accordingly, the phrase “Son of God” in the original text was smoothly modified to “slave of God” in Surah 19. When translated into Arabic from Greek, the word “Logos” was accidentally associated with the “word of God” in the sense of Holy Scripture and gave birth to the idea that infant Jesus had been given a book. Finally, Jesus the universal Savior in the Arabic Gospel was turned into Jesus a prophet in the Qur’an.

In addition to these major theological differences stemming from Muhammad’s perversion of the original text, the aim of the miracle in these two texts shows discrepancy. In the Arabic Gospel of Infancy, Jesus’ speech while in cradle indicates His being an unusual infant that can perform miracles even before His prophetic ministry in Israel at the age of 30, which is in sharp contrast to what the canonical Gospels teach.3 Nonetheless, this contradiction is not surprising when we remember that the apocryphal Gospels of Infancy focused on the period of Jesus’ nativity and infancy, as their names suggest, and were born of their authors’ wish to equate infant Jesus with the Jesus of the post-baptism period in terms of mighty signs and authority.

In Surah 19, however, the miracle of Jesus’ speaking as an infant is bound to the account of Mary’s accusation by her folk after her delivery.4 In this peculiar narrative Mary gives birth to a son under a palm tree and is commanded by God not to speak to anyone. When she returns to her folk with her baby, she faces the charges of an illegitimate affair. Since she cannot respond to her accusers because of her promise to keep silent, she directs them to her baby. Right at that moment infant Jesus miraculously speaks as if trying to clear His accused mother of guilt and sin, but His first speech does not seem to serve this purpose. Instead of defending His mother and informing the people of His miraculous birth from a virgin, Jesus abruptly proclaims His prophetic mission with overemphasis on the doctrine of monotheism. The lack of a connection between this miracle and the reason underlying it in the Qur’an is a natural result of Muhammad’s adopting it from the Arabic Gospel of Infancy and forcing it into the narrative of the events recorded in Pseudo-Matthew.

In other words, the reason for a reference to infant Jesus’ speech in the Arabic Gospel of Infancy is the author’s wish to give information on Jesus’ identity at the introduction to the other stories of infancy whilst in the Qur’an the reference aims to make infant Jesus help His silenced mother in front of her people. However, this objection suddenly changes direction thanks to Muhammad’s eagerness to make infant Jesus deny the validity of His statements in the Arabic Gospel by altering them in accordance with some major Islamic doctrines.

Another noteworthy point is that in the Qur’an Jesus’ speech as an infant is regarded as the first miracle wrought by Him and the occasion of this particular wonder is claimed to be Mary’s return to her folk from a distant place with her baby. In the Arabic Gospel of Infancy, however, no specific occasion is given for this miracle as it functions to summarize and highlight basic Christian doctrines regarding Jesus’ identity and mission. This we can understand because Jesus’ speech in the cradle is related even before the narrative of His birth and thus separated from the accounts of the several miracles ascribed to Him in a chronological order.

Strikingly, Muhammad made a second reference to the miracle of Jesus’ speech from the cradle in the post-migration period of the Qur’an. In Surah 3 the angels announcing to Mary the birth of Jesus and predicting the peculiarities of His prophetic ministry, say that He will be able to speak as an infant:

He will speak unto mankind in his cradle and in his manhood, and he is of the righteous. (Surah 3:46 Pickthall)

This particular reference in the form of a prediction reveals how Muhammad gave a different account of Christ’s birth and nativity after his migration to Medina and how this new version of the story in Surah 3 loosened the ties established in Surah 19 between Mary’s accusation and infant Jesus’ speech. Since Muhammad did not repeat the narrative of Mary’s interrogation by her folk in this later chapter, he did not create a patchwork with the help of the material drawn from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and the Arabic Gospel. As a result, no information on the occasion and objective of the miraculous speech in the cradle was provided in Surah 3, which confirmed the teaching in the Arabic Gospel that Jesus’ speech as an infant was kept separate from the other miracles ascribed to Him.

Indefinite Miracles in Surah 43

Surah 19 was not the only chapter that gave information on Jesus while Muhammad was still in Mecca. The theme of Jesus’ identity was visited once more when Surah 43 was devised on the occasion of Muhammad’s religious discussion with the Meccan pagans, who reminded him of the Christian doctrine of Jesus’ divinity:

When (Jesus) the son of Mary is held up as an example, behold, thy people raise a clamour thereat (in ridicule)! And they say, "Are our gods best, or he?" This they set forth to thee, only by way of disputation: yea, they are a contentious people. He is nothing but a slave on whom We bestowed favour, and We made him a pattern for the Children of Israel. (Surah 43:57-59 Yusuf Ali)

This response denies Jesus’ divinity by identifying Him as nothing but a slave (the first term put in infant Jesus’ mouth in Surah 19:30), but does not explain the source of that doctrine. Seemingly, through these verses Muhammad addressed only the pagans of Mecca and did not deem it necessary to rebuke Christians for believing in Jesus’ divinity. After a few verses of interpolation, he referred to Jesus’ prophetic ministry and used the vague phrase “clear signs” while stating that Jesus’ teaching was accompanied by miracles/wonders:

When Jesus came with Clear Signs, he said: "Now have I come to you with Wisdom, and in order to make clear to you some of the (points) on which ye dispute: therefore fear God and obey me. (Surah 43:63 Yusuf Ali)

Muhammad did not disclose Jesus’ “clear signs” until he devised Surah 3 in the post-migration period. More interestingly, he did not mention Jesus’ speech in the cradle as one of the clear signs that testified to the veracity of His mission in Surah 43 although the last sentence of infant Jesus’ miraculous speech in Surah 19 was transferred to Surah 43:

And lo! Allah is my Lord and your Lord. So serve Him. That is the right path. (Surah 19:36 Pickthall)

Lo! Allah, He is my Lord and your Lord. So worship Him. This is a right path. (Surah 43:64 Pickthall)

Mary and Jesus a SIGN in Surah 21

While giving a list of the messengers of God in Surah 21, another chapter of the Meccan period, Muhammad mentioned Mary and her son as the last link in the chain of the messengers and identified them as a sign for all people with regard to the miraculous pregnancy and birth:

And (remember) her who guarded her chastity: We breathed into her of Our spirit, and We made her and her son a sign for all peoples. (Surah 21:91 Yusuf Ali)

The traditional Islamic commentary on this verse, as reported by Ibn Kathir, underlines the connection between John and Jesus in terms of their miraculous birth: This thematic connection and the subsequent teaching that John was sent to confirm Jesus (Surah 3:39 and 45) were most likely adopted from the Gospel of Luke and/or the Infancy Gospel of James.

Here Allah mentions the story of Maryam and her son `Isa, just after mentioning Zakariyya and his son Yahya, may peace be upon them all. He mentions the story of Zakariyya first, followed by the story of Maryam because the one is connected to the other. The former is the story of a child being born to an old man of advanced years, from an old woman who had been barren and had never given birth when she was younger. Then Allah mentions the story of Maryam which is even more wondrous, for in this case a child was born from a female without (the involvement of) a male. These stories also appear in Surah Al `Imran and in Surah Maryam. Here Allah mentions the story of Zakariyya and follows it with the story of Maryam, where He says: (And she who guarded her chastity,) means, Maryam (peace be upon her). (Source)

Although this commentary focuses on the similarities and differences between the miraculous birth of John and Jesus, it cannot explain why Jesus’ miraculous birth was necessary. In John’s case, Zechariah and Elizabeth could not have a child because both were advanced in age and Elizabeth was barren. Thus, they needed a miracle to be parents because of the obstacles. In Jesus’ case, however, there was apparently no need for a miracle because there was nothing to prevent Mary from being a mother. Why did the miraculous pregnancy and birth take place then? The reason was that Jesus, as the pre-existent Word and Son of God, as a fully divine person, did not need the involvement of a human father when He decided to come to this world and take on flesh. Since Jesus’ aim was the incarnation, He chose only a mother who would give Him human nature through birth.

The Gospel of Luke accentuates the similarities and contrasts between John and Jesus’ miraculous births, and Luke’s aim was to show that Jesus was the Son of God in human flesh. He considered Jesus’ birth as a sign of His divine identity and a miraculous means of His first manifestation to this world, which would be followed by His second revelation to the People of Israel in His thirties through the baptism preached by John. This parallelism between Jesus’ birth and baptism remarkably explains why Luke narrated Jesus’ birth in similar terms as His baptism and included the narrative of John’s miraculous nativity into his Gospel. As John prepared Jesus’ way and became the means of His manifestation to Israel, Mary conceived of the Word of God and became the means of His incarnation (revelation to this world). As Jesus began His prophetic ministry through a prophet’s (John) ritual, He began His human life on earth through a human’s pregnancy. As Jesus was directly anointed by the Holy Spirit and power of God and declared to be the Son of God (Luke 3:21-22, Acts 10:37-38), He was directly conceived by the Holy Spirit and power of God and declared to be the Son of God (Luke 1:35). All these amazing theological implications and parallelisms are missing from the Qur’an.

Ibn Kathir’s comment on Mary and Jesus’ being a sign for mankind disregards the motive of this miraculous birth:

(and We made her and her son a sign for the nations.) means, evidence that Allah is able to do all things and that He creates whatever He wills; verily, His command, when He intends a thing, is only that He says to it, "Be'' -- and it is! This is like the Ayah: (And (We wish) to appoint him as a sign to mankind) [19:21]. (Source)

This section also gives rise to the question why Allah did not consider Zechariah-Elizabeth and their son a sign for mankind despite the parallelism between John and Jesus’ birth. Did not John’s miraculous birth indicate Allah’s ability to do whatever he wills? Was not John’s birth a more visible sign of Allah’s omnipotence since people could actually witness the results of this miraculous incident and be convinced that Allah wrought a miracle to give a son to the old and barren wife of an old man? How would it be similarly possible for people to be convinced of Jesus’ miraculous birth since they did not see or expect anything unusual in Mary’s case, not even the need for a miracle?

These questions and the set of contrasts between the account of Jesus’ birth in Luke and in the Islamic scripture lead us to this conclusion: while in the Bible the virgin birth is an essential element reflecting the true identity of Jesus, in the Qur’an it becomes a miracle without meaning, except displaying the power of God, which is something every miracle does. If Jesus were nothing more than a messenger, and if He were not from above, then the miraculous virgin birth of Jesus would have been unnecessary. Muhammad failed to understand that simple fact.

Mary and Jesus a SIGN in Surah 23

In Surah 23, another Surah of the Meccan period, Muhammad repeated his teaching that Allah had made Mary and her son a sign:

And We made the son of Mary and his mother as a Sign: We gave them both shelter on high ground, affording rest and security and furnished with springs. (Surah 23:50 Yusuf Ali)

In his commentary on this particular verse, Ibn Kathir, most probably under the influence of Surah 3:59, drew a parallelism between Adam and Jesus in terms of creation:

Allah tells us about His servant and Messenger `Isa bin Maryam, peace be upon them both, and that He made them as a sign for mankind, i.e., definitive proof of His ability to do what He wills. For He created Adam without a father or a mother, He created Hawwa' from a male without a female, and He created `Isa from a female without a male, but He created the rest of mankind from both male and female. (Source)

If this interpretation is true, we are left with the question WHY God created Jesus from a female without a father? Another relevant question: When will Allah create a female from a female without a male to prove his omnipotence? When will he create a female without both a mother and father? When will he create a male from a male without a female? If Jesus’ birth had been made miraculous as a result of Allah’s wish to give a different version of the creations that did not require the agency of both genders, why was it preceded by the miraculous birth of John, who was born of a father and mother? Ibn Kathir and the Islamic scripture cannot give answers to any of these questions.

As for the second part of Surah 23:50, Ibn Kathir presents the following reports:

(and We gave them refuge on high ground, a place of rest, security and flowing streams.) Ad-Dahhak reported that Ibn `Abbas said: "Ar-Rabwah is a raised portion of land, which is the best place for vegetation to grow.'' This was also the view of Mujahid, `Ikrimah, Sa`id bin Jubayr and Qatadah. Ibn `Abbas said, (Dhat Qarar) "A fertile place. (and Ma`in) means water running on the surface.'' This was also the view of Mujahid, `Ikrimah, Sa`id bin Jubayr and Qatadah. Mujahid said: "A level hill.'' Sa`id bin Jubayr said that (Dhat Qarar and Ma`in) means that water was flowing gently through it. Mujahid and Qatadah said: (and Ma`in ) "Running water.'' Ibn Abi Hatim recorded from Sa`id bin Al-Musayyib: (and We gave them refuge on a Rabwah, Dhat Qarar and Ma`in.) "It is Damascus.'' He said; "Something similar was also narrated from `Abdullah bin Salam, Al-Hasan, Zayd bin Aslam and Khalid bin Ma`dan.'' Ibn Abi Hatim recorded from `Ikrimah from Ibn `Abbas that this Ayah referred to the rivers of Damascus. Layth bin Abi Sulaym narrated from Mujahid that the words; (and We gave them refuge on a Rabwah,) referred to `Isa bin Maryam and his mother when they sought refuge in Damascus and the flatlands around it. `Abdur-Razzaq recorded that Abu Hurayrah said: on a Rabwah, Dhat Qarar and Ma`in.), "It is Ramlah in Palestine.'' The most correct opinion on this matter is that which was reported by Al-`Awfi from Ibn `Abbas, who said; (and We gave them refuge on a Rabwah, Dhat Qarar and Ma`in.) "Ma`in refers to running water, and is the river of which Allah mentioned: (your Lord has provided a water stream under you.)'' [19:24] Ad-Dahhak and Qatadah said; (on a high ground, a place of rest, security and flowing streams.) refers to Jerusalem. (Source)

This long commentary is interesting in that it associates the springs that were provided for Mary and Jesus according to Surah 23:50 with the miraculous provision of water for Mary at the time of Jesus’ birth in Surah 19. This sort of a thematic association results in the teaching that Jesus was born in Jerusalem, adding another item to the list of the contradictions between Islam and Christianity with regard to Jesus’ nativity. Besides, it compels us to suppose that the palm tree under which Mary sat while in labor was on a high ground although the main narrative in Surah 19 does not even make that implication. Remarkably, it is possible and plausible to interpret “the high place of rest furnished with springs” in this verse as a reference to Paradise. In the light of this interpretation, the thematic parallelism between Surah 19:23-26 and Surah 23:50 highlighted in the Tafsir may point at the connection between the story of Jesus’ giving dates and water to Mary and Joseph through a palm tree in Pseudo-Matthew and His transferring a branch of the same tree to Paradise, where it will have a similar function for the saints of God:

And on the day after, when they were setting out thence, and in the hour in which they began their journey, Jesus turned to the palm, and said: This privilege I give you, O palm tree, that one of your branches be carried away by my angels, and planted in the paradise of my Father. And this blessing I will confer upon you, that it shall be said of all who conquer in any contest, You have attained the palm of victory. And while He was thus speaking, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared, and stood upon the palm tree; and taking off one of its branches, flew to heaven with the branch in his hand. And when they saw this, they fell on their faces, and became as it were dead. And Jesus said to them: Why are your hearts possessed with fear? Do you not know that this palm, which I have caused to be transferred to paradise, shall be prepared for all the saints in the place of delights, as it has been prepared for us in this place of the wilderness? And they were filled with joy; and being strengthened, they all rose up. (Pseudo-Matthew chapter 21)

In the second part of this article, we shall analyze the Qur’an verses of the Medinan period that talk of Jesus’ ministry and have a comparative study of Jesus’ miracles mentioned in Surah 3 and 5.



1 It is necessary at this point to expose the absurdity of this Islamic teaching: Since Muhammad was born in Arabia and preached only to his folk until his death, it is ridiculous to talk of his universal mission or ministry. The core of the matter is not the question if a prophet is sent to his nation or to the whole world, but whether a prophet preaches something that is relevant to all people and times. Consequently, it is meaningless to present Muhammad as a prophet sent to the whole world (Surah 21:107) while teaching that the message he got from God was a warning only to his tribe (e.g., Surah 42:7, Surah 28:46, Surah 43:44). Strikingly, the only prophetic figure that carries out a universal mission in the Qur’an is Alexander the Great (Surah 18:83-98) rather than Muhammad!

2 In the birth and infancy narrative of Matthew’s Gospel, the events happening in Jesus’ childhood are theologically and typologically affiliated with the three important periods in Israel’s history: the era of the patriarchs, the era of King David, the era of suffering and deportation. This is why Jesus’ genealogy is divided into three sections by Matthew. The account of the angelic annunciation and Jesus’ miraculous birth corresponds to the era of Patriarch Abraham and the first promise given to him, that of the three magi’s visitation to the golden era of Kind David and the second promise given to him about the Messiah, and that of the massacre of the infants and Jesus’ journey to Egypt to the era of suffering and deportation along with the renewal of the promise through the prophets.

3 In the Gospel of John it is made clear that Jesus wrought His first miracle at a wedding in Cana in front of His disciples, who met Him after His baptism by John. The Synoptic Gospel accounts likewise say that Jesus began to teach and perform signs after His baptism by John and the descent of the Holy Spirit on Him in the form of a dove.

4 This item constitutes another major discrepancy between the Bible and the Qur’an with regard to the privacy of Jesus’ miraculous birth. Although Evangelist Luke taught that Mary’s miraculous pregnancy was private in that it was known by Joseph and Mary and not made manifest to the People of Israel, the author of the Qur’an, as a natural consequence of his heavy plagiarism from the 12th chapter of Pseudo-Matthew, asserted in Surah 19 that Mary’s folk accused her of being unchaste when they became aware of her delivery.

Articles by Masud Masihiyyen
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