Likely, you have read a phrase that goes like this, “Jesus is honored in Islam because it talks about his virgin birth, his miracles, and the fact that He is called the Messiah.” There is a semblance of truth in this statement, but one might want to ask the question, “What do Muslims think when they hear the word, ‘Messiah'?” We will look at a number of Islamic sources to answer that question.
The Messiah in the Qur’an
The word ‘masih’ is found 11 times in the Qur’an and often it is connected with the name ‘Isa' (or the Muslim Jesus), the son of Maryam, and the statement, ‘he was only a messenger.’ For example, “… his name is al-Masīḥ, ʿĪsā, son of Maryam” (Q. 3:45) Al-Masīḥ, ...ʿĪsā, son of Maryam, was only a messenger of Allāh… (Q. 4:171).
If one reads the renditions of Muhammad Asad, an Austrian Jew who converted to Islam, and that of Yusuf Ali, a Muslim born in India, one might get the idea that they are even closer to a Christian reading of, for example,
Q. 3:45. The Asad version reads, “…shall become known as the Christ Jesus, son of Mary…” while the Ali version reads “… his name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary…”
Based on these more ‘Christian’ readings, and overlooking the wider background of Islamic thought, Christian who have reached out to Muslims, try to use the idea of the Messiah or Christ to say that Christian doctrine can be found in the Qur’an. This has been done with the words ‘word of God’ and ‘spirit of God’ as well, but they will be treated another time.
Muslim thinking about the Messiah.
In 2001, Ibn Bāz, the former Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia issued a religious decree or a fatwa as a response to the question, “Why is Isa, the son of Maryam, called al-Masih?” His response encapsulates the ideas of a number of Muslim commentators before him. This is what he said, ‘Isa, the son of Maryam is called al-Masih because he did not touch any sick or disabled person except that they were cured by Allāh’s permission. Some of the Salaf also said that he was called al-Masih due to his contact with the earth and his frequent travelling therein for the propagation of the earth of the religion. According to these two sayings, al-Masih, meaning Maasih (one who touches).
It was also said that he is al-Masih because his feet were flat, with no hollow to the soles of his feet and it was said that he was touched with blessings, or that he was purified from sins and was therefore blessed; in these cases, Al-Masih would mean mamsuh (one who is touched), but the first [meaning] is the most apparent [obvious], and Allah knows best. In any case, there is no connection between this and belief or action, and the benefit of knowing it is minimal.
The last statement of the Mufti is important: “the benefit of knowing” about this person called Messiah for Muslims “is minimal.”
The source of Ibn Baz’s ideas:
Here is a list of a few Islamic commentators and what they say about the Islamic messiah in Q. 3:45.
Ibn Abbas “because he travels from one country to another”… “the Messiah means the king.”
Al-Tabari "one who is cleansed, that is God cleansed him from all sins."
Nisaburi, “one who was touched by God.”
Ibn-Kathir—“one who travels from place to place without having any fixed place of residence, and who journeys continuously,”…”one who is flat footed.” …”whenever he passed his hands over anyone with an infirmity he was healed by God’s permission.”
Qurturbi—“one who is anointed with the ointment of blessing with which prophets were anointed. It is of sweet odor.” He also says that this name al-masih is the opposite of the Islamic antichrist (al-Dajjal) whose name is al-masikh and whose name means deformed, disfigured, and changed from a human form into a subhuman form. According to Qurturbi, who cites a number of hadiths, the Muslim Messiah will come down from heaven near Damascus and kill the anti-Christ.
Al-Razi—he lists about 10 possibilities, including being anointed, and being covered by the wings of the angel Gabriel at birth to protect him from Satan, as well as actively walking about, touching orphan children and healing others.
These commentators also based some of their views on Islamic stories and sayings attributed to Jesus that circulated in the Middle East and beyond. One famous collector of these sayings was Ibn ‘Asakir and this is what he wrote:
Jesus son of Mary ate barley, walked on foot and did not ride donkeys. He did not live in a house, nor did he use lamps for light. He neither dressed in cotton, nor touched women, nor used perfume . . . He had no concern for lunch or dinner; and desired nothing of the world. He used to consort with the weak, the chronically sick and the poor . . . Of food, he ate little, saying: "even this is too much for one who has to die and answer for his deeds."
Basically, Ibn ‘Asakir is describing Jesus as a model ‘monk’ or holy man who has subdued all of his earthly passions. This kind of Messiah was a perfect example for Sufi Muslims.
Muslim sources tell us a few things about the Messiah in Islam. A few like Asad and Ali try to associate him with the Christ of the Bible in passages like Q. 3:45, but further reading in their versions of the Qur’an shows that this is anyone but long-expected Saviour of the world. Contrast this with Jesus’ birth announcement which read, “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11). The commentators allude to the kingship and the anointing of this Messiah, but he is not King Jesus, anointed with power by the Holy Spirit to destroy the works of the devil (see I John 3:8). The storytellers tell of the humility of the Messiah, but they fail to see that he voluntarily laid down his lofty position as the Son of God enthroned in heaven and came to live on this earth (see Philippians 2). All of these Muslim commentators avoid the fact that this Messiah is the Son of God, and make him the son of Mary. Contrast this with Jesus’ own positive response to the question of the high priest, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” (Mark 14:61).
The description of the Messiah by Ibn ‘Asakir and others strongly focuses on his appearance, and what he did, but much less so on who he was. One Muslim author, Tarif Khalidi, in his book the Muslim Jesus, gives us a clue to why that is so. He notes that, ”it may be that since the physical appearance and daily habits of Muhammad were so well known and so minutely recorded, the Muslim transmitters might have felt inclined to do the same for earlier prophets [like the Muslim Jesus] so that Muhammad’s portrait could be seen to be in line with those of his predecessors.”
Why is this important for Christians to know?
The Muslim figure of the Messiah is not the Biblical one, even though they share a few common traits. To try to introduce the Biblical Messiah to a Muslim via the Islamic portrait seems to be an exercise of building a building on a faulty foundation.
The Muslim Messiah figure, as one author has noted, may have been a way to try to convince both Jews and Christians in the time of Muhammad that the Qur’an was much more aligned to their beliefs than was actually so. Thus it was likely a strategic move on the part of Muhammad to have them accept his religion and his prophetic status.
The Muslim Messiah figure, as Khalidi has pointed out, serves to join a long line of distinguished ‘ancestors’ for Muhammad. In effect he is making his pedigree all the more honorable, and now supposedly has fulfilled all of the hopes and dreams for a messianic deliverer for Jews, Christians and Muslims. The only problem is that Muhammad as the ‘new messiah’ assumed the role of an earthly king, who controlled his subjugated peoples with a physical sword, and sought to ‘destroy the works’ of the infidel enemies. The true Messiah, King Jesus, would certainly not classify himself as one of the illustrious ancestors of Muhammad.
The small phrase ‘by the permission of Allah’ also shows that the Muslim Messiah is nothing more than a super-human who has some miracle-working powers granted to him by Allah. He is not the Biblical prophet, priest and king, anointed for His Father’s service, and the plan of salvation. He is not divine. He is not worthy of worship.
The Muslim Messiah plays a part in Islamic views of the end-time. If one examines his role further, however, he is said to be a red-haired figure, who marries, kills all the pigs, breaks down the crosses, eliminates the Islamic tax on infidels, and then dies. This is anything but the Biblical image of the Messiah in his full glory as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the rider on the white horse to whom multitudes give their worship (Revelations 7, 19) and who is seated on the heavenly throne with His Father (Rev. 22:3). He is worthy of worship.