Why are Jesus and Mary important to Muslims?
Muslims revere Jesus (Arabic: ‘Isa, pronounced EEsa) as the second-to-last in a long line of prophets that culminated in Muhammad. They thus consider Jesus a man of lofty spiritual estate, but no more than a human being. Born of the Virgin Mary, ‘Isa was a specially chosen instrument of divine revelation, but he was not the Son of God. Muslim texts call Jesus the masih, but the term does not carry the sense of expectation connoted by its nearest English equivalent, Messiah. He is “God’s word,” but not in the sense that Christians understand the term logos. Mary is mentioned more often by name in the Qur’an than in the Bible.
The purely human nature of Jesus is not the only major issue on which Islamic tradition disagrees dramatically with the Christian view. Qur’an 4:157 states that though the Jews boasted they had killed ‘Isa, they did not in fact do so. It was, rather, one who looked like Jesus who hung on the cross. Muslim tradition holds, nevertheless, that God did raise Jesus bodily into Heaven in the Ascension. Since ‘Isa did not die an earthly death, he did not experience resurrection. ‘Isa has a significant place in the Qur’an. According to the Islamic sacred text, Mary became pregnant with ‘Isa when the angel Gabriel appeared to her in human form to announce the news. Joseph plays no part in the Muslim story of Jesus. After the child was born, Mary brought him to her people. When even they expressed doubt as to Mary’s integrity, the infant spoke in her defense and lifted her opprobrium. One of the Qur’anic stories not found in the canonical Gospels is that the boy ‘Isa formed a bird of clay in his hands, and when he breathed on it, it took flight—a story also told in a Christian apocryphal. Principal Qur’anic texts on ‘Isa (and Mary) are: 3:37-48; 4:169-70; 5:76-79 and 109-117; 19:1-36; 21:91-92; 43:57-65; 57:26-27.
Hagiographical texts known collectively as Tales of the Prophets expand further a number of important themes. The Tales embellish the accounts of ‘Isa’s infancy and youth. They feature ‘Isa as a wandering ascetic with the power to give and restore life. They also add to the number of his miracles and emphasize his sinlessness and the significance of his Ascension and second coming. Islam’s mystical authors develop the figure of ’Isa in particularly colorful and imaginative ways. ‘Isa is for many mystics the image of the near-perfect Sufi—near-perfect because he once carried a needle with him during his desert wanderings, thus falling short of absolute trust in God. But even when storms threatened, ‘Isa refrained from seeking shelter, for he epitomized the homeless pilgrim. Still the Sufis celebrated ‘Isa as the prophet who laughed heartily and often, by contrast with Yahya (John the Baptist) who had a penchant for weeping. Sufi poets delight in tales of ‘Isa’s ability to restore life through the incantation of a powerful name only a select few may utter. Though the Qur’an does not mention Lazarus (‘Azar) by name, from popular hagiography Sufi writers picked up the story of ‘Isa raising ‘Azar from the dead. Finally, Sufis love to describe how Jesus embodies their focus on mystical knowledge through his mastery of the the body, which they compare to the “donkey,” a symbol of ignorance.