Muslims, Mary, and the ‘Son of God’: A Reflection (Part 1)

Being home to millions of Muslims, Christians, Druze and others, Lebanon celebrates many holidays. However, one holiday in particular, “The Annunciation”, has taken on special significance as being the only holiday celebrated by virtually all Lebanese faith traditions. IMES MRel Faculty Colin Chapman shares his reflections below.IMES Staff

Muslims, Mary, and the ‘Son of God’: A Reflection (Part 1)

By Colin Chapman

Some of the stories in the New Testament are so familiar to us that we don’t find anything surprising or shocking in them. We hear them year after year and we know many of the verses by heart. I suspect that this is true in regard to ‘the Annunciation’ – when the angel Gabriel comes to Mary to tell her that she is going to bear a son.

Because I’ve lived for many years in the Middle East and among Muslims, and because much of my work in recent years has been teaching Christians about Islam, I often say to myself:

‘What if I try to read this passage of the Bible through the eyes of a Muslim? What would a Muslim think if s/he were reading this passage?’

So if I were a Muslim reading the story of the Annunciation, I might be very happy because I would say:

‘This is very similar to the Qur’an, where there’s a whole surah which is called ‘Mary (Maryam)’ (No. 19), and includes a similar account of the angel coming to Mary to announce the birth of a son.

As a Muslim I would have no difficulty with verses 30 – 31:

‘Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for God has been gracious to you; you will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.’

But then in the very next verse I would come up against a huge problem:

‘He will be great, and will be called Son of the Most High …’

And later Mary is told:

‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; for that reason the holy child to be born will be called Son of God’ (35).

At this point I might stop reading, because for Muslims it’s unthinkable to describe Jesus as ‘Son of God’. He’s a prophet, one of the greatest of the 26 major prophets and the last one before Muhammad, the final prophet. He’s a human being, but nothing more than a human being.

Muslims totally reject the idea of the Trinity, and some believe (because of a certain verse in the Qur’an) that the Trinity consists of God the Father and the Virgin Mary, who have some kind of sexual relationship to produce Jesus as their son.

So, what I want to do is to share with you how I would try to explain to Muslims what we mean when we say that Jesus is the Son of God.

I would begin by asking my friend what s/he thinks the Trinity is; and if s/he says that it’s ‘God, Mary and Jesus’, I would say that this is as blasphemous to us as it is to them.

Then I would explain that the expression ‘Son of God’ is a metaphor – not meant to be taken literally – and point out that even in the Qur’an the expression ‘son of’ is used as a metaphor: for example, a traveller is described as ‘son of the road’.

From there, I would go on to explain that the first disciples of Jesus were orthodox Jews who believed passionately in the oneness of God. They recited the Shema regularly:

‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord …’ (Deut 6:4).

So the Jewish idea of the oneness of God was very similar to the Muslim idea of the oneness of God. When the disciples said ‘God is one’, their idea must have been very similar to what Muslims believe when they say ‘God is one’.

Then I would explain that the first disciples at the beginning followed Jesus simply as a rabbi, a religious teacher. He told parables about the coming of the kingdom of God; and he never said ‘I am God’ or ‘I am divine’.

But, he claimed to be able to do things that only God can do – like forgive sins, and sit at God’s right hand on the day of Judgement. And in his miracles he did things that only God can do – like calming the storm, healing the sick and turning the water into wine.

So the disciples must have had a problem:

‘He’s a human being, who eats, get tired, sleeps and walks like anyone else; how then is he related to Almighty God, Yahweh?’

Then gradually during the three years that they are with him, they come to believe that he’s more than an ordinary human being – that he’s the promised Messiah. And of course we all know the story of Peter’s confession, when he is the first to put into words that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God:

15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16: 15-16).

And this is where we need to look more closely at our gospel text…in part 2!

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