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(Sura 5: verse 116 to 120) - On Jesus

 Added Dec 27, 2003

Verse 116 of the fifth chapter (Sura al-Maidah) in the qur'an reads as follows:

5:116  And behold! God will say: "O Jesus the son of Mary! Didst thou say unto men, worship me and my mother as gods in derogation of God'?" He will say: "Glory to Thee! never could I say what I had no right (to say). Had I said such a thing, thou wouldst indeed have known it. Thou knowest what is in my heart, I know not what is in Thine. For Thou knowest in full all that is hidden.

This whole section is a conversation in the hereafter.

"Son of Mary" - This is a title that occurs only once in the New Testament
in Mark 6:3 where someone asks, "Is not this the carpenter, the son of
Mary?" Mark's gospel was the earliest - the closest to the source - and the one that was used as a basis for the other gospels.

It is a phrase that is used throughout the Qur'an as an honorific title for
Jesus. It is used directly by Allah in speech to the Christians, to Jesus
and to Mary - in other words it is a title given by Allah to Isa (a.s.).

"Behold! The angels said: "O Mary! God gives thee glad tidings of a word
from Him: his name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honour in this world and the Hereafter and of the company of those nearest to God." (Qur'an 3:45)

What is the significance of this title - Why is "son of Mary" the most
common title for Isa in the Qur'an? In the other Gospels, the title is not
used at all, rather Jesus is referred to as Joseph's son or "the
carpenter's son." Perhaps that fact provides a clue as to why the Qur'an
makes "son of Mary" an official and insistent title. The reference to Jesus
as "Joseph's son" stems from the fact that children were referred to
through their male ancestors and through the fact that there was confusion or skepticism at the time of Jesus about the virgin birth, and that in later times writers preferred to use titles which emphasised Jesus's Divinity.

The Qur'an's use of "son of Mary" as a title accomplishes several goals in
a single phrase. It establishes Jesus' humanity and counters the notion of his divinity at the same time that it reasserts, in a turn of phrase, the
unique manner of his birth. Also, it indicates that, aside from the honour
of being a Prophet, it is an honour for Jesus simply to be the son of a
woman who is given such a high position by Allah. So being a son of a woman like Mary is itself a signal honour - so much so that this sonship is made an official title and a mention of Jesus necessitates a mention of his mother. In other words Jesus is known through his mother (son of Mary) whereas Mary is not known though her son (mother of Jesus) but on her own merits. This is significant as it is a unique situation. For example, Moses' mother is referred to as the "mother of Moses", gaining her identity through her son. Mary, however, is "chosen" and both her and Jesus were made "signs" for all mankind.

"O Mary! God hath chosen thee and  purified thee-  chosen thee above the women of all nations." (3:42)

"And We made the son of Mary and his mother as a Sign" (23:50)

In Christian teaching, the soul in a state of purity, of grace, corresponds
to the virgin Mary - this is the Marial state. And this state of purity is
necessary for the reception of the Word. So we can possibly make a parallel between Mary being purified to receive God's Word (Jesus is called God's Word) and the purity of our Prophet's soul which received the Qur'an - God's Word. Some commentators have likened the Prophet's ummi status to such a state of purity.

The dictionary defines ummi as "he who is as when his mother gave birth to him." To hear God, man must return to the state of purity as in infancy - God only speaks in the creature's silences - purification consists in a return to the origin that restores the original, primordial, purified status of a human being - before the noise and distraction of the world fills him and shapes him. The Prophet's ummi status then is the state of a pure and receptive soul which then receives the Word. What comes in one package in our Prophet (s.a.), comes in the form of two individuals in the case of Mary and Jesus. Mary, purified by God who gives birth to Jesus - God's Word or, at least, created by God's commanding Word.

In Arabia, there were Christian cults - some who still clung to their pagan roots - who exalted Mary to a near-Divine or Divine status. The
Collyridians, an Arabian female sect of the 4th century, who had previously worshipped the Great Earth Mother, later made offerings to Mary, who replaced the Earth mother after the advent of Christianity. Also exaltation of Mary gradually appeared in the mainstream church. In the fifth century she began to be referred to as the Mother of God, instead of mother of Christ. Although the cult of Mary is distinguished from the worship of God in official church doctrine, the danger of over-exaltation was real and did apparently occur in some heretical cults.

The phrasing of this verse is interesting in that it asks, "Did you say
unto men, worship me and my mother as gods in derogation of God." When focus and emphasis is shifted towards God's creation, then the focus is shifted away from God. This is a derogating action since a shifting of focus to one area results in a loss of focus in another. Worship is exclusively for God. Worship, even of the kind given to saints and icons of the church, results in the derogation of God - he is no longer at the centre of focus. The phrasing of the Qur'an thus gives us clues as to the reason for not allowing this worship (even though the Christian form of saint and icon worship is very mild compared to true idolatry).

The remainder of this verse and the next few verses are similar to a scene played out in a courtroom. We all know, and Allah knows that Jesus was a true Prophet and servant who fulfilled his mission exactly as commissioned - so why is he being questioned by Allah?

It is similar to a witness in a courtroom. The judge or the questioning
lawyer already knows his witness and the integrity of his witness but the
witness must nevertheless be questioned to clarify the matter for the rest of the world. This is a similar dialogue in which Jesus, under questioning, clarifies his mission and restates the purpose of his mission to mankind.

Jesus makes crystal clear both his mission and his limits. First, everything he has is from God so how could he ever say what he had no right to say. Second, God's knowledge encompasses all things so God would have known if Jesus had strayed from his task. Third, God knows the content of hearts and all that is hidden so he would have know if there was even the least trace of impure intention or straying in Jesus' heart. Fourth, Jesus has no knowledge of God's heart.

This verse is a complete vindication of Jesus - even the slightest trace of improper intention in his heart would have been known about by Allah. And the verse also establishes the limits of Jesus' knowledge to further disavow the exaggerated claims about him.

5:117  "Never said I to them aught except what Thou didst  command me to say, to wit, 'worship God, my Lord and your Lord'; and I was a witness over them whilst I dwelt amongst them; when Thou didst take me up Thou wast the Watcher over them, and Thou art a witness to all things.

Jesus never exceeded his authority but conveyed the message exactly as he was charged. And he was a witness over the people while he was among them. In other words, while he was among them he ensured that they believed as they were supposed to. But once he was gone, God was the watcher over them. So Jesus was not responsible for their straying after he was no longer present among them nor can he witness to that straying - rather God is witness to whatever they did after Jesus' absence.

These verses clarify that Jesus taught Tauhid as had all the messengers
before him but they also raise an interesting question. That is, why is it
that although all Prophet's bring a message of tauhid, this message,
throughout history, is repeatedly distorted into polytheism or idolatry or something approaching them?

The nature of the material world is one of dispersion and multiplicity and
human beings are created of matter (clay) and of spirit. The nature of
spirit is unity. But human beings have this dual nature within them. Jesus' spirit was so powerful and overawing to the incredibly materialistic world into which he was born that it is perhaps not surprising that they were unable to separate worship of God from the spirit within Jesus - a materialistic mind "from incapacity to penetrate the true meaning of a teaching, takes things literally and misunderstands profound spiritual doctrines and in fact lowers them to its own confused level." This is a characterisitic we see in our time as well, where new age religions translate spiritual hierarchies and landscapes into material hierarchies incorporating space beings, UFOs, and other planets.

Furthermore, the material world is characterised by entropy or decay. If you create something, then over time it will decay and fall apart - it is part of the natural process experienced by all material things or by all things which exist in the material world.

Teachings that were, after all, passed down by human beings who are subject to this material world are subject to the same process. Sacred doctrines also succumb over time to decay. When the "Spirit", the true inner meaning of a teaching, is no longer understood, it succumbs to distortion. It becomes divorced from its principles - its founding principles. And it sucumbs to a kind of religious materialism in which God Himself is cloaked in a material form.

Once the principles, the spiritual aspects of a teaching are no longer
understood then we can no longer penetrate the true meaning of the symbols used by a religion. The intellectual elements of the religion are tied to understanding of the principles. Once this disappears then there is "no longer any question of religion...but only of 'religiosity', vaguely
sentimental aspirations...unsanctioned by any real knowledge...." (Rene
Guenon, Crisis of the Modern World)

When those without a connection to the spiritual world and without the
intellectual understanding of the principles determine the form of
religion, this is "...ignorance imposing its limitations upon wisdom, error
overtaking truth, the human substituting itself for the divine, earth in
ascendancy over heaven....." These are the blind guides the Qur'an and
Gospels speak about.

In the sphere of religious education, learning becomes more important than understanding in the true sense - and memory, rote learning becomes a substitute for intelligence - in fact, intelligence is discouraged as it can lead to difficult and awkward questions about the present state of religion. And finally quality is sacrificed for quantity.

In this way the continued disintegration of religion is assured and the
conception of religion is "emptied of its intellectuality" and becomes a
shallow and mediocre idea consisting either of vagueness or of fanaticism, of a capitulation to modernity and the modern view of religion or a narrow, constricted and fanatical adherence to a degraded and distorted religious viewpoint.

Neither vantage point is desirable as both lead away from one of the key purposes of religion - to awaken a higher human type free from bondage to illusion and attached to the Absolute.

The next verse reads:

5:118  "If Thou dost punish them, they are Thy servants: If Thou dost
forgive them, Thou art the Exalted in power, the Wise."

Here we have a recognition of God's absolute soverignity - he can punish or forgive and whatever he does is the wisest, the best course of action. This verse should also be a warning to Muslims not to be quick in labeling people as unbelievers (kafir) or in condemning them to hell. If a Prophet with the stature of Isa (a.s.) leaves this to the discretion of God, how can we (as followers of the prophets) dare to make judgements in such matters. The most we can do is say what Prophet Isa (a.s.) says.

This verse is perhaps also a recognition of the fact that the Prophets and
Allah are aware of the nature of the material world and the difficulties
humans face in such a world and so we can be reassured that despite
deviations (so long as they were not willful) we may still achieve

5:119  God will say: "This is a day on which the truthful will profit
from their truth: theirs are gardens, with rivers flowing  beneath,- their
eternal Home: God well-pleased with them, and they with God: That is the great salvation, (the fulfilment of all desires).

The truthful will profit from their truth. It is not an easy matter being
truthful or remaining true to a teaching. The truthful will receive their
reward even if their truthfulness caused them great difficulty in the world.

Truthfulness to religion, to a Prophet, to Allah is not possible without
understanding, without knowing, without having a correct conception of
religion. Otherwise, we can be convinced we are being truthful even while we commit atrocities in the name of religion. Truthfulness presupposes knowledge and understanding. That is why it leads to a GREAT salvation - the truthful have accomplished something great - they have achieved and preserved the true knowledge and practise of their religion and attained the spiritual fruits which come from such a knowledge and practise.

This term (truthful) is reserved for a very few.

5:120  To God doth belong the dominion of the heavens and the earth  and all that is therein, and it is He Who hath power over all things.

Rest assured that however confused and strange this world sometimes seems, God has power over all of it - the hereafter will be when the invisible aspects underlying everything will be revealed to us and this fact will be made clear.

- Irshaad Hussain
Related articles:
Jesus: An Islamic Perspective
Power and Hegemony
Shards of Knowledge

What is truth?

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