Christians and Christianity
(naṣārā, naṣrāniyya)

Muzaffar Iqbal and Csaba Okvath

The Qurʾān uses three appellations for Christians: naṣārā, ahl al-injīl, and ahl al-kitāb. Two otherwise prevalent Arabic equivalents of Christians and Christianity (Masīḥiyyūn, Masīḥiyya) are not mentioned in the Qurʾān.

Definitions and Usage

  1. Naṣārā: Naṣārā is used 14 times in its plural form and once in the singular (naṣrānī) (Q 2:62, 111, 113x2, 120, 135, 140; 5:14, 18, 51, 69, 82; 9:30; 22:17; and Q 3:67 respectively). There are two opinions about the term’s provenance. According to the first opinion, it is a toponym from the Levantine village called Nāṣira (Nazareth), “where ʿĪsā, the son of Maryam, was born” (Yāqūt, Buldān, sub nāṣira); ʿĪsā, upon him peace, was also called al-Nāṣirī (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:62). Other names given for this village include Nāṣrān, Naṣūriyya, Naṣrūna and Naṣrān (Fayrūzābādī, Qāmūs; Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān, sub al-rāʾ, faṣl al-nūn). Its singular masculine form (naṣrān) “is never used without the ascriptive yāʾ (yā al-nisba), [hence naṣrānī]” (Ibn ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Rāzī, Mukhtār, sub n-ṣ-r; also see Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān, for a similar explanation).  According to the second opinion, it is derived from the root n-ṣ-r (naṣara-yanṣuru-naṣran—“to help”), especially in the sense used in Q 61:14, where Prophet ʿĪsā, upon him be peace, asks his companions, ‘Who are my helpers unto Allah?’ (man anṣārī ilā-Llāh). The disciples respond, ‘We are the helpers of Allah’. Al-Ṭabarī quotes a couplet in support of the view that they were called naṣārā because of their mutual help and assistance (li-nuṣra baʿḍuhum baʿḍā wa tanāṣurihim) (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:62; for a similar linguistic explanation, see Rāghib, Mufradāt sub n-ṣ-r). Abūl-Qāsim Maḥmūd b. ʿUmar al-Zamakhsharī (467-538/ca. 1344-1392) holds that the final yāʾ in naṣrānī is exaggerative (lil-mubāligha), not ascriptive (as it was in the first opinion above), in recognition of their help to the Messiah (al-Masīḥ) (Kashshāf, sub Q 2:62; also see Fayrūzābādī, Baṣāʾir). In the same semantic register, the Disciples of ʿĪsā (q.v.) are called “helpers of Allah” (anṣār Allāh) in Q 3:52 (When ʿĪsā sensed their disbelief, he said, “who will be my helpers unto Allah?” The disciples said, “We are the helpers of Allah! We believe in Allah; bear witness that we are Muslims.”); in Q 61:14, the Believers (q.v.) are urged to be helpers of Allah, just as were the Disciples of ʿĪsā, upon him peace. The exegetes point out that Christians gave the name naṣārā to themselves, because Q 5:14 states And those who say, “We are naṣārā” (Tafsīrs of Qushayrī; Baghawī; Samarqandī; Bayḍāwī; Rāzī; Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar). Al-Rāzī explains that Allah Most High “did not say mina-l-naṣārā (“from the Christians”), because they called themselves by this name, claiming the support of Allah Most High, as they said to ‘ʿĪsā, ‘we are the supporters of Allah’ (naḥnu anṣāru-Llāh, cf. Q 3:52). This name is, in fact, a name of praise (ism madḥ), and Allah Most High clarifies that they claimed this attribute [to be theirs], but they are thus attributed by Allah (laysū mawṣūfīna bihā ʿind-Allah) (Tafsīr).
  2. Ahl al-Injīl (“People of Injīl”), used once (Q 5:47). Injīl is the Qurʾānic name for the revealation sent to ʿĪsā, upon him peace, wherein is guidance and light, confirming the Torah that had come before him (Q 5:46). The Injīl is mentioned twelve times (Q 3:3, 48, 65; 5:46, 47, 66, 68, 110; 7:157, 111; 48:29; 57:27). “Injīl” is often translated as Gospel, which confuses it with the four humanly-authored Gospels of the New Testament.
  3. Christians are included in the three Qurʾānic terms referring to the “People of the Book” (q.v.): ahl al-kitāb—used thirty times in eight Madinan suras (Q 2:105, 109; 3:64, 65, 69, 70, 71, 72, 75, 98, 99, 110, 113, 199; 4:123, 153, 159, 171; 5:15, 19, 59, 65, 68, 77; 33:26; 57:29; 59:2, 11: 98:1, 6) and once in a Makkan sura (Q 29:46); alladhīna ūtū-l-kitāb (“those who were given the Book”), which occurs fifteen times (Q 2:101, 144, 145; 3:19, 100, 186, 187; 4:47, 131; 5:5, 57; 9:29; 57:16; 74:31; 98:4); and, alladhīna ūtū naṣīban min al-kitāb (“those who were given a portion of the Book”), used thrice (Q 3:23; 4:44, 51).

The term “People of the Book” technically refers to both Jews (al-yahūd) and Christians (al-naṣārā) (Muqātil; Ṭabarī; Ibn Abī Ḥātim; Baghawī; Rāzī; Ibn ʿĀshūr, Tafsīrs, sub Q 6:156; Māturīdī, Taʾwīlāt, sub Q 4:47; Samarqandī, Baḥr, sub 29:46), “along with all [their subsects] who accept Torah and Injīl” (Ibn Qudāma, Mughnī, masʾalat yuqātal ahl al-kitāb wa-l-majūs), on the basis of Q 6:156, which constitutes “an explicit proof that [the term] “People of the Book” refers to Jews and Christians only, to the exclusion of Majūs” (Jaṣṣāṣ, Aḥkām sub Q 6:156).

The exegetes variously identify verses where the term “People of the Book” refers to Jews, Christians, certain individuals or groups among them, or Jews and Christians together; see the section “Implied References”. Monks (Q 5:82; 9:31, 34), priests (Q 5:82; 9:31, 34), and monasticism (Q 57:27; rahbāniyya) are also mentioned in various contexts (see below and Monasticism and MonksChurches, Synagogues, and Monasteries).

Implied References

The exegetes identify several verses which refer to Christians without naming them directly. These identifications are often not exclusive or definite; such verses include:

  • Q 1:7: The path of those You have favored, not of those who incurred wrath, nor of those who are astray. The majority view of the exegetes is that those who have incurred wrath are the Jews and those who are astray are the Christians. Ibn Abī Ḥātim (d. 327/938) says, “I know of no difference of opinion on this among the exegetes” (Tafsīr; also see Ṭabarī; Qurṭubī; Bayḍāwī, Tafsīrs; Suyūṭī, Asrār p. 60, where he declares an exegetical consensus about this interpretation). The hadith of ʿAdiyy b. Ḥātim b. ʿAbd Allāh b. Saʿd al-Ṭāʾī (d. ca. 66/686), the son of the poet Ḥātim al-Ṭāʾī (al-Dhahabī, Siyar, vol. 3: 163, no. 26), is often cited in support of this explanation: ʿAdiyy b. Ḥātim said, “The Messenger of Allah, blessings and peace upon him, said, ‘those who incur wrath are the Jews, and those who are astray are the Christians’” (Aḥmad, Musnad, 35:20§21095; Tirmidhī, Tafsīr, wa min sūra Fātiḥati al-kitāb; al-Haythamī, Mawārid, Kitāb al-Tafsīr, Sūrat al-Fātiḥa; al-Fārisī, Iḥsān, dhikr iftirāq al-yahūd wa-l-naṣārā firaqan mukhtalifa; Suyūṭī, Itqān, Type 80; Suyūṭī, Mufḥimāt, sub Sūrat al-Fātiḥa). Ṭabarī and Bayḍāwī both also cite Q 5:77, who went astray before and led astray many and have strayed from the Straight Path, in support of this interpretation (Tafsīrs; see Astray);
  • Q: 2:114: And who does greater wrong than the one who bars [entrance to] the mosques of Allah, lest His Name be remembered therein, and strives for their ruin? They are those who should not enter them, save in fear. Theirs is disgrace in this world, and theirs is a great punishment in the Hereafter. Ibn ʿAbbās identified referrant of those who bar worshippers to enter mosques to be the Christians and the mosque as Bayt al-Maqdis in Jerusalem (Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Qurṭubī, Samʿānī, and Ibn Kathīr; Suyūṭī, Mufḥimāt);
  • Q 2:116: They say, “Allah has taken a son.” Glorified be He in His transcendence! Nay, to Him belongs all that is in the heavens and earth; and all surrender to Him in obedience. The referrents here are either Christians alone (cf. Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Qurṭubī, Samʿānī, Ibn Kathīr), or Christians, Jews, and the polytheists of Makka (Tafsīrs of Qushayrī and Rāzī; Makkī, Hidāya);
  • Q 2:118: Those who do not know say, “Why does Allah not speak to us, nor a sign come to us?” Those who came before them also spoke likewise; their hearts are alike; We have made the signs clear for a people who have certitude. They are either the Christians, per Mujāhid b. Jabr (d. ca. 104/722); the Jews, per Saʿīd b. Jubayr (45-95/665-713) and ʿIkrima (d. 104/722), both reporting from Ibn ʿAbbās; or the Arab polytheists, per Qatāda and al-Suddī (d. 127/745). The verse’s context is the refutation of the Christian claim of a divine son (Q 2:116), hence al-Ṭabarī rejects the latter two ascriptions (Tafsīr);
  • Q 2:138: The ṣibgha of Allah—and which ṣibgha can be better than that of Allah? And we are His worshippers. This verse is rejection of the Christian custom of baptism (Qurṭubī, Tafsīr). Linguistically, ṣibgha, derived from the root ṣ-b-gh, carries the meaning of imparting a new color through immersing a cloth in a dye (Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān). In theological terms, ṣibgha is the original fiṭra (Ibn Fāris, Maqāyīs). Al-Rāghib al-Aṣfahānī (d. ca.502/1108) writes that ṣibgha refers to the “innate faculties, like the intellect (ʿaql), which Allah has created in humankind and by which the human being is differentiated from animals” (Mufradāt; also see his Tafsīr). Other exegetes also define ṣibgha as fiṭra, the primordial nature upon which Allah has created humankind (Q 30:30) and as “the religion of Allah (dīn allāh),” per reports from Ibn ʿAbbās, Qatāda, and Mujāhid. Thus, ṣibgha understood as fiṭra is contrasted with the Christian custom of either immersing the child in baptismal water (māʾ al-maʿmūdiyya) or pouring it over the child’s head, per a report from Ibn ʿAbbās (Ṭabarī, Baghawī, Rāzī, Tafsīrs). The ṣibgha of Allah is “al-ḥanīfiyyat al-muslima, and not your immersing of children in water” (Makkī, Hidāya);
  • Q 2:143-46 was revealed in reference to the changing of qibla (q.v.)—the direction of prayer—from Jerusalem toward Makka in the second year after the Hijra (q.v.) and  phrase those unto whom We have given the Book recognize it as they recognize their children refers to the Jews and the Christians (specifically the scholars among them: Ṭabarī, Tafsīr), as does everyone has a direction toward which he turns (cf. Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Qurṭubī, Ibn Kathīr);
  • Q 2:159-60: Truly those who conceal what We have sent down of clear proofs and guidance—after We made it clear to mankind in the Book—are those who are cursed by Allah and cursed by the cursers; save those who repent, make amends, and make it clear; they are those unto whom I relent. And I am the Ever-Relenting, the Most Merciful. This verse refers to the scholars of the Jews and Christians who conceal the prophethood of the Prophet Muhammad, while those who repent and correct themselves are those who embraced Islam from among them (cf. Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Baghawī; Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar; al-Balansī, Mubhamāt);
  • Q 2:177: Piety is not that you turn your faces toward the east or the west…. The Christians are those who “faced eastward” (Ṭabarī, Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīrs);
  • Q 2:257: Allah is the Protector of those who believe. He brings them out of the darkness into the light. As for those who disbelieve, their protectors are false deities (ṭāghūt); they bring them out of light into the darkness. They are the inhabitants of the Fire, wherein they shall dwell forever. The phrase those who disbelieve refers either to Christians (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr; Makkī, Hidāya) or to all those from the People of the Book who disbelieved [in the Prophethood of Muḥammad, upon him blessings and peace] (Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Tafsīr); or specifically to the leaders of the misguided among them (Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar; Baghawī, Tafsīr);
  • Āl ʿImrān (Q 3): Al-Ṭabarī, Abū-l-Ḥasan ʿAlī b. Aḥmad al-Wāḥidī al-Naysābūrī (d. 468/1075), Jalāl al-Dīn ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Suyūṭī (849-911/1445-ca.1505) and a number of other exegetes say that eighty verses of Āl-ʿImrān (Q 3) were revealed in reference to the Christian delegation from Najrān, consisting of sixty people—among whom were forty of their nobles—under the leadership of ʿAbd al-Masīḥ, who came to Madina and disputed with the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, about ʿĪsa, upon him peace (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr sub Q 3; Wāḥidī, Asbāb, Sūrat Āl ʿImrān; Suyūṭī, Asrār, p. 60-61). Al-Suyūṭī highlights the mirroring of the sequence of Q 1:7—where the mention of Jews (those who have earned Divine wrath) is followed by Christians (those who are astray)—in the two suras which follow Q 1. “Whenever the People of the Book are addressed in [Sūrat al-] Baqara (Q 2), the Jews are specifically intended, and even when the Christians are mentioned, they are not directly addressed (lam yaqaʿ bi dhikr al-khiṭāb); in Āl ʿImrān (Q 3), the Christians are directly addressed abundantly, and eighty of the verses at its beginning were revealed concerning the delegation [of Christians] from Najrān. [The second last verse of the sura,] And among the People of the Book are those who believe in Allah, and what has been sent down unto you, and what has been sent down unto them, men humble to Allah, not selling the signs of Allah for a small price; their wage is with their Lord; Allah is swift in reckoning (Q 3:199), is concerning the Najāshī and his companions from amongst the Christians who entered Islam, as reported in the hadith” (Asrār p. 60-61):
    • Q 3:20: The disputants in the verse are identified in the commentaries as the Christians from Najrān (cf. Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Qurṭubī; Bayḍāwī; Ibn Kathīr);
    • Q 3:59-61: Truly the likeness of ʿĪsā, in the sight of Allah, is as that of Ādam…. This is a refutation of the divinity of ʿĪsā, upon him peace, claimed by the Christian delegation from Najrān (cf. Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Qurṭubī, Bayḍāwī, Ibn Kathīr);
    • Q 3:80: Nor could he order you to take the angels and prophets as lords. This is an allusion to two delegations, one of Jews led by Abū Rāfiʿ al-Quraẓī, and the other of Christians from Najrān, led by al-Raʾīs (in other versions: al-Rīs or al-Rabīs), (Balansī, Mubhamāt; Ibn Hishām Sīra, Mā nazala fī qawl Abī Rāfiʿ wa-l-najrānī “A-turīdu an naʿbudaka kamā taʿbudu-l-naṣārā ʿĪsā”; Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī; Ibn Abī Ḥātim; Ibn Kathīr; Shawkānī, Fatḥ al-qadīr);
    • Q 3:90: Truly those who disbelieve after having believed, then increase in disbelief, their repentance shall not be accepted, and they are the ones who are astray. This verse refers to both the Jews and the Christians (Ṭabarī, Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Tafsīrs);
    • Q 4:150: Truly those who disbelieve in Allah and His messengers, and seek to make a distinction between Allah and His messengers, and say, “We believe in some and disbelieve in others,” and seek to take a way between. They are the Jews—who disbelieved in ʿĪsā and Muḥammad, upon them peace, and believed in other prophets—and the Christians, who believed in ʿĪsā and all prophets before him, but disbelieved in Muḥammad (Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Baghawī, Samʿānī, Ibn Kathīr);
    • Q 7:169: Then they were succeeded by generations who inherited the Scripture, but took the [unlawful] gains of this lower world, saying, “We will be forgiven.” Some exegetes hold that this refers to the Christians (cf. Tafsīrs of Mujāhid, Ṭabarī);
  • Q 13:43: Whosoever has the knowledge of the scripture is explained by the exegetes to be a reference to Salmān al-Fārisī and Tamīm al-Dārī, two Christians who entered Islam, as well as to Rabbi ʿAbd Allāh b. Salām who accepted Islam; according to others, it refers to Jews and Christians generally (cf. Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Qurṭubī; Ibn al-Jawzī, Zād; Balansī, Mubhamāt);
  • Q 16:103: And We certainly know that they say: It is only a human being who teaches him. The tongue of the one they refer to is non-Arabic (aʿjamī), while this [Qurʾān] is in clear Arabic. Exegetical and “occasions of revelation” (asbāb al-nuzūl) literature identify more than persons of Christian background as referent of the one they refer to; he is variously named as Balʿām, Yaʿīsh or Yāʿīsh, and Jabr; Samʿānī says there were two such slaves and the name of the second was Yasār (Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Baghawī, Samʿānī);
  • Q 17:111: And say: Praise be to Allah, who has not taken a son…. This verse refutes the claims of the Jews, the Christians, and the polytheists who attributed offspring to the Creator (Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr; Balansī, Mubhamāt);
  • Q 18:9-22: The People of the Cave (aṣḥāb al-kahf) (q.v.) are identified in the exegetical literature as a group of young Christians who fled persecution under the reign of the pagan Roman Emperor Trajan Decius (Diqyānus) (d. 401bh/251) (cf. Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Baghawī, Samʿānī, Ibn Kathīr);
  •  Q 18:103: Say, “Shall I inform you who are the greatest losers with respect to their deeds?” This refers to the Jews and the Christians and the priests and monks in their cells and monasteries (cf. Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Ibn al-Jawzī, Zād; Balansī, Mubhamāt; Ibn al-Jawzī, Zād);
  • Q 23:53: But the people divided their religion among them into sects—each faction exulting in what it had. This refers to the splintering of Judaism and Christianity into various sects (Wāḥidī, Wajīz; Balansī, Mubhamāt; Baghawī, Tafsīr).
  • Q 28:51: And indeed We have caused the Word to reach them, that haply they may reflect. This either refers to both the Jews and the Christians (Balansī, Mubhamāt), or specifically to those Christians who came from Ethiopia (al-Ḥabasha) and believed in the Message of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace (Baghawī, Tafsīr);
  • Q 30:32: Of those who have divided their religion and became sects…. This is considered a general reference to the Jews and the Christians (cf. Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Baghawī);
  • Q 36: 13-20: In the parable of the People of the City (aṣḥāb al-qarya), the city is identified as Antioch (Anṭākiya) (Qurṭubī, Tafsīr), and the man who came running from the farthest part of the city is identified as a Christian martyr by the name of Ḥabīb b. Muriyy or Ḥabīb al-Najjār of Antioch, who was a carpenter (cf. Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī; Qurṭubī; and Ibn Kathīr; Ibn al-Jawzī, Zād);
  • Q 43:65: But the parties differed among themselves. Woe unto those who do wrong: they will face the punishment of a painful day! This refers to the Christians who disputed among themselves regarding ʿĪsā, upon him peace, or to both the Jews and the Christians who disputed about the same matter (cf. Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Rāzī, Qurṭubī);
  • Q 85:4-10: Most exegetes conclude that these verses refer to the massacre of the Christians of Najrān at the hands of the Jewish ruler of Yemen around 110 bh/524 (Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Qurṭubī, Rāzī, Ibn Kathīr). These verses are especially significant in that they refer to pre-Islamic Christians as “believers.” They were thrown into ditches where fire blazed (Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī; Baghawī; Samʿānī; Ibn Kathīr) (see People of Ukhdūd);
  • Q 105: Have you not considered how your Lord dealt with the people of the elephant? This sura describes an event in the year of the birth of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace (570 C.E.), generally known as “the Year of the Elephant,” when Christians from Ṣanʿāʾ, Yemen, led by the warlord Abraha (usually known as Abraha al-Ashram—the one who has a disfigured nose or is harelipped) was sent by the Axumite Christian kingdom to destroy the House of Allah (bayt Allāh), the Kaʿba, in Makka (see People of the Elephant) (cf. Baghawī, Qurṭubī, Tafsīrs);
  • Q 112: This early Makkan sura refutes “in its four verses all [forms of] disbelief (kufr) and fancies (ahwāʾ); it is named Sūrat al-Ikhlāṣ (“the Sura of Sincerity”) because it sweeps away all impurities foreign to the transcendence (tanzīh) of Allah, Exalted is He, above all that is not fitting for Him” (Tustarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 112). Al-Qurṭubī cites a report from Ibn ʿAbbās, who said, “Allah Most High does not bear children as did Maryam, and he is not born as was ʿĪsā. In He begets not one finds an explicit refutation of Christian doctrines and also an answer to those who said ‘ʿUzayr is the son of Allah’ [an allusion to the Jews, in Q 9:30]” (Tafsīr).

Key Features

Several key features of the Qurʾānic description of Christians and Christianity are intimately connected with the account of the life of ʿĪsā, upon him peace, whose special birth (see Birth) is attested and alleged crucifixion is denied: They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him (Q 4:157, see Crucifixion). ʿĪsā, upon him peace, is both a Prophet (nabī, 19:30) and a Messenger (rasūl)—a Prophet being someone who received revelation (waḥy) from Allah, and a Messenger being the one who is specifically commanded to convey and propagate the received message to people (see Messengership; Prophethood). Thus, according to the strongest view, every Messenger is a Prophet, but every Prophet is not a Messenger (Qurṭubī, Tafsīr, sub Q 22:52; Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr, sub Q 33:38; Ibn ʿĀdil, Lubāb, sub Q 3:42). ʿĪsā, peace be upon him, was sent as a Messenger to the Children of Isrāʾīl (rasūlan ilā banī Isrāʾīl, Q 3:49; and in other phrases, Q 3:53; 4:171; 5:75; 61:6). His birth is foretold by the angels in a passage which also lists some of the miracles granted to him (Q 3:45-51). The Book in this passage is explained by the exegetes as his ability to write with his own hand; the Wisdom (al-ḥikma) comprises divinely revealed custom (al-sunna), religious understanding (al-fiqh), and additional knowledge which was not in the Book; the Torah refers to the Book given to Mūsā; and the Injīl is the new Book that was given to ʿĪsā (Ṭabarī, Baghawī, Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr, sub Q 3:48). Some exegetes hold that he received the Injīl while he was still in the womb of his mother (Samʿānī, Tafsīr, sub Q 19:30); while others say that he received it in his childhood, but even at that time his intellect was similar to that of an adult (yaʿqilu ʿaqla-l-rijāl) and the Torah was revealed to him while he was in the womb of his mother (Baghawī, Tafsīr, sub Q 19:29-33). A third opinion holds that he received both the Torah and the Injīl while he was in the womb of his mother (Samʿānī, Tafsīr; Ibn al-Jawzī, Zād, sub Q 19:34-36). The Injīl mentioned in the Qurʾān is not the four Gospels which comprise the present-day New Testament, all of which are human accounts of the life of ʿĪsā, upon him peace.

The Qurʾān stresses the human nature of both ʿĪsā and his mother, upon them be peace: The Messiah, son of Maryam, was naught but a messenger—messengers have passed away before him. And his mother was truthful (ṣiddīqa). Both of them ate food. Behold how We make the signs clear unto them; yet behold how they are perverted! (Q 5:75). The verse precludes all illusions to the divinity of ʿĪsā, because like all mortals he had the need to eat, whereas Allah has no such need (Makkī, Hidāya), for anyone who eats and cannot remain alive without food cannot be divine (Baghawī, Tafsīr). Explaining the saying of ʿĪsā, upon him peace, in Q 19:30, Indeed, I am the servant of Allah (ʿabdu-Llāhi), ʿImād al-Dīn Ismāʿīl b. ʿUmar Ibn Kathīr (700-774/1300-1373) says that the very first utterance of ʿĪsa, in response to “the doubters who said, ‘How shall we speak to the one who is yet a baby in the cradle?’ (cf. Q 19:29), was to declare the transcendence of his Creator and his own servanthood to Him (wa athbata li-nafsihi al-ʿubūdiyya li-Rabbihi)” (Tafsīr, sub Q 19:29). The servanthood of ʿĪsā, upon him peace, emphasized in Q 4:172, is also one of the characteristics of Prophet Muḥammad (Q 17:1; 25:1; 53:10; 57:9; see Slaves of Allah), and of all other Prophets and Messengers: Their Messengers said unto them, “We are but human beings like yourselves, but Allah confers favor upon whom He wills of His servants. It has never been for us to bring you authority except by permission of Allah. And upon Allah let the believers rely (Q 14:11; also see 4:171; 5:73).

The Qurʾān attests that fasting, prayers, and giving of alms comprised main acts of worship in Christianity, just as they do in all other revealed religions (Q 2:43, 83, 110, 177, 183, 277; 4:77, 162; 5:12; 7:156; 9:71; 19:31, 55; 21:73; 22:41; 24:37; 98:5). In Q 19:31, And He has made me blessed wheresoever I may be, and has enjoined upon me prayer and almsgiving so long as I live, ʿĪsā, upon him peace, specifically mentions prayer and almsgiving. The verse ordaining fasting in the month of Ramadan (Q 2:183) states that it was also prescribed for those before you—a phrase which specifically refers to Christians, as per the eminent Successor-jurist and hadith transmitter ʿĀmir b. Sharāḥīl al-Hamdānī al-Shaʿbī (d. ca. 103/721) (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr; Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar) and generally to all Prophets and their people since Ādam, upon him peace (Rāzī, Tafsīr).

The revelation sent to ʿĪsā contained additional Laws, which either abrogated certain injunctions of the Torah or modified them (Q 3:50) and the Christians were commanded to judge by the Injīl: Let the people of the Injīl judge by what Allah has sent down therein; whoever does not judge by what Allah has sent down—it is they who are iniquitous (fa-ūlāʾika humu-l-fāsiqūn)” (Q 5:47). Several exegetes, including al-Rāzī, al-Qurṭubī, and Ibn Kathīr, explain that the command to judge by the Injīl refers to legal rulings based on the Injīl prior to the coming down of the Qurʾān, that is, “the people of the Injīl should have judged according to it in their own time, but now it is abrogated (mansūkh). Another explanation of this verse is that this is a command given to the Christians to believe the Prophet Muḥammad, upon him blessings and peace, since they can find the proofs to believe in him in the Injīl” (Qurṭubī, Tafsīr).


Allah Most High established a Covenant (mīthāq, q.v.) with Christians: And with those who say, ‘We are Christians,’ We made a covenant. Then they forgot part of that whereof they were reminded. So We stirred up enmity and hatred among them, till the Day of Resurrection. God will inform them of what they used to do (Q 5:14). Since ʿĪsā, upon him peace, was sent to the Children of Isrāʾīl, who already had a Convent, this new Covenant is understood to be a renewal of the previous Covenant, with the modification of certain Laws. It also included the requirement to believe in the Prophethood of Muḥammad, upon him blessings and peace, whom they find inscribed in the Torah and the Injīl that is with them (Q 7:157) and whom they were to recognize (Qurṭubī; Baghawī, Tafsīr).

The Closest in Love to those who Believe

Affection for the believers serves as a mark of differentiation between the Jews and the Christians: You will surely find the most hostile of men toward those who believe to be the Jews and those who ascribe partners unto Allah, and you will find the nearest of them in affection toward those who believe to be those who say, “We are naṣārā (Christians);” that is because among them are priests and monks, and because they are not arrogant (Q 5:82).

Ibn ʿAbbās, Saʿīd b. Jubayr, Mujāhid, and Qatāda all report the occasion of revelation of those who say “We are Christians” to be the arrival of a delegation of Christians “from Abyssinia with Jaʿfar [b. Abī Ṭālib] and his companions” to visit the Prophet (Mujāhid, Tafsīr; Ṭabarī, Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Rāzī, Tafsīrs; Wāḥidī, Asbāb, sub Q 5:82). Al-Suddī explains the circumstances of this visit: “The Najāshī sent twelve men—seven priests and five monks—to the Messenger of Allah, upon him blessings and peace, to meet him and ask him questions. The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, recited to them what Allah had revealed to him. They wept and believed. Then they returned to al-Najāshī. [Upon hearing the report of his envoys,] He departed [from his city] with them [to visit the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, fa-hājara-l-Najāshī maʿahum], but died on his way. The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, and the Muslims prayed [his funeral prayer in absentia, ṣalāt al-ghāʾib] and asked forgiveness for him” (Samarqandī, Baḥr; Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 5:82).

Some commentators consider this verse to be specifically concerning these Christians, while others consider it to be the general characteristic (ṣifa) of all those Christians “who were the true believers upon the Law of ʿĪsā (ʿalā sharīʿat ʿĪsā) and when Allah Most High sent His Prophet Muḥammad, upon him blessings and peace, they believed in him” (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr). Al-Ṭabarī himself favors the latter, because, “According to my understanding, the correct opinion in this context is that Allah Most High describes the characteristics of a people, who say ‘we are Christians’ and the Prophet of Allah finds them as those who are the nearest in affection to the People of Faith in Allah and in His Messenger; but He did not mention [specific] names for us. It is possible that the followers of al-Najāshī are meant by this, or those people who followed the Law of ʿĪsā and when Islam reached them they all embraced Islam after hearing the Qurʾān and they acknowledge that it is the Truth and did not turn away from it in an arrogance” (Tafsīr).

The name of the Aksumite monarch (who were generally called al-Najāshī) at the time of this event is cited as Aṣḥama b. Abjar (Aṣḥama is Arabicized as ʿAṭiyya; cf. Ibn Kathīr, Bidāya, bāb hijrat aṣḥāb Rasūli-Llāhi min Makka ilā arḍ al-Ḥabasha, 3:98), who died in 10/632 (Ibn Isḥāq, Sīra, ḥadīth al-hijrat al-ūlā ilā-l-Ḥabasha, p. 213). His funeral prayer in absentia, led by the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, is a fully authenticated event, witnessed by many Companions of the Prophet (q.v.), including Jābir b. ʿAbd Allāh (d. ca.77/696), who said he was standing in the second row. This event serves as the foundation (aṣl) for the validity of such prayers. Although the Mālikī and the Ḥanbalī Schools of Law require the body of the deceased to be present and do not validate prayer in absentia, they do not question the authenticity of this event, but consider it to have been specially and only for Aṣḥama (see al-Ruʿīnī, Mawāhib al-jalīl, 3:402; Ibn ʿĀbidīn, Radd al-muḥtār, 3: 99): “When the Najāshī died, the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said, ‘Today a pious man has died; get up and offer the funeral prayer for your brother Aṣḥama.’” (Bukhārī, Manāqib al-Anṣār, Mawt al-Najāshī; Muslim, Janāʾiz, fī-l-takbīr ʿalā-l-janāza; Mālik, Muwaṭṭaʾ, Janāʾiz, mā jāʾa fī-l-takbīr ʿalā-l-janāʾiz; also reported in several other major collections of hadith, including, but not limited to, Aḥmad, Musnad, 7:116 § 7282; and Tirmidhī, Sunan, Janāʾiz, mā jāʾa fī ṣalāt al-Nabī ṣallā-Llāh ʿalayhi wa-sallam ʿalā-l-Najāshī).

Muḥammad b. Muḥammad Abū Manṣūr al-Māturīdī (d. 333/ca.945) says, “Among the Christians one does not find certain traits of the Jews, [such as the] like killing of their Prophets or denying them, or the constant wish to wage war against the Messenger of Allah, upon him blessings and peace, or against the Believers (q.v.); and they do not use words of depravity (qawl al-wakhsh) concerning Allah Most High. Leniency (līn) and friendliness (rifq) prevail among them; this can be the reason for their [exaggerated] words regarding ʿĪsā, thus raising him above the real position that was given to him by Allah” (Taʾwīlāt). Abū-l-Qāsim ʿAbd al-Karīm bin Hawāzin al-Qushayrī (376-465/ca.986-ca.1073) says the Qurʾānic commendation of certain aspects of the Christian disposition, and their resultant closeness to Muslims, is a result of their devotion to religious exercises (tarahhub), which has effected a closeness to the People of Truth. Even though [some of them] may not benefit from this with regard to their ultimate salvation (al-khalāṣ), Allah, Glorified is He, has mentioned them as being ‘close to the people of special distinction’ (ahl al-ikhtiṣāṣ, meaning Muslims)” (Tafsīr).

Fakhr al-Dīn Muḥammad b. ʿUmar al-Rāzī (543-606/1148-1209) says the reason for this contrast (tafāwut) is that Jews are characterized by strong desire (bi-l-ḥirṣ al-shadīd) for this world, as evinced by His Words “and you will surely find them the greediest of people for life (Q 2:96)”; thus He connected them in greed with the polytheists who deny the Resurrection. Greed is a mine of blameworthy characteristics (al-akhlāq al-dhamīma) for he who yearns for this world will surely reject his religion for the sake of this world and would turn towards every kind of forbidden (maḥẓūr) and objectionable (munkar) matter in his search for worldly pleasures, and certainly, his hostility increases against everyone who obtains wealth or dignity (jāh). As far as Christians are concerned, in most of their matters, they turn away from delights of the worldly life, they rather turn to worship and forsake craving for leadership, arrogance and haughtiness (al-taraffuʿ). Anyone who is characterized by these traits will not envy other people, will not hurt them (wa lā yuʾdhīhim) and will not dispute with them; on the contrary, he will be gentle-hearted (layyin al-ʿarīka) in his search for the truth, and it would be easier to be on good terms with him; this is the principal difference between these two groups in this context, and this is the intended meaning of His Words “among them are priests and monks” who are not arrogant (Tafsīr, sub Q 5:82). They do not display arrogance towards the belief in Muḥammad and the Qurʾān (Ibn ʿAbbās, Tanwīr al-Miqbās, sub Q 5:82). The nearness to the believers to “those who claim to be Christians, from the true followers of the Messiah (naṣārā min atbāʿ al-Masīḥ), who sincerely adhere to the way of the Injīl, is because, in general, they show affection and friendliness towards Islam and Muslims, due to the fact that their hearts are filled with kindness (riqqa) and compassion (raʾfa), if they are truly observing the religion of the Messiah attested by His Words and We placed in the hearts of those who followed him compassion and mercy (Q 57:27); and their original Book contains [words like], “If one strikes your right cheek turn to him your left cheek [cf. Luke 6:29],” and fighting is not lawfully prescribed in their religion (Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr, sub Q 5:82).

Prohibition to take them as awliyāʾ

The exegetical discussions on Q 5:51, O you who believe, do not take the Jews and the Christians as awliyāʾ, include two basic queries: (i) the meaning of awliyāʾ (“close friend, near, adjacent, neighboring, supporter, helper, benefactor”) in this injuction; and (ii) whether or not the injunction is temporally constrained. Al-Rāghib al-Aṣfahānī explains the linguistic and Qurʾānic usage of awliyāʾ (sing. walī) by drawing upon related words from the root w-l-y: “The primary meaning of al-walāʾu wal-tawālī is to put two or more things next to one another in such a way that nothing can come between them; from this emerged its metaphorical usage in the sense of nearness (qurb), whether spatially (makān) or in relationship, religion, friendship, help, or creed. And al-walāya (which has two forms, wilāya and walāya, like dilāla and dalāla) is to be in charge of a matter (tawallī-l-amr)” (Mufrādāt, sub w-l-y). He goes on to explain that the words al-walī and al-mawlā are used almost synonymously. Both can be used to mean protecting ally (al-muwālī) or protected ally (al-muwālā). He cites the following Qurʾānic verses as examples where “protecting ally” is intended: Allah is the Walī of those who believe (Q 2:257); Indeed, my walī is Allah (Q 7:196); And Allah is the Walī of the believers (Q 3:68); this is because Allah is the Mawlā of those who believe (Q 47:11); an excellent Mawlā, an excellent Helper (Q 8:40); and hold fast to Allah; He is your Mawlā—and how excellent a Mawlā (Q 22:78).  In the Arabic language, al-waliyy can be used either in the sense of the subject of an action (al-fāʿil) or as the object “a friend who is protected” and this latter is the intended meaning in the following verses: Say, O you who are Jews! If you claim that you are friends unto God (awliyāʾu lil-Llāhi) apart from [other] people, then long for death, if you are truthful (Q 62:6); and in the following verse, Allah Most High denies the possibility of walāya between Believers and disbelievers -  O you who believe! Take not Jews and Christians as awliyāʾ; they are the awliyāʾ of one another; and whosoever takes them as awliyāʾ, surely he is of them. Truly Allah guides not wrongdoers (Q 5:51).

The weight of the scholarly opinion points to taking the word awliyāʾ in this verse to mean “close allies”, “protectors,” and “those to whom one turns for help”, as al-Rāghib and others point out that such an understanding is consistent with the Qurʾānic usage of this word in other verses such as Q 9:23, where believers are asked not to take even their fathers and brothers as awliyāʾ if they prefer disbelief over belief; and in Q 3:28, Let not believers take disbelievers as awliyāʾ rather than believers; and likewise in Q 4:89, 139, 144. In a passage (Q 5:78-81) containing one of the strongest condemnations of those who disbelieved among the Children of Isrāʾīl (q.v.), one of their gravest sins is said to be that they took awliyāʾ from among the disbelievers (q.v.) and had they believed in Allah and the Prophet, and that which was sent down unto him, they would not have taken them as awliyāʾ, but many of them are iniquitous (Q 5:81).

The majority of exegetes consider the prohibition of close allegiance with Jews and Christians to be generally applicable across time. However, they also add that this verse specifically commanded a few individuals around the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace: ʿUbāda b. al-Ṣāmit, who had allies among the Jewish tribes living around Madina; ʿAbdullāh b. Ubayy b. Salūl and other unnamed hypocrites, who supported the Jewish tribe of Banū Qurayẓa and the Christians of Najrān; Abū Lubāba b. ʿAbd al-Mundhir; al-Zubayr; and Ṭalḥa (cf. Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Samʿānī; Rāzī; Wāḥidī, Asbāb; Ibn al-ʿArabī, Aḥkām, sūrat al-Māʾida; ittikhādh waliyyin li-l-Muslimīn; Makkī, Hidāya).

Al-Ṭabarī is unequivocal in his explanation about the general applicability of the verse to all believers:

Allah Most High prohibits all Believers (al-muʾminīna jamīʿan) from taking the Jews and the Christians as helpers (anṣāran) or allies (ḥulafāʾ) instead of the people of faith in Allah and His Messenger. And He declares that whosoever takes them as helpers, allies, and awliyāʾ (naṣīran wa ḥalīfan wa waliyyan) besides Allah and His Messenger and the Believers, such a person belongs to them in their joining of forces (al-taḥazzub) against Allah, His Messenger, and the Believers. Indeed, Allah and His Messenger disavow (barīʾān) such a person. It may be that the verse was revealed regarding ʿUbāda b. al-Ṣāmit and ʿAbdullāh b. Ubayy b. Salūl and their Jewish allies, or regarding Abū Lubāba concerning his action with regard to the Jewish tribe of Banū Qurayẓa [see e.g. Baghawī, Tafsīr], or regarding the two men, as per al-Suddī, one of whom wanted to join the Jews in Dahlak and the other wanted to join the Christians in the Levant (al-Shām)…but even if this is so, the appropriate method to decide [about the applicability of the verse] is to decide according to the generally applicable literal wording of the Revelation (li-ẓāhir al-tanzīl)…Nevertheless, the verse was undoubtedly revealed in connection with a hypocrite (munāfiq) who supported a Jew or a Christian, because he feared for himself some adversities, for the following verse refers to it in His Words, Yet you see those in whose hearts is a disease hastening to them, saying, “We fear lest a change of fortune should befall us.” It may be that Allah will grant victory, or a command from Him. And then they shall be remorseful for that which they secretly harbored in their souls (Q 5:51). (Tafsīr)

Claims of those who call themselves naṣārā

Out of the fifteen verses containing the Arabic plural noun for Christians (naṣārā), all but three (Q 2:62; 5:69, 5:82) have negative connotations either because they quote their false claims or mention divine judgments against them.

i. And with those who say, ‘We are Christians,’ We made a covenant. Then they forgot part of that whereof they were reminded. So We stirred up enmity and hatred among them, till the Day of Resurrection. Allah will inform them of what they used to do (Q 5:14): The exegetes point out that the verse states that Christians gave the name naṣārā to themselves (bi-tasmiyatihim) (Qushayrī; Baghawī; Bayḍāwī; Rāzī); that is, they were not named so by Allah. Al-Rāzī explains the intended meaning of this way of stating their name and the consequences of forgetting the Covenant:

The intent (murād) is to say that the path taken by the Christians (sabīl al-naṣārā) is similar to that of the Jews in breaching the Covenants (al-mawāthīq) established by Allah. Thus, He [Allah] said, those who say, ‘we are Christians,’ and He did not say mina-l-naṣārā—from the Christians, because they called themselves by this name, claiming the support of Allah Most High; and they said to ʿĪsā, “we are the supporters of Allah (naḥnu anṣāru-Llāhi, Q 3:52)”. This name is, in fact, a name of praise (ism madḥ). Allah Most High explains that they claimed this attribute [to be theirs], but Allah does not Himself characterize them as such. His Words, “We took their covenant”, which is the Injīl, refers to [the covenant to] believe in Muḥammad, upon him blessings and peace. The passage about neglecting a portion (tankīr al-ḥaẓẓ) refers to the fact that one [specific] portion was forgotten, that which we previously mentioned, namely the belief in Muḥammad, upon him blessings and peace. The reason this one portion is singled out, although they have forgotten more than this, is that this [portion] is highly esteemed and important (al-muʿaẓẓam wal-muhimm). His Words, “therefore We have stirred up (fa-aghraynā) enmity and hatred among them”, means We attached (alṣaqnā) to them enmity and hatred… His Words “among them” there are two opinions: i. between the Jews and Christians; ii. among the different sects of the Christians, for every group of them declares all other groups disbeliever; similar to this is (Q 6:65), “or to confuse you [so you become] sects and make you taste the violence of one another”. And His Words “And Allah is going to inform them about what they used to do” is a threat for them (Rāzī, Tafsīr; also see Bayḍāwī for a similar explanation).

Other exegetes, such as Abū-l-Layth Naṣr b. Muḥammad al-Samarqandī (d. 373/983), Abū Ṭālib al-Makkī (d. 386/996), Nāṣir al-Dīn Abū Saʿīd ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿUmar al-Bayḍāwī (d. 685/1286), and Abū-l-Faraj Jamāl al-Dīn Ibn al-Jawzī al-Qurashī al-Baghdādī (510-597/ca.1116-1200) explain that the enmity and hatred that will prevail among them till the Day of Resurrection may either refer to enmity between Christians and Jews in relation to each other, or between “the three Christian sects, and Allah is going to inform them about what they used to do refers to Divine recompense (al-jazāʾ) and punishment (al-ʿiqāb)” (Bayḍāwī, Tafsīr). The three sects mentioned here are the Nestorians—who believed the Messiah to be the son of Allah, the Jacobites—who said, Allah is the Messiah, and the Melkites—who said Allah is the third of the three, the Trinity being the Messiah, his mother, and Allah” (Samarqandī).

ii. Exclusive Soteriology: And they say, ‘None shall enter Paradise except that they be Jews or Christians.’ Such are their fancies. Say: ‘Bring your proof, if you are truthful…. The Jews say, “The Christians stand on nothing,” and the Christians say, “The Jews stand on nothing,” though they recite the Book. Those who do not know say the same thing. Allah will judge between them on the Day of Resurrection concerning that wherein they differ (Q 2:111; 113). The widely accepted opinion regarding the occasion of revelation of this verse is the visit of the Christians of Najrān to Madina during which they met the Jews of Madina and both groups mutually cursed (fa-tasābbū) and accused one another (Baghawī, Tafsīr; Wāḥidī, Wajīz). “The Jews disbelieved in ʿĪsā, his religion, and in the Injīl, and the Christians disbelieved in Mūsā and the Torah, ‘by this, each of them disbelieved in their Book, because the Injīl confirms the veracity of Mūsā and the Torah, which [foretells] the glad tidings of ʿĪsā and [confirms] the authenticity of his prophethood (ṣiḥḥat nubuwwatih) and both of them confirm the veracity of Muḥammad, upon him be blessings and peace.’ Thus, Allah Most High reprimands both groups for their false accusations” (Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar). Each group cherishes hope for itself and assumes salvation for their cause, but mere conjecture (mujarrad al-ḥusbān) without proof is fruitless (Qushayrī, Tafsīr). This verse is also an allusion to their claim that no good can reach the Believers from their Lord, and in the end they [Jews and Christians] wish to turn [the Believers] back to disbelief” (cf. Q 3:100; Bayḍāwī, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:111). Q 2:120 further expands on the theme of exclusivism, stating that the Christians, like the Jews, will never be pleased with the Muslims until the latter follow their religion. Those amongst them who read the Book as it should be read (yatlūna l-kitāba ḥaqqa tilāwatih, Q 2:121), however, recognize the truth of Islam, for they recognize the description of the Prophet Muḥammad therein, blessings and peace upon him (Abū Ḥayyān, Baḥr, sub Q 2:121).

iii. They say, “Be Jews or Christians and you shall be rightly guided...” (Q 2:135): “The Jews said to the Prophet and his Companions, ‘be Jews—and you will be rightly guided,’ and the Christians likewise said to them, ‘be Christians—and you will be rightly guided,’ but Allah Most High commanded his Prophet to say, rather, [ours is] the religion of Ibrāhīm, a ḥanīf, and he was not of the polytheists” (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, also see, Makkī, Hidāya) [see: Ḥanīf and Ḥunafāʾ].

iv. Both the Christians and the Jews claimed that Ibrāhīm (q.v.), Ismāʿīl (q.v.), Isḥāq (q.v.), Yaʿqūb (q.v.), and al-asbāṭ [the descendants, the tribes] (see Children of Isrāʾīl) were all following their religion (Q 2:140; 3:65-67). There are two canonical readings (q.v.) of Q 2:140 (Or do you say, ‘Ibrāhīm, Ismāʿīl, Isḥāq, Yaʿqūb, and the Tribes were Jews or Christians?’ Say, ‘Do you know better, or does Allah?’ And who does greater wrong than one who conceals a testimony he has from Allah? Allah is not unaware of what you do). Nāfiʿ (70-169/689-785), Ibn Kathīr (45-ca.120/665-737), Abū ʿAmr (68-154/687-770) and ʿĀṣim (d. 127/ 744), read ‘am yaqūlūna—or do they say,’ instead of ‘am taqūlūna—or do you say,’ which is recited by Ibn ʿĀmir (8-118/629-736), Ḥamza (80-156/699-772), al-Kisāʾī (119-189 /737-804), and Ḥafṣ (d. 170/786). (For variant readings, see, ʿUmar and Sālim, Muʿjam al-Qirāʾāt al-Qurʾāniyya; also Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Qurṭubī, Bayḍāwī, Baghawī.)

Q 3:65-67 refutes the claim that Ibrāhīm, upon him peace, was a Jew or a Christian; after all, the Torah and the Injīl were not revealed until after him. Rather, Ibrāhīm is identified as ḥanīf—upright and inclining towards truth, and muslim—a submitter to Allah (see Makkī, Hidāya; Wāḥidī, Wajīz; Qushayrī, Tafsīr).

v. Their claim to be the sons and beloved of Allah: And the Jews and the Christians say, “We are the sons of Allah, and His beloved.” Say, “Why then does He punish you for your sins?” Nay, but you are mortals of His creating. He forgives whomsoever He wills, and He punishes whomsoever He wills, and unto Allah belongs sovereignty over the heavens and the earth and whatsoever is between them, and unto Him is the Return (Q 5:18). Ibn ʿAbbās, Allah be well-pleased with them both, says, “the phrase, the Jews and the Christians said, refers to the statements of two particular groups of these religious communities—the Jews of Madina and the Christians of Najrān (Tanwīr al-miqbās). Al-Ṭabarī also mentions another report from Ibn ʿAbbās, which names three Jews of Madina, who, when invited and warned regarding Allah by the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said to him, “Do not worry about us, O Muḥammad; by Allah, we are the sons of Allah and His beloved.” This, al-Ṭabarī says, is like their claim that fire will not touch us, except for a few days (Q 3:24). He then explains the general manner in which the verse refers to this specific group:

Arabs, according to the linguistic features of their language, may express news, especially in instances of boasting, as an account on behalf of the whole community, even if the speaker was a single person from among them; as they can say, “naḥnu-l-ajwād al-kirām—we are the generous noble-minded people,” even though “the generous” is applicable to only a single person from among them, who was probably not even the speaker himself. … This explains why Allah described the statement as coming from all Christians, even though only some of them made the statement (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr; for a similar, but more detailed explanation, see Māwardī, Nukat).

Whether it is meant literally or not, the claim of being sons of Allah is rejected, because “filiation (al-bunuwwa) necessitates a kind of similarity, kinship and familial ties (mujānasa), whereas al-Ḥaqq [the Real, meaning Allah] is free (munazzah) from such; and affection between two genetically similar [entities] (al-mutajānisayn) necessitates sharing common traits (iḥtiẓāẓ) and familial intimacy (muʾānasa), whereas al-Ḥaqq is far above that. Allah Most High responded to them, saying, Nay, but you are mortals of His creating. And it is not possible for the created to be part of the Eternal (baʿḍan li-l-qadīm), for the Eternal has no parts of His Oneness; and if He has no dividable parts, it is impossible for Him to have a child. If it is inconceivable for Him to have a child, it is also inconceivable that there exists affection, in such a way as they believe, between them and Him (Qushayrī, Tafsīr).

vi. Among them is a group who twist their tongues with the Book, to make you think that what they say is from the Book, but it is not from the Book. And they say, this is from Allah,” but it is not from Allah. And they utter lies about Allah knowingly (Q 3:78). There are two reports from Ibn ʿAbbās regarding this verse. According to the first, the group refers to the Jews (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr; Wāḥidī, Wajīz; Qurṭubī, Tafsīr; Makkī, Hidāya), specifically the Jews who lived around Madina (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr); according to the second, transmitted via al-Ḍaḥḥāk, it refers to both the Jews and the Christians (Baghawī, Tafsīr; Ibn al-Jawzī, Zād), since both altered their Books (the Torah and the Injīl, respectively).

Their Excesses

In two verses (Q 4:171; Q 5:77), the People of the Book are commanded not to overstep the bounds in their religion. In Q 4:171, although the address is to the People of the Book, the refutations of creedal positions directly concerns the Christians: O People of the Book! Do not go to excess in your religion, nor utter anything concerning Allah save the truth. Verily the Messiah, ʿĪsā, son of Maryam, was only a Messenger of Allah, and His Word, which He committed to Maryam, and a Spirit from Him. So believe in Allah and His messengers, and say not “Three.” Refrain! It is better for you. God is only one—Allah; Glory be to Him that He should have a child! Unto Him belongs whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is on the earth, and Allah suffices as a Guardian. It is, however, possible that both the Jews and the Christians are meant, as both al-Samʿānī and al-Rāzī point out, “because both committed excesses in the matter of ʿĪsā; the Jews by their failure to recognize his right (bil-taqṣīr fī ḥaqqihī) and the Christians by exceeding the limits” (cf. their Tafsīrs, sub Q 4:171 and Q 5:77 respectively). And “the religion of Allah is between the one who falls short (al-muqaṣṣir) and the one who commits excesses (al-ghālī)” (Ibn Qutayba, Gharīb; Jaṣṣāṣ, Aḥkām; Rāzī, Tafsīr). Excess (ghuluww) is “iniquitous transgression of the boundaries” (Zajjāj, Maʿānī, sub Q 4:171) that is explicitly forbidden in matters of religion (Baghawī, Tafsīr); and it can also imply “being extreme in specific matters (al-tashaddud)” (Wāḥidī, Wajīz). The verse asserts the unequivocal Qurʾānic teachings with regard to Prophet ʿĪsā, upon him peace: he was only a Messenger of Allah, like all messengers before him (cf. Q 5:75). In addition, it illustrates his special station through descriptions and honorific titles, just as specific stations for other Prophets are mentioned in the Qurʾān in various contexts: Ibrāhīm is khalīl Allāh, the intimate friend of Allah (Q 4:125); Mūsā was directly spoken to by Allah Most High (Q 4:164) and hence his honorific title in Islamic tradition is Kalīm Allāh, the addressee of Allah; Prophet Ayyūb, is an excellent servant, oft-turning unto Allah Most High (Q 39:44). Specifically forbidding Trinity—do not say three, refrain—the verse removes all illusions to the alleged divinity of ʿĪsā as well as his real or analogical filiation. It thus refutes the beliefs of “the Nestorian Christians of Najrān, who believed that ʿĪsā was the son of God; the Jacobites, who said that ʿĪsā was Allah; the Marcusites, who said one of three (cf. Q 5:73); and the Melkites, who said that ʿĪsā and the Lord were partners [in Divinity].” (Ibn ʿAbbās, Tanwīr al-miqbās, sub Q 4:171). In Q 5:77, Say, “O People of the Book! Do not exaggerate in your religion beyond the truth, and follow not the caprices of a people who went astray before, and led many astray, and strayed from the right way,” Christians are primarily addressed as those who exaggerate and the people who went astray before are the Jews, who rejected and disbelieved in ʿĪsā (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr). Abū-l-Qāsim Maḥmūd b. ʿUmar al-Zamakhsharī (467-538/ca.1344-1392) understands the verse to be addressing the Christians only and says, “the people who went astray before refers to the early Christian leaders, who had gone astray before the coming of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, as they established the doctrine of Trinity and misled many, and when the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, was appointed, they denied and opposed him and were jealous of him” (Kashshāf). Their excesses amounts to perdition, as al-Qurṭubī—citing the opinion of the eminent Successor ʿUrwa b. al-Zubayr (23-94/643-713)—said, “the Christians let the Injīl perish (ḍayyaʿat) and they inserted into it ideas which were not part of it; four men are responsible for this falsification: Lūqās (Luke), Marqūs (Mark), Yaḥnas (John) and Maqbūs [that is, Mattā (Matthew)]” (Tafsīr, sub Q 5:82).

The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said, “Do not exaggerate in praising me as the Christians praised the son of Maryam, for I am only a slave; so, call me the ‘Slave of Allah and His Messenger’” (Bukhārī, Aḥādīth al-anbiyāʾ, bāb qawlu-Llāhi wa-dhkur fī-l-kitābi maryama idh intabadhat min ahlihā).

The exegetes reject both the literal and analogical understandings of the Christian doctrine with respect to the relationship between ʿĪsā and Allah Most High. Abū Manṣūr Muḥammad al-Māturīdī (d. 333/ca.945) points out that it is illogical for a deity to be born of a human being. Thus ʿĪsā, upon him peace, could not be God; for if it were so, surely his mother would be more entitled to this status, because she precedes him and an antecedent is more entitled to [divinity] than the descendant. “When someone has a child, they have it of their very own substance (jawhar), not from that of someone else; were it not logically impossible for Him to take a son, He would [in any case] not have taken it from the substance of humankind, as [is indicated] in the verse had We wished to find a pastime We could have taken it from Ourselves” (Q 21:17). (Taʾwīlāt). In his Laṭāʾif al-ishārāt (“Subtle Indications”), al-Qushayrī, one of the greatest authorities on Sufi doctrine and practice, says that one aspect of the Christians’ “overstepping of the bounds” mentioned in the verse is “the contradiction of their saying that one is three and three is one. Persisting in absurdity only increases absurdity and nothing else” (Tafsīr). Al-Qāḍī Abū Bakr Muḥammad b. ʿAbdullāh Ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 543/1148) explains: “Allah Most High prohibits committing excess in Religion in two ways: excess with respect to Absolute Oneness (tawḥīd) and excess in deeds; their excess with respect to tawḥīd is ascribing a son to Him, Exalted is He above their saying; and their excess in deeds is that they invented unlawful acts, like monasticism (al-rahbāniyya), permitting the prohibited and prohibiting the permitted” (Aḥkām, sūrat al-baqara, al-āyatu al-tāsiʿa ʿashrata: qawluhu Taʿālā qul yā ahl al-kitāb).

Refuted Doctrines

From the Qurʾānic perspective polytheism (shirk) is an unforgiveable sin: Truly Allah does not forgive that any partner be ascribed unto Him, but He forgives what is less than that for whomsoever He wills. Whosoever ascribes partners unto Allah has surely fabricated a tremendous sin (Q 4:48; also see Q 4:36; 5:72; 31:13). Thus, belief in a human being as son of God, whether in an analogical sense or as someone eternally begotten and coeternal with “God the Father,” directly opposes the Qurʾānic descriptions of the Creator, which are uncompromising about His Absolute Uniqueness. He is One, not by way of numbers, but because He is incomparable to anything else that exists (Q 2:163; 4:171; 5:73; 6:19; 16:22; 18:110; 21:107; 41:6; 42:11; 112:4); He has no partner, no helper (Q 2:22; 2:165; 14:30; 34:33; 39:8; 41:9) and like Him there is nothing (Q 42:11); He has neither an opponent nor a rival (Q 6:19; 15:96; 17:22, 39, 42; 21:22; 23:91, 117; 51:51); He begot neither a son (Q 2:116; 4:171; 6:100-101; 9:30-31; 10:68; 17:111; 18:4; 21:26; 25:1) nor a daughter (Q 6:100; 16:57; 37:149; 43:16; 52:39); He has no mate (Q 6:101; 72:3); He is beyond duality (Q 16:51) or trinity (Q 4:171; 5:73), He has always existed—He is the First and the Last, the Outwardly Manifest and the Inwardly Hidden, Who has knowledge of all things (Q 57:3), the changeless (Q 2:255; 3:2; 20:111; 112:2) Lord of the Heavens and the Earth (Q 13:16; 17:102; 18:14; 19:65; 21:56; 26:24; 37:5; 38:66; 43: 82; 44:7; 78:37)—the possessor of all the attributes of perfection (Q 59:23; 62:1). and He alone deserves to be worshipped (Q 1:2; 5:28; 7:54; 13:16; 19:65; 37:4-5; 38:65-66).

Al-Ḍaḥḥāk calls the Christian belief about ʿĪsā, upon him peace, being the son of God “the most hideous disbelief (ashnaʿ al-kufr).” Q 9:30 mentions the Christian claim, And the Christians say, ‘the Messiah is the son of Allah.’ That is what they say with their mouths (see also 4:171; 5:17; 19:35), which is rejected as being “what they say with their mouths,” meaning “mere sounds with no meaning; … it is only words uttered by the mouth, a mere claim that has no authentic meaning behind it. For they acknowledge that Allah Most High did not take a female companion (ṣāḥiba); how then can they suppose that He has a child? This is a lie and a mere statement of the mouth (qawlun lisānī)—compared to authoritative statements (al-aqwāl al-ṣaḥīḥa) confirmed by proofs and evidence …. The people of cognitive insight (ahl al-maʿānī) say, ‘Allah has not mentioned any kind of speech linked to mouths and tongues unless it refers to wicked speech (qawl zūr), like His Words they say with their mouths what was not in their hearts (Q 3:167; also 48:11); and grave is the word that comes out of their mouths; they speak not except a lie (Q 18:5) (Qurṭubī, Tafsīr, sub 9:30). Al-Rāzī says:

There is no difference between one who worships an idol and the one who worships the Messiah or anyone else, because in the latter case, a human being is taken as deity and this constitutes association with Allah (shirk). After Allah Most High has declared, in the previous verse, that the Jews and the Christians do not believe in Allah, He explains it in this verse through their ascription of child to Allah; whoever admits this  concerning God (fī ḥaqqi-l-ilāh) has, infact, rejected God Himself (ankara-l-ilāh)… Furthermore, if we observe attentively, we can ascertain that the disbelief of an idol-worshipper is more insignificant (akhaff) than the disbelief of the Christians, due to the fact that the idol-worshipper does not say that this idol is the creator of the world or the deity of the world, but he considers it a means by which he can get closer to the obedience of Allah. The Christians subscribe to the idea of incarnation (al-ḥulūl) and union [of God and man] (al-ittiḥād) and this is an extremely abominable disbelief. Thus, it has become evident that there is no difference between the devotees of incarnation (hāʾulāʾ al-ḥulūliyya) and other polytheists (sāʾir al-mushrikīn). (Tafsīr).

Al-Rāzī then speculates about how belief in the Messiah being the son of Allah may have come about:

How could such a claim be suitable for one of the greatest Prophets? How can one imagine that those who loved and followed ʿĪsā from among the Christians would attach such disbelief to him? People of later generations invented these false statements…. It seems to me probable that the noun son appears in the Injīl as an honorific title (ʿalā sabīl al-tashrīf), as the attribute al-khalīl (close and intimate friend; see: Q: 4:125; 17:73) appears [in the Qurʾān] regarding Ibrāhīm. Then people, in order to respond to the hostility of the Jews by a corresponding act and to counterbalance their wicked excesses (ghuluwwahum al-fāsid), began to utter excessive statements and interpreted the title son as connoting real bunuwwa (sonship). Then the ignorant people accepted this; so this wicked creedal element became prevalent among later followers of ʿĪsā—but Allah knows best” (Tafsīr).

Alleged Divinity: The Qurʾān presents Christians’ belief in the divinity of ʿĪsā, upon him peace, in two direct statements (Q 5:17 and Q 5:72). This doctrine is categorically refuted and equated with disbelief (kufr): They certainly disbelieve, those who say, “Allah is the Messiah, son of Mary.” Say, “Who would have any power over Allah if He desired to destroy the Messiah, son of Mary, and his mother, and those on earth all together?” Unto Allah belongs sovereignty over the heavens and the earth and whatsoever is between them. He creates whatsoever He wills, and Allah is Powerful over all things (Q 5:17). In Q 5:72, Prophet ʿĪsā is directly quoted, refuting their belief in his divinity: They certainly disbelieve, those who say, “Indeed Allah is the Messiah, son of Mary.” But the Messiah said, “O Children of Israel! Worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord.” Surely whosoever ascribes partners unto Allah, Allah has forbidden him the Garden, and his refuge shall be the Fire.

Several commentators note that the Qurʾānic text does not say, ‘Messiah is God,’ but rather, it quotes Christians as claiming, ‘God is the Messiah,’ and explain that in essence, the two statements are the same, for “if it is said that none of them say ‘God is the Messiah,’ rather they say, ‘the Messiah is God’, [the answer is] they hold that Messiah possesses both Divine nature (lāhūt) and human nature (nāsūt), and they say it is acceptable to say ‘the Messiah is [the manifestation and container of] the godhead and at the same time has human nature’; as one can say man is both animal (ḥayawān) and vegetation (nabāt), for he is composed of these two. But they say it is not correct (lā yaṣḥa) to say, ‘the Divine (al-lāhūt) is the Messiah, just as it is not acceptable to say the animal is man.’ It is said, ‘They say ‘he is the Messiah in another way than mentioned.’ And that is what Muḥammad b. Kaʿb al-Quraẓī (d. 108/726) has transmitted: ‘When ʿĪsā, upon him peace, was raised [to the Heaven], a group of scholars from the Israelites gathered and said, ‘What do you say regarding ʿĪsā’?’ One of them said, ‘Do you know anyone who revives the dead, except Allah?’ They replied: No. ‘Do you know anyone who knows the hidden secrets of the Unseen (al-ghayb), except Allah?’ They answer, ‘No.’ ‘Do you know anyone who heals the blind (al-akmah) and the leper (al-abraṣ; cf. Q 3:49; 5:110) except Allah?’ They answer, ‘No.’ He said, ‘God is none other than the One who has these traits; this is the reality of divinity and, thus, [the matter of the Messiah] is [to be understood] in this way, [as one can say:] ‘The generous is Zayd’ in the sense of ‘the essential reality of generosity (al-karam) exists in Zayd’. This is the basis of their [quoted] saying, Indeed, Allah is the Messiah, son of Mary (Rāghib, Tafsīr, see also, Abū Ḥayyān, Baḥr, sub Q 5:17; Shaahrastānī, Milal, Juzʾ 2, faṣl al-thānī: al-naṣārā—al-Yaʿqūbiyya, who say “fa-ṣāra-l-ilah huwa-l-masīḥ—God is thus identified with the Messiah”).

Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī has the most explicit explanation of the verse, which is worth quoting in full due to its importance in creedal issues:

A question arises regarding this verse (fīl-āyah suʾāl), and that is, no Christian says, ‘Allah is the Messiah, son of Maryam;’ then how is it that Allah has related this statement from them, if they do not say so?’ The answer is: a great number of the adherents of the doctrine of divine incarnation (al-ḥulūliyya) hold that Allah Most High is incarnated (qad yaḥillu) in the body of a certain man or in his soul; if it is so, then it can be said that a group from the Christians adopted this point of view (dhahabū ilā hādhā-l-qawl)—furthermore, a more probable reason than this is that they say, the hypostasis of the Word (uqnūm al-kalima) has become united with ʿĪsā, upon him be peace. Now, the hypostasis of the Word would either be in essence (dhāt) or in attribute (ṣifa). If it is in essence then the Essence of Allah (dhātu-Llāhi) is incarnated in ʿĪsā and is united with ʿĪsā, in this way ʿĪsā is God according to this opinion. If we suppose that the hypostasis is an expression of the attribute, then translocation of an attribute from one essence to another essence is inconceivable. If it implies translocation of the hypostasis of Knowledge (intiqāl uqnūm al-ʿilm) from Allah’s Essence to ʿĪsā, that necessitates that Allah’s Essence has become entirely empty of knowledge (khuluww dhāti-Llāhi ʿan al-ʿilm) and he who is not knower is not god, in this case, ʿĪsā is God, as per their saying. Though, it is generally acknowledged that Christians never express such an opinion publicly, their doctrine is fundamentally based on this [belief]. Then Allah Most High explains the falsehood of their doctrine by His Words, ‘Who would have any power over Allah if He desired to destroy the Messiah, son of Maryam, and his mother, and those on earth all together?’ In this conditional phrase, the clause [al-jazāʾ; answering the condition] precedes the clause that contains the condition (al-sharṭ); so the intended meaning is ‘If He desires to destroy the Messiah, son of Maryam and his mother, and those on earth all together, then who is able to prevent Him from performing His Will and decreed wish’. Then His Words,  Who would have any power over Allah—that is, who can possess the Acts of Allah, in any way; in this respect “yamliku / mulk” means ability (qudra), in the sense of ‘he would be able to prevent anything from Allah’s Acts and His intended Will’. And His Words “and those on earth all together” mean that ʿĪsā is similar to everyone who has a physical form (ṣūra), innate created peculiarity (khilqa), corporeality (al-jismiyya), physical composition (tarkīb), changeable attributes and circumstances; if we accept that He, the Exalted is Creator of everything and of all created and He disposes of all, by this, it becomes necessary that He is the Creator of ʿĪsā. Then, He, the Exalted, says, ‘Unto Allah belongs sovereignty over the heavens and the earth and whatsoever is between them’. The Arabic linguistic structure of the phrase uses the dual attached suffix “-humā in between them [two], i.e. after mentioning the Heavens and the earth He did not use the plural attached suffix (baynahunna), in order to emphasize the difference between the two categories (al-ṣinfayn) and the two types (al-nawʿayn). Then He says ‘He creates whatsoever He wills, and Allah is Powerful over all things’. This has two aspects: He creates whatsoever He wills, He creates man and woman at times as normal; and at another times [He creates man / woman] without father and mother, as He created Ādam, upon him be peace; at another instance He creates from a mother without a father, as was the case of ʿĪsā, upon him be peace. The second [possibility]: He creates whatsoever He wills, here means that when ʿĪsā shapes the form of the bird from clay [see e.g.: Q 3:49; 5:110], Allah Most High creates the physical flesh (laḥmiyya; in the would-be bird), life and ability as a sign of the miracle performed by the hand of ʿĪsā, at another times, He revives the dead, heals the blind and the leper, as a manifestation of his miracle. No one can challenge Allah in His Acts and Deeds. (Tafsīr, sub Q 5:17; for a similar explanation of the last part of the verse, see Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf).

Regarding the statement, ‘Who would have any power over Allah if He desired to destroy the Messiah, son of Maryam, and his mother, and those on earth all together?’ Rāzī argues that the phrase “and those on earth all together” is a reminder that ʿĪsā is similar to everyone who has a physical form (ṣūra), innate created peculiarity (khilqa), corporeality (jismiyya), physical composition (tarkīb), and changeable attributes and circumstances—in other words, he too is a creature of Allah. Allah’s statement, ‘He creates whatsoever He wills, and Allah is Powerful over all things,’ may be a reference to the fact that He can create a human being without a father and mother, as He created Ādam, upon him peace (q.v.), or simply without a father, as was the case for ʿĪsā. Alternatively, it may refer to the fact that ʿĪsā’s miracles—giving life to a clay bird (see Q 3:49; 5:110), reviving the dead, healing the blind and the leper—are not proofs of Īsā’s divinity, but manifestations of Allah’s Will and Power (Tafsīr, sub Q 5:17; for a similar explanation of the last part of the verse, see Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf).

In Q 5:116, ʿĪsā, upon him peace, is questioned about what people believed about him: And when Allah said, “O ʿĪsā, son of Maryam! Did you say unto people, ‘Take me and my mother as gods apart from Allah?’” He said, “Glory be to You! It is not for me to utter that to which I have no right. Had I said it, You would surely have known it. You know what is within me and I know not what is within You. Truly it is You Who has absolute knowledge of things unseen. Al-Ṭabarī says, “This will be asked on the Day when Allah will assemble the Messengers and ask, ‘What was the response you received?’ (cf. Q 5:109); and it is said that it took place when  ʿĪsā, upon him peace, was raised by Allah (cf. Q 3:55; 4:158), as per a report from al-Suddī.” Al-Ṭabarī prefers the second opinion, based on the report from al-Suddī, and provides two other reasons for his preference (Tafsīr). In either case, the response of ʿĪsā, upon him peace, is, “Exalted are you (tanzīhan Laka) far above that O my Lord…. It is not for me to utter that to which I have no right; I cannot and must not say that—for I am but a created slave (ʿabdun makhlūq) and my mother is Your slave (amatun Laka); how could a slave and slave-woman claim divinity (al-rubūbiyya)? Had I said it, Thou wouldst surely have known it; [ʿĪsā] says: There is nothing that could be concealed from You and You know it with certainty that I did not say that, and I never ordered people [to worship me]” (Tafsīr).

The refutation of the doctrine of ʿĪsā’s divinity invokes God’s power to create and annihilate whatsoever He wills (cf. Q 5:17). In Q 5:72, ʿĪsā, upon him peace, is quoted as calling his people to worship Allah, that is, “declare the Oneness of Allah (waḥḥidū-Llāha) and obey Him [Who is] my Lord and your Lord; that is [He] is my Creator and your Creator and He is my Sustainer (rāziqī) and your Sustainer” (Samarqandī, Baḥr). The assertion that Allah is my Lord and your Lord is mentioned in four other verses (Q 3:51; 5:117; 19:36; 43:64) on the tongue of Prophet ʿĪsā, upon him peace, underscoring his human nature. Several commentators specify that among the Christians, certain sects—such as the Jacobites (Yaʿqūbiyya)— believe in essential unity between Allah and ʿĪsā, upon him peace (Ṭabarī, Rāzī, Ibn al-Jawzī, Tafsīrs). Others identify those sects who believe that Divine essence (al-ilāhiyya) is shared between Allah Most High and Maryam and ʿĪsā.

Trinity: The belief that God exists, simultaneously and eternally, as a communion of three distinct beings—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—constitutes a plurality that is utterly foreign to the Qurʾānic descriptions of Allah, one of Whose Beautiful Names is al-Ṣamad, “which indicates absolute unlikeness of Allah to anything that the polytheists take as a deity” (Rāghib, Mufradāt, sub ṣ-m-d). In the Q 4:171, the Christians are commanded to …say not ‘Three’; desist, it is better for you. Indeed, Allah is but one God. Exalted is He above having a son…. In Q 5:73, the rebuke is severe, They certainly disbelieve who say, ‘Truly God is the third of the three,’ whereas there is no god save One Allah. If they do not refrain from what they say, a painful punishment will befall those who disbelieve. The exegetes mention different Christian sects who held different views about who the persons are in the Trinity. Al-Ṭabarī, for instance, says that before they became divided into Jacobites, Melkites, and Nestorians, the majority of Christians held that the Eternal God (al-ilāh al-qadīm) is one essence (jawharun wāḥidun), accompanied by three hypostases (thalātha aqānīm): the unbegotten father (aban ghayra mawlūd), the son begotten without a father (ibnan mawlūdan ghayra wālid), and the spouse who is between them (zawjan mutatabbaʿa baynahumā) (Tafsīr).

Abū-l-Ḥasan ʿAlī b. Aḥmad al-Wāḥidī al-Naysābūrī (d. 468/1075) says the phrase third of three amounts to holding Allah, ʿĪsā and Maryam on the same Divine level (Basīṭ). Other exegetes attribute Trinity to various Christian sects. For instance, Abū Muḥammad al-Ḥusayn b. Masʿūd al-Farrāʾ al-Baghawī (d. 516/1122) ascribes this statement to the Marqūsiyya sect, who hold that “divinity is common between Allah the Exalted, Maryam and ʿĪsā, each one of them being god, thus there are three gods” (Tafsīr). Al-Qurṭubī says the Melkites (al-malikiyya/al-malkāniyya), the Nestorians (al-nasṭūriyya) and the Jacobites (al-yaʿqūbiyya) hold this belief, for they say that the Father (abun), the son (ibnun) and the Holy Spirit (rūḥ al-qudus) are together one god; but they do not mean three distinct gods (Tafsīr).

Alleged Crucifixion: And their claim, “We killed the Messiah, ʿĪsā, son of Maryam, the messenger of Allah.” But they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, though it was made to appear so to them. Those who differed about this are in doubt. They have no knowledge of it—they follow mere conjecture. The certainly did not kill him (Q 4:157). With regard to their claim, “We killed the Messiah, ʿĪsā, son of Maryam,” Abū-l-Ḥasan ʿAlī b. Muḥammad al-Māwardī (364-450/974-1058) writes that it refers to the cherished thinking of the Jews (Nukat) and al-Rāzī that “these words imply tremendous disbelief and their real intention to [kill the Messiah]” (Tafsīr). Qurṭubī points out that Christian sects differ on the crucifixion—the Nestorians hold that ʿĪsa was crucified in his human nature (fī nāsūtihi), not in his divine nature (lā min jihat lāhūtihi); whereas the Melkites hold that crucifixion affected both his natures (Tafsīr). The Christian veneration of the Cross is not explicitly mentioned in the Qurʾān, but Abū Wahb ʿAdiyy b. Ḥātim al-Ṭāʾī said (about when he was still a Christian), “I went to the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, wearing a golden cross around my neck; when he saw it, he said, “What is this, O ʿAdiyy? Throw away this idol (hādhā-l-wathan)” (Tafsīrs of Qurṭubī and Khāzin, sub Q 9:31; Tirmidhī, Sunan, Abwāb Tafsīr al-Qurʾān, wa min sūrat al-Tawba). For a more complete discussion, see Crucifixion.

Monasticism: There is one direct mention of monasticism (rahbāniyya) in the Qurʾān: Then, We sent after them Our Messengers and We sent ʿĪsā, son of Maryam, and We gave him the Injīl and placed kindness and mercy in the hearts of those who followed him. And monasticism (rahbāniyya) they invented—We did not ordain it for them—only to seek to please Allah. Yet they did not observe it with proper observance. So We gave those of them who believed their reward, yet many of them are iniquitous (Q 57:27). Al-Rāzī says,

al-rahbāniyya (monasticism) is an abstract noun derived from al-ruhbān (fear, dread) from the verb rahaba (to fear)…. Rahbāniyya [means] their pious seclusion in mountains, fleeing from the trial regarding religion, devoting themselves completely to worship (mukhliṣīna anfusahum lil-ʿibāda)…in seclusion and isolation, in uninhabited lands, accepting uncommon duties and acts of worship and in everyday life as being incumbent upon them, such as living in solitude (khalwa), wearing rough clothes (libās al-khashin), refraining from the company of women, and worshipping (taʿabbud) in grottos (ghīrān) and caves (kuhūf). (Tafsīr)

Al-Ṭabarī, al-Rāzī, and several other exegetes quote a report from Ibn ʿAbbās, according to which after the corruption of the message revealed to ʿĪsā, upon him peace, by the kings who came after him, certain Christians—who had remained true to the original message—were threatened and they withdrew from the world and thus invented monasticism. By the time of the Prophet, only a few remained of the earlier true Christians. Then, “the man left his hermitage, the wandering person returned, others left their small houses and believed in him [Muḥammad, upon him blessings and peace] and accepted him as true. Allah Most High praised them, saying: O you who believe! Fear Allah and believe in His Messenger; He will [then] give you a double portion of His Mercy, provide you a light by which to walk, and forgive you; Allah is Forgiving and Merciful (Q 57:28). Allah promises two rewards (ajrayn) for their belief in ʿĪsā and their acceptance of the Torah and Evangel as true, and for their belief in Muḥammad, upon him blessings and peace. The light by which to walk is the Qurʾān and the way of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace. And He said, So that the people of the Scripture may know that they have no power whatsoever over the bounty of Allah, and that bounty is in the Hand of Allah; He gives it to whom He wills. And Allah is the Possessor of great bounty (Q 57:29) (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr) (see Monasticism and Monks).

Mutual Imprecation

As already mentioned, some eighty verses at the beginning of Q 3 were revealed on the occasion of the visit of a delegation of Christians who came to Madina from Najrān in the year 9 or 10 (632 or 633) and disputed with the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace (Wāḥidī, Asbāb; Ṭabarī, Tafsīr). The delegation was headed by three prominent leaders—ʿAbd al-Masīḥ al-ʿĀqib, who was their prince and in charge of their affairs; al-Ayham al-Sayyid; and Abū Ḥāritha b. ʿAlqama, their bishop—who argued for various Christian doctrines. They asked: “Why do you scold our lord (tashtumu ṣāḥibanā)?” (Ṭabarī, Baghawī, Tafsīrs). They also inquired about the possibility of a virgin birth (Wāḥidī, Wajīz, sub Q 3:59). They claimed that ʿĪsā, upon him peace, was God, because he revived the dead, healed lepers, and spoke of unseen realities; that he was the son of God, because he had no human father; and that he was the third of three, because God employs the first person plural in revealed scripture (Ibn Hishām, Sīra, Dhikr naṣārā Najrān).

The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, replied that ʿĪsā was a slave of Allah and invited them to accept Islam. They refused. The Prophet told them that three of their practices hold them back from accepting Islam: worshipping the cross, eating pork, and claiming that Allah has a son (Wāḥidī, Asbāb, sub Q 3:59). He recited to them Q 3:59: Indeed, the example of ʿĪsā in the sight of Allah is like that of Ādam. He created him from dust, and then said to him ‘Be!’ and he was. When they still refused to accept the truth, Allah Most High commanded his Prophet, upon him blessings and peace: And whosoever disputes with you concerning him (namely ʿĪsā, upon him peace), after the knowledge which has come unto you, say: ‘Come! We will summon our sons and your sons, and our women and your women, and ourselves and yourselves, then we will pray humbly (nabtahil) and invoke the curse of Allah upon those who lie’ (Q 3:61). They asked for time until the next morning to consult one another. The next day, the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, brought with him his two grandsons (al-Ḥasan (d. 50/670) and al-Ḥusayn (d. 61/680)), his daughter Fāṭima (d. 10/632), and his cousin ʿAlī (13bh-40/609-660)—but the Christians refused both to participate in the mutual imprecation (mubāhala) or to accept the invitation of Islam. Instead they agreed to pay a poll tax (jizya) twice a year, in Muḥarram and Rajab. The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, sent Abū ʿUbayda b. al-Jarrāḥ (40bh-18/583–639) to collect the agreed amount (Wāḥidī, Wajīz; Tafsīrs of Samarqandī, Baghawī, sub Q 3:61; Ibn Hishām, Sīra).

A Protected People

In Islamic jurisprudence, People of the Book living under Muslim rule are protected subjects (ahl al-dhimma, also ahl al-ʿaqd) for they conclude a communal treaty which secures their lives and wealth. They do not pay zakāt (q.v.) but pay a poll tax (jizya) and receive protection (al-Sarakhsī, al-Mabsūṭ, Siyar; al-Kāsānī, Badāʾiʿ al-ṣanāʾiʿ, Siyar), which is mentioned in Q 9:29 (Fight those who do not believe in Allah and in the Last Day, and who do not forbid what Allah and His Messenger have forbidden, and who do not follow the Religion of Truth among those who were given the Book, till they pay the poll tax with a willing hand, being humbled. According to most exegetes, the verse was revealed during the expedition of Tabūk (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr) in 9/630, and “the Christian inhabitants of the border towns of Ayla, Jarbāʾ, and Adhruḥ concluded peace treaties with the Prophet, upon him be blessings and peace, agreeing to pay this tribute” (Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Qurṭubī, Rāzī, Ibn Kathīr; Ibn Hishām, Sīra, al-ṣulḥ maʿa Ṣāḥib Ayla). For lexical, exegetical, and jurisprudential details, see Jizya; Treaty and Alliance.

The Prophetic traditions attest the inviolable status of such Christians and the People of the Scripture in general: “Whoever kills a muʿāhad (one who is granted protection) shall not smell the fragrance of Paradise, though its fragrance can be smelt at a distance of forty years [of travel]” (Bukhārī, Jizya, bāb ithm man qatala muʿāhadan bi-ghayr jurm). The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, also said, “Beware: if anyone wrongs a muʿāhad, or diminishes his right, or forces him to work beyond his capacity, or takes from him anything without his consent, I shall plead for him (fa-anā ḥajījuhu, i.e. for the muʿāhad) on the Day of Judgment” (Abū Dāwūd, Sunan, Awwal kitāb al-kharāj wal-fayʾ wa-l-imāra, bāb fī-l-dhimmī).



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See also

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