Last week, we looked at the historical battles of Badr and Uhud, around which a considerable portion of this surah is focused. Yet adjacent to this battle commentary there is a long section expositing the history of Mary, naturally leading into the birth and life of Jesus (“Isa” in Arabic). The greater half of Surah al-Imran reads much like the first portion of Surah al-Baqarah. However, whereas the Al-Baqarah focused mostly on Jews, this third surah focuses mostly on Christians. The Jews were judged for rebelling against their own beliefs, but judgement against Christians seems to focus on them holding the wrong beliefs altogether. Thus, the Quran now retells Christian stories in order to convict Christians of their departure from the truth.
Mary and Jesus
We are told of the family of Imran. What is funny is that Imran does not appear, and exists only in the family name. All action is taken by his wife (unnamed), and their daughter Mary (the only named woman in the Quran).
Now, the family of Jesus is not particularly visualized in the Bible. There’s Mary, Joseph the stepfather, and Jesus’s “brothers.” I put brothers in quotes because the implications of the word are contentious in Christian communities. I’ll content myself to just drop here the most concise Virgin-for-Life and Virgin-till-Wife perspectives I could find online. Mary is known to have been venerated pretty early on in church history, despite having a small representation in the canonized biographies and Acts of the Apostles, and no mention in canonized pastoral letters. As the church sought to define how Jesus related to God, Mary’s significance as his mother was frequently contemplated too. Her popularity in the church’s consciousness was certainly pervasive by Muhammad’s time. Speculative lore about Mary’s life and origins had been established in many Christian communities. It’s an interesting topic, but I’m here to discuss the Quran’s view.
What is important to know is that Islam’s Mary has far more similarity to some popular versions rather than biblical. Her origin story starts in ayah 33. It includes Imran’s wife consecrating her unborn child to God, the consecration still holding despite the child being a girl, Mary being entrusted to Zachariah’s custody (that he was a priest is not mentioned here, but perhaps assumed), God directly providing Mary with food, Mary’s example inspiring Zachariah to pray for an equally virtuous child (leading to John the Baptist), and Mary’s own pregnancy with Jesus. Again, differences in detail and narrative are a moot point in Islam. I can guess that these differences were brought up to Muhammad. A number of ayat within and after the story rebuke those who say they know better than God, since God is understood as the one speaking.
I would like to hear more of what the Quran says about Jesus. I want to know what he is thought to have taught. There is no real substance of his teachings laid out, except that he repealed some of the Torah law and told people to worship God. More emphasis is placed on the miracles he performed (some additions to biblical canon being that he brought clay birds to life and that he started teaching literally from the cradle). The surah (perhaps accidentally) implies that he was largely unsuccessful, as he laments/questions at one point, “Who are my supporters for Allah?” The disciples answer by asking God to note their faith in His messenger. They swear that they are in submission to God, a wording chosen to demonstrate that Christianity was originally Islam. The unbelievers scheme, and so God takes Jesus into His presence in order to relieve him from the unbelievers. No crucifixion is mentioned. The details of Jesus’s life and ministry are so minimal that I don’t yet have a sense about what Muslims believe about them.
Muhammad’s message to Christians is that Jesus was in no way fathered, begotten, or connected to God’s infinitude. The argument is that Jesus’s lack of father does not mean he is in some way divine, for Adam also did not have a father and yet no one considers him divine. In Islam, Jesus’s virgin birth is merely an affirming miracle to testify to his prophethood. In Christianity, his virgin birth is also merely an affirming miracle to testify to his messianic role. It fulfills a few narratives from creation lore and other prophets, making the event significant as an omen. If God had chosen to incarnate His Word through a normal birth or by forming him from dust, He very well could have done so without changing the nature of Jesus. The Islamic argument here only tackles Christianity from one angle, and that angle is not theological.
My caveat here is that we don’t actually know what the Christians around Muhammad were advocating, as this dialogue is purely one-sided. As a whole religion, Christianity has rather minimal data to work from. This makes it very flexible, but also very susceptible to exotic interpretations. Many hetero-orthodox Christians produce their own retcons and supplementary information in order to fill out what they think Christianity should be. Some of this information still manages to linger in mainstream Christian groups due to folk popularity and selective bias-confirmation (like the Protoevangelium of James which offers an explanation for Mary and Joseph’s marriage that is appealing to virgin-for-life advocates). It is fully possible that Muhammad was encountering and countering such communities and their beliefs. From a skeptical perspective, one could argue that this is why the Quran’s accounts of Mary and Jesus resemble popular lore more than Gospel accounts. Thus, even though the arguments being rebutted in the Quran are not ones I find relevant to my Christian theology, I’m willing to consider that the strain being attacked is not in my mainstream awareness.
After the ayat concerning Mary and Jesus, ayah 61 (Sahih International translation) says: “Then whoever argues with you about it after [this] knowledge has come to you – say, “Come, let us call our sons and your sons, our women and your women, ourselves and yourselves, then supplicate earnestly [together] and invoke the curse of Allah upon the liars [among us].” This is known as al-mubaahala, the invocation of God’s curse. The traditionally told application of this curse was during the meeting with the Najrani Christians.
This event was preserved by Muhammad’s contemporaries. It is not told in the Quran and the following material is all traditional. The time was 631AD, two years after the Conquest of Mecca, and the Muslim community was already established as military and political force. Technically ayah 28 bans alliances with disbelievers, but negotiations made for precautionary purposes are allowed. As Islam was expanding its numbers and territories, Muhammad sent messengers to the surrounding Arab communities in order to proselytize and/or broker alliances that would secure his community’s safety and power. The flourishing Christian community of Najran in the southern Arabia, upon receiving news of Muhammad, sent an embassy to investigate him and his theology. The discussion was altogether unproductive, and after coming to a theological impasse, Muhammad proposed that the parties involved should invoke God according to al-mubaahala. He brought out the family of his son-in-law, Ali, to take the oath with him. The Najranis declined (either right away or upon second thought, according to different sources), and instead redirected their business to political negotiation. They agreed to pay the jizya tribute and accept a Muslim official to monitor their community in exchange for peace. Muhammad left them in peace during his lifetime.
Interestingly enough, the only dialogues I found on this event were in Shia Muslim sources (examples 1, 2, 3). Because these traditional accounts emphasize the presence of Ali’s family being brought for Muhammad’s side of the oath, Shia Muslims (who trace a sort of papal authority through Ali’s lineage) embrace this event as exemplifying Ali’s central placement in Muhammad’s life and Islam’s formation. According to some sources, the Christians originally accepted the terms of the curse, but backed out when they saw the holy expressions on the faces of Muhammad’s family, convicted that God would not kill such people. It is said the only thing that kept the Christians from converting to Islam was their own pride and the prestige they got from their religious positions.
It is unknown what thoughts were behind the Najranis’ actions. We do not have any Najrani accounts of the story, or indeed any external verification of its historicity. I believe that Christianity has a moral stance against invoking God into action. In our scriptures, Jesus takes a strong stance against “testing” God. You can pray for an end, as David does in the Psalms, but demanding His compliance to your request for granted is tantamount to declaring control over Him. It just isn’t done. The only place in the Bible where I can think of God being invoked to give a curse is the Torah law regarding when a wife was suspected of infidelity without proof. Said wife is to swear to God that she is innocent, on peril that her flesh would wither should she be lying. From there, judgement is left to God’s will alone and the husband is forbidden from making any further accusations or taking actions against her. This curse-enforced oath gives up control of a situation to God, it does not invoke control over God.
Now for Muhammad, since he’s acting upon an ayah (although whether today’s ayat came before, during, or after the event I’m not sure), he’s doing an action that God has invited him to do. For the Christians, having no such divine invitation of their own, this would be tantamount to bossing God around and weaponizing His power with His testimony at stake. Moreover, no one who relies on God’s mercy believes that they are in a fit state to ask for God’s objective justice.
All that to say I am not surprised that the Christians would not join in invoking a curse from God. That also being said, the East Roman Empire/Byzantium (and countless other Christendoms) regularly did invoke this kind of power in order to enforce their political hubris as God’s chosen kingdom. This makes an interesting dynamic in history when Islamic empires (first Arab and then Turkish) over the course of several centuries drove Byzantium into the ground. God’s preference was being shown through political dominance, thought Muslims for a long time. It was like a grand-scale mubaahala. That in turn became a challenge in the colonial era when European empires took over their political dominance and Muslims had to struggle with al-mubaahala type implications.
Separation of Faith and Leadership
So much of the Quran I have thus read focuses on asserting Muhammad’s authority as the man through whom God speaks. It is important to note that there are places where Muhammad’s centrality is undercut through emphasis on the self-standing truth of the religion. One of the rebukes after Uhud, in which Muhammad had been wounded, was that the Muslims let fears of Muhammad’s death shake their faith. Those doubters are chastised for connecting their faith to the leadership of a mortal man. Even if Muhammad had died, it argues, Islam would stand true. From a cynic’s perspective, Muhammad can say these things without threat to himself, since the words the people have to study are the ones he’s been reciting. He can never be removed from the religion and thus only has interest in Islam surviving his own lifespan.
Another great section is targeted at People of the Book. Ayah 79 chastises those who receive some authority from God and then centralize all authority around themselves. I’ve been in a cult-like church and seen that kind of corruption in action. The proper action of a leader is to tell people to pursue God through pious teaching and studying. Besides addressing despotic tendencies, this also addresses the way believers are to develope their faith. I have experienced many people who put their trust in someone else’s beliefs rather than making up their own minds. I admire Islam for its emphasis on personal study for all believers. One of Christianity’s historical shames is that its institutions have at times made religious study exclusive to the academic world of professionals, undermining personal study and exploration for the average soul.
Some people feel convicted that only they can do religion right, setting themselves up as the pinnacle of religious thought and practice for others to emulate unquestioningly. Some people follow a leader whose personality excites the emotions and makes them feel good about what they believe. Some people do not want the burden of thinking through religious matters and thus passively let their understandings be dictated to them by another person. These human tendencies discourage personal inquiry in the average believer. Can Islam escape this tendency of certain people to organize themselves as leaders and followers? I don’t think so, but it is self-aware of the tendencies and advocates here for their opposite.
As written, Surah al-Imran starts with today’s counter-Christian discourse (perhaps centered around an event in 631AD) and then follows with the reflection upon Battle at Uhud (626AD). I tackled it, accidentally, in chronological order since the battles were easier to spot and give attention to. These last two weeks took me out of the Quran’s text and into traditional and historical material more than I intend to do in the future. I’m trying to balance seeking added context with letting the Quran stand for itself.
This is a good moment to inform you that the surahs are not necessarily one continuous recitation. Both Surah al-Imran and Surah al-Baqarah are composites arranged from different revelations at different times. How they were processed is not known, and the tradition around the topic is fuzzy and speculative, but chronology was never a priority in the process. Maybe this was done to open the message up beyond time and audience. Many passages in today’s analysis had ambiguous targets: Muslims, unbelievers, Christians, Jews. This ambiguity and irreverence for timelines either encourages me as a reader to dig in and research, or to dismiss the details and only regard the lesson. Both could be desirable outcomes according to your purpose.
To be clear, the essential lesson is that in order to guide mankind towards what He deems right, God is giving the Quran to mankind through Muhammad’s mouth. All who do not recognize Muhammad’s recitations as being God’s word are labeled either blind or wicked, and will be condemned to eternal punishment. Those who confess that Muhammad’s recitations are from God’s knowledge and who obey them will be resurrected to live in Paradise. While told not to confuse Muhammad with God, there is a constant message that to believe in God is to believe that Muhammad is functioning as His mouth, and that salvation requires both. Whether the battle is won or lost, whether the people listen or mock, whether he lives or dies, obeying Muhammad’s words is now integral to receiving God’s mercy.