Jesus in the Qur’ān by Geoffrey Parrinder, Book Review

Lincoln Green 

Image © Handyhuy

Islam has been described as the religion of the point.  Muslims worship the One God.  The key text of Islam is one book, the Qur’ān.  Prayer is physically directed towards one place, the Kaʽba or Sacred House of the most sacred mosque of Mecca.  Muhammad is the last prophet sent by God.

Despite image making being associated with idolatry and hence proscribed, it is striking that the historian Ahmad al-Azraqi recorded in 858 that when the Prophet Muhammad conquered Mecca in 630 and supervised destruction of its idols, he placed his hands over a painting of Jesus and Mary and said “wash out all except what is below my hands”.  The relationships between Islam and Christianity, between Qur’ānic and Biblical versions of the life of Jesus, are complex.  Parrinder’s short book of 187 pages is rich in content and a highly rewarding analysis of these relationships.  He applies close referencing of both Qur’ānic and Biblical texts to his study, examining subtleties of translation and interpretation by both Islamic and non-Islamic scholars, and underscores his work with perceptive awareness of historical and social influences on how these texts became definitive.  The book is inclusive and highly accessible to the interested reader, whether or not from a religious background.

The book is perhaps deserving of special attention at a time when conflict is particularly associated with religious misunderstanding and bigotry.  Ultimately the book persuades that similarities between Islamic and Christian perceptions of Jesus, if understood and manifested in actions, are more likely to induce mutual respect rather than intolerance.  The final chapter of Parrinder’s book poses the question: “can Islam and Christianity be brought closer together?”  Perhaps the key similarity is in the belief in one God, and in His religious and moral guidance.  Increasing globalisation, travel, communication and quality of translation provide the seed bed for dialogue.  Parrinder issues a challenge: to study, to self-examine, to engage in dialogue and indeed to search the key scriptural texts, which he suggests are requisites for harmony despite their differences.  The Qur’ān describes Jesus as “a sign to all beings” and mourns dissension amongst Christians.  The Gospels recount Jesus’ life, teachings and compassion in greater depth.  The two texts are mutually enriching.

Parrinder’s textual analyses broadly follow the life of Jesus, His annunciation, nativity, works, words and crucifixion as described in the Qur’ān and the Bible.  Throughout the book he uses a range of sources to interrogate textual differences and similarities.  His approach can be illustrated by examining his discussion of the events surrounding the annunciation of Jesus’ birth.

He points out for example, that the Qur’ān refers to Mary, Jesus’ mother almost twice as often as does the New Testament.  She is described by the Qur’ān as one who surrendered her will to God, in other words she is an exemplar for the devout.  She was sinless, as were the prophets.  Parrinder notes that Rabiʽah al-Basri, the 8th century female Sufi mystic was described as “a second spotless Mary”.  He goes on to examine potential reasons for differences in assigning names to Mary’s parents – Imram and Zachariah in the Qur’ān, and Anna and Joachim in the apocryphal Gospel of St. James – suggesting the desirability of establishing an authoritative patriarchy for Mary in the Qur’ānic version.  The virgin conception of Jesus is described in the Qur’ān as the outcome of God’s all-powerful word: “He simply saith ‘Be!’ and it is”.  Parrinder compares descriptions of the births of Jesus and Adam, also born by divine decree and power.  He also acknowledges more natural interpretations proposed by modern Muslims and Christians.  Parallels are drawn between Qur’ānic versions of the story and those of St Luke, who gives little hint of a virgin birth.  He considers the experiences of the early Christian Church as well as Islamic commentators, indicating the wide range of texts, apocryphal and otherwise, reporting events prior to the nativity.  A key difference between Qur’ānic and Biblical versions is the insistence within the Qur’ān that God does not beget offspring:  “He brought not forth, nor hath he been brought forth.”  Parrinder relates this to the context of scripture reinforcing attitudes of rejection towards the more familial pre-Islamic gods and goddesses.  His book indicates the fluid nature of social conditions within which religious texts become established and then subject to interpretation.

The subsequently frozen quality of such interpretations, particularly when associated with specific religions or sects within religions, and subsequently entangled with social and political issues, could be accused of provoking many of the conflicts we are familiar with.  Sunni – Shia discord in the Middle East, and Catholic – Protestant tribalism in Northern Ireland are two well-known examples.  Parrinder’s book is an important reminder of the contingent nature of textual interpretation and the need for greater awareness and understanding.

As well as discussing the narrative of Jesus’ life, Parrinder also examines Qur’ānic and Biblical approaches to more doctrinal issues, for example those connected with the meaning and implication of phrases such as “Son of God”.  Parrinder cites Zaehner who comments that the only explicit denial of a specific Christian doctrine to be found in the Qur’ān relates to the incomprehensible process of physical procreation for God who is pure Spirit.  For Christians, Jesus is an element of the Holy Trinity with the Father and Holy Spirit, according to Meister Eckhart “outside of time and place”.  Hence the Trinity is beyond human metaphors which describe the Three Persons as “flowing from”, “giving to” or “proceeding from” each other.  Parrinder develops our awareness of how such doctrines developed, emphasising significant differences in Islamic and Christian perspectives on how to grasp meaning from what lies outside human comprehension.

Geoffrey Parrinder died in 2005.  He was both an academic and a practising Methodist minister with a profound interest in teaching what religions can tell us.  The book is infused with scholarly insights and humanitarian concerns, and it is a significant resource for those interested in the beliefs which inform the inner lives and outer actions of much of the world’s population.

Jesus in the Qur’ān by Geoffrey Parrinder, (2013),London: Oneworld Publications

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