In the Qur’an, in a passage describing the annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Jesus (AS) is described as a Word from God: O Mary! Verily Allah gives you the glad tidings of a Word from Him; his name is the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, eminent in this world, and in the Hereafter of those near [to God]. The context in which this ayah was revealed was one of inter-religious encounter. It is said that the Christians of Najran sent a delegation to the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) at Mecca to question him about the teachings of Islam concerning Jesus (AS), and God revealed the above and other ayat of Surat Al ‘Imran in response. The response is not only not a denial of Christian teachings, although the divinity of Christ is clearly rejected, but also an affirmation of much believed by Christians as well, even the designation of Christ as logos: ‘O People of the Book! Do not go to extremes in your creed, and do not say of Allah but the Truth.
Verily, the Messiah, Jesus the son of Mary, is only an apostle of Allah and His Word which He conveyed unto Mary, and a Spirit from Him. So in addition to being called the Word of God, Jesus (AS) is also called a Spirit of God and in some of the narrations reported in the Shi’i tradition, this title is used. Of course, the interpretation of the logos in Christian theology differs markedly from the interpretation of the kalimah by Muslim scholars. For the Christian, according to the Gospel of John, the Word was God and the Word became flesh.’ For the Muslim, on the other hand, the Word is creature, even while it is the creative principle, for it is in God’s utterance of the word ‘Be’. That creation takes place.
To call Christ the Word of Allah is not to deify him, but to verify his status as prophet. Because of his high status as prophet, Jesus (AS) becomes a complete manifestation of God, one who conveys the message of God, one who can speak on behalf of God, the Word of God Jesus (AS) becomes the Word of God not because of an incarnation whereby his flesh becomes divine, but because his spirit is refined to such an extent that it becomes a mirror whereby divinity comes to be known. The temple is holy not because of any inherent sanctity in the structure, but because it is the place of the worship of God. The differences between Islamic and Christian thinking about Jesus (AS) are as important as they are subtle.
Both accept the virgin birth, although it is ironic that a growing number of liberal Christians have come to have doubts about this miracle while Muslims remain steadfast! Among the other miracles attributed to Jesus (AS) in the Glorious Qur’an are the revival of the dead and the creation of a bird from clay, but all of the miracles performed by Jesus (AS) are expressly by the permission of Allah. Just as in the miracle of his birth, Jesus (AS) came into the world by a human mother and divine spirit, so too, his miracles are performed as human actions with divine permission. In this regard the error of the Christians is explained by Ibn ‘Arabi as follows: This matter has led certain people to speak of incarnation and to say that, in reviving the dead, he is God. Therefore, since they conceal God, Who in reality revives the dead, in the human form of Jesus, He has said, They are concealers [unbelievers] who say that God is the Messiah, son of Mary.
The point is that one can find God in Jesus (As) without deifying him, and furthermore that deifying Jesus (AS) is really an obstacle to finding God in Jesus (AS), for in the deification one ceases to look in Jesus (AS) for anything beyond him. It is as if one were to become distracted from a message by focusing one’s attention on the words through which it was conveyed. To the above point it may be added that not only does the doctrine of the incarnation prevent one from finding God in Christ (AS), but it also prevents one from seeing Christ (AS) the man, because his imagined divinity gets in the way. One of the central questions of Christian theology is: Who was Jesus Christ? The formulation of answers to this question is called Christology. In this area of theology, Christians have debated the significance of the historical Jesus as opposed to the picture of Jesus presented in the traditions of the Christian Churches and the Biblical understanding of Jesus.
The time has come for Muslims to begin work in this area, as well. Through the development of an Islamic Christology, we can come to a better understanding of Islam as contrasted with Christianity and Islam in consonance with Christianity, too. Indeed, the first steps in this direction are laid out for us in the Qur’an itself, in the verses mentioned above and others. Contemporary work toward an Islamic Christology is scarce. Christian authors have tended to stress the salvific function of Jesus (AS) which seems to have no place in Islam, and given this, the Christians ask one another whether Christ (AS) can be the savior of Muslims and others who are not Christians.
Christians should be reminded that Muslims accept Jesus (AS) as savior, along with all the other prophets, for the prophetic function is to save humanity from the scourge of sin by conveying the message of guidance revealed by God. The important difference between Islam and Christianity here is not over the issue of whether Jesus (AS) saves, but how he saves. Islam denies that salvation is through redemption resulting from the crucifixion, and instead turns its attention to the instruction provided in the life of the prophets (AS).