The Spirit as Creator and Life-giver
The Quran testifies that Allah imparts life through or by his Spirit:
And when thy Lord said to the angels, ‘See, I am creating a mortal of a clay of mud moulded. When I have shaped him, and breathed My spirit (roohee) in him, fall you down, bowing before him! S. 15:28-29
The breathing of the Spirit into Adam was obviously for the purpose of animating the body of the first man, thereby making him a living being or soul. The Quran, at this point, is merely echoing the Biblical account of man’s creation:
“This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created. When the LORD God made the earth and the heavens- and no shrub of the field had yet appeared on the earth] and no plant of the field had yet sprung up, for the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no man to work the ground, but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground- the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” Genesis 2:4-7
“The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” Job 33:4
The Muslim scripture further says that Allah breathed his Spirit into Mary, evidently with the intention of causing her to get pregnant:
And she who guarded her virginity, so We breathed into her of Our spirit (roohina) and appointed her and her son to be a sign unto all beings. S. 21:91
And Mary, Imran’s daughter, who guarded her virginity, so We breathed into her of Our Spirit (roohina), and she confirmed the Words of her Lord and His Books, and became one of the obedient. S. 66:12
The Quran provides further substantiation that Allah’s intention behind breathing out his Spirit into her was to cause the virginal conception of Jesus:
And mention in the Book Mary when she withdrew from her people to an eastern place, and she took a veil apart from them; then We sent unto her Our Spirit (roohana) that presented himself to her a man without fault. She said, ‘I take refuge in the All-merciful from thee! If thou fearest God’ … He said, ‘I am but a messenger come from thy Lord, to give thee a boy most pure. She said, ‘How shall I have a son whom no mortal has touched, neither have I been unchaste?’ He said, ‘Even so thy Lord has said: “Easy is that for Me; and that We may appoint him a sign unto men and a mercy from Us; it is a thing decreed.”’ S. 19:16-21
Here, the Spirit appears as a man in order to inform Mary that he has come to give her a pure, faultless son.
It seems pretty certain that Muhammad misunderstood or confused the Biblical story which speaks of God sending forth his angels to announce the virginal conception and birth of the Lord Jesus by the Holy Spirit:
“This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’” Matthew 1:18-21
“In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.’ Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.’ ‘How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’ The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.’” Luke 1:26-35
Muhammad may have mixed up the details and thought that it was the Holy Spirit who both came to Mary and caused her to supernaturally conceive. Whatever the case, it is clear that Muhammad believed that Allah’s Spirit has the power to create and is the agent or breath of life, the one through whom Allah imparts life to his creatures.
The Traditional View
Muslim expositors have interpreted Q. 19:16-21, 21:91 and 66:12 to mean that Allah sent Gabriel to appear to Mary who then breathed into her body which caused her to get pregnant:
And Mary (wa-Maryama is a supplement to imra’ata Fir‘awna) daughter of ‘Imran, who preserved [the chastity of] her womb, so We breathed into it of Our Spirit, namely, Gabriel — when he breathed into the opening of her shirt, by God’s creation of this action of his which reached her womb, thus conceiving Jesus — and she confirmed the words of her Lord, His prescriptions, and His, revealed, Scriptures and she was of the obedient, [one] of the obedient folk. (Tafsir al-Jalalayn, Q. 66:12; source; underline emphasis ours)
(And Mary, daughter of Imran, whose body was chaste, therefore We breathed therein something of Our Spirit) and so Gabriel breathed inside her garment and she became pregnant with Jesus. (And she put faith in the words of her Lord) she believed in what Gabriel told her that he was the Messenger of Allah entrusted with giving her a holy son (and His Scriptures) and she also believed in His Scriptures: the Torah, the Gospel and all other Scriptures; it is also said this means: she believed in the words of her Lord that Jesus the son of Mary will come into being by Allah saying “Be!” and he became a human being, and she also believed in His Scripture: the Gospel, (and was of the obedient) in times of hardship and comfort; and it is also said that this means: and she was obedient to He Who is far transcendent and majestic’. (Tanwîr al-Miqbâs min Tafsîr Ibn ‘Abbâs; source; underline emphasis ours)
<And Maryam, the daughter of `Imran who guarded her chastity (private part).> meaning, who protected and purified her honor, by being chaste and free of immorality…
<And We breathed into it (private part) through Our Ruh,> meaning, through the angel Jibril. Allah sent the angel Jibril to Maryam, and he came to her in the shape of a man in every respect. Allah commanded him to blow into a gap of her garment and that breath went into her womb through her private part; this is how `Isa was conceived. This is why Allah said here…
<And We breathed into it through Our Ruh, and she testified to the truth of her Lords Kalimat, and His Kutub,> meaning His decree and His legislation. (Tafsir Ibn Kathir; source)
There are a few problems with this view, not the least of which is that the Quran never identifies the Spirit as Gabriel. In fact, when Muhammad was asked concerning the Spirit he didn’t say he was Gabriel, but candidly admitted that he didn’t have a lot of information and didn’t really know much about his exact identity:
They will question thee concerning the Spirit. Say: ‘The Spirit is of the bidding of my Lord. You have been given of knowledge nothing except a little.’ S. 17:85
Why didn’t Muhammad simply come out and say that the Spirit is Gabriel if this is what he really believed?
The second problem is that this view implies that Gabriel, whom Muslims believe is a creature, is another god besides Allah since he has the same ability that the Muslim deity has, such as creating and breathing life into things. Thus, this position turns a creature into a co-creator and life-giver with Allah (that is, unless Muslims want to change their position and claim that Gabriel isn’t a creature).
The third problem is that both Q. 21:91 and 66:12 emphatically say that it is Allah who breathed the Spirit into Mary, whereas the above expositors state that it was Gabriel who did so. This means that, a) Gabriel cannot be the Spirit since he is the one who breathed out the Spirit into Mary, clearly differentiating the two, and b) Gabriel is none other than Allah, the very one who breathed the Spirit into Jesus’ blessed mother. In other words, Gabriel breathing out the Spirit identifies him as Allah since the Quranic passages expressly teach that it was Allah, not some other being, that did the breathing.
This is what we would have if we were to put this into a form of a logical syllogism:
- The Quran says that Allah breathed the Spirit into Mary.
- The Muslim exegetes say that it was Gabriel who breathed into the mother of Christ.
- Therefore, Gabriel is Allah the very one who did the breathing and caused Jesus’ conception.
Clearly, this Islamic interpretation of the aforementioned references is brimming with theological problems.
The Alternative View
There is another way of interpreting these particular Quranic references, one that may not be too pleasing for Muslims. One can understand from all of these citations that Jesus is God’s Spirit who was breathed into Mary. After all, doesn’t the Quran identify Jesus as a Spirit who proceeds from Allah?
People of the Book, go not beyond the bounds in your religion, and say not as to God but the truth. The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only the Messenger of God, and His Word that He committed to Mary, and a Spirit from Him (roohun minhu). So believe in God and His Messengers, and say not, ‘Three.’ Refrain; better is it for you. God is only One God. Glory be to Him — That He should have a son! To Him belongs all that is in the heavens and in the earth; God suffices for a guardian. S. 4:171
And isn’t this the same expression used in reference to one who is both omnipresent and omnipotent?
Thou shalt not find any people who believe in God and the Last Day who are loving to anyone who opposes. God and His Messenger, not though they were their fathers, or their sons, or their brothers, or their clan. Those — He has written faith upon their hearts, and He has confirmed them with a Spirit from Himself (roohin minhu); and He shall admit them into gardens underneath which rivers flow, therein to dwell forever, God being well-pleased with them, and they well-pleased with Him. Those are God’s party; why, surely God’s party — they are the prosperers. S. 58:22
In order for this Spirit to be able to strengthen all true believers at the same time he must be personally present with all of them wherever they are at and must have the divine power to protect and preserve them all. Seeing that these are all characteristics of Deity it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the late Muslim translator Abdullah Yusuf Ali referred to this entity as the Divine Spirit:
… Cf. ii 87 and 253, where it is said that God strengthened the Prophet Jesus with the holy spirit. Here we learn that all good and righteous men are strengthened by God with the holy spirit. If anything, the phrase used here is stronger, ‘a spirit from Himself’. Whenever any one offers his heart in faith and purity to God, God accepts it, engraves that faith on the seeker’s heart, and further fortifies him with the Divine Spirit, which we can no more define adequately than we can define in human language the nature of God. (Ali, The Meaning of the Holy Quran, p. 1518, fn. 5365; bold emphasis ours)
And yet Jesus is said to be the Spirit from God!
Moreover, doesn’t the hadith literature call Jesus the Spirit of Allah (Roohullah)?
III: The words of Allah, “He taught Adam the names of everything.” (2:31)
4206… He will say, ‘Go to ‘Isa, the slave of Allah and His Messenger, the Word of Allah and His Spirit.’ But he will say, ‘I am not worthy of this task, Go to Muhammad, a slave whose past and future wrong actions Allah has forgiven…
CCIII: “Descendants of those We carried with Nuh. He was a grateful slave.” (17:3)
4435… “They will go to ‘Isa and say, ‘O ‘Isa! You are the Messenger of Allah and His Word which He cast to Maryam and a spirit from Him. You spoke to people while in the cradle. Intercede with your Lord on our behalf. Do you not see what we are suffering?’ ‘Isa will say, ‘My Lord is angry today with such anger as has never existed before nor will again,’ and he did not mention a sin. ‘O my soul! My soul! My soul! Go to someone else. Go to Muhammad.’ (Aisha Bewley, Sahih Collection of al-Bukhari, Chapter 68. Book of Tafsir: source)
Ruh-Ullah – Spirit of God, A special title given by Prophet Muhammad (S. A.) to Jesus (A. A.) (M. A. Qazi, Concise Dictionary of Islamic Terms [Kazi Publications, Chicago IL, 1979], p. 57)
In light of the foregoing one can legitimately understand from Q. 21:91 and 66:12 that Allah sent forth Jesus, his very own Spirit, into Mary in order that he might become a man.
Interestingly, noted Muslim author Neal Robinson referred to a particular Islamic interpretation of Q. 19:16-21 which actually supports our exegesis. He writes:
“Alternatively it might be thought (on the basis of 4:171) that the Spirit who presented himself to Mary was none other than the Messiah to whom she subsequently gave birth. At first this seems improbable because of the way in which the Spirit refers to himself as a messenger. There is, however, an apocryphal writing which furnishes a precedent for identifying the agent of the annunciation with the Word who became flesh. This is the so-called Epistula Apostolorum which purports to be a letter addressed to the worldwide Church by the 11 disciples recording a conversation which they had with Christ after the resurrection. In the course of the conversation he told them:
At that time I appeared in the form of the archangel Gabriel to [the virgin] Mary and spoke with her, and her heart received [me]; she believed and laughed and I, the Word, went into her and became flesh; and I myself was servant FOR MYSELF, and in the form of the image of an angel.” (Robinson, Christ In Islam and Christianity [State University of New York Press (SUNY), Albany 1991], Chapter 15. The Virginal Conception, p. 157; bold and capital emphasis ours)
“Tabari assumes that the Spirit who was sent to Mary was Gabriel. He reports that this was the view of Qatada, Ibn Jurayj and Wahb. The other commentators agree that this is the correct interpretation but none the less mention THE ALTERNATIVE VIEW, namely that the Spirit was the Messiah. Ibn Kathir gives the following report traced back by a single isnad TO THE COMPANION UBAIY:
The spirit of Jesus is one of the group of spirits with whom [God] took a pact in the time of Adam [cf. 33:7 and 7:172]. It is he, that is to say the spirit of Jesus, who presented himself to her in the form of a perfect human being. So she conceived the one who addressed her and he became incarnate in her [entering her through her mouth].
“DESPITE ITS PEDIGREE, Ibn Kathir dismisses this interpretation as reprehensible and supposes it to have been derived from the People of the Scripture.” (Ibid. p. 161; bold and capital emphasis ours)
The following Muslim commentator also admits that this was an interpretation held by some of the Islamic scholars.
A majority of scholars hold the view that … (Spirit) refers to Sayyidna Jibra’il but some say that it refers to Sayyidna ‘Isa himself. Allah Ta‘ala had placed before Sayyidah Maryam the likeness of the son to be born to her. But the former version is more appropriate and is confirmed by the statement that follows. (Mufti Shafi Uthmani, Maariful Quran, Q. 19:16-21, Volume 6, p. 34; source; underline emphasis ours)
Despite the fact that Muslim expositors generally tend(ed) to reject this interpretation there is nothing within the context of the aforementioned texts which mitigates against this understanding (cf. this discussion). The only real reason why any Muslim would even oppose such an explanation is due to his/her a priori belief that Jesus is not Divine or preexistent, or that the Quran is a consistent scripture and would therefore never affirm Jesus’ Divinity or prehuman existence.
The problem, however, is that the Muslim scripture is far from being consistent since Q. 4:171 expressly says that Jesus is a Spirit from Allah and his Word which he cast into Mary, both of which clearly presuppose his prehuman existence.
And even though the Quran denies that God is the Messiah and that Jesus is the Son of God:
They are unbelievers who say, ‘God is the Messiah, Mary’s son.’ Say: ‘Who then shall overrule God in any way if He desires to destroy the Messiah, Mary’s son, and his mother, and all those who are on earth?’ For to God belongs the kingdom of the heavens and of the earth, and all that is between them, creating what He will. God is powerful over everything. S. 5:17
They are unbelievers who say, ‘God is the Messiah, Mary’s son.’ For the Messiah said, ‘Children of Israel, serve God, my Lord and your Lord. Verily whoso associates with God anything, God shall prohibit him entrance to Paradise, and his refuge shall be the Fire; and wrongdoers shall have no helpers.’ S. 5:72
The Jews say, ‘Ezra is the Son of God’; the Christians say, ‘The Messiah is the Son of God.’ That is the utterance of their mouths, conforming with the unbelievers before them. God assail them! How they are perverted! S. 9:30
It doesn’t articulate these doctrines correctly. After all, orthodox Christians have historically denied that God is the Messiah, insisting instead on saying that the Messiah is God. The latter statement implies that Christ is fully God in essence, that he has the entire essential attributes of Deity and is all that God is in nature, whereas the former suggests that Christ is the only one that is God. To say that God is Jesus would suggest that the entire Godhead is instantiated in Christ alone to the exclusion of the Father and the Holy Spirit, or that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are nothing more than manifestations of a single Divine Person. This latter understanding would imply that Christ is all three manifestations, which is a form of an ancient heresy known as Sabellianism (or Modalism), a view condemned by the early Church (*).
Furthermore, the Quran assumes (quite mistakenly, we might add) that in order for Jesus to be God’s Son God must have a wife with whom he had sex and got her pregnant:
Yet they ascribe to God, as associates, the jinn, though He created them; and they impute to Him sons and daughters without any knowledge. Glory be to Him! High be He exalted above what they describe! The Creator of the heavens and the earth — how should He have a son, seeing that He has no consort, and He created all things, and He has knowledge of everything? S. 6:100-101
Thus, true orthodox Christian believers can agree with the Muslim scripture that God is not the Messiah but that the Messiah is indeed God, a formulation which the Quran nowhere denies. As noted by Muslim author Neal Robinson in his comments concerning an ancient Nestorian Christian reference:
… The text which dates from around 550 CE. concludes a discussion of the Trinity with the words ‘The Messiah is God but God is not the Messiah’. The Qur’an echoes ONLY the latter half of the statement. C. Schedl, Muhammad and Jesus (Vienna: Herder, 1978), p. 531. (Robinson, Christ In Islam and Christianity, Notes to Chapter 3. ‘Isa and the Church Historian, # 19, p. 197; capital and underline emphasis mine)
Christians can further agree that Jesus is not God’s Son in the sense that Muhammad understood it, e.g. Jesus is not God’s biological offspring whom he physically sired through Mary. Such an understanding is just as insulting and blasphemous to the Christians as it is to the Muslims.
More importantly, the Quran ascribes to Jesus the very breath of life, emphatically stating that Christ is able to breathe life into inanimate objects:
to be a Messenger to the Children of Israel saying, “I have come to you with a sign from your Lord. I will CREATE for you out of clay as the likeness of a bird; then I will breathe into it, and it will be a bird (annee akhluqu lakum mina al-teeni kahay-ati al-tayri faanfukhu feehi fayakoonu tayran), by the leave of God. I will also heal the blind and the leper, and bring to life the dead, by the leave of God. I will inform you too of what things you eat, and what you treasure up in your houses. Surely in that is a sign for you, if you are believers. S. 3:49
When God said, ‘Jesus Son of Mary, remember My blessing upon thee and upon thy mother, when I confirmed thee with the Holy Spirit, to speak to men in the cradle, and of age; and when I taught thee the Book, the Wisdom, the Torah, the Gospel; and when thou CREATEST out of clay, by My leave, as the likeness of a bird, and thou breathest into it, and it is a bird (wa-ith takhluqu mina al-teeni kahay-ati al-tayri bi-ithnee fatanfukhu feeha fatakoonu tayran), by My leave; and thou healest the blind and the leper by My leave, and thou bringest the dead forth by My leave; and when restrained from thee the Children of Israel when thou camest unto them with the clear signs, and the unbelievers among them said, “This is nothing but sorcery manifest.” S. 5:110
Doesn’t this further prove that Jesus is indeed God’s life-giving Spirit, that Jesus embodies within his own Person the life-giving Divine breath seeing that he animates beings in the same way that God does? Recall that we cited Q. 15:28-29 earlier which spoke of Allah creating Adam from clay and breathing into him of his Spirit. Here are a few other texts that speak of the creation of the first man:
who has created all things well. And He originated the creation of man out of clay (khalaqahu wa-badaa khalqa al-insani min teenin), then He fashioned his progeny of an extraction of mean water, then He shaped him, and breathed His spirit in him (wa-nafakha feehi min roohihi). And He appointed for you hearing, and sight, and hearts; little thanks you show. S. 32:7-9
When thy Lord said to the angels, ‘See, I am creating a mortal of a clay (innee khaliqun basharan min teenin). When I have shaped him, and breathed My spirit in him (wa-nafakhtu feehi min roohee), fall you down, bowing before him!’ S. 38:71-72
Thus, Jesus creates and breathes life in exactly the same way that Allah does! This only makes sense in light of Jesus being God’s very own Spirit whom he sent to become incarnate from the virgin Mary. At the very least this shows that Jesus possesses the very same life-giving Spirit of God according to the Quran.
Now a Muslim may chime in and argue that both Q. 3:49 and 5:110 say that Jesus breathed life into the clay birds by the permission of Allah in order to somehow refute the notion that Christ possesses the breath of life. The problem with this understanding is that this does absolutely nothing to refute the point since both passages emphatically ascribe to Jesus the ability to impart life. The most that this expression proves is that Jesus needed God’s permission to breathe life into others, not that he received this ability from God. In fact, this phrase only demonstrates that Christ works in perfect accord with God, never acting independently from the Divine will, which is precisely what the Holy Bible teaches:
“Jesus gave them this answer: ‘I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, to your amazement he will show him even greater things than these. For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it… I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live… Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.’” John 5:19-21, 25, 28-29
“Then Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life,and I will raise him up at the last day.’” John 6:35-40
Thus, the Quran is merely echoing the Biblical teaching that Jesus can do whatever God does and only works in perfect union with the Father.
With the foregoing in the background we would like to challenge the Muslims to respond to our case by showing us where our exegesis of the Quran is wrong. We invite the Muslims to refute our position, not by sourcing Muslim scholars who merely cite their opinions or read into the Muslim scripture their own theological presuppositions, but by demonstrating from the context of the references we presented why we are mistaken. Nor will it help the Muslim to merely quote texts which deny the Divinity of Christ since we have already shown that, a) the Quran is inconsistent and gets the Christian doctrines wrong, and b) the Muslim scripture clearly ascribes titles and functions to Christ which point to his Divine prehuman existence, e.g. Christ is God’s Word which he gave to Mary and a Spirit that proceeded from him.
Note of caution
Lest the reader misunderstand, our appeal to the Quran doesn’t mean that we believe that it is completely reliable or entirely correct concerning the nature of God, the Person of Christ etc. Nor do we believe that Jesus is the Spirit of God, but rather he is God’s unique and beloved Son. As far as we are concerned it really doesn’t matter what the Quran says since (at least to us) the Muslim scripture is only true when it completely agrees with the teachings of God’s only inspired Word, the Holy Bible. We are simply using the Quran to show Muslims the dilemma that they are in and the problems they face as a result of their scripture’s confusing and contradictory teachings concerning such issues as the nature of Jesus