His name is mentioned in the Holy Qur’an twenty-five times, often in the form ‘Isa ibn Maryam, meaning “Jesus, son of Mary.” In the Qur’an, he is referred to by the unique title of “Messiah” (al-masih in Arabic), meaning “anointed one.” He is regarded as one of many prophets from the hereditary lineage of Prophet Ibrahim, or Abraham (peace be upon him). Many Muslim traditions view him as an ideal exemplar of spirituality.
Descriptions of Jesus in the Qur’an include many aspects of the narrative found in the Gospels about Prophet ‘Isa’s life, including his virgin birth, the signs given to him by God, that he was raised by God into His presence, and it also suggests his future return. Prophet ‘Isa is also referred to in the Qur’an as the “Word” and the “Spirit” of God, a special honour. However, he is revered as a Prophet of great spiritual insight rather than as the literal son of God.
The Prophets of the Abrahamic Tradition
The Holy Qur’an frequently mentions that divine guidance was sent to humankind through various prophets. For example, it says:
“So [you believers], say, ‘We believe in God and in what was sent down to us and what was sent down to Ibrahim (Abraham), Isma’il (Ishmael), Ishaq (Isaac), Ya’qub (Jacob), and the Tribes, and what was given to Musa (Moses), ‘Isa (Jesus), and all the prophets by their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and we devote ourselves to Him’” (Q 2:136).
This view that all prophets are considered to be equal is also supported by a widely-reported hadith, in which Prophet Muhammad is believed to have said:
“Both in this world and in the Hereafter, I am the nearest of all the people to Jesus, the son of Mary. The prophets are paternal brothers; their mothers are different, but their religion is one.”
Many Qur’anic verses also describe the prophets as belonging to the same family. For example, there is a line of prophets descended from Prophet Ibrahim. Both of his sons, Ishaq and Isma’il were prophets, as was Prophet Ishaq’s son, Prophet Ya’qub, and his grandson, Prophet Yusuf, or Joseph (peace be upon them).
Thus, God chose certain families over others based on their devotion, faith and commitment towards the Divine, as reflected in the following two Qur’anic verses:
“Allah chose Adam and Nuh (Noah), the family of Ibrahim, and the family of Imran above all mankind: a progeny one from the other” (Q 3:33-34).
“We have already given the family of Ibrahim the Book and Wisdom and conferred upon them a great kingdom” (Q 4:54).
According to Islamic tradition, Prophet Muhammad was a descendant of Prophet Ibrahim through Prophet Isma’il, while the prophets Musa and ‘Isa were descendants of Prophet Ibrahim through Prophet Ishaq. For the Shia, this elevated status of Prophet Ibrahim’s family also extends to Prophet Muhammad’s family, including the first Shi‘a Imam, Hazrat Ali (peace be upon him), and the Imams descended from him.
The Life and Legacy of Prophet ‘Isa
The Qur’an mentions that angels announced the coming birth of Prophet ‘Isa, saying:
“The angels said, ‘O Maryam, Allah gives you good news of a Word [kalima] from Him. His name is [the Messiah], ‘Isa ibn Maryam, honoured in this world and in the next, and of those brought near [to God]’” (Q 3:45).
Throughout history, Prophet ‘Isa has been viewed by Muslims as someone who embodied the qualities of piety and a concern for the needy, and whose example inspired Prophet Muhammad. In Sufi literature, he is frequently portrayed as an example of detachment from the material world and closeness to God.
The Ikhwan al-Safa’, or Brethren of Purity, depicted Prophet ‘Isa as a spiritual exemplar par excellence. The Ikhwan al-Safa’ were a group of anonymous scholars who wrote a series of Arabic epistles, or rasa’il. Historians have debated their identity and spiritual affiliation, with several scholars suggesting that they may have been Ismailis of the pre-Fatimid era.
In his article “Jesus, Christians and Christianity in the Thought of the Ikhwan al-Safa’,” Dr Omar Ali-de-Unzaga writes:
“Jesus figures prominently in the Rasa’il, as one of the exemplars who embodied the views of the Ikhwan al-Safa’: belief in the eternity of the soul and the pursuit of the purification of the soul from matter by detachment from the bodily realm.”
Fatimid Ismaili missionaries or religious teachers (da‘is), such as al-Sijistani and Ja‘far ibn Mansur al-Yaman, also praised Prophet ‘Isa’s virtues as a spiritual teacher, healer and guide to enlightenment who introduced his followers to the inner or esoteric (batin) aspects of their faith.
In The Memoirs of Aga Khan, the 48th Ismaili Imam, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah (peace be upon him), mentions Prophet ‘Isa as someone who attained spiritual enlightenment:
“…some men are born with such natural spiritual capacities and possibilities of development, that they have direct experience of that great love, that all-embracing, all-consuming love, which direct contact with reality gives to the human soul. Hafiz, indeed, has said that men like Jesus Christ, and Muslim mystics like Mansour and Bayezid and others, have possessed that spiritual power of the greater love; that any of us, if the Holy Spirit ever-present grants us that enlightenment, can, being thus blessed, have the power which Christ had…”
The 49th Ismaili Imam, His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan, spoke about Prophet ‘Isa in connection with pluralism in his acceptance speech for the Tutzing Evangelical Academy’s “Tolerance” award in 2006, saying:
“Despite the long history of religious conflict, there is a long counter-history of religious focus on tolerance as a central virtue – on welcoming the stranger and loving one's neighbour. ‘Who is my Neighbour?’ – one of the central Christian narratives asks. Jesus responds by telling the story of the Good Samaritan – a foreigner, a representative of the Other, who reaches out sympathetically, across ethnic and cultural divides, to show mercy to the fallen stranger at the side of the road.”
In Islamic traditions, Prophet ‘Isa is held in high regard as a messenger of God and an exemplar of piety and as a guide to spiritual truth. He is also part of the shared heritage that binds the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Together, they are known in the Qur’an as the ahl al-kitab, or People of the Book, that is, people to whom God sent revelation.
His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan highlighted this shared Abrahamic heritage in his address to the Canadian parliament in 2014, stating:
“We find singularly little in our theological interpretations that would clash with the other Abrahamic faiths - with Christianity and Judaism. Indeed, there is much that is in profound harmony.”
Faith and Practice in Islamic Traditions, vol. 1 (Student Reader). London: Islamic Publications Limited for The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2015.
The Qur’an and its Interpretations vol. 1 (Student Reader). London: Islamic Publications Limited for The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2017.
Shedinger, Robert F. "Jesus", in: Oxford Bibliographies in Islamic Studies.
Omar Ali-de-Unzaga. “Jesus, Christians and Christianity in the Thought of the Ikhwan al-Safa’”, in: Christian-Muslim Relations. A Bibliographical History. Volume 2 (900- 1050), ed. David Thomas et al. (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2010); The History of Christian-Muslim Relations, 14; pp. 306-311.
Andani, Khalil, “Jesus in Esoteric Islam: An Ismaili Muslim Christology,” Lecture for the Society of Comparative Theology, Harvard Divinity School, 1 March 2013.
Aga Khan III. The Memoirs of Aga Khan: World Enough and Time. London: Cassell and Company Ltd, 1954.