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The Najrani Christians and the Deity of Christ

According to the Muslim sources, Muhammad threatened a group of Arab Christians from Najran that if they didn’t convert or pay jizyah he would then come and attack them, even though they had done nothing against him. Their only transgression was that their beliefs about God, Christ, salvation etc., were different from that of Muhammad’s. As a result of this threat, the Islamic traditions state that a group of Christians scholars were sent from Najran to meet with Muhammad and debated him about Jesus. For more on this point see the following post: MUHAMMAD: THE ANTAGONIZING WAR-MONGER.

What makes this encounter rather interesting is that the group used Muhammad’s own claims about Jesus against him, employing the same arguments that Christian till this very day point to from the Quran to prove the Deity of Christ and the Triunity of God.

The Muslim expositors further affirm that the first 83 verses of surah 3 were composed in response to the questions and objections raised by the Najranis against Muhammad.

Note what these Islamic authorities say:

A deputation from the Christians of Najran came to the apostle. There were sixty riders, fourteen of them from their nobles of whom three were in control of affairs, namely (a) the ‘Aqib the leader of the people, a man of affairs, and their chief adviser whose opinion governed their policy, ‘Abdu’l– Masih by name; (b) the Sayyid, their administrator who saw to transport and general arrangements, whose name was al-Ayham; and (c) their Bishop, scholar, and religious leader who controlled their schools, Abu Haritha b. ‘Alqama, one of B. Bakr b. Wa’il.

Abu Haritha occupied a position of honour among them, and was a great student, so that he had an excellent knowledge of their religion, and the Christian kings of Byzantium had honoured him and paid him a subsidy and gave him servants, built churches for him and lavished honours on him, because of his knowledge and zeal for their religion…

The names of the fourteen principal men among the sixty riders were: ‘Abdu’l-Masih the ‘Aqib, al-Ayham the Sayyid; Abu Haritha b. ‘Alqama brother of B. Bakr b. Wa’il; Aus; al-Harith; Zayd; Qays; Yazid; Nubayh; Khuwaylid; ‘Amr; Khalid; ‘Amr; Khalid; ‘Abdullah; Johannes; of these the first three named above spoke to the apostle. They were Christians according to the Byzantine rite, though they differed among themselves in some points, saying He is God; and He is the son of God; and He is the third person of the Trinity, which is the doctrine of Christianity. They argue that he is God because he used to raise the dead, and heal the sick, AND DECLARE THE UNSEEN; AND MAKE CLAY BIRDS AND THEN BREATHE INTO THEM, SO THAT THEY FLEW AWAY; and all this was by the command of God Almighty, ‘We will make him a sign to men.’ They argue that he is son of God in that they say he had no known father; AND HE SPOKE IN THE CRADLE and this is something that no child of Adam has ever done. They argue that he is the third of three in that God says: We have done, We have commanded, We have created and We have decreed, and they say, If He were one he would have said I have done, I have created, and so on, but He is He and Jesus and Mary. Concerning all these assertions the Quran came down.

When the two divines spoke to him the apostle said to them, ‘Submit yourselves.’ They said, ‘We have submitted.’ He said: ‘You have not submitted, so submit.’ They said, ‘Nay, but we have submitted before you.’ He said, ‘You lie. Your assertion that God has a son, your worship of the cross, and your eating pork hold you back from submission.’ They said, ‘But who is his father, Muhammad?’ The apostle was silent and did not answer them. So God sent down concerning their words and their incoherence the beginning of the sura of the Family of ‘Imran up to more than eighty verses… (Alfred Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, with introduction and notes [Oxford University Press, Karachi, Tenth impression 1995], pp. 270-272; bold and capital emphasis mine)

And:

This sura is composed of 200 verses. It was revealed in Madina after sura 8, al-Anfal (The Booty). Commentators are generally agreed that the first eighty-odd verses were revealed concerning the Christian delegation of Najran, an ancient town in South Arabia…

Wahidi reports:

“Commentators have said that a delegation from Najran consisting of sixty horsemen came to the Messenger of God. Among them were fourteen of their notables. Three of these fourteen held special authority among their people. They were al-‘Aqib, ‘Abd al-Masih by name, who was the leader of the people and guardian of their affairs, and whose opinion was never opposed. The other was called al-Ayham who was the sayyid (chief) of the people and their leader. The third was Abu Harithah b. ‘Alqamah who was their bishop and religious leader (imam), and the head of their religious school (midras). He attained high honor among his people because he studied all their (sacred) books, so that he acquired great learning. Even Byzantine kings honored him, bestowing on him great wealth and building churches for him because of his great wisdom. These men came to the Messenger of God in his mosque at the time of the midafternoon prayers. They were clad in Yamani attire, garments and mantles. They were equal in elegance and beauty to the men of the tribe of Banu al-Harith b. Ka‘b. Those of the companions of the Messenger of God who saw them exclaimed, ‘We have never seen a delegation like them!’ When the time for their prayers had come, they arose and prayed in the mosque of the Messenger of God, and the Prophet said, ‘Let them pray.’ They thus prayed facing east. Then al-Sayyid and al-‘Aqib spoke with the Messenger of God and he said to them, ‘Accept islam!’ They answered, ‘We have been muslims long before you!’ He replied, ‘You do not tell the truth! Your claim that God has a son, your worship of the cross and your eating of the swine prevent you from being muslims.’ They retorted, ‘If Jesus were not the son of God, then who is his father?’ They thus debated with the Prophet concerning Jesus… Thus God sent down concerning them the first eighty-odd verses of this sura” (Wahidi, pp. 90-91).

Tabari begins his commentary on this sura with the following general statement:

“It is related that God begins in revealing the opening of this sura as He does with the negation of divinity of any being other than He, and describes Himself as He does at its beginning [i.e., verse I] as an argument against a group of Christians who came to the Messenger of God from Najran. They debated with him concerning Jesus and manifested unbelief in God. God, therefore, sent down the first eighty-odd verses of this sura CONCERNING THEM and Jesus, and as an argument for His Prophet against them and any others who may have held similar views. Yet these men persisted in their rejection of faith and grave error… (Tabari, VI pp. 150-151).

Tabari asserts further that “Christians were nonetheless in disagreement among themselves, some saying that Jesus is God, others that he is the son of God, and, still others, that he is ‘the third of three’ [see Q. 5:73]. These are the claims of the Christians. They have argued in support of the claim that Jesus is God from the fact that he used to RAISE THE DEAD, cure diseases AND FORETELL UNKNOWN THINGS. HE ALSO USED TO FASHION OUT OF CLAY THE SHAPE OF A BIRD, THEN BREATHE INTO IT, AND IT BECAME A BIRD (Q. 3:49 and 5:110). All this, however,” Tabari continues, “was by God’s permission, to make Jesus a sign for humankind. Christians have likewise argued that Jesus is the son of God in that they say that he had no known father. HE ALSO SPOKE IN THE CRADLE (Q. 3:46, 5:110 and 19:29), a thing which none of the children of Adam had done before him. They have contended that Jesus is ‘the third of three’ on the basis of God’s saying ‘We did,’ ‘We commanded,’ ‘We created’ and ‘We have decreed.’ They thus argue that had God been only one, He would have said, ‘I did,’ ‘I commanded,’ ‘I decreed’ and ‘I have created.’ This refers, therefore, to God, Jesus and Mary. It is concerning all these claims that Qur’anic verses were sent down. Thus, God informed His Prophet of their claims” (Tabari, VI, pp. 152-153). (Ayoub, The Qur’an and Its Interpreters: The House of ‘Imran [State University of New York (SUNY) Press, Albany 1992], Volume II, pp. 1-4; capital and underline emphasis mine)

Speaking of al-Tabari, here is what he wrote in regards to Q. 3:7, which states that there are verses whose meaning are unclear and known only to Allah:

OPINION: Some of them said: This verse referred to the Christian delegation from Najran, which came to the Messenger of God to debate with him over what they debated and argue with him, saying, “Do you not claim that Jesus is the Spirit of God and His Word?”1 They interpreted [these words] in a manner consistent with their statement of disbelief.

An account of those who said that:

Al-Muthanna – Ibn Ishaq – Ibn Abi Ja’far – his father – al-Rabi’: “They were resolute-meaning the Christian delegation from Najran that came to the Messenger of God-and they argued with the Prophet, saying, ‘Do you not claim that [Jesus] is the Word of God and a Spirit from Him?’ [The Prophet said] replied, ‘BUT, OF COURSE!’ They said, ‘This is sufficient for us!’ Then God (Mighty and Majesty is He) sent down, But those in whose hearts is doubt pursue that which is ambiguous of it, seeking (to cause) dissension. Then God (Majestic is His praise) sent down the verse [beginning with] Truly the likeness of Jesus with respect to God is as the likeness of Adam (Q. 3:59).”2

1 Jesus is described as His Word and a Spirit from Him in Q. 4:171.

2 According to Suyuti, this mursal hadith from al-Rabi’ is found elsewhere only in the Qur’anic commentary of Ibn Abi Hatim; al-Durr al-manthur, 2:10. (Tabari: Selections from The Comprehensive Exposition of the Interpretation of the Verses of the Qur’an, translated by Scott C. Lucas [The Royal Aal Al-Bayt Institute For Islamic Thought and The Islamic Texts Society, 2017], Volume 1, p. 229; capital emphasis mine)

And here’s what another leading Muslim expositor and scholar stated in respect to this verse:

“… Ibn Ishaq said, “Muhammad bin Ja`far bin Az-Zubayr said that, `The (Najran) delegation came to the Messenger of Allah in Al-Madinah, entered his Masjid wearing robes and garments, after the Prophet had prayed the `Asr prayer. They accompanied a caravan of camels led by Bani Al-Harith bin Ka`b. The Companions of the Messenger of Allah who saw them said that they never saw a delegation like them after that… Then Abu Harithah bin `Alqamah and Al-`Aqib `Abdul-Masih or As-Sayyid Al-Ayham spoke to the Messenger of Allah, and they were Christians like the king (Roman King). However, they disagreed about `Isa; some of them said, `He is Allah,’ while some said, `He is the son of Allah,’ and some others said, `He is one of a trinity.’ Allah is far from what they attribute to Him.”

“Indeed, these are the creeds of the Christians. They claim that `Isa is God, since he brought the dead back to life, healed blindness, leprosy and various illnesses, told about matters of the future, created the shape of birds and blew life into them, bringing them to life. However, all these miracles occurred by Allah’s leave, so that `Isa would be a sign from Allah for people.

They also claim that `Isa is the son of Allah, since he did not have a father and he spoke when he was in the cradle, a miracle which had not occurred by any among the Children of Adam before him, so they claim. They also claim that `Isa is one of a trinity, because Allah would say, `We did, command, create and demand.’ They said, `If Allah were one, he would have said, `I did, command, create and decide.’ This is why they claim that `Isa and Allah are one (Trinity). Allah is far from what they attribute to Him, and we should mention that the Qur’an refuted all these false Christian claims.” (Tafsir Ibn Kathir http://www.alim.org/library/quran/AlQuran-tafsir/TIK/3/59; bold emphasis mine)

Ibn Kathir further wrote:

(they follow that which is not entirely clear thereof) meaning, they refer to the Mutashabih, because they are able to alter its meanings to conform with their false interpretation since the wordings of the Mutashabihat encompass such a wide area of meanings. As for the Muhkam Ayat, they cannot be altered because they are clear and, thus, constitute unequivocal proof against the misguided people. This is why Allah said…

(seeking Al-Fitnah) meaning, they seek to misguide their following by pretending to prove their innovation by relying on the Qur’an — the Mutashabih of it — but, this is proof against and not for them. For instance, Christians might claim that (`Isa is divine because) the Qur’an states that he is Ruhullah and His Word, which He gave to Mary, all the while ignoring Allah’s statements…

(He (`Isa) was not more than a servant. We granted Our favor to him.) (43:59), and…

(Verily, the likeness of `Isa before Allah is the likeness of Adam. He created him from dust, then (He) said to him: “Be!” and he was.) (3:59).

There are other Ayat that clearly assert that `Isa is but one of Allah’s creatures and that he is the servant and Messenger of Allah, among other Messengers. (Tafsir Ibn Kathir http://www.alim.org/library/quran/AlQuran-tafsir/TIK/3/7; bold emphasis mine)

Notice that the Najrani Christians proved the Trinity and Deity of Christ by pointing to the Quranic statements where Allah speaks in the plural, and where Jesus is said to be the Word and Spirit of Allah, along with his being able to create, give life, and raise the dead.

Also notice the candid admission of these expositors that Q. 3:7, which says that there are unclear verses whose meanings are known only to Allah, refer to the Quranic statements about Jesus being the Word and Spirit of Allah!

This puts Muslims in a dilemma since none of them can ever explain what it means for Jesus to be the Word and Spirit of Allah, since no one, not even Muhammad, can ever know the interpretation of these titles seeing that they are a part of those obscure and unclear passages whose exact meanings are known only to Allah!

So much for the Quran being a clear book of guidance, and for Jesus being nothing more than a human messenger.

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