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Jesus and the Law in the Qur’an

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This is an expanded version of my article that was published in “Academia Letters” in July 2021, which can be found here. The New Testament passages that are referenced in the original article are quoted here in full for easier reference.

Jesus’ attitude towards the Mosaic law has been much debated. Historically, Christian scholarship maintained that Jesus spoke against the law of Moses and deliberately broke it.[1] Indeed, the Gospels report a long list of complaints that the Pharisees had about Jesus, accusing him of repeatedly failing to follow the law. They objected to him and/or his disciples doing the following:

i) Eating without washing their hands first (also Matt. 15:1-20):

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! (Mar 7:1-9 NRSV)

ii) Eating with the sinners and tax collectors:

Jesus went out again beside the sea; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Mar 2:13-17 NRSV)

iii) Not fasting with the Pharisees and other Jews:

Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day. (Mar 2:18-20 NRSV)

iv) Not observing the Sabbath (also, Matt. 12:1-8; Luke 6:6-11, 3:11-17; John 5:5-18, 9:13-18)

One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” (Mar 2:23-28 NRSV)

v) Casting out devils by what they considered to be evil power:

Then they brought to him a demoniac who was blind and mute; and he cured him, so that the one who had been mute could speak and see. All the crowds were amazed and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, that this fellow casts out the demons.” He knew what they were thinking and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? If I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your own exorcists cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you. (Mat 12:22-28 NRSV)

The view that Jesus disregarded the law, which is particularly associated with the “second quest”, is also aligned with Paul’s emphasis that salvation is achieved through faith in Jesus, not the law:

Yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. (Gal 2:16 NRSV)

More recently, however, other scholars have argued that a careful and more encompassing reading of the Gospels does not necessarily indicate that Jesus broke any laws or encouraged his followers to do so. In fact, he stressed that he did not come to abolish the law:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Mat 5:17-19 NRSV)

What the Gospels instead show, many maintain, is that Jesus had his own interpretations of the law.[2] This interpretation reflects his focus on the spirit more than the letter of the law.[3] In the past, Jesus used to be presented in opposition to Judaism, whereas now he is often placed within it as a reformer.[4]

Jesus’ attitude to the law in the Qur’an has rarely been a subject of interest. This is mainly due to the little value afforded to history in the Qur’an in general, including Jesus’ history. Treating Qur’anic verses on Judaism and Christianity as largely borrowed and adapted from Jewish and Christian sources by the Prophet Muhammad has dominated Western studies of the Qur’an,[5] with few contesting this consensus.[6] Even the explicit denial of the crucifixion in the Qur’an has been said to be influenced by Christian and Jewish sources, which, of course, confirm it.[7] One very early promoter of the view that the Qur’an has heavily relied on and distorted Christian and Jewish scriptures was John of Damascus, who had this to say about the genesis of the Qur’an:

This man, after having chanced upon the Old and New Testaments and likewise, it seems, having conversed with an Arian monk, devised his own heresy. Then, having insinuated himself into the good graces of the people by a show of seeming piety, he gave out that a certain book had been sent down to him from heaven.

Writing around a century after the Prophet Muhammad, this monk also has one of the earliest reports of misunderstanding what the Qur’an says about Jesus’ relationship with the law. He wrongly claimed that the Qur’an indicates that “the Jews wanted to crucify Him in violation of the law”.[8] So what does the Qur’an really say about Jesus’ attitude to the law?

Unlike the Bible, the Qur’an shows very limited interest in history per se. Furthermore, the details of a historical narrative may be scattered in more than one chapter. Naturally, this is the case with Jesus’ history too. When studying Jesus’ relationship with the law, therefore, we have to be satisfied with separate short statements in different chapters. There are three distinct statements in the Qur’an that elucidate how Jesus treated the Mosaic law. We will cover them in as much detail as space allows us.

1 Recognising and Confirming the Law

The Qur’an repeatedly states that one aspect of Jesus’ mission was to confirm the authenticity of the Torah, and accordingly the Mosaic law, and its continued applicability in his time (also 3.50, 61.6):

We sent, following in their (the prophets’) footsteps, Jesus, the son of Mary, confirming that which came before him in the Torah; and We gave him the Injīl, in which there is guidance and light, and as a confirmation of that which preceded it of the Torah, and as guidance and admonition for the god-fearing. (Qur’an 5.46)

The Qur’an is clear that the divine book it calls the “Injīl”, which was revealed to Jesus, complemented the Torah rather than replaced it.

2 Observing the Law

The Qur’an also stresses that Jesus was a devout and strict observer of the law. This is seen in Jesus’ miracle of speaking in the cradle, which is not found in the Gospels but is mentioned in the apocryphal Arabic Infancy Gospel, albeit with significant differences. When the unmarried Mary was questioned by her people about the newborn she was carrying and they accused her of serious violation of the law of chastity, the baby Jesus leapt to his mother’s defence, replying on her behalf:

I am the servant of Allah. He has given me the Book and made me a prophet. (30) He has made me blessed wherever I am and has enjoined on me prayer and acts of purification as long as I remain alive (31) and to be dutiful to my mother, and He has not made me a wretched tyrant. (Qur’an 19.32)

This statement reflects an uncompromising lifelong commitment to observing the law in full. Honouring the first table of the law, which governs the relations between humans and God, is seen in Jesus’ acts of worship of God in 19.30-31. The Qur’an also repeatedly confirms the oneness of God and rejects the Trinity and the deification of Jesus or anyone else (also 3.59, 5.73-76, 19.34-35):

When Allah said, “O Jesus son of Mary! Did you say to people: ‘Take me and my mother for two gods besides Allah?”‘ He said, “Exalted are You! It was not for me to say that which I have no right to say. If I have said it, then You know it. You know what is within myself but I do not know what is within Yours. You know the unseen. (116) I did not say to them other than that which You commanded me, ‘Worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord’. I was a witness over them as long as I was among them; but when You took me, You were the observer over them. You are witness over everything. (Qur’an 5.116-117)

O People of the Book, do not commit excesses in your religion or say about Allah anything except the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, was only a messenger of Allah and His word which He directed to Mary and a soul from Him. So believe in Allah and His messengers. And do not say, “Three”; desist, it is better for you. Indeed, Allah is but one God. Exalted is He above having a son. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. And sufficient is Allah as Disposer of affairs. (Qur’an 4.171)

Jesus’ observance of the second table of the law, which regulates the relationships between humans, is also evidenced in 19.32 in the form of his commitment to discharging his duties towards his mother and people in general.

3 Relaxing the Law

The third statement about Jesus’ relationship with the law is that he was charged with legalising some of the prohibitions of the law:

And [I have come] confirming what was before me of the Torah and to make lawful for you some of what was forbidden to you. I have come to you with a sign from your Lord, so fear Allah and obey me. (Qur’an 3.50)

This unambiguously refers to the abrogation of previous legal prohibitions, not new interpretations of them. Being changes to the Mosaic law in the Torah, the Qur’an probably implies that the new relaxations were revealed in the Injīl rather than as verbal instructions by Jesus. The thirteenth-century exegete Razi attributes to Wahb Ibn Munabbih (AH 114 / 732 CE) the claim that the abrogated laws had been introduced by late rabbis and falsely attributed to Moses,[9] but the Qur’an does not support this view.

Mentioning the new allowances after restating that Jesus’s mission included confirming the Torah seems to indicate the limited scope of these allowances. Many exegetes, as early as the tenth-century Tabari,[10] have suggested that these were dietary, which does not seem unlikely. But their speculations about the details of those diets are not supported in the Qur’an, which is silent on the details.

Conclusion

The Qur’an clearly shows that Jesus had a firm commitment to the Mosiac law and urged his followers to do the same. It disagrees with the historical view of many Christian theologians that Jesus intentionally and repeatedly broke the law and even abolished it altogether. It is close to the position of other scholars who read the Gospels as indicating that Jesus had his own interpretations of legal matters and remained faithful to the spirit of the law. Nevertheless, the Qur’an’s express statement that, while honouring the law, Jesus was also charged with legalising some prohibitions makes its portrayal of his relationship with the Mosaic law distinct from other views.

References

[1] Günther Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1960), 99-100.

[2] E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 245-69, 72-81; E. P. Sanders, “Jesus and the First Table of the Jewish Law,” in The Historical Jesus in Recent Research, ed. James D. G. Dunn and Scot McKnight (London: Eisenbrauns, 2005); Géza Vermes, Jesus in His Jewish Context (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 40-43.

[3] Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 166.

[4] Cecilia Wassen, “The Jewishness of Jesus and Ritual Purity,” Scripta Instituti Donneriani Aboensis 27 (2016).

[5] Samir Khalil Samir, “The Theological Christian Influence on the Qur’an: A Reflection,” in The Qur’an in Its Historical Context, ed. Gabriel Said Reynolds (Oxon: Routledge, 2008); Przemysław Turek, “Crucifixion of Jesus – Historical Fact, Christian Faith and Islamic Denial,” Orientalia Christiana Cracoviensia 3 (2011).

[6] Michael E Pregill, “The Hebrew Bible and the Quran: The Problem of the Jewish ‘Influence’ on Islam,” Religion Compass 1, no. 6 (2007); Marilyn R. Waldman, “New Approaches to “Biblical” Materials in the Qur’ān,” The Muslim World LXXV, no. 1 (1985).

[7] Louay Fatoohi, The Crucifixion of Jesus: Faithful History or Historical Faith? (Birmingham: Safis Publishing, 2020).

[8] John of Damascus, Fountain of Knowledge. trans. Frederic H. Chase, The Fathers of the Church: Saint John of Damascus Writings 37 (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1958), 153-54.

[9] Fakhr Al-Dīn Al-Rāzī, Al-Tafsīr Al-Kabīr (Mafātīḥ al-Ghayb), 32 vols., vol. 8 (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr lil-Tibaʿa wal-Nashr wal-Tawziʿ, 1981), vol. 8, 65.

[10] Muḥammad Ibn Jarīr Al-Ṭabarī, Jāmiʿ al-Bayān ʿan Ta’wīl Āy al-Qur’an, ed. ʿAbd Allāh al-Turkī, 24 vols. (Al-Ihsa: Dār Ḥajr, 2001), vol. 5, 432.

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1 thought on “Jesus and the Law in the Qur’an

  1. Dear Mr. Louay Fatoohi,

    I am a sixty two years old Turkish man having been raised by Islamic creed.

    With regard to your most recent article ” Jesus and the Law in the Qur’an ” specifically subtopic 3 Relaxing the Law, please find below some information that might be useful in your research.

    Sincerely Yours

    Celik Erkanol
    Istanbul
    —————-

    1. The Didascalia Apostolorum in English by Gibson, Margaret Dunlop Smith

    https://archive.org/details/didascaliaaposto00gibsuoft/page/4/mode/2up

    page 5 (starting line 16 from bottom) and 6

    quote
    But nevertheless what thou readest in the law of Deuteronomy, be heedful, that in reading thou readest only in it with simplicity. From the precepts and admonitions which are in it keep well away, lest thou lead thyself astray, and bind thyself with indissoluble heavy chains of burdens. For this reason therefore even if thou read in Deuteronomy, in this alone be intelligent to know, and glorify God, who has delivered us from all these chains. Let this also be put before thine eyes, that thou mayest distinguish and know what is the Law, and what are the chains that are in Deuteronomy ; that after the Law had been given to those that were in the Law, on account of Deuteronomy they sinned all these sins in the wilderness. For the Law is in the first place that which the Lord God spake, before the people made the calf and offered the sacrifices of idols, which is the ten Commandments and Statutes ; and after they had worshipped idols He justly put upon them chains as they deserved. Thou therefore do not put them on thy heart, for our Saviour came for nothing else but to fulfil the Law, and to loosen us from the chains of Deuteronomy ; for He loosened from these chains, and He called thus to those who believe in Him, and said, ” Come unto me all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matt. xi. 28). Thou therefore without the weight of these burdens read the simple Law which agrees with the Gospel, and again in the Gospel and in the Prophets, also in the Book of the Kings, that thou mayest know how many kings were righteous, and were made famous by the Lord God in this world, and rested also in the promises of everlasting life.
    unquote

    2. Didascalia Apostolorum from R. Hugh Connolly

    http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/didascalia.html

    CHAPTER II, [i. 4], second paragraph

    quote
    Yet when thou readest the Law, beware of the Second Legislation, that thou do but read it merely; but the commands and warnings that are therein much avoid, lest thou lead thyself astray and bind thyself with the bonds which may not be loosed of heavy burdens. For this cause therefore, if thou read the Second Legislation, consider this alone, that thou know and glorify God who delivered us from all these bonds. And have this set before thine eyes, that thou discern (p. 5) and know what [in the Law] is the Law, and what are the bonds that are in the Second Legislation, which after the Law were given to those who, in the Law and in the Second Legislation, [[14]] committed so many sins in the wilderness. For the first Law is that which the Lord God spoke before the people had made the calf and served idols, which consists of the Ten Words and the Judgements. But after they had served idols, He justly laid upon them the bonds, as they were worthy. But do not thou therefore lay them upon thee; for our Saviour came for no other cause but to fulfil the Law, and to set us loose from the bonds of the Second Legislation. For He set loose from those bonds and thus called those who believe in Him, and said: Come unto me, all ye that toil and are laden with heavy burdens, and I will give you rest [Mt 11.28]. Do thou therefore, without the weight of these burdens, read the simple Law, which is in accord with the Gospel; and moreover the Gospel itself, and the Prophets; and the Book of Kings likewise,..
    unquote

    CHAPTER XXVI, [vi. 16], the first three lines

    quote
    The Law then consists of the Ten (p. 108) Words and the Judgements, which God spoke before that the People made the calf and served idols. For also that it is called the Law, (is) truly on account of the Judgements. This is the simple and light Law, wherein is no burden, nor distinction of meats, nor incensings, nor offerings of sacrifices and burnt offerings.
    unquote

    CHAPTER XXVI, [vi. 16], the last two lines

    quote
    For you have been released from the bonds, and relieved of the Second Legislation, and set free from bitter slavery, and the curse has been taken off and put away from you.
    unquote

    CHAPTER XXVI, [vi. 17], the first four lines

    quote
    For the Second Legislation was imposed for the making of the calf and for idolatry. But you through baptism have been set free from idolatry, and from the Second Legislation, which was (imposed) on account of idols, you have been released.? For in the Gospel (p. 110) He renewed and fulfilled and affirmed the Law; but the Second Legislation He did away and abolished. For indeed it was to this end that He came, that He might affirm the Law, and abolish the Second Legislation, and fulfil the power of men’s liberty, and show forth the resurrection of the dead.
    unquote

    CHAPTER XXVI, [vi. 17], third paragraph, line three and four from top

    quote
    Everyone who strives to be under the (Second) Legislation becomes guilty of the calf-worship; for the Second Legislation was imposed for nothing else but for idolatry. For the bonds were decreed because of idolatry; they therefore who regard them are bondsmen and idolaters.
    unquote

    3. ST. Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho

    http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyr-dialoguetrypho.html

    CHAPTER XIX, fifth line from bottom

    quote
    Moreover, all those righteous men already mentioned, though they kept no Sabbaths, were pleasing to God; and after them Abraham with all his descendants until Moses, under whom your nation appeared unrighteous and ungrateful to God, making a calf in the wilderness: wherefore God, accommodating Himself to that nation, enjoined them also to offer sacrifices, as if to His name, in order that you might not serve idols.
    unquote

    4. Jewish Christianity and the Qur’an (Part One) by Patricia Crone
    Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 74, No. 2 (October 2015), pp. 225-253 (29 pages), Published by: The University of Chicago Press

    https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/682212

    page 12 of 29 pages or 236 of the entire document, left column last paragraph

    quote
    Jesus by this account was sent to confirm (muṣaddiqan li-) the book of Moses or (as the Medinese suras say) the Torah (3:50; 5:46; 61:6); so too was the Messenger himself (e.g., 3:3; 46:12, cf. 46:30). The idea of Jesus as a prophet confirming the Pentateuch would have been alien to gentile Christians. Jesus did of course say in the Gospel that he had come to fulfill the law, not to abolish it, and that not a single jot of it would ever pass away (Matthew 5:17–18); but Christians explained the law as meaning the Decalogue, dismissing everything else as punishment imposed on the Jews for their worship of the golden calf,78 or they used the word “law” in the vague sense of natural law, moral principles, or “the law of the Gospel.”79 Origen, for example, held Ebion (the supposed ancestor of the Ebionites) to have destroyed the law, even though it was by observing Jewish law that Ebion did so: Christ came to lead people away from the law, as Origen said.80 Or, as a converted Jew exclaims in the Doctrina Iacobi, written in the 630s: “After the law of Moses another law has been proclaimed, that of Christ, the holy gospels of the new covenant . . . We will no longer Judaize or observe the Sabbath.”81 What is so striking about the Qurʾānic Jesus is that it is specifically the Torah, at least in the Medinese suras, and not the law in some unspecified sense, that he was sent to confirm. God taught him the book, wisdom, Torah, and Gospel, apparently all containing the same message (5:110). The Qurʾān also says that Jesus came to undo some of the prohibitions imposed on the recipients of the Torah (3:50), and informs us that some foods had been forbidden for the Jews by way of punishment for their sins (4:160). This is much more suggestive of a gentile Christian perspective. Christ came to fulfill the law and to loosen us from the bonds of the “second legislation” (i.e., Jewish law), as the twelve apostles are made to declare in the Didascalia (composed in Syria c. 200), contradictory though it sounds.82 But it is only some of the prohibitions that Jesus came to undo in the Qurʾān, and the very same passage has him confirming the Torah too. In short, the Messenger’s view of Jesus suggests that he had been shaped in a community in which Jesus was revered, but Moses remained the paradigmatic prophet. Only Jewish Christians fit that description.
    unquote

    5. Respective Quranic Verses

    Q3:50
    And [I have come] confirming what was before me of the Torah and to make lawful for you some of what was forbidden to you. And I have come to you with a sign from your Lord, so fear Allah and obey me.

    Q7:157
    Those who follow the Messenger, the unlettered prophet, whom they find written [i.e., described] in what they have of the Torah and the Gospel, who enjoins upon them what is right and prohibits them from what is wrong and makes lawful for them what is good and forbids them from what is evil and relieves them of their burden and the shackles which were upon them. So they who have believed in him, honored him, supported him and followed the light which was sent down with him – it is those who will be the successful.

    Q6:146
    And to those who are Jews We prohibited every animal of uncloven hoof; and of the cattle and the sheep We prohibited to them their fat, except what adheres to their backs or the entrails or what is joined with bone. [By] that We repaid them for their transgression. And indeed, We are truthful.

    Q4:160
    For wrongdoing on the part of the Jews, We made unlawful for them [certain] good foods which had been lawful to them, and for their averting from the way of Allah many [people],

    Q3:93
    All food was lawful to the Children of Israel except what Israel [i.e., Jacob] had made unlawful to himself before the Torah was revealed. Say, [O Muḥammad], “So bring the Torah and recite it, if you should be truthful.”

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