According to Muhammad’s first biographer, Ibn Ishaq, the first eighty verses of Sura 3 were revealed after a delegation of Christians came from the Yemeni city of Najran. One of the leaders of this delegation was a bishop, Abu Haritha ibn ‘Alqama, who received money, servants, and other favors from “the Christian kings of Byzantium.” Abu Haritha, says Ibn Ishaq, knew that Muhammad was a prophet, but refused to accept him for fear of losing the loot that the Byzantines were lavishing upon him.
Ibn Ishaq records that the delegation “differed among themselves in some points, saying [Jesus] 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 presented arguments defending these propositions to Muhammad, but he would have none of it. When they told him that they had submitted to God, he responded: “You lie. Your assertion that God has a son, your worship of the cross, and your eating pork hold you back from submission.” Allah then revealed much of sura 3, refuting their assertions and giving the world the truth about Jesus and Christianity.
He begins by telling the story of Mary’s birth and early life, telling us in v. 35 that her mother was the “wife of Imran” – that is, Amram, the father of Moses and Aaron. This verse, along with 19:28, in which Mary is called “sister of Aaron,” has given rise to the charge that Muhammad confused Miriam the sister of Moses with Mary the Mother of Jesus, since the names are identical in Arabic: Maryam (مَرْيَمُ). When confronted about this, Muhammad had a ready answer: “The (people of the old age) used to give names (to their persons) after the names of Apostles and pious persons who had gone before them.” However, while this may explain why Mary is called “Sister of Aaron,” it doesn’t explain why she is clearly depicted here as the daughter of Imran.
In any case, Imran’s wife dedicates the child in her womb to the service of Allah (v. 35); when she gives birth, she says of Mary, “I crave Thy protection for her and for her offspring from Satan the outcast” (v. 36). Every child, said Muhammad, is “pricked by the Satan” after he is born – that’s why babies cry when they’re born. However, Mary and Jesus were preserved from this touch of Satan. Although the child is a female and “the female is not like the male” (v. 36), the wife of Imran fulfills her vow: Mary is dedicated to Allah’s service. Bulandshahri says that she went to live in the Temple in Jerusalem, which he calls the Baitul Muqaddas (“Holy House”) and, in keeping with the Islamic idea that the original message of all the Jewish prophets was Islam, identifies as a mosque. There Mary is fed miraculously (v. 37).
This story recalls one told in the Protoevangelium of James, a second-century Christian document: in it, Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anne, prayed to God for an end to their childlessness, and dedicated the child they subsequently conceived to the Lord in thanksgiving. When Mary was three, she went to live in the Temple, where she was fed by an angel. This is the sort of thing that earned Muhammad the charge that he was just retailing “fables of the men of old” (6:25, 8:31, 16:24, 23:83, 25:5, 27:68, 46:17, 68:15, 83:13), not divine revelation. But Muslims respond that the Qur’an is sorting out the true from the false about Christianity among the revelations that were corrupted by the followers of Jesus.
Vv. 38-41 recount the birth of John the Baptist, hitting the highlights of Luke 1:5-80: angels tell Zechariah he will have a son, he asks how this can be since he is old, and he is rendered unable to speak. Then the Qur’an begins to tell the story of the birth of Jesus, beginning with a reaffirmation of Muhammad’s prophethood (v. 44): Ibn Kathir explains that even though Muhammad wasn’t present at these events, “Allah disclosed these facts” to him as if he had been an eyewitness.
The angels’ announcement of Jesus’ birth (vv. 45-6) differs from Gabriel’s annunciation in Luke 1:30-35 in several key particulars: in the Qur’an, Jesus is identified as a “word” from Allah and is called “Messiah,” but not “Son of the Most High.” Muslim exegetes explain that Jesus is Allah’s word not in the sense of being divine, as in John 1:1, but because he was created without a human father by Allah’s word, as was Adam — as v. 59 explains. In v. 48, we’re told that Allah will teach Jesus “the Scripture and wisdom, and the Torah and the Gospel”: in the Qur’an, the Gospel is not the news about Jesus, but a book that he is given by Allah. V. 49 recounts several miracles Jesus performed, each one “by Allah’s leave.” Bulandshahri explains that this clause is repeated in order to emphasize that only by Allah’s permission does Jesus perform miracles – since “after witnessing these miracles, especially the raising of the dead, it is possible that a person may consider Sayyidina Isa [Master Jesus] to be Allah himself.” One of these miracles involves bringing clay birds to life, which appears in the second-century Infancy Gospel of Thomas.
When the Jews reject Jesus, he gathers disciples who say, “do thou bear witness that we are Muslims” (اشْهَدْ بِأَنَّا مُسْلِمُونَ) (v. 52). And while Jesus’ enemies plotted against him, Allah, “the best of schemers” (v. 54), plotted also, revealing that he would cause Jesus “to ascend to Me.” This, says Ibn Ishaq, refuted “what they assert of the Jews in regard to his crucifixion” – to which we will return in sura 4, which says that “they slew him not nor crucified” (v. 157).
“This,” says v. 62, “is the true account: There is no god except Allah…” – in other words, Jesus is not divine. Allah tells Muhammad in v. 61 to challenge those who believe otherwise: since “knowledge hath come to thee” he should say to dissenters: “Come! Let us gather together, our sons and your sons, our women and your women, ourselves and yourselves. Then let us earnestly pray, and invoke the curse of Allah on those who lie!” According to Ibn Ishaq, when the Christian delegation from Najran heard this, they asked Muhammad for time to confer among themselves. Then one of their leaders told the rest: “O Christians, you know right well that Muhammad is a prophet sent (by God) and he has brought a decisive declaration about the nature of your master. You know too that a people has never invoked a curse on a prophet and seen its elders live and its youth grow up. If you do this you will be exterminated. But if you decide to adhere to your religion and to maintain your doctrine about your master, then take your leave of the man and go home.” So they went to Muhammad, declined his challenge, and went home, obstinate renegades confirmed in their rebellion against Allah.
Next week: Why the People of the Book (Jews and Christians) are covered with shame.
(Here you can find links to all the earlier "Blogging the Qur'an" segments. Here is a good Arabic Qur’an, with English translations available; here are two popular Muslim translations, those of Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, along with a third by M. H. Shakir. Here is another popular translation, that of Muhammad Asad. And here is an omnibus of ten Qur’an translations.)