Why is Isa called “Al-Masih” in the Quran?

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Only Jesus has the title Messiah in the Quran

The full Quranic  name for Jesus is Al-Masihu Isa – “the Messiah Jesus” (cf. Surah 4.157, 4.171).

In fact we even read that when the angels first appeared to Mary they said of the holy child they had been sent to announce: Ismuhul Masihu Isabnu Maryam – “his name shall be the Messiah Jesus, son of Mary” (Surah 3.45). Even before the conception of Jesus, therefore, the angels gave him the one title that is applied to him on no less than eleven occasions in the Quran, namely Al-Masih – “the Messiah”. The strange thing is that, whereas the Quran unflinchingly attributes to Jesus the one title claimed for him by the Christians and rejected by the Jews, it attempts no explanation of it. The following quote hints at the three anomalies surrounding the use of this title in the book:

Jesus receives the title Messiah (Christ) eleven times in the Quran, all in Medinan suras . . . While no explanation is offered of the title Messiah, and it is applied to Jesus at all periods of his life from birth to exaltation, yet it appears to have a particular sense. (Parrinder, Jesus in the Quran, p. 30).

The first of the three intriguing features that strikes us is that Jesus only receives this title after Muhammad had completed his twelve years of preaching at Mecca and had migrated to Medina. In none of the Meccan surahs is the name of Jesus qualified by the title Al-Masih. A Christian writer advances the probable reason for this phenomenon in saying:

It is important to mention that the title “Al-Masih” only occurs in the late chapters of the quran at a time when the prophet’s knowledge about the people of the Book was much advanced. (Abdul-Haqq, Sharing Your Faith with a Muslim, p. 82).

The most plausible explanation is that Muhammad was unaware of the title until he moved to Medina and, as his contacts with Christians and Jews increased, so he came to learn of the unique appellation given to Jesus and, being unaware of its meaning but seeing no reason to reject it, simply adopted it himself and included it in the Quran without any further ado.

The second feature that draws our attention is the lack of any explanation of its meaning in the Quran. Islam only accepts Jesus as a prophet like all the other prophets. In one passage he is joined with Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and Moses as simply one of the prophets (an-nabiyyin) between whom no distinction of any kind is made (Surah 2.136). In another verse he is said to have been no more than a servant (abd – Surah 43.59) and in yet another as nothing more than a messenger (rasul – Surah 5.78). One would therefore expect to find the Quran denying that Jesus was the Messiah, especially as the Jews and Christians have always regarded the title as signifying more than prophethood. When Jesus on one occasion asked his disciples who the people thought he was, they answered that it was generally believed that he was one of the prophets (Mark 8.28). But when he asked them the same question, Peter replied: “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8.29). His answer was clearly intended to be in contrast with the general opinion that Jesus was just one of the prophets.

Nevertheless, as said before, the Quran’s acknowledgement that Jesus was indeed the Messiah comes as a surprise, for it denies that Jesus was anything more than a prophet, whereas the promises of God about the coming Messiah had made it plain that he would be far greater than just a prophet.

Why, then, does the Quran also acknowledge that Jesus was the Messiah if it denies that he was anything more than a prophet’ It seems hard to avoid the conclusion that the Quran is contradicting itself here, especially when it offers no alternative explanation of the title.

What is most significant is that the title is applied solely to Jesus in the Quran and that its definitive quality is carefully defined by the use of the article – Al-Masih, namely, the Messiah. Indeed the title is never used in the Quran without the definite article. This rules out any possibility that the title can be applied to anyone else. No one else in the Quran is, or accordingly possibly could be, the Messiah. Jesus is not a messiah or one of the messiahs, he is Al-Masih – the Messiah.

Furthermore one struggles to find in Arabic any roots for the title which might give some indication of its meaning. It is true that its three consonants, mim, sin and hah, are also the root letters of the word masaha meaning “to rub, wipe or stroke”, which appears four times in the Quran. There is no hint, however, that the title as applied to Jesus carries any meaning remotely connected with this word, which appears only as a verb in the Quran. Some Muslim authorities have even sought other words with similar roots (not identical, as in masaha) to explain its meaning, yet we find that the greatest Muslim scholars, such as Zamakhshari and Baidawi, “rejected these theories and admitted that it was a borrowed word” (Jeffery, The Foreign Vocabulary of the Quran, p. 265).

We are bound to conclude that the Quran unwittingly gives Jesus a title which has momentous implications when studied in the light of its use in both the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, but which otherwise has no meaning when considered solely in the light of its use in the book.

Only Jesus is the Messiah in the New Testament

The common word used for Messiah in the New Testament, in the original Greek texts, is ho Christos. Twice it is said to be a translation of the word Messias (John 1.41, 4.25). Just as the Quran uses the definite article al to apply the title to Jesus alone, so in the Christian Scriptures he is constantly called ho Christos, that is, the Messiah.

The word christos occurs about 350 times in the NT. It is often found in the combinations “Jesus Christ” and “Christ Jesus,” and sometimes functions as a second name.

1 John 2:20,27 refers to the anointing of believers but do not call them “christoi”. By giving Jesus alone the title “Christ”, it is clear that the title refers to God’s Anointed One.

The meaning of “Messiah” is not explained in the Quran

Islam believes that Jesus is the Messiah, e.g. S. 3:45, although it never explains or comments on the term.  In such a case, the general rule of the Quran applies. That is, when in doubt, refer to the People of the Book.

Surah 10:94. If thou wert in doubt as to what We have revealed unto thee, then ask those who have been reading the Book from before thee: the Truth hath indeed come to thee from thy Lord: so be in no wise of those in doubt.

We will see below what the word “Messiah” means in the Old and New Testament of the Bible.

The general meaning of the word “Messiah” in the Old Testament

The word “messiah” is a transliteration of Hebrew word meaning, “anointed one” that was translated into Greek as “Christos”.

“Anointed” carries several senses in the Old Testament. All have to do with installing a person in an office in a way that the person will be regarded as accredited by Yahweh, Israel’s God.

Prophets such as Elisha were set apart in this way (1 Kings 19:16). Israel probably saw a close link between the anointed persons and God’s spirit though the link is specifically mentioned only occasionally (2 Kings 2:9). Israelite kings were particularly hailed as Yahweh’s anointed compare (Jud. 9:8), beginning with Saul (1 Sam. 9-10 NIV) and especially referring to David (1 Sam. 16:6,13; see 2 Sam. 2:4; 5:3) and Solomon (1 Kings 1:39).

The special use of the title “Messiah”

In the exilic and postexilic ages, the expectation of a coming Messiah came into sharper focus, commencing with Jeremiah’s and Ezekiel’s vision of a Messiah who would combine the traits of royalty and priestly dignity (Jer. 33:14-18; Ezek. 46:1-8; see, too, Zech. 4:1-14; 6:13).

“Know therefore and understand that from the going forth of the word to restore and build Jerusalem to the coming of an anointed one, a prince, there shall be seven weeks. Then for sixty-two weeks it shall be built again with squares and moat, but in a troubled time. And after the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off, and shall have nothing; and the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary”. Daniel 9.25-26.

Twice in this passage we read of a mashiah, “an anointed one”, a prince who would appear, but who would suddenly be cut off. Right throughout the prophetic writings of the Old Testament one finds predictions of a coming one, a supreme deliverer, God’s chosen servant, who would rule over his kingdom forever. The use of the word mashiah in Daniel 9.25-26 led the Jews to coin a title for the coming Prince – ha Mashiah, “the Anointed One”, the Messiah. A typical prophecy of his greatness and the extent of his dominion is found in this passage:

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. Be shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. Righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist, and faithfulness the girdle of his loins. Isaiah 11.1-5.

The prophet Isaiah went on to say of him: “In that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples; him shall the nations seek, and his dwellings shall be glorious” (Isaiah 11.10).

The prophecy clearly could not be applied to any of the prophets who were appearing at times among the people. It spoke of one man alone who would rule the whole earth and who, by the breath of his mouth alone, would slay the wicked.

“Behold the man whose name is the Branch: for he shall grow up in his place, and he shall build the temple of the Lord. It is he who shall build the temple of the Lord, and shall bear royal honour, and shall sit and rule upon his throne”. Zechariah 6.12-13.

Understanding of the special title “Messiah” in the New Testament times

It is clear that during Jesus’ time, the people are looking for a special Messiah.

(John 4:29 NIV)  “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?”

From the verse below, we know that the people were waiting for the Christ that is not just an ordinary prophet.

(John 7:40-42 NIV)  On hearing his words, some of the people said, “Surely this man is the Prophet.” {41} Others said, “He is the Christ.” Still others asked, “How can the Christ come from Galilee? {42} Does not the Scripture say that the Christ will come from David’s family and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?”

Who is this Christ they were talking about and what verse in the Old Testament are they referring to? This one below.

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Micah 5.2

The Christ they are referring to is no ordinary prophet but someone whose origin is from ancient days.

(Mark 8:27-29 NIV)  Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” {28} They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” {29} “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ.”

Even the high priest understood that when Jesus claimed to be the Messiah (Christ), it is a claim of Godhood, not normal prophethood.

(Mat 26:63-65 NIV)  But Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” {64} “Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” {65} Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy.

Other verses

(Luke 4:41 NIV)  Moreover, demons came out of many people, shouting, “You are the Son of God!” But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew he was the Christ.