What is the Gospel, according to the Qur’an?

PS: This article takes for granted that Christians have used the term ‘Gospel’ collectively to refer to the four Gospels (or more specifically, ‘The Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). For more, cf. Hengel, Martin. The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Investigation of the Collection and Origin of the Canonical Gospels. London: SCM Press, 2000.

In discussions regarding whether the Qur’an confirms the reliability of the Torah and Gospel, as existing in the present day, the objection is sometimes made that the canonical Gospel (according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) today is written about Jesus, whereas the Gospel (Injīl) in the Qur’an is given to Jesus. The Qur’an therefore is not affirming the reliability of the Gospel as possessed by Christians today.

The Gospel given to Jesus

We sent Jesus, son of Mary, in their footsteps, to confirm the Torah that had been sent before him: We gave him the Gospel [wa‑ātaynāhu l‑injīla] with [fīhi, lit. ‘in which’] guidance, light, and confirmation of the Torah already revealed— a guide and lesson for those who take heed of God. (Q 5:46. Abdel Haleem. Emphasis added.)

We sent other messengers to follow in their footsteps. After those We sent Jesus, son of Mary: We gave him the Gospel [wa‑ātaynāhu l‑injīla] and put compassion and mercy into the hearts of his followers. But monasticism was something they invented… (Q 57:27. Abdel Haleem. Emphasis added)

The Gospel is described as given to Jesus. We are not told the nature of this Gospel given to Jesus; it could have been given by divine dictation or inspiration to Jesus and then written down (like the Qur’an), or it could have been a complete text descending from heaven. Either way, it could be said to contrast with the Gospel (according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) in the New Testament, which are written documents about Jesus’ words and deeds. However, if the canonical Gospels are largely about the words of Jesus, which are divinely revealed or inspired, it could still be the canonical Gospel to which the Qur’an here refers.

There are verses that suggest we perhaps ought not to envisage a book or a defined entity floating down from heaven:

He will teach him the Scripture and wisdom, the Torah and the Gospel (Q 3:48. Abdel Haleem)

Then God will say, ‘Jesus, son of Mary! Remember My favour to you and to your mother: how I strengthened you with the holy spirit, so that you spoke to people in your infancy and as a grown man; how I taught you the Scripture and wisdom, the Torah and the Gospel… (Q 5:110. Abdel Haleem)

Jesus is ‘taught’ not only the Gospel, but also the Torah. Does this refer to God directly imparting heavenly knowledge to Jesus, or does it involve God blessing Jesus’ study of the Torah? Is ‘wisdom’ a specific entity, a specific body of revelation, or does this refer to God guiding Jesus’ paths in life and/or shaping his character? We should be prepared to understand God ‘giving’ or ‘teaching’ Jesus the Gospel, with as much flexibility or strictness as we understand God ‘teaching’ Jesus wisdom. The parallels between Q 3:48 and Q 5:110, on the one hand, and Q 5:46, suggests that ‘gave’ and ‘taught’ may be synonymous. And Jesus being ‘taught’ the Gospel, as he is ‘wisdom’, could refer less to a textually-defined corpus (i.e. a specific holy book of defined length), than to God’s inspiration of Jesus’ words or the guidance of his mission.

We perhaps find evidence of this non-textual form of guidance in Q 57:27, if the giving of the Gospel to Jesus is similar in category to the spiritual blessing described of Jesus’ followers:

We sent other messengers to follow in their footsteps. After those We sent Jesus, son of Mary: We gave him the Gospel and put compassion and mercy into the hearts of his followers. But monasticism was something they invented… (Q 57:27. Abdel Haleem)

The written-down Gospel in the Qur’an

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… (Q 7:157. Sahih International)

This verse says that Muhammad is written (maktūban, from k-t-b, ‘to write’) in the Torah and the Gospel. The Qur’an is thus aware that, at least by its own time, the Gospel is written. This would fit with Jesus’ words being written down (along with the record of his deeds) in the canonical Gospels, or with a purely dictated text in the vein of the Qur’an.

Sahih International speaks of ‘what they have of the Torah and the Gospel’, perhaps hinting that the Jewish and Christian only possess part of the original Torah and Gospel in their corrupted scriptures. This is a highly debatable translation. The Arabic literally says ‘They find him written with them in the Torah and the Gospel’ [yajidūnahu maktūban ʿindahum fī l‑tawrāti wa‑l‑injīli]. The Arabic wording and word order more naturally suggest to me that ‘with them’ [ʿindahum] is referring to the description of Muhammad, not to the Torah and the Gospel. Aisha Bewley more accurately translates ‘those who follow the Messenger, the Unlettered Prophet, whom they find written down with them in the Torah and the Gospel…’

Were Sahih International’s understanding correct, I would expect yajidūnahu maktūban fī l‑tawrāti wa‑l‑injīli ʿindahum.

The written Gospel with the Christians is appealed to in the Qur’an

We must also consider the verses in the Qur’an which refer to the Gospels that the Christians actually possess. The relevance of these verses is that we know the Gospel was written down by the 7th century CE (indeed, long before, in the first century CE), and so the Qur’an here is referring to written Gospels:

So let the followers of the Gospel judge according to what God has sent down in it. Those who do not judge according to what God has revealed are lawbreakers. (Q 5:47. Abdel Haleem)

Say, ‘People of the Book, you have no true basis [for your religion] unless you uphold the Torah, the Gospel, and that which has been sent down to you from your Lord,’… (Q 5:68. Abdel Haleem)

those who follow the Messenger, the Unlettered Prophet, whom they find written down with them [ʿindahum] in the Torah and the Gospel… (Q 7:157. Aisha Bewley. Emphasis added)

Other verses suggest that Christians still possess the Gospel, as it is described as if its contents are known and can be appealed to (Q 2:146; 6:20; 9:111; 48:29; 61:6).

Assuming a mismatch between the Qur’an and Gospel

Let us accept, for the sake of argument, that there can be no reconciliation between the Qur’anic description of the Gospel given to Jesus, and the canonical Gospel (according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) about Jesus. Does this mean Christians are wrong to appeal to Qur’anic verses that speak of the reliability of their scriptures, or verses where they are told to turn to the Gospel (see above)?

If the Qur’an is divinely revealed, and without error, then one must make the leap to saying that the Gospel to which the Qur’an refers, and which it tells Christians to turn to, is not in fact the Gospel as Christians have and understand it. This is very confusing, both for Muhammad’s seventh century audience, and Christians since then. But, perhaps God did not communicate clearly (though I would find it surprising for God to be so unclear on such an important topic, affecting the salvation of a large proportion of the human population).

If we do not assume the Qur’an is divinely revealed, though do not rule it out either, then another interpretation becomes possible: (1) the Qur’an considers the Gospel possessed by Christians to be reliable, (2) the Qur’an has a different understanding of the nature of the Gospel than Christians do, and (Conclusion) (1) contradicts (2). This is not unprecedented; there are other occasions where the Qur’an has a certain impression of what can be found in the previous scriptures, when in fact they are not:

Many a time We have seen you [Prophet] turn your face towards Heaven, so We are turning you towards a prayer direction that pleases you. Turn your face in the direction of the Sacred Mosque: wherever you [believers] may be, turn your faces to it. Those who were given the Scripture know with certainty that this is the Truth from their Lord: God is not unaware of what they do. 145 Yet even if you brought every proof to those who were given the Scripture, they would not follow your prayer direction, nor will you follow theirs, nor indeed will any of them follow one another’s direction. If you [Prophet] were to follow their desires, after the knowledge brought to you, you would be doing wrong. 146 Those We gave Scripture know it as well as they know their own sons, but some of them hide the truth that they know. 147 The truth is from your Lord, so do not be one of those who doubt. 148Each community has its own direction to which it turns: race to do good deeds and wherever you are, God will bring you together. God has power to do everything. (Q 2:144-148. Abdel Haleem)

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… (Q 7:157. Sahih International)

God has purchased the persons and possessions of the believers in return for the Garden— they fight in God’s way: they kill and are killed— this is a true promise given by Him in the Torah, the Gospel, and the Qur’an. … (Q 9:111. Abdel Haleem)

Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, and those who are with him are fierce to the kafirun, merciful to one another. You see them bowing and prostrating, seeking Allah´s good favour and His pleasure. Their mark is on their faces, the traces of prostration. That is their likeness in the Torah. And their likeness in the Injil is that of a seed which puts up a shoot and makes it strong so that it thickens and grows up straight upon its stalk, filling the sowers with delight — so that by them He may infuriate the kuffar. Allah has promised those of them who have iman and do right actions forgiveness and an immense reward. (Q 48:29. Aisha Bewley. Emphasis added)

36 Has he not been told what was written in the Scriptures of Moses 37 and of Abraham, who fulfilled his duty: 38 that no soul shall bear the burden of another; 39 that man will only have what he has worked towards; 40 that his labour will be seen 41 and that in the end he will be repaid in full for it; 42 that the final goal is your Lord; (Q 53:36-41. Abdel Haleem. Emphasis added)

30 there are nineteen in charge of it— 31 We have appointed only angels to guard Hellfire— and We have made their number a test for the disbelievers. So those who have been given the Scripture will be certain and those who believe will have their faith increased: neither those who have been given the Scripture nor the believers will have any doubts, but the sick at heart and the disbelievers will say, ‘What could God mean by this description?’ God leaves whoever He will to stray and guides whoever He will— no one knows your Lord’s forces except Him. It is only a reminder to mortals. (Q 74:30-31. Abdel Haleem. Emphasis added)

Yet you [people] prefer the life of this world, 17 even though the Hereafter is better and more lasting. 18 All this is in the earlier scriptures, 19 the scriptures of Abraham and Moses. (Q 87:16-19. Abdel Haleem)

Conclusion

It will be left up to the reader to decide whether the Qur’anic portrayal of the Gospel, and that found in the New Testament, are at odds, and if so whether one is open to the possibility that the Qur’an is mistaken (the approach of the historian), or not (the approach of the theologian).

3 thoughts on “What is the Gospel, according to the Qur’an?

  1. Jacob

    I’m typing this on my phone so if the paragraphs are a little funky that’s why. Also it’s late so if I repeat myself forgive me:

    The Quran is remarkably ambiguous regarding both the Gospel (literally Good News) and the meaning of the title possessed by Jesus “The Messiah”. It spends much (all?) of it’s time attempting to refute christian exaltation of Christ, such that no clear definition of Messiah is conferred. Leading to an ironic happenstance where Muslims who seek to inform themselves of what this title could mean are forced to consult allegedly corrupted documents and are given theological whiplash upon investigating the extant gospels to find them thoroughly contradicting the Quran in many aspects of this title. Which again leads to no definitive explanation of the title for the Muslim. If he’s not the Son of David or a Savior, how is he meaningfully unique in agenda warranting the definitive article, “_THE_ Messiah”? But given Christ is, somehow, by definition qualitatively unique amongst all anointed ones, it must tie into his message / agenda.

    Now the Gospel as understood by the Quran is given a little more texture, although painfully anemic still. It is believed to be in possession of the Christians in a textual form, containing guidance and light for the community to whom it came. It affirms the oneness of God, clarifies disagreements upon the Torah, loosens some laws, and prophesies of “Ahmad the messenger”. Thats about it. However there’s a few key passages which I’m going to highlight because I find them fascinating.

    The Quran in surah 5 according to my understanding describes the Gospel in part as an instantiation of “the book” idiosyncratically for the “the people of the gospel” / Nasara, containing jurisprudence for the ruling of the Christian community. Note the context. The Jews come to Mohammad for judgement. (According to Hadith for an adultery case). Allah tells them they possess the Torah which already contains God’s judgement. He makes the argument it was good enough for the community overseers such as Moses all the way to the Rabbis to judge the Jews, why then do you Jews circumvent it? Then he cites the Lex Talionis, another jurisprudence like passage. He ends his response to the Jews by saying “anyone who fails to judge by what God has revealed is an evil doer”.

    Note the use of the word we render as “judgement” or “rule”. Very much a legal connotation. After this he turns his attention to the People of the Gospel wherein he reiterates, “let the people of the Gospel judge by what God has revealed therein.” Given the continuity of context, its right on the heels of the Jewish law discussion immediately preceding it, the most straightforward understanding suggests the author of the Quran believes the Gospel to be capable of guiding a community with jurisprudence perhaps similar to the Livitical / Quranic law. The judgement is in reference NOT to Mohammads legitimacy as a prophet ( for that is taken for granted by the Quran) but rather to a communities guidance and law.

    Moreover, and this point is significant as it contradicts modern Dawah efforts, the Quran appears to hold Christians and Jews accountable to their idiosyncratic instantiation of the book as an ever binding document particular to them for certain purposes of judgement. (Muslim attempts to render 5:48 a condemnation of the text notwithstanding) It does NOT tell Jews or Christians to throw out their Torah and Gospel and become Quranically Mohammadan Shariah compliant. Which is what all Christian / Jewish converts to Islam yearn to do. If they did not live in the west, they would be (behaviorally wise) indistinguishable from Quranic adherants, following an identical law and way. Consider Daniel Haquikachu or however it’s spelled. Yet it says “To each of you I have made a law and a way. I could have made you all one community, (one law and one way) but I have done this to test you in what I have given you. So compete in righteousness.” Note the tripart structure to the Jews, Nasara, and Arabs. This passage is proscriptive not descriptive as some have suggested. The author is not merely saying: “Well you stubborn Jews and Christians will not accept a new prophet who isn’t to your liking, therefore since you already cling to your Torah and Gospel for guidance, continue on with that since I revealed it in the first place. It’s better than nothing.” And it’s certainly not the gymnastical approach some have taken to say it’s suggesting you follow the Torah and the Gospel “spiritually” by following the Quran. Which basically renders the Torah and Gospel as a book exhausted by monotheism and can be indirectly upheld by following an uncorrupt monotheistic scripture which Muslims take to be the Quran. But the author is clearly defining the Torah and Gospel as not exhausted by monotheism or the essentials of a true believer. It’s part of it, but not all of it.

    The most straightforward reading is actually proscribing the three fold revelation as being intentionally made for the community to which it came as a binding thing. “To each I have made a law and a way” and “let the people of the gospel judge what God has revealed inside the Gospel”. Now it’s obvious that the Quran expects Jews and Christians to support and follow Mohammad in a general sense, but if we were to do so then we would follow his clear commands regarding how to organize a community with regards to judgement and law which he states each one has received its own law and way.

    Yet later on in the same chapter if read in isolation it could be understood as though Jews and Christians must “uphold the Torah and the gospel and all that has come down to them from their Lord.” As though it’s suddenly NOT saying each community has it’s own law and way, rather they share the same law and way as a composite of both Torah and gospel. So which is it? Do the Jews and Christians have their own distinct law and way, or must they uphold each other’s scriptures? Because the prior passage with a tripart structure is overwhelmingly clear, I suggest the author did not contradict himself in the span of a few discourses. The author must’ve either cited both Torah and Gospel because he’s addressing two communities at once, or they uphold them in a general sense given they teach (ideally) the same theology and worldview. But the particulars of law and way are rendered distinctly appropriate for the community to whom it came. Why else would he say the Jews should judge by Torah and “let the people of the gospel judge by the gospel”? That combined with “to each of you I have made a law and a way” can only be read as a partition being deliberately made.

    Now this is where things get fascinating. What is the Gospel extant at the time of Mohammad and does it fit the bill of an idiosyncratic law and way for the Christians distinct from that of the Torah? For the sake of brevity the Gospel (literally Good News) is the Good news of the Kingdom of God breaking in to the reality of men. An eschatological event beginning to fulfill the visions of the prophets. As Jesus speaks of the Gospel throughout the fourfold “Gospel, almost always it’s appended with “of the Kingdom of God/Heaven”. The kingdom of darkness and chaos is driven out and the spirit of God is firmly planted. For he says “If it is by the spirit God I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has drawn near” and in another place “Go and preach the Good news, heal the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons and say the kingdom has come near”.

    Note the community to whom Jesus is speaking. One who already possesses Gods law. Therefore by definition the Gospel cannot be a divine law coming to an ignorant unscriptured community. And everything Christ says is relevant TO THE JEWS as well. In fact, as Muslims often point out, Christ says “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. (Whether you think this exhausts his mission in total is outside the scope) Therefore the bulk if not all of his teachings in his ministry would be relevant to JEWS also to modify their behavior and understanding. Any particularism with respect to followers of Christ aside from the Torah adherant is found in the book of acts and the Pauline epistles for gentile conduct.

    Yet this idiosyncracy and particularism is exactly what a straightforward reading suggests in present in the Gospel! The Christians aught to judge their community by the teachings found in the Gospel and the Jews likewise with Moses teachings. The Quran a la 5:48 witnesses to the truth of what they possess in their hands and exegetes / defends the true message of that which it witnesses to over against the misrepresentations of the Jews and Christians. ( I.e “Some of the people of the book twist the scripture with their tongues to make you think it’s part of the book when it isnt. No prophet would say worship me rather than God.” Suggesting the scriptures don’t say that, THEY say that. Thus defending it’s true message according to the Quranic author’s understanding).

    With that said, whether a Muslim believes in what I think is the best rendering of 5:48, or a corruption restoration reading, nevertheless the Gospel is still said to be a binding written document literally made as a law and way for the Christian community (and Torah for the Jews likewise). It is NOT abrogated.

    Here’s my take: I honestly cannot make sense of this and again it contradicts the modern Dawah. As I said it’s proscriptive, not descriptive. He’s not saying the Christians follow the gospels and the Jews the Torah as an observation, but rather a commandment. The author wants Christians and Jews to follow Mohammad and believe in him as a prophet, but in doing so they’d follow his teachings regarding law and manner of life. E.g. “How do we guide our community and deal with certain trespasses, Mohammad?” He would reply: “What has God revealed to you in the Torah and the Gospel, if you are believers? To each of you God has revealed a Law and a traced out Way, but I am a clear warner to clarify your differences and explain what you conceal of the book. So follow what God has revealed therein”.

    But when I crack open the Gospel, the good news is an escatalogical event first and foremost (does that have continuity with the Quran?) and any teaching Christ gave that isn’t escatalogical was binding on the Jews too! Any time Christ references law, it just presupposes the law of Moses. Shouldn’t the Jews be following that law and way which God revealed in the gospel too in a literal and not general sense? This is why it’s alarming given the proscriptive reading, not descriptive. The author thinks the Gospel is a parallel instantiation of the book idiosyncratic for a people distinct from the Torah adherants and Arabs. Though the author elsewhere clearly understands Christ was a Jewish prophet sent to the Jews, I don’t see any other legitimate was to read surah 5 other than idiosyncratic instantiatians of the eternal Book.

    Just a quick side note, when the Quran says Allah will accept no other religion but Islam. This should not be anachronistically read as a distinct religion besides Christianity and Judaism. It means submission is the true religion. “Whether you be a Jew, Nasara, or Sabian, as long as you believe in God and the last day and do what is right” you are submitting. Hence this does not contradict my understand as the Torah and gospel being ever binding on the Jews and Christians respectively and not abrogated.

    Reply
    1. steelmanapologetics Post author

      Hi Jacob,

      Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts 🙂 I need to spend more time thinking about the issue of abrogation and the relevant verses, though I agree that Q 5:40-48 seems to suggest that the Gospel suffices as a law code for Christians. And I agree with your broader point about how the Qur’an views the Gospel

      Reply
      1. Jacob

        Though this is a bit off topic, I’d like to add that this raises some interesting implications for the usual stance which the Muslim community takes regarding the scope of Christs message. We’ve all heard, as I’m sure you have, that “Jesus was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, whereas Mohammad was the universal prophet for all the world.”

        But let me ask a few questions: The People of the Gospel would, vast majority wise, be gentile at the time of Mohammad, would they not? So when he says “I could have made you ( i.e. Torah adherants, Gospel adherants who were overwhelmingly Gentile, and Quran adherants) one community, but for each I made a law and way”, it follows the author is saying the Jews and Gentiles could have been one community with one law and one way, correct? So if words have any meaning, at the time v48 was orated in the early 600’s, he’s telling a majority gentile audience they are not one community with the Jews and that God deliberately made for _them_ their own law and way. The historical reality of the Gospel being preached among Jews and for Jews at the begining does not change the implications of the sentence structure.

        Thus God has revealed a law and a way for the Gentiles prior to Mohammad, and Muslims must agree with Christians that “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel” is compatible with his message spreading beyond Israel by design.

        …But who brought the message? If it was corrupted prior to the gentiles recieving it, such as Pauline conduits, can we really say they recieved it in any meaningful way at all? I mean it was marred from the get go under than understanding.
        Consider: I write you this message, but a hacker intercepts it and changes the thesis of what I wrote. Only then he forwards it on to you. Would I, for the sake of the original bits that remain intact, speak as though you recieved my guidance and light, and any hints that something horrible had happened be left to the implicit?

        Reply

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