Islam claims Jesus was a Muslim. As such, the Quran makes claims about what Jesus said and did. However, we have to realize that Islam was born in an Arabia already awash in Syriac-speaking Christianity.
Regarding Christian practices as described in the Quran, there’s a weird line of text in Sura 5 (the Feast) talking about what appears to be what Christians call the Last Supper.
Recall that the disciples said, “O Jesus, son of Mary, can your Lord send down to us a feast from the sky?” He said, “You should reverence God, if you are believers.” They said, “we wish to eat from it, and to reassure our hearts, and to know for sure that you have told us the truth. We will serve as witnesses thereof.” Said Jesus, the son of Mary, "Our god, our Lord, send down to us a feast from the sky. Let it bring plenty for each and every one of us, and a sign from You. Provide for us; You are the best Provider. God said, “I am sending it down. Anyone among you who disbelieves after this, I will punish him as I never punished anyone else.”
This passage seems to be how the Quran explains the universal Christian practice of breaking bread in the Eucharist (attested by Pliny the Younger), reinterpreting it in a Muslim context that removed its importance in salvation. But that last line, the one I bolded, is extremely weird in the understanding of Muslims of the role of Jesus. It almost doesn’t make sense. That after seeing the “feast from the sky” which the “Prophet Jesus” brought down to his followers, he warns them that anyone who disbelieves now faces punishment like never before? This is a very weird and theologically incongruous statement. It seems to reflect the centrality of the Eucharist in Christian practice, but makes no sense in the Muslim story of Salvation. Why would the Quran say that disbelief in Jesus would be so severely punished following his bringing a “feast from the sky?” A Muslim might just say that this was the greatest miracle that Jesus performed, but it doesn’t make sense after all the healing they claim he did. Why would the “feast” be so central to the “prophet Jesus” message, and the Muslim eschatology in which he fits?
This has astonishing resonance with two Bible verses that are central to the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist: John 6 and 1 Corinthians 11.
John 6 is a story of Jesus over a two day period. It begins with Jesus feeding the 5000. In that story, Jesus asks the disciples where they can buy enough food to feed all the people. The disciples say that it would be futile to try to buy so much food, but Jesus persists, and Andrew tells him there is a boy with 5 barley loaves and some fish. Jesus divides the bread and there is enough for everyone to eat, plus enough left over to fill 12 wicker baskets. That evening, the Apostles cross the Sea of Galilee in a boat, and Jesus walks across to join them, meeting them walking on the water. The next day, the crowd Jesus had fed (“the 5000”) see that Jesus is missing. They get in boats and cross the Sea of Galilee to find Jesus.
The other verse I want to contrast with Sura 5 is 1 Corinthians 11. In 11:28-30, Paul writes:
*A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. 29For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30That is why many among you are ill and infirm, and a considerable number are dying.
With these two Bible verses in mind, I look at Sura 5 and I see almost direct parallel with John 6 and 1 Corinthians 11. To me, these are verses that are used in Eucharistic liturgy in Catholic services. The parallels between them are eerie and uncanny:
- Sura 5:112-113 and John 6:30-32**
Sura 5: 112-113
Recall that the disciples said, “O Jesus, son of Mary, can your Lord send down to us a feast from the sky?” He said, “You should reverence God, if you are believers.” They said, “we wish to eat from it, and to reassure our hearts, and to know for sure that you have told us the truth. We will serve as witnesses thereof.”
John 6: 30-32
*So they said to him, “What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you? What can you do? 31 Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, as it is written:
'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
So Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”*
2. Sura 5: 114-115, John 6:49-53, 1 Corinthians 11:29-30**
Sura 5: 114-115
*Said Jesus, the son of Mary, "Our god, our Lord, send down to us a feast from the sky. Let it bring plenty for each and every one of us, and a sign from You. Provide for us; You are the best Provider. God said, “I am sending it down. Anyone among you who disbelieves after this, I will punish him as I never punished anyone else.”
John 6: 49-53
*49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; 50this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. 51I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
52The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us [his] flesh to eat?” 53Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.*
1 Corinthians 11: 29-30
29For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30That is why many among you are ill and infirm, and a considerable number are dying.
For me, these verses strongly suggest that the Quran was based on an editing of Christian liturgical texts. The Biblical verses in John 6:53 and 1 Corinthians 11:29-30 put huge weight on the Eucharist. This is a common set of verses quoted in Catholic hymns we sing during the Eucharist, almost every week. Why would the Quran include a theological emphasis on belief in Jesus following the meal from heaven, with harsh punishment for disbelief, if the Eucharist itself plays no role in Islam other than the signifier of a miracle?
There is plenty of evidence that Christians were widespread in Arabia during Muhammad’s time. They would have spoken Arabic, or a closely related language, Syriac. I’ve been to a Maronite Catholic Church that uses Syriac in the language of the Eucharistic liturgy… they claim it was the language spoken by Jesus (Syriac being a dialect of Aramaic). So to me, it’s very likely that Christian liturgy in Syriac would have been performed in Arabia, and possibly even written copies of the liturgy.
In summary, based on my understanding of Christian history and Biblical exegesis, it seems very unlikely to me that the Quran’s description of the life of Jesus and his role in Islamic eschatology is either factual or divinely-revealed. To accept the Quran and other Muslim accounts of Jesus being a Muslim, I would have to reject not just the Bible, but independent historical attestations, such as Pliny the Elder, plus much modern Biblical scholarship.
Most recently, I’ve heard of scholarship claiming that the Quran was based on a fusion of pre-Islamic Arabic and Syriac. The Syriac was present in In the most extreme rendition, Christoph Luxemberg’s book, The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran, claims that between Muhammad and “Uthman,” one of the first to transcribe and redact the Quran there is a gap in understanding. Luxemberg appears to claim that the Quran was originally a mixture of Syriac and pre-Islamic Arabic, and that in writing the Quran in Arabic, a new version of Arabic writing was needed. Luxemberg seems to be saying that the whole of the Quran is based on Syriac Christian texts. In particular, he says that the word “Quran” is based on the Syriac word “qeryana”, having the same core alphabet but different dots to distinguish among consonants and to denote vowels. In Syriac, “qeryana” means “lectionary,” a book of worship used by Christians.
It seems that Luxemburg’s book is viewed with controversy and skepticism, but it seems like scholars have taken his challenge pretty seriously. One review I found online summarized his work this way, which I think fairly takes his work as a challenge to be met:
*This results in some astonishing readings, which appear plausible at times when elegant solutions are suggested for Qur’anic phrases that experts are unable to render with certitude, or startling at other times, for example when the heavenly virgins are banished from the Qur’an by the substitution of grapes as fruits of Paradise. Nevertheless, Luxenberg’s bewildering variety of minutely assembled text fragments as witnesses to an underlying decoded language of the Qur’anic text is a challenge for present-day scholarship to fathom the pre-Qur’anic roots from which Muhammad drew his inspiration before he began to proclaim the Qur’an at the age of forty.
Personally, I can’t attest to the linguistic analysis made by scholars. However, my experience with the Syriac liturgy in a Maronite Church I visited gave me some sense that there might be truth in his story. As I described above, it seems to me like Sura 5: 112-115 is a modification of the liturgical Bible verses that Catholics use almost every Sunday.