How the Qur'an can help us to understand the Incarnation
"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." John 1:14
The Incarnation is surely the central claim of the Christian faith. Unsurprisingly, it is also controversial. Chief among its critics are Muslim apologists, who routinely accuse Christians of committing idolatry (shirk) by teaching that Jesus Christ is the divine Word made flesh, God made Man. 'Incarnation-bashing' seems an ancient Islamic tradition, since it goes at least as far back as Ibn al-Qayyim, a medieval Muslim intellectual who opened a well-known polemical poem with the following words:
"O Christ-worshippers! We want an answer to our question. If the Lord was murdered by some people’s act, what kind of god is this?"
We may read this as an objection to the effect that being "murdered" is unbefitting of divine majesty. And sure enough, Al-Qayyim lists various other dishonourable things which Christ engaged in or underwent, such as being fed in the womb, eating and drinking, and yes, defecating.
Perhaps a more interesting reading would be that God, by his very nature, could not have underwent what Christ underwent. In particular, God being by nature immortal and indestructible, could not have experienced physical death, let alone death on the cross. But Christ did experience these things. Therefore, Christ cannot possibly be God made Man.
This is ironic, because a very useful way of beginning to make sense of the Incarnation is to take a look at the traditional Sunni Islamic teaching on the nature of the Qur'an, Islam's holy book. Sunni Muslims (i.e. 80-90% of all Muslims) are indeed taught that the Qur'an is uncreated. In the words of the great 10th Century Muslim theologian Al-Ashari,
"God has said: "When we will a thing our only utterance is that we say to it 'Be!' and it is". So if the Qur'an had been created, God would have said to it "Be." But the Qur'an is His speech, and it is impossible that His speech be spoken to (...) [hence] it is false that the Qur'an is created" (source)
The Quran is thus the eternal speech of God; uncreated, unchangeable and indestructible. Such lofty titles make it difficult to resist drawing parallels with the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, as does the Islamicist Wilfried Cantwell Smith, who writes that "What corresponds in the Christian scheme to the Qur’an is not the Bible but the person of Christ".
Sure enough, the Sunni view of the Qur'an raises questions similar to those mentioned above. The 'speech' of God is supposed to be an eternal attribute or mode of God. But the Qur'an has many features which would seem to preclude its identification with said 'speech'. First of all, it is a book, and all books necessarily come to being when they are written down for the first time. Further, written books can and have been completely destroyed. It wouldn't help to say that the Quran isn't in fact a written book, but an oral recitation, because oral recitations (like songs) likewise come to being when they are first uttered, and cease to exist when no one remembers them anymore. Finally, the Qur'an is in Arabic, and Arabic, like all languages, is a created thing.
The Sunni doctrine of the Qur'an thus faces a familiar-sounding challenge: the eternal speech of God, by its very nature, is uncreated and cannot possibly undergo destruction. But the Qur'an, like every other book, was created and can be destroyed. Therefore, the Qur'an cannot be the eternal speech of God.
How may one respond to the challenge? Al-Ashari's followers distinguished the eternal speech of God itself from two other 'levels of speech', i.e. utterance and writing*. These two clearly are created things. But they are also means through which something uncreated, i.e. divine speech, is expressed. In other words, the uncreated, eternal speech of God is made manifest in a created, transient thing.
Hence we are left with two sharply distinct things, one divine and the other created, which are nevertheless closely united, for the purposes of divine self-revelation and human salvation, enabling human beings to access the divine component through the created one.
This of course is in many ways analogous to what Christians have always taught about the relationship between the Father's Eternal Word, i.e. his perfect Wisdom or self-knowledge, and the created human nature to which it became united, for the salvation of mankind. The divine nature dwells in the weak, suffering and dying human nature so derided by Ibn Al-Qayyim. The natures remain distinct; neither is absorbed into the other, nor are they fused into a single nature. They are nevertheless perfectly unified, in what Christian theologians call the hypostatic union.
Let us conclude, then, that if Sunni Muslims are going to object to the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, they will need to point to something objectionable which isn't also instantiated by their own doctrine of Quranic uncreatedness.
But there is much, much more to say about the Incarnation. Stay tuned for the next few articles.
*Abdullah Sa'eed (1999)