Can Jesus be called the ‘Son of God’?
“Jesus cannot be called ‘Son of God'”
One of the most common objections to the Injīl is that it repeatedly uses the title “Son of God” for Jesus. As we shall see in detail below, this title in the Injīl does not and cannot refer to a biological relationship (God forbid!) but it is a purely figurative description. At the conclusion of this article, we will see how the Qur’ānic teaching which seems to deny Jesus as being “Son of God” is actually consistent with the Holy Injīl when we correctly understand the Arabic words.
Misunderstanding Figurative Language
Jews, Christians and Muslims have all at some times incorrectly understood certain phrases from God’s Word in this way. At one time, for example, it was the belief of one sect within Islam, the Mushabba and Zahria, that God has a body. It was felt He possessed physical features such as hands and a face. Passages from the Qur’ān and the Hadith that described God as sitting on His throne or placing His hand on the shoulder of the prophet Md. (PBUH) were interpreted literally and used to justify this belief.1
With the passage of time, however, scholars and students of Islam gradually realized that such passages were not to be taken literally. From the testimony of other and clearer passages, it was understood that God has no body or physical limitations. It was therefore understood that passages such as the above were to be taken figuratively. And once it was understood that certain passages must be taken figuratively, it became clear how other difficult passages much be interpreted. Thus, Hadiths such as the following three were impossible to understand taking a literal interpretation:
The Prophet said:
Hadith #2 – God’s fingers are present within a Muslim’s heart.
Hadith #3 – I smelled God’s smell from Yemen
( Islami Darshan , p.169)
While impossible to interpret literally, the above Hadith can be understood taking an indirect, figurative interpretation. Doing so, the difficulties vanish and the true meaning becomes at once apparent.
Religious misunderstandings of the above nature are not limited to the Qur’ān and the Hadith. Through the course of history, the Torah, Zabur and Injīl have also suffered from many such problems of interpretation. And because of incorrect interpretation, a number of misunderstandings have arisen.
The Figurative Meaning of ‘Son of God’
Without a doubt, the most widespread and serious such misunderstanding relates to a phrase frequently found in the Injīl – the ‘son of God’. In some cases the term refers to the entire Jewish nation, in other cases to all believers in God, and in yet other cases it refers to the Prophet Jesus. Let us spend some time examining this term and seek to understand how it is used and what it actually means.
Those who have objected to the term have tried to understand it in its literal meaning. To do so is to encounter many very serious difficulties. Taken literally, it would mean God had a wife and physically beget children (God forbid!). Yet, such a blasphemous thought contradicts the clear teaching of the Injīl itself. Thus, Jesus taught in the Injīl that God is one and without a partner. It is also clearly taught in the Injīl that God has no physical body, but is spirit. The idea of God physically begetting a son is as impossible as it is blasphemous. Therefore, those who have tried to understand the term in a literal way have faced the same insuperable problems faced by those who would interpret the above passages from the Qur’ān and the Hadith literally.
In fact, it has been the universal belief of the followers of the Injīl that the term “son of God” must be interpreted figuratively. Not only does such a figurative interpretation avoid the problems and difficulties of the literal understanding, it is also supported by several other factors. Let us look at some of the factors for accepting the figurative or symbolic understanding of the term.
‘Son of God’ in the Zabur
First of all, the Zabur of David, written hundreds of years before the time of Jesus, calls the coming “Messiah” Jesus God’s “Son” of God who would be given by God authority over the nations. We know that in the Hebrew language and culture a Great King would call his caliph or provincial viceroy his ‘Son.’ So, when Jesus called himself God’s ‘Son,’ those who correctly understood scripture did not object because they knew that the Messiah would be called “Son of God” and they already knew the correct figurative meaning as “caliph.”
“Son of God” is not the only title of Jesus which is obviously figurative—both the Qur’ān and the Injīl call Jesus God’s ‘Word’. Here the title clearly cannot be taken as a literal sound, letter or word. Rather, the term must be and is understood figuratively. A word is essentially a means or instrument of communication, conveying one’s thoughts and desires to another. In just that way, Jesus was God’s word – God’s means of communication with mankind. Through Jesus, God was able to express His thoughts and wishes to man. Now, since it is obvious that one title of Jesus’ – God’s word – must be understood figuratively, it is not difficult to suppose that another title – God’s son – must similarly be understood figuratively. Such a supposition is amply born out elsewhere.
Other Figurative Uses of ‘Father’ and ‘Son”
It is a simple fact of language that the phrases “son of” and “father of” often have just such figurative meanings as we suggest. Let us examine first the phrase “father of” and look at its different figurative usages. Thus, it is commonly said that such and such a person is a nation’s “father.” No one would be so foolish as to think the individual so named actually begot each and every citizen of that land. No, the obvious meaning is the figurative one. Because of the significant role the person played in the nation’s independence and development, he is given the supreme title of honor and affection – the nation’s father. It simply implies the close relationship that person holds to his country.
Such figurative uses of the term “father” are not restricted to men only. We find them also applied to God. God is, after all, the creator, the provider, and the sustainer of all things. The first Sura of the Qur’ān , Sura Fateha, begins with the words Bismillah Rabbil Alamin. In their commentary on this sura, Md. Abdul Hakin and Md. Ali Hassain write thus: “Some interpreters believe that the word ‘ Rabb ‘ comes from the Arabic ‘ Ab ,’ the root word for father. Thus, the real or root meaning of rabb is father.” Once again, no one would be so foolish as to understand ” rabb ” as applied here to God in the literal or physical sense of father. As it refers to God, it obviously has a figurative, spiritual meaning. God is not the physical father of His creation. Yet, without His power and guiding force, nothing would have been created. He is the true creative force and power behind each creature born into this world. He is the world’s ” rabb ,” the figurative father and creative force.
Taking the matter down to a more personal and individual level, we must conclude that each child born into this world is the direct result of God’s creative activity. How many childless couples there are who are sadly forced to acknowledge the truth that unless God moves and enables through His creative powers, our own efforts to obtain progeny are doomed to failure. We may boast in our pride that we are the creator and father of a child, but ultimately we must acknowledge that such titles can rightly be given to God alone. Again, we speak not of a literal and physical fatherhood, but rather of creative power and enabling. Thus, in a real way and as the above Qur’ānic commentators conclude, God is the father of all His creation, including man.
Let us look next at some figurative uses of the term “son of.” One such usage is found in the Qur’ān , Sura 2:215. In this passage a perpetual traveler, a wanderer, is called “son of the road” ( ibn-alssabeeli, ابْنِ السَّبِيلِ). We see again that a literal interpretation would defy reason. A physical, literal interpretation is clearly impossible. The obvious meaning is figurative. The person has such a close relationship to the road that he is called its son. We see again that intimacy or closeness is the essence of the term “son of” or “father of” in their figurative uses.
Further Evidence of Figurative Meaning from the Injīl
The above conclusion is born out in the Injīl as well. Thus, in one passage we find Jesus talking to some Jewish leaders. In their pride they boast to Jesus that they are the children of Abraham. Jesus rebukes them; if they were Abraham’s children they would do God’s will as Abraham did. Instead, they are seeking to do evil. Jesus therefore concludes, “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires.”
In a physical, literal sense, those Jews were indeed correct. They were the physical descendants, the children, of Abraham. Yet, Jesus saw beyond the literal meaning to the deeper significance behind the term. Their works showed clearly that spiritually these Jews had their closest relationship and allegiance not to Abraham, the man of God, but with Satan and his proud and rebellious nature. It was thus entirely accurate and appropriate to call them “children of Satan.”
Having examined the above common figurative uses of the terms “father of” and “son of,” we find ourselves in a position to better understand the Injīl’s use of the term “son of God.” As in the above examples, it unquestionably has a figurative and spiritual meaning. It serves to emphasize the person of persons’ close relationship to God. Just as one who is led by Satan is called a “child of Satan,” so one who enjoys a close and intimate spiritual relationship to God and is led by Him is called a “child of God” or “son of God”. For example, we find the following passage in the Injīl, “For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” (Romans 8:13,14)
The term “son of God,” therefore, bears no physical significance in the Injīl. The Jewish nation was called the “son of God” in its early days when it was still living in obedience to God. By contrast, those Jews who later turned away from God in pride and rebellion were declared to be “children of Satan.” Whoever, be he Jew or non-Jew, that is willing to put to death his inner selfish desires and to follow God is given the title “son of God” in the Injīl.
We can better understand, then, why Jesus should be so frequently given that title, being one whose obedience to God, dependence on God and intimate relationship with God goes far beyond our merger experience. It is also clear that the title is free of the charges so often leveled against it. It most certainly does not imply any physical relationship to God nor does it imply any physical attributes to God. Rather, it designates a life lived in close spiritual relationship to the One creator and sustainer of all things.
Does the Qur’ān deny “Son of God”?
At this point, many may ask whether the Qur’ān ‘s statements against “Son of God” can be reconciled with the Injīl’s use of the term. Let us examine these statements in the Qur’ān. But first, we should distinguish the two Arabic terms for son; ibn (ابْنِ) and walad (وَلَدً):
‘Ibn’ (ابْنِ) is the broader term which often can have a figurative, non-biological meaning, as in “sons of the road” ( ibn-alssabeeli, ابْنِ السَّبِيلِ, Qur’ān 2:215). This is the correct Arabic translation of the concept “Son” used of Jesus in the Bible (‘υἱός’), related to the Hebrew word ” bin , בּן . ”
‘Walad’ (وَلَد) denotes a son born of sexual relations, rather like the English term “offspring.” This term is utterly inappropriate as a description of Jesus’ relationship to God (God forbid!).
Now let us look at the verses in the Qur’ān which deal with this topic:
“And they say: “(Allah) Most Gracious has begotten offspring ( وَلَد , walad ).” Glory to Him! they are (but) servants raised to honour.” (Sura Anbiya 21:26)
“Had Allah wished to take to Himself a son ( وَلَد , walad ), He could have chosen whom He pleased out of those whom He doth create: but Glory be to Him! (He is above such things.) He is Allah, the One, the Irresistible.” (Sura Zumar 39:4)
“And Exalted is the Majesty of our Lord: He has taken neither a wife nor a son ( وَلَد , walad ).” (Sura Jinn 72:3)
“To Him is due the primal origin of the heavens and the earth: How can He have a son ( وَلَد , walad ) when He hath no consort? He created all things, and He hath full knowledge of all things.” (An’am 6:101, 2:116, 10:68, 17:11, 18:4, 19:35,88,91-92; 23:91; 25:2,)
It becomes clear from the above verses that the Qur’ān is speaking of a very different concept of ‘Son’ than what the Injīl says—it is speaking of “son” as a literal, fleshly offspring through sexual relations with a consort (God forbid!). The Qur’ān must have been rebuking a community of misguided, so-called “Christians” in Arabia who misunderstood the Injīl to say that Jesus was God’s ‘ walad’ from sexual relations with Mary (God forbid!). Such a heretical idea was strongly rejected by Jesus’ followers at the Council of Nicea.2 All true believers in Jesus agree with the Qur’ān that “he has taken neither wife nor son” and that such is a perverse idea.
Given that the Qur’ān affirms the truth of the Injīl and that the Injīl repeatedly uses the figurative concept “Son of God”, this can be the only consistent interpretation which respects both the Qur’ān and Injīl.
See also “Can Jesus be called ‘Lord’?
- Islami Darshan , Islamic Foundation: Dhaka, p.19.
- See the article on the Council of Nicea.