Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Namesake: Is Jesus Prophet Isa?

Let me say up front that I did not plan to write this piece.  I have four drafts ready to be posted, and a few others under construction.  And I was planning to publish a different entry.

Out of the blue, however, a good friend of mine, a distant relative of the Prophet (for he belongs to the Sayyid clan) texted me that I shouldn't use Jesus to mean Isa.  I replied that I write my blog in English, and since in English the Prophet Isa is commonly written as Jesus, I simply employ conventional usage.  Likewise I write Joseph instead of Yusuf, or Jacob instead of Yaakob, or Abraham instead of Ibrahim.

He contested that I can use all those Anglicized names for other prophets, but not for Jesus.  Jesus is not Isa, he said.  I tried to explain again, saying that it is just a matter of nomenclature, a linguistic usage.  Still he was adamant with his stand.

Seeing that he was adamant, I asked what had led him to that conclusion.  He explained that there had been a debate in his community mosque and they all decided that Jesus is Jesus, and Isa is Isa.  I replied that if such an issue can become a concern in his community, perhaps it is also an issue to others, and I told him that perhaps I should write about this namesake thing in my blog. 

Well, this good friend of mine is not a Sayyid for nothing.  Instead of being persistent with his stand, he thanked me for listening to his concern and said I should put this issue into perspective. 

Now, let's get straight to the issue in hand: Is Jesus the Prophet Isa?

Well, strictly speaking, neither of those.  When he was born, he was neither called Jesus, nor Isa.  Rather, he was called Yehoshua.  Jesus is English; Isa is Arabic.   He was a Jew, you see.  On the eight day of his birth, he was circumcised and given the name Yehoshua in his language, Aramaic, a Hebrew dialect.

But, is Jesus the Prophet Isa?

Well, yes and no.

From a linguistic point of view, it is just how his name is pronounced or written in English.  Thus, Jesus is definitely Isa, when the same person is being referred. 

But, if you talk about Jesus of Christianity and Jesus of Islam, they are not quite the same.  For one thing, Jesus in Islam is only human.  In Christianity, however, he is both God and human.  If you want to go a little deeper, Jesus is 100% God and 100% human, but if you sum up the two, the total is not 200%, but still 100%.  It is like God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.  They are all one.  Three distinct personalities but of the same essense.

Be careful with the word you use: the same essence, mind you.  Not similar essence.  If you say similar essence, you are a heretic.  The technical word is homoousios (homo=same; ousios=essence); not homoiousios (homoi=similar). 

Well, this is going too far.  We reserve this complex subject for later entries.  The point is, from a purely linguistic point of view, be it Jesus, Isa or Yehoshua (or Yahshua), these names are all referred to the same person.  A rose in any other names, Shakespeare observes, smells as sweet.  

The more practical question is this: Can the Muslims call Jesus to mean Isa?

Now, if you happen to believe that Jesus is the corruption of Greek G-zeus (Latinized as Iesus or Iesous), where Zeus is the Greek's King of gods, then the use of this name does not seem to be appropriate.  But this is only a theory (please go here if you are interested).  The fact is that the name Jesus has been used for ages, in scholarly works no less, both by Muslims, Christians, and others.  When the name Jesus is used, they mean what the Muslims call the Prophet Isa.

If there is no definite prohibition from the scholars on the usage, and given that the name Jesus has been used for ages and has become a norm, what is so wrong about that?  If we use different name, it might confuse some people, or at least become oblivious to some.

Besides, why are we allowed to use Abraham for Ibrahim, Jacob for Yaakob, Moses for Musa, Lot for Lut, etc.? 

One may reply: because when those names are used, they are being referred to the same people, but when Jesus is used, he is not being referred to Isa.  Fine, but what if we say that when Jesus is used, we mean Isa, and we use Jesus only because it is customary in English to go by that name?

One may respond: it is offensive because the Christians believe that Jesus is not only a human, but also a God.  Hence, Jesus of the Christianity is definitely not the same as Isa of Islam.  Point taken, but if we go along the line of offensiveness, is it not offensive for Muslims when in the Bible the Prophet Lot is said to have committed adultery with his daughters?  Prophet Lut committed adultery with his daughters?  God forbid. 

Or that the King Solomon had fallen into idolatry.  Prophet Sulaiman (King Solomon) is an idolater?  God forbid.

Or that the Partriach Abraham had tricked his wife Sarah and his son Isaac during the sacrifice.  Prophet Ibrahim tricked his wife and his son?  Didn't he explain the dream to both of them?  Were not both of them willingly submitted?  And who are these Sarah and Isaac?  It was Hagar and Ishmael, for God's sake.

Well, I can go on, but I think you have got the point.  Even if you don't, I have made mine.

I will continue to use Jesus to mean Isa, or any of those as the occasion arises, because I happen to write in English in this blog.  I know a good friend of mine can take it, because he is gracious enough to see where I am coming from, although there might be others who disagree with my usage.

Unless, of course, if one can show me that it is definitively prohibited, in which case I will cease and desist.


  1. Hmmm....
    Some people think its small matter. But some take it seriously. I think the more you know, the more complicated things you can make. Its our own choice really.

  2. Pretty much like the issue whether Allah and God being the same "thing," as was hotly debated in Malaysia not too long ago, and still an issue now

  3. As far as my knowledge is concerned, english translations of Al-Quran written by well known scholars are using Jesus for Prophet Isa. Correct me if I am wrong.

  4. Part 1 of 2 (need to break this comment for being too long).

    That Sayyid friend of yours, together with his mosque community, sounds too familiar to me. I think I know him. We most likely belong to the same ‘kariah’. I might be wrong though. For argument sake, I’d just assume that he and his ‘kariah’ members are MALAY Muslims just like me.

    In Malaysia (where Malays generally regarded as Muslims), the issue of ‘Islamic names’ extends beyond our current discussion. We are just unique in our own way. Different from the rest of the Muslim communities. For instance, many still believe that once embracing Islam, Subramaniam or Wong Ah Kau (random names) need to change their names to something ‘Islamic’. That’s a pre-condition set by the community. It is worth noting that Chinese are generally sensitive when it comes to their family or surnames. Some might drop the whole idea of converting, just because they are not willing to forego their identity. As simple as that, we lose another potential Muslim brother. For the informed lot, they know for sure that one can retain their name, provided that such original name has good meaning, in whatever native language. On the other hand, we have local Muslim brothers by the name of Jonah, Noah, Dudayev, Allen, Tugiman, Tugimin, Tugimon and even Hitler (random, just to name a few). All of which do not sound ‘Islamic’ to me. So which one? Confused, discriminating or what, it is something for us to ponder.

    Back to the topic in question. I totally agree with Brother smderis on the reference of Jesus Christ as Prophet Isa, vice versa. That is a fact accepted by the vast majority of Muslims worldwide for decades. Sadly, there are still many ‘uninformed’ Muslims around this region who cannot agree to such conviction, also for decades. The reason for such ignorance is simple: language barrier. Most of the older generations, both deceased and surviving, have not been exposed to other languages than their own mother tongue, hence limiting their knowledge to only those literatures that they can read and understand. This whole issue would not pop out in the first place if they are literate in English.

    In line with the current topic, it is appropriate for me to make reference to Surah Al-Imran verse 45. Two of the most authoritative Quran translators, translate the verse as follow:

    1) Abdullah Yusuf Ali
    Behold! the angels said: “O Mary! Allah giveth thee glad tidings of a Word from Him: his name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honour in this world and the Hereafter and of (the company of) those nearest to Allah;

    2)MW Pickthall

    (And remember) when the angels said: O Mary! Lo! Allah giveth thee glad tidings of a word from him, whose name is the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, illustrious in the world and the Hereafter, and one of those brought near (unto Allah).

  5. Part 2

    Although our holy scripture reads “Eesa-(i)bnu-Mariam”, simply means ‘Isa, the son of Maryam’, the word ‘Jesus’ and ‘Mary’ were used in both translations and these have been accepted worldwide for generations. Nothing is wrong with that. Most probably, majority of the English-speaking Muslims do not know who is ‘Isa’ but Jesus Christ. We never know.

    By saying Jesus Christ is Prophet Isa, we are referring to the same PERSON. Not the GOD. Specifically to the SON of Mary (popularly known as ‘Mariam’ for Malays), that MAN from Nazareth, that rabbi who ate food, walked the street, slept, cried and sweat like all other human beings. We make reference to Jesus the Prophet of Allah, the one who received from Almighty God, a scripture that was called the ‘Evangel’ (means ‘good news’ in English) or in Arabic the ‘Injeel’. The man who neither said “I am God, therefore worship me” nor claimed himself as ‘the son of God’ (but he was made into one). There is no contradiction on the above facts, both in the Quran and Bible. It is simple to conclude that those attributes do not represent and make Prophet Isa/Jesus Christ (PBUH) a God. We are referring to the same man.

    So why we cannot refer Prophet Isa as Jesus Christ (Jesus = Eesa = Esau = Yeheshua; Christ = Al-Masih = Messiah)? What makes Malay Muslims special from the other 1.5 billion Muslims for having such an extra restriction?

  6. Wasn't Jesus/Isa an Israelite (Bani Israel) as his lineage was through Levi/Lawi on to Jacob/Yaqub (a.k.a Israel)? He would have been a Jew only if it was through Judah/Yahuda.

    1. Salam Maal,

      I have been receiving similar question privately. Perhaps in the near future I will talk about it in my entry. Stay tune.

      Briefly, it is a controversial issue, a highly debated matter, and the truth is I rarely engage in controversial issue such as this. I am not interested actually, but make an effort to know what it entails.

      Now, Jesus is a Jew according to Bible, since both Matthew and Luke trace him to Judah, either through his step father Joseph, or his mother Mary. But Quranic commentators consider him a Levite, since Mary is mentioned as the sister of Aaron (Harun) as well as Amran (Imran) who are Levites. There are a lot of disputes on both sides.

      But as for him being an Israelite, this is not to be disputed, since both Jew and Levite are Israelites. Yet, the common usage uses both Jews and Israelites interchangeably, and popular usage tends to use Jews to mean Israelites. I am using common as well as popular usages

  7. Salam brother. I am bit troubled with one of your para above
    " Or that the Partriach Abraham had tricked his wife Sarah and his son Isaac during the sacrifice. Prophet Ibrahim tricked his wife and his son? Didn't he explain the dream to both of them? Were not both of them willingly submitted? And who are these Sarah and Isaac? It was Hagar and Ishmael, for God's sake."
    Did you mean Sarah and Isaac, and, Hagar and Ishmail, were the same persons? Or did I fail to understand your writings? For what I know, whether in Quran or in Bible, they were different wives and sons of Ibrahim, where Isaac was the lineage for the israelites while Ishmail for the arabs.

    1. You have to understand the nuance in that paragraph brother. If you read again, and more carefully, and relate it to a few paragraphs that come before it, then I think you will see the point.

      That paragraph is simply a challenge to those who say that Abraham had tricked his wife and his son during the sacrifice. To Muslims, this remark is offensive, because Nabi Ibrahim explained the dream to both his wife and son, and they submitted willingly. And to Muslims, it was not Sarah and Isaac in the story of sacrifice, it was Hagar and Ishmael.

      Thus, you prior knowledge is correct, brother, but you have misunderstood the paragraph.

    2. Tq brother, now I can see your point

  8. Lol :) I think you over dwell on the issue. Its not something worth dwelling over. There are more important things that you need to focus on than just names. The other thing is, if you are so concerned on the issue and have doubts then just name the prophet ISA as this will eliminate all doubts on your part. You can put Jesus in brackets). When it comes to uncertainties here is what the prophet says "Leave that which makes you doubt for that which does not make you doubt." narrated by Termithi and Nasaee, and Tirmithi said it is true and fine hadith.