Why is Islam's 'incarnation' a challenge to the Incarnation?

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"Word became Book" or "Word became Flesh" are two very important ideas. Both Islam and Christianity speak of something or someone "coming down." We will look at these and compare and contrast them.           

As you might know, Arabic words are made of three consonants. A very important word in the Qur’an is made of the letters n-z-l. There it describes the action of how this revelation—according to Muslims—‘came down.’ In this season when Christians celebrate the fact that Jesus ‘came down’ maybe some comparisons might be important.

The meaning of our friend Nazilla’s name.

As you look closely at the name of our friend, you likely see the letters n-z-l. Likely her Muslim parents gave her this name to celebrate that the Qur’an came down [Ar. nazil] from heaven from Allah to Muhammad via the angel Gabriel who is sometimes equated to the spirit of Allah. The Qur’an itself is called ‘a sending down’ in Q. 26:192 where it says, “Verily this is a Revelation [Arabic= latanzīlu] from the Lord of the Worlds.” Again you might have seen the n-z-l letters. Words featuring combinations of these letters occur about 250 times in the Qur’an. The Christian Christmas story also features a ‘coming down’ of Jesus the Christ child, and this occurs with the help of the Holy Spirit who caused His conception.

So what ‘comes down’ in Islam and Christianity? 

In Islam:

According to Islamic teaching there is a book in heaven called the ‘Mother of the Books.’ It supposedly contains the equivalent of the books of Moses, David, Jesus and the Qur’an. This book was said to be written by Allah and then it was ‘sent down’ to people who are called prophets. The last prophet, according to this setup, is said to be Muhammad, and other books must align with what he said.

On the night of destiny or the ‘Night of Qadr’ the heavens were said to be opened, and the angel Gabriel brought down the contents of the heavenly tablet to Muhammad, and did so over time. Thus the will of Allah for humans was ‘sent down’ via an angel who is sometimes called the ‘spirit.’ In essence it could be said that this describes “The Word became Book.”

There is also an Islamic teaching that on his ‘night journey’ Muhammad traveled to Jerusalem on Buraq "“a white animal, half-mule, half-donkey, with wings on its sides . . . ,” and then ascended into heaven, made some negotiations with Allah on the subject of prayer and fasting, and then came down.

In Christianity:

As we saw, Islam, the will of God is "brought down" via the angel Gabriel and then via the Qur’an, but we never see Allah himself coming down. In Exodus 3:8 we have a figurative description of God coming down to his own people because he saw their affliction.

            …and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey,

In Exodus 32 Moses is said to come down the mountain with the law, but these were the "ten words" of the One who had delivered Israel and was jealous for their affection.

            …Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, tablets that were written on both sides; on the front and on the back they were written.

As we saw in Islam, Gabriel is said to be the vehicle of the qur'anic revelation which comes down from the Mother of the Books, especially on the night of destiny. In Christianity, Gabriel comes down to Mary and lets her know that she is highly favored and that the Holy Spirit will cause the conception of the “Son of the Most High.” (Luke 1:32) He is the “Word became Flesh” (John 1:14) who actually lived among people. He is not just an embodiment of the will of God, but of the person of the Triune God.

Jesus gets his stamp of divine approval, not because of the miracle of the fact that his book cannot be surpassed, as in the teaching of i’jaz in Islam, but because something else more important comes down. At his baptism we read, “

            And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him;  and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son,4 with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:16-17)

            …. And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him." (John 1:32)

Thus Jesus receives attestation of his mission both from the voice of the Heavenly Father which came down from heaven, and from the Spirit which comes from the same place and then rests on him.

Every religion promises that they can provide satisfaction for the spiritual hunger of people. Most of them say, “do this or that and then you will be satisfied.” Jesus describes himself as “the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (John 6:33). He is making a reference to the manna which the children of Israel ate when they were wandering in the desert. Not only did they need a “Book” they needed to have their deepest physical and spiritual longings met. Jesus suggested that he is the One who can deliver true life.

Jesus suggested that he himself was not on a mission to do whatever he wanted, but to do His Father’s will. In John 6:38 we read, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.”

Another thing that comes down in Christianity is the vision of a perfect paradise and perfect community. It is no human-made entity, but according to Revelation 21:2, it was seen by the apostle John as “the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” This picture represents perfect purity, perfect community and perfect security and perfect provision coming from God.

Conclusion

At Christmas, Christians celebrate the ‘coming down’ of the Christ-child, the Son of God Incarnate. He is the “Word made Flesh” who revealed the Father to humanity. When we look at the “Word made Book” and realize that it only reveals the will and not the person of Allah to humanity, then the letters n-z-l appear to take the real truths of the Bible and make them into a caricature of the real thing. May this give us compassion for our Muslim neighbors and a willingness to speak about those things that the Bible declares have ‘come down.’ 

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