Insider Movement[i] proponents tell us that we cannot use the words “Son” or “Father” in reference to Jesus or God in translations of the bible intended to be used in Muslim contexts. They insist that these words are understood by Muslims to refer only to biological relationships that result from sexual intercourse and that when a Muslim hears these words used in reference to God or Jesus, they will understand these words to mean that Jesus was the product of sexual relations between God and Mary. While it is true that Muslims often do misunderstand the title “Son of God” to mean that Jesus is the biological offspring of God and Mary, the reasons for this misunderstanding is very different than what IM proponents have suggested. Let’s look a little more deeply into this issue and understand why this phrase has been misunderstood by Muslims and why some suggestions for correcting this misunderstanding by replacing these words in translations of the bible with alternative phrases are misguided.
Insider Movement (IM) proponents suggest that the words for ‘son’ and ‘father’ in languages spoken in Islamic contexts can only be used to describe a biological descendant. However, in languages like Arabic, Amharic, Turkish, Bengali, etc… where these claims have already been evaluated, they have been demonstrated to be false. In these languages words for ‘father’ and ‘son’ are used very similarly to the way that they are used in English, Greek, and Hebrew (and many other languages). Arabic speaking Muslims use a wide range of idiomatic expressions that use the word ‘son’ to refer to non-biological relationships like ‘son of the Nile[ii] (ابن النيل)’ ‘son of the Road[iii] (ابن السبيل)’, etc… which demonstrates that these words are not limited to the narrow semantic range of meaning that IM proponents have suggested. It is true is that Muslim believe that Christians teach[iv] that Jesus is the biological offspring of God and Mary but this is a very different issue than what is often presented by those promoting IM. To date, bible translators who have proposed that we use other words in place of ‘father’ and ‘son’ have not identified a single language where the natural words for ‘son’ or ‘father’ only describe a biological relationship. Note: I have spoken personally with dozens of native speakers of these languages and with missionaries who serve in countries where these languages are spoken and they have all denied that this limited semantic range of meaning is inherent in the words, like ‘father’ and ‘son,’ that describe familial relationships.
Sometimes IM proponents will suggest that because Muslims, in general, only refer to their own biological descendants as ‘sons’ that this proves that the word ‘son’ can only be used to refer to a biological descendant. While the claim about how the word ‘son’ is used in many Islamic contexts is mostly true the conclusions that form the basis of IM arguments are not. To understand what is actually happening, it is helpful to know a little more about the related Islamic law and its origins. In Islam, adoption is absolutely prohibited for Muslims; however, Muslims do understand what adoption is just like we all understand what adultery, lying, and theft are even though these are also prohibited. Muslims recognize that others do adopt sons and they recognize those relationships as father/son relationships. In the Arab culture, adoption was once embraced and most Arabs had adopted sons. Even the prophet Mohammad himself had an adopted son named Zayd. However, when Zayd was grown and married, Mohammad desired to have Zayd’s wife for himself but the existing law prohibited a father from taking his son’s wife. Conveniently, Mohammad had a new revelation from God that abolished the practice of adoption and nullified all existing Muslim adoptions. With adoption abolished, Mohammad was now free to marry his former son’s wife (which he did). Today, Muslims recognize that Zayd ibn Mohammad (زيد بن محمد)[v] was Mohammad’s adopted son. They remain unconfused about Mohammad and Zayd’s relationship even when direct familial language used in to describe their relationship. Because Islam teaches that God does not have sons nor does God adopt sons, Muslims can never call God ‘Father’ and that is a significant issue that must be overcome when ministering to Muslims.
The alternative phrases that IM proponents have proposed (or used) in bible translations targeted for Islamic contexts fail to communicate important aspects of sonship i.e. the rights of authority, inheritance, etc… that are integral aspects of being a son. These ideas about sonship are shared by Islamic, Hebrew, and western cultures when speaking about the rights of a son and are reflected in stories like the Parable of the vineyard in Luke 20:9-16 where the legal rights of a son are an integral part of the story itself. Christ’s rights as the true heir of God is an important part of Christian theology and if a phrase used to translate the title “Son of God” does not communicate the legal rights of a sonship then it will miscommunicate God’s relationship to his only Son.
Islam teaches that the Christian Scriptures have been corrupted[vi] and when we use alternative language for words like ‘father’ and ‘son’ in bible translations intended to be used in Muslim contexts, it provide proof to Muslims that claims about the corruption of the Christian Scriptures are in fact true. This makes it much more difficult for Muslims to overcome their inherent distrust of the Christian Scriptures.
The recently released WEA report raises concerns about translations that have tried to overcome misunderstandings about Christianity by changing the translation itself when these misunderstandings are better addressed through teaching and commentaries. By changing familial language in our bible translations, we are only trading one misunderstanding for others that are equally problematic. While it is true that Muslims really do understand the phrase “Son of God” to mean that Jesus is the product of sexual relations between God and Mary, it is important to understand WHY they believe this. It is not because the words for ‘father’ and ‘son’ are only understood to refer to a biological relationship as IM proponents frequently suggest, it is because Islam teaches that Christians teach that Jesus is the biological son of God and Mary. It is this misunderstanding about what Christians teach must be addressed through dialog, teaching, and commentary. Removing the words ‘father’ and ‘son’ from translations of Scripture will not resolve these misunderstandings because it is not the words themselves that have been misunderstood, it is the misinformation about what Christians teach that has caused this misunderstanding.
[i] The Insider Movement is an ideology that is being adopted by a growing number of evangelical missionaries who believe that one should retain their original religious identity when they come to follow Christ; conversion to Christianity is seen as unnecessary (or harmful). These missionaries believe that Muslims should remain Muslims, Hindus should remain Hindus, Buddhists should remain Buddhists, etc… What this looks like in practice varies significantly among different groups promoting IM. Almost all believe that one should continue to worship in their prior religious communities and those on the extremes suggest that very little of a persons prior religious beliefs needs to change after they become “followers of Christ.” For example, a Muslim who comes to follow Christ may continue to reject a belief in the divinity of Christ, affirm Mohammad as God’s preeminent prophet, and the Qu’ran as God’s perfect inspired word. The beliefs of a “Muslim follower of Christ” often are far more compatible with Islam than they are with Christianity.
Note: The Insider Movement ideology has been adopted by a significant number of men and women in leadership positions of well know missionary organizations like Wycliffe/SIL, Frontiers, YWAM, etc… Many churches are unknowingly supporting missionaries who have adopted this controversial ideology. Many missionaries within these organizations still do oppose IM but determining who is supporting it and who is not can often be difficult (see deciphering the Missionary code). This is an issue that every church needs to address with the missionaries they support because there is a growing acceptance of IM within many missionary organizations.
[ii] Arabic speaking Egyptians refer to themselves as a “son of the Nile”
[iii] “Son of the Road” is a frequent phrase used to describe a traveler in the Qu’ran. S. 2:177, S. 4:36, S. 8:41, S. 9:60
[iv] Islam teaches that Christians believe that God, Mary, and Jesus form the Trinity, and that Jesus is the offspring of God and Mary. Some of the passages from the Qur’an which form that basis for this teaching are listed below.
[He is] Originator of the heavens and the earth. How could He have a son when He does not have a companion and He created all things? And He is, of all things, Knowing. (Sura 6:101)
And [it teaches] that exalted is the nobleness of our Lord; He has not taken a wife or a son (Sura 72:3)
O People of the Scripture, do not commit excess in your religion or say about Allah except the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, was but a messenger of Allah and His word which He directed to Mary and a soul [created at a command] from Him. So believe in Allah and His messengers. And do not say, “Three”; desist – it is better for you. Indeed, Allah is but one God. Exalted is He above having a son. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. And sufficient is Allah as Disposer of affairs. (Sura 4:171)
They have certainly disbelieved who say that Allah is Christ, the son of Mary. Say, “Then who could prevent Allah at all if He had intended to destroy Christ, the son of Mary, or his mother or everyone on the earth?” And to Allah belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth and whatever is between them. He creates what He wills, and Allah is over all things competent. (Sura 5:17)
They have certainly disbelieved who say, ” Allah is the Messiah, the son of Mary” while the Messiah has said, “O Children of Israel, worship Allah , my Lord and your Lord.” Indeed, he who associates others with Allah – Allah has forbidden him Paradise, and his refuge is the Fire. And there are not for the wrongdoers any helpers. They have certainly disbelieved who say, ” Allah is the third of three.” And there is no god except one God. And if they do not desist from what they are saying, there will surely afflict the disbelievers among them a painful punishment. (Sura 5:72-73)
And it is not appropriate for the Most Merciful that He should take a son. (Sura 19:92).
[v] Zayd b. Mohammad is frequently referred to as Zayd b.Haritha Al-kalbi as a demonstration that adoption was abolished. More information about the incident with Zayd can be found at http://www.answering-islam.org/Shamoun/zaynab.htm
[vi] “What Christians now hold in their hands is not the Gospel to which the Qur’an refers, but their gospels do contain parts of that text, which according to the Qur’an is corrupted” The Qur’an and the Gospels, Dr. Muhammad M. Abu Laylah