Islamic Studies Christians and Christianity in Islamic Exegesis
Clare Wilde
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0238


The Qur’an assumes its auditors’ familiarity with Christianity—especially doctrines such as the Trinity and Incarnation—and has a range of terms for and estimations of Christians. In addition to nasara (Christians), People of the Book (ahl al-kitab), People of the Gospel (ahl al-injil, and Children of Israel (bani isra’il), Islamic tradition has identified other qur’anic concepts with Christians, ranging from pre-Islamic Arabian monotheists (the hanif) to idolaters (mushrikun) and those who are “astray” (e.g., Q 1:6–7). Accordingly, exegetical comments on Christians and Christianity are not restricted to those qur’anic passages that reference Jesus, his mother, or his followers. As the Qur’an does not have a uniform estimation of Christians or Christianity, Islamic tradition has attempted to reconcile qur’anic and later criticisms of Christian deviations from Christ’s original teachings with the seemingly positive estimation of at least some aspects of Christianity in the qur’anic milieu. This reconciliation was often achieved by understanding the positive estimations as referencing those Christians who saw Muhammad as the final prophet, with the uncorrupted revelation confirming the previous scriptures. The Qur’an’s allusive and sometimes polemical language makes certain knowledge of the precise nature of the Christians or Christianity in its milieu nearly impossible to determine—as attested to by the numerous exegetical opinions on any given verse. Some contemporary scholars, assuming qur’anic engagement with Late Antique trends (e.g., from c. 300–600 CE), have investigated qur’anic echoes of apocryphal Christian literature or Late Antique lore, and even otherwise unattested Judeo-Christian groups, in the hopes of better understanding the Christianity known to the Qur’an itself. The sheer volume of qur’anic commentaries (which are generally arranged as verse-by-verse expositions of the received ‘Uthmanic codex of the qur’anic text) makes thematic studies a daunting task. Much of the scholarship on qur’anic exegesis, therefore, compares the exegesis of particular verses or themes in a variety of sources, from various perspectives (e.g., Sunni, Shi’i, Sufi), including a range of times (e.g., early, classical, or modern) and places (e.g., Egypt, Indonesia, etc.). Exegesis is also not restricted to the classical or modern commentaries on the Qur’an. Other genres of Islamic literature (e.g., jurisprudence) often reflect, or rely upon, exegesis (tafsir), and exegetes employed a range of disciplines in their exegesis (e.g., grammar, hadith [prophetic traditions], etc.). And exegetes could also produce other types of literature (e.g., history). Finally, as Christians were active participants in Islamic civilization, they, too, engaged in qur’anic exegesis—albeit often with an eye to their own theological agendas.

General Overviews

Rippin 2009 gives an excellent overview of the range and contents of qur’anic commentaries. Although their sheer volume makes systematic studies such as Charfi 1980 a daunting task, there are a number of studies comparing the exegesis of particular verses or themes in a variety of sources (e.g., McAuliffe 1991 and Ayoub 1997). Much as the exegetes differed over the meaning of the qur’anic verses, scholars of tafsir hold varying opinions as to the value of exegesis for an understanding of the actual Christian communities in the exegete’s milieu (let alone the Christians the Qur’an itself knew, on which see Griffith 2001). For, as the survey Wardenburg 1999 highlights, Muslims in different times and places had various encounters with, and estimations of, other religions, including Christianity. To what extent might exegesis draw us closer to the Qur’an’s original meaning? Or, does exegesis provide “one of the best indicators of the ideological and religious moods of Muslim societies” (pace Ayoub 1997, p. 145–146)? Alternatively, following McAuliffe 1991, is exegesis an exercise in piety, best appreciated for its methodology? As classical and contemporary exegesis is studied more closely, a fuller picture of the value of qur’anic exegesis will emerge (as demonstrated with Shah 2013, a massive corpus on tafsir). And, since—as Gilliot 2009 amply demonstrates—exegetes often engage (and produce) other literary genres, the study of exegesis should not be done in isolation from other disciplines. Finally, as Islamic exegesis also evidences knowledge of non-Muslim traditions (thoroughly discussed by Gilliot 2009), it should not be studied in isolation from the works of non-Muslims.

  • Ayoub, Mahmoud. “Nearest in Amity: Christians in the Qur’an and Contemporary Exegetical Tradition.” Islam and Christian‐Muslim Relations 8.2 (1997): 145–164.

    DOI: 10.1080/09596419708721117

    Close reading of modern exegesis of Q 2:62, 5:69, and 5:82–85. The exegetes represent Sunni (two Egyptians and two Syrians) and Shi’a views (one Lebanese, one Iraqi, two Iranian, and one Pakistani). Compares the qur’anic language to both modern and classical interpretations.

  • Charfi, Abdelmajid. “Christianity in the Qur’an Commentary of Tabari.” Islamochristiana 6 (1980): 105–148.

    Covers the discussion of a wide range of Christian-related qur’anic themes found in the extensive exegesis of al-Tabari (d. 310/923). Topics covered include the Gospels, John the Baptist, Mary, Jesus (including miracles), the Trinity, and Christian sects.

  • Gilliot, Claude. “Christians and Christianity in Islamic Exegesis.” In Christian-Muslim Relations. A Bibliographical History. Vol. 1, (600–900). Edited by Juan Pedro Montferrer Sala, Barbara Roggema, and David Thomas, 31–56. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009.

    Extensive and comprehensive discussion of exegetes from, and studies on, the first three Islamic centuries (especially al-Tabari [d. 310/923]). Provides brief general overview of later exegetical trends. Also includes discussion of recent scholarship on the Qur’an in its Late Antique context (c. 300–600 CE). Extensive bibliography found in the footnotes. Mandatory resource for anyone interested in Islamic exegetical discussions of Christianity.

  • Griffith, Sidney. “Christians and Christianity.” In Encyclopaedia of the Qur’ān. Vol. 1. Edited by J. D. McAuliffe, 307–316. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2001.

    Overview of various Christian-themed qur’anic passages. Although not all relevant entries are listed here, the five-volume Encyclopaedia of the Qur’ān is an excellent starting point for both qur’anic and later exegetical discussions of qur’anic themes. Recommended for undergraduates and graduate students, as well as for scholars of biblical or qur’anic studies.

  • McAuliffe, Jane Dammen. Qur’ānic Christians: An Analysis of Classical and Modern Exegesis. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511598203

    Analysis of ten exegetes (six from the Sunni tradition and four from the Shi’i). Covers their exegesis of seven qur’anic passages (Q 2:62; 3:54–55; 3:199; 5:66; 5:82–83; 28:52–55; 57:27). More attention is paid to the contents of the exegesis than to speculation about the reasons behind a given reading.

  • Rippin, Andrew. “Tafsir.” Oxford Bibliographies, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0087

    Comprehensive and concise overview of Sunni, Shi’i, Sufi, and contemporary qur’anic exegesis. Includes an overview of translations of classical works, as well as a section on biblical stories in tafsir. An excellent resource for students and scholars engaged in qur’anic, Islamic, and biblical studies. Available online by subscription.

  • Shah, M., ed. Tafsīr. Interpreting the Qur’ān. 4 vols. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2013.

    Four-volume collection of essays published between 1967 and 2012, providing an overview of the current state of tafsir studies. The selection of articles showcases the range and variety of methodological approaches used in, and topics covered by, early, medieval, and modern tafsir. Recommended starting point for tafsir studies.

  • Wardenburg, J., ed. Muslim Perceptions of Other Religions: A Historical Survey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

    Edited collection of a number of essays highlighting the various approaches to different religions by Muslims in different times and places, in a range of literary genres. Includes an essay by McAuliffe that summarizes her findings in McAuliffe 1991. Excellent resource for undergraduates.

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