Is ‘Isa a fake name of Jesus invented by Islam?

Refuting the falsehood that ‘Isa is not the real name of Jesus

by Ibn Anwar, BHSc (Hons.), MCollT

     In my rather long experience in engaging with Christians, they have often questioned the validity of identifying Jesus with the Qur’anic name that is given to him: ‘Isa (عيسى). They would argue that Arab Christians have long identified this individual that we today generally know as Jesus as Yasu’ (يسوع) and so there is no historical basis for the name ‘Isa. In this brief article we shall examine the validity or lack thereof of the Islamic usage of the term ‘Isa as the historical name of the son of Mary who lived some 2000 years ago in Palestine.

    Before we begin looking at the various names that are attributed to the son of Mary, we should have a little grasp of the historical context within which the son of Mary lived, with particular focus on the language that was used, at the time in the son of Mary’s locality and what his own native language would have been. We now know for certain that the language used by Jesus and those around him in Palestine was Aramaic. This fact is attested by the Catholic theologian Lucien Deiss who writes, “Jesus’ mother tongue was Aramaic.” [1] Similarly, Robert H. Stein writes, “Gustav Dalman at the turn of the century clearly demonstrated that the native tongue of Jesus was Aramaic.” [2] And Sang-ll Lee makes it rather unequivocal that, “…the consensus of modern New Testament scholars…Jesus spoke Aramaic as his matrix language.” [3] We have thus established that the language that was used by Jesus and his local compatriots was in fact Aramaic (or sometimes called Syriac).

  A pertinent question that may follow from the above elucidation would thus be, “What was the name of Jesus in Aramaic?” And from this question we may certify whether the Arabic name ‘Isa has any historical validity or not. Before we answer this question however, we may well ask, “Where did the name Jesus come from?” How is this a relevant and valid question? Well for starters, when Jesus lived in Galilee, Palestine the letter ‘J’ that we are so familiar with in our Roman alphabet did not exist. In the time of Jesus, the local dialect that was spoken, that is, the language of the common folk was Aramaic and we cannot stress this enough. Hebrew on the other hand was the language of the learned elite that was used by the Pharisees for learning and liturgical purposes. So in Hebrew, Jesus’ name would have been Yeshua or Yehoshua (ישוע or יהושע) and this was then rendered into Iesus (Ἰησοῦς) in Greek as the New Testament authors, who spoke Greek, started writing about Jesus. This then was borrowed into Latin and much later, when English became the more prominent language that eventually replaced Latin, the term Iesus (or in its genitive form Iesu e.g. initium evangeli Iesu Christi Filii Dei in Mark 1:1) took the form of Jesus. From this short historical account of the formation of the name Jesus, we may say that there is a rather huge gap between the original name of Jesus with the much later invention of his name, that is, Jesus in English.

   A lingering question still remains: What was his original name in Aramaic? There are two answers to this question.  In Eastern Aramaic, the name used for Jesus was ‘Ishho whilst in Western Aramaic, his name was Yeshu. This fact is attested by the 11th Edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica which states, “One very tangible difference appears in the fact that the name Jesus was by the East Syrians written and pronounced Isho`, by the West Syrians Yeshu.” [4] From a quick inspection of the pronunciation of either ‘Ishho’ or ‘Yeshu’, one may get a good sense of understanding behind the historical background of the Arabic word used for Jesus, ‘Isa. Citing the Qur’anic exegetes al-Baydawi and al-Razi, Geoffrey Parrinder writes, “He said that it was an arabized form of Ishu’, probably meaning the Syriac Yeshu’. Razi said that it was from Yasu’ and this is what the Syrians say.” [5] I should note that Parrinder may have given somewhat faulty information here because al-Baydawi was most probably referring to the Eastern Aramaic, ‘Ishho’ and was not confusing it with the Western Aramaic, ‘Yeshu’. Nevertheless, it would seem that whether we prefer Baydawi’s interpretation or al-Razi’s both concur that the origin of ‘Isa is Aramaic (Syriac), the original language of Jesus. Parrinder goes on further to provide some rather interesting information, that he takes from Arthur Jeffrey’s ‘The Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur’an’, about the existence of Nestorian Christians in southern Syria and Arabia, and specifically a monastery in southern Syria, which as early as 571 AD, bore the name ‘Isaniya, ‘of the followers of Jesus’. [6] This means that the name ‘Isa was already in vogue among Syriac Christians in Arabia prior to the advent of Prophet Muhammad. If we carefully scrutinise the spelling of the Arabic ‘Isa and run a linguistic comparison to its ancestor Ishho, we can see how the former has in fact come out of the latter. However, leaving aside linguistic technicalities, a simple glance at the two confirms how similar they are in both appearance and pronunciation. Whilst the Arab Christians chose to adopt the Western pronunciation of Jesus’ name (yeshu which is retained in Arabic Bibles as Yasu’), it appears the Qur’an took the liberty to retain the Eastern model. Attesting to this fact, Neal Robinson writes, “The peculiar spelling of ‘Isa still remains something of an enigma but the most plausible explanation is that it is derived from Isho, the Syriac name for Jesus.” [7] Likewise, the scholar Sidney Griffith writes, “Of the many explanations for the form of Jesus’ name as it appears in the Qur’an, the most reasonable one from this writer’s point of view is that it reflects an Arabic speaker’s spelling of what he hears in an Arabic articulation of the common East Syrian form of the name: Isho’.” [8] Similarly, Honorary Professor of Missiology at Utrecht University, Jan A. B. Jongeneel writes, “The Qur’an refers to Jesus as ‘Isa al-Masih. This Arabic expression appears to have originated from the Nestorian Syriac, Isho Mshiha.” [9] 

  From the foregoing discussion, we may establish the following positions: Firstly, the popular name Jesus that is used widely around the world today is thoroughly divorced from the son of Mary’s original name in his original language. In fact, it is derived from the Greek, Iesus, which itself is rather unsemitic. This is rightly pointed out by Parrinder who states, “The final ‘s’ of the Greek and European words for Jesus is quite unsemitic.” [10] Secondly, as we have established that Jesus was not in fact Jesus’ original name, it would be folly for any Christian who uses this name resolutely without any compunction in their Bibles, liturgical practises in church etc. to denounce Muslims for using the Arabic model of his name which is ‘Isa and we have seen above that this has its origins in the original name of Jesus in his original language. We may thus safely conclude that the name ‘Isa in Arabic is indeed a valid name that correctly reflects the original Aramaic name of the historical son of Mary from Galilee, Palestine. And more than that, it also leads us to the interesting fact that the Qur’an that was given to the unlettered Prophet Muhammad, by God above, has an uncanny insight into the historical Jesus. This is yet another miracle of the Qur’an that further proves its divine origin and nullifies claims of its detractors that it is man made.

Addendum:

Some might ask about the voiced pharyngeal letter ‘ayn (ع) which appears in the Arabic ‘Isa at the beginning but appears at the end of Ishho’ in Eastern Aramaic and question about the pronunciations of the two names due to this difference and perhaps some might see it as a discrepancy between the Arabic and the Aramaic, therefore, weakening the stance that ‘Isa in Arabic actually came from Ishho’ in Aramaic. To this question or objection, we refer to a strongly plausible explanation provided by Neal Robinson in his article on Jesus in the Encyclopedia of the Qur’an:

“A fourth suggestion is that, already before the rise of Islam, Christians in Arabia may have coined the name Īsā from one of the Syriac forms Yeshū or Ishū. Arabic often employs an initial ayn in words borrowed from Aramaic or Syriac and the dropping of the final Hebrew ayin is evidenced in the form Yisho of the “köktürkish” Manichaean fragments from Turfan ( Jefferey, For. vocab., 220; see foreign vocabulary).” [11]

We have already mentioned Sidney Griffith’s view above where he affirms that ‘Isa is derivative of the Aramaic Isho, but below we shall see, elsewhere, he writes about the Muslim historian al-Ya’qubi (Ahmad ibn Abu Ya’qub ibn Ja’far ibn Wahb Ibn Wadih al-Ya’qubi) who in his work called ‘Ta’rikh ibn Wadih’ spends quite a lot of ink on the person of Jesus. Griffith points out a rather interesting fact in al-Ya’qubi’s writings about Jesus in the said work – namely, that he would typically use the epithet ‘Christ’ whenever he speaks of Jesus and would not ever use his Qur’anic proper name ‘Isa, but when he does at times use Jesus’ proper name to speak of him therein, he would use the Syriac form of it that is transliterated into Arabic, ‘Isu.

“A striking feature of al-Ya’qubi’s presentation of Jesus in these pages is that he almost always calls him simply “Christ” or “the Messiah”; he never uses his proper name as it appears in the Qur’an, that is, ‘Isa. When he does use Jesus’ proper name, he quotes it in the Christian Syriac form, transliterated into the Arabic script as ‘isu.” [12]

This means that already by the time of al-Ya’qubi, Muslims have understood that the Qur’anic name ‘Isa originates from the Aramaic Isho. It should also be noted that al-Ya’qubi’s sources for Christian literature, that is, the gospels and the Bible were from Christians themselves and as Griffith notes, al-Ya’qubi did his level best to quote and cite Christian texts as they were in the hands of the Christians in his time without attempts on his part to “Islamicize” them. He would retain the original format without alterations of any kind. This means that he would have retained information from his Syriac Christian informants, the Nestorians, that Jesus’ name was Isho in their language and that rightly corresponds to the Arabic ‘Isa which is why whenever he writes of the person Jesus (that he being a Muslim would have seen as ‘Isa) he finds no difficulty or compunction to address him in his Aramaic name instead of the Qur’anic Arabic ‘Isa.

And affirming the position that ‘Isa most probably originates from the Aramaic Isho, as he does in his ‘The Bible in Arabic: The Scriptures of “the People of the Book” in the Language of Islam’ which we have already quoted above, he writes:

“This name appears twenty-five times in the Qur’an, usually in the phrase ‘Isa ibn Maryam; i.e., “Jesus, son of Mary.” The derivation of the name ‘Isa is understain: most authorities think it comes ultimately from the east Syrian form of the name, Isho’. See Arthur Jeffery, the Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur’an (Baroda: Oriental Institute, 1938), 218-20;” [13]

Notes:

[1] Deiss, L. (1996). Joseph, Mary, Jesus (Medeleine Beaumont, Trans.). Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press. p. 8

[2] Stein, R. H. (1994). The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press. p. 4

[3] Sang-Il Lee (2012). Jesus and Gospel Traditions in Bilingual Context: A Study in the Interdirectionality of Language. p. 342

[4] The Encyclopaedia Brittanica (1911), 11th Edition. Cambridge, England: University Press.; See also footnote 8, Against Marcion I. in St. Ephraim’s Prose Refutations of Mani, Marcion, and Bardaisan.

[5] Parrinder, G. (1965). Jesus in the Qur’an. Russel Square, London: Faber and Faber. p. 17

[6] Ibid.

[7] Robinson, N. (1991). Christ in Islam and Christianity. London: Macmillan Press LTD. p. 17

[8] Griffith, S. H. (2013). The Bible in Arabic: The Scriptures of “the People of the Book” in the Language of Islam. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. p. 84 Fn. 64

[9] Jongeneel, J. A. B. (1989). Jesus Christ in World History: His Presence and Representation in Cyclical and Linear Settings. Frankfurt: Peter Lang Internationaler Verlag                                             der Wissenschaften. p. 128

[10] Parrinder, G. Op. Cit.

[11] Robinson, N. (2003). Jesus. In Jane Dammen McAuliffe (Ed.), Encyclopedia of the Qur’an. Leiden: The Netherlands. p. 9

[12] Griffith, S. (2003). The Gospel, the Qur’an, and Jesus in al-Ya’qubi’s Ta’rikh. In John C. Reeves (Ed.), Bible and Qur’an: Essays in Scriptural Intertextuality. Leiden, The Netherlands: Society of Biblical Literature, Kokinklijke Brill NV. p. 154

[13] Ibid. fn. 90

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6 Responses to “Is ‘Isa a fake name of Jesus invented by Islam?”

  1. Aliyu Musa says:

    An interesting exposition!

    And welcome back, brother.

  2. edris says:

    bro can you explain how the 3ayn came into the first letter of “3esa”

    is it possible that the a sound became 3? like laa3

    • Ibn Anwar says:

      Neal Robinson in The Encyclopedia of the Qur’an under the entry “Jesus” gives an interesting explanation for this in that Arabic had a tendency to drop the final voiced pharyngeal ‘ayn in a word and instead begin the word with an ‘ayn when it is borrowed into the language from Aramaic and Hebrew: “A fourth suggestion is that, already before the rise of Islam, Christians in Arabia may have coined the name Īsā from one of the Syriac forms Yeshū or Ishū. Arabic often employs an initial ayn in words borrowed from Aramaic or Syriac and the dropping of the fi nal Hebrew ayin is evidenced in the form Yisho of the “köktürkish” Manichaean fragments from Turfan.” ( Jefferey, For. vocab., 220; see foreign vocabulary). (Robinson, N. (2003). Jesus. In Jane Dammen McAuliffe (Ed.), Encyclopedia of the Qur’an. Leiden: The Netherlands. p. 9)

      Thanks for raising this point. I shall add it to the article above.

  3. hussain says:

    bro, have you ever heard the christian missionaries say that “Allah” came from “allat” ?

    what disgusting blasphemy. what is the linguists approach in killing this argument?

    1. we see Alif laam laam ha.
    alif big laam then ta marbuta

    just the letters alone indicate that there is no relationship

    2. how does a laam with taa marbuta create the ending of laam and ha in Allah?

    isn’t it more likely that allat is derivative ?

    what is your approach to this?

    • Ibn Anwar says:

      Linguistically, it is impossible to suggest that Allah is derived from the idol Allat (refer to my discussion on the name Allah here: http://unveiling-christianity......slan-size/). I have shown that there is a strong case to be made that Allah is not derivative of any contraction or root form of any kind. Typically, some scholars (especially orientalists) would opt for the view that Allah is derived from the contraction ‘al-ilah’ (the God), but as I have shown in the article in response to Reza Aslan, this may not necessarily be the case. Allat itself is an ancient deity that was mentioned by such historians as Herodotus who wrote about an important cult of al-ilat (allat), the goddess. Archeological evidence in the form of figurines, inscriptions and writings are numerous with regards to this idol, that was quite significant in the ancient pre-Islamic world, but there is absolutely no trace evidence in available documentary evidence that Allah was born out of this word. The word Allat was identified as al-ilat by Herodotus which was the “middle stage” of the contraction al-ilahat (the goddess) as Javier Teixidor writes:
      “…al-Ilat. (Herodotus’ spelling represented the middle stage of the contraction of a primitive form al-ilahat, “the goddess,” the late form being the name ‘Ilt [Allat] attested in proto-Arabic, Nabataean, and Palmyrene inscriptions.)” Teixidor, J. (1979). The Pantheon of Palmyra: Etudes Preliminaires Aux Religions Orientales Dans L’Empire Romain. Leiden: E. J. Brill. p. 57
      The word Allat is derivative and carries with it the feminine gender that it retains from al-ilahat. Allah on the other hand has always been understood in Arabic to be without gender. The use of the masculine pronoun in reference to Allah in Islamic literature is simply for convenience and does not grammatically reflect the gender of the term as it is of itself devoid of the feminine or masculine gender. A final point that could be offered is that Allat along with al-manat and al-uzza (together called manawat) were worshipped as the daughters of Allah in pre-Islamic Arabia as attested by the Qur’an. If that is the case, then it is quite senseless to suggest that the proginator’s name is derivative of his progeny. If anything, though it isn’t so in this case, the progeny’s name may be derived from the proginator’s name. Wallahu’alam

      P.S. Allat is not spelled as alif lam and ta marbuta. Rather it is spelled as alif lam lam alif ta’ اللات . The ta is ta’ maftuha (التاء المفتوحة : ت) i.e. wa hia ta’ manqutatun binuqtateen tarsum maftuhah wa tubqa ta’ fil waqaf (ta’ that has two dots above that which is written in an open form, and when it is read in the waqaf, the ta’ is retained in the reading)

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