I wish to seek your help regarding the usage of “Al-Maseeh” in reference to the Qur’an.
This is an excerpt of my argument with a Christian regarding the usage of “Al-Maseeh“. He was asking these questions:
What did Jesus do, according to the Qur’an, that made him the Messiah? He preached, that’s all? What differentiates the Messiah from any other prophet? Again, the Qur’an’s assertion that Jesus is the Messiah is much more nonsensical than any Christian claim.
My argument and response to this was:
Every prophet of God is an anointed one of God, a Messiah, but the title Al-Maseeh or Messiah, or its translation “Christ” is exclusively reserved for Jesus, the son of Mary, in both Islam and in Christianity. This is not unusual in religion. There are certain other honorific titles which may be applied to more than one prophet, yet being made exclusive to one by usage: like “Rasulullah“, meaning “Messenger of God”, which title is applied to both Moses (19:51) and Jesus (61:6) in the Holy Quran. Yet “Rasullullah” has become synonymous only with Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, among Muslims (if you have studied Islam, that is). Every prophet is indeed a “Friend of God”, but its Arabic equivalent “Khaleellullah” is exclusively associated with Prophet Abraham (pbuh). This does not mean that the others are not God’s friends. “Kaleemullah“, meaning “One who spoke with Allah” is never used for anyone other than Moses, yet we believe that God spoke with many of His messengers, including Jesus and Muhammad, may the peace and blessings of God be upon all His prophets. Associating certain titles with certain personages only, does not make them exclusive or unique in any way. We honour all in varying terms.
He e-mailed me back his answer to mine:
My main objection is that which is said above. I am unaware of the Qur’an referring to any prophet as a Messiah. Perhaps you can show me an example. Note specifically that Jesus is called AL-masiiH. Al is closely equivalent to “the” in English [though the Arabic definite article definitely serves more grammatical functions than the English article]; it is a definite article. Definite articles point to uniqueness and singularity. Notice, one does not say, Jesus was the prophet in Islam. One says, Jesus was a prophet. Messiah is, therefore, as unique of a title as the Seal of the Prophets. Certain titles do make some of the prophets unique and distinguishable. Mere historical events and chronology effectively do this. Muhammad, for example, is unique for many reasons Simple reason merely being that is the last of all prophets.
I hope you can give me your answer on my question and comments on what this Christian is saying.
There are two separate questions that may be asked regarding the usage of the word ‘Al-Maseeh‘ in the Qur’an for Jesus (pbuh). Firstly, it may be asked why has the Qur’an used the word ‘Al-Maseeh‘ for Jesus (pbuh); and secondly, why was Jesus (pbuh) called ‘Al-Maseeh‘. Both these questions need to be dealt with separately, as it is quite possible that the answers to these questions may, technically be quite different from each other.
As far as the question that why has the Qur’an used the word ‘Al-Maseeh‘ for Jesus (pbuh) is concerned, the answer is quite simple. In the environment of the revelation of the Qur’an – i.e. the pre-Islamic Arabia, Jesus (pbuh) was referred to as ‘Al-Maseeh‘. The word was an established and a well-known appellation (i.e. laqab in Arabic and Urdu languages) for Jesus (pbuh). The Qur’an, as is its style, under normal circumstances, used the same words for the deliverance of its message, which were generally in vogue in the environment that it addressed. Thus, it is obvious that if Jesus (pbuh) was referred to by the Arabs by some other appellation or name, the Qur’an would then have used that other appellation or name to refer to him, unless there was something wrong in using such appellation for Jesus (pbuh). The fact that Jesus (pbuh) was referred to by the appellation of ‘Al-Maseeh‘ in the pre-Islamic Arabia is so well established that there is no need for citing any references for this purpose. However, to avoid unnecessary details and complications, the following poetic verse of a Christian Arab poet – Samuel – should suffice as evidence of the above point:
And in the final days, came our ‘Maseeh‘ and guided the people of the world to complete peace.
Now let us turn to the second question, i.e. why was Jesus (pbuh) given the appellation of ‘Al-Maseeh‘. The word ‘Maseeh‘ is generally considered to be a Ta`reeb (i.e. Arabization or adoption in the Arabic language, with some modification in the word) of the Hebrew word “maw-shee-akh“, which means anointed. In the Arabic language as well, the word has the same meaning, although, some linguistic sources have also expressed the opinion that the word actually implies ‘anointer’ rather than ‘anointed’. This is primarily due to the fact that in the Arabic language, words similar in sound and construction to ‘Maseeh‘ (like ‘Fa`eel‘, ‘Raheem‘ and ‘Rajeem‘ etc.) in its basic word structure can be used to denote the subject clause as well as the object clause. Thus, the word ‘Maseeh‘ could imply ‘Mamsooh‘ (i.e. the one who is anointed) or ‘Maaseh‘ (i.e. the anointer).
Linguistic scholars of the Arabic language have proposed a number of reasons for the usage of ‘Al-Maseeh‘, as an appellation for Jesus (pbuh) . Some hold that the word means ‘truthful’, and was used as an appellation for Jesus (pbuh) to imply to his truthfulness. Some hold it was used as an appellation for Jesus (pbuh) because he lived his life without taking for himself a permanent abode (as the Arabic phrase ‘Masaha al-Ardh‘ implies a person who travels a lot). Some think that the reason for this appellation was that Jesus (pbuh) used to correct others of their diseases merely by the touch of his hands, and thus was called ‘Al-Maseeh‘, implying the one who anoints for removing disease. Some hold that the reason for this appellation was that Jesus (pbuh) was anointed with blessings. While, some hold that the appellation was given to Jesus (pbuh) because he came into this world out of his mother’s womb, naturally and divinely anointed with oil.
One may hold any of the opinions given above (or even one besides these), which in his opinion gives an acceptable reason for the particular appellation for Jesus (pbuh). In my opinion, the opinion recorded last, i.e. because of coming in this world from his mother’s womb, naturally and divinely anointed with oil seems to be the reason for this appellation. All the other explanations, except for the last two could only be accepted as probable explanations for the appellation, had the word ‘maw-shee-akh‘ also entailed these meanings in the Hebrew language. However, it is believed that the Hebrew word ‘maw-shee-akh‘ meant ‘anointed’. Thus, it seems more probable that the reason for giving Jesus (pbuh) this name had something to do with his anointment.
It is clear from a number of verses of the Old Testament that anointment was a Hebrew tradition, which generally implied one of the following three things:
- Appointment of the anointed as a priest ;
- Appointment of the anointed as a ruler, or a king (it seems that this is a Hebrew tradition since the time when kings or rulers were appointed by divine authority) ; and
- Making something clean and holy (this was, generally, anointing with reference to things rather than people) 
Thus, anointment of a person generally meant his appointment as a prophet (priest) or a king. Keeping this Hebrew tradition in perspective, it seems that the appellation of ‘Al-Maseeh‘, i.e. the anointed also implied ‘the appointed’. As I have stated earlier, I am inclined toward taking the reason for this appellation to be that contrary to the prophets and kings preceding him, Jesus (pbuh) was naturally and divinely anointed, implying his divine appointment as God’s prophet.
Whatever one holds to be the correct reason for the referred appellation of Jesus (pbuh), the fact remains that it was, nevertheless, an established and a well-known appellation for him. The Qur’an has referred to Jesus (pbuh) by this name because this was the name, which was commonly used for Jesus (pbuh) in the pre-Islamic Arabia.
I hope this helps.
1) For details, refer to the word ‘Al-Maseeh‘ in the Arabic dictionary ‘Lisaan al-Arab‘.
2) See for instance Exodus 28: 41, Exodus 29: 1 – 9, Exodus 40: 13 – 15 etc.
3) See for instance, 1Samuel 9: 16, 1Samuel 15: 1, 1Samuel 16: 8 – 13, 1Kings 1: 32 – 34, 1Kings 19: 15 – 16, Psalms 23: 5 – 6 etc.
4) See for instance: Exodus 29: 35 – 37, Exodus 30: 22 – 29, Exodus 40: 9 – 11 etc.