The Apostles, the Early Church, and Islam

October 19, 2022

Bilal Muhammad is a Fellow and Research Assistant at the Berkeley Institute for Islamic Studies. He is also an MA Candidate at the University of Ottawa Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, B.Ed at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, and Honors BA in Political Science and History at the University of Toronto. He is an educator and researcher based in Toronto, Canada.

The Apostles, the Early Church, and Islam

The Quran uses a peculiar word to describe the apostles of Jesus Christ: together, they are called al-awāriyyīn. Literally, this translates to “the whiteners” or “the bleachers” of clothing. However, in this context, awāriyyīn means “those who were purified, refined, and cleansed from every defect.”[1] ʿAlī b. Mūsa al-Riḍa, an Imam and a great-grandson of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, is reported to have said, “They were called the awāriyyīn by the people because they would wash clothes. They cleansed the filth and dirt from the clothes. Also, the word ‘awāriyyīn’ is derived from the word awar (bread from sieved flour). We call them this because they cleansed themselves and others through the advice that they gave.”[2] This is different from the Greek Gospels’ usage of apostolos, which translates to “a delegate … messenger, he that is sent.”[3] This may be why the warners mentioned in Sūrat Yāsīn are called “messengers” – or, more accurately, “those who were sent” (mursalīn) in 36:13-36:20 of the Quran. According to most exegetes, these were apostles of Christ sent to Antioch.[4]

A legitimate question one may ask is on Islam’s view of these apostles. After all, much of the New Testament is attributed to the apostles, and Catholic and Orthodox Christians claim to be apostolic in their genealogy. If the New Testament and the Early Church taught original sin, crucifixion, atonement, and perhaps even the divinity of Christ, how then could Muslims claim to be faithful to Jesus’ original message?

The apostles are mentioned three times as a group in the Quran, and they are mentioned in more detail in the adīth and tafsīr literature. Their presence in the latter is always positive. Unlike the Quran, the adīth and tafsīr literature note that there were twelve apostles in total, and they offer various names that correspond to persons in the New Testament. In Sunni adīth, it is reported that the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said, “For every prophet is an apostle, and my apostle is Zubayr b. al-ʿAwwām.”[5] In Shīʿī books, the apostles are sometimes compared to the twelve Imams and sometimes compared to the Imams’ supporters – who are even “more obedient”.[6]

In 3:52-53 of the Quran, the apostles call themselves “Muslims”, because they say that they are supporters of and submitters to God, and that they have believed in and borne witness to Jesus.

In 5:111-115, a more nuanced account appears, where the apostles bid Jesus to descend a banquet of food from heaven. Their request suggests a “certain doubt in God’s omnipotence” or even a “disrespect or lack of appreciation for God’s Power” and Jesus’ other miracles.[7] It is unclear if this story fits with the Quranic genre that recounts the Jews’ lack of gratitude for God’s blessings, but the apostles say that they only want such a miracle to reassure their own hearts; not dissimilar to Abraham’s request in 2:260. This story has no direct parallel in the Gospels, but it might correspond to Jesus’ multiplication of loaves and fish (Matthew 14:13-21) or the Last Supper.

Jesus then brings the banquet down “as a holiday (ʿīd) for the first of us and the last of us.” (Quran 5:114) Zamakhsharī said that this was a reference to the Sunday Eucharist.[8] However, the miracle came down with a warning: “God said: I shall surely send it down unto you. But whosoever among you disbelieves thereafter, I shall surely punish him with a punishment wherewith I have not punished any other in all the worlds.” (Quran 5:115) I have always thought that this may be a reference to Judas because he was the apostle that was said to have betrayed Jesus. Alternatively, this may be a reference to Christians that stray from the path.

Lastly, in the Quran, Jesus asks the apostles, “Who are my supporters (anṣār) for God?”, to which they reply, ‘We are the supporters of God.’” (Quran 61:14) The word for “supporters” comes from the same root as the Quranic term for Christians, Naṣāra. This may also parallel the Anṣār in the life of Muhammad ﷺ, who were his recipients in Medina. The verse continues: “So, a faction of the Children of Israel believed and a faction disbelieved. So, We supported those who believed against their enemy, and they became dominant.” This is a somewhat cryptic verse, because it is referring specifically to the Israelites that believed and those that disbelieved. According to some exegetes including Rāzī, the disbelievers here include those who rejected Jesus and those who worshiped him.[9] Most Christians are, of course, gentiles, and the empires that would rule in Jesus’ name were gentiles. The verse is also connected to the apostles; therefore, it is probably a reference to the Jerusalem Church and the early Jewish Christians. But in what way did they become “dominant”?

According to Catholic and Orthodox tradition, Simon Peter became Jesus’ vicar. Upon this rock, he built his Church (Matthew 16:18). The Islamic tradition, especially the Shīʿī tradition, echoes the deputyship (waṣāya) of Simon Peter (Shamʿūn al-Ṣafā). Quranic exegetes say that Peter was the third messenger sent to Antioch; and Origen and Eusebius even say that Peter built the first church in Antioch.[10] Peter is attributed with miracles akin to Jesus’ in both Islamic exegeses and Acts 3 and Acts 9. The Shīʿī adīth literature is full of parallels between Peter and ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib, because they are both considered the successor and deputy of their respective messenger-prophets, Jesus and Muhammad ﷺ. Some Shīʿī reports even say that Peter was the cousin of Mary(!),[11] [12] perhaps to make the parallel more analogous, since ʿAlī was the cousin of Muhammad ﷺ. This would make Peter a member of the sacred House of Amram, a reflection of the Prophet Muhammad’s Ahl al-Bayt.

Peter has a prominent presence in the Gospels and in Acts. According to Galatians 2:9, Peter, James the Just, and John the Apostle were considered the three pillars of the Church. Some early Jewish Christian denominations and Christian chroniclers claimed that James the Just was the successor of Jesus. James was called “the brother” of Jesus by Paul (Galatians 1:19), Josephus,[13] and Hegesippus.[14] Jude was also called the brother of Jesus. It is unclear if they were Jesus’ blood brothers, relatives, or companions – Islamic literature does not take a formal position on the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity after Jesus’ birth. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus appoints James the Just as the leader after him, and he says “heaven and earth came into being” for James’ sake (Thomas 12). The argument for James’ succession is delineated in Robert Eisenman’s magnum opus James the brother of Jesus.

The New Testament’s Epistle of James makes a case for faith and works being necessary for salvation. This became the hallmark of Jamesian sects, such as the Ebionites and the Nazarenes. Their adherence to the Law would mean that they did not share the same crucifixion and atonement theology that Pauline Christianity preached. The root of this schism can be seen in the Early Church. Paul was at the centre of this schism. Of course, Paul did not meet the historical Jesus, but he claimed to have seen Jesus in a revelation on the road to Damascus. In his letter to the Galatians, which is almost undisputedly the authentic voice of Paul,[15] he rebukes the Galatians for accepting another Gospel (Galatians 1:6-9), and then berates Peter and the Jewish Christians for their emphasis on the Law (Galatians 2:11-18).

Acts 15 recounts a meeting between Paul and the Jerusalem Church, which is often depicted as a reconciliation of the two factions. However, while the Jerusalem Council agrees that the gentiles did not need to submit to the full Law, they still insisted that they were to abstain from foods polluted by idols (Acts 15:20). This would, therefore, leave the disagreement between Paul and the Church unresolved. Peter would have been justified in Galatians. One should also keep in mind that the Book of Acts was, at least in part, written by Luke, a student of Paul; so, if it is subject to any bias, it would be in favour of Paul. The epistles attributed to Peter in the New Testament are almost universally considered pseudepigrapha.

To understand the historical Jesus and his teachings, one must examine the historical Peter and James, who were his main executors. Eusebius calls James the Just the first bishop of Jerusalem. James does not have a prominent role in Islamic literature, but since he was a brother, cousin, or relative of Christ, then he can be included in the greater motif of the sanctity of the House of Amram, Jesus’ Ahl al-Bayt. He may have been mentioned in Saduq’s Kamāl al-Dīn under the name “Yaʿqūb b. Shamʿūn” – James the Just’s name in Hebrew is Yaʿkov ha-Ṣadik. The report says, “The knowledge of God, His light, and His wisdom was in the progeny of Yaʿqūb b. Shamʿūn, and with him were the apostles from the companions of Jesus.”[16] The report says that this Yaʿqūb was the son of Simon Peter. Since Simon Peter was supposedly a relative of Jesus, James’ familial relation to Jesus would make sense in light of this. This may also solve the dilemma between historians on who succeeded Jesus – Peter or James – by saying that they both respectively succeeded him. It is unclear who died first (Peter died between 64 and 68 AD, and James died between 62 and 69 AD), but if Shīʿī sources are any guide, they would potentially favour the succession of Peter followed by James.

Eusebius lists fifteen bishops of Jerusalem, all of whom were “of the circumcision.”[17] This is critical, because it means that Jesus’ apostles and main Church still followed religious laws. The bishops included Simeon bar Cleophas, who was also called Jesus’ brother in the Bible (Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3) and in Eusebius and Hegesippus;[18] Justus of Jerusalem, who was reportedly the son of James the Just;[19] and Judah Kyriakos, who was reportedly the great-grandson of Jude, “the brother” of Jesus. Not much is known about the other bishops, but it is remarkably understated that the family of Jesus played such a historic role in the Jerusalem Church and preached a very different Christianity. The Bar Kochba revolt, a Jewish messianic movement and rebellion against Rome, put an end to the Jerusalem Church in 135 AD. Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, and the gentile Christians established a new church and a new line of Pauline bishops in Aelia Capitolina, the Roman city built just outside of Jerusalem. Jews were not allowed in the city, except on Tisha B’Av, the Jewish fast day commemorating the destruction of the Temple.

The Epistle of Jude is another text that requires decoding. The short letter was included in the New Testament, and it speaks of a threat within the early Christian community. It mentions misguided “people who pervert the grace of our Lord into a license for immorality” (Jude 4), who “pollute their own bodies” and “reject authority” (Jude 8). Jude calls on the believers to persevere and take heed of the apostles’ warnings (Jude 17-18). Since this epistle was a warning against hypocrites within the community, one has to wonder if he is referring to the Pauline Christians that were challenging apostolic authority. After all, Jude would have been on the side of James. Interestingly, he quotes the Book of Enoch, saying that “the Lord is coming with ten thousand of his holy ones to judge everyone” (Jude 14-15). Is this a reference to the Mahdi, whose army will reportedly consist of ten thousand?[20]

The apostles and the bishops of Jerusalem are persecuted throughout the first and early second century AD. Peter is said to have been crucified in Rome, James is said to have been stoned to death in Jerusalem, Jude is said to have been killed with an axe in Beirut, and Simeon is said to have been executed by Roman authorities in or around Jerusalem. Is this what the Quran meant when it said, speaking of the righteous apostles, “they became dominant” (Quran 61:14)? If martyrdom is victory in Islam, then their tragic end in this world may be triumphant in the grand scheme. To the Shīʿa Muslim, the idea of a line of martyred leaders should sound very familiar. Allegedly, Josephus links the destruction of the Temple to the unjust killing of James.[21] This is similar to the Quranic stories of the prophets Hūd, Ṣāliḥ, Shuʿayb, Lot, and others, whose rebellious communities are destroyed once those prophets are forced to leave.

What happened to the Jerusalem bishops after 135 AD? Their apostolic movement vanishes from history thereafter. The Ebionites, Nazarenes, Elchasaites, and Manichaeans would claim their legacy. The Quran speaks of a cessation of messengers after Jesus (Quran 5:17), which the Sunnis refer to as the interregnum (al-fatra). In Sunni theology, the people of the interregnum (ahl al-fatra), who lived and died in the years between Jesus and Muhammad ﷺ, would not be judged as others are judged. In Shīʿa theology, there is always either a prophet or an Imam in every age. Two reports attributed to Jaʿfar alṢādiq suggest that there was a two-hundred-and-fifty-year occultation, or a period of seclusion, sometime between Jesus and Muhammad ﷺ.[22]

What about Pauline Christianity’s claims of apostolic succession? Irenaeus, writing in circa 180 AD, claimed that Linus was the pope after Peter.[23] Linus is mentioned once in the New Testament as a companion of Paul (2 Timothy 21). Tertullian (d. 220 AD), however, claimed that Clement I was the successor of Peter,[24] and this was the position of most Roman Christians according to Jerome (d. 420 AD).[25] He, too, may have been a companion of Paul (Philippians 4:3). It goes without saying that neither of these men were disciples or relatives of Jesus. Some scholars have suggested that these were presbyters and not popes coming one after the other.

One of the championed connections between the apostles and the Church Fathers is Polycarp (d. 155 AD). Irenaeus claimed to have heard Polycarp preach in his youth, and according to him, Polycarp was a student of John the Apostle. Polycarp’s extant Epistle to the Philippians contains four references to Paul, but no references to John. Unless John lived a very long life and taught a young Polycarp (born in 69 AD), the John-Polycarp connection is highly dubious. It is more likely that he met John the Evangelist, who was probably writing between 90 and 110 AD.[26] Most scholars would agree that John the Evangelist was not John the Apostle, who was a pillar of the Jerusalem Church. Irenaeus writes that this John presided over “the Church in Ephesus, founded by Paul” and remained “among them permanently until the times of Trajan (98-117 AD).”[27] This period closely corresponds to the time John the Evangelist was active; and it ties him to Paul, not the apostles of Christ.

In the web of schisms, conflicting succession claims, and heresies, the soil was fertile for a new prophet to clarify the nature of God and our relationship to the divine law. The Islamic tradition claims the historical Jesus and his apostles; and from what we read of the Epistles of James and Jude, the Didache, and the Jerusalem Church, we see a community that was committed to both Jesus’ messiahship and the Law. They had their sights set on preaching the Gospel to the world, but without any emphasis on the divinity of Jesus or the atonement. A globalized Judaism, with a special emphasis on the spirit of the law, is Islam in a nutshell.

As the New Jerome Bible Commentary suggests, “Jewish Christianity … a separate movement, was eventually defeated by Paulinism and died out (perhaps to be reborn in a different form as Islam).”[28]



[2] Saduq, `Uyun Akhbar al-Rida, Volume 2, Chapter 2, Hadith 10.

[3] Strong’s Definitions.

[4] Bilal Muhammad, Muslim Perspectives on St. Paul,

[5] Jami` al-Tirmidhi, Book 49, Hadith 4109.

[6] Kulaynī, al-Kāfī, Vol. 8, 268.

[7] Seyyed Hossein Nasr et al, The Study Quran, 5:112-113.

[8] Ibid, 5:114-115.

[9] Ibid, 61:14.

[10] Origen’s homilies on Luke VI, 4. Patrologia Graeca 13:1814, Eusebius, Church History, Book III, Chapter 36.

[11] Al-Saffar, Basa’ir al-Darajat, Page 119-122.

[12] Al-Rawindi, al-Khara’ij wal Jara’ih, Volume 2, Page 858.

[13] Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 20.9.1.

[14] Hegesippus (d. 180 AD), in the fifth book of his Commentaries, writing of James, says ‘After the apostles, James the brother of the Lord surnamed the Just was made head of the Church at Jerusalem.'”

[15] David Aune, The Blackwell Companion to the New Testament, pp. 9

[16] Saduq, Kamal al-Din, Volume 1, pp. 253.

[17] Eusebius, History of the Church, Book IV, chapter V, verses 3–4

[18] Ibid, Book 3, Chapter 11.

[19] Simon Claude Mimouni, La tradition des évêques chrétiens d’origine juive de Jérusalem, pp. 455.

[20] Saduq, Kamal al-Din, Volume 1, pp. 682.

[21] Eusebius, History of the Church, Book 2, Chapter 23.

[22] Saduq, Kamal al-Din, Volume 1, Page 189.

[23] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3: 3.3

[24] Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics, Chapter 32.

[25] Jerome, De Viris Illustribus, Chapter 15.

[26] Andrew Lincoln, Gospel According to St John: Black’s New Testament Commentaries, pp. 18

[27] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3: 3.4

[28] The New Jerome Bible Commentary, Edited by Raymond E. Brown, Page 641, Published in 1990.


Bilal Muhammad

Bilal Muhammad is a Fellow and Research Assistant at the Berkeley Institute for Islamic Studies. He is also an MA Candidate at the University of Ottawa Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, B.Ed at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, and Honors BA in Political Science and History at the University of Toronto. He is an educator and researcher based in Toronto, Canada.
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