Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

The Confusion of Islam regarding the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ

Derik Adams

Allah (allegedly) says in Chapter 4 verse 157 of the Qur'an referring to Jews and Christians:

And because of their saying (in boast), "We killed Messiah 'Iesa (Jesus), son of Maryam (Mary), the Messenger of Allah," - but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but the resemblance of 'Iesa (Jesus) was put over another man (and they killed that man), and those who differ therein are full of doubts. They have no (certain) knowledge, they follow nothing but conjecture. For surely; they killed him not [i.e. 'Iesa (Jesus), son of Maryam (Mary)] 4:157 Hilal-Khan

I have decided to check whether Allah is consistent and has made sure his own Muslim Ummah(nation, community) has no doubts or uncertain knowledge regarding what really happened at the Crucifixion. After all, if Allah can't keep his latest Ummah absolutely certain and without doubt on this subject, why would he level criticism at the Jews and Christians for the very same thing?

So let us take a look at a few of the Islamic Conceptions regarding what exactly did happen back in the 1st Century.

The Substitution Theory

This theory is advocated by a number of exegetes. We will look at three classical commentaries.

Abu Al-Fida, 'Imad Ad-Din Isma'il bin 'Umar bin Kathir Al-Qurashi Al-Busrawi (1301-1373), a famous commentator of the Qur'an gave his explanation of 4:157:

The Jews also said,

("We killed Al-Masih, `Isa, son of Maryam, the Messenger of Allah,'') meaning, we killed the person who claimed to be the Messenger of Allah. The Jews only uttered these words in jest and mockery, just as the polytheists said,

(O you to whom the Dhikr (the Qur'an) has been sent down! Verily, you are a mad man!) When Allah sent `Isa with proofs and guidance, the Jews, may Allah's curses, anger, torment and punishment be upon them, envied him because of his prophethood and obvious miracles; curing the blind and leprous and bringing the dead back to life, by Allah's leave. He also used to make the shape of a bird from clay and blow in it, and it became a bird by Allah's leave and flew. `Isa performed other miracles that Allah honored him with, yet the Jews defied and bellied him and tried their best to harm him. Allah's Prophet `Isa could not live in any one city for long and he had to travel often with his mother, peace be upon them. Even so, the Jews were not satisfied, and they went to the king of Damascus at that time, a Greek polytheist who worshipped the stars. They told him that there was a man in Bayt Al-Maqdis misguiding and dividing the people in Jerusalem and stirring unrest among the king's subjects. The king became angry and wrote to his deputy in Jerusalem to arrest the rebel leader, stop him from causing unrest, crucify him and make him wear a crown of thorns. When the king's deputy in Jerusalem received these orders, he went with some Jews to the house that `Isa was residing in, and he was then with twelve, thirteen or seventeen of his companions. That day was a Friday, in the evening. They surrounded `Isa in the house, and when he felt that they would soon enter the house or that he would sooner or later have to leave it, he said to his companions, "Who volunteers to be made to look like me, for which he will be my companion in Paradise'' A young man volunteered, but `Isa thought that he was too young. He asked the question a second and third time, each time the young man volunteering, prompting `Isa to say, "Well then, you will be that man.'' Allah made the young man look exactly like `Isa, while a hole opened in the roof of the house, and `Isa was made to sleep and ascended to heaven while asleep. Allah said,

(And (remember) when Allah said: "O `Isa! I will take you and raise you to Myself.'') When `Isa ascended, those who were in the house came out. When those surrounding the house saw the man who looked like `Isa, they thought that he was `Isa. So they took him at night, crucified him and placed a crown of thorns on his head. The Jews then boasted that they killed `Isa and some Christians accepted their false claim, due to their ignorance and lack of reason. As for those who were in the house with `Isa, they witnessed his ascension to heaven, while the rest thought that the Jews killed `Isa by crucifixion. They even said that Maryam sat under the corpse of the crucified man and cried, and they say that the dead man spoke to her. All this was a test from Allah for His servants out of His wisdom. Allah explained this matter in the Glorious Qur'an which He sent to His honorable Messenger, whom He supported with miracles and clear, unequivocal evidence. Allah is the Most Truthful, and He is the Lord of the worlds Who knows the secrets, what the hearts conceal, the hidden matters in heaven and earth, what has occurred, what will occur, and what would occur if it was decreed. He said,

(but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but it appeared as that to them,) referring to the person whom the Jews thought was `Isa. This is why Allah said afterwards,

(and those who differ therein are full of doubts. They have no (certain) knowledge, they follow nothing but conjecture.) referring to the Jews who claimed to kill `Isa and the ignorant Christians who believed them. Indeed they are all in confusion, misguidance and bewilderment. This is why Allah said,

(For surely; they killed him not.) meaning they are not sure that `Isa was the one whom they killed. Rather, they are in doubt and confusion over this matter.

(But Allah raised him up unto Himself. And Allah is Ever All-Powerful,) meaning, He is the Almighty, and He is never weak, nor will those who seek refuge in Him ever be subjected to disgrace,

(All-Wise.) in all that He decides and ordains for His creatures. Indeed, Allah's is the clearest wisdom, unequivocal proof and the most glorious authority. Ibn Abi Hatim recorded that Ibn `Abbas said, "Just before Allah raised `Isa to the heavens, `Isa went to his companions, who were twelve inside the house. When he arrived, his hair was dripping water and he said, `There are those among you who will disbelieve in me twelve times after he had believed in me.' He then asked, `Who volunteers that his image appear as mine, and be killed in my place. He will be with me (in Paradise)' One of the youngest ones among them volunteered and `Isa asked him to sit down. `Isa again asked for a volunteer, and the young man kept volunteering and `Isa asking him to sit down. Then the young man volunteered again and `Isa said, `You will be that man,' and the resemblance of `Isa was cast over that man while `Isa ascended to heaven from a hole in the house. When the Jews came looking for `Isa, they found that young man and crucified him. Some of `Isa's followers disbelieved in him twelve times after they had believed in him. They then divided into three groups. One group, Al-Ya`qubiyyah (Jacobites), said, `Allah remained with us as long as He willed and then ascended to heaven.' Another group, An-Nasturiyyah (Nestorians), said, `The son of Allah was with us as long as he willed and Allah took him to heaven.' Another group, Muslims, said, `The servant and Messenger of Allah remained with us as long as Allah willed, and Allah then took him to Him.' The two disbelieving groups cooperated against the Muslim group and they killed them. Ever since that happened, Islam was then veiled until Allah sent Muhammad .'' This statement has an authentic chain of narration leading to Ibn `Abbas, and An-Nasa'i narrated it through Abu Kurayb who reported it from Abu Mu`awiyah. Many among the Salaf stated that `Isa asked if someone would volunteer for his appearance to be cast over him, and that he will be killed instead of `Isa, for which he would be his companion in Paradise. (Tafsir Ibn Kathir on 4:157)

Tafsir al-Jalalayn is one of the most significant tafsirs for the study of the Qur’an. Composed by the two "Jalals" -- Jalal al-Din al-Mahalli (d. 864 ah / 1459 ce) and his pupil Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (d. 911 ah / 1505 ce), Tafsir al-Jalalayn is generally regarded as one of the most easily accessible works of Qur’anic exegesis because of its simple style and one volume length. For the first time ever Tafsir al-Jalalayn is competently translated into an unabridged highly accurate and readable annotated English translation by Dr. Feras Hamza.

Al-Jalalayn on 4:157

And for their saying, boastfully, 'We slew the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, the Messenger of God', as they claim: in other words, for all of these [reasons] We have punished them. God, exalted be He, says, in repudiating their claim to have killed him: And yet they did not slay him nor did they crucify him, but he, the one slain and crucified, who was an associate of theirs [the Jews], was given the resemblance, of Jesus. In other words, God cast his [Jesus's] likeness to him and so they thought it was him [Jesus]. And those who disagree concerning him, that is, concerning Jesus, are surely in doubt regarding, the slaying of him, for some of them said, when they saw the slain man: the face is that of Jesus, but the body is not his, and so it is not he; and others said: no, it is he. They do not have any knowledge of, the slaying of, him, only the pursuit of conjecture (illa ittiba'a l-zann, is a discontinuous exception) in other words: 'instead, they follow conjecture regarding him, that which they imagined [they saw]'; and they did not slay him for certain (yaqinan, a circumstantial qualifier emphasising the denial of the slaying). (Tafsir Al Jalalayn on 4:157)

Tafsir Ibn 'Abbas Attributed variously to the Companion Abdullah Ibn Abbas (d. 68/687) and to Muhammad ibn Ya‘qub al-Firuzabadi (d. 817/1414), Tanwîr al-Miqbâs is one of the most pivotal works for understanding the environment which influenced the development of Qur’anic exegesis. Despite its uncertain authorship and its reliance on the controversial Isrâ’îliyyat or Israelite stories, Tanwîr al-Miqbâs nevertheless offers readers valuable insight into the circulation and exchange of popular ideas between Islam, Judaism and Christianity during the formative phase of Islamic exegesis.

Ibn 'Abbas on 4:157

(And because of their saying: We slew the Messiah Jesus son of Mary, Allah's messenger) Allah destroyed their man Tatianos. (They slew him not nor crucified, but it appeared so unto them) Allah made Tatianos look like Jesus and so they killed him instead of him; (and lo! those who disagree concerning it) concerning his killing (are in doubt thereof) in doubt about his killing; (they have no knowledge thereof save pursuit of a conjecture) not even conjecture; (they slew him not for certain) i.e. certainly they did not kill him. (Tafsir Ibn 'Abbas on 4:157)

As pointed out elsewhere on Answering-Islam (*), there is disagreement on who substituted Christ:

"1. God made someone look like Jesus who was then crucified in the place of Christ. This is known as the substitution theory, but this interpretation is beset with many problems. First, who in fact was made to look like Christ? Muslims were not unanimous:

A. Some say that it was Judas.
B. Others say it was one of Jesus’ disciples.
C. Still others say that it was a Roman soldier named Titawus."

The Swoon Theory

2. Jesus was crucified but did not die. He swooned on the cross and later recovered.
Although the swoon theory is held mainly by the Ahmaddiyas and the Nation of Islam, groups that are considered heretical, there are also orthodox Sunni Muslims who have adopted this theory as well. The most famous Sunni to adopt and embrace this view for polemical purposes is Ahmed Deedat.

Akbarally Meherally is another one who has decided to embrace this theory (Article 1, Article 2). Meherally even goes so far as to deny the substitution theory.

Muslim apologist Shabir Ally tried to defend this theory (quite unsuccessfully I might add) in his debate with Dr. William Lane Craig, "Did Jesus of Nazareth Physically Rise from the Dead?", held on Monday, March 4, 2003 at the University of Toronto. When confronted in the Question and Answer period by Christian Apologist Tony Costa jr. as to why Mr. Ally was promoting the Ahmaddiya position of the swoon theory, seeing that this view is considered heretical by orthodox Muslims, the latter responded:

... So whereas Sunni Muslims believe that Jesus will be coming again a second time on the authority of many authentic reports back to the prophet Muhammad, reported in authentic collections like Bukhari and Muslims and so on, the Ahmaddiya group believes that Jesus will not come again because he has actually already returned in the person of the founder of that group. I believe that Jesus will come again.

Now our position seem to intersect on the point of Jesus surviving death on the cross. I have looked at the reports that are generally followed by Sunni Muslims, understanding that someone else was substituted for Jesus on the cross, and I have seen that although there are a variety of reports, the commentators cannot agree precisely on what has happened here and how exactly a substitute was given. And it appears that they are following reports which originated in Iraq, according to an excellent analysis done by Neal Robinson, who’s a Muslim now, in his book Christ in Islam and Christianity. And looking at the quranic text itself, which is the best interpretation of itself, we see that the quranic text ends with a summary which says wama qataloohu yaqeenan, "they did not kill him definitely", Bal rafaAAahu Allahu ilayhi, "but God raised him to himself." I take this to be a summary of the whole discussion on what has happened to Jesus. There was a plot to kill him but they neither killed him nor crucified him, crucified him in the sense of killing him by crucifixion. That is a definition that has been given in Tafsir-Ul-Qur’an by Abdul Majid Daryabadi, which is a Sunni Tafsir on the Quran. So I am well within my ranks and I haven’t changed positions on that, but perhaps interpretations.

The Legend Theory

3. The crucifixion didn't even happen but was a later invention/legend. The late Muhammad Asad held this view:

Thus, the Qur'an categorically denies the story of the crucifixion of Jesus. There exist, among Muslims, many FANCIFUL LEGENDS telling us that at the last moment God substituted for Jesus a person closely resembling him (according to some accounts, that person was Judas), who was subsequently crucified in his place. However, none of these LEGENDS finds the slightest support in the Qur'an or in authentic Traditions, and the stories produced in this connection by the classical commentators must be summarily rejected. They represent no more than confused attempts at "harmonizing" the Qur'anic statement that Jesus was not crucified with the graphic description, in the Gospels, of his crucifixion. The story of the crucifixion as such has been succinctly explained in the Qur'anic phrase wa-sakin shubbiha lahum, which I render as "but it only appeared to them as if it had been so" - implying that in the course of time, long after the time of Jesus, a legend had somehow grown up (possibly under the then-powerful influence of Mithraistic beliefs) to the effect that he had died on the cross in order to atone for the "original sin" with which mankind is allegedly burdened; and this legend became so firmly established among the latter-day followers of Jesus that even his enemies, the Jews, began to believe it - albeit in a derogatory sense (for crucifixion was, in those times, a heinous form of death-penalty reserved for the lowest of criminals). This, to my mind, is the only satisfactory explanation of the phrase wa-lakin shubbiha lahum, the more so as the expression shubbiha li is idiomatically synonymous with khuyyila li, "[a thing] became a fancied image to me", i.e., "in my mind" - in other words, "[it] seemed to me" (see Qamas, art. khayala, as well as Lane II, 833, and IV, 1500). (p. 134, fn. 171, online source; capital and underlined emphasis ours)

The Natural Death Theory

Moiz Amjad of defends his theory that the Qur'an teaches Jesus died naturally here.

9th Century Muslim Historian Al Tabari:

"In fact, early Muslim scholarship was greatly confused and divided over the exact nature of Jesus' final days. Early Muslim scholarly opinion did not hold to a uniform view regarding Jesus' final moments, with some scholars believing that Christ actually did die and some others claiming that God took him straight into heaven without dying. An example of an early Muslim scholar holding to a different view from that commonly promoted by Muslims today is Abu Ja'far Muhammad b. Jarir al-Tabari (839-923)." This article establishes the view of Al-Tabari and his position that Jesus was crucified and raised into heaven.

Hadith Collection:

Lastly it may come as a surprise to some that many of the major hadith volumes including the two major authentic ones, Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, are completely silent on the issue of the Crucifixion.

A Summary of the Problems:

  1. Muslims who accept the substitution theory cannot agree on "who" was substituted. Some Muslim exegetes who accept the substitution theory are silent on who substituted Jesus (reminds me of "no certain knowledge")
  2. The substitution stories are not all unanimous; there details have variations there appears to be no consensus of the exact facts of these stories among the exegetes.
  3. The early centuries of Islam seem to be more silent on the issue, even the Hadith collections of Imam Burkhari and Imam Muslim are silent on the issue of the Crucifixion.
  4. Some Muslims believe Jesus was crucified but he survived the crucifixion and was raised into heaven by Allah i.e. the Swoon Theory.
  5. Some Muslims believe Jesus was not crucified at all but died a natural death, someone else however died in his place.
  6. Some Muslims believe there was no specific individual crucified, either Jesus or his alleged clone, they believe this story was later invented by the Jews.
  7. Islamic Scholarship in the past and present has been divided on this issue. To this day there is no unanimous view held by Allah's Ummah.

The Conclusion

It seems rather hypocritical to accuse Jews & Christians of having nothing but conjecture, no actual knowledge especially when no counter evidence is offered. It seems unreasonable to not provide an explicit account of what actually did happen and then leave it up to later generations of Muslims to invent there own ideas and interpretations of what happened. Most of all it is inconsistent to criticise a group of people of conjecture when your own Ummah does exactly the same!

In our section on the Crucifixion you will find many more articles on this crucial topic.